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Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011)
Don't Ask, Don't Tell (2011)
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (2011) is a film that gives human character and scale to the federal policy that prevented openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the US military. The one-man documentary style performance of 18 real-life characters by actor and writer Marc Wolf is riveting because the production indirectly tries the controversial federal policy without judging the individuals -- both straight and gaywho have the courage to speak to this highly sensitive and personal issue. The painfully revealing, and often, humorous storytelling was creatively filmed in a deserted military facility. The loneliness of having to deal with an issue that forces people into silence and hiding was underscored by the stark relief of the empty military building and cool, natural light that was employed to film the production. While "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is about the federal policy that prevents openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the armed forces, it is also a film about people dealing with the elementary quest to seek fairness, human dignity and clarity on a civil rights issue. For that reason alone, it is a film to seek out on the web, or at festivals, and take in the effecting stories.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Think Charade meets The Matrix in 2011
The Adjustment Bureau
Think a scripted blending of "Charade" (1963) meets "The Matrix" (1999), and you have an idea of the plot that is the basis for "The Adjustment Bureau." (2011) All three films revolve around romance, suspense and a heightened sense of place. In "The Adjustment Bureau" New York City is almost a third character, and spotting cameo appearances by East coast media elites (past and present) is a side game. Humor is also an element of this story, although it sometimes undercuts the power of the suspense and romance that I imagine is the film's intended tone.
There are engaging performances to recommend the film, such as those by stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt; as well as supporting actors Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and the ever dangerously sexy Terrence Stamp.
All the witty repartee between characters, the striking views of New York City, and the driving pulse of the soundtrack make "The Adjustment Bureau" an entertaining film, but not so well pulled together that it demands great thought and consideration after the screening is over.
Teacher, Teacher (1969)
Teacher, Teacher still effective after 40 years
I first saw "Teacher, Teacher" when I was about 14 years old, primarily, because I was in love with David McCallum, who played Illya Kuryakin on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and because, in the 1960s, the "Hallmark Hall of Fame," specials held the imprimatur of quality television programming. I was so moved by the relationship between teacher and student, played by McCallum and Billy Schulman, that I took the opportunity to see it again at The Museum of Television and Radio some forty years later. The emotional impact of the story still holds up, and now, as a teacher, I appreciate the portrayal of the toughness of teaching a special needs student. With this second viewing, I'm reminded of the genius of Ozzie Davis who gave an understated, multi-layered performance as the handyman and kind of truth-sayer in this story. I may be looking at this film through the lens of nostalgia, but I find that many filmmakers of the 1960s had aspirations of telling stories that made views think about the human condition and social issues that needed closer examination. These films helped mobilize people, to some degree, to change in action or thought about many issues of the day. I think "Teacher, Teacher" like "To, Sir with Love" and "Up the Down Staircase" are quality films that do well in addressing teaching, learning, and the conditions necessary to make learning possible. I'd recommend that you seek out "Teacher, Teacher" and these other films that I have mentioned in this review. They are effective on many levels.
State of Play (2009)
State of Play, see the feature film, but be sure to see the BBC miniseries, too
I attended a pre-release screening of the new film, State of Play, with anticipation of seeing both quality work from actor Russell Crowe and screenwriter Tony Gilroy. I also entered the theater with a degree of apprehension about how well this feature length film would measure up to the brilliantly acted and crafted six-part BBC series that was the basis for the film. Crowe well-embodied the tenacious old-school investigative journalist that we've come to know from classics, such as "All the President's Men." However, the multifaceted ensemble of journalists, portrayed by a rich range of actors from the BBC series (John Simm, Kelly MacDonald, James McAvoy), is missing from this feature film where Russell Crowe does all the work. The complexity of the plot, which includes the competing professional interests and emotional needs of the characters in the British miniseries, is largely eliminated in this big screen version. Ben Affleck and Robin Wright Penn do not seem to appreciate and respond to the high stakes events that could turn their lives inside out and upside down. What this film shares with the miniseries is the glimpse into the mechanics of running a journalistic investigation under the pressure of time and editorial interference, but the personal stories suffer from not being fleshed out and made to feel real and compelling to watch. It is not fair to compare one piece of art to another, but when two productions are related, and you've seen the original, it is difficult to view the second production without prejudice. It is like trying to unring a bell.
The new film, State of Play, is a convincing thriller, but it fails to also deliver as a richly defined character drama.
Curiosity will drive those who saw the BBC series to see this film, and the rich pedigree of the film production will draw in those who know nothing about the original miniseries. Everyone will ultimately be satisfied by seeing both productions (miniseries is on DVD) so that they can make the comparisons and connections that any thinking film-goer will want to do.
Half Nelson (2006)
Not One False Note in this Film
"Half Nelson" is a spare, original story with exquisitely natural and fresh performances delivered by Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie. The film covers ground somewhat like what we've seen in "To Sir, With Love," "Dangerous Minds," "The Blackboard Jungle" and other inner-city school dramas. Only this film focuses on the lives of one teacher and student in an intimate and up-close way. "Half Nelson" looks at specific lives and does not generalize. There is little exposition, and so much of what we learn about the characters is deduced from how they said something, rather than what they said. At times, I found myself laughing and smiling through what is a rather disturbing story because of the way the characters react to the circumstances they find themselves in.
I can't say enough good things about this film and highly recommend it because it is well conceived, directed and performed.
I hope it receives support and recognition during the film award season so that a wider audience will find and see this independent film.
The Illusionist (2006)
The Illusionist delivers a deceptively inventive costume drama
I think The Illusionist is a rewarding gift to audiences who enjoy historical thrillers, procedural mysteries and character-driven dramas. The sepia-toned cinematography for this picture delivers lovely vintage postcard landscapes and cityscapes of 19th century Vienna. The visually stunning illusions performed by the main character are integral to unraveling the murder mystery, and most important of all, Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti turn in well-delineated, but restrained performances that keep the film from being derailed into a Masterpiece/Mobil Mystery television production. Norton's and Giamatti's specific characterizations make this film feel inventive, as opposed to many British costume dramas that feel stagy and barely differentiated from the page. I think the chemistry exhibited between Norton and Giamatti are felt in some of the film's best scenes. Their performances, as well as the film's look, make The Illusionist feel deceptively original, although it is apparently based on a novel. This film has the thrill of Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal and the romance found in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. These story elements should make the film appealing to a broad spectrum of filmgoers--as was apparent at the screening I attended where there was applause when the credits rolled.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
Political thriller viewed through the lens of a romance
Films that are written as thrillers, suspense stories and romances all feature certain story elements that define the genre. How the elements are combined to tell a specific story is the measure of a story's success at convincing an audience of its worth. "The Constant Gardener" is a well-crafted story with many fine performances, starting with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, and including the many character actors who make this film feel viscerally real and true. In the tradition of films like "Silkwood", "Z" and" The Insider", the director of "City of God" takes the audience on a tense, suspenseful ride with characters who dare tell truth to power. The film viewing experience feels dangerous and worth-while.
No doubt, "The Constant Gardener", like "City of God" will fuel discussion about the politics which is the basis of this film, and will also send more people to read John Le Carre's book, which is the basis of the film.
The last of Keanu's teenage characters with pathos
By the time Keanu completed Life Under Water, he was about 25 years old, and had played a number of characters who were alienated, bemused and emotionally-adrift middle-class teenagers. This production, which aims to be literate and sophisticated, much in the vain of "Butterflies are Free", adds a new element to Keanu's familiar teen portrayal, and that element signals the end of Keanu's roles as an innocent in a drama. I enjoyed the energy and wittiness of all the characters, especially the one played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City), however the moral of this tale, if there is one, is rather obtuse, and the ending leaves me feeling the story is incomplete. The crisis in this film is not as strident as the one in "River's Edge" or "Permanent Record," but this living-room drama feels compelling to watch up until its, for me, unsatisfactory ending.
It's worth giving it a watch if it appears on television--also noting the 25 year old Keanu looks beautiful, and is not as awkward as in the earlier teen films, or the "Ted" films to come. It was originally broadcast on PBS' American Playhouse, and so may be re-broadcast on one of your local PBS stations.