M FOR MOTHER (Mim mesle madar; Mi like Mother) (Rasool Mollagholipoor, Iran, 2006, 113 m.). THEMES: IN IRAN, MATTERS SUCH AS PTSD, ILLEGAL ABORTION; DISCRIMINATION AGAINST DISABLED CHILDREN; DIVORCE; ADULT DRUG DEPENDENCE, AND MORE. Reputed to be one of the most popular films in the history of Iranian cinema, M for Mother is an odd blend of intriguing, boldly explored themes embodied in a vehicle that is pure, over-the-top cornball melodramatic schmaltz. Set in Tehran, probably in the 1990s, the film’s themes include traditional attitudes of scorn and rejection of children born with major disabilities, and the institutional warehousing of such children; illegal abortion; illicit drug dependence in a married woman; divorce; symptoms of chronic post traumatic stress disorder in survivors of the Iraq-Iran War, including flashbacks and suicidal impulses; the long range effects of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in that war; and the sabotage of a woman’s musical career by her husband. Quite a list. How did the infamous Iranian film censors let all of that get by? The gorgeous young actress Golshifteh Farahani, member of a family that is prominent in Iranian film and theater, plays Sepideh, the central character, who refuses abortion in order to bring her almost surely deformed child into the world. The supporting cast are all able players, including Hosein Yari (Sepideh’s husband), Mohammad-Ali Shadman (their son), Jamshid Hashempur (Sepideh’s brother), and Sahar Dolatshahi (her sister-in-law). (In Persian & Armenian). Grade: low B+ (02/08).
Add : In the print I saw, the subtitle for the film's name is Mi Like Mother, which fits better, since it has to do with a woman coaching her son to hit the right notes on his violin. The film's director, Rasool Mollagholipoor, died of a heart attack at age 52, a few months after this film was released.
MA VIE EN ROSE (Alain Berliner, Belgium, 1997). THEME: CROSSDRESSING IN CHILDHOOD. Georges du Fresne captivates as a 7 year old boy who wants to be a girl in this glorified sitcom set in a Parisian suburb. Everyone in the stuffy neighborhood appears to be scandalized by the boy’s behavior. The story is well told, inoffensive, realistic as far as it goes, and very funny. The film never insists that the boy is a transsexual or homosexual in the making, instead suspending judgment on the subject, the neighbors be damned. (In French) Grade: B+ (03/98)
MABOROSI (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 1995). THEMES: EFFECTS OF SUICIDE ON SURVIVORS; BEREAVEMENT & LOSS. A woman seeks answers to the imponderable questions raised after her first husband, following a normal day and in a cheerful mood, suicides in a train yard. The pain of losing him is all the worse for touching a nerve in her made raw from childhood memories of her grandmother leaving to return to her native village to die. Left with a 3 month old son to raise, she ultimately remarries a widower with a young daughter living in a remote fishing village along a wild coast. She is obviously happy with him though more burdened by her past after returning to her hometown for a visit. The photography deserves special comment. In each scene the camera is stationary, in the style of Robert Bresson, and the action develops slowly, subtly. The scene is often held for a long time. The camera never moves. Each scene is independent. Once it fades, there is no return. No intercuts. No closeups. Ever. The result is to induce in the viewer a highly contemplative attitude. Remarkable achievement. (In Japanese) Grade: B+ (08/01)
THE MACHINIST (Brad Anderson, Spain, 2004). THEMES: PSYCHOTIC DEPRESSION; DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER; PARANOID STATES; PSYCHOLOGICAL TOLL OF SEVERE GUILT. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is seriously unwell. He says he hasn’t slept in a year and his weight keeps on plummeting: he’s starting to look like a Nazi camp survivor at the end of WW II. Odd things seem to be happening to him: he thinks there’s a plot to frighten or possibly harm him. He encounters a man, Ivan (John Sharian) who later seems not to have existed at all. Or does he? Someone keeps slipping into his apartment when he’s out, leaving cryptic post-its on his refrigerator. It also appears, in the film’s opening scenes, as if Trevor might have killed someone in his apartment during a struggle: we see him, face freshly bruised, in the night rolling the body, wrapped in a carpet, into the river.
Trevor works in a machine shop. He used to get along OK with his fellow workers, though he was never one to go out for drinks and cards with the others after work. In recent months he’s become withdrawn and unsociable, even in the locker room. When another man loses an arm, mangled in a machine when Trevor, preoccupied, mistakenly turns on a switch, the others turn against him, and finally he’s fired after flying into a rage at his supervisor. He only seems at peace in the company of women. There’s Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a prostitute who’s actually quite taken with him. And Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), a night waitress in a coffee shop near the airport, where Trevor passes sleepless hours visiting with her over his coffee and pie nearly every night. With each of these women, he reveals a calmer, more tender side, even though he is so emaciated. He spends Mother’s Day with Marie and her young son at an amusement park, where he snaps a photo of them that triggers a déjà vu memory: a picture he recalls taken in exactly the same spot years ago of his mother and himself as a child (his mother had since died).
Other odd twists and coincidences pile up as tension builds in this taut thriller. Indeed, my only real criticism of the film is that there are so many little things piling up, more than we need, gratuitous stuff that gets a bit too noisy for me. Screenwriter Scott Kosar just couldn’t contain himself, I guess. Trevor’s fear and agitation mount. We begin to wonder what is real and what is hallucinatory or illusion for him. The music effectively augments the sense of foreboding and danger. Composed by Roque Baños (who also did the music for Goya in Bordeaux and Sexy Beast), it is often spare, eerie, rhythmically repetitious, in the style of Philip Glass. There is also unusually haunting photography, by Xari Gimenez and Charlie Jimenez. Although it is filmed in color, the colors are leached thin, giving an effect more like old fashioned tinting of black and white material. And many, many scenes are darkly lit and seem to be rendered in varying tones of gunmetal blue-gray. This coloration reminded me of the visual treatment in the recent Russian suspense story,The Return. In mood, the film also evoked the apprehension I felt in The Return, and in Darren Aronofsky’s film, Pi.
It is clear that Trevor is in the grips of a severe psychiatric illness, but it is not one easily classifiable in conventional diagnostic terms. Part of this is simply attributable to artistic license: there’s no compelling reason why screenwriters must follow DSM-IV, after all, even though I sure do wish they would. There are strong elements to suggest psychotic depression here (extreme weight loss and insomnia, guilt feelings, irritability, agitation, probable hallucinations, possible paranoid delusions). Incompatible with this degree of depression, though, are the facts that Trevor manages to get to get to work every day and acts quite normally with women, mustering some libido on occasion as well as charm.
Even then, not all of his symptoms can be explained by the diagnosis of psychotic depression. In time certain information is revealed that lets us know there are probably dissociative elements to the illness, including, among others, clearly etched visual hallucinations (not common in psychotic depression). Ultimately we also learn that there was a very specific precipitating event for Trevor’s illness, one quite consistent with both severe depression and dissociative states, but I will not reveal that here. Could he have an anorexia nervosa-like eating disorder? Wilfully reducing his food intake while pushing himself to sustain normal physical activity? The incongruity between his extreme weight loss and normal physical motility hints at such a thing, as well as his obsessive attention to recording his daily weight in a series of post-its on the bathroom wall (going down, down, down).
The film is nearly an all-Spanish production, except for it’s director, writer and several lead actors, but it is spoken entirely in English. Mr. Bale gives an astonishing performance. I refer not only to his physical preparation for the role (he lost 63 pounds, by eating a single can of tuna and one apple a day), but the keen intelligence and understated, infectious anguish he brings to the role. Only Ralph Fiennes comes to mind as someone else who could have played Trevor as well. I’m thinking of Fiennes in Spider here. Like that film, Machinist is not likely to appeal to everyone’s tastes. But it’s undeniably an intriguing psychflick. Grade: B+ (11/04)
MAGNOLIA (Paul Thomas Anderson, US ,1999). THEMES: FAMILY CONFLICTS; DIVORCE; REGRET; REDEMPTION; MORALITY; DEATH & DYING. Here's the mother of all psychodramas. Watching this film is nothing if not an ordeal, and that may be exactly how writer/director Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) intends it to be. For one thing, many of the scenes involve intense emotional outpourings; someone always seems to be falling apart or close to it. There is a relentless underlying tone of agitation: everyone's impatient, in a hurry, and irritable to boot, on the edge of exploding when not actually doing so. Then there's the music, often very loud, drowning out conversation. It is also a kaleidoscopic tale, full of multiple characters whose actions intersect and intercut back and forth, Robert Altman style, until it makes your head swim at times. And it all goes on like this for 3 hours.
What this ordeal is about seems to be life, or, more particularly, the botch people make of it, especially the ways in which they damage, disappoint and desert their families. And it is about regret for such behavior. TV mogul Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is dying of cancer and rues on his deathbed the way he walked out years ago on his dying first wife, leaving her to be cared for by their 14 year old son, Jack, who grows up to be the slick and dirty talking media guru Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), star of "Seduce and Destroy," an est-type program to cultivate male macho predation. Earl's present spouse Linda (Julianne Moore) is awash in grief over losing him and also because of her past affairs. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is emcee of a long running TV quiz show who learns he only has 2 months to live because of his cancer. Stricken with guilt for his past pecadillos, he tries, too bluntly, to make amends with his wife and estranged daughter, to no avail. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) slathers in self-pity because he peaked too early, as a quiz kid years ago on Gator's TV show, and has never been able to live up to that pinnacle of childhood celebrity. And that's only the half of it.
The acting is terrific (including fine cameo turns by Michael Bowen, Henry Gibson, Luis Guzman, Albert Molina and Michael Murphy). But there is little sense of narrative, and insufficient character development. How could there be, since the film spans the actions of these people for about one day? For quite awhile this quick cut, cross sectional view of the characters, frenzied with emotion, is difficult to empathize with: we don't know these people well enough to understand their pain, even as we feel it. But in the last hour of the film their pasts are made sufficiently known to us to alter that.
When not too loud, the music, including nine songs by Aimee Mann, is often quite interesting, especially the haunting number "Save Me," which underscores a redemptive theme of forgiveness for past transgressions that emerges toward the end, although with the suggestion that it is not always easy to determine whom or what to forgive. This theme is introduced after an apocalyptic torrential rain of giant frogs levels the playing field for everyone still left standing by that point. The film begins with another theme: the occurrence of three extraordinary coincidences, three presumably historical events that have nothing to do with later circumstances in the film. The narrator suggests that these events were not coincidences at all but part of some less-than-visible design. This is Jung's familiar theme of synchronicity: the intricate arrangement of seemingly chance events to work out some destiny. The frog rainstorm appears to serve such a purpose here, altering the course of events for a number of the characters in favorable and forgiving ways.
So in this obviously moral tale, what's the take home message, the lesson to be learned? Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), the newest quiz kid celeb, pleads with his exploitative, nasty stage door father to treat him more kindly, but that possibility seems doubtful at best. It looks like Stanley may be doomed to a life like Donnie Smith's...for some people, the wheel of life seems destined to keep turning in the same rut. There are decent, determinedly helpful people in this story: Police Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) and Nurse Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) are two of them, as is the young kid who attempts to save Linda's life even as he is robbing her. But they are in the minority and seem to be battling against tough odds. Does it take a plague of frogs from the sky - some sort of divine intervention or wild serendipitous good luck - to save us from ourselves and our evil ways?
Perhaps Anderson is trying to tell us that it takes a bit of each of these ingredients - the combined forces of good luck, forgiveness and the dogged determination of a few good people - to redeem us, to the extent that redemption is possible. And by indirection, he seems also to be saying that prevention - a civil and loving attitude toward one's intimates in the first place - is a whole lot better than the struggle to repair the damage caused by the absence of such caring. Grade: B+ (01/00)
MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (Eliseo Subiela, Argentina, 1987). THEME: PSYCHIATRIST AT WORK: POOR MODEL. An alien thought to be delusional is brought to a mental hospital, where his encounters with a psychiatrist take surprising turns. But the psychiatrist’s role is superficial and unedifying, he's too bogged down in his own existential despair. There’s a lot of idle talk, and the film becomes a bore. This theme was realized in more effectively in the recent film K-PAX, with Kevin Spacey as the alien and Jeff Bridges as a more convincing psychiatrist. (In Spanish) Grade: C- (09/98)
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (Otto Preminger, US, 1955). THEMES: HEROIN ADDICTION; MALINGERING. SPOILER ALERT! Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra), a lowlife poker dealer and heroin junkie in a scuzzy urban neighborhood, returns to his old haunts after a successful stint of drug rehab. at the federal narcotics treatment hospital cum prison in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s imbued with a vision of reforming his life, but inexorably falls into old, familiar routines, resulting in his relapse into addiction and a botched opportunity to start a new career as a jazz drummer. He is driven to distraction by the incessant demands of Zosch (Eleanor Parker), his manipulative, histrionic wife, who has been feigning paralysis for several years, since an auto accident in which Frankie was the driver, in order to hold on to him. He’s also wanted for the murder of his drug source, Louie (Darren McGavin). Frankie is taken in by his lover, Molly (Kim Novak), who nurses him through cold turkey withdrawal. A hopeful future for this couple is suggested when Zosch’s malingering and her responsibility for Louie’s death are exposed at the end.
This film is etched with deep contrasts. On the positive side, it was the first mainstream Hollywood film to treat the subject of opiate addiction seriously, and as such it was both controversial and successful. It is based on a novel by Nelson Algren that won the National Book Award in 1950. Algren was fascinated by the underbelly of Chicago street life at mid-century and got the details right. The screenplay did not compromise the basic honesty with which he had described the junkie life. Shot appropriately in black and white, with seedy sets created on a soundstage, the film faithfully portrays the nearly universal experience of heroin addicts of that era, before the first methadone maintenance programs appeared in the early 1960s.
About the only treatment available at that time was at Lexington and another federal hospital/prison in Ft. Worth, Texas. Like Frankie, almost all the patients were from an inner city milieu. And also like Frankie, following inpatient rehab. and incarceration that lasted typically for a year or more, virtually everyone returned to their old neighborhoods and relationships with visions of starting a better, drug free life. Yet, as many addicts have attested, even revisiting the site where they used to score heroin would provide cues that could instantly stir up overpowering sensations of drug craving. Sheltered in rehab. a thousand miles from home, these addicts were not at all prepared to cope with all the old frustrations, demands and limitations immediately re-imposed upon them once they returned home. Relapse occurred in 70% to 90%, as it does here for Frankie. In fact, it was this monotonous scenario of failure that led Dr. Marie Nyswander, who had been a psychiatrist at the Lexington hospital, to think of outpatient methadone maintenance as a strategy that might protect against relapse while providing social aid to help addicts cope with their daily lives.
Frankie’s circumstances are made distressingly clear in the film. He cannot tolerate the anger and anxiety he feels, trapped again in a vortex of failure without apparent solution. The drug soothes his dysphoria while simultaneously it becomes its driving force. The vicious cycle of addiction is nowhere better observed in film than here. The signs and symptoms of craving, intoxication and withdrawal are also demonstrated with exceptional accuracy, down to changes in pupillary diameter (wide during anxious moments or withdrawal, narrowed to pinpoint after a fix). Credit the filmmakers for pursuing the details authentically and Sinatra with a fine portrayal.
On the negative side, much of the acting in the film is extremely melodramatic and not credible. Most of the supporting characters are played over the top, like figures in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. For instance, McGavin’s Louie, a slick and evil pusher, overplays every line and gesture like a vaudeville villain. Only Arnold Stang, as Frankie’s faithful gofer, Sparrow, and Doro Merande, as the leathery but helpful neighbor, Vi, are believable. Of the other two principals in the love triangle, Novak does fairly well. Her Molly is understated, and her reticent devotion to Frankie feels genuine. Eleanor Parker, on the other hand, effuses in her typical, undifferentiated, turbo-charged emotional style. She’s way too glamorous and way too energetic in her relentlessly cloying demands on Frankie. Malingerers usually act sick and distressed. They typically appear pained or frail. Fault Preminger for orchestrating so many horridly hammy performances.
Not to be outdone by the actors, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is also overbearing and painfully uncool. The main theme, a wastefully brassy, plodding and jerky movement, is reprised whenever Frankie’s drug craving overcomes his resolve. You start to dread its next appearance. This film called for Miles Davis, not a blaring 100 piece Hollywood orchestra. (Seen again, September, 2004). Grades: Drama: C; portrayal of heroin addiction: B+ (09/04)
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland, 2002). THEMES: PSYCHOGENIC AMNESIA; SURVIVING ON SOCIETY’S MARGINS. Wait till the Bushies see this movie, which conveys the sociopolitical message that if you're down and out, don't rely on government to help you, turn instead to volunteers in your community and faith-based programs. Good grief! One can only hope that the implications are not the same in Finland! Kaurismaki, maker of quirky, unpredictable, often rough-and-tumble frolicing films (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Total Balalaika) presents something here that is at once more somber yet full of fun as well: an oddball romantic comedy with some social commentary thrown in.
Think a moment about something really different for you, the Finnish economy: over 50% of the nation’s corporate equity resides in a single company, the cell phone giant, Nokia. Given such thin and brittle circumstances, it is not shocking to discover a bunch of very marginal folks up that way. It is these people living on the socioeconomic edge of Helsinki that interest Kaurismaki, and in particular he wants to contrast good and generous people with bad ones who affect a little hard scrabble community by the docks.
At the start, a man is beaten nearly to death by a violent gang of thieves. He has a dense retrograde amnesia to show for it (we know him only as "M" - he doesn't know his name or origins) but otherwise he recovers, thanks to the ministrations of a kindly couple who live in an old steel freight container. (The fact that he has no anterograde amnesia, unlike Leonard Shelby in Memento, shows his amnesia is psychological, not caused directly by any brain damage.) He attracts other benefactors as well, including a mock-grumpy landlord, an electrician, the owner of an earthmoving company turned bank robber, and Irma, a taciturn Salvation Army officer with whom “M” strikes up a romance (Irma is played by Kati Outinen, who got a Cannes best actress award for her work here). These folks help him get beyond the surly, contemptuous treatment he receives from the police and employment office clerks.
Things get more complicated when M’s photo is run in national newspapers and someone steps forward to identify him, although things work out OK in the end, according to the rules of this film genre. Along with its social edge, the film also includes several fine comic bits, including deadpan rapid fire vaudeville-style exchanges between M and his landlord, a running dog routine featuring Hannibal (a nod to the Lecter films), and several humorous scene entrances and exits. And, as befits Kaurismaki, there is an eclectic sound track spanning Salvation Army band tunes, 1940s torch songs, and rock-and-roll. Winner of the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in 2002. On second thought, I guess we're fortunate that the geniuses currently running our federal government are about as likely to watch a subtitled Finnish film as they are to hug a tree. (In Finnish) Grade: B+ (01/03)
MANIC (Jordan Melamed, US, 2001). THEMES: PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL TREATMENT OF ADOLESCENTS; GROUP THERAPY. Somber, verite-style drama about a group of maladjusted teens and the staff who work with them in a psychiatric hospital. Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attacks another player at a baseball game, brutally injuring him with a bat. For this he is dispatched to the small hospital in a rural setting, where he meets a number of other kids with various behavior disorders. There’s Mike, a scrapper and bully, a perpetual pout who becomes Lyle’s chief nemesis. Tracey (Zooey Deschanel), who is withdrawn, timid, disengaged, a cutter, eventually becomes a tentative love interest of Lyle’s. Lyle’s roommate Kenny is severely depressed. Chad is supposed to be bipolar though his behavior never clearly portrays this. In fact no one looks at all manic in this seriously mistitled film. Dr. David Monroe (Don Cheadle) is the psychologist whose work with the kids is shown primarily in group therapy meetings.
There isn’t much narrative to this work. We don’t learn about the family backgrounds of most of the kids, except Kenny, who had been sexually abused by his father and later perpetrated abuse himself on younger kids. The basis of Lyle’s explosive rages and obvious depression is never made clear. Cheadle makes his character a credible therapist, a caring man who approaches his charges realistically, without platitudes or cliches. He’s convincing even when he gets angry on one occasion and throws a couple of chairs around, also a favorite ward pastime among the kids. The tense and eruptive atmosphere on the ward is intimately conveyed by the actors and by the handheld digvid photography, with its many abrupt angle changes and effectively shaky close-ups. Gordon-Levitt gives a good account of an alienated, furious young man who gradually opens up to a more caring attitude toward others and himself. But apart from Cheadle’s turn, there is nothing particularly new in this film, nothing that wasn’t covered as well or better in Girl, Interrupted or even in David and Lisa, 40 years ago. Grade: B (06/04)
MAN’S JOB (Miehen työ) (Aleksi Salmenperä, Finland, 2007, 97 m.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: MAN IN SEX TRADE; SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS WITH AGING WOMEN, GIRL WITH DOWN SYNDROME(!). Tommi Korpella plays Juha, a robustly framed but gaunt, sullen, seemingly defeated man, weighed down by the responsibility of caring for a depressed spouse, Katja (Maria Heiskanen), who pouts for want of a new car and washing machine, and two young children, one of whom isn’t actually his. We meet him just when he is being fired from his factory job. Like Vincent in the French film Time Out, Juha cannot bring himself to tell Katja that he’s lost his job, so he fakes going to work for over two months. Privately, he decides to become an independent handyman but doesn’t let on that he’s not going to the factory.
When that cover gets blown, he ‘goes to work’ at another factory. He’s gone to work elsewhere, all right. He’s stumbled onto a lucrative business that will bring in the dough to buy Katja the goodies she longs for: he joins the sex trade! Yes, Juha becomes a working class gigolo, catering to the needs of older women and even a teen with Down Syndrome, whose parents have hired Juha to teach the girl about sex, though all she wants is to kiss him. Things fall apart when Juha is injured twice in one day and lands in the hospital. A believable drama with enough comedic touches to steer clear of becoming maudlin. It's well done. With Jani Volanen as Olli, Katja’s cheesy alcoholic first husband (and Juha’s grudging accomplice). (In Finnish) Grade: B+ (02/08)
A MAP OF THE WORLD (Scott Elliott, US, 1999). THEMES: LIFE CRISIS; IMPULSIVE PERSONALITY. SPOILER ALERT! Sigourney Weaver (Alice) and Julianne Moore (Alice's best friend, Teresa) give moving performances in a story that is emotionally compelling even if not a great flick. Alice finds herself, as she puts it, at the bottom of the world when, in succession, her friend Teresa's daughter drowns while Alice is caring for her; she is jailed on charges of child abuse by an angry mom who claims Alice sexually misused her son in Alice's role as a school nurse; the entire town turns against her and her family; and her husband is forced to sell the dairy farm that had been his dream to own and run, to find the cash to get Alice out of jail and pay for her legal defense. The family needs to resettle elsewhere anyway to begin again, which they do after Alice is acquitted. It's surely a soap opera story, but the quality of the turns given by the principal actresses saves it from being maudlin. As a character study, Weaver's Alice shows a fine example of someone whose flip and often wryly humorous candor, general penchant for disorganization and impulsivity lead her repeatedly into trouble. Grade: B- (06/01)
MARIA FULL OF GRACE (Joshua Marston, US/Colombia, 2004). THEMES: DRUG SMUGGLING; STUDY OF A WONDERFULLY STRONG PERSONALITY. SPOILER ALERT! Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a young woman intent upon finding a better life than she can ever hope for if she remains mired in her family’s little town near Bogota, stripping thorns from roses in a floral export sweatshop, where she must beg to pee and then make up the lost production. She’s tired of supporting her mother and her sister and baby nephew on the pittance she brings home. Early on we see that she can be bold: she shames her loser boyfriend by insisting he scale the face of a three story building and join her on the roof if he wants sex that day. (He chickens out.) Next she quits her job, sending her dependent family into a tizzy. She meets a guy from the city one evening at a local dance. When he presents her with an opportunity to make much more money and travel to the U.S. as a drug smuggling “mule,” it doesn’t take her long to decide to attempt this dangerous strategy for her own emancipation.
Having established these matters in the first half hour or so, the film thereafter is devoted to the drama of mules. Maria is taught how to swallow small sausage-like, plastic wrapped tubes containing cocaine, presumably (I don’t believe the specific drug is actually mentioned in the film), practicing first by swallowing large grapes. Preparing for her flight, she is given laxatives, her throat is sprayed with a local anaesthetic to make the task easier, and she then manages to swallow and keep down 62 bags. She’s given a flight ticket, some money, a hotel destination, and the promise of more money if she succeeds in getting through to deliver the drugs. If she doesn’t deliver the full shipment of 62 bags, she will be punished and forfeit the money. If she disappears with the drugs, her family back home will be harmed. She discovers on her flight to Newark that her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), who worked with her back home at the flower factory, is also aboard; she too has signed on as a mule. So is Lucy (Guilied Lopez), an experienced mule Maria met earlier. And another woman – 4 mules in all on this one flight. The traffickers do this, calculating that if one is seized at the U.S. entry point, it will be easier for the others to get through undetected.
Serious problems unfold after everyone reaches Newark. Maria is seized on suspicion of being a mule but escapes when a urine pregnancy test is positive (it’s no surprise to Maria), preventing authorities from X-raying her abdomen. Yenny and Lucy pass through without incident. The fourth woman is caught and led away in handcuffs. Lucy subsequently dies as a result of a drug overdose, when a drug bag ruptures inside her and she absorbs a huge amount. Maria and Yenny escape harm, after more adventures in Queens, New York City, where they travel to find Lucy’s sister, who lives there in a Colombian ex-pat community. In the end, Yenny returns to Colombia but Maria, at the last minute, decides to stay behind, to return to Queens, where she has met a few helpful people already.
Writer-director Marston had only a 1998 NYU film school diploma and one short grad school film under his belt when he decided to make this film, his first feature. He literally spent years – at least two – researching his subject. He met a woman in New York who had been a mule. He talked to authorities. He visited Colombia. His screenplay and the photography and editing are superb. The story unfolds straightforwardly. No gimmicks, no flashbacks, no fancy or hectic intercuts. The pace is deliberate, the style declarative, realistic and clear. It is sure work. He handles his actors with great skill. The three principal women offer fine performances.
This was Ms. Moreno first film acting experience. She hails from Bogota, where she studied acting at a theater. Someone there sent word to the casting agency for this film in New York, suggesting her for the role of Maria. She has an extraordinary screen presence. There is a scene near the end, at a mortuary where Lucy’s body lies in a casket, where Maria is shown in a close up in which she strikingly resembles the Mona Lisa, that uncanny melding of beauty and enigma. With regard to her acting, Ms. Moreno is able to convincingly convey a nuanced range of attitudes and feelings: vulnerability and strength, resolve and fear, hesitation and decisiveness. (In Spanish) Grade: A- (12/04)
MARTY (Delbert Mann, US, 1955). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER, MIXED FEATURES INCLUDING AVOIDANT, PASSIVE-DEPENDENT, DEPRESSIVE. POSSIBLY ALSO SOCIAL PHOBIA. SPOILER ALERT! One of the great character studies to emerge among 1950s American films, Marty featured Ernest Borgnine in the title role. Marty is the quintessential bachelor, 34, with no prospects, living at the family home in New York City with his widowed mother, while six sibs have married and gone their ways. He spends his days working in a neighborhood butcher shop and his evenings hanging out with his lifelong pal, Angie, another misfit with too many quirks to attract a steady girl. Marty knows he’s not an attractive man: coarse featured and overweight, timid around women, unable to make small talk.
After military service in WWII, he had returned home with no sense of direction for his life. He thought of college. But his loneliness got the best of him back then. He had dark periods of depression, and more than once considered throwing himself onto the tracks in front of an oncoming subway train. He tried and tried to meet a woman, but was always rebuffed, to the point where, before we meet him, he has given up, doesn’t go to the dance hall anymore on Saturday night, protects himself from further hurt that way. And yet, in his more reasonable, reflective moments, Marty knows he’s a good person, a good man like his father was, somebody who is fair, hardworking, honest, always ready to help out family and friends. No longer prone to depressive bouts, he still is a sensitive man, often cries sentimentally about things. He’s not yet devoid of ambition: the owner of the butcher shop wants to retire and Marty is thinking he might be able to buy the business.
The story takes place over the course of a single weekend. Marty’s youngest brother just got married and folks are chatting about it. As usual, everyone – his mother, the women customers in the butcher shop - asks Marty when he’s going to get married. On the advice of a nephew, Marty’s mother urges him to go down to the dance hall on Saturday night. “There’s lots of tomatoes there,” she says, quoting her nephew. He hasn’t been there in ages but, with nothing better to do, reluctantly, he does go to the dance with Angie, where, lo and behold, he does meet a woman, Clara, whose company he enjoys. They have a lot in common – lonely ones left along the romantic sidelines of life. They spend hours together at the dance, then at a coffee shop, talking. Marty opens up in an almost manicky outpouring about his life, and it is here we learn about his background, frustrations and hopes. At the end of the evening they stop by Marty’s house for him to get more money to accompany Clara home. Marty’s mother arrives from a visit to her sister’s and briefly meets Clara. Marty and Clara share that they want to see each other again and agree he will call the next day, Sunday afternoon, and they’ll go to a movie that night. They lightly kiss goodnight.
Next day everybody close to Marty seems unnerved by his good cheer and interest in this new girl, Clara. Angie is out of sorts, feels displaced and complains that Clara’s a “dog,” – that Marty could do better. Marty’s mother says she didn’t like Clara, complains that she isn’t Italian, and that she has a college degree, which makes her suspect, “close to being a person on the street,” Mother clucks. Marty tries to get advice from his cousin, an accountant, on buying the butcher shop, but he’s in the midst of a marital quarrel and dismissively yells at Marty that he’s lucky to be single and unencumbered, and shouldn’t saddle himself with a mortgage or a marriage. Marty’s spirits sag. He mopes around the house until evening. He doesn’t call Clara as promised. That night he hangs aimlessly around the tavern with Angie and the other guys, as usual, no one knowing where to go or what to do. Suddenly, as if he has had an epiphany, Marty rhetorically announces that he’s not going to hang around any more like this, that he’s got better prospects. He dashes inside the tavern to the phone and rings up Clara. Anglie sticks his nose into the phone booth and Marty slides the door shut. This final scene fades.
This perfect story was written by the great Paddy Chayefsy. It captivated people everywhere. The film and Borgnine won Oscars and many other awards in 1955, including the Palme d’Or for best film at Cannes, where the contributions of Chayefsky, Mann, Borgnine and Blair were acknowledged. (Seen again November, 2004). If you like this film, try James Mangold’s more recent film, Heavy, about a somewhat similar character.
Grades: (drama) B+; (character development) A- (11/04)
MARVIN'S ROOM (Jerry Zaks, US, 1996, 98 min). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; RECONCILIATION OF FAMILY (SISTERS) IN RESPONSE TO ILLNESS; MIDDLE STAGE DEMENTIA WITH CATASTROPHIC REACTIONS; DEFIANT, DEPRESSED ADOLESCENT ADJUSTMENT DISORDER; CONTRASTING PERSONALITIES OF TWO SISTERS. Spoiler Alert! Several themes and conditions are probed in this well enacted psychodrama, adapted from a stage production by the playwright, Scott McPherson. Older sister Bessie (Diane Keaton) finds that she has leukemia and must undergo chemo. This will compromise her ability to care for her seriously demented father, Marvin (Hume Cronyn), and her forgetful, soap opera addicted old aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon).
Bessie’s best hope of surviving her cancer is to receive a bone marrow transplant from a compatible relative. This leads her to break a two decade silence with her estranged younger sister Lee (Meryl Streep) in Ohio, whom Bessie now asks to come to Florida to be tested for bone marrow compatibility. Lee grudgingly responds, brining along her two sons for testing as well. They are young Charlie (Hal Scardino) and his older brother Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio). The brothers are a study in contrasts. Charlie is meek, compliant, eager to stay out of trouble. Hank, contrarily, is an angry, defiant, and beneath it all, depressed teen who misses his father, a man he idolizes in a highly distorted manner. Hank blames Lee for the divorce that occurred and cannot accept the truth that his father was an abusive man who often injured Hank as a kid through beatings.
Hank and Lee are perpetually at war. Lee does all the wrong things, attempting to control Hank, criticizing him at every turn, offering no love or tenderness. Indeed, there is little love in her life. She struggles just to survive, keep food on the table, and push ahead to finish beautician school. In fact Lee and Hank are a lot alike: basically affiliative, warmhearted people who have become avoidant and hardened in a self protective manner. Hank, in a fury early in the film, actually burns down the house to retaliate against his mother and is packed off to a public mental hospital for care. We see a scene or two when Lee encounters Hank’s psychiatrist, Dr. Charlotte (Margo Martindale). It’s a gratuitously unflattering turn with a strained cliché at one point, when Dr. C. and Lee trade questions about questions (“How do you feel about my asking how you feel about my asking how you feel about Hank?”) Sigh.
Bessie is a different sort. She’s full of readily accessible loving feelings for her father and her aunt. There is a sufficient residue of bad feelings between her and Lee that Bessie is more reticent when her sister and the boys arrive, but Bessie’s heart goes out immediately to Hank, who responds to her tender, accepting, unconflicted adoration in a highly positive manner. It marks the beginning of a transformation in Hank that eventually comes to include a revision in his regard for his mother. Lee too is touched by Bessie’s heartfulness and her selfless care of their father. In the end, although the tests rule out all three as potential bone marrow donors - thus making it clear that Bessie’s remaining time will be limited, Lee, Hank and Charlie decide to stay on and pitch in to help everyone.
DiCaprio’s is a splendid performance, believable in both his initial deviance and in his subsequent transformation. It was his best work after playing the developmentally disabled Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (until his role as Howard Hughes in this year’s The Aviator). Ms. Streep is also quite outstanding here. Mr. Cronyn deserves special praise for the clinical authenticity of his role as a person with late middle stage dementia. He is essentially non-verbal and somnolent. His frequent exaggerated startle responses vividly portray the distressing catastrophic reactions so common in many demented persons.
Ms. Keaton’s turn will be appreciated more by some viewers than others. For me, there is an ever present tendency in many of her roles for her emotional expression to register as pathos, an almost maudlin sentimentality. Bessie is such a teary, self effacing goody goody. And yet any of us can think of people we know who are like her. And we can only wonder how many helpless people around us would suffer if it were not for the self-sacrificing generosity of caretakers like Bessie. I haven’t mentioned that Robert DiNiro plays Bessie’s physician. It’s an odd little role in which he bumbles a lot (he’s a pathologist pressed into patient care when a partner abruptly leaves the group practice). I don’t see this role or its star as benefiting the movement of the film.
This was a first – and to date the only – feature film for Mr. Zaks, the director, who has had a celebrated career as a director of Broadway comedies and who has also directed several TV dramas. Grade: B (12/04)
THE MATADOR (Richard Shepard, US/Germany/Ireland, 2005, 96 m). THEME: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY DISORDER, WITH ONSET OF PANIC ATTACKS AND REMORSE IN MIDDLE LIFE. Matador is a silly movie. It pairs up Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan), an internationally operating hit man, an assassin for hire to dispose of people anywhere in the world, and Danny Wright, (Greg Kinnear), a good natured, common middle class guy. They meet at a hotel; both are abroad in the same city on “business.” Improbably, they more-or-less hit it off, mainly through Julian’s rough charm and persistence, because he’s lonely.
The film is noteworthy because Mr. Brosnan does a truly splendid job of portraying a man with a decidedly antisocial personality (he habitually lies, cheats and, of course, kills people with aplomb), but also a man who is reaching a point in his sordid life where his conscience is starting to catch up with him. He has panic attacks and bad dreams, in which he himself is the target of the assassin. His anxiety bouts begin to interfere with his ability to get his work done, which incurs a stern response from his handler, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall) and the anonymous bigshots who pay the bills.
This depiction is clinically authentic. I have worked with sociopaths who, in middle life, can become vulnerable to severe depression, remorse, and anxiety disorders as they recall their misdeeds. What is masterful here is that Brosnan not only nails the psychopathology accurately, but he does so with a nearly over-the-top humor that is delectable. With Hope Davis in an amusing turn as Danny’s giddy wife, Bean. Grade: overall (as a comedy) low B; for the portrayal of antisocial personality: A-. (01/06)
MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott, US, 2003). THEMES: ANXIETY DISORDERS; OCD, GAD, PANIC. Nicolas Cage excels in portraying men with various mental troubles. He was convincing as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, and as a PTSD sufferer in Bringing Out the Dead. Here he gives another believable turn as Roy, who suffers from a panoply of symptoms in the anxiety disorder spectrum. Roy is burdened by agoraphobia and is also fearful of dirt and disorder. He is a compulsive cleaner and organizer, and must count one-two-three before opening any door or window. Without medication or attention to his rituals, or when his purposely isolated life is disrupted by the intrusions of others, he develops myriad symptoms of anxiety and panic: tics, hyperactivity, nausea and hyperventilation, so that he must breathe into a paper bag to calm himself.
Roy is a paradoxical guy: in spite of being a bundle of nerves, he makes his living as a confidence man, a trade we think of as requiring nerves of steel. He’s made a bundle of money this way and spent his share of time in prison. He also smokes like a chimney, a pretty dirty habit for an otherwise fastidious fellow. He works with Frank (Sam Rockwell), his devoted longtime partner, to swindle unsuspecting folks out of a few hundred dollars apiece in various scams.
One day, Frank hooks a sucker for a much bigger potential payoff. Things move along reasonably well until Roy’s new psychiatrist stirs his curiosity about a child he probably fathered – his wife was pregnant when they split up 14 years ago, and he has had no contact since. The psychiatrist agrees to contact Roy’s ex-wife on his behalf, and, long story short, Roy’s teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) soon appears in his life, rapidly joining the team as a budding con artist in her own right. There are surprises in store for Roy and us viewers, but to reveal them would spoil the fun. The film is enjoyable enough, and a fine showcase of anxiety problems by Cage, who stays in character. His symptoms do wax and wane, but the changes make sense in light of the changing circumstances that surround him. Grades: drama: B; psychiatric portrayal: A- (07/04)
ME, MYSELF AND IRENE (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, US, 2000). THEME: GROSS MISPORTRAYAL OF SCHIZOPHRENIA AS "SPLIT PERSONALITY" Banal and tiresome slapstick comedy about Charlie (Jim Carrey), a model state trooper and single father who develops a hostile alternate personality (Hank) after years of repressing his rage whenever anyone took advantage of him, which was very often. The first 40% of the film brings us to his psychiatric crisis and its imperfect control by a medication.
To give him a break from routine, Charlie's boss sends him to accompany Irene (Renee Zellweger), a suspect who is wanted in another state. As it turns out, she has been innocently involved with a racketeer, a member of a group that is headed by corrupt cops, who chase after Carrey and Zellweger for the remaining 60% of the film. Throughout, Carrey flips with dizzying speed between Charlie and Hank, and Zellweger tries valiantly to adapt to each of these very different people. Their acting in these wildly varying encounters is the one good thing about the film, aside from the antics of Charlie's three black sons, all smart (their father the dwarf was a Mensa chapter president) and all given to using the term "motherfucker" in every sentence.
Just to offer some of the subtle comic flavor of the film, sight gags include a gigantic dildo what Irene uses as a blackjack, and a sheriff's deputy left handcuffed and pants down by Charlie's teenage sons, with a chicken stuffed up his ass. Although this movie was assailed with great fanfare by NAMI as a slur against the mentally ill, in no way does Carrey seem like a person suffering from schizophrenia, nor are mentally ill persons put down in the film. Granted, "Hank" becomes sexually aggressive toward Zellweger, and at one point scares a child and drives a car though a barbershop window, but his aggression is otherwise all bluster...he routinely loses all the fights he picks.
This film could be construed as a far more serious affront to law enforcement officers, African Americans, and dwarfs, than to the mentally ill. But the largest group slandered by this movie is the viewing public. We are cheated by stale thin gruel here...a script written 10 years ago by the Farrellys and set aside as too dull to pursue. Thanks a lot for getting back to it, guys. The only reason I include this film is because NAMI made such a fuss about it. For more on that topic, see my article, "Me, Myself and Laurie: NAMI Takes on Hollywood." Grades: comedy: F; portrayal of schizophrenia: F (07/00)
ME MYSELF I (Philippa [Pip] Karmel, Australia, 1999). THEME: WOMEN'S ISSUES. Pamela (Rachel Griffiths) is a single 30-something who is a highly successful journalist. But she longs for Robert, a man she left 13 years ago, who was her "Mr. Right," and wonders what might have been. Struck unconscious by a car, she awakens magically transported into the life she would have had with this man, complete with three children. Griffiths is terrific: she reminds me of Jamie Lee Curtis in physical vigor and comedic flair. And there are some clever scenes, e.g., the early torrid sex scene that turns out to be a porn video, or the bathtub "suicide" scene with the hairdryer. But this film is too deeply mired in all the tired clich é s about women's frustrations and responsibilities we've known for a long time. It would all have been fresh and funny 25 years ago. This is not to say that the women's movement has driven male chauvinistic excesses into full retreat anywhere, and certainly hardly at all in the developing world. But is the Aussie women's movement really so far behind the times that this film can be popular there in the year 2000? Grade: C (02/00)
ME WITHOUT YOU (Sandra Goldbacher, UK, 2002). THEME: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. This is not a good film. It is a soap opera about an enduring twisted friendship between two women who grew up together. Marina is a classic borderline personality; Holly is merely dull. Almost everyone needs a good spanking. The dialogue is predictable, the photography undistinguished, and the pop musical score putrid. Nevertheless, the film does nicely capture one sort of expression of borderline personality seen in people, usually women, with major identity problems. Namely, it is the tendency to form pathologically close attachments to other people, without whom the person does not feel whole or complete. Marina demonstrates this identity problem in a highly instructive manner. Grades: (as drama): D; (for clinical authenticity of Marina’s character): B (01/02)
ME YOU THEM (Andrucha Waddington, Brazil, 2001). THEMES: "LOVE AND WORK"; MULTIPLE LOVERS LIVING TOGETHER. Sigmund Freud was once cornered at a London cocktail party and asked to state in plain terms what was necessary for a person to live a life free from neurosis. His reply was elegant and deservedly famous. "Liebe und arbeit," he said. Love and work. This is a film about love and work, both in great abundance. The script was inspired by the true story of a woman living in a tiny hamlet in rural Brazil who had taken three husbands, concurrently. After reading of her situation in a newspaper, co-screenwriter (with Waddington) Elena Soarez actually sought out this woman, visited with her over several days, and found the four adults living in apparent harmony with a gaggle of their children.
In the film, Darlene (Regina Casé) is a rawboned powerful woman with a delectable smile who works 11 hours a day cutting sugar cane, while in her spare time she runs a household for her lazy, aging husband, Osias, who does nothing but scowl and listen to the radio. She bears a son who does not resemble Osias, an observation that is not lost on him. Distanced from him all the more, Darlene grows restive. Conveniently, Zezinho, Osias's middle aged cousin by marriage, comes to live with them. He is a passive sweetie who takes over cooking and brings a hot lunch to Darlene in the fields each day. She takes him as a clandestine lover and bears him a son as well. Enter Ciro, a virile young fellow who comes to cut cane. Osias invites Ciro to stay for awhile as a way to distract Darlene from Zezinho, for Osias, no dummy, suspects what's going on. Whereupon, of course, Darlene takes up romantically with Ciro, much to Zezinho's chagrin. When she bears Ciro a son, it is no secret to anyone. Tensions by this point have understandably risen.
The film is gorgeously photographed, with careful attention to details as well as breathtaking panoramic views of the desolate, bleached countryside. The opening credits are exquisite, with text running next to a lit lantern in the foreground of a darkened room, as someone dresses in the shadowy background. We catch the daily rhythms of household chores, from washing clothes by hand in a muddy pond to Zezinho shaving Osias. Soulful folk sambas drive the dancers at the local tavern on Saturday nights. There is abundant grace, humor, accommodation and beauty throughout this film, and, in the daily rhythms of love and work, one cannot help believing that these people have figured things out pretty well, however much a fable we are inclined to think this story must be.
My partner wasn't as enthused about this film as I was. One thing that bothered her were the violations of women's rights suggested by Darlene's situation. Things like Darlene's acquiescence to Osias's demands that she run every aspect of the household while he lazes about. And this on top of her other major burdens, from working full time during sugar cane harvest to her involvement in an endless cycle of pregnancies and child rearing. Female sensibilities may very well be rubbed wrong here for just cause. But I also think that it is a conceit of this film to suggest that Darlene is very much in charge of her life.
She is, in the first place, portrayed as a very strong woman, physically, sexually, psychologically, socially. She doesn't need to remain stranded in that isolated hamlet. She had proven earlier in her life that she could make it alone in the city. She returned to visit her mother, not necessarily to stay. She made a pragmatic choice to marry Osias, although it is true that he turned the tables on her, failing to keep his promises about sharing power, after the wedding. Nevertheless, she is not afraid of him and to a considerable degree does as she pleases. She likes to boogie, and on Saturday nights she dances close with any man she chooses, no matter that her husband is looking on and obviously not happy about it.
So who's exploiting whom in this circumstance? Above all, Darlene likes tail, and she arranges to get a lot of loving, at home and away. The other thing that dampened my partner's enjoyment of the film was her increasing apprehension that Darlene might be killed. For what my partner knew, but I did not, is that to this day in Brazil a man can kill his wife for something like being cuckolded, and, if he can avoid arrest for a short time, he will thereafter be a free man. (In Portuguese) Grade: B+ (01/01)
MEAN CREEK (Jacob Aaron Estes, US, 2004). THEMES: MORAL CHALLENGES IN ADOLESCENCE; TEEN CONDUCT DISORDER - BULLYING; YOUNG TEEN DOMINATION BY AN OLDER LEADER. SPOILER ALERT! The title’s wrong. This isn’t a creek, it’s the Lewis River, in Washington State. And the river’s not mean, it’s George, the trash mouth fat kid, that’s mean. So the title should be “Mean River” or, better, “Mean Streak.” This exemplifies the larger problems in this debut filmmaking effort by writer-director Estes. Almost everything in the movie is just a bit off. Estes, who appeared for a Q & A at the screening I attended, says he wanted to make a teen morality film. The idea for it was drawn from his own recent experience of being bullied repeatedly by a huge man at pickup basketball games in his San Francisco neighborhood.
Here’s the story: George (Josh Peck, a 17 year old actor) is an unhappy, surly fellow who strives to share his misery by hassling all the other kids around. Early in the film he beats up Sam (Rory Culkin, age 14). Sam’s older brother and his friends decide on revenge, to teach George a lesson by inviting him on a boat trip, then forcing him to strip nude and walk home. Things go sour. George accidentally drowns. Marti (Scott Mechlowicz), ringleader of the group, insists they bury the body and pretend nothing has happened. The others grudgingly go along, but, back home later that night, after a lengthy tussle with their scruples, the rest of the group decides to do the right thing and disclose to George’s mother and police what really happened. Marti, fearful of imprisonment, robs a convenience store and presumably goes on the lam.
As I said, there’re a lot of little things wrong with the film. A majority of the young actors don’t quite hold one’s interest. Is it the actors, the script or Estes’s lack of directing skill that accounts for this problem? We can’t be sure. These kids aren’t amateurs plucked from a local casting call. Most have impressive acting resumes. Peck and Carly Schroeder (who plays Millie, Sam’s puppy love interest) are the exceptions: both are excellent. Some events in the story don’t hang together quite properly. We know parental vigilance is often lax these days, but the implicit notion that nobody’s parents were at all curious about the long daytrip to the river is a bit hard to swallow. And it seemed to take forever for the other kids to make a half hearted effort to save George after he fell into the river.
The film is decently photographed, but the music - gloomy and foreboding - is relentlessly manipulative. Someone in the audience asked Estes if he had considered using this film to teach middle schoolers about morality and groupthink. He said yes but it would be an unlikely occurrence, given its R rating (based on sexual references and foul language). The question gets at another issue, perhaps, namely that there is a none-too-subtle didacticism to the film. It’s terribly earnest, and there’s not a trace of humor, nothing quirky or endearing, to pierce the moral mantle of this film. (Filmed in Estacada and other sites near Portland.) Still, the film has substance and is six cuts above the usual trash served up to young teens by Hollywood. Grade: B (08/04)
MEMENTO (Christopher Nolan, US, 2000). THEME: ANTEROGRADE AMNESTIC DISORDER FOLLOWING CLOSED HEAD INJURY. Nolan has made an unusual murder mystery about California lowlifes. The protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), sustained a severe closed head injury by the assailant who also killed Leonard’s wife in the same incident. Leonard wants to find the killer. Trouble is, he cannot remember anything for longer than a few moments. To compensate, he takes notes, snaps endless numbers of Polaroid photos, tracks things on a huge map, even has tattoos of clues written in his skin. Still, not only does the killer elude him, but the people who claim to want to help him typically prove to have their own nasty, self-serving agendas. The film starts in the present, goes a few minutes forward, fades, then goes back hours or days, starts up again for a few minutes, and then spirals or cycles backward once again. One set of givens is added to another, but in reverse order. We are as puzzled and confused by the disorder of things as Leonard. This is the film's special strength: to force us to feel the consequences of Leonard’s disorder. But in the long run it is just flashy gimmickry layered atop a neo-noir story about a bunch of sleazy people. Incidentally, the whodunit mystery is more or less solved by the end, but we needn't dwell on spoiler details here. The film reunites two stars from the film, The Matrix, Carrie-Ann Moss (Trinity) and Joe Pantoliano (Cypher).
Memory disorders like Leonard's, by the way, are common in alcoholics (Alcohol Amnestic Disorder) but unusual in head injuries. Clinically, co-writers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (who are brothers) deserve a prize for getting organic amnesia right. Every other film I know of that features traumatic amnesia, where brain injury is allegedly the cause of memory loss, only demonstrates retrograde amnesia (mind's a blank for everything prior to the knock on the head), but memory works fine afterwards. Sorry, folks, but that only occurs in psychogenic amnesias. Grade: B- (06/01)
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, US, 2004). THEMES: PERFORMANCE ENHANCEMENT COACHING; COUNSELING PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS. In 2001, the legendary heavy metal rock band Metallica had reached the nadir of their 20-year association. No new album or tour for several years. Heck, they were barely able to speak to one another. Their managers, worried that a major cash cow was going mad, brought in Phil Towle, a self proclaimed “performance enhancement coach,” to facilitate improved relations among the band members. A new album and tour were envisioned. And filmmakers Berlinger and Sinofsky (who had made the provocative documentaries Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) were hired to make a promotional film that would cover the recording sessions and tour.
Before group sessions with Towle could even begin, however, long time bass player Jason Newsted quit the band. (Metallica producer Bob Rock, a journeyman bassist himself, was tapped to fill in for the album.) The film gradually morphed into a full scale documentary, a rare two-year long, fly-on-the-wall chronicle that is part psychodrama and part musical odyssey as the band struggles to create new songs while living through a period of acrimony and doubts about their future together. After watching this film, you'll better appreciate such things as the effort that goes into making a rock album, the difficulties of keeping dueling alpha male musicians somehow working in harmony, and the huge profits to be made if you are lucky enough to become a useful performance coach for a mega-band like this one. Grade: B+ (08/04)
MIFUNE (Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Denmark, 2000). THEME: SCHIZOPHRENIA. This film progresses well as a realistic, often humorous story of Kresten, a young man who thought he had escaped his roots – growing up on an impoverished farm, where his mother suicided, his only sib is schizophrenic, and his father is in decline. He has just married into a wealthy family when news arrives that his father has died, forcing his return to the farm to arrange care for his brother. Not a great film but it features an excellent portrayal of Rud, the schizophrenic brother, by Jesper Asholt. (In Danish). Grade: B (02/00)
MISTER FOE (Hallam Foe) (David Mackenzie, UK, 2007, 95 m.). THEMES: ADOLESCENT GRIEF; SEEKING A SUBSTITUTE FOR A LOST MOTHER; ADOLESCENT VOYEURISM. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Dear Wendy) plays Hallam, an aggrieved young man who cannot seem to get over his mother’s death two years earlier, complicated by the fact that his father rather quickly took on a new wife, whom, Hallam suspects, killed his mother. Miserable in the company of his father and stepmother, Hal ventures off to Edinburgh on his own, gets a job as a dishwasher in an upscale hotel, and meets several intriguing people there, foremost of whom is the personnel manager, Kate (Sophia Myles, from Tristan + Isolde and Art School Confidential), who looks just like Mom. Things work themselves out in this play that is part romantic comedy, part whodunit, with themes of voyeurism and suicide circling about as well. With Ciarán Hinds, Claire Forlani, Ewen Bremner and Maurice Roëves in well played supporting roles. (Filmed in Edinburgh, Glasgow and the border country near Peebles, Scotland.). Grade: B (02/08)
MONDAYS IN THE SUN (Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain, 2003). THEME: PSYCHOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES OF UNEMPLOYMENT. Here's a new recipe I recommend. First, select several fine actors - mature men of varying ages - and stir gently to form an ensemble; marinate in the social realism of a Ken Loach film; fold in the running conversational style and understated humor of a good French comedy; top it all off with a few drinks; finally let the mixture slowly simmer for 115 minutes, and, viola, you will have this marvelous new movie from Spain! (Like the Biblical meal for 5,000, this recipe can serve an unlimited number of viewers.) Javier Bardem (who so ably played Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls) leads the ensemble here, a group of men who have lost their jobs because of closure of their shipyard. They build ships cheaper these days in Korea: it's the global economy, stupid.
We see the varied but in general devastating effects of unemployment and poverty on these men, their families, and their bonds with one another, bonds that at times become quite strained. Santa (Bardem), a bachelor, tries to help Amador, who is depressed and drinking far too much since his wife deserted him, and Jose, whose pride has made him so irritable toward his wife, now the breadwinner, that she also is on the point of leaving him. While trying to patch it all together for these folks, Santa also needs to find some anchor for his own life, which is adrift (literally toward the end).
There are many amusing circumstances here, like Santa's quirky conversations with the developmentally challenged watchman at the shipyard, or the night Santa agrees to substitute for a babysitter at the home of a wealthy family and then invites his buddies over to drink from the well stocked bar at poolside. But there is a darker side to this work that, lest you only think of Spain, is pertinent to our own economic circumstances here in the U.S. these days. Bardem is by turns furious, sad, charming and paternal. But above all he shows a fierce loyalty and devotion to both his friends and his principles. A wonderful acting turn. This film keeps getting better and better as it progresses. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (02/03)
MONSIEUR HIRE (Patrice Leconte, France, 1989). THEMES: VOYEURISM; SCHIZOID PERSONALITY DISORDER. SPOILER ALERT! Taut erotic thriller. Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a beautiful but cunning, psychopathic woman who seems paradoxically titillated when she discovers she is the object of noctural spying by a neighbor, M. Hire (French comedian Michel Blanc), a sad, lonely, homely bachelor dressmaker. He becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a young woman in the neighborhood. Hire himself suspects that Alice's petty gangster boyfriend is the culprit and wants to protect her against this man. But Alice has another agenda, and boldly pursues Hire to to help protect the boyfriend. She even frames Hire at the end, after he has offered her his devoted love and protection. The film leaves an unanswered question: is M. Hire’s death a suicide or an accidental event as he attempts a desperate rooftop escape? Lesser unanswered questions: What on earth are the mice for in his dressmaking salon? And why does he arrange to kill them beside the railroad track before his planned departure for Switzerland with Alice? (In French) Grades: drama B+; psychological characterization of the voyeuristic man: A- (09/04)
MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, US, 2003). THEMES: EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA; ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY. SPOILER ALERT! This docudrama tells the story of an unusual serial killer, a woman, Aileen Carol ("Lee") Wuornos, a highway prostitute, who killed seven “johns” in Florida, in 1989-1990. She was executed in October, 2002, after 10 years on death row. Aileen’s story is a pathetic and all too familiar one: chaotic childhood, sexual abuse, on her own since age 13, selling sex to survive, hard drinking, brazen, suicidal and alone. The film is well crafted, with excellent pacing, photography and story telling, a gem of a debut effort by writer-director Jenkins. But what makes this film most memorable is the performance of Charlize Theron as Wuornos. It is absolutely one of the most stunning turns by any actress that I can recall. Theron until now has distinguished herself primarily as a gorgeous young woman, exquisite eye candy, with passable, though unplumbed, acting talent, poised somewhere on the cusp between starlet and star. I had seen her in several small roles: for Woody Allen in Celebrity and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and most recently in The Italian Job.
None of these performances prepared me for her personification of Wuornos here. Much has already been written about this: there’s a prominent feature article, for example, in our newspaper just this morning (“The Oregonian”, January 13, 2004) about her work in Monster. We all know by now that she gained 30 pounds for the part (think of that much extra weight on a young actress’s frame, even someone as tall as Theron, who’s 5’ 9”…we’re not talking about Robert DeNiro preparing to play Jake LaMotta). Photos of Wuornos next to Theron (in role, with makeup requiring 90 minutes of prep time daily during the shoot) in newspaper articles show the uncanny similarities in their looks.
But that’s not the half of it. It is the totality of Theron’s acting that sweeps one away: her shambling gait and gangling gestures, the cocking of her head variously, the constant screwed up movements of her mouth and chin when she’s feeling some interior pain. Her raw speech, her hair trigger temper, her grandiosity, her deep capacities for outrage, tenderness and love. Though I am no fan of Christina Ricci, I also think that she does a good job here as Selby, a character loosely based on an actual lover of Wuornos's. Selby is an immature, self absorbed, passive-dependent, manipulative little naïf whom Lee attaches herself to, a fatal attraction that is at the ironic core of this story.
This relationship and its consequences make a fascinating psychodynamic motif. Lee, to invoke Kris Kristofferson’s marvelous lyric, is “…a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction…” The title “monster” has two meanings. Her rampage of murders, though understandable in light of the violence repeatedly perpetrated upon her, is monstrous. But she also tells us in a voiceover about her fascination as a youngster with a giant ferris wheel called “The Monster.” She was also afraid of it, and when she got a chance to ride, she reacted with fear, nausea and vomiting. She’s telling us that within her, underneath all the bravada, there is a terrified little girl, given to longings for things she cannot trust, vulnerable, hungry for love. It is Theron’s capacity to embody both the toughness and the fragility of Lee’s complex character that gives her performance such stature. She wins our sympathies even as her behavior sometimes repels us.
Lee’s neediness misguides her judgment about Selby. Lee thinks her own hunger for love is matched by Selby’s. It isn’t. It can’t be. Lee’s trust in Selby’s love is based on projective identification, on an illusion: Selby is not capable of love, not at her age, not when her personality is so unformed. Selby is dubious from the getgo, and the tenuous bond she is able to establish soon starts to fray as she catches on that Lee may be involving them both in an unsavory spiral of serious crimes. Selby grows more frightened the deeper the mess becomes – a vicious cycle spinning out of control – and she deepens the problems further by desperately escalating her demands that Lee do something more to rescue them.
When Selby finally recoils, it is more a matter of understandable self protection a betrayal of love. She finally sees that she's gotten in way over her head. And much as our sympathies lie not with her but with Lee, how can one argue against Selby’s horrified withdrawal? How do you throw in for life with a lover who kills for the rent money? What would you do in her place? For her part, Aileen lets down her guard, she chances a ride on the metaphorical ferris wheel of intimacy, she allows herself to experience tenderness in what she hopes will be a safe, requited love relationship. And once she does open her heart, she can no longer tolerate being abused by the johns she continues to hustle. That’s when the killings begin. For more on this film, see my article, "A Ride on the Ferris Wheel." For more on Aileen Wuornos, see my review of the biopic, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Grade: A- (01/04)
MONSTER'S BALL (Marc Forster, US, 2001). THEMES: INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY CONFLICT; IMPACT OF SUICIDE IN FAMILY; CRISIS BRINGS TWO PEOPLE TOGETHER WHO SUPPORT EACH OTHER. SPOILER ALERT! Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) follows in his hardbitten father's (Peter Boyle) footsteps as a death row corrections officer at the state prison near a small rural Georgia town. Hank's son, Sonny (Heath Ledger) does the same. An execution occurs. It is Sonny's first, and he has a disturbed visceral response, which Hank and his father label as a sign of weakness. Long simmering alienation between Hank and Sonny erupts, and Sonny kills himself. Hank is transformed by the impact of this event, even to the point that he resigns from his job. Leticia (Halle Berry) is the ex-wife of the man recently executed. As if this were not enough, she further suffers the accidental death of her son. This occurs under conditions that bring her into chance contact with Hank.
They gradually move toward one another, two desperate and needy people who each have no one else to turn to but one another. Berry, Thornton and Boyle are excellent. Berry's range of expression is immense and unerring. The story unfolds quietly, matter-of-factly. Its ending, leaving us with wonder about what the future holds for this unlikely couple, sets the right note of final ambiguity. (The Ball, according to what Hank describes to Sonny in the film, is the name given to a party held by the corrections officers who participate in an execution, held the evening before. But Roger Ebert says it originated in old England as a reference to a condemned man's last night on earth.) Grade: B+ (04/02)
MOONLIGHT MILE (Brad Silberling, US, 2002). THEME: BEREAVEMENT. An underappreciated film loosely based on the true story of a Portland family. As the film opens it is 3 days since a crazed man shot and killed Diana at a local coffee shop, while attempting to shoot his estranged wife, a waitress there. We immediately meet Diana’s fiancé, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal) and her parents, JoJo, a writer (Susan Sarandon) and Ben, a real estate dealer (Dustin Hoffman), as they dress for the funeral. We then follow these three people over the next few hours and days, then over subsequent weeks and months (one of the fine aspects of this film is how its pacing of time shifts from slower to faster as the film unfolds). Joe and Diana had planned to marry and settle here in her hometown. The wedding invitations had already gone out. Joe was to join Ben in business. This film shares some features in common with two other excellent recent films about bereavement, In the Bedroom (both have a subtext of violent death and the desire for revenge against the killer) and The Son’s Room (both reflect on the process of healing or renewal after loss).
But here, more importantly, the focus is on the contradictory nature of grief and the absurd manner in which friends blurt out inanities in their well intended but useless efforts to offer emotional support. Death and loss are awkward events that can evoke powerful yet paradoxical and convoluted emotional responses, and it is the special strength of this movie that it deals with these complexities in a fresh and honest manner. And the story line compounds the twists and turns that demand an honest accounting. Telling aspects in Diana’s relationships to the three survivors are gradually revealed. And there’s more.
Silberling drew this story from personal experience. His fiancée, an actress, was killed by a fan in 1989. He grew close to her parents in the following years. Besides a story deeply anchored in honesty and psychological realism, including many amusing little details of daily life, this film is made outstanding by uniformly first rate acting (all three principals as well as Holly Hunter and Ellen Pompeo). Some critics feel that the greater gravitas of In the Bedroom made that a superior film. I disagree. The more paradoxical themes explored here, with a light side set against the dark, is more real. Roger Ebert gets the last word: “Death is the ultimate rebuke to good manners…this film has the freedom to feel contradictory things. It is sentimental but feels free to offend….it is analytical but then surrenders to the illogic of its characters….it is about grief but permits laughter…(this film shows the truth that in our grief) sometimes we laugh, that we may not cry.” For more on this and related films, see my article, "Rooms in the House of Grief." Grade: A- (12/02)
THE MORNING AFTER (Sidney Lumet, US, 1986) THEME: ALCOHOLIC ACTRESS. A washed up, alcoholic, Hollywood film actress becomes enmeshed in a murder she didn’t commit. A former cop comes to her rescue. You’d think that, given a cast of Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges and Raul Julia, led by a director like Lumet, this would be at least a fairly good film. Guess again: it’s close to being a turkey. If you want to see a solid portrayal of an alcoholic actress, forget this one and look up Susan Hayward playing Lillian Roth in the 1955 film based on Roth’s memoir of the same name, I’ll Cry Tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that Ms. Fonda received her seventh Oscar nomination for her quite ordinary performance here. Says a lot more about political perseveration in the Academy than it does about their judgment of acting. Grade: C (11/05)
MORS ELLING (Mother’s Elling) (Eva Isaksen, Norway, 2003, 78 m.). THEMES: OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE PERSONALITY DISORDER (OCPD). A sequel in the worst sense to the hilarious 2001 film, Elling. The star (Per Christian Ellefsen, as the obsessive, mincing, irritable, aging bachelor and mama’s boy, Elling) and the screenwriter are the same as for the first film, but everyone else – the rest of the cast, director, DP, editor and production designer – are a different bunch from those that made the earlier film. In Elling, two psychiatrically institutionalized men were outplaced to share a state sponsored apartment in the community. (The 40-something year old Elling had been admitted after his mother’s death.) The humorous core of Elling was the odd couple relationship between the agoraphobic, enervated, prissy Elling and his apartment roommate Kjell, an oafish but kindly, fearless, and sex crazed virgin. Their escapades were full of fun, and the more sober subtext of naifs aiding one another to get along in the larger world was as tender as it was satirical.
Mors Elling is a “prequel.” It is set at a time not long before Elling, when the title character and his mother still lived together. Mom is properly concerned that after she passes, Elling might not be able to fend for himself. She decides the best thing is to arrange a trip abroad, on a group tour to Majorca, to help desensitize Elling to being out and about in public and enhance his coping skills. Of course he predictably resists the idea, then goes along, but finds fault in every instance of their adventures. The humor - including Elling’s tirade when he and Mom are given a king bed to share at the hotel (ponderously protesting the idea that these people obviously expect him to have sex with her) - is forced, hamhanded. There is no real chemistry of any sort between Mom and Elling. Without a character like Kjell to play against, Elling becomes tiresome to watch, not fun. Too bad. Grade: C (In Norwegian) (11/05)
MORVERN CALLAR (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 2002). THEMES: UNUSUAL, FREE SPIRIT PERSONALITY AND EQUALLY UNUSUAL BEREAVEMENT RESPONSES. SPOILER ALERT! I had read nothing about this film beforehand. Curious title, I thought: sounds like someplace or someone from a Harry Potter fable. Then, in the first minutes of the film, when a young woman goes partying, leaving behind her suicided mate’s nude body on the floor of their flat, basking in the blinking lights of a Christmas tree, I thought, Oh dear, another dark, dismal druggie-trash-Britflick.
Then I noticed that the eponymous woman was being played by Samantha Morton, and that neither she nor anyone else was saying much. I thought about the Morton performances I’d previously witnessed. Let's see...there was Sean Penn’s mute girlfriend in Sweet and Lowdown. And then the all but voiceless lead Pre-cog in Minority Report. In one sense the notion of a reprised mute Morton came as a relief, for everyone in this film speaks working class Glaswegian and, unlike the Glasgow-set films of Ken Loach, My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, this one carelessly neglected to provide subtitles (I think I got about 30% of the words). And a Morton zombie turn here would, of course, be fitting for a bereavement film. We've had a run of those lately.
The slow early pace of the film does express Morvern's grief. It seems clear that she loved her deceased mate, Jim. Morvern finally disposes of him, in an unconventional fashion, submits his newly finished draft first novel to a publisher (claiming that she is its author), and steps up her tempo of partying with best pal Lanna, possibly to fight depression. OK, so now we’ve got a 20something party flick. Good, at least that’s less depressing than heroin or grief. But even in the party scenes, there are times when Morvern seems to disconnect, the camera finding her alone, staring off, pensive.
Still searching for relief, Morvern pulls some dough out of Jim’s and her joint savings account (money that his final note designated for his funeral, had there been one) and suggests she treat Lanna to a jaunt in Spain. Off they go. Now we’ve got a road movie. There’s a lot of boogeying, on the dance floor and in bed, with vacationing guys. And a trip into the mountains, the taxi driven by a dazzling gypsy (the actor’s name is El Carrette, whose leering countenance reminded me of Ray Charles). Ultimately Morvern leaves a pouty Lanna behind in the Spanish backcountry, and after that M. seems more able to surmount her grief, a movement made easier when good news arrives from the publisher.
She and Lanna separately return home to old routines. But Morvern has changed; she feels restive. Now we sound a coming-of-age theme. Whereas Lanna is content to stay put in their small seaside hometown, because everyone she knows is there, Morvern wants her horizons to expand. Luckily for her, she’s got big bucks in her pocket, and no one has come calling to inquire about Jim’s disappearance. At the end she moves on into a larger world of possibilities.
This film, as you can see, resists easy pigeonholing: it refuses to stay put in any one genre. It is full of ambiguity and flux, and maybe that’s the point: the film is amorphous and lacking in a secure structure just as Morvern and many other young adults perhaps feel about themselves and their lives. Morton is quite convincing in showing movement of her character, gradually and believably emerging from her shell of humdrum living complicated by bereavement. Morvern is a curious character study. She’s got spunk and independence and is capable of experiencing love and loss. Yet she seems rootless and amoral, though perhaps no more so than many of her contemporary age mates. I think she also has more than a touch of larceny in her heart. What about Jim’s dear old mum back in Glasgow? She might have wanted to know what had happened to her Jimmie, innit. And couldn’t she have used a few extra quid from the book royalties to ease the hardship of her final years? Yeah, I know, Jim’s family ties are not established in the film, but, still, think about it. And whatever happened to the idea of honoring the deceased wishes for funeral and burial arrangements?
Angela, afilm friend who is vastly closer than I to Morvern’s gender and age, adds the perspective that Morvern had every right to be deeply angered by Jim’s suicide. What a Christmas present, after all! Angela sees a quiet anger in Morvern’s brooding. I think this slant does help illuminate some of Morvern's conduct. Anger could serve as a motive for Morvern to claim Jim’s novel as her own – he can take himself away from her but not the book, by damn - and helps account for her chosen method of disposing of his body. Grade: B+ (02/03)
THE MOTHER (Roger Michell, UK, 2004) THEME: BEREAVEMENT; CONFLICTED MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP. SPOILER ALERT! Unusual story of a woman’s bereavement. May’s (Anne Reid) husband of many years dies shortly after the film opens, having established the fact that she has for a lifetime devoted herself to caring for this man and raising her two children, Paula and Bobby. Once her husband passes, May, in her late 60s, seems lost, numb, aimless, unable to return to her suburban house. All of this seems predictable: normal aspects of the early shock of grief. She goes into the city (London) to stay with Paula, a single mom with unfulfilled pretensions of becoming a writer. Various themes unfold. Neither Paula nor Bobby, a busy fellow with a busy wife and two kids, really have time for Mom. They don’t know what to do with her. Again, no surprises here.
Gradually we learn more. In a creative writing class run by Paula, May for the first time puts to paper the dreadful experience she recalls of feeling her life ruined by the drudgery of homemaking. She even speaks of feeling suicidal on occasion in earlier years. We also learn that Paula is a deeply neurotic woman who blames her shortcomings on the lack she felt of May’s love and support. May is nothing if not matter of fact, unsentimental. It is easy to believe that she would have wanted Paula to stand on her own two feet, and that the dependent Paula would have reacted to this form of supportive love as no love at all. Matters take a more convoluted turn involving Paula’s married on-again, off-again lover, Darren (Daniel Craig), a house remodeler who’s also building a conservatory addition on Bobby’s house. Paula asks May to visit him on the job at Bobby’s, to discover his intentions and report back.
May does so and takes a liking to Darren, a man half her age, serving him lunches and snacks on the job. They seem to enjoy each other’s company, and end up making love, at May’s bidding. This continues, perhaps for weeks. At the same time Darren and Paula continue to meet, though it’s not going well. Paula, clueless about Darren’s involvement with her mother, tries to fix May up with an older man in the writing group. They have sex one evening and it is a horrid experience for May, quite opposite to the satisfaction she finds with Darren. Darren tells May he needs time out, if only he could get off the treadmill of work and bill paying for six months.
May offers to finance just such a sojourn: they will go away together. These precarious circumstances cannot stand, of course. Paula and Bobby discover in May’s sketchbook several drawings of sexual encounters that can refer to nobody other than Darren and May. In a fury, Paula confronts her mother and hits her. Also in a rage while high on cocaine, Darren makes it clear to May that he wants the money she is willing to use for their getaway, but has no intention of going anywhere with her. May is defeated, crushed, of course. In the final scenes, obviously superfluous now, standing on the outside observing the busy activities of everyone else – Bobby and his family, Darren, Paula - May retreats, goes home to her house. But she doesn’t stay. She packs a bag and, in the final scene, is walking away from the house, neither confident nor broken.
This film has received high marks from many critics and I’m not sure why. May obviously and justifiably yearns for fulfillment (sexual, artistic, companionate) in widowhood that she was unable to find earlier in life. And sexual acting out during bereavement is common. But May is also portrayed as a realistic and intelligent woman. She may desperately want something more in her last years, but she doesn’t seem to be emotionally fragile or lacking in self control, isn't hitting the bottle, and so on. It’s hard to see how she could exercise such poor judgment in getting mixed up with Darren. Or even in leaving her sketchbook around for the others to see. Darren, for his part, seems to be a decent, good hearted person early on (besides his kindly demeanor, we’re told that the reason he will not leave his wife is that he so much dotes on the couple’s 6 year old autistic son). For him to turn out to be so mean spirited and selfish, qualities perhaps evoked by his cocaine use but not caused by it, is surprising, unexpected. Perhaps that’s the most important thing to be said for this film: it is full of unexpected turns, whether realistic or not. Film critics understandably suffer from the boredom induced by seeing hundreds of films set to familiar formulas. It is not uncommon for a movie to get high marks just because it deviates from established patterns. I think that’s the case here. Grade: B (10/04)
MR. DEATH: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (Errol Morris, US, 2000). THEMES: UNUSUAL PERSONALITY DISORDER, WITH OBSESSIVE FEATURES; CAPITAL PUNISHMENT; ANTISEMITISM; MORAL DANGERS IN HOLDING RIGID CONVICTIONS. Morris keeps getting better as a filmmaker, and nothing he's done so far is more important than this extraordinary study of the human capacity to hold blindly to convictions, to cherished beliefs, in the face of all the available facts and logic. Here once again, as in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Morris discovers and interviews a person with a truly weird occupation. Fred Leuchter found a niche no one was filling: designing execution machines for state prisons that work reliably, safely, and, if you'll pardon the oxymoron, humanely, i.e., to reduce suffering of the executee during the execution procedure. The first half of the film chronicles the development of this unusual lifework. Leuchter grew up in the shadow of such a prison, in Massachusetts, where his father worked as a guard. As a child he once sat in the prison's electric chair and explored death row cells where, among others, Sacco and Vanzetti had been housed. He learned pickpocketing skills from inmates.
Leuchter is nothing if not impassioned - he shows in many ways a tendency to commit himself headlong to deep involvement in anything he tries, whether or not it is in his best interests. He drinks 40 cups of coffee a day and smokes 6 packs of cigarettes. He grew up believing in capital punishment. But from his contact with inmates, he formed the view that prisoners on death row were no different from other people, and deserved not to suffer while being executed. Hence his occupation, motivated it seems by a peculiar innocent humanity. But, as Leuchter himself is the first to admit, the fact that he became proficient in designing one form of machine (electric chairs) provided no guarantee that he could design machines operating on very different principles (lethal injection machines, gas chambers, lynching platforms). Yet he was recruited to design all of these by officials in several states, by default really, since there were no other experts to consult.
By the same logic, there is no reason to expect that this untrained and uncredentialed man, lacking licensure in engineering and having had no formal training in chemistry or chemical analysis, or forensic science, could act competently as an expert witness to determine scientifically whether people were gassed at Nazi concentration camps, simply because he had consulted on the design of a prison gas chamber or two. But that is exactly what he agreed to become, in a career turn that has been his undoing. This story makes up the second half of Morris's film. Ernst Zundel, a German national living in Canada and an outspoken Holocaust revisionist, was indicted under an intriguing Canadian law, an exception to free speech, which holds that it is a felony to publish material the goal of which is to cause harm to a racial or ethnic minority. In tracts denying the fact of the Holocaust, Zundel had violated this law, the government contended. And Zundel's defense lawyers sent for Leuchter, hoping he could somehow disprove that gas was used in the camps, that they were not death camps but rather slave labor camps, an assertion they thought might let Zundel off the hook.
Leuchter fairly jumped at the chance, ironically spending his honeymoon in 1989 surreptitiously analyzing the design of the gas chambers at Auschwitz and chipping away material from their crumbling walls, defacing the ruins while illegally collecting these specimen to have them later tested for cyanide. As shown later, he hadn't the slightest idea what he was doing. He didn't know the most rudimentary facts about cyanide, for example, that it only penetrates stone to a thickness of 10 microns, far more shallow than the diameter of a human hair, so that his deeply chipped, pulverized rock samples could not possibly test positive. Nor did he review any of the Nazi archival material that alludes to cyanide gas procured for the camps. His report offered in testimony at the Kundel trial was thoroughly discredited, and Kundel was found guilty. But this did not stop Leuchter from becoming a darling of the Holocaust revisionist lecture circuit worldwide, a status in which he basked. However, he became labeled as an antisemitic at home, and, one thing leading to another, he lost work in his execution machine trade, and subsequently lost his home, money and wife, in a sad downward spiral of events which apparently is not over yet.
How could anyone have had Leuchter's audacity to suppose that such an endeavor as his Auschwitz misadventure was necessary or justified? How could he brazenly and knowingly deface the ruins of the chambers at Auschwitz, a protected national monument? How could he decide, once and for all, while in Poland, that he was absolutely correct in assuming that people were never gassed there by the Nazis, a conviction that has never yielded to the facts (the historical record, chemical scientific expertise) presented at Kundel's trial and even in this film (which Leuchter has watched and said he enjoyed). Robert Jan van Pelt, a Holocaust historian, calls Leuchter "...an innocent. An innocent simpleton." It is easy to see him as a sort of sad and uninsightful, if monstrous, fellow all right. But Morris takes some pains not to so categorize him. Indeed, one of the strengths of this film is its nonjudgmental, balanced account that, if anything, gives Leuchter far more "air time" to exposit his perspective than his detractors are given. Of course Morris must know full well that his audiences will see the monstrous side of Leuchter without the need for props: Morris simply gives Leuchter enough rope to hang himself. Painlessly.
Apart from its content, it should be noted that this film shows much evidence of technical genius. It is one of the most artistically crafted documentaries I have ever seen. The opening and closing credit sequences are stunning: arcing electrical charges permeate a dark blue black scene as a man ascends through nearly open space in an elevator shaped like a giant birdcage. Early on we get to know Leuchter glimpsing part of his face surreally in a car's rear view mirror. Chamber music sets a sweetly haunting counterpoint to the macabre content of the film. The editing is superb, seamless, often surprising. When Leuchter goes to Poland in 1989, the shots from the cockpit of the plane he takes are from Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 footage from a plane carrying Hitler to Nuremberg (from her film Triumph of the Will). This inventiveness, this mixing of artifice with fact, is a method of seeking what Werner Herzog calls "ecstatic truth" - a transcendental truth about human nature that goes beyond the biographical facts of one man's life. (Herzog, incidentally, considers Morris one of the finest documentarians around, a “true source of joy.”)
It has been said that this film is about “stupidity'” and our “cult of expertise.” But I think the issues here cut broader and deeper than these. Morris's purpose, by telling us the story of Fred Leuchter, is to show us an important and very worrisome thing about all of us: this tendency to hold onto our convictions at all costs. Like every problematic facet of human nature, there is enormous potential for both good and evil in this tendency. We speak of a person having the "courage of their convictions" as a positive virtue and, under certain circumstances, even as an act of heroism. In this film, as is more commonly the case with regard to convictions about politics, religion or ethnic/racial matters, we are confronted with the dark side of our reluctance to be swayed by valid information and good sense. Grade: A+ (02/00)
MR. JONES (Mike Figgis, US, 1993). THEMES: BIPOLAR I (MANIC DEPRESSIVE) DISORDER; ETHICAL TRANSGRESSIONS IN PSYCHIATRIST-PATIENT RELATIONSHIPS. Richard Gere plays Mr. Jones, a man with bipolar disorder, and does it very well indeed. Especially good are his states of manic elation, when he is infectiously euphoric, gabby, hypersexual, intrusive, and unafraid of a fight. He lands in the hospital when manic, after causing a fracas at his workplace. Later he is admitted again when he is suicidally depressed. He is less convincing when depressed. He moves too quickly between a dejected, emotionally impoverished, slowed down mental state and sudden bursts of energetic behavior. But then mixed states in which manic and depressive symptoms are found side by side do occur in this disorder. Also noteworthy is Mr. Jones’s penchant for manipulation and dissemblance, qualities also found not uncommonly in persons with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, a rather tawdry romantic subtext - in which his psychiatrist, Dr. Libbie Bowen (Lena Olin), falls for Mr. Jones - is tacked on to this story. Dr. Bowen starts crossing the professional line almost at first meeting, when she shouts angrily at Jones, then drives him around town in a chummy manner. You can tell at a glance where this relationship is headed, and it’s more toward bed than couch. This unethical, cheesy relationship is out of tune with the intelligent take on bipolar disorder rendered by Mr. Gere, who researched the role by spending some time with psychiatric patients. Grades: Drama: B-; clinical depiction of bipolar disorder: A- (06/03)
MRS. DALLOWAY (Marleen Gorris, Netherlands/UK, 1997). THEMES: PTSD (POST-COMBAT PSYCHOTIC DEPRESSION); WOMEN’S ISSUES. Dear, dear. How disappointing this film is, viewed just after reading Woolf’s novel. The screenplay has erased nearly all the fine edge of Woolf’s incisive characterizations. The men are all less woeful, the women all less strong, and one of the weakest women – Lady Bradshaw - here is as overbearing and menacing as her husband was made out to be in the novel, while Sir William is a sort of pussycat. In this film, it is not Lady Bruton who is closeted with the Prime Minister during Clarissa’s party, but rather it is Richard Dalloway who gets the private audience, on Lady Bruton’s behalf.
The casting isn’t altogether bad. Michael Kitchen could have been quite good as the failed, hopelessly dependent Peter Walsh, but the lines he is given by screenwriter Atkins do not reveal the enormity of his spinelessness. Nor are Richard’s naivete and banal simplicity made clear. Rupert Graves is adequate as the hapless, psychotically depressed Septimus. No problems there. And Lena Headey is fine as the young Sally Seton. But Clarissa’s power and her complexity are missed entirely here, both in her younger and older personas. She’s made out to be a frivolous party animal. Nevertheless, both Natascha McElhone (the younger Clarissa) and Vanessa Redgrave (the older) do non-verbally convey the poise and demeanor of the novel’s Clarissa quite well. In the end, what we have here is “Mrs. Dalloway” lite; it’s a sort of beautifully filmed bore of a movie. In The Hours, we can provisionally accuse Stephen Daldry and David Hare, or their producers, of creeping male chauvinism when they substitute suffering for stamina in their female characters. But Mrs. Dalloway was made by women! What’s their excuse for misrepresenting Woolf’s vision of the strong women in her novel? Grade: B (06/03)
MRS. PALFREY AT THE CLAREMONT (Dan Ireland, UK, 2005, 108 m.). THEMES: GERIATICS: COPING WITH WIDOWHOOD & LONELINESS; SITCOM ON RESIDENTIAL LIVING. Dame Joan Plowright plays an elderly, recently widowed woman who attempts to cope with her grief and loneliness by moving into a residential hotel in west central London. She intends this as an extended fling, the outcome of which is uncertain to her, providing some sense of adventure, which is really what she’s after. How unlike the bleak retrenchment in monotonously familiar surroundings that so many people in her circumstances settle for, and thus how admirable an idea. To her dismay, the hotel is quite rundown and inhabited by other older persons each living in a rut all their own.
When Mrs. Palfrey’s own vacuous grandson fails to come visit, chance presents her with a proxy, a compliant young writer, played by newcomer Rupert Friend, who strikes a bargain with Mrs. Palfrey, agreeing to act the part of her grandson and thus satisfy the curiosity of the other residents, in return for which he asks to conduct interviews of her to help him write a book. Mr. Friend is a good sport about his role, but he is required to wear wretchedly nerdy attire and act too preciously sweet, which dooms his relationship with Mrs. Palfrey to a cloying caricature.
Ms. Plowright herself is splendidly dignified, deadpan when called for, and believable throughout. At age 75, when the film was made, she had been suffering from severe glaucoma for years, couldn’t read the script without a magnifying lens, and had limited shooting hours imposed by her physician. Nevertheless, she was an inspired performer from whom the director, Portlander Dan Ireland, learned a lot, he told us, in a Q & A that followed tonight’s screening.
Her presence as the lead also attracted several marvelous British character actors to work on the film. Among the other hotel residents are actor Robert Lang, 70, a favorite of Ms. Plowright’s late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, who plays a would be suitor (he died two weeks after the shoot); Anna Massey, 67, actor Raymond Massey’s daughter, as a controlling busybody; and Marcia Warren, recipient of several recent London theater awards, as a self-effacing, timid soul.
They’re all terrific, but even better is Timothy Bateson, at 78 the oldest actor on the set, who plays the hunkering, taciturn bellman. He’s had 141 roles spanning a 57 year film career, but I can’t imagine that he was ever better than he is here, stealing scenes with his huge repertoire of grunts and grimaces – I really can’t recall that he spoke a word of actual English. Dame Joan told Ireland that Bateson has always had this gift, not infrequently a cause of frustration for other actors who might have preferred an audience to watch them instead.
Ireland told us that the screenplay was the very first ever written by an 85 year old woman, Ruth Sacks. It’s based on a 1973 novel by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) who was dying of cancer at the time, no doubt contributing to a decidedly more cynical slant than the screenplay gives. The ensemble of aging actors, with Dame Joan at their center, is the reason to see this film. The story, a geriatric sitcom at one level, is also a telling commentary on the isolation of many elders, even when sharing the same residence and meals. Grade: B (03/06).
MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY (Nathaniel Kahn, US, 2003). THEMES: FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT AND RECONCILIATION; COMPLEX PERSONALITIES; CREATIVE GENIUS. The architect, Louis Kahn, was fond of saying that “…the world never needed Beethoven’s 5th Symphony until he created it; now we can’t live without it.” A simple statement, but one that helps immensely to understand Kahn’s vision, his deep belief in the transcendent significance and power of monumental artistic creations, massive works that are grounded in classical form and spirit. This film is a brilliantly realized documentary about Kahn and the people most touched by this forceful, mysterious man.
Kahn's son, Nathaniel, a man with a handful of modest screenwriting and acting credits until now, manages here in his filmmaking debut to create a monumental work of his own, weaving a rich tapestry of three threads: a study of the work of a creative genius, an intimate biography of a complex man, and the story of a son’s yearnings to discover a father he hardly knew, all of this done 25 years after Kahn’s precipitous death. There are interviews with several major architects who knew Kahn well, some of his associates, and members of his three separate and concurrent families. Nathaniel Kahn must be a delightful fellow to chat with, because the interview material he shares is incredibly full and candid, so revealing of Louis Kahn and of the individuals who speak about him.
The music – at one point boldly juxtaposing the choral movement from Beethoven’s 9 th Symphony alongside a ballad sung by Neil Young – and the photography are outstanding acts of artistry in themselves. The overall outcome is a deeply edifying, inspirational tribute to Kahn, one in which subjectivity accents - harmonizes with - the objective record. The film is rendered no less spiritually and aesthetically moving because it is as frank about Kahn’s shortcomings as it is laudatory about his vision and achievements. If you value the transcendental possibilities of artistic works, or are intrigued by the paradoxes of human nature, don’t miss this film. It swells the heart. Grade: A (02/04)
MY BEST FIEND (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1999). THEMES: SEVERE BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER; INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP. Herzog's chronicle of his incredible love-hate relationship with Klaus Kinski. It began when Herzog was 13, and Kinski, then a young actor, lived across the wall from Herzog's family (his siblings and single mother) in a run down Mⁿnich boarding house. Kinski's demonic paroxysms of violent rage are well documented here, as are his occasional capacity for tenderness and his remarkable acting talents. My diagnoses: Herzog: obsessed with the impossible (actors, filming locations) but otherwise normal; Kinski: severe borderline personality disorder, extremely unpredictable, narcissistic, even capable of brief periods of psychotic behavior, in a person with extraordinary acting talent. This is not the best crafted of documentaries, but I give it my highest grade because it will add a fundamental chapter to the permanent archive of late 20th century cinema history. The films these men made together are stupendous in their ambition and realization (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo). At heart they are utterly Germanic: they epitomize the dark, complex, demonic, obsessively driven national character that we came to know so well in the century just ended. It is far better that these demons are turned to film than to politics. (In German with English dubbing by Herzog, who narrates.) Grade: A+ (02/00)
MY FAVORITE SEASON (Andre Techine, France, 1997) THEME: SIBLING INCEST. Absorbing study of a neurotic family in which an intense childhood attachment between a brother (Daniel Auteuil) and sister (Catherine Deneuve) is animated with renewed force when their powerful mother (Marthe Villalonga) becomes ill. (In French) Grade: B+ (06/99)
MY NAME IS JOE (Ken Loach, UK, 1998). THEME: RECOVERING ALCOHOLIC. Peter Mullan won a best actor award at Cannes for this rough and entirely realistic portrayal of an unemployed recovering alcoholic man struggling to succeed in a down-and-out Glasgow neighborhood. The temptations of a well intentioned caseworker who crosses the line into romance with Joe, leading to disastrous consequences, provides an equally real cautionary tale for folks in helping services. A fine film, aided by the thoughtful English subtitles, a necessity since everyone here talks in working class Glaswegian. For more about it, see my article titled "Good to the Last Drop." Grade: A- (02/99)
MY NAME IS WALTER CROSS (David Laing Dawson, Canada, 2001, 51 m.). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA: DAILY EXPERIENCE OF LIFE IN THE COMMUNITY. Canadian psychiatrist Dawson wove together elements from the experiences of several of his schizophrenic patients to create this monologue about the experience of schizophrenia in the daily life of one man, played by the actor Marcel Aymar. It is quite authentic and austere, emphasizing the aimless drudgery of life for so many patients, without productive activities, numbed by medications, socially isolated, sometimes agitated by voices in public, leading to encounters with police.
Walter’s drab existence in a single room occupancy hardly seems to be an improvement over life in a typical mental hospital. This, unfortunately, represents the fate of so many mentally ill individuals consigned to a marginal life in the larger community, a far cry from the once promised opportunity for true re-engagement in society, a dream only realized for a fortunate few in the occasional, exceptional social reintegration programs, effective programs that tend to cost money taxpayers are usually unwilling to support. Grade: B (06/06)
MY NIKIFOR (Mój Nikifor) (Krzysztof Krauze, Poland, 2004, 97 min.). THEME: PROBABLE ASPERGER'S SYNDROME IN A COMPULSIVE ARTIST. Biopic about Poland’s best known “outsider” (“folk,” “native,” or “self taught”) artist, Nikifor Krynicki (1893 or 95 -1968). The actress Krystyna Feldman performs a stunning cross-gender turn portraying this eccentric fellow, who is said to have created over 40,000 primitive drawings and paintings in his lifetime, with an eclectic subject matter that included everything from religious icons to urban landscapes, crowds of people, and the occasional nude woman. The film portrays him as a proud, defiant, stubbornly intractable man who supported himself both as a beggar and by selling his little works of art, most small in scale.
Nikifor suffered from a very serious case of tuberculosis during the last eight years of his life (the period covered by this film) or more, but this did not prevent him from drawing and painting nearly non-stop, enjoying pop music on the radio, and maintaining an appreciative eye for attractive young women. As interpreted by Ms. Feldman and the filmmakers, Nikifor was sort of a loner but not one to shy away from engagement with others, albeit on his own quirky terms, unlike some more hermetic outsider artists, like Chicago’s Henry Darger, whose life and work were featured in the 2004 film, In the Realms of the Unreal.
The film focuses on the relationship between Nikifor and a younger artist trained in the academy, Marian Wlosinski (Roman Gancarczyk), whose own career was lackluster. Nikifor more or less attached himself to Marian, albeit in his own difficult manner, and he was quick to advise Marian – repeatedly - that he didn’t know how to paint. Marian – at first reluctantly, later quite selflessly – took care of the old man and was responsible, no doubt, for prolonging his life by several years and bringing his work to wide critical and public attention.
The film moves ever so slowly; even camera pans creep at a snail’s pace. Continuity could have been managed more tidily. Things jump forward at times in a confusing fashion. The production could probably have been filmed and edited to run for an hour. We really don’t get to see Nikifor’s work to any advantage until the very end of the film, when panels of dozens of his little paintings are scanned by a tracking camera. While this provides a nice culmination to the movie, it was a mistake not to also punctuate the film now and then with shots of Nikifor’s work. (In Polish) Grade: low B (01/06)
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (Gus Van Sant, US, 1991, 102 min.). THEMES: NARCOLEPSY; MALE HUSTLING. Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves) are young sex hustlers drifting aimlessly though life in the third film of Gus Van Sant’s “Portland Trilogy” (following Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy), about people who live at society’s margins. Like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and his lowlife buddy Falstaff, Scott comes from a privileged life and is in line to inherit a family fortune when he turns 21, while his sidekick Mike’s pedigree is strictly Idaho trailer trash. Set principally in downtown Portland, the story also takes us to Seattle, Italy (on a futile quest to find Mike’s mother), and, often, to the rolling, grain filled hills of rural Idaho. A few intriguing supporting players, especially William Richert as Bob Pigeon, the older, seamy ringleader of a band of young street people, and one local celebrity (TV-appliance pitchman Tom Peterson) help round out the cast in this bleak film about the workings of selfishness and luck on human destiny.
Mike is said to suffer from narcolepsy. Indeed we often see him slump into apparent daytime sleep attacks. And many of the scenes of the Idaho hills are perhaps vivid hallucinations of the sort seen commonly in this disorder (there are surreal touches like rapidly moving clouds filmed by time lapse, and an old barn that magically is elevated skyward before crashing to earth). But Mike also twitches around a fair amount when sleep, suggesting seizure activity that is not at all a part of true narcolepsy. (In some cases of complex partial seizures, also called temporal lobe epilepsy, brief lapses of consciousness resembling the transient sleep attacks of narcolepsy may be accompanied by motor seizure activity.)
This film is no match for either Drugstore Cowboy or Midnight Cowboy, the 1969 classic about male sex hustlers in New York City, though Idaho has its moments. Even though the screenplay is weak and aimless, the photography and scene making are on the whole splendid. An especially clever montage takes place in an adult bookshop, along a wall of male sex magazines. Reeves, Phoenix and other men first appear in stills as cover models on these magazines, then come to life in an eight-way conversation. It’s brilliant.
Sadly, just two years after this film’s release, River Phoenix, who has the look and manner, if not the acting chops, of a James Dean, died at age 23, of drug induced heart failure, outside Johnny Depp’s LA nightclub, The Viper Room. Grade: B- (03/05)
MY SON THE FANATIC (Udayan Prasad, UK, 1999). THEME: STRESSES OF IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE. This is a sad, tender story of Parvez (the marvelous Om Puri), an East Indian taxi driver living in the north of England, and his travails with his disaffected wife and college student son, who rejects the father's assimilation into Anglo culture and becomes a radical Muslim. Parvez finds solace in jazz, whiskey and a prostitute (Rachel Griffiths) who loves him. Grade: B (02/99)
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Gregg Araki, US, 2005, 99 min.). THEMES: PEDOPHILIA; DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA; MALE PROSTITUTION. Like it or not, Greg Araki’s raw film about the far reaches of childhood trauma seizes your attention and will not let you go. The arresting nature of this film begins with the opening credits, behind which we see odd little particles falling against a white background. What the devil are these things? The main thrust of this intense story is about how the teenage destinies of two boys are shaped by traumatic events that befall them during the summer when they were 8, members of the same Little League baseball team. Neil (played by Chase Ellison as a child, and later, as a teen, by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is the confident star of his team, the coach’s pride and joy. Fatherless and already vaguely aware of his homophilic impulses, Neil is vulnerable to the coach’s sexual overtures, which lead to regular episodes of sexual involvement over the summer. Neil moves from that experience to male prostitution as a teen in his Kansas hometown, then on to more of the same in New York City.
The other boy, Brian (played by George Webster as a child, and by Brady Corbet as a teen), is a fearful, unskilled, nerdy kid forced to join the team by his harsh father. One night, after a game, he somehow has a five hour lapse, a period for which he has no memory. Afterwards he is prone to bloody noses and fainting spells. His subsequent shy, cloistered life during his teen years is dominated by his wish to know what occurred during this lapse, a desperate curiosity fueled by recurrent, distressing nightmares of being touched and probed by a mysterious being. Brian gets the notion that he was abducted by aliens arriving in a UFO. Eventually he makes contact with Neil, whom he hadn’t seen for 10 years, hoping Neil can help solve the mystery. The film ends at one of its most tender moments, as these two young men talk and console one another.
Last year’s psychologically profound film about pedophilia, The Woodsman, focused on the perpetrator. This equally thoughtful film focuses on the children (the coach leaves town and the film after that one summer when the boys were 8). The story, adapted by Araki from Scott Heim’s novel, rings true. It doesn’t dumb down the psychological issues. Trauma in childhood certainly shapes subsequent personality development. But conversely, the way in which trauma affects development depends on the preexisting temperament of the individual. Neil was inclined toward homosexuality and also was a resilient kid by age 8, a proud kid unwilling to be a victim. And so he remained.
It’s harder to tell whether Brian would have turned out differently if spared his own traumatic experience, but my guess is that he too might have remained more-or-less the same, a retiring, sexually reticent young man. We also see in this film that the parents are either missing or preoccupied with work or their love lives, thus adding an additional risk factor for problems, as was also demonstrated in another good recent film about pedophilia, L.I.E.
There are wonderfully acted turns by nearly everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt and Corbet, Elizabeth Shue as Neil’s self absorbed mother, Michelle Trachtenberg as his soulmate Wendy, Jeffrey Licon as a gay kid who’s friends with Neil and, later, Brian, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, as the woman who feeds into Brian’s alien abduction theory. Moments of shattering brutality and, more often, unexpected tenderness punctuate this film. In fact, it is the juxtaposition of compassion with the wretchedness infusing people’s lives that gives this film lasting emotional impact.
(For the record, in an NPR interview on July 9, Mr. Araki made it clear that steps were taken to assure that the child actors were not aware of the story line; their scenes were shot separately from the rest of the film.) Grade: B+ (07/05)
MYSTIC RIVER (Clint Eastwood, US, 2003). THEME: EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL TRAUMA ON ADULT DEVELOPMENT; PTSD; PEDOPHILIA. In the opening scenes of Clint Eastwood’s new film, three boys – Sean, Jimmy and Dave - are playing street hockey in a Boston neighborhood. They pause to etch their names in a fresh slab of sidewalk concrete. The most reluctant and thus the last to sign, Dave just manages to write “DA…” when a car stops, and a man claiming to be a police officer admonishes the kids. Dave, also the most easily intimidated of the three, is then taken away by the “cop” and his partner, and later sexually abused by these two men for days before escaping. This introduction sets the stage for a long and unhappy film, a dark story about the indelible nature of violence, its casualties, and revenge. The rest of the drama - aside from the adult Dave’s occasional flashbacks to his childhood ordeal - takes place years later, when all three boys are now close to 40.
Sean (Kevin Bacon) grew up to be a state police crime detective. Jimmy (Sean Penn) served prison time for robbery as a young man but apparently then went straight when his first wife died and their daughter, Katie, needed a stable parent. He remarried, to Annabeth (Laura Linney), and runs a neighborhood grocery. Dave (Tim Robbins) married Annabeth’s cousin, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden); he works only intermittently at odd jobs but is devoted to the couple’s one child, a son. The three men are no longer close, though Jimmy and Dave live just a few doors from each other. Things turn very bad one night when Katie, now 19, is murdered. That same night Dave comes home late with bloody knuckles and a story of having been assailed by a mugger. Sean is assigned to the murder case, with his partner, Sgt. Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne).
The remainder of the film works at one level as a straightforward crime investigation whodunit. That aspect of the plot is less interesting than the boiling cauldron of Jimmy’s rage and its gradual channeling into a heedless drive for retaliation against whoever murdered his daughter. Even more interesting is Dave’s sad odyssey from horridly abused child to insecure adult, a man whose one success is his loving relationship with his son. But now, in the most puzzling way, the circumstances of Dave’s long ago violent experience seem to press upon him with fresh agony. He develops increasing flashbacks and speaks strangely to Celeste about having a “vampire” within himself that he cannot contain. He is speaking, of course, about inner demons, of the shame and rage and fear and devastation that have lived within him since childhood.
But why should all of this be roiling up now? Well, it's true that his son has reached about the same age as Dave when he was abducted. Possibly Katie’s murder has also stirred him up. What did happen that involved Dave on the night Katie was killed? Celeste wonders if Dave killed Katie. He does admit drinking at the same bar Katie visited that night. But what sense does that make? Near the end we learn details about that evening – details about Dave and others – that answer these questions and make far better sense of the exacerbation of Dave’s PTSD symptoms.
Penn does well here in evoking Jimmy’s violent nature. Dave’s story is a clinically credible illustration of PTSD following childhood traumatization, and Tim Robbins’ performance is extraordinarily good as a man long since broken who struggles to do the best he can. Marcia Gay Harden is also convincing as a woman whose doubts about her husband are understandable precisely because they reflect his sense of culpability and self doubt. This situation reminds me of Elaine Friedman’s doubts about her husband Arnold’s innocence, and the tragic consequences of her advice to him to plead guilty, in the recent documentary film, Capturing the Friedmans.
For Jimmy and Dave, perhaps for most of the men, there is a turgid air of fatalism afoot in this film, of men playing out accustomed, deeply ingrained roles with the force of inevitability. Critic Stanley Kauffmann, noting how many others have described this story as a tragedy, says that these characters lack hubris, some other character flaw, or some burst of enlightenment , the classic building blocks of tragic drama. And so, he says, the inevitable path of Mystic River is toward pathos, not tragedy. I disagree.
If not as hubris, how else can one view Jimmy’s hair trigger willingness to pass judgment and take violent action guided only by misinformation. Sounds like some folks we know who hang out in Washington, D.C. these days. And the indelible psychic scars carried by Dave since his childhood catastrophe most surely constitute a character flaw big enough to drive a truck through. At the end we get a glimpse of Annabeth’s sexual attraction to Jimmy’s violent powers and can only wonder how long and how deeply her twisted sensuality has been at work on Jimmy. She’s a regular Lady Macbeth. And Celeste loses faith in her husband Dave when she shouldn’t, a failure of faith that sets tragic circumstances in motion. How many flaws does it take… Grade: B+ (12/03)
THE NANNY (La Balia) (Marco Bellocchio, Italy, 1999). THEMES: MOTHER INFANT INTIMACY; NONAMOROUS RELATIONSHIP. In Rome, in the early 1900s, Dr. Mori is a kindly psychiatrist who tries to aid his disturbed patients on an all female ward, using observation, gentle respect, and engagement with them in everyday pastimes. His wife Vittoria is a neurotic woman whose fear of closeness is brought into bold relief when their first child, a son, is born, and she is unable to properly hold, love or breastfeed the baby. A wet nurse is needed, and Dr. Mori travels into the countryside to find a peasant woman for the task. He meets Annetta, whom he (and we) had briefly seen at the start of the film from the train that was carrying Dr. Mori home after a house call in another town. Annetta agrees to leave her own young son to take the job. She is obviously comfortable with the Moris' infant, so much so that Vittoria feels sufficiently threatened and stricken with her own ineptitude that she leaves, setting up housekeeping separately at the Moris' country house.
Dr. Mori, who is loving toward his infant son, also touchingly and perhaps inevitably draws closer to Annetta. He reads to the illiterate woman a letter from her husband, who is an imprisoned teacher and revolutionary, and Dr. Mori himself is moved by the eloquence of the other man's words to Annetta. She asks Dr. Mori to teach her to read and write, and he does so, awkwardly but tenderly. There is never a hint of sexual or romantic movement. It would be out of character for the times for an aristocratic gentleman to fall for a peasant woman, however bright, capable and loving as she might be, and it is not in him to attempt to take advantage of her sexually. Likewise, Bellocchio does not try to take advantage of the viewer by exploiting sex.
In fact this film, while it affords opportunities for both sex and violence, never indulges in either, an extraordinarily refreshing and noncommercial achievement. Nor are any such panderings necessary - this film sustains an astonishing level of dramatic interest without beddings or battles. At the end Dr. Mori prepares a letter for Annetta to send to her husband. It is based on his sense of her as a person more than on her explicit words. It is a poetic statement of her desire to be free to go her own way. He could as easily have been writing these words from his own heart to his wife, Vittoria. There is one somewhat inarticulate subplot: a romance between a younger doctor, himself a budding revolutionary, and a woman who briefly is admitted to the hospital, but this stray little story does not get in the way. Focusing on the attachment of mother and infant as the central mystery of intimacy, this film surely offers one of the finest explorations of this bond ever rendered for the screen.
The Nanny is a remarkably complete film that plays in a manner as steady, unsentimental and unmanipulative as a good novel. Visually it is a rich, lush feast for the eye. The acting of the three principals is subtle, nuanced and true to the characters. The story is a beautiful meditation on intimacy and its vicissitudes, based on a novella by Luigi Pirandello, the early 20th century Sicilian psychological story writer who later turned playwright. Pirandello's work is familiar territory for Bellocchio, who wrote the screenplay and directed here, for in the mid-80s he made a film of Pirandello's play about personal identity and sanity, Henry IV , starring Marcello Mastroianni. Although that film was all right, this one is better by far.
Add: One wonders what the market might be for a film of this sort. It was roundly panned at Cannes/99, and this is hardly surprising, given an event that reserves its highest honors for films about matters such as underclass rage (Rosetta), suicide (Taste of Cherry), war (Underground), and gratuitous violence (Pulp Fiction), to name four Palme d'Or winners in the last six years. And how often do period films garner top awards, without central themes like conventional romantic comedy (Shakespeare in Love) or lacerating conflict (Character), to name two recent Oscar winners. It's not that worthy films are not or should not be made around any of these themes. I'm only saying that the "homely" positive virtues of human nature are not highly esteemed subjects for film today. This unfashionable film may be doomed to very narrow distribution indeed. And that is terribly unfortunate, for without ever being dry or dull The Nanny is an uncommon triumph of enduring human and aesthetic values over pop zeitgeists and commercialism.) (In Italian) Grade: A+ (02/00)
NEIGHBOURS: FREUD AND HITLER IN VIENNA (Manfred Becker, Canada, 2003, 60 min.) THEME: HISTORY OF FREUD AND PSYCHOANALYSIS. For about 6 years, from 1901 to 1907, Sigmund Freud and Adolf Hitler lived about two blocks apart in Vienna, though there is no record to suggest they ever met. Nor would it have been likely, since Freud was a middle aged physician living in not uncomfortable circumstances, while Hitler was an impoverished youth living in a rooming house, struggling to make a living as an artist and a life for himself, having escaped the abusive household where he grew up. In this made-for-cable-TV production, Canadian documentarist Becker nevertheless uses their physical proximity in those years as a premise to suggest another kind of connection between the two men: a link insofar as both were keenly interested in the human unconscious.
Freud, of course, refined and popularized the concept of unconscious emotional forces as the engine of human motivation. Freud advocated emancipation from such irrational, hidden passions through rational understanding by way of psychoanalysis (making the unconscious conscious). Hitler, on the other hand, was masterful in speaking to the unconscious strivings and frustrations of the German people, mobilizing their primitive emotions to forge a mass movement based on narcissistic and vengeful sentiments.
There is no evidence that Hitler ever read Freud, though Freud’s books were burned with special relish by the Nazis. We also learn in this film that Nazi plans to round up Jews in Britain following a successful invasion (that never occurred, of course) had Freud’s name at the top of the list. Freud, on the other hand, was influenced by Hitler’s machinations, as he had been by the destructiveness of World War I. Freud’s pessimism about human nature and his notions of a death instinct, following the first world war, were explored in his book, “Civilization and Its Discontents," published in 1930, a work that in a sense prefigured the Nazi destruction of Europe yet to come. His pessimism was undoubtedly deepened by reading “Mein Kampf” and witnessing events in Germany and Austria through the next decade.
Mr. Becker, who was present at this screening, at the 2nd "Frames of Mind" mental health film festival in Vancouver, BC, was born in post-war Germany and looks to be about 40. He says he was moved to do this film to help him comprehend how his parents’ generation could have produced the Nazi regime. I don’t think his film yields any real answers to this question, although I can well imagine that the experience of making the film may have been emotionally fulfilling – a healing experience, if you will - for Becker. And he is surely correct when he asserts during the discussion that we seem to have a continuing need for reminders of the evil of the Nazis, because such evil keeps reoccurring in places like Rwanda and Darfur.
We hear that while in Vienna, Hitler admired Jewish artists and sold his paintings to a Jewish art dealer, and that his application to enter the Vienna academy for art training was rejected. Makes you wonder all over again how the world might have turned if Hitler had just become a middling painter.
This film’s main strengths are segments of well edited archival footage of Freud in various settings and interviews with Paul Roazen, probably the world’s leading historian of psychoanalysis, and Freud’s granddaughter, Sophie Freud, who tells us that in her recollection, Freud was not warm toward her as a child, but quite formal - “ritualistic” is the term she uses to describe their encounters. She also offers the most trenchant line in the film when she says that, "In my eyes, both Adolf Hitler and my grandfather were false prophets of the 20th century." Grade: B- (05/05)
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Charles Laughton, US, 1955). THEME:PERSONALITY DISORDER: CRIMINAL PSYCHOPATH. Unusual, strong film that works with equal effectiveness as a psychodrama and allegorical morality tale, a classic encounter between good and evil. Evil is personified by "the Reverend" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a psychopathic, predatory, impotent, knife wielding serial killer of women and fake preacher. Good comes in the form of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), an older woman whose aging sweet little girl looks belie grit, courage and a keen determination to protect her charges: she collects unwanted children and raises them.
Powell, sharing a prison cell with Ben Harper (a youthful Peter Graves), a murderer condemned to be executed, learns that Harper left $10K from a bank robbery behind. Pretending to be the former prison chaplain, Powell seeks out the widow, Willa (Shelley Winters, one of filmdom's most reliable female victims), marries her, kills her, and terrorizes her children, who, he is convinced, know where the money is stashed. The children run away but are pursued by Powell in a long, magical chase that seems, as Roger Ebert suggests, more dreamlike than realistic, leading eventually to a showdown with Mrs. Cooper, who has taken the children in.
There surely is some corn in this film, surrounding Mrs. Cooper and the forces of nature that seem to protect the fleeing children. But on the whole this is powerful stuff. Pauline Kael called it "one of the most frightening movies ever made" and Ebert agrees. What makes it so is Mitchum's barely suppressed, almost psychotic homicidal fervor toward women and chilling callousness toward children, the surreal sets, and the astonishing, deeply foreboding black & white photography by Stanley Cortez (Ebert quotes Cortez as once remarking that he was "always chosen to shoot weird things."). This was Laughton's only film directing venture but, according to a recent review by Ebert, a highly inventive one. Laughton made huge changes in James Agee's original screenplay, most for the better, according to his widow, Elsa Lanchester. Mitchum himself worked effectively with the child actors, whom Laughton lost patience with. Grade: A- (10/01)
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (John Huston, US, 1964). THEME: ALCOHOLIC’S RELATIONSHIP WITH CODEPENDENT CARETAKER. The film that, for better or worse, put Puerto Vallarta on the world tourism map. 35 years downstream, it is Deborah Kerr's dignified, humane voice that still impresses in Tennessee Williams’s overheated, baroque morality play, in which Richard Burton and Ava Gardner are the fallen angels. Film provides a good illustration of an alcoholic man (Burton) who is looked after by a codependent caretaker (Kerr). Grade: drama: C+ ; depiction of alcoholic-caretaker relationship: A- (03/99)
NINE GOOD TEETH (Alex Halpern, US, 2003). THEMES: AGING: REMINISCENCE; SELF CONCEPT. Bet you didn't know your insurance agent was filing reports with the home office about your emotional reaction after trying to sell you a bells and whistles whole life policy when all you wanted was term. How else to explain how the data was collected for a large actuarial study by a major life insurance company that I read about a few years ago, a report claiming that people with a feisty, peppery temperament tend to live longer. My mother was like that: she could be Hell on wheels. But her strong will and fierce temper were the shadow side of a forceful nature that had very positive attributes as well: zestful vitality and capacity for joie de vivre. She lived a vigorous life until shortly before her death, just 2 months shy of her 99th birthday. Mary Mirabito Livornese Cavaliere, whose life and times are the subject of this film, is that same sort of woman. I thought of Mom often while watching this chronicle of the woman also known as Nana, the film director's grandmother, a tough, zestful woman, animated, gregarious, full of life. The film was shot over a period of four years, from the time Mrs. Cavaliere was 96 to her 100th birthday party, and a bit beyond. She is interviewed at length here, as is her daughter - Halpern's mother - and a few other close relatives.
Although the title suggests that this might be a study of old age, the focus is not so much on the present, more on family roots and events across Mary's rich life; it's part biopic, part memoir. We do hear a few of Mary's current perspectives, often similar to those held by many other older adults. She tells us she's not afraid of death, only of suffering. She hopes she will die fast, not protractedly as did one of her sisters following a bad stroke. Interestingly, though a lifelong observant Roman Catholic, she does not believe in an afterlife. When we die, she says, "We go nowheres. We become dust. That's it." Mary, like most elders, feels much younger than her years and still retains a sense of herself as a sensuous person. She says, "Alone at night, sometimes I just wish there were someone here to touch me. I think I could have an orgasm." And, "Inside of me I feel very young. I mean sexually."
Mary's parents immigrated from the volcanic island of Stromboli, just off the southwest coast of Sicily, the same Stromboli where Roberto Rossellini once made a film by that name starring Ingrid Bergman, and the love affair between them became the talk of the world around 1950. Her father was a tough, respected dock foreman in New York City, paying off the Mafia so his stevedores could work, though at prices he often set. He found jobs and housing for others from the old country and had a fine reputation back home for his efforts. Mary, second in a sibship of 12 girls and a boy, was born and raised in Brooklyn. The film gives sketches of her parents, some of her sibs, her two husbands, her daughter, Maria Livornese Halpern, and deceased son, Tom Livornese, who was an intimate of Jack Kerouac's in the late 1940s. Also, Maria and Kerouac were "an item" for awhile back then. (The Livorneses are mentioned in Kerouac's book, "The Town and The City.")
We see into family secrets, old affairs and jealousies. Mary's father once shot another man who was trying to seduce her mother, and that man's relatives cut the father's face with a knife in retaliation, marking him with an ugly scar for life. We also discover family "scripts" - interactional patterns that are learned and passed on to the next generation. Mary is convinced that daughters always feel closer to their fathers, sons to their mothers. So it was for her. So she expected it to be for her children, and so on. Mary tells us that she was never a feminist, but she makes it clear that she often disagreed with her husband on a variety of matters, found it difficult to capitulate to his ways, and felt liberated, free at last to be herself, on an extended trip to Europe and Stromboli, after her first husband's death. "Finally I'm Mary Mirabito!" she says about her sense of freedom to make her own decisions at that time.
Technically the film often seems too busy - too many cuts, too many sounds (at one point, for example, loud music competes with Mary's voice and some rooster crowing is thrown in for good measure). Old home movie footage and stills are used to good effect, but Halpern also weaves in archival footage to illustrate things like New York city sights early in the century and World War II scenes that help define the times. The result can sometimes feel too cluttered. Halpern makes an awkward interviewer; he can be pushy and is often not well spoken. But Mary Cavaliere is such an engaging woman, she has such charisma, that one never tires of seeing and listening to her. And her daughter, Halpern's mother, also has good screen presence. Thanks to both these women, the film sustains, and is worthy of, our interest. Near the end Mary sings "You Are My Sunshine." My mother loved to sing that too. I can hear her now. Grade: B (02/03)
NO DIRECTION HOME - BOB DYLAN (Martin Scorsese, US, 2005, 321 m.). THEME: CONTRIBUTION OF DEVELOPMENTAL STAGE (PHASE-OF-LIFE) TO ARTISTIC SUCCESS AND CELEBRITY. Martin Scorsese’s 3 1/2 hour long documentary focuses on the most creatively fertile phase of Dylan’s long career, from 1961 to 1966, between his 20th and 25th years. The film is perhaps as noteworthy for what it leaves out as for what Scorsese has chosen to include about Dylan’s life and times during a period that established him as an indelible iconic figure in the archives of American popular music.
His status can be understood as deriving from both the particularities of his songs – the stunning, raw poetry of his lyrics; the unique, odd and unmelodic vocal delivery in his bardic performances – and the fact that, as Allen Ginsberg describes it in the film, Dylan seemed almost to be a conduit through which the libertarian yearnings and frustrations of the times – Dylan’s and Ginsberg’s generations - poured forth with a fresh and urgent voice. This new film affords an opportunity to reconsider the early Dylan, and to reflect upon the contributions of his particular developmental stage or phase-of-life to his appeal and success. These issues are taken up in depth in my article, "How Many Roads Must a Kid Walk Down..." Grade: B+ (9/05)
NO PLACE TO GO (Oskar Roehler, Germany, 2001). THEME: DEPRESSION; SUICIDE. An East German writer, Hanna was famous for her idealistic pro-Communist novels. In fact she lived as a hypocrite, doted on as a celebrity, buying her clothes at Dior, while trashing materialism. But when the Berlin Wall comes down, Hanna is discredited and lost. She desperately turns everywhere, but finds she literally has no place to go. Unusually fine film portrayal of clinical depression. (In German) Grade: B (02/01)
NOBODY KNOWS (Dare mo shiranai) (Kore-Eda, Hirokazu, Japan, 2004, 141 min.). THEME: RESOURCEFULNESS OF CHILDREN IN COPING WITH ABANDONMENT. Fortunately for us, Mr. Kore-Eda is in the habit of making enchanting, meditative films ( Maborosi, After Life) about the nature of existence and the importance of the way we act in the world. In this story, inspired by an actual situation that took place in Tokyo, he focuses on the conduct of a family of four abandoned children, ages 5 to 12, showing their remarkable capacity not only to survive, but to comfort, care for and even school themselves within the confines of an urban apartment for many months. A remarkable though very long, slowly paced film. I don’t have time to write more on this outstanding film, but I will at some point. (In Japanese) Grade: B+ (02/05)
NOBODY'S CHILD (Lee Grant, US, 1986, 94 min.). THEMES: GOOD PSYCHIATRIST PORTRAYAL; PUBLIC MENTAL HOSPITALS IN 1960s; PANIC DISORDER WITH AGORAPHOBIA, PSYCHOGENIC ORIGIN; PTSD AFTER CHILDHOOD TRAUMA; HYSTERICAL PSYCHOSIS; MISDIAGNOSIS OF SCHIZOPHRENIA; “INSTITUTIONALISM;” RECOVERY FROM MENTAL ILLESS. This made-for-TV film stars Marlo Thomas in a superb dramatization of the real life story of Marie Balter, who rose from the status of chronically institutionalized mental patient to become a noteworthy champion of the mentally ill and founder of the Balter Institute in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a well regarded psychiatric rehabilitation center north of Boston, near Danvers, site of the Danvers State Hospital where Ms. Balter was incarcerated for many years during the first few decades of her life, until a fresh infusion of compassionate care resulted in her return to the community for good in her mid-30s.
The film is extraordinary for the wide and diverse range of mental health/illness issues it explores, always with realism and sensitivity. Miss Thomas gives a stupendous performance as the woman who was written off for years as an incurable schizophrenic, a serious misdiagnosis as it turned out, an all too typical fate for many persons warehoused in state institutions of the era without the benefit of proper diagnostic or therapeutic interventions. We even see her slow recovery of gait and other motor functions after years of sitting neglected on ward sofas, developing contractures simply from not using her body.
Caroline Kava lends a fine supporting hand as Dr. Blackwell, the psychiatrist who would not be put off by her superiors from her efforts to comfort and rehabilitate Miss Balter. Ray Baker also makes a decent contribution as Joe Balter, the Danvers inpatient who fell in love with and eventually married Marie. Grades: Dramatic quality: B+; Psychiatric content and themes: A (12/05)
NOI ALBINOI (Noi the Albino) (Dagur Kari, Iceland, 2003). THEME: AN EXCEPTIONALLY BRIGHT TEENAGER CAN'T FIND A NICHE IN HIS SMALL VILLAGE. Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a high school student in a tiny, severely isolated coastal village in the fjord region of northern Iceland. Noi suffers the misfortune of being brilliant in an environment that can offer him no opportunity to apply his talents constructively. He’s too bored with school to even attend. He loves and appreciates his grandmother, with whom he lives, and tries in vain to connect with his alcoholic father (his mother is absent and not spoken of). He regularly whips the local book dealer at some board game they play and is quite taken with the dealer's daughter, Iris, who has come home from the city to cool her jets for awhile. Apart from a little loving with Iris, though, Noi mainly idles away his time in a basement cell he’s created for himself, far from the madding crowd. This nest proves in time to be his salvation. Or is it his curse?
Lemarquis projects an intriguing screen presence: he’s a skinny, angular, square jawed young man who is bald, or at least done up without hair for this film. He's supposed to be 17 here, and pulls it off well enough, though he could be 30. He is self-contained and austere, but we can see that he is capable of affection and outrage, that his sullenness is more the product of ennui than a character flaw. Lemarquis is being featured just this week at the Berlin Film Festival in the European Films Promotion showcase of new acting talent called “Shooting Stars-2004.” Lemarquis’s father, Gerard, a French professor at the University of Iceland, does a cameo turn here as the French teacher instructing Noi’s class on how to prepare mayonnaise This film is a useful meditation on the problem posed by talented adolescents whose gifts are not properly recognized, cultivated or tethered. (In Icelandic) Grade: 3.5 B (overall quality of film); A- (portrayal of Noi) (02/04)
Add: The difficulty of an eccentric person fitting in and finding acceptance and understanding in a small village is also probed in another recent film from Iceland, Stormy Weather.
NOT ONE LESS (Zhang Yimou, China, 2000). THEME: FORCEFUL, DETERMINED PERSONALITY. Zhang uses ordinary people to play roles like they have in real life to tell a story of a teenage girl who becomes a substitute teacher in a threadbare rural school, charged by the regular teacher to forbid further attrition (dropouts are commonplace because of poverty). When two students immediately leave - one a runner swept away by an urban sports school, the other who goes to the city to make money for the family, the teacher goes after him. This is a thoroughly absorbing, sweet story of a young woman of indomitable will who wants to do things right. (In Mandarin) Grade: B+ (07/01)
THE NOTEBOOK (Nick Cassavetes, US, 2004, 123 min.). THEME: ALZHEIMER'S DEMENTIA. A cleverly arranged, sentimental love story directed by the late John Cassavetes’s son Nick and starring, among other players, his mother, Gena Rowlands, as a woman in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s dementia who lives in a residential care center. The time is the present. Each day another resident at the center, Duke (James Garner), reads to this woman from the text of a love story. As he begins to read each section, this part of the story-within-the-story is enacted. The couple in love are two high spirited young people, Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams), who enjoy a summer romance in rural South Carolina just before the outbreak of WW II. It’s a hopeless situation: she’s from big money in Charleston, with parents intent upon seeing her marry her own kind, while he’s dirt poor though pricelessly charming. The war separates them, but, in the late 40s, when on the brink of marrying a man who has everything, Allie rediscovers Noah and impulsively throws herself into his arms. Will she end by choosing to renounce her engagement to handsome bizwhiz Lon (James Marsden) in favor of Noah, her passionate first love who still carries a brightly burning torch for her? We’re left to wonder about this for what feels like a long while.
The suspenseful, imaginatively structured screenplay, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks and an adaptation by Jan Sardi, was written by the child psychologist turned screenwriter, Jeremy Leven, who also wrote and directed the delightfully witty Don Juan DeMarco. The cast is somewhat uneven. Gosling is terrific as the young swain: his attractive mix of swagger and modesty is as real as could be. It’s the first time I’ve seen him perform. Now 24, this is the third major film role for the Canadian from London, Ontario, following his Danny Balint in The Believer, and Leland in The United States of Leland. We will certainly be seeing more of him in the future. Ms. McAdams’s turn does not measure up to Gosling’s. She often substitutes an annoying sort of giddy giggle for a more measured or nuanced evocation of pleasure or abandon. The fine actress Joan Allen is riveting here as Allie’s incisive mother Anne. She almost never disappoints (think of her turns in The Ice Storm, Nixon and The Contender). Mr. Garner and Sam Shepard, as Noah’s father, add well crafted touches in small but enjoyable roles.
Miss Rowlands offers a fairly good portraying of someone with Alzheimer’s. The trickiest demand of such a role is to convey the quality of vacancy, the sense that “nobody’s home” within a person whose dementia has progressed quite a ways. Not an easy task for an actress whose performances have always been marked by an extremely vivid emotionality, a force that always declares that somebody is indeed residing within her. This was also a problem for Dame Judi Dench in portraying the dementing author, Iris Murdoch, in the film Iris. Swedish actor Sven Wollter captured this vacancy, the sense of loss of personal identity, better than anyone as a composer who develops Alzheimer’s in Bille August’s film, A Song for Martin. It is only toward the end of Notebook that Miss Rowlands gives a more variegated and convincing enactment of the behavior of Alzheimer patients, changing abruptly from a calm state to one of hostile agitation. Now we can also see the ebb and flow of her memory, and even moments when the gleam in her eye seems devoid of feeling or meaning. Grade: B+ (04/05)
NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Richard Eyre, UK, 2006, 89 m.). THEMES: PATHOLOGICAL, CONTROLLING RELATIONSHIP; CLOSETED LESBIAN TEACHER. SPOILER ALERT! Brilliant psychodrama about an intense relationship that develops between two London high school teachers. Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), who teaches history, is cynical, lonely and close to retirement; Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an art teacher, is 37, married and the mother of two teens, surprisingly naïve, a new arrival on the faculty. Both women are complex characters, vulnerable, needy, and these shared attributes draw them toward one another.
Sheba gets off to a rotten start at the school, unable to control her students’ behavior. Barbara, who brooks no misconduct, having honed over the years skills that would do a drill sergeant proud, comes to Sheba’s aid after a terrible row in Sheba’s classroom. Barbara reaches out to befriend Sheba after this, and we gradually come to understand that Barbara, a spinster, is in fact a well closeted lesbian who remains bereft after another teacher spurned her and actually fled her job and the city to get away from Barbara the previous summer. Now attracted to Sheba, she makes a number of well calculated efforts to insinuate herself into the younger teacher’s life.
Trouble is, Sheba is preoccupied not only with the challenge of her new career, but also with her unfulfilling marriage to an older writer, Richard (Bill Nighy), and the demands of her post pubescent, boy struck daughter, Polly (Juno Temple) and Downs son Ben (Max Lewis). As if there weren’t enough already on her plate, Sheba, who has no clue about nor interest in any erotic entanglement with Barbara or any other woman, lets herself become involved in a sexual liaison with one of her young students, 15 year old Steven (Andrew Simpson).
Barbara fortuitously discovers their affair, lets Sheba know she knows, then hastens to pledge to keep their secret, if only Sheba will end her little romance before real damage is done. It is through this manipulation that Barbara intends to intensify her grip on Sheba. From here a series of misadventures unfolds, and no one is spared a stiff dose of humiliation and dislocation: not Barbara, not Sheba, Richard, Steven or anyone else associated with them. A scandal of broad proportions is indeed in the making.
The director, Richard Eyre, has done very good work with Judi Dench before, in Iris. The sizzling screenplay, by Patrick Marber, was adapted from Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel, “What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal.” Marber pushes the psychodynamic limits here, moving the viewer close to the tipping point for suspension of disbelief, just as he did in his equally accomplished screenplay for the marvelous 2004 film, Closer, adapted from his own stage script.
There are two developments in particular that test us. Why should Sheba yield so readily to young Steven’s amorous overtures? And, later, why should the usually cool headed Barbara make such boldly possessive demands of Sheba, right in front of Sheba’s family, in the nasty encounter the day Barbara’s cat must be put down? The answer in both cases has to do with the vulnerability, the longing, that these women have been enduring, expressed by each in a manner consistent with her psychological makeup. Both are close to desperation.
We’ve been told and even shown, flat out, after all, that Sheba has a vicious and unloving mother. Presumably she was already molded as a severe neurotic long before she ever married Richard. But she persevered admirably, it seems, raising two kids, one an especially tough challenge, but now, stressed by her new teaching job and out of love at home, her reserves have run dry and she is at high risk for impulsive behavior.
Barbara, we can surmise, has struggled through painful decades of despair over her largely unfulfilled homophilia. Her mode of relating to people - her students, Sheba, everyone else - is to control them completely. Sheba is correct to call her a "vampire" near the end: Barbara really lacks the capacity for genuine regard for others; she merely manipulates people to indulge her own narcissistic vanities. This, for example, makes her at the same time an uncaring teacher but a brilliant disciplinarian. She can be utterly "objective." But she's not as two dimensional as this description suggests. We can also palpably feel her neediness, which is manifested so poignantly when she loses control, i.e., in the scene with Sheba's family when she virtually commands Sheba to stay with her instead of attending Ben's play. And so, despite her offensiveness, we can see in her a sympathetic, if deeply twisted, character.
This is a splendidly constructed and enacted drama of the heart, full of scathing humor (all from Barbara) as well as cliff hanger suspense and taut emotional tension. All the players named are good, and they are aided by others: all the roles are uniformly well performed. Grade: A (01/05/07)
NOW, VOYAGER (Irving Rapper, US, 1942). THEMES: EARLY FILM EXAMPLE OF USE OF SUPPORTIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY FOR NEUROTIC PROBLEMS; EARLY DEPICTION OF PRIVATE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL; MOTHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT; UNUSUAL ADULT LOVE RELATIONSHIP. SPOILER ALERT! This thoughtful, if melodramatic, film, adapted from a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, cast Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, a woman nearing 30, who lives under the severely oppressive, controlling dominion of her mother, a rich widow in an upper crust Boston Brahmin family. Mother, played as a humorless, shrewd, nastily unsentimental dowager by Gladys Cooper, decides everything for Charlotte: even what dresses and shoes she must wear (and they are ugly stuff).
As a result of a lifetime of such psychological abuse, Charlotte has been reduced to a sullen, overweight, chronically depressed recluse, shut away in her third floor bedroom, sneaking smokes and making carved ivory trinket boxes for no one in particular. A perceptive cousin arranges for a leading psychiatrist to come calling, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains). He wins Charlotte’s confidence in an exchange they have while Charlotte is showing him her room, and she agrees to go off to his private “sanitarium” for care, a lovely rustic place in a lushly forested rural setting (New England fostered several such places earlier in the Century, places like the Austen Riggs Institute and Brattleboro Retreat.)
In this setting, Charlotte thrives. Is it simply that she has been freed from her mother’s captivity? Or has she needed specific psychotherapeutic assistance to improve? Hard to tell. Dr. Jaquith had told the family that Charlotte has a severe emotional illness. No suggestion is given that she receives any physical form of treatment. Yet we never see even a smidge, a single brief scene, of a therapy session between them. We do see them chatting together often in more informal circumstances. Several times we see Dr. Jaquith encouraging Charlotte to rely on herself, on her own opinions, judgments and wishes.
All tolled, she spends six months away from mother, first at the hospital, then traveling abroad, alone. By agreement all around, she then returns to live with her mother again. By this time she has had a makeover in terms of grooming and wardrobe, learned to fend for herself, and had a near affair with a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid), in Rio of all places. She returns to the family home determined to follow Dr. Jaquith’s advice: to stand her ground, assert her independence, but do so quietly, matter-of-factly, eschewing belligerence toward or direct criticism of her mother. Mom is as caustic and controlling as ever, and at every turn threatens to disinherit Charlotte if she doesn’t knuckle under, but she doesn’t act. Charlotte perseveres and steadies herself without compromising her hard won sense of self.
The final part of the film is complex. Charlotte sets aside a marriage proposal from a well to do widower who does not share her passions. She continues to carry a torch for Jerry, estranged from his wife but still married. They see one another when Jerry comes to Boston on business and restate their love of one another and, at the same time, the impossibility of their situation. Charlotte arranges for Jerry’s younger daughter, Tina, trapped in a situation with her mother that is similar to Charlotte’s own experience, to be treated at Dr. Jaquith’s center. Charlotte goes there again herself, having relapsed some following her mother’s death, which she feels she precipitated because they had just quarreled. Charlotte meets Tina and they become fast friends. In time she takes Tina home to Boston as a sort of informal foster parent, and Jerry comes to visit. In a compelling encounter, Charlotte is able to convince Jerry that it is through this arrangement that their love can be sustained, through their mutual care and concern for Tina, who is, in an important, emotional sense, “their” child, that is, Jerry and Charlotte’s child.
Dr. Jaquith seems more a coach than a psychodynamic therapist. His methods are those of kindly support, teaching, and repeatedly giving advice for effective living. His advice is absolutely sound and reasonable, and would be considered as valid within the framework of supportive psychotherapy as practiced today as it was in this screenplay. One also cannot underestimate the importance of a caring social milieu, as shown at the sanitarium in this film, in the rehabilitation of patients with severe neurotic and adjustment problems.
Dr. Jaquith makes only one blunder and that is at the very start, on the day Charlotte’s cousin first brings him to call on Charlotte and her mother. After visiting awhile with Charlotte, he tells Mother point blank that she has nearly destroyed her daughter. Somehow, mother tolerates this without making dog food of Dr. Jaquith, although that would have been more in character for her. In the 1940s and 50s, there was, within at least some psychodynamic psychiatric circles, a perspective that has been called the “cult of the mother haters.” Severe mental problems were held to be the result of bad mothering. This view was so fervently held by some mental health professionals that, for them, the very existence of the disorder was proof of faulty parenting. Today, of course, we believe that severe mental problems result from a far more complex interaction of factors, including genetic influences as well as a variety of childhood and adolescent experiences and life events. Grade: B (11/04)
NOWHERE IN AFRICA (Caroline Link, Germany, 2003). THEMES: TWO COMING OF AGE STORIES: ONE ABOUT A CHILD, THE OTHER ABOUT HER MOTHER. The amazing discoveries one makes through film! Surfing the Net after viewing Link’s Oscar winner (Best Foreign Film, 2003), I first learned that 30,000 European Jews had escaped the Nazis during the late 1930s by fleeing to Kenya and other spots in Africa. This is the story of one such family, adapted by Link from a 1995 autobiographical novel of the same name by Stefanie Zweig, who, like her film counterpart, Regina Redlich, arrived with her mother in Nairobi in 1938, when she was 5 years old, there to be reunited with her father, a lawyer by training back in Germany but now eking out a subsistence living as an isolated farm manager. Nowhere is a gorgeously photographed, long (138 minutes), slowly paced film that interweaves several themes: the ironies of ethnic/racial prejudice (Jettel, Regina’s mother, a refugee fleeing from anti-Semitism, is initially flushed with anti-black sentiments); Regina’s parents’ tempestuous marriage; Jettel’s gradual maturation from materialistic, self centered ingénue to a loving and responsible woman; and the coming of age of Regina, who is 15 when the family returns to Germany after the war.
Juliane Kohler is highly effective as Jettel, though the scene stealer in this film is Sidede Onyulo, who plays Owuor, the family’s African cook and Regina’s loving surrogate parent, stepping in as it becomes obvious that her mother and father are far too preoccupied with their own grief and existential problems to offer much to their daughter. In all of her feature films, Link focuses on coming-of-age dilemmas of young girls growing up in families in which the parents are too self absorbed to look out for the child’s best interests.
Link's excellent work, Beyond Silence (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1998), explored the difficult choices confronting a girl who struggles for independence while at the same time she serves as the only bridge between her deaf parents and the world at large. Likewise, in her 2000 release, Anna Luise and Anton (Pünktchen und Anton is the German title and a better one), the focus is on a scrappy tomboy - her nickname means “Little Punk” – who is made sad by the inattention of her wealthy, self-centered parents.
Now, in Nowhere, Link has reached further to create a more nuanced, multilayered work. Her treatment of Jettel's maturation is as well managed as the story of Regina's growing up, perhaps even better. This film is a worthy effort, and certainly it is edifying, although I must add that the enterprise grinds along with a lot less snap than her two earlier films.
(In English, German and Swahihi) Grade: B+ (07/03)
NURSE BETTY (Neil LaBute, US, 2000). THEME: DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA; Offbeat comedy in which Betty (Renée Zelleger) plays a ditzy but warm hearted waitress who aspires to become a nurse and who is head over heels in love with a TV soap opera surgeon. Meanwhile, her crude husband in fact has gotten mixed up in drug dealing and pays the supreme price at the hands of an old pro hitman (Morgan Freeman) and his time bomb, trigger happy son (Chris Rock). Betty witnesses the hit, then zones out into a dissociative state in which she repressed her husband's death and drives off (in a car in which the drugs are stashed) looking for her surgeon hero, whom she is now convinced is real and, of course, living in Hollywood. She does meet him there, her "act" is a big hit with the star and other folks on the TV show, but the killers catch up with her, leading to the most amusing scenes in the film - among Betty, the killers, Betty's Hispanic girlfriend, and two characters from her home town who have also trailed her: the sheriff (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and a newspaper reporter. It's an imaginative screenplay, Zellweger is perfect, even if all she does is mug sweetly, Morgan Freeman is droll and highly enjoyable, and the others provide just enough useful fillers. Grade: B (06/01)
OASIS (Chang-dong Lee, South Korea, 2004). THEMES: ATTENTION DEFICIT HYPERACTIVITY DISORDER; CEREBRAL PALSY WITH CHOREO-ATHETOSIS; LOVE BETWEEN TWO HANDICAPPED PEOPLE). SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Chang-dong made the quite good psychodrama, Peppermint Candy, a film that concerned a man suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder, who ultimately committed suicide after his life slid ever further into failure and despair. Sounds burdensome, but the film was the opposite: it was electrifying. Chang-dong, who writes his own screenplays, used a structure like that in Memento (Candy begins with the suicide, then moves back in time, in flashback segments placed in reverse chronology). Oasis reunites Chang-dong with his two principal actors from Candy, Kyung-gu Sol as Jong-du Hong, a man just released from prison when we meet him in the opening scenes, and So-ri Moon as Gong-ju, a woman who suffers from severe cerebral palsy.
Jong-du is an innocent, a fellow who doesn’t comprehend ordinary social conventions and expectancies. His penchant for making faulty judgments and conducting himself in ways that offend and irritate others is hard to overstate. He appears to me to be suffering from a severe case of ADHD and may also be mildly deficient in IQ points. At 30, he’s almost hopelessly immature, flighty and fidgety, has never done a thing that you could call successful, is uneducated, lacks job skills, and his family dread his homecoming. (He also has an eternally runny nose: at first you wonder if he's a cocaine addict but that's not the problem.)
Gong-ju ‘s father was killed in an auto accident for which Jong-du was sent to prison (it was a hit-and-run, and the conviction was for involuntary manslaughter – Jong-du spent 2 ½ years in the slammer; it was his third offense, after attempted rape and DUI convictions earlier in life). Shortly after settling down again, at his Mom’s apartment, Jong-du takes a basket of fruit to the family of the deceased man as a way of conveying his regrets over their loss. The family are outraged and throw him out, but not before he meets Gong-ju, who suffers from severe spasticity and choreo-athetosis: her body, face and hands are twisted and writhing continuously, she’s nearly unable to speak and is wheelchair bound. Her favorite pastime is reflecting a hand mirror on the wall, then fantasizing that the white reflections morph into birds or butterflies.
What then develops is a love story in which these two handicapped souls, each living on the margins of society, borne along grudgingly by families who are ashamed of them and wish they would just go away. Their love is as tender and touching as it is astonishing, especially given the nature of the couple’s harsh initial encounter, hardly one that promises requited romance. There are marvelous dream and fantasy scenes in which Gong-ju can move and walk normally, or when the characters on an exotic wall hanging in her bedroom come to life and join the principals in a dance. Of course the circumstances make their love star-crossed: we are certain from the getgo that it will not last, that they will be discovered, that things will turn out badly.
What surprises is that the consequences work out as well as they do. The screenplay here is as imaginative as was Chang-dong’s structure for Candy. He has a knack for employing characters with psychiatric and neurological afflictions - presented with impeccable clinical authenticity – to serve such dramatic purposes as the portrayal of innocence and the power of events and uncontrollable circumstances to shape one’s life. Both lead players offer fabulous turns. We expect this of Mr. Kyung-gu, based on his earlier performance in Peppermint Candy.
But the real blockbuster turn is by Ms. So-ri, who had a minor role as the protagonist’s wife in Candy, but here is able to stay completely in character as a severely neurologically handicapped individual who nonetheless feels and somehow expresses normal emotions and needs. Her mastery of the physical manifestations of cerebral palsy is so complete and it would be difficult to imagine she is a normal person without providing, as Chang-dong does, a scene in which we can see her change from impaired to normal before our eyes. This scene, by the way, is woven seamlessly into the narrative; there is nothing showy or self-conscious about it. Oasis challenges the very core of our assumptions about what it is to be loveable and to love. (In Korean) Grades: drama: B+; both portrayals by the lead actors: A+ (02/04)
THE ODD COUPLE (Gene Saks, US, 1967). THEMES: INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP OF TWO ADULT MEN; OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE PERSONALITY DISORDER; HYPOCHODRIASIS. The prototype adaptation of Neil Simon's Broadway comedy about two divorced buddies who decide to live together - one, Oscar (Walter Matthau) - a classic slob; the other, Felix (Jack Lemmon), a fanatically obsessive homemaker and hypochondriac. It's all great fun, though I think the later TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman was in fact superior. Randall did Felix better than Lemmon. But Matthau here is incomparable. If you like this sort of story, try the two British films starring Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney: The Dresser and A Rather English Marriage. Grade: B+ (10/02)
OF MICE AND MEN (Gary Sinise, US, 1992). THEMES: INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP OF TWO FRIENDS; ADULT DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY. Remake by Mr.Sinise, from an adaptation by Horton Foote, of the Steinbeck classic, about two drifters in the 30s, the crafty George Milton (Sinise) and his mentally slow buddy Lennie Small (John Malkovich). Their dream is to scrimp and save from odd job work so they can buy their own spread. As we all know, it doesn’t work out. The fact that both Lennie and George need each other to feel complete, to feel whole, is made clear here, and Malkovich does a fine job in portraying the naive, dreamy giant Lennie. Grade: B (09/97)
OFF THE GRID: LIFE ON THE MESA (Jeremy & Randy Stulberg, US, 2007, 64 m.). [NOTE: I missed the first 10 minutes of this screening; I saw the last 54 minutes (85%), enough to justify grading the film, in my opinion.] THEMES: ALTERNATIVE LIVING FOR FORMER WAR COMBATANTS WITH PTSD, OTHERS WHO FEEL ALIENATED FROM THE LARGER SOCIETY. On a high plain in New Mexico, some of society's outsiders, mostly military combat veterans and their families, have been drawn to a loosely organized community to live off the grid and away from mainstream America, which they had found insufferable. The film consists largely of segments from interviews with a dozen or so citizens of this encampment (most people live in RVs, some in more permanent structures). Most of the vets – from Vietnam, the first Gulf War, and even a few from the Iraq War – profess intense loyalty to their country but feel that the U.S. culture has failed them.
American flags are very much in evidence. People home school their kids. One or more nurses tend to medical issues. Everybody is armed to the teeth. Shooting practice, rather than golf, is the most popular sport around. Some of the wives can’t stand living there, and long separations and divorces have resulted. Other families remain intact and seemingly the better for having moved to the high desert. There is a council of elders – we meet one of them, a white bearded, mandolin playing Vietnam vet – that deliberates on community problems that cannot be worked out among individuals. A pack of erstwhile homeless kids – the “Nowhere” group – moves into the area and begins to steal from others. The elders ponder what to do and decide to send in “the Mamas” – an ad hoc group of women of various ages and stations – to mediate matters. It works. The kids listen up and fly right in return for being allowed to stay on. The arrangement has now held up for a number of years.
The community and its citizens are presented in a sympathetic light. It is easy to admire these folks for minimizing their consumption of stuff (the money spent annually by the average family here is about $4 to $5 thousand, and many have government pensions that cover costs). The carbon footprints these people make are enviably tiny. Viewed from another perspective, however, the picture is less idyllic and more disturbing. For one thing, in most cases we taxpayers are subsidizing these folks, enabling them to live lives that center around idleness, music making, lots of pot smoking and booze guzzling, and gunslinging. Perhaps public support is a wise thing, though, when one ponders about how many of these men might have offed somebody by now, or themselves, had they remained in the mainstream. One elder had been educated at Exeter and Princeton. Isn’t his intellectual talent going to waste? Doesn’t the larger culture need the active participation of people who waste less, thus want less? Is it any of our damn business? Grade B (02/08)
OFF THE MAP (Campbell Scott, US, 2003, 105 min.). THEME: FORMS OF DEPRESSION: MAJOR DEPRESSION (CHARLEY); DYSTHYMIC DISORDER (WILLIAM); MANIC-LIKE RESPONSE TO ANTIDEPRESSANT MEDICATION. Winsome tale of a little family that chose in 1974 to unplug themselves from the “grid” of middle class life and go live off the land in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. A windmill pumps their well water. They read by kerosene lamps. They grow vegetables. They’ve gradually stored away four years of food and three years of firewood. Cash comes in the form of a small VA pension to the head of the household, Charley Groden (the basso voiced Sam Elliott), plus some modest crop sales. All told, they take in about $5,000 a year. Which makes it curious indeed when they receive notice that the IRS is dispatching an agent to visit. But wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of things.
The other family members are Arlene Groden (the immensely versatile Joan Allen) and Bo (Valentina de Angelis), Charley and Arlene’s precocious 12 year old daughter. A good friend, lonely bachelor George (J. K. Simmons), hangs around so much he seems like family too. The time in question here, when Bo was 12, actually was maybe a decade ago, for we are learning this story as a narrative reminiscence told to us by a now adult Bo. The summer when she was 12 was marked not only by the advent of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), the IRS man, but by the occurrence of Charley’s first ever episode of deep depression. It went on for months. He sits mute most of the time. Eats little. Sleeps little. Cries softly a lot. Refuses to seek professional aid from the VA. Arlene manages to keep things going, but her generally serene style is eroding as the weeks go by. It doesn’t help that Bo is restless, tired of her isolation, chafing to go to regular school, get a credit card, move out into the larger world. Not one to hide her light, Bo complains eloquently about her boring life, even as she maintains a loving, respectful attitude toward her parents.
The arrival of William Gibbs destabilizes the precarious symmetry of these people’s lives. Turns out Gibbs is depressed too: maybe not as severely as Charley, but it’s gone on for many years. He just became an IRS agent lately, grasping at some possible change for the better. In thrall to Arlene’s mystical ways and beauty, Gibbs drops out of the IRS, moves into an old schoolbus on the property, and takes up watercolor painting. Arlene and Bo are both grateful for attention from a new face. And, perhaps in a house too small for two depressed males, Charley begins to come out of his shell, with some help from a borrowed bottle of antidepressant pills that fire up a manicky conclusion to his near catatonic state. Even George comes to life and goes hunting for a woman to marry.
This is a small film about unconventional people, folks who don’t fit the molds of middle class, rich, arty or neurotic urbanity that typify the subjects of so much fiction – print and film. Adapted from a stage script by the playwright, Joan Ackermann, this work reminds me of the novels about quirky, offbeat people that have become so popular in the past few years. I’m thinking of the work of authors like Louise Erdrich (“The Beet Queen”), E. Annie Proulx (“The Shipping News” – which, incidentally, was adapted into a fine film, The Shipping News, that did not receive the recognition it deserved), or Anne Tyler (“Clockwinder,” “ Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” “A Slipping Down Life”). I don't know why, but it took two years to bring this decent film to the screen (made in 2003, it is only receiving commercial distribution now).
Sam Elliott’s take on major depression is pretty good. In fact it is very good, with one major exception. People reduced by depression to near muteness and total inactivity do not, as Charley does, move and speak at a normal pace when they do initiate behavior. Rather, there are long “latencies” in speech – pauses after another’s question, spaces between words or phrases, and characteristically slowed body movements. For a few hundred dollars the filmmakers could have hired a psychiatric consultant to coach Elliott to get these few details right. It would have taken less than an hour. Later, on the other hand, when Charley has been taking an antidepressant drug and becomes highly activated by it, Elliott gets all the moves perfectly: the agitation (motor restlessness), irritability and hyperactivity. Just what one might see clinically in a so-called excessive serotonergic response.
The movie is not without its hitches. Why is a coyote - to which Arlene had developed an intense spiritual connection - killed? How did Bo actually acquire that credit card and get approval to use it for such a grand and costly gift? The film starts somewhat bumpily. For a while it seems like Ms. de Angelis will overwhelm both her family and us viewers with her domineering intelligence. But with time, she, like the film itself, wins you over. Off the Map ends by charming you, making this film a pleasant surprise
It’s of interest to compare this film to another current release about 1970s dropouts, Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose. That film more or less trashes the whole ideal of living a life according to values that run against the stereotypical middle class norms of acquiring material possessions and working to pay off the resultant debts. The fact that Jack and his merry band failed to sustain their alternative way of life is implicitly presented as evidence that their aims were unsound, invalid. Off the Map, on the other hand, conveys a better sense of what motivated people to drop out back then and shows that at least some achieved a measure of success. Grades: overall drama: B; clinical depression and response to antidepressants: A- (04/05)
OLD JOY (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2006, 76 m). THEME: AN OLD FRIENDSHIP THAT NO LONGER SEEMS VALID. A deceptively simple, in fact richly nuanced, subtle film about two old college chums, now in their 30s, who go on a weekend camping trip and discover that their lives have diverged to the point where the bonds that remain between them have become too thin, too attenuated, to sustain their friendship further.
Kurt (Will Oldham) is still the same unsettled, shambling fellow that he always was, forever searching for a formula to bring him peace of mind, unemployed, living in his van, passing through town before going on to the next place. Early on, Kurt tells his old buddy Mark (Daniel London) that recently he’s found the right path to happiness, but Mark knows (and we know) that it’s not true. Kurt bums money from Mark to score some pot on their way out of town. He smoke it all himself. Mark has put down roots. He’s married, about to become a father, and has a steady job. But he’s no yuppie: he lives modestly, still meditates, does volunteer youth work, and drives an old Volvo station wagon, his ear glued to Air America when he’s driving alone. Kurt points to their differences when he tells Mark, “I never get myself into something I can’t easily get out of.”
Awareness that this trip will seal an end to the men’s friendship comes to them - and to us - gradually, obliquely, almost tacitly. It begins when Kurt can’t recall the signposts to reach their intended destination in the lower Cascades (the entire film was shot in Portland and its rural surrounds), reflecting the disorder in his life. So after driving here and there, they end up pitching their tent at a bleak, litter strewn spot just off the highway.
A bit later, around a campfire, there is little spontaneity in the friends’ conversation. Kurt speaks of a wonderful gathering he recently attended, full of music, dancing and fun. He talks vaguely about his personal theory of the universe as a falling teardrop. “I don’t have the numbers but I just know I’m right about this,” Kurt says. Mark’s only response to these overtures is a glazed eyed glance. Kurt tries to be more direct, saying that he feels an uncomfortable gulf between them, but Mark brushes this aside. Rather than becoming a beer fueled, cozy, guy reunion, lasting into the wee hours, the evening ends early, abruptly and in silence.
Next day, during an interlude at Bagby Hot Springs, when Kurt again attempts to bridge the gulf by massaging Mark’s shoulders, this gesture seems only to make Mark tense. In fact he is preoccupied throughout the trip, guilty for leaving his pregnant wife at home alone, talking with her frequently on his cell. On the drive back into the city, the old friends speak hardly a word, and, at the end, they exchange only the most cursory of goodbyes.
We all know that friendships from our youth sometimes stay alive and sometimes die. That people’s values, aims and lifestyles can change. Or not. Nearly a generation ago, films like “Return of the Secaucus 7” and “The Big Chill” took long looks at these themes. There are, however, so many characters in each of those large ensemble films that only superficial snapshots of most are possible. After college, the majority in both films had gone on to exceptional careers. In contrast, Mark and Kurt are - in their differing ways - plain, ordinary, Everymen. And with its singular focus on just two people, “Old Joy” is able to offer us a deeply intimate - one might even say delicate, yet entirely natural and unforced - account about old friends whose paths have separated.
One can readily see that Mark has matured while Kurt remains stuck in late adolescence. Viewed through another prism, we could as easily surmise that Kurt has endeavored to stick to his youthful ideals, a would be free spirit still seeking out the good times and refusing to be yoked to greater responsibilities in a world grown harsher than it used to be. Yet we sense Kurt’s underlying unhappiness. His vagabond quest has led to no discoveries of lasting significance.
Mark has crossed over a line that separates him inexorably from Kurt, a line that demarcates acceptance, compromise, the “adult” adjustments one makes to become self supporting, to love and to be generative. Both men have lost something precious they once had shared, a common vision of life and the world perhaps. And they have lost one another. Fittingly, at one point Kurt shares with Mark a Chinese proverb: “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.” Even more fittingly, it is the quietude, the silences, that give this wonderfully realized film its lyrical, elegiac quality. Grade: A- (09/06)
ON GOLDEN POND (Mark Rydell, US, 1981). THEMES: AGING; INTERGENERATIONAL FATHER-DAUGHTER CONFLICT. As has been their annual custom, an aging couple return to their lakeside cottage in New Hampshire to spend another summer. Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) is about to turn 80, and his wife Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) is close to 70. Norman has always brooded about death but has reason for feeling more frail these days. He’s more than a little forgetful and has a bad heart. Norman is also a misanthrope of the worst sort, grumpy as a summer’s day is long, but that’s not new, just worse. The secret of bringing out his better nature lies in standing up to him, not allowing him to get away with acting the bully. The couple’s only child, daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda), has never figured this out; now a divorcee in her 30s, she still bears the emotional burden of feeling unloved and inadequate in her father’s eyes. This summer, Chelsea makes a rare visit, turning up for Norman’s 80 th birthday with a fiancé, Bill (Dabney Coleman), and future stepson Billy (Doug McKeon).
Norman pulls his usual petulant tricks, putting Chelsea immediately on the defensive. Norman also tries his mind games on Bill, who has the courage to push back, labeling Norman’s maneuvers for what they are and winning a measure of his respect in the process. Chelsea and Bill go off for a European vacation, leaving Billy for a month with the old folks. Billy, a cocky 13 year old from southern California, is as bad a pout as old Norman, and the two establish a tense coexistence based largely on mutual complaints and name calling, which gradually mellows into a deeper rapport as Norman matches scatological barbs with Billy, while teaching him to dive, fish, run a power boat. When Chelsea returns, she finds Norman more accessible, softened up by his sparring with Billy, and, after a pep talk with her mother, she is able to approach her father in a tender manner for the first time in memory.
This film is dominated by bold strokes of Hollywood glamour, pat conflict resolution and trite sentiment. The lake and cottage are as “perfect” as an infomercial and are photographed to full advantage. The power boat is, of course, a vintage 26 foot Chris Craft wooden hulled classic. The dialogue is often overwrought, too formal or ornately witty, the sort of thing one hears on stage, not in real life. This is no surprise: Ernest Thompson wrote the screenplay from his own script for the theater. Everyone’s acting is often overdone as well. Fonda and Hepburn both appear hell-bent to establish every nuance of their characters in the first 10 minutes. Relax, already! This too is predictable given a director whose main work had been in television series. Henry Fonda’s role is the stereotypical curmudgeon with a secret heart of gold. He does it just fine, but without any refreshing twists. Ms. Hepburn settles down after the opening scenes and is generally good here, constraining her usual tendency to hog the show, striking a nuanced balance between encouraging helpmate and prime mover.
Ms. Fonda seems too poised, too self possessed to carry off the neurotic role in which she is cast as Chelsea. And if one does accept the estrangement from her father that is established early in the film, the rapprochement they find near the end seems too easily won. Young Doug McKeon is an effective brat, but does a 180 to embrace civility without much of a fight. At the very end, Norman recovers spryly from a bout of angina to stand sturdily next to Ethel, wishing the lake and the viewers a fond farewell. Any one of these little subplot resolutions - the father-daughter conflict, the old man-kid conflict, the brush with death - would be plausible by itself. Stack one upon the next though and they sum to a critical mass that crowds credulity aside.
Alongside these shortcomings, this film also offers several superb glances at the experience of growing old. Two examples in particular are as genuine and gripping as one might ever hope to see. Early in the film, Norman gets lost in the woods while berry picking and suffers a “catastrophic reaction” – an acute anxiety episode occasioned by his disorientation. Eyes wide open, brows raised, forehead wrinkled, short of breath, sweating profusely, Fonda perfectly captures the essence of such an attack. At the end of the film Norman suffers the aforementioned attack of angina and falls on the front porch. Hepburn’s anxious, repetitive, poorly organized ministrations to him, and Fonda’s faint responses, of varying lucidity, again, ring absolutely true. So for that matter does Chelsea’s (Ms. Fonda’s) confession to her mother that despite her competent, self-assured demeanor in life, whenever she comes around her father, she feels once again like the unhappy “fat little girl” who cannot meet his standards. Many people do experience a different “persona” - typically with some degree of regression to more childlike or adolescent behaviors - around parents than they project in other social settings.
For these roles, Ms. Hepburn won her 4th Best Actress Academy Award, and Mr. Fonda won his only Best Actor award (he was also nominated for Grapes of Wrath in 1940). For the record, Fonda was 75 when this film was made, Ms. Hepburn, 73. Fonda died at 77, just a few months after receiving his Oscar. Ms. Hepburn died last year at the age of 96. Grade: B (06/04)
ONCE WERE WARRIORS (Lee Tamahori, New Zealand, 1994). THEME: ALCOHOLISM AMONG NATIVE PEOPLE (MAORI) MARGINALIZED IN AN URBAN SETTING. Powerful depiction of the adverse consequences of social dislocation for native peoples. This film could have been made in any city in which first nation people find themselves lost and barely able to survive. For more on this film, see my article titled "Good to the Last Drop." Grade: B+ (1995)
ONE DEADLY SUMMER (L'Eté Meurtrier) (Jean Becker, France, 1983) THEME: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. Isabelle Adjani is truly scary as a young woman who returns to her home village to seek revenge against three men who had assaulted her mother years before. (In French) Grade: A+ (1998)
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (Milos Forman, US, 1975). THEMES: MENTAL HOSPITAL CARE: LIFE AMONG PATIENTS AND THE DARKER SIDE OF CARE IN THE 1950s-60s; ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY. My second viewing since attending the world premier of this film at the Bagdad Theater in Portland in 1975. The film holds up well 30 years on. A drama set within the walls of a state mental hospital (Oregon State Hospital in Salem), it concerns, among others, the question of whether renouncing personal freedom, as several voluntary patients have done, is a price worth paying to obtain security. It also dramatizes the sometimes extreme, dehumanizing means used to ensure conformity to expected norms – in the traditional mental hospital and, by implication, in the larger society as well.
Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a devilish psychopath, willing to use and risk the welfare of other patients to serve his own ends, though he’s not without heart. His opponent in a major battle of wits is Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the overly controlled and controlling, icily civil head nurse. Caught in the crossfire are a delightful ensemble of patients, led by a young Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito. We know that the war between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched is inevitably bound for tragedy, as he escalates antics that flaunt the hospital rules and she retaliates by manipulating the doctors to apply ECT as a punitive device in the name of treatment. The film also featured the film debut of Will Sampson, a Native American actor from the Creek Tribe, as a patient who is more cunning than he lets on.
Ken Kesey wrote the novel (in 1962) that inspired this film, based on his experiences as an orderly at the Menlo Park (CA) VA mental hospital (which was also the site of my first medical school psychiatry training, at about the same time). Kesey was furious with the screen adaptation of his work by others and sued, unsuccessfully, to prevent the film’s distribution. Ironically, he plays a bit part as a marina worker who tries to stop McMurphy from hijacking a fishing boat (credited as “Ken Kenny”). Dean Brooks, the venerable former medical director at the Oregon State Hospital, ably plays the part of Dr. Spivey, the psychiatrist in charge in the film, and other Oregon psychiatrists at the time – James Shore, Donald Bray and Nareem Jetmalani among them, had uncredited cameos.
Following the law of unintended consequences (at least, I'm sure, in the minds of the psychiatrists who participated), the film contributed to mounting public criticism of ECT at the time, with the result that this potentially valuable treatment was all but discarded in a number of public mental hospitals in the years that followed. Sometimes questionable aggressive control of patients can still be seen today but the methods employed tend to be less harmful, partly because patients stay in hospitals so briefly, and also because medications have supplanted older and more draconian strategies for normalizing behavior.
Nicholson and Fletcher both won best acting Oscars for their larger than life portrayals of tough people locked in a virtually cosmic battle. Viewing this film alongside Titicut Follies would affirm the validity of Kesey’s depictions. Viewing Cuckoo’s Nest alongside Girl, Interrupted, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, or David and Lisa, on the other hand, would demonstrate the contrasts between mental hospital care for the poor versus the weathy in that era. Grade: A- (05/04)
ONE HOUR PHOTO (Mark Romanek, US, 2002). THEME: PERSONALITY DISORDER; VOYEURISM. SPOILER ALERT! Robin Williams is surely an actor capable of considerable range. He still bombs now and then in silly stuff (Mrs. Doubtfire, anyone?), but I cannot forget his fine and varied work in films like Popeye, Dead Poets Society and Good Morning Vietnam. The present film offers one of his strongest and most complex roles, as Sy Parrish, a sad, lonely, twisted fellow who lives vicariously through people whose snapshots he processes at a local discount department store. He has taken an eerily keen, obsessive interest for several years in one young family in particular, and in fact has filled an entire wall of his otherwise dreary apartment with snaps of this family from the extra sets of prints he has surreptitiously made over the years. He fantasizes being a member of this family, a favorite uncle perhaps.
Sy’s pathetic, voyeuristic bent spills over into far more worrisome psychopathic tendencies after he discovers that the man in his fantasied adoptive family is carrying on an affair with another woman, another of Sy’s customers. The supporting players here are all pretty much two dimensional props, but it doesn’t matter. This peculiar tale centers entirely upon Williams’s character. And Williams brings to his task a curious and utterly convincing blend of diffidence, stealth, pathos, tenderness, indignation, perversity and menace. This one definitely holds your attention. Grade: B+ (10/03)
ONE TRUE THING (Carl Franklin, US, 1998). THEMES: FAMILY DYNAMICS & CONFLICT; DEATH & DYING; ADULT COMING-OF-AGE. Meryl Streep, William Hurt and Renee Zellweger all turn in strong performances in this story of family relations, dying and coming of age. A promising young journalist (Zellweger) grudgingly returns home to care for her dying mother (Streep), discovers some family secrets about Mom and Dad (Hurt), and finds she has more in common with her Mom than she had ever realized. Grade: B (03/99)
OPEN HEARTS (Suzanne Bier, Denmark, 2003). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT, INFIDELITY, RESPONSE TO SPOUSE'S DISABILITY, ETHICAL TRANSGRESSIONS IN DOCTOR-PATIENT RELATIONSHIP. Young Cecilie (Sonja Richter) is seeing off her fiancé Joachim, who’s bound for a rock climbing trip with his buddies. She’s voiced her concern about the hazards of such sport. Joachim reassures her. But as he exits their car, suddenly he is hit by an oncoming vehicle. The outcome is horrid: Joachim’s spine is shattered, rendering him a permanent quadriplegic. Cecilie is understandably anguished, and her suffering is exacerbated by Joachim’s equally understandable rage and rejection of her. In a needy, helpless state, she responds to an offer of support from Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a physician at the hospital where Joachim is receiving care. Niels also happens to be the husband of the woman who hit Joachim.
Cecilie begins to call Niels more and more often. He hastens to give her support. He is also a vulnerable fellow: he has gradually grown distant from his wife, who quips ruefully during a conversation about having another child, "Well it requires sex, and both people have to participate." He feels guilty about the accident and wants to do anything he can to make it up to this stricken young woman. And, of course, he's trained as a professional helper. All the seeds for trouble are here. Sure enough, the boundaries becomes transgressed; an affair ensues. The outcome is difficult for several people we have come to know. This story unfolds in a manner that is sadly and painfully realistic. This film is truthful and gutwrenching. ( It has potential educational value for physicians, nurses, social workers and other caregivers. It deals honestly with the vulnerability of helping professionals to crossing ethical lines through emotional over-involvement with their patients and clients.) The production follows “Dogme 95” rules. (In Danish) Grade: B (02/03)
OR (MY TREASURE) (Mon trésor) (Keren Yedaya, France/Israel, 2004, 100 min.). SPOILER ALERT! THEMES: PROSTITUTION; MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP. This raw and noteworthy drama concerns the relationship between an aging Tel Aviv streetwalking prostitute, Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz), and her teen daughter, Or (Dana Ivgi). You will not see another portrayal that more graphically depicts the addictive aspect of prostitution, the need for a hooker to keep hooking, not just for the money, nor because of some pimp’s pressure, but driven by a more fundamental compulsion that is, to me, as mysterious as it is palpable. Old colleagues of mine – Arnold Mandell and Jim Bryan – years ago interviewed upscale call girls in Los Angeles and found the same thing, that some compulsive need was satisfied by prostitution, above and beyond the money. One factor they found was the sense of control a woman feels when she deliberately fakes sexual pleasure when working. Another, almost contradictory impulse was the thrill of being desired and used in different ways by many different men, an apparent need for yielding to the will of the man, of debasement. (Recall the stunning portrayal of this by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.)
Ms. Ivgi is both gorgeous and remarkably able as an actress to convey the complex mixture of motives, needs and yearnings that make Or so complicated a character. She wants - literally begs - her mother to stop hooking. Yet her own burgeoning sexual impulses propel her into the arms and beds of boys who are attractive to her. Not only that, but to make up for money her mother can no longer earn on the street, in the end Or herself signs on to be a call girl, several steps up the scale from her mother’s station on the street, to be sure, but a whore nonetheless. (In Hebrew)Grade: B (02/05)
ORDINARY PEOPLE (Robert Redford, US, 1980) THEMES: ADOLECENT DEPRESSION; PSYCHOTHERAPY; IMPACT OF DEATH ON FAMILY DYNAMICS OF SURVIVORS; POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER; SURVIVOR GUILT. SPOILER ALERT! This extraordinary film was Redford’s first and best work as a film director. The story concerns an upper middle class family devastated by the accidental drowning of their oldest son, Buck. His younger brother Conrad (Timothy Hutton) became severely depressed following Buck’s death. He was also aboard the small sailboat that capsized in a storm, and blames himself for not being strong enough to hold onto Buck and save his life. Conrad has a severe case of survivor guilt. As the film opens, it is a few weeks since his release from a private psychiatric hospital after four months’ treatment, including ECT, following a severe suicide attempt. He is still depressed: trouble sleeping, anorexia, faulty concentration, agitation, social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities he used to love, like competitive swimming. After putting it off for a month, he finally makes an appointment for follow-up psychotherapy with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch).
The boys’ mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) was also devastated by the loss of Buck. It becomes clear during the film that it was Buck who was really the love of Beth’s life. Not only were they deeply fond of one another, but Buck brought out a joie de vivre in Beth that amplified, potentiated, her affection for her husband, Calvin, and for Conrad as well. With Buck gone, as Calvin says to Beth at one point, it is as if Beth “…had buried the best part of herself with Buck.” She is stiff and cold. She has not grieved in any normal sense. She holds back affection from Calvin, and especially from Conrad, and Connie is certain that she blames him for Buck’s death and hates him for it. Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is as close to Conrad as Buck was to Beth. Calvin deeply feels Connie’s sadness and his pain, and he tries at every turn to comfort Connie and support his recovery.
Once engaged in psychotherapy with Dr. Berger, Connie begins to make progress. The hardest hurdles are to express his feelings about Buck’s drowning and the consequent response of each of his parents, and to accept the fact that, hard as he may have tried, it was beyond him to sustain the strength necessary to save Buck on the fateful day he drowned. As Dr. Berger tells him in an especially poignant therapy session, Connie must learn to accept the fact of his own survival and acknowledge that his being alive is good, not bad. This he begins to do. But Beth’s lot is a different one. She cannot respond to either Connie’s or Calvin’s efforts to draw closer to her. Nor will she agree to seek help. The film closes with Calvin and Connie hugging in their back yard, both having been left behind by Beth, who has gone off to her brother’s for a visit, a thousand miles away.
Everything in this film is right: the dialogue, mise en scene, pacing, lighting, music and acting – all the principals perform outstandingly. The film was deservedly highly acclaimed: it won Oscars for best film, best director, and best adapted screenplay; Hutton received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Moore won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress (she herself had lost a son to suicide not long before making this film). I think Hutton’s portrayal of adolescent depression is the best to date in a dramatized film. There are elements that authetically depict post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well: a precipitating incident beyond the pale of typical human experience (the boat capsizing and the loss of the brother), flashbacks of the incident, and surviviro guilt. Depression and suicidal impulses are also common complications in PTSD.
Hirsch’s character is also one of the best dramatizations of a psycho-therapist at work that I’ve seen in a feature fictional film. His active engagement of Connie is right. Sometimes he hectors a bit too much, but generally he is fine, except for his constant cigarette smoking, acceptable in 1979 but not in 2003. But the psychiatrist's disdain for using medication and his playing down of Conrad's concerns about his lack of self control are more troubling (see section at end about treatment of depression). Robin Williams won an Oscar for a similar role as a psychotherapist to a bright adolescent in Good Will Hunting, but Hirsch’s turn here, though it is a smaller role, is professionally superior.
The other aspect of the story that is compelling and that rings so true is how the balance of forces – of complementary roles – within the family have become unbalanced by Buck’s death. Buck was the catalyst bringing forth his mother’s energetic love for everyone. Buck was Mom’s kid, Connie was Dad’s. There was a symmetry here that Buck’s death toppled. This balance of differing roles within a family, and its undoing when someone leaves, is not at all uncommon. “...and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…” Grade: A (04/03)
Add on adolescent depression and suicide: According to the National Mental Health Association, 15-20% of U.S. teens have experienced a serious episode of depression, with girls twice as likely as boys to have had depressive episodes. A recent Surgeon General’s report indicates that suicide accounts for more deaths than from any disease or natural cause; only accidents claim more young lives. Suicide rates in male teens tripled from 1960 to 1980, when this film was first screened. For girls, the rates doubled to tripled over the same period. There are 23 suicide attempts for every “successful” or “completed” suicide. Depression is a central factor in most suicides and attempts. Other risk factors include prior suicide attempts, family history of suicide or suicide by friends, loss of close loved one, as in Conrad’s case, and substance abuse.
In a discussion of this film that I recently led at the Portland VA Mood Disorders Forum, viewers observed that today someone like Conrad would surely receive antidepressant medication. It is true that following depression severe enough to require hospitalization and ECT (which Conrad was given), maintenance after discharge with antidepressants is standard treatment today. Without it, early relapse of depression is exceedingly common. Indeed, Conrad, we learn, is still suffering from insomnia, anorexia, poor concentration, motor restlessness (mild agitation), social isolation from peers, anhedonia (inability to have fun), irritability and loss of interest in usual pursuits (swimming in Conrad’s case, probably compounded by another common hallmark of depression, reduced energy…he hasn’t made expected fast times in his swim trials). He also complains that he does not feel sufficiently in control of himself, an ominous sign given his history of a serious suicide attempt.
Dr. Berger, Connie's psychiatrist, is dismissive about Connie's wish for better self control (Berger sees it as Connie's wish to avoid painful feelings that need to surface) and also the boy's wish for medication. These are, from today's perspective, questionable stances. Certainly with the present depressive symptoms and the prior suicide attempt, today Connie would and should be treated with an antidepressant. On the other hand, in depressive episodes with a psychogenic basis, or caused by life events, with little or no information to suggest family loading and no episodes prior to Buck’s drowning, i.e., a depression that has questionable biological causation, antidepressant medicines are often not as effective as they are for more clear cut biological illnesses such as bipolar disorder or recurrent major depression with a family history of mood disorder. In my experience only about 50-60% of such cases respond favorably to modern antidepressants. For folks like Conrad, psychotherapy is also essential. The best treatment today would include psychotherapy AND drugs (to combat depressive symptoms, reduce suicide risk, and “jump start” more energetic engagement in daily life activities and in psychotherapy).
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET (Marcos Bernstein, Brazil/France, 2004, 97 min.). THEMES: AGING: NEW LOVE IN OLD AGE; FINDING PURPOSE AND VOCATION IN OLD AGE; NOT FEELING OLD. Fernanda Montenegro, the Brazilian national acting treasure who starred in Walter Salles’s 1998 international hit, Central Station, returns in the role of Regina, a long divorced, trim and plucky woman who sees no reason why aging should render people as either “old, crippled or idiots” as she candidly puts it to another older woman. Like a lot of aging women, Regina dutifully walks her dog Betina along Copacabana Beach each morning and dotes on her preschool age grandson. But she also spends her time these days as one of several volunteer undercover informers in “Senior Service,” a special program to assist the local police. Her code name is “Snow White” and she has never been wrong in fingering suspects for her leader, Detective Alcides, hanging out in disco clubs where drug deals are made and other places that are more than a tad dangerous for anybody.
But Regina goes too far when one night she observes through her binoculars a man in an apartment across the street from her place giving what appears to be a lethal injection to a woman. It turns out the man is an important judicial official in the government, and Det. Alcides fires Regina for getting him in trouble after he sends officers to the judge’s apartment to investigate the death of his wife, who, it turns out, was dying of cancer.
Matters take a different turn when Regina sets things up to begin a relationship with Camargo, the judge (Raul Cortez), in order to get the goods on him, only to find herself drifting toward a romantic attachment to his man. The judge’s movement from suspect to lover in Regina’s estimation occurs in an entirely convincing manner. The screenplay, based on a story by the director, Marcos Bernstein - who also co-wrote the script for Central Station and makes his directorial debut here - is almost without exception well crafted, the dialogue sparkling. Ms. Montenegro, who was 74 when this film was shot, is enchanting: think of the Italian actress Giulietta Masina but with more of an edge. Mr. Cortez is more than adequate playing opposite her. More to follow, but I think this is one of the best films in the festival. (In Portuguese) Grade: B+ (02/05)
OUR HOUSE (Sevan Matossian, US, 2003). THEMES: ADULTS WITH DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES; COMMUNITY RESIDENTIAL GROUP HOME FOR ADULTS WITH DDs. For years I lived a block from a residential group home for adults with developmental disabilities, people who typically had spent years in institutions beforehand. Some stayed at home, others worked at sheltered industries. I waited each morning for the bus with two residents, both with Down’s Syndrome, who crossed town to Goodwill each day. The woman was shy: quiet and stable. The man was mercurial. Some days he was calm and friendly. On others he was angry, tearful, frankly delusional at times. Sometimes I was able to “talk him down” as we waited. Now and then he remained so agitated he had to turn back alone toward home. Another man had cerebral palsy. At his best he was gregarious and inquisitive, drawn to visit if he saw me working in the yard. At his worst he was aggressive, and eventually he had to leave the home for assaulting others. What amazed me was the pluck these people showed, echoed by the perseverance of the staff. Surely conditions at the home were far superior to the grim realities of institutional warehousing, anomie, and passive vegetating I had seen on medical school “field trips” in the late 1950s.
Sueno House, in Santa Barbara, California, is such a residential home. Mr. Matossian is on the staff there. Using digital video, he shot footage for this film over about a year, following three of the seven or eight residents. We have more fleeting contact with the others, notably Scott, a gentle fellow who worships one of the principals, Tim Staab. Tim S. has Down’s and is an obsessive cigarette smoker. He has stolen cigarettes from stores and written bad checks to get them. For these misdeeds he is on probation and court ordered to live at Sueno House. He also has a devilish sense of humor, loves to tease, and can escalate quickly from benign pranks to aggression, which has landed him in state hospitals in the past. His situation clinically is the least complex of the three principals.
Laura Langston, on the other hand, carries diagnoses of Fetal Alcohol, Tourette’s and Williams’ Syndromes, autism and OCD. She lived in a state mental hospital continuously from age 10 to 20. Abused physically and sexually as a child, she now vacillates between intense desires to be a woman or a man, to live in heaven or on earth, to live or to die. She has prolonged spells of shouting, jerking her arms and biting herself, and is drawn to religious rituals to find calm. She also melodramatically exaggerates and is manipulative. Tim Warriner is 47. Cerebral palsy left him wheelchair bound with mild spasticity of all four extremities and mild retardation. He has severe congenital malformations of both hands – he was born without thumbs - and had reconstructive surgery when young to reposition one finger to create an appositional thumb on one hand (the procedure failed on the other hand because of gangrene). Physically abused as a youngster, he witnessed his violent estranged father shot to death by his stepfather. He also is alcohol dependent and when drinking will not accept any degree of responsibility for his frequent angry outbursts and related misconduct, invariably blaming others.
Staff are mostly young college age kids, like the ones on my street were. They are calm, respectful, very clear and unambiguous in their communications, remarkably longsuffering in their efforts to aid the residents to get along as best they can. We watch the three principals struggling over the months to manage interpersonal conflicts and their own ambivalent impulses. We see the staff, in response, constantly struggling to strike a balance between honoring the rights – the civil liberties – of the residents (and letting them suffer the consequences when they screw up) versus setting limits for their safety and improved harmony for others. We suffer through Tim W.’s worsening bouts of drinking and consequent eviction. We ride Laura’s emotional roller coaster, including a possible overdose of chemicals and a four-hour Tourette’s rant. We follow Tim. S. through a crisis when he refuses to stop pestering Scott, and police are called to take him away, face a court hearing, and spend a weekend in jail, his first such experience.
This film gives us a slice of the life lived by residents and staff: it’s the real deal. Still, life at Our House, like anyplace, is not without sweet moments of tenderness and even humor. Scott’s simple, patient devotion to Tim S. is touching. One day a long harangue ensues between the two Tims over who is dumber. Each acknowledges without chagrin that he suffers from retardation; the question is, who’s worse off. It’s difficult to convey here how poignantly funny the scene is, and when a staff member confronts them about what they are doing, it’s clear that the Tims can see the humor of it too.
There are a few problems. Some viewers have raised an ethical question about the making this film: did Matossian and his colleagues exploit their charges? I think there are hints of this in the filming of at least one person, Laura. Matossian, behind the camera, often asks questions of the residents as he films their responses. In Laura’s case, I thought he asked some provocative questions (already knowing the answers) in order to evoke emotionally charged responses from her that would demonstrate her faulty self control as well as her conflicts. For me, this did cross an ethical line a few times. At the end of the film, on printed stills, we learn of events concerning all three principals in the subsequent year after filming. The course of each is remarkably positive. We are informed that Tim. W. has been abstinent from alcohol for 8 months in his new, more controlled group home, that Laura is having fewer tic attacks, that Tim. S. is succeeding at a new job in the community. It would have been useful to demonstrate these improvements through brief follow up interviews.
What stays with me after viewing this film is the same sense I had about folks at the group home down my block. I’m struck by the courage and perseverance of the residents - their steadfast desires to be good people and live well - and of the staff who try to aid them. Sueno House is named for the street it’s located on, but it’s well to recall that this Spanish word means dream. The people who live at Sueno House, like all of us, dream dreams of a better, more satisfactory life ahead. It’s a difficult path they walk toward fulfilling those dreams. Visit the film's website at www.ourhousethemovie.com. See also my article titled "Searching for Community." Grade: B+ (01/04)
OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS (Barbet Schroeder, Argentina, 2001). THEMES: A SUSTAINING LOVE REALTIONSHIP; SUICIDE, VIOLENCE. This intellectually sparkling, beautifully photographed film gathers its strength from a remarkably crafted screenplay by Fernando Vallejo, based on his book of the same title (In Spanish: La Virgen de los Sicarios); brilliant acting by German Jaramillo (as the older writer, Vallejo) and Anderson Ballesteros (Alexis, the young man Vallejo romances); and indelibly interesting scenes of the tragic, boundlessly violent mountain city of Medellin, Colombia. Vallejo is a world weary intellectual, returned to the city of his birth, who still feels drawn to the traditions of church, great music, and art, but who also has grown cynical, jaded, suicidal, and finds himself attracted not only to Alexis's youthful body but to his casual attitude toward violence and his serene ignorance of all that Vallejo has held dear. Alexis in turn is haunted by the fact that assassins are on his trail, he is a marked man. He too is world weary, having lived always on the killing streets of Medellin. He finds himself amused by Vallejo's intellectual philosophizing, his love of the classics that Alexis has never been exposed to. Vallejo's almost courtly charm draws Alexis toward him. They are seemingly in love, each giving the other something that has been missing.
Vallejo's observations are wonderfully cynical, almost surgically scaldingly “on.” (Examples: "The Pope is an idiot, dishing out crap about homosexuality being a sin. What's a sin is making more babies on a planet bursting at the seams." or "Alexis, why kill people. They don't deserve such an easy way out. Let them live to suffer as they should.") These lines are not heavily freighted but tossed off lightly so the film is never preachy. The love the two men share seems real and moving. The ways in which each complements the other are worked out and balanced very skillfully. It is a film worth seeing more than once. (In Spanish). Grade: A- (05/02)
OUT OF THE SHADOW (Susan Smiley, US, 2004). THEMES: SCHIZOPHRENIA; IMPACT OF MENTAL ILLNESS ON FAMILY. An extraordinarily fine, highly personal documentary about Mildred Smiley, the director’s mother, who suffers from severe, persistent schizophrenia, and the problems that Millie’s illness has posed - for herself as well as for Susan, her younger sister Tina, and others. This film is quite short – 67 minutes. I mention this to emphasize how carefully constructed it is. All the important issues concerning the experience and consequences of schizophrenia are illuminated here with compelling clarity, authenticity and thoughtfulness, with no hint of superficiality or breeziness, free of sentimentality of any sort, yet with clear conveyance of the filmmaker’s deep respect and obvious love for her mother and family. If only more filmmakers worked with such economy!
Millie was 25 when she first showed signs of schizophrenia, and what ensued has been a wretched 25-year odyssey for Millie and her daughters that is all too familiar to anyone close to a person suffering from severe chronic schizophrenia: 17 hospitalizations, 40 or more living places, no employment, frequent brief periods of homelessness, a serious suicide attempt. A cycle of ever changing mental health providers and caseworkers, constantly revised medication regimens, as Millie received care within a system Ms. Smiley accurately describes as “fractured.” Ms. Smiley’s restraint – her canny ability to avoid any axe grinding harangues, instead simply showing us over and over again how the system fails to work – is remarkable. (Though Millie lives in Illinois, the “system” there functions about like that in any other state.)
Meanwhile, the girls grew up: Susan moved to Los Angeles to make films, and Tina married and moved to Minnesota. And, again all too typically, their efforts to keep track of and aid their mother have been frustrated, not only by Millie’s erratic comings and goings, but also by regulations that prohibited caregivers from giving information to them about her whereabouts or condition without Millie’s written consent, something Millie routinely refused to give, even though she was usually pleased when her daughters found her again.
Ms. Smiley and her editors have crafted their film with a skillful mix of family photos, old home movie footage, and contemporaneous digital video scenes and interviews, which center on Millie though there are many scenes in which Susan Smiley, Tina, their father, other relatives, and caregivers participate. The filmmakers also effectively blend direct dialogue audio, accompanying the digvid footage, with voiceover narration by Ms. Smiley. The story moves between past and present in a confident, unhurried manner. We don’t just see Millie as a patient, a collection of symptoms and social conundrums. Ms. Smiley is careful to show us the brighter, more charming and normal side of her mother, who was strikingly attractive in her 20s and is still capable on her good days of conveying the soft, endearing side of her personality. What we do see is how emotionally changeable, how mercurial, she can be.
There is a happy ending, and it is not at all contrived. In fact it is a product of long hard work by Susan and Tina, and also some simple good luck. A guardianship has been arranged for Millie, who’s now also taking one of the newer antipsychotic drugs. She seems pleased with the guardianship: “I’ll be attached, have roots, have stability,” she says. “I’ll no longer be an orphan.” Millie also can now live in a group home, what Susan calls the “holy grail” of care in the system. She joins her ex-husband’s second family and her daughters for a Christmas gathering that everyone enjoys. And, near the end, she even begins her first job in 30 years, as a dishwasher in a nearby restaurant. She may still lack insight, but she’s stable and proud of herself.
This film is truly a tour de force: a drama with a meaningful narrative arc, central characters who are all sympathetic, and a comprehensive, thoroughly edifying look at the problems of chronic mental illness in this country. Ms. Smiley has somehow managed simultaneously to grace her film with a sense of deep emotional involvement and also a scrupulously dispassionate, and therefore all the more powerful, gaze at the problems for everyone posed by her mother’s illness and the faulty public care system on which they all must depend. In her final voiceover, Ms. Smiley notes that her mother still sees herself as the victim of a system, not an illness, but of course she’s a victim of both. This film should be required viewing for anyone working with or interested in people suffering from schizophrenia or other severe and persistent mental disorders.
For more on this film, see my articles titled "Some Light at the End of the Tunnel" and "All About My Mother." Also, check the website for this film, www.outoftheshadow.com. Grade:A (10/04)
OWNING MAHOWNY (Richard Kwietniowski, US, 2003). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL COMPULSIVE GAMBLING. If you want to witness compulsive gambling in all of its ugly, destructive force, shorn of any glamour, this film delivers the goods. There is no edge of excitement, danger or dark seductive appeal accompanying the protagonist's irresistible desire to gamble, as there was in Mike Hodges’s 2000 film, Croupier. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Dan Mahowny, the major league compulsive gambler in this story, which is based on actual events. Mahowny is a successful young bank loan officer in Toronto who likes to bet at the horse races. He gets about $10K in debt to his bookie, who puts pressure on him to pay up. The form this pressure takes is instructive: the bookie refuses any more credit to Mahowny, thus stopping him from further betting, which causes Dan major anxiety. He responds indignantly, "What do you expect me to do out there at the track, watch?"
Mahowny then proceeds to embezzle funds from his bank to cover his debt; then, discovering how easily that worked, he steals more to gamble at a casino in Atlantic City. He rapidly becomes entrapped in a self made spiral of repeated losing and embezzling, a pattern of such eventual magnitude (he ends up having taken the bank for over $10 million) that he gets noticed by everyone from the casino bosses to the police. Even his clueless, classically codependent girlfriend Lisa (Minnie Driver, looking dowdy in a long blonde wig) finally catches on that her man may have a major problem. John Hurt plays an unctuous, predatory casino manager to perfection. Other roles in this film are small, two-dimensional, humdrum, as is much of the dialogue.
Pathological gambling comes in many flavors. For some action junkies, it is the pace, the setting, the drama of gaming and betting that counts. For others it is a matter of mood: fighting depression or seeking euphoria through gambling. For still others, gambling is one ingredient in an addictive broth that can also include alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex. Hoffman brilliantly shows us aspects of yet another form: genuinely compulsive gambling. His character channels his desperation into a quiet, relentless determination to sustain his gambling, a priority that so far outweighs any others for Dan that he is oblivious to everything and everyone else.
Three special features of this pathological gambling style stand out: (1) joylessness in his task: he applies himself with frumpy, austere grimness at the tables, eschewing food, drink and the attention of others, giving little hint of either pleasure or pain when he wins or loses: he is a true compulsive in action; (2) denial - “I don’t have a gambling problem, I have a financial problem,” Dan patiently keeps telling people; when someone attempts to pull him away from the tables after several hours while he’s still winning, he says, “Hey, leave me alone, I just got here.”; and (3) moral and interpersonal bankruptcy that match his financial woes: love, honor, loyalty, honesty – these all pale before his need to gamble, as in other severe addictions. Near the end Lisa tells Dan that she loves him. She means it. When Dan replies that he loves her too, his absence of feeling - his shallowness - is chillingly apparent.
Summary: good portrayal of a compulsive gambler in an otherwise mediocre film. For more on this and other films about gamblers, see my article, "Gamblers on Screen: Just a Few Worth Betting On." Grades: as drama: B-; as a clinically valid portrayal: A- (07/03)
PANIC (Henry Bromell, US, 2001). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER: CRIMINAL PSYCHOPATH; PSYCHOTHERAPYWITH A DANGEROUS PATIENT. Alex (William H. Macy) feels trapped and depressed. He's trapped primarily by his unusual occupation. He's a hired killer. He works for his father (Donald Sutherland), as evil a man as you're likely to meet next door in an upper class neighborhood. He systematically taught Alex to kill from childhood on. Alex's mother (Barbara Bain) knows the score and is equally callous. But Alex's wife (Tracey Ullman) has no clue. Alex reluctantly seeks help from a psychotherapist (John Ritter) and when dad finds out he orders Alex to kill his therapist. With Neve Campbell as Sarah, a messed up nymphette who catches Alex's attention. Kenneth Turan thought this was one of the best films at Sundance this year, but it seems like thin gruel to me, good actors or not. Grade: C+ (09/01)
PARAGRAPH 175 (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, US, 2000). THEME: NAZI PERSECUTION OF HOMOSEXUALS. Well crafted documentary about the Nazi purge of homosexuals. Archival footage is blended with interview clips featuring 5 gay survivors of the 7 known to be still living in the late 1990s and a Jewish lesbian woman who escaped to England in the 1930s; additional recently shot scenic and artistic clips are interspersed effectively for transitions. The interviews are revealing, poignant, well evoked. History begins with Weimar Republic days, after WW I, when Berlin featured an open and thriving gay and lesbian scene, a sort of golden age. The Nazis invoked “Paragraph 175” – an anti-sodomy law that had been on the books since 1871- as a pretext for imprisonment of gays, often without trial. They were considered salvageable through re-education. That most were Christians no doubt helped ease their fate. Nonetheless, over 150,000 died as a result of slave labor, starvation and actual killings. Lesbians were not considered as criminals and non-Semitic lesbians were left alone. After the war surviving gays were deemed criminals. Paragraph 175 survived as the basis for this and it was not rescinded until the late 1960s. To this day no reparations have been awarded to any homosexual who was brutalized by the Nazis. Klaus Muller researched this material and contacted the survivors. The results of his research are presented among the permanent displays at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Grade: B+ (12/02)
PARANOID PARK (Gus Van Sant, US/France, 2007, 90 m.). THEMES: ADOLESCENT DEPRESSION; PTSD. There is a tricky skateboard park tucked underneath the east end of the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon, that was built clandestinely by skateboarders and subsequently legalized by the city as the Eastside Skateboard Park. I’ve been there more than once and can attest that the talent on display is amazing. You’ve got to be pretty good to want to skate there, where reputation and skill are always on the line. This place is also the principal location for Portlander Gus Van Sant’s latest meditation on the dark side of adolescent and young adult experience.
A security guard at a nearby train yard turns up dead - his body severed in half to be precise - after being run down by a train. According to a detective on the case, Richard Lu (Daniel Liu, in a superb first time film performance), DNA evidence links the death to a skateboard found in the Willamette River. Because of this evidence, Detective Lu questions a number of boys known to skate at the park, including the protagonist in this film, Alex (Gabe Nevins, who also performs outstandingly in his first film role). Alex is a humorless kid around 16 or 17 who may be depressed. His parents are separated and headed for divorce. His mother goes off to Las Vegas now and again. Though his father tries to remain connected to Alex, he's usually on his own, and his 13 year old kid brother seems to be his only reliable source of support in the family. Alex’s introverted moroseness permeates all of his interactions. At one point he tells a sort of girlfriend that “…something happened to me on some other level than daily events.” Is he simply reacting to the trauma of his family's dissolution? Is he suffering through the prodrome of a psychotic breakdown? Does he know something he’s not able to discuss with others, something he can only write about in a journal?
This story, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, is presented in a quiet, almost lyrical manner, very much in the style of Elephant, Van Sant’s last film about troubled teenagers. Problem-burdened young people have been the focus of other Van Sant films as well: think of Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Last Days. You might even say that the experience of troubled youths, especially boys/men, is the dominant theme in most of Van Sant’s projects. And what shines through especially is Van Sant’s understated, unsentimental compassion for these youths. Moreover, his ability to evoke excellent turns from first-time actors is exceptional. This is true not only with Nevins, Liu and several supporting actors cast in Paranoid Park, but also with previous young non-actors in Elephant and Finding Forrester.
The photography is always interesting. After collaborating with Harris Savides on four prior films, Van Sant has linked up this time with the internationally sought after cinematographer, Australian Christopher Doyle, with Kathy Li collaborating. So we don’t have Savides’s long tracking shots and over-the-shoulder, subjects’ perspective camera angles. Doyle and Li’s work is less about the subjects’ movement than more conventionally shot scenes, but many of these, like the opening scene of the neo-gothic St. John’s Bridge north of Portland, are beautiful. An exception is the brilliant slow motion footage of skateboarders doing their thing. The action shots here are better than most of those in Stacy Peralta’s skateboard documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys (though in fairness, I should add that most of the historic skateboard shots in that film were stills taken by amateurs, not moving pictures: good archival material perhaps but poor in demonstrating the artistry and skill of the sport). A canny sense of - yes - paranoia is maintained by the use throughout Paranoid Park of ominous, discordant background sounds and murmured voices, not unlike the quality of auditory illusions and hallucinations described by persons suffering from schizophrenia or paranoid psychosis. At Cannes in 2007, Paranoid Park won the special, one-off 60th Anniversary Prize and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Grade: A- (02/08)
PAULINA (Vicki Funari, Mexico/Canada/US, 1999). THEME: PERSEVERENCE IN OVERCOMING ADVERSITY. This stunning film - part documentary, part reënacted scenes from earlier years - is a tribute to the extra- ordinary character of a woman, a Mexican peasant, who might have been slain or deeply damaged during a brutal childhood, but who instead not only prevails through courage, and with integrity, but also raises an exceptional daughter. (In Spanish) Grade: B+ (03/99)
PAULINE AND PAULETTE (Lieven Debrauwer, Belgium, 2002). THEME: DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITY IN AN AGING ADULT. Martha dies, leaving the care of Pauline - her aging, developmentally disabled sister - in the hands of two other busy sisters, Paulette and Cecile. Competing priorities of family obligations versus personal life goals are sensitively explored in this tender but realistic film. Dora van der Groen (a major star in Belgium) is impeccable as Pauline. (In Flemish and French) Grades: (dramatic grounds): B+; (van der Groen's portrayal): A+ (02/02)
PEPPERMINT CANDY (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2001). THEMES: POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER; SUICIDE. Arresting story of the roots of a suicide. An agitated 40 year old man disrupts a reunion of his old friends, then suicides as we watch. Long flashbacks then sequentially review the prior 20 years of his life, the most recent epoch shown first. Gradually the circumstances and personal misconduct leading to the suicide are revealed. Fine performance by Sol Kyung-Gu as the protagonist. (In Korean). Grade: B (02/01)
PERSONAL VELOCITY (Rebecca Miller, US, 2002). THEMES: LIFE CRISIS AS CATALYST FOR CHANGE; WOMEN'S ISSUES. SPOILER ALERT! Velocity, like weight, is a dimension that varies in quantity. Some people move fast in life, others more slowly, this film’s title suggests. Some move sooner, others later (and, by implication, some may never move at all). Personal Velocity presents three brief, non-connected, half-hour stories, each a portrait of a young woman experiencing a life crisis. Crises are among the key catalysts for change, for movement in life.
These women and their stories are absorbing, complex, filled with paradox, and they raise questions about the very nature of life changes. The women are different sorts and the life events we find them enmeshed in are of different sorts as well. Delia (Kyra Sedgwick) is the daughter of a violent father, and a former self-admitted “high school slut” whose highest station in life has been coffee shop waitress. She’s now a battered mom who, after the many occasions when she chose to stay with her violent husband, leaves him this time, seemingly for good. As we leave her, though, she seems to have reverted to her old habits, using sexual charms to control and seek retribution against men.
The second story is less formulaic. Greta (Parker Posey) shares in common with her illustrious civil rights attorney father an insatiable ambition for power and a wandering eye for the opposite sex. But she recoils from her father when he abandons her mother for a new lover, and mother not long thereafter dies of cancer. Greta drops out of law school, marries a handsome milquetoast, and works as an obscure cookbook editor. It’s a dull but safe life. Through dumb luck she gets to edit a smash novel, propelling her into a terrific new job. This gets her competitive juices flowing again, brings about a reunion of sorts with dad, and makes Greta realize that she will in time dump her spouse. In short, she has reverted to a modus vivendi like dad’s, but at the end, when she becomes keenly aware of her cunning ambition, this insight is not associated with a sense of triumph, but of sadness. So in both of these stories, movement and change appear to bring Delia and Greta full circle, back to the persons they had been as adolescents, not off in some truly new direction.
The third story is enigmatic, reminiscent of some of Kieslowski’s short works (e.g., some segments in Decalogue). Paula (Fairuza Balk) is newly pregnant by Vincent, her partner of two years, an apparently loving and respectful man with whom she found stability after the breakup of her parents’ marriage, when her mother left her father for a new boyfriend. Paula is younger than the women in the first two stories, and she is far from fully formed. We meet her in a daze. She’s run off from Vincent without telling him of the pregnancy. The same night she leaves, she witnesses a man she’d met in a bar die when hit by a car as they are walking together. She blames herself for his death. Now, while driving upstate to attempt a reconciliation with her mother, she picks up a frightened boy, a kid who’s been beaten badly. He runs off after she tries to aid him. Somehow, through the encounters with her mother and this boy, Paula finds herself able to crystallize her resolve to return to Vincent. We cannot really tell if, through this movement, Paula is also reverting to childhood or adolescent form, like the other women, or truly moving forward, toward new developments within her personality.
These stories were adapted by Miller from her own published short stories. Interestingly, a man (John Ventimiglia) was cast to narrate this film about women; his slightly hesitant, soft voiced, thoughtful style seems to fit. There is good acting by all three principals. The photography (in digvid) is excellent, with good use of close-ups and unusual camera angles. The musical score is pensive, magnifying the mood of the film. Best of all are the cleverly crafted stories.
Grade: B+ (05/03)
THE PERSONALS (Keiko Ibi, US, 1998). THEME: COPING WITH LONELINESS IN OLD AGE. NYU film grad student thesis and Oscar winner as best documentary of 98! Older people participating in a senior center theater group write their own plays. This one is about their actual experiences seeking dates through personals ads. The characters are candid, often amusing, and amused by one another, and the director, a pro, is patient and supportive. Toward the end the project is defunded and the director must go. How typical of America's fickle, flighty support for human services, even the best. Grade: A (04/99)
PI (Darren Aronofsky, US, 1998) THEME: OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER EVOLVING INTO PARANOID PSYCHOSIS. OCD is a stable condition in most persons who suffer from it, but sometimes OCD symptoms represent the tip of an iceberg of deeper psychopathology, especially paranoid psychosis. In Aronofsky’s first film, this is what occurs. The hero (ably played by Sean Gullette) is an obsessive mathematician seeking a formula to achieve such things as decode the real name of God and also to predict accurately shifts in the stock market. These searches are literally driving him crazy. He also has blackout spells. Filming in B&W, using a jittery hand held camera, and shooting most scenes in the claustrophobic setting of the hero’s cramped workspace are strategies that all add to the viewer’s connection with the emotional state of the hero. Grade: B+ (08/98)
THE PIANO TEACHER (Michael Haneke, Austria, 2002). THEMES: PERSONALITY DISORDER; SADO-MASOCHISM. Brilliant study of personality disorder, sadomasochistic perversion, longing and desire. Isabelle Huppert amazes as the haunted, half crazed central character. The other two principals round out an intense cast of this claustrophobic, masterful psychodrama. For more on this film, see my article titled "Feeling Your Pain." (In French) Grade: A (04/02)
PIECES OF APRIL (Peter Hedges, US, 2003). THEMES: DEATH & DYING; FAMILY CONFLICT. The best Home-for-Thanksgiving movie of all time may be Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, but you won't find a TG film more winsome than Pieces of April. Hedges, who wrote screenplays for some noteworthy films, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (based on his novel), Map of the World, and About a Boy, debuts here as the director of his newest script, about an unlikely reunion of the somewhat batty Burns family.
The story unfolds over the course of a single Thanksgiving Day. Joy Burns (the ubiquitous Patricia Clarkson, who seems to be collecting every good 40-something role in sight these days) is dying of breast cancer and wracked with the usual side effects of chemo. Nevertheless, and against the wishes of her husband (Oliver Platt), younger daughter and son, Joy insists that the family, including Joy’s moderately demented mother, wryly named Grandma Dottie, make the lengthy drive from suburban Jersey into the grimmer reaches of upper Manhattan, where estranged older daughter April (Katie Holmes) has invited them for Thanksgiving dinner, quite likely the last the family will share with Joy.
Nearly everyone’s dreading this. Joy herself, though she insists on honoring April’s invitation, cannot remember a single happy memory of this daughter, the family’s one rebellious and disappointing offspring. Someone ruefully refers to her as the “first pancake.” April and new boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke, who starred opposite Denzel Washington in Antwone Fisher) are bravely tackling a traditional dinner with all the trimmings, although I should mention that neither cooks. Like everything else in this film, that fact is smartly deflected from potential pathos or silliness and turned instead into generous good humor. The stuffing of the turkey is a hoot. And when the oven - used by the couple to store shoes - fails to function, April for the first time meets a large number of her neighbors in the six story walkup apartment house, in her funny, frantic quest for a stove that works.
I agree with Roger Ebert that a subplot in which Bobby runs a nearly endless errand is unnecessary, distracting and falsely plays on racial stereotypes. Despite this and other obstacles, everyone finally comes together for a splendid feast - all the Burnses, Bobby, a couple of bikers, and nearly all the neighbors. This finale, glowing with good feeling, is the real deal: no shabby display of gratuitous sentiment, instead it’s an ending that has been hard won by the players. Clarkson gives a fine performance as a woman who has made some peace with a difficult fate; she intends to grasp and savor any remaining moments of comfort, amusement or affection that come her way.
Oliver Platt is also especially good here, overly protective of Joy one moment, her cheerleader the next, and gently heartbroken all the while. In fact almost everyone in the cast seems settled and natural, a decided tribute to the directing skills of Mr. Hedges. Besides Bobby's errand, the film’s other annoyance is its somewhat clumsy employment of digital video, but then the whole enterprise was made for only $200K. This film grows on you as it progresses; it’s one in which the whole adds up to far more than the sum of its little parts. It’s a small film with a huge heart. Grade: B+ (12/03)
PINK FLAMINGOS (An Exercise in Poor Taste) (John Waters, US, 1972). THEME: SEXUAL PERVERSIONS (INCEST, VOYEURISM; BEASTIALITY, AMONG OTHERS). The prototypical and now cult classic Waters trash film. Divine, a huge and raunchy comedienne, heads an improbable gang and claims she is the filthiest person in the world. She may be right. In a trailer in rural Maryland live Divine; her mother, an equally fat infantile creature who lives in a child's playpen, wears only bra and panties, and is obsessed with eating eggs; Crackers, her delinquent, ugly son and sometimes sex partner; and Cotton, a blonde floozy addicted to voyeuristic sex, watching Crackers bed his various "dates," sometimes with the aid of live chickens. It actually gets a lot worse than this, as another horrid couple in the city seek to destroy Divine and claim her title. This film combines fiendish intentional excesses of bad scripting, acting, music and costume together with horrid actions and ideas guaranteed to offend middle class sensibilities, which appears to be the point of it all. Grade: B- (05/00)
A PLACE NEARBY (Kaspar Rostrup, Denmark, 2001). THEME: ADULT AUTISM. Deeply moving story of the love, fears and tribulations of a woman nearing 60 as she looks after her 20 year old autistic son. This story, replete with flashbacks to the son’s childhood, is further wrapped within a second story, a murder mystery. There are other small subplots as well. A film close to perfection in plot construction and harmonics, acting, pace and photography; not a moment wasted. (In Danish) Grade: (02/01)
THE PLEDGE (Sean Penn, US, 2001). THEMES: AGING CHARACTER STUDY; INABILITY TO ADJUST TO RETIREMENT; OBSESSIONAL, DRIVEN BEHAVIOR (BUT NOT OCD). Two for the price of one here: a suspense story and a study of obsession. Both concern Jerry, a just-retired police detective (Jack Nicholson), who, on his last night of duty, makes a commitment to the parents of a murdered child that he will apprehend the killer. He tries to keep his word and in the process becomes obsessed with this goal. He digs up evidence suggesting that a serial child killer is the culprit, not a mentally ill Native American (Benicio Del Toro) who falsely confesses near the start of the story.
Jerry buys a rundown gas station in a remote Sierra Nevada sportfishing area and waits for the true killer to reveal himself. The story is full of interesting characters, justaposes intrigue and tension against a background of relaxed rural life, and offers an ending of astonishing irony. Nicholson is impeccable as a complex aging fellow who is part warm and fuzzy grandfather and part unbalanced and relentless detective. Robin Wright Penn is believable as Lori, a battered single mom who befriends Jerry. With a remarkable supporting cast that includes Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, and rich but brief cameos by Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Harry Dean Stanton. Grade: B+ (01/01)The supporting cast is good, although unimportant, used so much like stage props that we don't even get most of their names...any room left on the screen by Harris's luminosity is pretty much used up by Harden. This two dimensional quality in the supporting cast is one reason why this is not a very complete film. Inaccuracies in the historical record are another (e.g., Pollock's assertion that "I am nature" was not made to Krasner, as in the film, but to someone else). On the other hand, scenes showing Pollock at work painting are very ably realized. This film is best thought of as a "star vehicle" for Harris's performance, a term typically used to slam a movie, although I don't mean just to do that here. Being a star vehicle is both a curse and a blessing for Pollock. No, this is not a film about art or artists or the bohemian life or even about the events in a particular artist's life. It is instead a gut wrenching character study of an outsized American celebrity who happened to be a painter. As such it is absolutely superb. Grade: B+
PLENTY (Fred Schepisi, US/UK, 1985). THEME: "BORDERLINE" OR "EMOTIONALLY UNSTABLE" PERSONALITY. Well, there’s plenty of talent cast here. Plenty of drawing room conversation. Plenty – some might say far too much - of Meryl Streep as Susan, the central character in this movie, oozing insincere melodrama in what Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls a soulless performance. And surely plenty of makeup - in fact way too much - worn by Streep at all times: she always looks impeccably unblemished and debutante lovely, whether scruffing through the French countryside on a nocturnal mission, making love or shooting guns in her apartment to scare people. David Hare adapted this work from his stage play about a woman whose pinnacle in life seems to have occurred when she was a young woman parachuted into WW II France with a few other Brits to link up with Resistance forces at work against the Nazis.
After the war she lands good jobs – she’s smart and assertive – but finds little satisfaction in the worlds of advertising, politics and Royalty, for whom she seems to function as a planner of high level social functions. A British diplomat (Charles Dance) she met at the end of the war finally marries her with the classically misguided intention of saving her from her own maladaptive habit of making others miserable. Of course the foreordained outcome is that he also becomes miserable. The film spans the period from about 1944 to the time just following the Suez Crisis in 1956, during which Susan also manages to lay waste the likes of Sam Neill and Sting, both given roles too meager for much development. Tracey Ullman’s more kinky and good natured neuroticism makes her a welcome relief as Susan’s most faithful friend, Alice.
The screenplay suffers badly from being too “stagey” - there’s way too much talk and not nearly enough movement here. And in the first 1/3 of the film, the editing is dreadful…one often cannot tell where or when things are occurring. Brief titles for the transitions were desperately needed, e.g., “Brussels, 1945” or “London, 1947” – that sort of thing. The ultimate puzzler here is Streep’s performance. The generous interpretation is that she was trying to portray a woman with a “borderline” personality disorder. Such people (usually women) can be emotionally labile and melodramatic, typically treat their intimates harshly, often viciously, and do not have a clear sense of personal identity, i.e., can seem insincere, mutable, ambiguous. They are prone to manipulate and use others badly, create scenes, and can act dangerously. But at other times, particularly in the workplace, such people may function well, even brilliantly if they possess special aptitudes or gifts. In this view, Streep is masterful but the character as written is not a sympathetic one, which further damages an enterprise freighted with a poor screenplay and bad editing early on. The other view is that this is one among a number of Streep performances dominated by her penchant for technique (getting the accent just so) at the expense of real feeling and coherence of character. You choose. Grade: C+ (04/03)
POLLOCK (Ed Harris, US, 2001). THEMES: CREATIVE GENIUS; NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY; ALCOHOLISM. Brilliant character study and biopic of Jackson Pollock, covering his life from the time he first meets Lee Krasner in 1941 until his drunken death behind the wheel in 1956, thus spanning his rise to accomplishment and fame as a painter, and his subsequent decline. Harris yearned to make this film for 10 years. He produced, directed, and stars in the title role. He has succeeded in making a movie in which he gives a dazzling, arresting, heartbreaking performance as a mad drunken infantile artistic genius. Standard cliché you say? Not as performed by Harris: his work here is so fresh, so electrifying, so inducing of suspense (when and how will he erupt next?) that it is as if he had invented the image of the “mad artist.” The physicality that Harris brings to the role matches what we know of Pollock's own brutish carnality. He and Tennessee Williams were friends in the early 40s, and it is said that Pollock inspired Williams's character, Stanley Kowalski, in Streetcar Named Desire. Marcia Gay Harden as Krasner, Pollock's longsuffering but intelligent partner, is also excellent. Her quiet tolerance gives counterpoint to Harris's mercurial fluctuations of mood, as it must have done in their life together. It is no understatement when Harris's Pollock tells his young mistress Ruth (Jennifer Connelly) that “I owe...the woman [Krasner] something. Without her I'd have been dead."
PONETTE (Jacques Doillon, France, 1997). THEME: GRIEF OF A YOUNG CHILD WHEN HER MOTHER DIES IN AN ACCIDENT. Victoire Thivisol is incredibly good as 4 year old Ponette. (In French) Grade: A (10/98)
POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (Mike Nichols, US, 1990). THEMES: POLYDRUG ABUSE; TROUBLED CELEBRITY MOTHER-DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP; PARENTAL MODELS IN SUBSTANCE ABUSE. Melodrama adapted from Carrie Fisher’s book, based in turn upon her relationship to her mother, Debbie Reynolds. It’s a story of a celebrity family in the midst of Hollywood that focuses on the relationship of the mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a singing film star back in the 50s and 60s, and her daughter Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), who has had some success as a film actress but seems to be in decline though still quite young, thanks to a severe polydrug abuse habit (prescription pills and cocaine). The film opens with her stoned, botching her conduct and lines badly on a movie set. Shortly she winds up in a drug rehab center, but not for long. Next she gets a chance at another film role, but the film’s insurers require that she live with one of her parents and submit to random urine drug screens. Thus Suzanne’s worst nightmare, to be back living with her mother, comes true.
The film opens and closes very well but sags significantly in its long soap opera center. Doris’s alcoholism – past and present - comes to light in that process, Suzanne pops some more narcotic pills a time or two but manages not to burn and crash. In the end she pulls herself together well – it’s more a matter of trying harder than an epiphany - and seems to be moving forward in her career, tapping her dormant talents as a singer. The film fails as a useful portrayal of drug abuse and treatment because so little attention is given to this aspect. It does indicate, however, how parental role models and practices contribute (Doris had regularly given over-the-counter sleeping pills to Suzanne in childhood). Streep and MacLaine give fine turns here, with Streep surprising as an able singer. The supporting cast is loaded with the likes of Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, Mary Wickes, Annette Bening, CCH Pounder and Oliver Platt. Grades: Drama: B; portrayal of drug abuse/treatment: C (11/04)
THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST (Theodore J. Flicker, US, 1967). THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK; PARODY OF PARANOIA. James Coburn in a Cold War farce. As a New York City psychoanalyst, he is secretly brought to Washington DC to be available for therapy to the President. BUT you will not learn one stitch from this film about psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, as we never see a moment of their time together. We do see Coburn create an amusing parody of becoming paranoid, as agents of several countries chase him to get the secrets they are sure he knows, while the FBR (Read FBI) tries to assassinate him. The heads of the FBR and the CEA (Read CIA) are wonderfully typecast – the former as a steely, nasty, paranoid fellow, the latter as a warm, tweedy, pipesmoking academic type. Grades: (drama): C+; (clinical authenticity): F (12/02)
PRIME (Ben Younger, US, 2005, 105 m.). THEMES: (1) SUPPORTIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY; (2) ETHICAL DILEMMA: SON OF THERAPIST BEGINS AFFAIR WITH FEMALE CLIENT - AT FIRST NOBODY CONNECTS THE DOTS. Ben Younger, who made Boiler Room, the brash, smart 2000 film about high pressure investment swindlers, has now created Prime, which is quite different and decidedly more tepid fare. It’s a schmaltzy romance worth seeing only because of an additional subtext thrown in for good measure: a rather juicy psychotherapist-client ethical dilemma wrapped in a particular style of supportive therapy, which I will call simply “mothering.”
It seems that the therapist, Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep), a master's prepared clinical social worker, evidently, from the titles we glimpse briefly on her office door near the beginning of the film (M.S., C.S.W.), has a female client, Rafi (Uma Thurman), who, having just divorced, begins an affair with a much younger man, David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg). He turns out to be none other than the therapist’s - Ms. Metzger’s - son. Neither Metzger nor Rafi knows this at first (nor does David realize that Rafi is his mother's client), but Metzger figures it out soon enough.
So, what’s a mother – or in this case a mother/therapist – to do? In fact she does exactly the right thing: she seeks consultation with her own former therapist, Rita (Madhur Jaffrey). Rita gives sound advice: this could be a brief fling that lasts just a few weeks. If Metzger stops treatment now, Rita opines, she risks jettisoning an important therapeutic relationship permanently, a step that is not in the client’s best interests. So temporize for now, keep your connection to David to yourself, and see what happens, Rita advises. Easier said than done, as Rafi gets more, not less, enamored of David, speaks of David’s difficult mother, and begins to discuss their sex life together (“David’s penis is so wonderful I want to knit a little hat for it,” Rafi gushes).
Finally, after David moves in with Rafi, Lisa can’t bear her position any longer and spills the beans to Rafi, i.e., that she is David’s mother. Rafi feels understandably betrayed, lied to by Lisa. Was Lisa right to soldier along as Rita advised, until it became clear that this was more than a fling, and Lisa’s divided feelings made it no longer tenable for her to act in her client’s best interests? Or should she have withdrawn immediately, as soon as David’s identity (as Rafi's lover) became known to her? Good conundrum, I would say, one without an immediately obvious, one-size-fits-all answer. What would you do or advise another to do in Lisa’s situation?
After the break off of treatment occurs, everyone takes a stab at being good sports. The parents - Lisa and David’s father - host a dinner for Rafi and David, and David’s grandparents. Lisa says that the religious issue is the deal breaker for her. (The Metzger-Bloombergs are observant Jews, it seems, while Rafi is not Jewish.) In speaking with David about the affair, Lisa strays acorss the parent boundary into talk that sounds every bit like therapy, and David perceptively calls her on it.
After the first flushes of infatuation wane, Rafi and David’s affair trudges down an increasingly bumpy path, heats up, founders, sparks again. It’s not a memorable or even slightly nuanced romance: their thing together is decidedly physical and little more. Greenberg is a hunk of a kid here but otherwise unformed, end of story. Thurman sort of shimmies her way through the film, her flaxen hair always in a fetching tangle, Farrah Fawcett style; those strangely spellbinding eyes, like the eyes of an embryo, casting impossibly soulful looks this way and that. The details of the romantic resolution need not concern us here, but Lisa has no direct hand in it. Rafi and Lisa reconcile, though, quite rightly, a treatment relationship is never resumed.
The American Psychological Association’s Media Watch Committee recently came out swinging, castigating the therapy riff in this film, saying it badly distorts real therapy. Gee, and just before learning this, I was about to say the opposite, that Streep’s therapist does validly represent a whole legion of therapists of a certain stripe out there in real clinical practice. The group I have in mind are women therapists who in essence "mother" dependent clients, most often women.
Such therapists are typically informal in manner, offer unconditional positive regard, to use Carl Rogers’s term, hug their “kids” often – sometimes at the end of every session - and act the cheerleader whenever the client does something positive. Their offices are often appointed like Lisa’s in this film: like a homey parlor. You even look around for a plate of fruit or cookies on a table.
Clients who have somehow missed good mothering – maybe mother died when the client was young or never was loving or available – seek out such therapists and often flower in the attention of such treatment. We learn that Rafi apparently had little if any mothering as a child. Small wonder she might bask in the glow of “good enough mothering,” to borrow the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term.
The potential long term benefits of such supportive “reparenting” experiences in therapy are tirelessly (and tiresomely) debated. Do clients in such treatment ever change – get their fill of parenting and move on – or do they remain dependent? Psychoanalysts and dynamic psychotherapists take the latter view, that parenting-style therapy infantilizes the client, reinforcing immature, neurotic ties and preempting the client’s opportunities for change.
Well, maybe, at least theoretically. But, as the gifted psychotherapist Jay Haley pronounced, decades ago, down deep most clients really don’t want to change, no matter what they may say. People tend to prefer the familiar, even when the road more traveled is fraught with frustration and heartache. It’s better to stick with the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t know, so the saying goes. Haley felt most people had to be “tricked” into change.
I cannot recommend this film on dramatic merit - the kindest term I can muster to describe it is 'mediocre.' There are a couple of highly amusing cameos: Lotte Mandel as David's deceased grandmother Bubbie, seen in brief flashbacks hitting her head with a small frying pan whenever David frustrates her; and Ato Essandoh as Damien, the taciturn doorman at Rafi's apartment house. This film is of interest mainly for its psychotherapy angle.
The “good mother” style of therapy is common and, surprisingly, has not been represented well in feature films, as far as I am aware. Miss Streep does a decent job of giving such a portrayal here, and Miss Thurman also gives a convincing performance in the reciprocal role of the client needy for mother love (she’s far better in the scenes with Streep than when writhing around with Greenberg).
Until someone that does this portrayal better than Streep comes along, or this whole approach to psychotherapy is debunked once and for all (and it hasn’t happened yet), I actually intend to list this performance on my “best therapists on film” list. Grades: for drama: C-; for the psychotherapy relationship: B+ (10/05)
THE PRINCE OF TIDES (Barbara Streisand, US, 1991) THEMES: PSYCHOTHERAPIST AT WORK; PTSD Dreadful production adapted from the novel, in which Streisand stars as a psychiatrist who ends up in bed with her patient, who suffers from PTSD related to childhood abuse by his father. Grade: D (10/98)
PRODUCING ADULTS (Aleksi Salmenpera, Finland/Sweden, 2004, 102 min.). THEMES: IMMATURE ADULT RELATIONSHIPS; PARODY OF COUPLES’ THERAPY. Although this soapy psychodrama concerns several people in their 20s, 30s and beyond, I find no evidence that any of them act like adults, at the outset or through any discernable changes during the story. Nope. These are self absorbed and self defeating people, like the guy who, knowing how much his partner of 17 years wants a baby, gets a vasectomy without her knowledge and then tells her how much he loves her. Yeah. Right. And why has she squandered 17 years on a guy who won't meet her terms for a relationship? The film is full of such foolishness. These people need recycling, and the parody of couples’ therapy near the end won’t suffice. The only good thing in the film occurs in the first few minutes. We see a psychologist at a fertility clinic conducting a guided imagery session with an infertile woman, who is imagining herself floating in semen alongside giant sperm, rather like swimming with dolphins I presume. The therapist says, “…now hug those sperm. Tell them to obey you,” she intones. Alas, they will not obey, the disappointed patient ruefully reports. But it’s all down hill from this promising beginning, in the only bad film from Finland in recent memory. (In Finnish) Overall grade: C-; parody of couples’ therapy: B (02/05)
PROOF (Jocelyn Moorhouse, Australia 1991). THEMES: PARANOID PERSONALITY; BLINDNESS. SPOILER ALERT! A lifelong blind man, Martin (Hugo Weaving), who lives in Melbourne, grew up with a deep distrust of the world around him, especially of his mother, upon whom he depended to tell him about the real world he could not see. But he always doubted her shared observations, felt she routinely lied to him, for reasons never stated in the film (we do see that she felt intruded upon when as a young boy Martin would come into her bedroom and touch her while she slept). She died while he was still a boy, but he was convinced she faked her death and had an empty coffin placed in the cemetery, in order to escape him. As an adult he obsessively photographs everything to prove his experiences are real. Trouble is, he needs to depend upon another person to verify the content of the photos. Harsh bind.
At the beginning of the film we meet Celia (Genevieve Picot), who looks after Martin's housekeeping, shopping, bill paying and so on. There is a terrible tension between them. Are they fallen out ex-lovers? Divorced mates? No. But Celia has deeply loved Martin for over 3 years, during the time she has worked for him. He is entirely resistant to her entreaties. She has grown resentful but has not given up on the possibilities. We also soon meet Andy (a young Russell Crowe), a dishwasher in a nearby restaurant who befriends Martin.
A triangle develops, but as the relationships change throughout the film, Celia is ultimately dealt out, and Martin perhaps has grown just a bit by accepting the idea posed by Andy that, while Martin may always tell the truth, others don't always do so. That is human nature, Andy implies, and Martin seems to be listening at the end. Poor Celia. Use of pictures to "prove reality" is somewhat the same notion used recently by Christopher Nolan in Memento. Critics refer to the humor in the film, but I found little to chuckle over. It's somber fare. Grade: B (12/01)
PROOF (John Madden, US, 2005, 99 m.). THEMES: OBSESSIVE, DISTRUSTFUL PERSONALITY MADE WORSE UNDER STRESSES OF BEREAVEMENT AND INTRUSION BY OTHER WELL MEANING PEOPLE; CAREGIVER BEREAVEMENT WHEN THE PERSON CARED FOR DIES; SIBLING (SISTER-SISTER) CONFLICT. Story of a woman’s identification with her recently deceased, chronically mentally ill father and her conflicted relationship with an estranged sister. David Auburn adapted his own stage play. Gwyneth Paltrow reprises the role of the central character, Catherine, that she had performed earlier for the London stage production. Her collaboration with director John Madden here follows their success in working together on the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love.
Catherine is an intellectually gifted but neurotic single woman, daughter of a brilliant, world class mathematician, Robert (Anthony Hopkins, in a minor role), a fictional character not unlike John Nash (A Beautiful Mind). As had Nash in real life, Robert rose to international fame after solving several important math problems in his early 20s, before succumbing to a severe and persistent mental illness that left him able to teach some but no longer the contributor of trailblazing research that he had once been. Catherine had more-or-less sacrificed her own life in order to care for her father. In the last few years before he died, she had returned to school and begun to dabble in attempts to solve higher math problems herself.
We meet Catherine just a couple of days after her father’s sudden, unexpected death at age 63. She is stricken with grief and very edgy, wandering aimlessly around the house they had shared, drinking too much. She’s irritated and barely able to cope with the intrusions of a former graduate student of her father’s, Harold (Jake Gyllenhaal), and her sister Claire (Hope Davis), who has arrived from New York bent on taking charge of everything. Mainly Catherine has become worried that her personality is too much like her father’s, and that she might be vulnerable to developing a more severe mental illness herself.
Her fears are far from groundless. She shares with her father not only his obsessive passion for math, but also a more pervasive tendency to rigidly demand proof of accuracy or truth from herself and everybody else around her, to justify anything significant that is said or done or even seriously considered. Casually tossed-off comments or idle thoughts or acts are in effect forbidden in Catherine’s world.
Like many rigidly obsessive people, she can also slip pretty easily into distrust and a paranoid orientation, especially now, under the stresses of her bereavement and the interlopers that are spoiling the decorum of her house. Beyond that, she is almost desperately seeking proof of the validity and meaning of her own life, her very existence. It is as if her father’s death has taken away her own main purpose in living.
This issue comes to a head around her clash with Harold about the identity of the author of a sensational new proof of an age old enigmatic mathematical problem. Harold is excited, feeling that certain publication of the findings will vindicate her father and assure his lasting place among the great mathematicians of his day. Catherine claims it was she who authored this proof, not her father. Harold, who is developing a crush on Catherine, is, nonetheless, incredulous. How could she, with limited training and experience, be capable of such work? Catherine’s fury at Harold is fueled precisely by the fact that it is her own separate identity and meaning in life, apart from being her father’s caregiver, that is at stake.
films adapted from the stage, this one is fairly static, claustrophobic, lacking the movement one expects in cinema. But for the purposes of conveying Catherine’s thoughts and emotional experiences, pent up claustrophobia enhances the sense of what she is going through. The demands of the role are subtly complex, and Ms. Paltrow gives a highly creditable performance. So does Ms. Davis in a simpler, more straightforward part as a rather obsessive, controlling person in her own right. In fact this is one of the better clashes of sisters in a conflicted relationship that I have seen on film.
Grades: overall dramatic and cinematic values: B. Portrayal of a bereaved, obsessive, distrustful personality: A-. (01/06)
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2002). THEME: PERSONALITY DISORDER, MIXED TYPE, WITH OBSESSIVE, EXPLOSIVE and AVOIDANT FEATURES. This loopy, visually captivating film is easily the most eccentric romantic comedy in ages. Adam Sandler, whose movies I have avoided like the SARS virus, is cast as Barry Egan, a single 30-something oddball who distributes novelty toilet plungers from a San Fernando Valley warehouse and serves as a psychological punching bag for his seven nagging sisters. It’s not much of a life until he meets Lena (Emily Watson), who proves to be a bit of a kook in her own right. Who else could tolerate this geek except the woman that made her film debut opposite an impossible wretch of a man in Breaking the Waves?
Egan is full of quirks. He buys thousands of packaged puddings to accrue bonus frequent flyer miles even though he has zero interest in travel (he did the math and discovered a company error – the miles are worth more than the price paid for the pudding, and he just cannot resist the bargain). He wears a royal blue polyester suit that Ross Dress for Less wouldn’t sell, and has aggressive fits of pique in which he can trash a public restroom or his sister’s floor to ceiling windows in a heartbeat. His sisters treat him so badly that one can infer their never-seen parents probalby did the same, with the result that the painfully shy Egan does all he can to avoid intimacy, substituting phone sex for relationships.
Nevertheless, Barry falls madly in love with Lena. Developments on this front are sidetracked, however, when one of Barry's phone sex partners embroils him in a heavy scam, a very nasty financial shakedown operation masterminded by a pompous mattress warehouse owner named Dean in Utah (the ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman). Energized by love, not to mention his own penchant for violence, Barry takes on Dean’s four henchmen.
Sandler’s absolutely unpredictable utterances and physical comedy are a wonder to behold. The camera work and mise-en-scene are always imaginative, with daring, vividly colored abstract pastiches demarcating major scene changes, and the musical soundtrack varies spectacularly from industrial noise compositions to 30s romantic riffs. Anderson, whose work is nearly always highly watchable (Magnolia, Boogey Nights) does it again here, in what I think is clearly his most audacious film so far. Grade: B+ (05/04)
PURE (Gillies MacKinnon, UK, 2002, 96 min.). THEMES: HEROIN ADDICTION; IMPACT OF MOTHER’S ADDICTION ON HER YOUNG SONS. Molly Parker is convincing as Mel, a heroin addicted single parent, whose 10 year old son Paul (Harry Eden in an astonishingly good performance) literally parents her - not only doing the shopping, cooking, laundry, and care for his pre-school brother, but even preparing Mel’s heroin shots - until circumstances force their separation by the authorities. Frenzied with worry and loneliness, even though entrusted to his grandparents’ care, Paul is always on the go, running here or there, and seeking solace in the company of Louise (Keira Knightley), a heroin-smoking pregnant girl whose lack of boundaries makes it possible for her to act seductively even toward this bereft youngster. This gritty little film portrays addicted women, and the burden that befalls their children, in an unvarnished, clinically and socially authentic manner. Knightley shows surprising signs of possessing acting chops here, and Parker is very good, but the film is held together by young Harry Eden in a debut role. As Roger Ebert notes, if acting is so hard, how come there are so many masterful performances, like this one, rendered by children? Grade: B (08/05)
QUITTING (Zuotian) (Zhang Yang, China, 2002). THEME: HEROIN DEPENDENCE & TREATMENT IN CHINA. Oddly arranged true story of Jia Hongsheng, a young, successful Chinese actor who performed in film, on TV and on stage in the late 1980s and early 90s, but whose career was subsequently sidetracked by drug dependence. His drug problems began in 1992 during a stage production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” that was being directed by Mr. Zhang. Jia’s addictive problems went on for 4 years, and he dropped out of acting. Things culminated when his family arranged for him to be hospitalized for a year of treatment. After some unspecified interval, Mr. Zhang asked Jia if he would be willing to participate in a film about his addictive experiences, and Jia agreed. Quitting is the result. Jia, his parents and his sister all take part, playing themselves.
The story centers largely on family disruption brought on when the parents move in with Jia and his sister at the peak of his addictive problems. Conflict is especially keen between Jia and his father, “Old Jia,” also a professional actor, who has retired prematurely to come to Beijing to help his son. Old Jia has an addictive problem of his own: he’s an alcoholic, and having time on his hands increases his thirst. Young Jia is mercurially changeable: sullen or morose one moment, argumentative the next, often nasty toward friends and family alike, irrational, and at times apparently psychotic (he claims to see a dragon out in space coming for him). His drug use is vaguely described: one can only be certain that he used a lot of heroin, using a smoking method.
On his 29th birthday, young Jia forces his dad to drink more than usual, then insults him, even slaps him around. That’s the last straw for the family, who have police take Jia away. In the hospital he is placed on a ward with chronically mentally ill patients (all apparently actual patients), mostly men older than himself, rather than on the drug unit (where his best buddy, who also shot up heroin, winds up). Intractably belligerent toward staff, he is finally restrained after striking out at a nurse one day, and this humiliation seems to trigger some sort of epiphany. He promises to behave if freed from restraints and spends the next night asleep in a fetal position. From that point on he remains steadfastly cooperative and pleasant with everyone. After a year he returns home, where a happy reunion with his family ensues.
This film seems more like a 1950s mental hygiene educational film than a realistic drama. But there are some truths here. The one point of realism is that Jia’s early success as an actor seems to have gone to his head: arrogant and well off, he seems to lack the strength of character to conduct his life reasonably. Once into drugs, one thing leads to another in a downward spiral. This is not an unfamiliar story among young entertainers in the west. It is also true that the turning point toward an addict’s recovery is often a simple epiphany like Jia’s, a profound change of spirit and mindset that can come suddenly and without precedent or easy explanation.
The picture here of smoking heroin is also plausible enough. This method of using brown tar heroin was first invented in Shanghai in the 1920s and became more widespread in Hong Kong from the 1950s on. It has since spread to Europe and North America. Heroin is heated on aluminum foil over a flame and the vapors inhaled. Sudden deaths after such smoking have been attributed to some toxic product created when heroin and aluminum are heated together. Curiously, in light of Jia’s apparent hallucinations, this method of heroin use is referred to in China as “chasing the dragon.” But Jia’s conduct on drugs is more befitting someone abusing stimulants like cocaine or methylamphetamine, not heroin, which is far more inclined to leave someone sedated than crazy. The hospital staff, also supposedly the real thing, seem amateurish and superficial in their manner of evaluating Jia.
Mr. Zhang directed the bittersweet film, Shower, about changes brought on by modernization in a traditional town, before making Quitting. Both films focus on father-son relationships, but Shower is by far the superior film, dramatically. See my article, "Junkie Epiphanies: East and West" for more. (In Mandarin) Grade: drama: C+; drug abuse depiction: B (08/04)
RAIN (Christine Jeffs, New Zealand, 2002) . THEMES: FAMILY AND MARITAL DYSFUNCTION; ADOLESCENT COMING-OF-AGE; INCIPIENT ALCOHOLISM. SPOILER ALERT! Set in 1972, this film is weighted very effectively by frequent silences, the use of somber brown and sepia colors (although the film is a technicolor production), and a pensive, spare musical score, at times featuring solo piano, at other times simple strings in a minor key. Touched by these melancholic visual and sound effects, we witness a nearly joyless family on the brink of dissolution. Their plight is rendered all the more pathetic by having it set amidst summer seaside surroundings filled with gaiety, parties and good times.
Kate, the mother, is depressed, sullen, disconnected, seriously swilling alcohol, and eager for an affair. The father, Ed, lives in obvious psychic pain, has no idea what to do about his marriage, and at the same time tries to give something of himself to their children. Son Jim is about 8, tiny and plucky. He tries gamely to have fun but the family melancholy touches him as it does the others. Daughter Jamey, age 13, is the central character, impressively acted by Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki. (Her precocious ability to sustain the movement of the film in this pivotal role reminds me of another fine young teen’s performance in a film from down under, Jennie Agutter’s in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 classic, Walkabout.) The portrayal of Jamey's struggle is the centerpiece of the film.
Jamey is attempting to discover her own sense of sexuality and womanhood, and perhaps also to save her parents' marriage. Her efforts are set against her conflicted relationship with her mother, resulting in vastly complex and contradictory feelings and motives. For one thing, she wants to identify with her mother, and to this end she asks to wear her mother's dress, smokes cigarettes like mom, makes little passes at Sam, an adolescent boy, aping mom's similar behavior with her extramarital love interest, Cady.
Jamey is also furious with her mother for drinking too much, jeopardizing her marriage and the integrity of the family, and failing to be a better role model. In addition, Jamey is motivated by the wish - congruent with her own pubescent impulses - to break up her mother’s affair with Cady by acting seductively toward him. This impulse, however inchoate, simultaneously expresses a common adolescent desire to compete with the same sex parent for the favor and approval of adults of the opposite sex, to find out by this means whether she has appeal as a budding young woman.
These complex matters unfold with great poignancy over the first 3/4 of the film. Thus it is extremely disappointing toward the end when this fine work is seriously diminished by the occurrence of two lurid, over-the-top, destructive events. The effect of these events is to sensationalize what up until then had been an all too common, deeply human story of adolescent emergence entwined with domestic tragedy, a story that derived power precisely because it was not sensational. Ms. Jeffs, who adapted a novel of the same title by Kathy Gunn, may, for all I know, have been duplicating events in the book. It doesn't matter. It is also true that these late developing events are foreshadowed in the film.
An apparent consummation of Jamey’s seductive move on Cady logically follows upon her earlier gestures toward him, and, as if we really needed it, upon Cady’s earlier comment to Jamey, “like mother, like daughter.” Little Jim’s drowning likewise is linked to several earlier water scenes, such as Kate’s losing her cocktail glass while swimming, Jamey and Jim playing on a thin sand bar surrounded by a vast watery expanse, and Jim’s obvious unfamiliarity with use of a diving mask. These scenes raise our apprehension, but while watching the film I interpreted them as metaphorical, suggesting the psychological drowning of the family. It dilutes the power of the “ordinary” suffering of these people to turn this agony into shock items fit for the 11 o'clock TV news. (This was Ms. Jeffs’s debut as a director. More recently she directed the excellent film Sylvia, about Sylvia Plath’s prolific but tragic adult years.) Grade: B (02/02)
RAIN MAN (Barry Levinson, US, 1988). THEMES: AUTISM; ASPERGER’S SYNDROME (HIGH FUNCTIONING AUTISTIC PERSON WITH SAVANT MATHEMATICAL ABILITIES); RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TWO BROTHERS. MATURING OF CHARACTER IN ADULTHOOD. Barry Levinson has made a clutch of good movies (among them The Natural; Good Morning, Vietnam; Avalon and Wag the Dog) but none are any better than this wonderful film about the reunion in adulthood of two long separated brothers. Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), the elder brother, is a long institutionalized man suffering from autism. He does have reasonable speech and communication skills, and he is a math savant: he can see answers to complex multiplication problems, and can hold complicated counts accurately in his head. His kid brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) is a scammer, a con man who imports fancy Italian sports cars of uncertain provenance and sells them to rich people at a discount. He lives hand to mouth, always in debt, a hair’s breadth from financial disaster if not worse.
Charlie was quite young when Raymond was sent away, apparently after Raymond did something that the parents interpreted as threatening Charlie’s safety. Before that Raymond had watched over his little brother lovingly. Charlie had no memories of his brother, only of a nebulous entity he calls “Rain Man” that he always assumed was just some imaginary friend. When the brothers’ wealthy father dies (their mother had died long ago), he bequeaths virtually all his money to Raymond in a trust, leaving Charlie, whom the father (accurately) saw as a wastrel, nothing but his 1940 collector-quality Buick convertible and his prize rose bush collection. Charlie is furious and shocked, not even knowing of a brother’s existence until learning the terms of Dad’s will. He impulsively dashes east to the hospital where Raymond lives and spirits him away.
When Raymond is freaked out about flying, we then go on an amusing cross country road trip as the brothers get acquainted while driving the old Buick west, heading for Charlie’s house in California. Meanwhile the imported cars have disappeared from the dock where they had been delivered, and the car buyers are nipping at Charlie’s heels demanding their deposits back, money already spent by Charlie, naturally). As he becomes aware of Raymond’s savant math aptitude, Charlie hatches a plan to utilize Raymond’s powers to win at the Las Vegas gaming tables, and thus recoup the money he needs to pay off people in the imported car jam back home. So they head for Vegas and proceed to make a bundle playing blackjack.
At some point Raymond mentions the name “Rain Man” in passing, and for the first time Charlie makes the connection between his fabled childhood friend and protector and his brother: that they are one in the same. This puts an entirely different spin on things for Charlie, and his affection for Raymond, already in bloom, takes a quantum leap forward. Charlie wants Raymond to live with him permanently, and this desire is based on love, not his hopes that Raymond could become a cash cow.
Finally casino bosses, police and hospital people catch up with the brothers, and it becomes clear that (a) everyone wants Raymond taken back to the facility where he had lived most of his life safely and (b) the various scrapes Raymond has survived on his recent exciting trip with Charlie do not inspire much confidence among the authorities that might lead them to acquiesce in Charlie’s pleadings to let Raymond stay with him. Raymond demonstrates his own ambivalence by agreeing that he’d like to stay with Charlie, and also agreeing that he’d like to go back to the hospital. His responses suggest he is inclined toward the latter. Which does occur.
Mr. Hoffman gives an astonishingly believable, clinically impeccable, meticulously detailed performance as the autistic Raymond. Credit Mr. Levinson and his team for seeking professional aid to get this role right. They hired no fewer than six prominent consultants on autistic behavior to help, including Bernard Rimland, Ph.D., Darold Treffert, M.D. and Peter Tanguay, M.D.. Mr. Cruise gives a highly able account of himself here, keeping up well with Hoffman. His character’s transformation from self centered hustler to devoted brother is entirely credible. The film also features a delightful supporting turn, as Charlie’s girlfriend, Susanna, by the young Italian actress, Valeria Golino, who more recently gave fine performances as Lupe Marin, mother of Diego Rivera’s two children, in Frida, and as Grazia, the central character in the Italian film, Respiro.
Rain Man is fast paced and well edited, and the pop music soundtrack is outstanding: one of few in which playing up the music loudly to the point one is highly conscious of the cuts actually is entertaining rather than distracting. Especially effective are numbers by the Delta Rhythm Boys and some South African music, “Scatterlings of Africa,” by Johnny Clegg. The film received an Oscar for Best Film of 1988, Levinson won as Best Director, and Hoffman as Best Actor. The screenplay also won for best original work. All richly deserved. Credit this film as one of the most imaginative road movies ever made, and the best fictional portrayal of autism in adulthood ever enacted. Grade: A (12/04)
A RATHER ENGLISH MARRIAGE (Paul Seed, UK, 1998). THEME: INTERDEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP OF TWO AGING MEN, BOTH JUST WIDOWED. It's the British version of The Odd Couple. Two men nearing 70, played by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, are thrown together when their spouses die on the same day in the same hospital. Finney, known to all his pals as "Squadron Leader," was one of the brave young men who took to the skies to fight the Nazis in the 1940 air battle over Britain. He had a "good war" - really the pinnacle of his life - and has been an unregenerate, fixated kid ever since, a good old boy, cared for by his wife (the couple had no children).
Flamboyant, plethoric, infantile, bombastic, always on the make with a drink in hand, he could not be more different from Courtenay's character, a thin, worried, pasty, quiet milkman whose recollections of infantry life in the war are anything but positive. A caseworker brings these bereft men together, one who needs to cook and clean and dote upon someone, the other an old baby who hasn't a clue how to fend for himself. Brilliant encounter, adapted for PBS's Masterpiece Theater (from a novel) by the British telewriter Andrew Davies, who wrote (also for Masterpiece Theater) Moll Flanders, Middlemarch, and the House of Cards Trilogy - 3 series about Francis Urquart, the ruthless politician who became Prime Minister. Finney' and Courtenay' collaborated earlier, in middle age, in making the excellent film, The Dresser. Grade: A- (03/01)
REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES (Patricia Cardoso, US, 2002). THEME: ADOLESCENT COMING-OF-AGE STORY. SPOILER ALERT! Fresh and absorbing coming-of-age story of Ana, a young Mexican-American woman just finishing high school in the huge, sprawling East Los Angeles barrio of Boyle Heights. Ana (played with poise and transparency in a debut role by 18 year old America Ferrera) is caught between worlds in more than one sense. She’s bright. Her high school advisor aids her in winning a full scholarship to Columbia. But her traditional Latina mother Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who trumps up hypochondriacal complaints to manipulate Ana, wants her to stay home after graduation and work in the dressmaking shop run by Ana’s older sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu). Carmen cannot see any use to college: Ana should learn to work for a living, improve her sense of duty to the family’s needs, lose weight, attract a husband and learn to run a home. Ana caves to family pressure, and endures the mindless tedium of steam pressing dresses all day in the torrid heat of the shop (it truly is a sweatshop, but Estela won’t permit the fans to be on – they get dust on the dresses).
In the shop, Ana discovers the extent of Estela’s responsibilities: the pressure to finish orders on time in a highly competitive market, the obligation Estela feels to assure an income for the women whom she employs, the crises that occur when employees suddenly quit. Ana’s esteem for her sister goes up, but working in the shop and watching the lives of Estela, Carmen (who also works there) and the other women, also clarifies Ana’s resolve that this sort of life is not what she wants. Meanwhile, Carmen becomes convinced she’s pregnant, when her periods stop, and Ana wisely interprets this misreading by her mother of early menopause as a wish to have a baby in the family to replace her, Ana, Carmen’s youngest. Carmen’s constant belittling of Ana for being overweight has resulted in Ana having a pretty foul self image.
But that too begins to change over the summer, as romance blossoms with an Anglo classmate, Jimmy (Brian Sites), who thinks she’s beautiful. But Jimmy’s going away to college himself in the fall. Ana finally decides she must do the same, that her future depends on taking this step. She keeps working at the dressmaking shop until Estela’s largest-ever order is completed. Then Ana seeks and easily receives her father’s blessing to accept the scholarship. But Carmen won’t budge. Even as Ana rides away to the airport, bound for New York City, Carmen will not even say goodbye, even though she strains to see Ana through the window curtains. One gets a sense of realism throughout this evenly paced, unforced production – the streets, shops, and family life ring true. All the principal players are well cast, natural, believable, including Ana’s longsuffering father, Raul (Jorge Cervera, Jr.). But it is America Ferrera who steals your heart in this well made story of youth matured but not denied. Grade: B+ (05/03)
RECONSTRUCTION (Christoffer Boe, Denmark, 2004). THEMES: MISTRUST, FALSITY, STAGNATION AND MYSTERY IN LOVE RELATIONSHIPS. The film opens with a tall, thin, haunted looking man, harshly illuminated and surrounded by billows of smoke, doing a magic trick, suspending a cigarette in midair between his hands. A vocal of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” accompanies. A voiceover tells us, “Remember…it’s a film. It’s all a construction. But it still hurts.” This sequence introduces a convoluted psychodrama with touches reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad, Run Lola Run, Memento and Swimming Pool. Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie, whose reticent beauty makes me think of a young Catherine Deneuve, plays two roles very well, very distinctively, here: she is the glamorous Aimee, wife of a novelist, August Holm, and she is also the more plain, down to earth Simone, girlfriend of a young Danish photographer named Alex. Mystery, stagnation, falsity and distrust in love relationships are the major themes.
Alex takes Simone for granted and chases after Aimee, who feels cast aside by August, who is forever preoccupied with his writing and celebrity. But after his first encounter with Aimee (or is it just the latest of several encounters with her?), Alex is caught short when Simone, his father and his other friends treat him as a stranger, as if they’ve never seen him before. Even his apartment has changed. How can this be? How much do we really know the people we love? Is it possible that Aimee and Simone are merely two sides of the same individual? This film thrives on the posing of such questions. The photography is punctuated by intriguing grainy effects: many close-ups emphasize strong contrasts of shadow and light on facial planes; aerial photo-diagrams, introducing major new scene sequences, pinpoint characters and places much like surveillance maps might do; nightlit urban scapes feature flows of traffic, sometimes with superimposed walking people; there are reoccurring black silhouetted images of a man falling vertically while running in place. Alex speaks Danish but the women he converses with (Aimee, Simone) speak Swedish.
The music sometimes consists of minimal pulsings of slow, sustained keyboard chords, but at other points of emotional tension Barber’s Adagio for Strings is employed. Near the end we wonder - as viewers were led to do at the end of Ozon’s Swimming Pool - whether we have been taken, along with Alex and the women, on a novelistic wild goose chase by August, merely caught up in his imaginings for the novel he's now writing. The film ends with a reprise of the hand magician at work. Go figure. Or, if you prefer, just blow the film off as arty pretentious guff. Not me. I found this movie to be a visual treat, and its exploration of the vicissitudes of love are teasingly inventive. (In Danish and Swedish) Grade: B+ (02/03)
RED ROAD (Andrea Arnold, UK/Denmark, 2006, 113 m.). THEME: POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER & BEREAVEMENT IN WOMAN WHO LOST HER FAMILY. SPOILER ALERT! Set in a rough northern district of Glasgow, this is a suspenseful, eerie drama about Jackie (Kate Dickie), a youngish widow who works for “City Eye,” a private security firm that uses a gazillion video cameras to literally track everybody’s movements in the problematic districts of the city, calling in first responders as needed. Jackie is a pensive, incredibly subdued woman who shows a surprising, uncharacteristic spark of interest in Clyde (Tony Curran), a man she first spies on camera having intercourse with a local girl up against a brick wall near the council high rise where he lives (called Red Road).
As the story unfolds, Jackie gradually insinuates herself into Clyde’s rather loose, party-oriented life, again, out of character for this reclusive woman. Why? Well into the film, her motives become clearer. She’s setting this fellow up to be remanded to prison, where he had been sentenced several years earlier for a drunken driving offense that had changed Jackie’s life forever. Her successful act of revenge does not produce a gloating triumph; instead it unleashes a flood of grief and liberates her from the burden of deep, indolent anger and obsessive behaviors. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. (In Glaswegian English, mercifully supplemented with subtitles, after Ken Loach) Grade: low B+ (02/07)
REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (John Huston, US, 1967). THEMES: MARITAL CONFLICT; REPRESSED HOMOPHILIA; FETISHISM. Dark, brilliant study of convoluted sexual yearnings and barely controlled madness among a group of military personnel and their wives at a training base in the South. Based on a novel by Carson McCullers. Marlon Brando displays a staggering range of moods and stances in a virtuoso performance as the central character, an officer and military science teacher who can be haughty, pathologically obsessive, cruel and fearful. His character also has barely repressed homophilic longings that he eventually twists into a homicidal attack. Elizabeth Taylor, as his wife, gives her standard performance as sexual, eyelash batting provocateur, but she has never done it better. She doesn't hammer away with coarse, in your face nastiness here, as she did in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. Instead she expresses her boredom and frustration with her inattentive spouse in a more standard fashion, by having a not quite concealed affair with her husband's closest, and perhaps only, friend on the base, another officer (Brian Keith), whose wife (Julie Harris) is gradually withering away from depression because of Keith's infidelity.
Robert Forster makes his screen debut as a young private who is a horse trainer. He likes to go riding in the woods bareback and naked and sunbathe among the rocks of the forest. He becomes the sexual fixation for Brando's character, but Forster in turn is perversely interested in Taylor. He has no wish to bed her. Rather he is fetishistically interested in her undergarments. He even develops a habit of sneaking into her bedroom to sit and rub up against her slip, while she lies sleeping in bed across the room. The other intriguing relationship here is that between Ms. Harris' character and her Filipino houseman, played by Zorro David. Theirs is a supremely sensual connection, expressed through food, clothing, art, perfumes, but it is not at all clear that they have sex. The acting here - with this blockbuster group of Brando, Harris, Keith, Forster and David - is stupendous; only Ms. Taylor is limited, but she does enough to keep things reasonably well balanced in her scenes. This one is both a stunning drama and a virtual museum of psychopathology! Grade: A- (05/02)
REGARDING HENRY (Mike Nichols, US, 1991). THEMES: MEMORY AND PERSONALITY CHANGES FOLLOWING NEAR-FATAL TRAUMA & BRAIN INJURY.
This well made film features Harrison Ford in an impressive performance as Henry Turner, a highly successful but predatory, coldhearted, narcissistic New York City lawyer who one night dashes out to a convenience store for cigarettes, where he is shot by a thief, thereby changing his life. One bullet penetrates the right frontal lobe of his brain, but this does little damage. Another bullet to the upper chest causes massive bleeding and hypoxemia (insufficient oxygen in the blood), resulting in widespread brain injury.
Following a prolonged period in coma, Henry makes a steady if labored comeback. We see scenes of his therapy in a neuro-rehab center and get to know his wonderful physical therapist and all around role model and pal, Bradley (Bill Nunn in a splendid turn). Henry has residual problems: left sided weakness, a patchy memory, some social awkwardness and a profound change in personality. He is now timid, openly affectionate, caring and compassionate. His ties to his wife and daughter are radically altered (for the better), but he cannot go back to his career – not so much because he’s now deficient in the skills to practice law but because, as he reviews files of his old cases, he is horrified at the unscrupulous manner in which he had won his cases.
Ford is marvelous: it’s one of the best performances of his I’ve ever seen. He always maintains his character’s handicaps and is in fact quite convincing in demonstrating his deficits and their gradual partial recovery. He keeps a steady grip on his limp, partial paralysis of his left arm, sometimes fumbling speech and social hesitancy. People can, of course, experience pervasive personality changes from widespread brain injury, but typically these take a form in which the new features of the patient’s temperament are apathy, explosive angry outbursts, manic or hypomanic moods, or facetious disinhibition. I’ve never known of someone whose love of family or altruism were enhanced by brain injury.
On the other hand, some individuals recover from traumatic, near-death experiences with profound personality alterations, not because of any brain damage but because of longlasting psychological and existential effects of survival on their values and social behavior (check out the film, Fearless, for example). The neurology may be suspect here but the acting is brilliant all around. Mike Nichols knows how to work so well with actors. Not only do Ford and Nunn excel, but also Annette Bening (as Henry’s wife) and Mikki Allen (their daughter). See also my article titled "Trauma and Transformation." Grade: B+ (11/04)
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (Darren Aronofsky, US, 2000). THEMES: STIMULANT ADDICTION; HEROIN ADDICTION. Aronofsky is interested in madness. More specifically, he is interested in using cinematic techniques to visualize madness. He did this with vivid realism in his debut film, Pi, about an obsessive mathematician who moves into deepening paranoia as he comes to believe he has discovered a formula that explains all the great secrets of life and the universe. That film was shot in B&W with a fidgety hand-held camera, devices that worked well to intensify the subject’s enervated state of mind.
Requiem is about states of madness induced by drugs. Here Aronofsky works in color and relies heavily on the use of jumpcuts – more than in any film I can recall – for several purposes: to show the frantic hyperactivity of people hopped up on stimulants; to indicate rapidly the repetitive steps required to prepare drugs for IV self administration and then shoot up…this highly inventive sequence is repeated over and over again, to good effect. Actually the use of jumpcuts is the best thing in this film. Next best thing is the acting of Ellen Burstyn as Sarah, an aging, vain widow who yearns to be young and in the spotlight again. To this end she fixates on a possible chance to appear on her favorite TV talk show. She wants to wear the red dress she wore to her only son’s high school graduation, but she is now too overweight. She embarks on a crash diet, aided by a huge trove of stimulant diet pills ordered by her irresponsible doctor. She escalates the dose, goes crazy with paranoid psychosis, and ends up a real mess on a psych ward.
Less interesting are her son, his girlfriend and his buddy, who together move from snorting and smoking crack sporadically to full time IV heroin addiction. Their lives become a lurid downhill spiral ending in various forms of disaster. This odyssey is typical of most addiction-related films and thus is neither original nor entertaining, merely sickening. Unlike Pi, Requiem has a big problem with authenticity. While the fates of the young junkies depicted here certainly occur in real life, the course of addiction is typically much more protracted than it is portrayed to be in this film.
Sarah’s stimulant-induced psychosis is realistic enough. People like her do develop paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations, and become very fearful. But in the hospital they don’t get worse once the stimulant is discontinued, as Sarah does. Just the opposite: they “crash” – sleeping, eating when awake, experiencing a down depressive state, not escalating craziness. In Requiem, Aronofsky again breaks fresh ground in his imaginative use of visual effects to suggest madness, but this film is not as good as Pi because the madness depicted is not nearly as well grounded in reality. Grade: B (01/02)
RESPIRO (Emanuele Crialese, Italy, 2003). THEMES; MANIA v PERSONALITY DISORDER; FAMILY CONFLICT IN RESPONSE TO MENTAL ILLNESS; ARCHETYPES OF DEATH, REBIRTH & COMMUNITY. To breathe! The first task of a newborn. A joyous necessity for a swimmer surfacing after a dive. And then there is metaphorical space to breathe - breathing room, we call it - which is what the heroine of this film, Grazia, feels she lacks. In a symbolic scene early in the film, she wraps herself in a fishnet to dramatize her feeling of being hemmed in, constricted, by her husband's control and by her life in the village (a tiny and stunningly photogenic place clutching the rock of a tiny island, Lampedusa, way south of Sicily, closer to Tunisia and Libya).
Grazia (a fine turn by the embryo-eyed Valeria Golino, seen most recently as Lupe, Diego Rivera's first wife, in Frida) has a wild spirit. Clinically she may suffer from a bipolar disorder: people in the town say she’s always been either too happy or too sad, and also that she can become too aggressive or too affectionate. But her behavior could also be consistent with a borderline personality disorder. In fact she has much in common with the character portrayed by Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ 1974 psychodrama, A Woman Under the Influence. This film bears much in common with that one: Pietro, Grazia’s husband, is as stymied about what to do with Grazia as Peter Falk was in Woman. The paternal grandmother hangs around disapprovingly in both pictures, and in both the kids try to help as well: they try to sooth and steer their mothers clear of disaster. These parallels are so striking that it is difficult to believe that writer/director Crialese was not influenced by the Cassavetes film, although the story is apparently based on a Lampedusan legend.
The film careens between Grazia’s episodes of outlandish behavior and scenes of the exuberant, aggressive abandon of young boys reveling in summer fun. After an especially provocative escapade, Grazia disappears to avoid being sent to a mental hospital. Everyone thinks she has drowned. Has she? The ending is conceived in a manner that permits more than one answer to the question. We are treated to a spectacular symbolic sequence of death and rebirth that embraces not only Grazia but the entire community. This film is visually gorgeous, fast paced, spiritually transcendent without ever indulging in any cheesy special effects, and thoroughly engaging. The original score, by John Surman II, is a haunting dirge-like work featuring an hypnotic bass saxophone. How can you go wrong? (In Italian) Grade: B+ (02/03)
RETURN OF THE IDIOT (Navrat idiota) (Sasa Gedeon, Czech Republic, 1999). THEME: COPING WITH LIFE AFTER LONG HOSPITAL INCARCERATION. After spending years in a mental hospital, a young man is discharged and told he is ready for life. An innocent soul, he is understandably puzzled by 2 brothers and 2 sisters he meets, who are all sexually entangled. There are some good segments (dreams, a dance, a family lunch, Christmas at the apartment) but it's slow going in between. Based on a story by Dostoyevsky. (In Czech) Grades: drama: C; portrayal of long institutionalized man now living in outside world: B (02/00)
RIPLEY'S GAME (Liliana Cavani, US/UK/Italy, 2004). THEME: ANTISOCIAL PERSONALITY (CRIMINAL PSYCHOPATH). The films Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley introduced two generations to a young Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s charming, murderous psychopathic social climber. This film, set in Italy, is based on the third of Highsmith’s five novels about Ripley. Now he’s middle aged, securely wealthy, retired and able to dabble wholeheartedly (or, given his dispassionate manner, perhaps wholeheadedly is the preferable term) in his aesthetic interests, which include an ornately decorated villa and Maria, an equally decorous young harpsichordist. John Malkovich is perfect as Ripley, a man who has refined an attitude toward his own malevolence that matches his artistic sensibility. His lack of conscience used to bother him, he confides at one point, but no longer, for he has learned to accept his temperament with equanimity. However, his dander is aroused by Jonathan, a neighbor, a young Englishman (Dougray Scott), who insults Ripley’s aesthetic tastes at a party. Bad idea. Very bad.
Ripley already knows that Jonathan ekes out a meager living for his family framing pictures and then discovers that the younger man is also dying of leukemia. When an old crime partner (Ray Winstone in his patented heavy role) shows up to recruit Ripley for a hit, Ripley instead nominates Jonathan, reasoning that his lousy prognosis and lack of any estate to pass on to his wife and child will lead him to agree to do the killing. The agonizing and terror that Jonathan will likely face in the process are the paybacks that Ripley desires. But things get very complicated, Jonathan gets in way over his head, and he ends up needing help from somebody. Guess who? Funny thing is, near the end, Ripley can’t fathom why Jonathan in turn acts to help him in a brave manner. This thing called a conscience may resist Ripley’s capacity for understanding, and yet it ends up playing a decisive role not only in Jonathan’s conduct but, odd as it may seem, in Ripley’s as well. For some reason this film was not distributed to theaters in the U.S. and instead came straight to VHS/DVD. (In English, German and Italian) Grade: B (04/04)
THE ROAD HOME (Zhang Yimou, China, 2001). THEMES: AGING; PROPERLY OBSERVING RITUALS FOR THE DEAD; BEREAVEMENT; REMINISCENCE. Zhang Yimou is fascinated by stories of resolute women who persevere against the odds to attain virtuous goals (The Story of Qiu Ju, Not One Less). Here is another such story. It is a simple love story that also tells of old traditions and new departures in rural China, a story told from the viewpoint of the woman. The film opens in black and white...it is winter and a man in his 30s is riding in a Jeep Cherokee through snow on a country road to a small village. It is his birthplace, and he has come home because his father is ill and his mother needs him. In fact, as he learns upon arrival, his father has died at a hospital in another village. His mother refuses to have the body brought over by truck for burial. She wants an old fashioned procession, which seems an impossibility in mid-winter, with few people on hand to help.
The son finds her sitting in the cold on a bench in front of the deserted school where her husband taught for 40 years. He takes her home. She insists on hand weaving a shroud for the procession. She begins to tell her son of how she met his father. The scene shifts: in color now we see the mother as a young girl (Zhang Ziyi, who also played the younger "mystery" martial arts whiz in Crouching Tiger) on the day she first sees the new teacher, the man she falls in love with an will in time marry. The main segment of the film tells the story of their early love and its frustrations and ultimate triumph. The film ends again in the black and white present. Having heard the story, the son grasps how important to his mother the road is. It leads from the village and was a place where his mother waited to offer lunch to his father when they were first becoming acquainted, and by which the father was taken away by political circumstance not once but twice for long periods, but by which he finally returned for good. The son sees that for his mother, a final journey together with her beloved husband along this road is the right thing to do. And so it is arranged. (In Mandarin) Grade: B+ (12/01)
ROLLERCOASTER (Scott Smith, Canada, 1999, 90 m). THEMES: ADOLESCENT DEPRESSION, SUICIDE. Remarkable though despairing dramatized account of urban teen demoralization, aimlessness and suicide. Several unwanted kids, none tethered in any positive way to their families, adrift in the city with only drugs, alcohol and each other for comfort, struggle to find meaning or at least an ounce of pleasure, if not purpose, in their daily lives. Things work out badly for at least one of them. The film drags, but then so does life for these youths. Grade: B (06/06)
ROMULUS, MY FATHER (Richard Roxburgh, Australia, 2007, 109 m.). THEMES: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER; MAJOR DEPRESSION; WHOLESOME FATHER-SON RELATIONSHIP, SUICIDE. This riveting first feature film directed by Australian Richard Roxburgh, heretofore an actor, is based on Raimond Gaita’s autobiographical account of his childhood, in particular his relationships with his father and mother (see “Add” below). The film is set in rural Central Victoria, in southeast Australia, in the years 1960 to 1962, when Raimond was 14 to 16 years old (the role of Raimond or “Rai” in the film is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was just 10 or 11 when the film was made). The story is told from Rai’s perspective; it is a story of immigrants from Eastern Europe who resettle. Rai’s father, Romulus (Eric Bana, Black Hawk Down, Munich) farms and builds outdoor wrought iron furniture. He’s the steady, faithful bulwark of the family.
Romulus’s wife, Christina (Franka Potente, Run, Lola, Run, The Princess and the Warrior), is another matter. Christina, at least as depicted here by Ms. Potente, suffers from a severe form of borderline personality disorder, marked by dependency, mood instability, promiscuity, excessive use of alcohol, and suicidal impulses. She shuttles back and forth between her family and another lover she lives with in town. This couple eventually have a child, and Christina is utterly unable (unwilling?) to properly care for the baby. Romulus tolerates this arrangement with the patience of a saint. Christina finally leaves Romulus for good, and later kills herself. Romulus responds to these events by becoming seriously depressed, to the point that he must be hospitalized. We see him in a state institution, virtually catatonic. Meanwhile, Rai is looked after by Romulus's brother Hora (Marton Csokas in a shining support role).
The ending is bittersweet. Romulus comes home after months away, improved, and he rejoins Rai in what both hope will be a more tolerable life together. Judging by Rai’s subsequent life (see “Add” below), things did turn out pretty well. With small but good supporting performances by Russel Dykstra as Mitru, Christina's second husband, and Jacek Koman as Rai’s bearded older pal, Vacek. Bana and Potente are both excellent. Christina’s borderline disorder and Romulus’s depression are clinically quite authentic. The bond between father and son is especially well rendered. Kodi Smit-McPhee is rather too cute, and his face, with eyes wide apart, resembles that of an embryo, like Jackie Onasis or Uma Thurman. The film won several Awards from the Australian Film Institute. (In German, Romanian & English) Grades: Drama B+ Clinical depictions: A (02/08)
Add : Raimond Gaita, now 60, was born in Dortmund, West Germany, in 1946, and in 1950 emigrated to Australia with his parents, Romanian-speaking, Yugoslavian-born Romulus Gaita and German-born Christina. His mother's psychiatric diagnosis was never quite clear (common in the cases of borderline personality disorder). Rai Gaita is an author and philosopher who divides his time these days between teaching at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne campus), where he is Professor of Philosophy, and Kings College (London), where he is Professor of Moral Philosophy. His 1998 memoir, “Romulus, My Father,” was based on a eulogy he delivered at his father’s funeral in 1996.
A ROOM NEARBY (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, US, 2004, 27 min.) THEME: LONELINESS. Now and then I like to throw in a short film if it's really good. This one is. And animated at that. It won a Grand Prize for the best commissioned work at the 2004 Ottawa International Animation Festival, one of the most prestigious world animation film festivals. Made for PBS, where it screened twice in March, Room Nearby tells the stories of five persons of diverse backgrounds (one is the filmmaker, Milos Forman, but the others are not at all celebrities), each of whom has experienced some variation of profound loneliness in their personal lives. The stories are rich and useful, for they tell us how these people used their experiences to help find renewal and growth. The paradox of personal insignificance juxtaposed with a sense of awe at even bearing witness to the grandeur of the universe reoccurs. The filmmakers are highly accomplished. Mr. Fierlinger has made hundreds of animated films, beginning in 1958 in his native Czechoslovakia. Grade: A- (Seen as part of The Best of Ottawa 2004, a 100 minute anthology of prize winning short films.) (05/05)
RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE (Inside I’m Dancing) (Damien O’Donnell, UK/Ireland/US, 2004, 104 min.).THEMES: DISABILITY: UNNECESSARY LIMITATIONS; RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE DISABLED; MISUSE OF DISABILITY TO GAIN ADVANTAGE. Here’s a film about the limitations and possibilities in living for severely handicapped people. Must be an ed flick or PBS documentary, right, you ask? Nope. It’s a tender comedy that somehow rises above its formulaic, manipulative structure. It’s a “feel good” film that actually leaves you feeling good. James McAvoy plays Rory, an irreverent, wheelchair bound punker who suffers from progressive muscular dystrophy. He must finally yield his independence, banished to a long term residential care center somewhere on the outskirts of Dublin, where this film is set. There he meets Michael (Steven Robertson), severely handicapped by cerebral palsy, also wheelchair bound, a docile young man who has languished for much of his life in an institutional setting, since being rejected by his well to do father, a distinguished, high profile judge. Rory is able to understand Michael’s spastic speech, something most people can’t fathom. Rory can also see at a glance that Michael needs a stiff injection of unruly fun in his life, and sets out to arrange for this. The two become fast friends: Michael the straight man and Rory the rogue and schemer. One thing leads to another, and they end up living together semi-independently in a well-appointed apartment paid for by Michael’s dad.
Their personal needs for assisted living are met by Siobhan (Romola Garai), a gorgeous young thing they hire to adorn their lives. The guys live according to their whims, leaving Siobhan to pick up the pieces. Michael develops a crush on her that eventually becomes a deal breaker for their mutual arrangements. In the film’s most poignant scene, as Siobhan prepares to take her leave, she tells it like it is to the buddies. Just because your handicapped, you can’t pick a fight in a bar and then play victim, she tells them. You can’t come home half drunk in the middle of the night and always feel entitled to instant comfort care. You can’t expect a girl to love you if you don’t happen to be the right man for her. Her parting shot to Rory: “Your disability is that you’re an arsehole!” She’s telling these guys that there are responsibilities as well as rights when you live in this world, that they are people first, handicapped second, and have to play by the same rules as everyone else if they lay claim to living independently like others. It’s a marvelous credo for anyone afflicted with a serious disability.
This film reminds me of the hilarious 2001 Norwegian comedy, Elling, about two eccentric guys outplaced from a mental hospital whose strengths and weaknesses are sufficiently complementary that they are able to help each other get by in the larger world. James McAvoy is a real charmer. Among his other talents, he is a competitive fencer, boxer, gymnast, acrobat, rugby player and fire eater, not to mention that he is also gorgeous. Steven Robertson is making his acting debut here. His cerebral palsied speech and movements are astonishingly realistic. I cannot find a decent bio sketch of him on the Internet, but the absence of any allusion that he in fact suffers from CP leads me to assume that he does not, that this is the skilled performance of an adept physical actor, much like the female lead role played in the South Korean film Oasis last year by So-re Moon. Overall grade: B; issues of maximizing indepedence and not misusing the “victim role”: A (02/05)
ROSETTA (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 1999). THEMES: ADOLESCENT CONFLICTS; ALCOHOLISM; LIFE AT SOCIETY’S MARGINS. The Dardenne brothers, whose 1996 film, La Promesse, was so breathtaking, are in our faces again here, armed once more by Alain Marcoen’s hand held camera, presenting a torridly fast paced verite style story of life among underclass young people in contemporary Belgium. This time it isn’t about a 15 year old boy on a motorcycle helping his dad run an illegal immigrant operation, but about Rosetta (Emilie Dequenne), a young woman who seems to walk as fast as a motorcycle through a horrible drudge of an existence to try to keep herself and her near terminally alcoholic mother alive. The tables are constantly being turned against her.
The film opens with a major blazing angry snit after she is fired from her job. We learn in this long frenzied first scene that Rosetta is a survivor and a fighter and full of fierce pride. We see later that she would choose to get a young man who likes her fired so she can get his “real job” rather than accept the quasi-charity of his offer to let her help him for part of his income. This despite the fact that he (Fabrisio Rongione) is the only person who has treated her with any kindness. The taut drama of Rosetta’s hand-to-mouth struggle never lets up for a moment, and her troubles seem destined to go on and on at story’s end. Which is of course the grim reality of life for most down and out folks in her predicament. The filmmakers succeed in creating a razor’s edge of suspense for the viewer, with innumerable moments that are almost Hitchcockian in suggesting that Rosetta is possibly about to be attacked – especially scenes in a stand of woods where she stashes her rubber boots each day, or others when she peers around the corner of a building in town or at the trailer park where she lives.
But what is being conveyed instead is the more indolent sense of terror associated with the unremitting hazards of daily survival when you have nothing: finding food or drinking water if you’re hungry or thirsty, struggling against physical ailments when you have to keep moving. And alongside these concerns, there is also devotion, devotion against difficult odds. Just as young Igor felt compelled to keep his promise to a dying man that he care for the man’s wife, in La Promesse, here Rosetta’s dedication to the care of her utterly helpless mother is absolute. Powerful, very unpleasant stuff. (Film won Palme d’Or and Dequenne best actress honors at Cannes in 1999) (In French) Grade: B+ (06/02)
'ROUND MIDNIGHT (Bertrand Tavernier, US/France, 1987). THEME: ALCOHOLIC EXPATRIATE JAZZ MUSICIAN. Best film about jazz musicians I've ever seen. The great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon gives a magnificent turn as an alcoholic American expatriate musician living in Paris. The film is loaded with other fine jazz players, including Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Bobbie Hutcherson, John McLaughlin, among others, and features Lonette McKee, a superb singer, and Francois Cluzet as the young Frenchman who tries to save Gordon. Grade: B+ (08/99)
ROUNDERS (John Dahl, US, 1998). THEME: PATHOLOGICAL GAMBLING. Matt Damon and Edward Norton star as two cocksure young gamblers who make the rounds of high stakes pickup poker games in New York City. Several different gambling styles are illustrated in this absorbing film. For more on this and other films about gamblers, see my article, "Gamblers on Screen? Just a Few Worth Betting On." Grade: B. (08/03)
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, US, 2001). THEME: SENDUP OF DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY. Fine comedy about a very quirky family, the Tenenbaums, led by Royal (Gene Hackman), his long estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), and their three genius kids now grown up, Chas the biz whiz (Ben Stiller), adopted daughter Margot the playwright (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Richie the world class tennis player (Luke Wilson). Royal is down on his heels, having been disbarred from practicing law thanks to Chas, and is evicted from the hotel where he has lived for 22 years. He fakes a pre-terminal cancerous illness to gain access to the old family home, aided by his loyal seconds Pagoda, his servant who once had stabbed him, and an elevator operator at his hotel masquerading as a doctor (Seymour Cassel). Hangers on include Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) who wants to marry Etheline; Eli Nash (Owen Wilson, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson), a former kid across the street turned druggy celebrity, who is in love with Margot, who is in love with Richie; and Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Margot's much cuckholded older husband, a pop psychology maven. We have here a lovely piece of hyperbole about modern American dysfunctional families, and there is someone out there we know who resembles every one of these people. All the players do well, especially Hackman, Huston, Paltrow and Stiller. Fun flick, but not as good as all the media hype has suggested. Grade: B+ (12/01)
RUSH (Lili Fini Zanuck, US, 1991). THEME: HEROIN ADDICTION. SPOILER ALERT! It’s 1974, andJim Raynor (Jason Patric) and Kristen Cates (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are paired as narcotics officers assigned to bust the fast growing drug trade in a small Texas town. Raynor, a long haired, sunglasses sporting, brooding hunk, has been a narc for some time, and he’s pretty weary. But he’s attracted to the neophyte Cates, who makes up in grit what she lacks in drug use or police experience. He initiates her into the demimonde of dealers and users, and the “art” of personal drug use, including shooting up placebos or even heroin on occasion, if it’s required to demonstrate to a dealer that you’re legitimate.
Things go well for a while. In no time the couple are living together and gathering evidence in scores of cases of small time dealers. But it soon also becomes clear that Jim has become hooked himself on heroin, and Kristen isn’t far behind in cultivating her own drug habit. Suspicions surface in the drug community that Jim may be a cop, since he buys more drugs of more varieties than anybody could possibly consume. Pressure mounts further when their superiors insist that Jim and Kristen make a case against the man everyone assumes to be the true local drug lord, Will Gaines (Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band, in a role nearly devoid of dialogue). Jim and Kristen have not a shred of evidence against Gaines, so they frame him using cocaine from another source. By the end both Raynor and Gaines are dead.
This film falls short on dramatic values and clinical realism. There’s too little attention given to details of drug use to satisfy the latter objective. The Man With the Golden Arm, 36 years earlier, gave a far more vivid and detailed account of the junkie experience, and Drugstore Cowboy, made 2 years before Rush, was better dramatically and clinically. In contrast, the accounts here are superficial. I fault the screenplay, not the actors, for failing to develop the nature of the drug experience further. The story also wanders sloppily into improbable territory, especially late in the story. The scene in the jail cells when Jim and Kristen walk down the hall being hooted at by the dealers they’ve just busted is corny melodrama. Having the couple hang out in a trailer park like sitting ducks after the big bust is absurd. Ms. Zanuck, in her only stint to date directing a feature film, fails to evoke compelling or nuanced performances from her cast. In the end, neither Patric nor Allman have given us sufficient reason to mourn their characters’ loss. Leigh’s Kristen is also underdeveloped, leaving us more puzzled about her nature than convinced of her morality. Grade: C+ (09/04)