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Now 44, childless, arthritic, and stuck in career limbo, Josh Svebnick
(Ben Stiller, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") has the good sense to
realize that life is passing him by. Though Josh and his wife Cornelia
(Naomi Watts, "St. Vincent") are okay with not having children (after
several miscarriages), they feel disconnected from their friends who
have kids. Set in Brooklyn, New York, While We're Young, Noah
Baumbach's ("Frances Ha") latest bittersweet comedy is less abrasive
than his previous films, but far from being a tribute to the human
condition. Though not as angry and unpleasant as Roger Greenberg in
Baumbach's 2010 film "Greenberg," Ben Stiller's Josh is hardly the
picture of aliveness.
His self-esteem, shaky to begin with, takes a further hit when his filmmaker father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, "The Humbling") criticizes a six-and-a-half-hour documentary that he has been trying to finish for ten years. Breitbart tells him that it's "a six-and-a-half-hour film that's seven hours too long," leaving Josh to complain that the only emotions he has left are "wistful and disdainful." Josh and Cornelia, however, see in Jamie Massy (Adam Driver, "Tracks") and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried, "Les Misérables"), a young couple that embodies the youthful energy that eludes them.
Josh's relationship with Jamie begins promisingly. Feeling flattered by Jamie labeling everything he says as "beautiful," Josh agrees to help him with the documentary he is making, a decision he comes to rue. Jamie seems to fit Baumbach's picture of what "hipsterism" should look like. He uses a manual typewriter, collects vinyl records, rides his bike all over the city, disdains technology and social media, and talks in hipster lingo. To feel like one of the in-crowd, Josh wears a hat and rides a bike, while Cornelia does her part with dancing and exercising to rap music.
The hipster thing goes overboard, however, when Josh and Cornelia agree to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony led by an alleged shaman. Baumbach's view of these proceedings seems to be that vomiting is the most important part of the process. Needless to say, there is no hint as to what the experience may really be like beyond the media-driven "Me generation" stereotypes. Josh's partnership with Jamie soon begins to show strains, when Josh learns that Jamie used his film subjects - father-in-law Breitbart and History Professor Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow) for his own personal film project. Josh views this, not as simple ambition or opportunism but as an example of the moral bankruptcy of today's youth.
At a Lincoln Center dinner honoring Breitbart, the film brings up the issue of how documentaries have manipulated the truth to enhance their entertainment value, but it goes off on a tangent that ultimately conveys contradictory messages and a contrived ending. Without doubt, While We're Young is a very entertaining film. As in the typical Baumbach experience, there is an abundance of irritating characters, the requisite number of clever one-liners (some even funny), snippets of redundant baroque music, and extensive use of foul language.
Unfortunately, however, this time it does not add up to an experience that feels real. While we all deal with the loss of our youth differently, the film's facile conflict between middle-age and youth is overly calculated and is not illuminated by the suggestion that energy and enthusiasm are a function of age rather than of taking responsibility for our life and using our power to transform it at any moment in time.
Stet, a troubled and angry Texas boy of eleven lives on the less
affluent side of the tracks in Boychoir, Quebecois director François
Girard's ("The Red Violin") feel-good story about a musically talented
boy's climb from adversity to self-acceptance. Written by Ben Ripley
("Source Code"), Girard's first film in seven years boasts an
outstanding cast that includes Dustin Hoffman ("Chef") as Anton
Carvelle, choirmaster at the prestigious Boychoir National Academy,
Kathy Bates ("Tammy") as Justine, the school's feisty headmistress, and
newcomer Garrett Wareing as Stet, a young student with loads of talent
and plenty of attitude.
In constant trouble at school, Stet returns home each day to clean up after his alcoholic mother and perform household duties normally handled by adults. Nurtured for his precocious singing talent by the principal at Stet's school in Odessa, Texas, Ms. Steel (Debra Winger, "Lola Versus"), the boy is granted a private audition with Master Carvelle (Hoffman) through her efforts but, not knowing who he is, Stet abruptly walks out. When a family tragedy strikes, Steel finds Stet's absent father (Josh Lucas, "The Mend") and persuades him to reject foster care and apply for the boy's admission to the Boychoir in New York, a nationally recognized singing group with its own boarding school.
Stet, however, is rejected because of his attitude and lack of discipline, that is, until his father, relieved to keep the knowledge of his secret son from his wife and children, smooths the way with a large undisclosed "contribution. Unsurprisingly, the boy has trouble adjusting to his new situation, getting into fights with his over-privileged classmates, breaking windows, raiding the candy machine, and being generally withdrawn and uncooperative. His extraordinary singing ability is recognized, however, by both Wooly (Kevin McHale), an academy teacher who has faith in Stet and Drake (Eddie Izzard, "Castles in the Sky"), the assistant choirmaster who is impatiently waiting for Carvelle to retire.
Unable at first to read music, Stet is tutored by a fellow student and nurtured by Carvelle, a strict but compassionate disciplinarian whose own ambition for a career as a concert pianist was ended abruptly by a rejecting teacher. In a moving scene that takes place on a basketball court, Carvelle uses "ruthless compassion" to tell Stet, "All you need to do is quit since it is obvious that music means nothing to you." But Stet, with a new-found determination, refuses to quit. However, when a nasty confrontation arises with Devon (Joe West), another talented singer who insists on getting all the solos, Seth has to do all he can to survive a disciplinary hearing and prepare for a concert in New York, one that may be the most important in the school's history and in his own life. It is a concert in which all parents are invited.
Boychoir has a story that keeps us engaged but, if the film is remembered for anything, it will be for its music. Angelic is the best way to describe the American Boychoir's performance of choral works such as Tallis' Spem in Alium, the Balulalow from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Handel's Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne and Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah, and especially the exquisite Pie Jesu from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, a chance for Stet to demonstrate his unique talents as a soloist. While the potential is present for a great film and the film's conclusion is extremely moving, its potential is unrealized mostly because of its headlong rush to keep the plot moving and stir the emotions at the expense of credibility, freshness and originality, and character development.
Excellent performances by the always reliable Hoffman and Bates keep the film afloat, but the dialogue, when delivered by other than Hoffman or Bates, feels strained and wooden and the film never reaches the heights of inspiration it strives for. Eventually, Stet must confront the reality that his voice is changing and that his time as a boy soprano is limited. When he asks his young teacher what the point of all the music lessons is when a singer's time in the choir is so limited, the answer goes beyond music to reflect on the impermanence of all living things, a fundamental truth of our existence. It is the film's most authentic moment.
Welcome to Hollywood! What's your dream? Everyone has a dream. Without
doubt Pretty Woman is a product of the Hollywood dream factory where
you can imagine yourself being Cinderella, or anyone else in the world
for that matter, for two hours plus pop corn. Having said that, unless
you take Hollywood fantasies soooo seriously you're ready to throw
something at the screen, Pretty Woman is one of the sweetest, most
enchanting movies imaginable, a drama about sex (very little shown) and
over-the-top consumption that, after 25 years, has taken on iconic, if
not classic status and is now the highest grossing romantic comedy of
The terrific performances of Julia Roberts (nominated for an Oscar), Richard Gere, and Jason Alexander is the main factor that makes the film so special, but it also contains memorable lines, a relationship with believable chemistry, and a satiric portrait of the excesses of consumer spending and elitism. It is after all, a comedy and the film does not attempt to explore the dark corners of Hollywood, though there is talk that originally the ending was much different. While there is talk of a crack addict being pulled out of the dumpster and drug dealers hounding Vivian (Roberts), we never really find out what in Vivian's background led her to the choice she made or really learn what turned Edward (Richard Gere) into a cold and calculating money grubber.
The characters that we do see, however, are authentic. They are fragile individuals who have the ability to see possibilities beyond their self-defeating cynicism. Those who think that Pretty Woman glamorizes a sordid profession are quiet when it comes to the high-priced call girls in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Verdi's La Traviata (an opera the film pays homage to), or to Don Giovanni which depicts a compulsive seducer who cannot see past his own sense of entitlement. It is no revelation to say that Pretty Woman is unrealistic and lacks character depth but, in its own way, it is a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity for transformation. If you close your eyes and think hard enough, maybe even your dream can come true.
After fifty years, it is still difficult to assess the full effect the
Beatles have had on our culture. Even with the emergence of
truth-tellers such as Bob Dylan in the early 60s, the full flowering of
independent thinkers and irreverent behavior was not fully realized
until the Beatles arrived to help make it a permanent transformation.
While the impact of the Beatles was greatest in the U.S. and Britain,
the sense of being a part of a new community was felt even in
totalitarian regimes where the hippie look and the Beatle-style
longhair among teens became a reason for a resurgence of hope even when
accompanied by establishment panic.
The subject is explored with confidence in writer/director David Trueba's (Soldiers of Salamina) Living is Easy with Eyes Closed, winner of six Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. Inspired by a real incident, the title of the comedy/drama mirrors the first line of the Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever whose lyrics signal attention to the growing use of psychedelics. Set in Spain in 1966 during the last years of the oppressive Franco regime, Antonio, played by veteran actor Javier Cámera (I'm So Excited), is a single and somewhat lonely English teacher who is a devoted Beatles fan and uses their lyrics as a teaching tool.
When he hears that the famous Beatle John Lennon is filming Richard Lester's How I Won the War in the south of Spain, he decides to take some time off and drive down to Almeria with the hopes of meeting John and asking him to include his song lyrics in future albums. Along the way, Antonio picks up two young hitchhikers, both on the run from unpleasant situations at home, Belén (Natalia de Molina) a three-month pregnant 20-year-old leaving the nunnery where she was sent by her mother, and Juanjo (Francesc Colomer, Barcelona Summer Night), a 16-year-old boy (oddly a Rolling Stones fan) who has run away from his abusive father after an argument over his Beatles-style haircut.
Although there is some initial uneasiness, Antonio's friendly, talkative nature allows them to relax and feel comfortable. Once in Almeria, the trio bond in a local farmhouse and the more experienced Belén has much to teach her new young friend. Though the film abounds with warmth and humor, especially when Antonio attempts to fulfill his dream of meeting John, there are some dark moments as well. A local bully, who may or may not be a stand-in for the Franco regime, messes up Juanjo's thick mop of hair and worse but the bully's strawberry fields will not last forever.
Beautifully photographed by Daniel Vilar (The Artist and the Model) and buoyed by authentic performances from the entire cast, Living is Easy with Eyes Closed touches deep human emotions. Though the coming of age theme is fairly common in world cinema, rarely has it been done with such tenderness and intelligence, and its message of standing up to fear even though you may look foolish in the process is an important one. When Antonio tells his young friends that, "you can't live in fear. Too many people in Spain live in fear," it's a comment with multiple undertones. Living may be easier with your eyes closed, but it is much more satisfying when they are open.
Governed by strict religious rules, there are no civil courts for
divorce proceedings for Jews in Israel. Even though women over age
eighteen can vote and must, like everyone else, undergo compulsory
military training, Israel is still a male-dominated society and wives
are considered to be the property of the husband. This means that a
divorce (referred to as a "get") can only be granted if the husband
agrees to it, unless there is proof of physical abuse, infidelity, or
lack of support. Without a divorce, a religious Jewish woman cannot
remarry and becomes an ostracized member of the community called an
"agunah" or a "chained person." This predicament of Jewish women in
Israel is the focus of the absorbing Israeli film, Gett: The Trial of
Viviane Amsalem. Directed by siblings Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, Gett,
the third film in a trilogy that began in 2004 with To Take a Wife and
continued in 2008 with 7 Days, is a powerful dramatization of Viviane
Amsalem, an unhappily married woman (Ronit Elkabetz, Edut) who seeks a
divorce from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian, Zero Dark Thirty).
Since he refuses to grant her a get, she must plead her case in a
religious court under the jurisdiction of three Orthodox rabbis.
Winner of six Israeli Ophir Awards including Best Picture and nominated for a Golden Globe, Gett depicts the interviews and appointments Viviane has with the rabbinical court and the entire film takes place in the cramped courtroom or in the adjacent hallways. Viviane does not appear during the first few minutes as the camera focuses only on the men talking about her. She sits facing the judges and is only visible when she is being reprimanded for speaking without being spoken to. She needs no words, however, to convey the anguish clearly apparent on her face and in her gestures.
Though the trial stretches out for what seems like an endless period of time, the directors stated that similar trials may take three times as long. The dramatization of the extended trial starts and stops as we are notified by intertitles such as "three months later," "two months later," "one year later," and so forth until five years have passed. There are times when Elisha does not show up in court in spite of the rabbi's order and who threatens to revoke his driver's license, cancel his credit cards, and/or send him to jail but to no avail. If a husband refuses to grant his wife a divorce, the rabbis are powerless to force him.
Though Viviane has lived apart from him for four years and claims that they have not spoken during that time, the judges refuse to see that the marriage has gone past the point of no return and look for no solution other than having the couple remain together to try and "work it out." Witnesses are brought in to testify about Elisha being a good man (one calls him a saint) who even lets his wife go out alone. Even witnesses for the plaintiff say that Elisha has a good character. Represented by her articulate attorney Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy, Big Bad Wolves), Elisha is not accused of cheating, physical abuse, or lack of support, but only that, after thirty unhappy years of marriage, she no longer loves him and that they are incompatible.
While Elisha sits in distant silence, one witness claims that she heard Viviane yelling and throwing things inside the house. At that point Viviane says "It's easy to blame the one who yells. Those who whisper venom are innocent." It often seems as if Viviane is on trial rather than the issue of divorce. Elisha's brother Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai, The Band's Visit) who is representing him, calls her a "wayward" woman and the judge takes offense when she unties the bun and lets her hair fall on her shoulders while another judge chastises her for speaking her mind. Brazenly, Shimon accuses Carmel of being secretly in love with his client and one witness testifies that she saw Viviane in a café talking to a man who was not part of her family.
As the trial drags on, it is clear that Elisha is simply not willing to let go and that he still loves his wife even if he defines it in his own terms. Gett has become a hot-button topic in Israel and is now being vigorously debated in both secular and religious circles. In fact, it mirrors a current case in New York where an orthodox rabbi has been accused of kidnapping husbands to coerce them through beatings and torture to provide a get to their wives. While there are no clear-cut victims and both characters are trapped in a heartbreaking situation, the film is a powerful indictment of archaic religious laws and traditions that make women second-class citizens. In the movie's most compelling moment, Viviane finally explodes in a torrent of rage and frustration, practically begging for her freedom. The rage and frustration is also ours.
War is hell even under optimal conditions, but when you do not know who
your friends are or even who you can and cannot trust, it gets even
darker. Just ask Private Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell, Starred Up), a raw
recruit in the British Army who, contrary to his expectations of being
sent to Germany, winds up on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland
in the time of "The Troubles." Written by Gary Burke and nominated for
nine British Independent Film Awards, first-time feature director Yann
Demange's gritty anti-war thriller, '71 is a graphic depiction of the
early days of the bitter struggle in Northern Ireland between the
Protestant Loyalists who want to remain in the U.K., and the Catholic
Republicans whose desire is to build a united Ireland, free of British
The film opens with Hook playing football with his younger brother Darren (Harry Verity) outside of a children's home where apparently he also grew up. An emotional goodbye to Darren puts us on his side, hoping along with his brother that he returns from the war in one piece. Except for a briefing of the soldiers about the physical boundaries of each faction, Demange does not offer any background information on the issues involved in the conflict but deposits us into the middle of the battle, allowing us to be as confused as Private Hook. With the extensive use of a shaky hand-held camera, we witness a riot that breaks out on the Catholic streets of Belfast after the British soldiers go door- to-door searching for Republican weapons and the Protestant police force (RUC) inflame the situation with their brutal questioning.
When one of his mates is felled by an IRA bullet, Hook is separated from his regiment under the command of the also inexperienced Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid, Belle). On his run through the embattled city dodging Molotov cocktails and burning cars, the disoriented Hook seeks to escape from the pursuit of the younger, more violent Provos, split from the traditional IRA. Haggerty (Martin McCann, Shadow Dancer) and Quinn (Killian Scott, Calvary) are out to kill him but he must also protect himself from British undercover Military Reaction Force (MRF) officers Lewis (Paul Anderson, Passion) and Browning (Sean Harris, Deliver Us From Evil) who conclude that he might have seen too much. Working with the rebels is teenager Sean (Barry Keoghan, Stay) whose naiveté matches that of Hook and who must confront the prospect of having to shoot Gary, a task he is not ready for.
A hardened Protestant boy, exceptionally performed by Corey McKinley, promises to lead him back to his unit, but is caught in the middle of an accidental bomb explosion inside a British pub, though Gary's life is saved by Catholic civilians Eamon (Richard Dormer, Good Vibrations) and his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy, Philomena). Barely healed, Hook must now elude pursuers IRA members Boyle and Quinn who are engaged in a power struggle within the IRA.
Even though the plotting is complex and sorting out the personalities and their motives is a daunting task, not helped by the barely decipherable accents, '71 is still a superb achievement, an intense and visceral experience that spares no one in its depiction of the insanity committed in the name of ideology. In the dehumanized world we are privy to where every individual is "a piece of meat," we can relate to Hook's sense of lost glory. Alienated from, in poet Wilfred Owen's phrase "the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. (it is sweet and right to die for your country)." Jack O'Connell's authentic performance as the young soldier makes the tragedy of war all too real.
Though Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye will make the whole world
blind," many of us deal with the frustrations of modern life by
striking out against a society we see as oppressive. We rail against
the politicians who misgovern us, the bureaucrats we tangle with, or
simply against a world that does not always support our desires. Most
express their anger in socially acceptable ways, others do not. It is
the others that are the subject of Argentine director Damián Szifrón's
(On Probation) Wild Tales, six unrelated stories filled with dark
humor, stylized violence, unhinged emotions, and unexpected twists in
the Twilight Zone tradition, tales that reflect the insanity of
Produced by Pedro Almodovar (I'm Not Excited) and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the assortment of characters that populate Wild Tales are not poster boys for forgiveness but are united in their desire for revenge against real or imagined enemies. Though in films of this genre, the expectation is that some segments will be better than others, here each twenty-minute segment is so impeccably written and compelling that they could each form the basis for a feature-length film. In "Pasternak," the bizarre episode that opens the film, Isabel (Maria Marull, Antes del estreno), an attractive model, boards a plane for a business trip and strikes up a conversation with Salgado (Dario Grandinetti, Inevitable), a music critic, seated across the aisle. After she tells him about her ex-boyfriend Gabriel Pasternak, he tells her that he also knows him as an aspiring classical music composer.
Salgado relates how he emphatically rejected one of his compositions, though he recognizes his words may have hurt. Other passengers overhear the conversation and stand up to claim that they also know Pasternak and have mistreated him in one way or another. The sequence ends on a note that is so delightfully macabre that it cannot and should not be described but must be seen. In "The Rats," the film's second vignette, a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg, Extraños en la noche) in a restaurant encounters a nasty customer (Cesar Bordon, History of Fear) whom she recognizes as the loan shark who was responsible for her father's suicide.
She would like him to suffer but is unwilling to do anything about it until her determined cook (Rita Cortese, Verdades, Verdaderes, la vida de Estala), speaking from experience, tells the waitress that prison is not so bad after all and decides to take matters into her own hand. Revenge escalates in "Road to Hell," a road-rage segment reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Duel. A well-to-do man (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Aire libre), driving an upscale Audi sports car on a lonely stretch of road, has some choice remarks for the driver (Walter Donado, The Road to San Diego) of a slow-moving pickup truck who refuses to let him pass. Called a "redneck," the fun starts when the businessman has a flat tire and the confrontation escalates in very imaginative and bloody ways.
Other stories deal with an engineer (Ricardo Darin, Violet) whose car is towed away once too often for his emotional well being, and a wealthy father (Oscar Martinez, Empty Nest) who tries to cover up for his teenage son's involvement in a fatal automobile accident with a scheme that involves payoffs to his lawyer, the family gardener, the prosecuting attorney and the police. The final segment, "Till Death Us Do Part," is, both literally and figuratively, the icing on the cake. In the episode, a lavish wedding becomes sidetracked when the bride Romina (Erica Rivas, Aire libre) discovers that her new husband and Ariel (Diego Gentile, The Hush) had an affair with one of the wedding guests.
The wedding bouquet becomes a dart thrown in several directions as the celebration turns into a mixture of blood and wedding cake. The most commercially successful Argentine movie in history, Wild Tales is a wild ride that provides the viewer with a sense of how losing control may be cathartic and fun on a movie screen but counterproductive in our own life. As one of the characters in the film says, it may be better to just accept that bureaucracy will find a way to get most of your money no matter what and move on with your life, because in that way you'll live longer than if you give the unfairness of the matter any prolonged thought. That is probably good advice, that is, unless you find the idea of revolution attractive.
In a letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, the German Poet Rilke wrote, "The
bird is a creature that has a very special feeling of trust in the
external world, as if she knew that she is one with its deepest
mystery. Using magic realism together with impressive camera work and
CGI effects, Bird People reflects that mystery and turns it into a
persuasive allegory of transformation. Directed by Pascale Ferran (Lady
Chatterley) from a screenplay by Guillaume Bréaud, the film not only
observes the alienation that exists in modern society, but goes beyond
that to challenge our comfort level and glimpse what is possible.
Bird People depicts the lives of two very different people, Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier, The New Girlfriend), a maid at the Paris Hilton hotel in Paris close to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, and Gary Newman (Josh Charles, The Good Wife), a Silicon Valley engineer who is stopping overnight at the same hotel for a business conference en route to Dubai. Though they exist in totally different worlds, they are both stuck in life situations that are far from being nurturing. Neither can see a way out, until they do. As the film opens, the camera randomly peeks into the mind of travelers walking through airport terminals, riding on a commuter train or bus, enmeshed in their own world of smartphones, headphones, or simply daydreams.
There are no artistic or poetic visions in their thoughts, only internal conversations about appointments to keep, files to download, what to make for dinner, and other day-to-day minutia. Reminiscent of the Norwegian film, Oslo, August 31st, the people in the prologue have nothing to do with the stories that follow, but suggest that the difference is only in the level of awareness. Narrated by Mathieu Amalric who makes only a brief appearance in the film, the first hour concentrates on Gary (Charles), in Paris overnight and scheduled to leave the next day for Dubai. After experiencing a serious anxiety attack during the night, he makes some life-altering decisions the next morning.
Though his decisions appear to be impulsive, Gary tells others that he had thought about it for a long time. In a sudden one broom sweeps all move, he decides not to make the flight to Dubai, quits his job to the dismay of his business associates, and sells his stock to his partners. As if that wasn't enough housecleaning for one day, he tells his wife (Radha Mitchell, Silent Hill) that he is leaving her and the children, seemingly with little concern for their emotional consequences, though Ferran does not judge his actions, but simply records them. This "breakup" occurs in a face-to-face encounter during a stretched-out fifteen-minute Skype call, a process that is emotionally draining both for the characters and the viewer.
When pressed for a reason for his action, all he can come up with is that he "can't take it any longer" and has "had enough." Looking depressed and disheveled without any plans for the future, we fear for his life but Gary isn't ready to take any irrevocable steps of that nature, content to free himself only of his worldly responsibilities. Fortunately, the mood shifts as the second hour focuses on Audrey, a housekeeper at the hotel, as she goes about her routine of meticulously cleaning each room. Though in outward appearance, she is cheerful, there is a hint of an inescapable boredom and ennui in her life. Her only contact with people is to listen in on hallway conversations and sift through a guest's belongings in their room looking for a connection or an insight into who they are.
Peering into the windows of apartments across the courtyard with people living disconnected lives, she is again reminded of her sense of separation. What transpires, however, has nothing to do with her job, her family, or friends. It is a lovely flight of fancy that is too enchanting to reveal but includes an inspired Japanese artist, Audrey's discovery of a personal matter concerning the hotel concierge, all this amidst swooping aerial camera shots that lift the film from the stuffy hotel rooms and let it breathe. The trajectory of the film mirrors the words of the German poet Rilke, "If I don't manage to fly, someone else will. The spirit wants only that there be flying." In that regard, Bird People soars.
Mike Leigh's film Mr. Turner centers on the last twenty-five years of
the life of the acclaimed 19th century English landscape painter,
J.M.W. Turner. Though the film, with the strong assistance of
cinematographer Dick Pope, succeeds in capturing the look and feel of
the time as well as the essence of Turner's beautiful landscapes and
seascapes, the film's primary focus on the painter's flaws as a human
rather than his accomplishments or inspiration as an artist feels
misguided. A great character actor, Timothy Spall's recreation of the
acclaimed painter tells us all we need to know about his eccentricities
but his performance, however brilliant, borders on caricature and does
not convey any true sense of Turner's greatness.
Secure and confident with his artist friends and colleagues, Spall depicts Turner as the original grumpy old man. He walks with a stoop, grunting and groaning more than engaging people in conversation. He treats his long time housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) as a dispensable commodity, displays indifference to his two daughters by an ex-lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), and shows up one of his rivals, John Constable (James Fleet). His only affectionate relationships are with his father, William (Paul Jesson), a former barber, who helps out as his assistant and with Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) a charming, twice-widowed landlady of a seaside house in Margate, where Turner's frequently visits.
One of the highlights of the film is the moment when he looks directly at her and says that "You are a woman of profound beauty." Though Turner is accepted by the Royal Academy, his blurry, hazy forms dissolved in light during the latter stages of his career alienate some of his peers but the iconoclastic Turner is indifferent to what others think of him and is very much his own man. He is less than amused, however, when his work is held up to ridicule at a stage performance and sales of his paintings fall off. Turner does have a champion, however, in John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) who discusses Turner's painting The Slave Ship showing slaves being thrown overboard during a storm, commenting perceptively on the way the light hits the water.
Turner, however, admonishes Ruskin for dismissing a deceased artist for failing to match his ability. The painter's experience with the new artistic potential of photography also deepens his feeling that his time in the spotlight is nearing an end. Though not discussed in any depth in the film, his famous painting of The Fighting Temeraire showing an old sailing ship being towed into harbor by a small steamboat is as close to an elegy of the passing of time that exists on canvas. Likewise Turner's visual depiction of the encroachment of the industrial revolution in the form of enduring images of the steamship and the railroad signal a new age in technology.
Leigh's stated purpose in making the film is to "examine the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world." While I agree that the life experience of an artist is a complex mixture of the mundane and the transcendent, to further advance our understanding, we need to look beyond the "stuff" of life. Focusing on Turner's abrasive personality, abortive family relationships, and sexual liaisons does little to advance our knowledge of his artistic expression, genius, and "the spiritual way he had of distilling the world." J. M. W. Turner was a secretive man about his personal life. Perhaps it would have been best if his desire for secrecy had been honored.
If life is up and down with a few bumps along the way, what better
representation is there than a cable car's ride up and down a mountain?
This particular cable car ride takes place in the riveting documentary
Manakamana, a ride that brings passengers, both foreign and local, to
the Manakamana Temple in the Gorkha district of Nepal. Consisting of
ten-minute segments with extra time taken to show a darkened terminus
building, the film is a portrait of nine different families and friends
visiting a shrine to the Hindu goddess Manakamana who, it is believed,
makes wishes come true.
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez (Leviathan) of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, with their 16mm camera anchored to the floor, simply filmed people going up to the 17th century temple, as well as those on their way down (one trip is a voyage with four goats tied together being brought to the temple to be sacrificed). Out of thirty-five trips shot by the filmmakers, eleven were selected and the film was edited over a period of eighteen months. Spray, who has lived in Nepal since 1999 knew some of the passengers and this may account for the fact that conversations are natural and relaxed, even though I'm sure they couldn't help being aware of the camera.
The first trip is silent as an elderly man sits next to his grandson, occasionally gazing at the passing scenery as the car climbs higher and higher. When conversations do begin after about twenty minutes into the film, people talk about their families, their religion, the way it used to be, a trail that is no longer used, and the replacement of thatched roofs by slate and slate roofs by tin. Many comment on the beauty of the surrounding hills and the sal trees, said to be favored by Vishnu in the Hindu tradition and under which Buddha is supposed to have been born.
Three older women chant their message of worship to the goddess while, in a sharp cultural shift, three long-haired young men talk about their rock band and take pictures of themselves from their mobile device. Additionally, there are two young women who speak English, one sounding like an American, the other Nepalese. We are also entranced by the journey of two accomplished musicians who perform on the traditional stringed instrument known as the sarangi. One of the most entertaining and playful sequences is that of two older women on their way down eating ice cream on a stick, trying to prevent it from dripping all over them and the cable car.
Many of the passengers bring offerings to the goddess such as a basket of flowers and a rooster, though it is reported that the sacrifice of poultry has been banned. While it is tempting to search for a spiritual message from the film, to me its pleasure lies in the simple joy of just being with a diverse group of people, some young, some old, and sharing some time with them. The American girl tells her friend that she has had a hard time finding something to write in her diary every day, that sometimes nothing really interesting happens. Indeed, we are trained to always wait for something to happen. Manakamana allows us to have the experience that, regardless of its seemingly repetitive nature, life is always new, unique, and beautiful. In each day and in each moment, a reason to celebrate.
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