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Sweeping and engaging as a film, episodic and disconnected as history, 16 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out, some of us spent long hours discussing the meaning of the disjointed ending. Then I read the novel and discovered that the ending made perfect, even banal, sense; it was just that Kubrick had cut away the connecting logic and left us with isolated images. Something similar happens in this attempt to transpose Bolivar's epic struggle to two hours on-screen; incidents appear with no clear reason or subsequent implication. Danny Huston, compelling and charming as always, appears initially as an Englishman whose role seems central, only to disappear for most of the film after a few scenes. And when he does reappear, it is implied (quite counter-historically) that he had something to do with a famous attack on Bolivar's life. Or maybe not, since transitions are not this film's strong point. The memorable Manuela Saenz appears all at once but is never even named and it is only AFTER the attack in question that we hear a brief mention of her courage - with no hint that she in fact may have saved Bolivar's life, earning her the nickname "The Liberator of the Liberator". We briefly see Sucre close-up before he gets lost in the subsequent crowd of faces, so that when news comes of his assassination (with no hint that it was probably one of Bolivar's own officers who arranged it) we see Bolivar upset, but with no clear idea of why (still less that Bolivar supposedly cried out, "They have slain Abel!" foreseeing the impact it would have on the movement's hopes). Basically, if you do not already know much of this story, you may be swept up in the panoramic battles, the personal conflicts and some very erotic moments, but you won't really follow what's going on. If you do know it, you will be frustrated by how key events are given equal weight with some which may not even have happened (notably the end, which corresponds to no documented reality I know of). It does not help that the film lingers early on on what is essentially back story, wasting valuable screen time on what is apparently meant to be character development, but ultimately slows and clutters a story that needs far more delineation. Will you enjoy the film? If you like pageantry and passion, very likely. Will you come away much more informed about important historical events, or a complex figure, than if you had watched a completely fictional costumed drama? Not really.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A relentless, resonant arc; a searing satire, 25 December 2014

Unique and specific as this film is, it has strong echoes of a number of others. The character's warped ambition and unapologetic viciousness is reminiscent of Travis Bickle; his relentlessness and the efficiency of his violence of Gosling's character in "Drive"; his slightly robotic, homicidal clarity of Cruise's in "Collateral". Other echoes are more literary and will be less familiar to the standard film- goer. He is in many ways very close to the perfume- obsessed psychopath in "Perfume", Süskind's unique novel set in eighteenth century France; substitute video production for perfume and you have a similar cold purity of inhuman intent. As it happens, a movie WAS made in 2012 of Maupassant's novel "Bel Ami", an expert portrait of an amoral arriviste in nineteenth century Paris. For the rare person who knows the novel or film, a strong argument could be made that this is a stream-lined, modern retelling of that Machiavellian tale of how to advance in the media of one's time. Which, as shown in both works, is already amoral enough. One strong theme here is how readily the low-life outsider using unscrupulous methods readily finds allies in more established, "reputable" media. (The film is at its least subtle when we are told that crime really doesn't matter if it affects minorities and the underprivileged; the "good" stories are about their problems seeping into the lives of the more privileged). Here the film's resonances include "Network" and other works which satirize or dissect how far people are willing to go to get good ratings. (While I doubt Harvey Levin's arc was anything like this one, it would have been fun to watch his reactions to what is largely a portrayal of TMZ's style of journalism.) As for the acting, Gyllenhaal has been compelling since "Donnie Darko" and just gets more so, especially with his under- weight look here, drawing the bones out in his face. Russo readily makes you forget she was once one of the world's top models and shows a combination of predatory ambition and resigned awareness of being an older (and over-made-up) woman that adds a surprisingly erotic tone to scenes which on the surface are about anything but sex. (With one notable and fleetingly crude exception.) Riz Ahmed brings multiple unspoken layers to a deceptively simple character. Overall, a strong, pure and uncompromising film and, almost incidentally, a searing satire of today's media.

Good episode, great acting, 16 July 2014

I think the whole "Law and Order" franchise is consistently a model of story-telling. So this is again a well-written episode. This said, I don't know that I would rate it overall one of the best (that's a high bar). But I certainly agree that Lou Taylor Pucci holds his own with d'Onofrio, and for similar reasons - a kind of controlled edginess that bespeaks a far more complex character beneath the surface. The scene where Goren is sitting on a small table with one leg folded under him is exquisite.

I'm surprised Pucci hasn't done more in recent years. But he's got time.

I also loved the thug who's always worried about his wife (couldn't track the name); really compelling in his anxious stupidity.

Some fine acting overall; but the series has had better stories.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Surprisingly advanced within a formula, 29 March 2014

The story itself is a little reminiscent of De Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" - a bunch of swells in a coach who look down on a woman (here because she's Chinese), but find themselves dependent on her. And some of the plot points are glaringly predictable. But some of the themes here are breathtakingly advanced for the time - racial prejudice, economic oppression of indigenous peoples. Plus the main kidnapper has real power and nobility. A lot of the rest is boiler plate, including a comic set piece with a corrupt Mexican officer. But what's surprising here is not what's predictable, it's what isn't. As it happens, I watched this during the premier of "Crisis", also about the kidnapping of a group. This was far more compelling, even across the formulaic context.

6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
A loving, multi-layered portrayal of the world of performers, seen in old age, 4 December 2012

It's been decades since I've seen this French classic, but I'm bemused by the description of it as "bitter". Like Dustin Hoffman's new "Quartet" (2012), it views aging performers both wistfully and lovingly and certainly not without humor. There is a harsher and more tragic incident at the heart of the chief conflict here, but ultimately the film is a loving portrayal of everyone from the truly great to the mediocre but devoted personalities that make up the theater. It is a homage in other words to the whole world of performing, which of course ranges from tragic to comic figures, from stars to failures, but, as stirringly presented in one speech here, is united, and set apart, by a shared passion. The climactic scene is expertly orchestrated and the words "We, the poor, the obscure" ("Nous, les pauvres, les obscures") from a classic play are re-purposed to devastating effect, so much so that they linger with me decades later. As does, not a bitter, but an uplifting sense of the nobility of living one's life in service to art, even if the rewards at "the end of the day" may be no more than bittersweet memories. -- Probably hard to find, but if you understand French (I doubt anyone's taken the trouble to sub-title this), worth the effort.

Quartet (2012)
50 out of 61 people found the following review useful:
A sure-footed and moving debut., 3 December 2012

There are two obvious reasons to see this film. One is that it's Dustin Hoffman's directing debut. The other is that any film with Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon is very unlikely to be less than very good.

As it turns out, the film - set in a retirement home for classical musicians - is simply perfect: touching and amusing from the start, with generous but judicious doses of lovely music, shifting gears in an in-obtrusively sure-footed way. Billy Connolly (who was once a presence in my local hang-out) is about as close to his real self here as in any part I've seen him play: ribald, mischievous and large-hearted; the shameless jokester and flirt you nonetheless know you can always depend on. Courtenay is heart-rendingly endearing from the start, in the most quiet, under-stated way. Maggie Smith shows far more range than her now- stock Grande Dame parts usually allow her, including an unaccustomed vulnerability and a charming exercise, at one moment, of calculated yet shy girlish charm.

As one would expect from a director who is a great actor himself, the palette of characters here is vividly and colorfully incarnated by actors who are often memorable even in the most minor parts.

The music is both respectfully and affectionately integrated throughout, moving from noble classical pieces to a cheerful bit of music hall. And is paid a surprising homage in the credits, which continue the film's nod to age and accomplishment well past its not very surprising but still satisfying end.

Very few viewers, by the way, will sense the echos here - but no more - of a lovely French film from 1935 about a retirement home for actors: "La Fin du Jour":

Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", etc) tells a very different story, but anyone who enjoys this one and understands enough French should certainly seek out the older film (with the great Michel Simon).

Atletu (2009)
4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
A film that transcends already promising material., 9 November 2012

This is one of those stories that might have made a perfectly good movie of the week, given its inherent drama and interest. Instead, the tale has been transformed and heightened into something like poetry by skillful use of telling imagery and understated moments. The simple fact that it is set in Ethiopia - a country rarely seen on-screen - sets it apart and gives it a stark (and skillfully shot) beauty; details like a priest in his robes, home-bottled honey as an "unnecessary" bribe for soldiers at a barrier, a horse abandoned on a road, a traditional bard in a cheap bar, anchor it in a specific and intriguing reality. The looming tragedy of Ethiopia's later history is hinted at only by a confrontation with an arrogant cadet; this is still the essentially ancient Ethiopia of Haile Selassie, where the protagonist's car is an anomaly. The core of the movie lies in the latter's determined face as he looks beyond both the admiration and the disparagement of others towards his very personal desire to win, confronting one major unexpected obstacle with equally unexpected improvisation. We are aware throughout how very important the victories of one man were to a battered country - "It took 500,000 Italians to conquer Ethiopia; it took one Ethiopian to conquer Rome" - but the power of the film lies above all in the personal, as quietly and powerfully portrayed by newcomer Rasselas Lakew. In the near future, we should expect to hear more from both the writer/star and the director of this quietly wonderful film.

7 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Touching, surprising, important - but way too long, 6 February 2012

This is a distinctive film with a distinctive lead actor/director/writer, one that will probably be cited in future years as his first imperfect effort. It addresses an important issue - the uncertain rights of gay survivors - head-on from an unexpected, very individual point of view. Joey Williams, the southern-accented, low-key Asian protagonist, is a tremendously loving person - loving not only to his partner and their son (strikingly and adorably played by Sebastian Brodziak), but to others around him. As we learn his back-story as a foster child, this understated readiness to love becomes all the more moving. When he finds himself alone and having to fight for his son, his dilemma is all the more moving because he is clearly a person who, without being weak, sidesteps confrontation. His manner throughout is endearing and very specific, even as he encounters, in the most off- handed way, chilling and heartless homophobia at one of the most difficult moments of his life. The "issue" is certainly front and center here, but we care about him first and foremost as a person - luckily, since we spend far more time with him than one usually would in a film. There are also unexpected gestures of kindness and concern all through the film, one on the part of a Wise Man who appears from the most unexpected corner and reminds us that, even as Joey struggles for the right to be a father, he remains a tender soul in need of a father figure himself; at different moments, a glass of whiskey and a glass of water, each quietly offered, make it clear that he has found one. The film's unhurried pace often serves it well - one of the most moving sequences involves methodically taking out a beer and opening it - but there are also moments that are plain slow and others which keep pushing at a point that has already been made or linger overmuch on history. The film overall should have been at least a third shorter. By being as long as it is, the film actually dilutes the very real intensity of its central contemplation of family and its meaning. But these are flaws in an overall excellent film, one which is rarely predictable and often quietly surprising, above all very warm and human all the way through. Its low-key quirkiness, by the way, includes one of the more off-the-wall bits of product placement to be seen in an indie film, one that will delight the handful of fans who know and care who wrote "Wild Thing". As gracefully integrated as this is, one gets the sense that the director/writer knew the songwriter and wanted, as much as anything else, to help him out; a gesture which sums up the fundamentally loving nature of this entire project.

13 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
True to life, hard to watch, 4 February 2012

Watching this slow-moving, quietly painful film, I had two things at the back of my mine. One was my own mother's struggles as an educated but not very practical single mother decades ago and the other was a recent news item about a judge who took a Guatemalan immigrant's child away from her on the grounds that she had "abandoned" the child by... being arrested as an illegal immigrant. In other words, watching this woman struggle to take care of her daughter while making a series of bad decisions all along the way was also watching the real story of innumerable women, some like her, some not so much, who find it almost impossible to do the one thing they most want to do: take care of their children. It is painful to watch, not least because some of the women in this situation will make all manner of damaging decisions out of desperation and the film just shows some of the issues that can prompt that desperation: not getting child support, trying to work two jobs, unexpected expenses which are catastrophic on a tight income, etc. It is easy to get impatient with this character in a number of cases, but it is also clear that, in her own sloppy and ill-prepared way, she is trying; trying and often being thwarted. There is one central developing dilemma which gives the story something of a spine, but really overall we're left with the sense that, rather than being this woman's main story, it is one episode out of many in what will always be a life of uncertainty and limited choices. The film is shot in a gloomy, unadorned way with no background music or other overt cinematographic touches and so it is overall an unsparing experience. Echoing after it is the awareness that some women will triumph in similar situations, others will end up overwhelmed and making all manner of bad decisions - if a choice made when boxed into a corner can be called a decision.

4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Well-acted, somewhat aimless; a slice of life, 4 February 2012

I saw this soon after seeing "Think of Me", another film about someone living at the less hopeful fringes of American life, so it was kind of a one-two punch, morale wise. Norman Mailer portrayed this lower class, small town life beautifully if more dramatically in "The Executioner's Song", showing how Gary Gilmore was just the poison flower of a whole weed-riddled garden. Here we see a waitress whose main pleasure seems to be having impromptu sex in bathrooms, whose closest relationship is an ambivalent one with her foster "brother" (drifting along on unemployment). Others around her have lazy sex, drink, generally just get by. To the degree that there's an inciting incident here, it's when she meets a slightly older man with more substance to him. But the real "story" is just the close-up view of these small-town down-and-outers going nowhere. There's a general mild hopelessness to this whole world which is certainly that of millions of Americans living get-by lives. It's never very compelling, which may be the point. Still, if one stays interested in these characters from the start, it is because they all have something engaging about them, whether it's a Serbian mail-order bride (now widow) showing a gruff sisterly concern for her younger colleague, a father yearning to re-connect with his daughter or the protagonist trying to live a life that is just a touch more responsible than the aimless one she's living here. The actors all do their jobs very well and the moody, slightly sordid texture of the film is a fair approximation of the small-town, off-the-main-road, atmosphere I know from some years in Upstate New York. So the film probably does what it is aiming for and is a worthwhile document of a certain slice of American life. But very little really happens and when it does it is, without being predictable exactly, not unexpected.

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