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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The last time Elliott(Leo Fitzpatrick) saw Matthew(Richard Gallagher),
they were both little kids at an orphanage, harboring dreams of
parental love. Matthew got lucky; he went home, but for Elliott,
finding a home became an ongoing search. He stayed in houses, while
Matthew collected soccer trophies and majored in journalism at college.
But that was then, and this is now. Dressed in a black suit and tie,
Elliott is still that little boy, trying to make a good first
impression, trying to be loved, when he shows up at the front door of
his dying friend he hadn't seen in twenty years. Elliott is lost,
looking very much like the Harry Dean Stanton character in Wim Wenders'
"Paris, Texas" in his formal attire, but with one crucial difference:
Travis Henderson had intended on staying lost, roaming the flat prairie
lands of Texas, whereas Elliott wants to be found. In the Wenders film,
Walt(Dean Stockwell) has to convince his wanderlust brother to get in
the car, while in "El Camino", a road movie about angsty white people
that doesn't get its angst in your pants, Elliott begs Gray(Christopher
Denham) and Lily(Elisabeth Moss) after the funeral to let him be the
third wheel on their journey to Mexico, where Matthew's best friend and
ex-girlfriend plan on scattering his ashes into the Pacific.
"I had a great life," says Matthew, whom Elliott shoots with his video camera, just as he did back at the orphanage, shortly before his old documentary subject passes away. The video camera is how Elliott participates in life, purely as an observer who points his lens at things of interest; an outsider trying to make a connection with other people, living vicariously through his recorded images. At one point during the trip, inside Gray's house, the spoiled rich kid calls him "Spielberg", an appropriate moniker, since the Elliott in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" was looking for a friend. When Lily coaxes Elliott to surrender his camera for an interview, he becomes the subject, perhaps for the first time since Matthew interviewed him as kids. He finally becomes a thing of interest, this orphan, who the moviegoer suspects has never loved, or been loved. Since film-making is how Elliott connects with people, this burlesquing of intimacy, having Lily turning the tables and filming the filmmaker amounts to having Elliott's attempts at intimacy being reciprocated. He's being "stripped" in front of a stripper; he's naked. When Lily kisses Elliott, he doesn't know what to do, because this orphan has spent his whole life recording life instead of living it. At the final destination, a beach in Mexico, after Elliott parts ways with Gray(the angst-ridden rich kid with daddy issues), and Lily(the angst-ridden, chain-smoking exotic dancer with mommy issues), the formally-attired "boy" takes off his shirt and walks toward the ocean. Since, in all likelihood, there's nobody to watch his film, he doesn't bother recording his homecoming. (The final scene is open-ended; it might, or might not be a suicide attempt.)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Jackie Chan isn't a eunuch, but that's how American filmmakers treat the Hong Kong action star. It's especially noticeable in this year's "The Spy Next Door", where Chan, playing a retired CIA operative, dates, then marries his neighbor with supermodel looks(Amber Valetta), yet never gets to kiss her like he really means it. Hollywood decided long ago that an American audience only wants to see Chan kick ass, not tap it. If you pair him up with any pretty young thing, Claire Forlani in "The Medallion", for instance, the moviegoer can be rest assured that his coat will stay on, as well as the shirt, pants, underwear, and socks. So when Chan's character(Steelhead, a Chinese illegal in Japan) sees two hookers and suggests to his friend they have some fun, a semi-explicit love scene in which the lovely lady humps away on top of Chan, comes as a complete surprise, a shock, even, since throughout his filmography, the martial arts daredevil has never gotten to first base with a woman. In "San suk si gin", the filmmaker restores his penis, his masculinity. A eunuch persona would not suit the godfather-like character that Chan plays in this agreeable, albeit hurried crime saga(despite the two-hour-plus running time), where the asexual star of "Rush Hour" and "Shanghai Knights" is hired as a hit-man by the leader-in-waiting of the Yakuza, Eguchi(Jinglei Xu), who asks Steelhead to rub out his rivals in exchange for the promise that he'll enable the Chinese to exist as a powerful crime syndicate in Japan's exclusionary society. More odd than the sight of Chan having sex, is his atypical handling of a gun as a means of resolving conflict, rather than deploying his martial arts skills; his bare hands, and feet. Sex transforms the Chan persona. It's right after Steelhead's sexual encounter that this destitute immigrant tells Jie about his plans to "skirt the law and make money". "San suk si gin" knows that the moviegoer just wouldn't buy a celibate gangster. But Chan, the proverbial chopsocky everyman, not wanting to put his screen image at too much of a risk, is far from being Michael Corleone, or Henry Hill, since his character becomes less pro-active once his syndicate gets involved with drugs. No way is Chan going to do blow. Once Steelhead acquires his properties and Japanese citizenship, he goes legal, so the movie focuses on Steelhead's younger brother Jie(Daniel Wu), whose drug problem will remind moviegoers of "Good Fellas", in which illegal drugs becomes the bane of both crime outfits. Steelhead doesn't even know about the blow. Chan flirts with badness, but steers clear of any evil doing. When it seems like Steelhead is about to inform on Eguchi(his Japanese benefactor), "San suk si gin" never gives him the chance to double-cross his ex-girlfriend's husband, because Eguchi's Yakuza colleagues get to him before the law can. Steelhead lets the Japanese f*** Eguchi over, which mirrors the sex scene, where he allows the woman to do the work for him.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Crazy Heart" opens with panoramic shots of a lone pickup truck
traversing the barren landscape on a road to nowhere. It's driver used
to be somebody, a big-time country music star, back when Nashville was
full of renegades, larger-than-life men who lived hard and never gave a
second thought about the consequences. But tastes change, and old
school artists like Bad Blake(Jeff Bridges) watched Nashville sell-out
its bluegrass roots toward a more polished sound, an amalgamation of
pop and country in order to move beyond its niche market and into the
mainstream. Still, the aura of celebrity hangs around Bad Blake which
allows the has-been to tour the country, a circuit consisting of
bowling alleys and juke joints whose clientele while long in the tooth,
appreciates real country music in the Hank Williams tradition. At the
peak of his career, Bad Blake embodied his adjectival moniker with
pride, romancing his hard-living ways in song, his art, a justification
for all the people he disappointed over the years. "Crazy Heart" is
about a man who has seen his alias metamorphosize into a judgment, and
is seeking deliverance from the naming he once took pride in, with the
help of a young female journalist, who has the power to give Bad his
Jean Craddock(Maggie Gyllenhall), a budding music journalist for a local Tucson paper, breaks the golden rule that Lester Bangs imparted to young William Miller in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous", which was, "You never make friends with the rock stars." During their first meeting in a shabby motel room, Bad asks Jean not to snap any pictures, candid pictures that would suggest his down-and-out existence of alcoholism and destitution. But he grants permission to shoot him while he's performing, which she does, at a low-angle, so that Bad Blake looms large, heroic, and nothing like the disheveled man with a gut we saw back at the motel room. And once Jean starts sleeping with Bad, her story becomes compromised. What Bad needed was an expose, not a puff-piece; an expose which detailed his long-running demons would have been the wake-up call he needed to get sober. Although Jean knows the whole story, she only writes about Bad's good points; a compromised story which compromises her heart, because she edits out his alcoholism, not only in her capacity as a journalist, but as a mother, as well, when she puts her four-year-old boy in Bad's care. In essence, she dates her puff-piece; she hurts everybody- herself, her son, and even Bad, because she didn't write the whole story. It's as if Jean needed to see the pictures that Bad asked her not to take for perspective.
As a result of her relationship with Jean, Bad writes a song called "The Weary Kind" for his protégé Tommy Steele(Colin Farrell), a successful artist in the new Nashville tradition. Since the song is a smash, an argument can be made that being bad is good for the singer/songwriter. Being bad is what informs his art, albeit at the expense of a fruitful personal life. The song was supposed to be a happy one, a song about Jean when their future looked promising. Thanks to Tommy, the song acts as a beacon in which Bad hopes Jean hears his plea of undying love and lure her back. But when Jean shows up backstage after a concert, the diamond ring on her finger instantly turns "The Weary Kind" into an elegy. All he has left is the song.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The blind man, the once-famed director of motion pictures, doesn't like
to be called Mateo Blanco anymore. It's a name he associates with his
seeing years, when the blind man made movies, made love to the woman he
worshiped, and made enemies. Now he calls himself Harry Caine, a man
who learns that his vision was taken away from him in more ways than
one. More than a physical blindness, Harry was not only blind-sided by
a speeding vehicle on the highway, which killed Lena, the star of
"Girls and Suitcases", and left him sightless, he was also blind-sided
by Judit, who afflicted her one-time lover with a professional
blindness, when she butchered "Girls and Suitcases" in the editing
room, out of jealousy over the filmmaker's romancing of his leading
lady. Prior to his handicap, Mateo had thought he lost his creative
vision. "Los abrazos rotos", in a sense, recalls Woody Allen's
"Hollywood Ending", where the big joke was that filmmakers had no
vision, as the filmmaker, played by Allen himself, directed a movie
without the benefit of sight. In "Los abrazos rotos", Pedro Almodovar,
through his evocation of screen legend Audrey Hepburn, perhaps, wants
to say something about Hollywood, in which filmmakers lose their vision
when the right to final cut is taken away from them. Ultimately, the
melodramatic story, that of a rich tycoon who is jealous of his wife's
affair with another man, frames the real subject, which is, ultimately,
the relationship between art and commerce on any given film.
Throughout the interim of Mateo's sabbatical from film-making, Judit had in her possession, every inch of film that Mateo shot for "Girls and Suitcases", the cure for blindness, the restoration of his creative vision, which she withheld from him, because the healing powers of celluloid was too high a price for the production manager to give away for free. By helping Mateo regain his sight, Judit endures the bittersweet agony of mixed emotions, because her role as the "miracle worker"(after all, she helps Mateo see again) entails that her ex-lover can see how Lena was indeed, a capable comic actress, who was unfairly panned for her performance in the failed screwball comedy, due to sabotage. Since Judit might have played a role in the vehicular accident that claimed Lena's life, the production manager is also in the position of bringing her rival back to life, a correction to the professional death she engineered on the neophyte actress, the girlfriend of Ernesto Martel, while busy blinding her beloved.
At the post-production session, a belated one, to say the least, Judit cries, not only because Mateo can "see" again, but that he "sees" and she sees what a promising actress Lena actually was. Lena, newly exhumed from the professional grave that Judit dug for her, excels at comedy, delivering lines like a seasoned pro, from the final cut that Mateo was denied for so long. In a sense, the scene from "Girls and Suitcases" transforms "Los abrazos rotos" into a documentary(the making of "Girls and Suitcases"), which was what the filmmaker had in mind all along, as we watch Lena act her way past all the drama that the millionaire's son captured on his video camera.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Bill Pullman didn't die during the making of "Lost Highway", but the
same can't be said for narrative coherence, however, which bites the
dust hard, at the very moment when Balthazar Getty shows up,
unannounced, in that prison cell, supplanting Pullman, and emerges as
the regenerated protagonist. The 1995 cult classic, also starring
Patricia Arquette(and her breasts), can now be seen as a precursor to
"Mulholland Drive", in which David Lynch test-drove, half-successfully,
his utilization of dream logic. If only Heath Ledger's sudden and
improbable death was only a dream, and the consigning of his unfinished
character(Tony) to Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell could be
explained as a filmmaker's license to be surreal for the sake of
surrealism, and not out of necessity. Not wanting to suffer the
ignominy of another lost film while in production(like his unrealized
epic "Don Quixote", memorably documented in "Lost in LaMancha"), the
former Monty Python trouper turns to the idea of multiplicitous
personas, which, not surprisingly, hardly seems out of place in such a
ramshackle production such as "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus".
Depp, of course, was slated to star in "Don Quixote", so his
participation in this free-wheelin' movie seems like fate, a
serendipity of macabre-like proportions. Taking over for Ledger, Tony
#2 escorts this middle-aged socialite through a phantasmagoria of
giant-sized shoes and accessories, as Depp becomes a sort of Freddy
Krueger(after all, these dreamers have the potential to die, ala "A
Nightmare on Elm Street", a film that, incidentally, starred a young
Depp), when he tries to off the cougar by luring her to a motel where
the devil(Tom Waits) can claim her soul. The plot revolves around the
collection of souls, in which Dr. Parnassus(Christopher Plumber) needs
five to save his daughter Valentina(Lily Cole) from the clutches of Mr.
Nick. The plot, however, becomes instantly negligible once the
filmmaker rolls out the Tonys, as the film, literally, turns into a
memorial for Mr. Ledger, most pointedly, in a scene where Depp observes
a trio of flotillas memorializing James Dean, Rudolph Valentino, and
Princess Di, and by association, his good friend Heath.
Although Ledger's character turns out to have two faces(well, actually four), the star of Catherine Hardwicke's "Lords of Dogtown"(check out his spot-on send-up of Val Kilmer) apparently died before Tony reveals his dark side, which means we're spared the image of him choking a "child", a job that falls to Colin Farrell, the last Tony. The moviegoer can enjoy the late actor at his benevolent best, playing straight-man to Anton(Andrew Garfield), in a charming scene where the circus performer plays keep-away with Tony's flute. Best of all, he gets to hang out with Mini-Me, sorry, Percy(Verne Troyer), a sarcastic dwarf. Ledger gets to play the charming straggler who joins a traveling circus act(it's a shame that he doesn't get to kiss the girl), while the job of playing more the nefarious thief who hides out from his pursuers, falls on the shoulders of his collective stand-ins. Tony #3, as played by Jude Law, has a sequence in the imaginarium that recalls, in equal parts, Monty Python(the music-hall number performed by the singing policeman has a very British feel to it), and yes, Lynch, as tiny people, Tony's pursuers, who are the size of miniature toys, disappear under the hem of a peasant's dress, which is a direct steal from "Mulholland Drive".(Remember the tiny old people that the Naomi Watts character hallucinates?) Is it a coincidence that the circus performers first encounter Ledger as a hanging man, a man who could have possibly been lynched?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Not for no reason is "No puedo vivir sin ti" photographed in black and
white. A life spent in abject poverty certainly can become a life
without color, without beauty. Chang Yu-Tang is an unskilled laborer
who dives into the ocean with faulty equipment because he has no
choice. There's a young daughter to take care of, so he makes boat
repairs with an old generator that could potentially, and almost does,
kill him. While his uncle sleeps, the air compressor falters, but Mei,
whom the father can see as a silhouette from beneath the surface,
senses the imminent danger, therefore she rouses their benefactor from
his nap and averts a tragedy in the making. She protects him. Tang
doesn't deserve her. Mei should have decent shelter, should be in
school, and in the absence of having fit parents, should at least have
a fit father. Tang tries. Throughout the course of "No puedo vivir sin
ti", Tang shuttles back and forth between his native Kaohsiung province
and the big city in his futile attempts to enroll Mei in school. But
the bureaucrats won't let him; they insist that the girl belongs to her
birth mother, even though this supposed guardian hadn't seen Mei or
Tang in years. The seven-year-old girl lives with her father in an
abandoned warehouse by the sea. The moviegoer sympathizes with the
father's frustration, as these pencil pushes can plainly see how they
overmatch this borderline homeless man, disguising their contempt with
the bald-faced assertion that rules and regulations need to be
followed. The black and white photography gives Tang's plight a
nightmare quality. Nobody listens to him, because nobody listens to a
poor man. Finally, at wit's end, tired of such people pushing him
around, Tang ascends to a bridge with Mei and threatens to jump. Back
in the harbor, back under the water, it was only Mei who cared if her
father lived or died; now he has a city and a television audience
wondering about his fate. By dragging Mei into his fatalistic sphere,
however, he loses the audience's sympathy.
"No puedo vivir sin ti" seems derived from the neorealist tradition with its assemblage of real locations, non-professional actors, and especially, its humanist viewpoint. The filmmaker isn't a sadist who subjects his characters with relentlessly downbeat situations. He points his camera skyward, albeit a sky without its blue rendering is like a sky without optimism, the sky remains there for looking, for hoping. He points his camera at windmills; he points his camera at pear trees. Like Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz"(the Victor Fleming film is featured briefly), Mei dreams of a better place, but not without her father. "No puedo vivir sin ti", as was the neorealist Italian films from the forties and fifties, lacks the ironic glamour you sometimes find in a studio film, where being poor sometimes seem like an adventure, and worse, fun. Being poverty-stricken may be a bleak proposition, but the filmmaker has room for some grace under the inherent desolation of indigence, as in the scene where the father and daughter eat some fruit they picked off the roadside trees. The fruit is sweet, too sweet, probably. In Vittorio DeSica's "Umberto D.", the maker of "Bicycle Thieves" reunited the old man and his dog, and yet, despite their joyful antics in the park, it was a bittersweet reunion, at best. Nothing had really changed. The old man still would be hard-pressed to look after his beloved pet. "No puedo vivir sin ti" ends similarly, but with a difference.
Although a foster home is no Oz, Mei is in school, and no doubt, enjoys better food and a real roof over her head. The action picks up two years after the incident at the bridge, and during this interim, nothing has changed for Tang, except his hair. When he locates Mei, the school authorities tell him that she's gone mute, which sets the film up for a reunion scene more befitting of a major studio movie than a low-budget one. The sentimental music betrays its previously gritty presentation with bathos. Nobody seems to remember that the father almost killed his daughter. This fact gets lost in the pretty piano balladry. The filmmaker seems more concerned with the father's needs than the daughter's needs. He manipulates the audience by rigging everything in his favor. Mei never gets to be happy. Here is a more appropriate coda: Chang sees his daughter from afar, well-adjusted and well-fed, talking with her schoolmates outside the school, then walks away, with peace of mind that his daughter is alright. That is the bittersweet ending which would ably compliment the film's formal strictures of neorealism.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Standing in the English rain, Jenny(Carey Mulligan) doesn't know the
driver of the car, yet, who brakes for a woman, a mother, and no doubt,
somebody's wife too, pushing the baby carriage in a crosswalk. She
doesn't know that the driver, her future lover, has a wife and child of
his own, and misses the telltale significance of this innocuous scene
from her roadside vantage point. He stops. He takes an interest in her
cello; he takes an interest in her. When the time comes for David(Peter
Saarsgard) to choose between Jenny and his wife, he yields again, he
stops, instead of running over his family, in order to be with this
Bristol schoolgirl, an Oxford aspirant. David, as he sits in the idling
car, ready to declare his intentions of marrying Jenny before her
parents, realizes that his glamorous life as a thief is more like a
movie than real life, so he drives away. And Jenny too, wakes up from
her own dream world, and resumes her ordinary life as a schoolgirl in
Bristol, who lives at home with her parents.
His car seemed safe and warm; he rescued her cello, so she accepted the stranger's offer to drive her home, and, in essence, is rescued herself from becoming the woman pushing a baby carriage. He had introduced Jenny to a faster life, a faster crowd, "enlightened people", than the one she knows, but always distanced herself from, by reading books about faraway places, and speaking French. He took her to a nightclub for "a spot of supper" with his posh friends, after spending the evening listening to chamber music. She had an advantage: the other woman in the dinner party was dumb. Around the table, everybody held cigarettes, including Jenny, and she looked like an adult, one of them, the very effect that the sixteen-year-old-girl and her schoolmates were after when they would light up after classes, trying to look older as they'd walk around town. The school uniforms defeated them, defeated Jenny. But there, in the nightclub, the cigarette, the way Jenny held it between her fingers, made her look so grown-up, the moviegoer was taken aback by her transformation. Throughout the evening, Jenny intimidated the blonde with the fur(Rosamund Pike) by demonstrating her familiarity with high culture, but as Janet fussed over David at the dinner table, she had the schoolgirl beat in an art, the womanly art of intimacy, that Jenny knew next-to-nothing about.
To the moviegoer's surprise, "An Education" has a little "Badlands" in it, the Terrence Malick film about how a young drifter(played by Martin Sheen) leads an innocent girl(played by Sissy Spacek) into a life of crime. (Because of her romantic notions, Jenny doesn't realize that David is a small town denizen like herself.) On their way back from an overnight trip to Oxford, Jenny learns that her new friends are thieves, but amazingly, she doesn't walk away; she likes the high life; she likes illicit thrills. For a little excitement, Jenny compromises her morals in order to avert the drudgery of her previously provincial life. The outlaw in her makes Jenny the slightest bit unlikable, the slightest bit snotty, especially in separate scenes where she questions the validity of higher education for women: the first time with her teacher(played by Olivia Williams), and the second time with her principal(played by Emma Thompson), role models both, whom Jenny wishes not to imitate, because sadly, the positions they hold is supposed to foretell the happy ending for Jenny if she chooses to attend Oxford. "An Education" shows how the limited the options were for women in 1961, because the filmmaker has us rooting for a future where Jenny either becomes a mother with a diploma, or a spinster with a diploma. Choose Oxford, and Jenny is staring down at future employment as a teacher or an education administrator(or as the principal suggests, a life in civil service). Choose David, and Jenny might be happy, but this isn't a genre film where crime pays with the full endorsement of the audience. The moviegoer doesn't want the girl to get ahead in such an immoral fashion. After all, this is real life, not some movie.
In Paris, the filmmaker makes this distinction, and gives their vacation a travelogue look, like a movie. Although their sojourn through France is set in the present, the relatively short montage of a couple's sightseeing tour has a curious air of nostalgia to it, like we're looking at the past, as it happens. Jenny looks so happy, so full of life, the moviegoer realizes with some sadness that she'll never be this happy again. The trip doesn't look real, because that much happiness, that much romanticism can't possibly be real. David isn't real. The real David has a wife and child; the real Jenny will get her degree in Engish and one day in the future, become that woman pushing a baby carriage in the rain.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Aruitemo aruitemo" is about ordinary Japanese people. Comparable to
the 1980 Robert Redford-directed film starring Timothy Hutton, this Far
East import also deals with a mom, and how she distributes her love
among the children unequally, forcing the left behind son to compete
against the dead one, the favored one, the first born. Fifteen years
ago, Ryo's brother died in the ocean while trying to save another boy.
With a wife and child among him, Ryota(Hiroshi Abe) has returned home
for a reunion(to commemorate the fifteen-year anniversary of his
sibling's untimely passing), where he faces not just a frosty mother,
but a father who's the antithesis to the sire played by Donald
Sutherland in the Redford film. Ryota brings home damaged goods; his
wife and child are widow and stepson, and they rate far below their
daughter's husband and two children, in spite of the Japanese people's
partiality for boys over girls. Whereas Calvin Jarrett(Sutherland)
loved his son unconditionally, Kyohei(Yoshio Harada) admonishes Ryota
for not following in his footsteps by becoming a doctor. Although the
surviving son is in the restoration business too, artwork can't begin
to compete with the prestige of fixing people, thus the wedge was set
between them years ago, and festers there still, throughout the
duration of what will be his final visit back home. The mother(played
by Kirin Kiri), who seems to be the more congenial parent, entertains
Ryo's wife with her son's childhood things, and pulls out an old school
essay, in which the boy had expressed an admiration for his father and
the medical profession. But that fatal accident at the beach had
brought out the truth in how the family worked, so Ryo turned to art
history, probably to spite his father who loved him half as much as the
first born. Sympathetic portrayals both, the widow and the stepson,
nevertheless, they follow the pattern of reduced expectation, in which
Ryo, had his brother lived on, would have married more prudently, and
summoned a blushing bride for procreation. Told in retrospect,
"Aruitemo aruitemo" takes place, perhaps, about ten years in the past,
the amount of time it took Ryota to make peace with his parents, and
love them unconditionally, once again.
"Your family isn't normal," says Toshiko to her son, on the return trip from a pilgrimage to the dead son's grave. She doesn't count Ryo's stepson as his real child. Such bluntness shocks, the cruelty of her words. Clearly, the tragedy had curdled her heart. At the outset, the mother makes corn "tempura" for her familial guests, especially the children, but on this same walking tour, the moviegoer learns that she can barely stand kids, and shudders at the thought of her daughter's filial plan of moving back home with her family. The filmmaker excels at showing how oblivious the young children are to the anger that bubbles beneath the surface of each family gathering. They don't see that the grown-ups are ready to implode. The mother's worst behavior, however, is reserved for the boy who survived, an overweight dropout with no career prospects whom the family invites every year, so that he remembers the sacrifice made on his behalf, a sacrifice in vain. The mother tells Ryota that he wants the boy to suffer just as she had suffered. The father calls him "trash". In "Ordinary People", the surviving brother(Hutton) was at the scene of the boating accident, and is made to feel by the mother(played by Mary Tyler Moore) that the wrong son lived on. In light of the parents' disapproval over his family life and occupation, it's easy to see how Ryo might feel that mom and dad are projecting on the hapless guest, their disappointment over himself being the only surviving male heir.
When Ryota returns home, his parents are long-dead, but now he has a new addition, a daughter, who joins her parents and brother in honoring the grandparents she never met. As he pours water over their tombstone, the moviegoer speculates as to why Ryota finally made peace with his folks. Our eyes turn to the little girl, and we remember the old woman's words. The moviegoer wonders if he agrees with her. The dousing of the tombstones can be read as a son waking up his parents, in order for them see the grandchild they always wanted. Considering how Ryota's parents felt about the widow and stepson, it's somewhat perverse for them to participate in the ceremony. "Aruitemo aruitemo" is very, very Japanese. They're not like American people. They're not ordinary people.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Gopniks live in suburbia, among the goys, in tract houses with
perfect lawns that have no white picket fences to help demarcate where
properties begin and end. Although the Gopnik tract house looks like
everybody else's tract house, it's not the same, and Larry
Gopnik(Michael Stuhlberg) knows it. He feels the difference after each
near-encounter with his immediate neighbors, a father and son, who
ignore the college professor whenever they're both within talking
distance in the seamless yards, where the latter man tries to be
neighborly, to no avail. It isn't the first time, this set of gentiles,
the moviegoer suspects, have turned their backs on Larry, the only Jew
in the development, seemingly. They toss the baseball around more as an
exclusionary tactic than as a pure expression of male camaraderie. The
father and son throw and catch at such an accelerated pace, Larry can't
get a word in edgewise. There's no entry point for the Jew to fully
integrate himself with the goys, and just be one of the guys. Life for
the Jews in middle America might have been better in the sixties than
the era recounted in Phillip Roth's novel "The Plot Against America",
but that's because openly anti-Semitic behavior was no longer in vogue.
In this instance, such racism is intimated through the cold shoulder of
a neighbor, whereas in the past(the WWII homefront milieu of the Roth
novel), this same neighbor might have squared his shoulders toward
Larry, and fired away with his mouth. (In a dream sequence, this same
man fires away at Larry's brother, which indicates that the Jew feels
the undercurrent of violence during his terse exchanges with the gun
nut.) The Gopniks live somewhere in the midwest. They're assimilated
Jews, and it's 1966: the year Larry angers Hashem, who seems to have
chosen the physics professor to be made an example out of.
A serious man doesn't believe in magic. At the outset, the film hearkens back to the old country, where a peasant woman, believing that her husband has brought a "dybbuk" home for a bowl of soup, stabs this manifestation of Jewish folklore in the chest. Fast-forward to the present, where Larry, a physics professor awaiting tenure at some mid-level university, teaches a subject that's antithetical to the spiritual realm, which he, on a superficial level, still abides by. Danny(Aaron Wolf), his son, attends Hebrew school, even though mathematics(and science) disproves the existence of god. As Danny's teacher tends to the chalkboard, the moviegoer sees how the boy is just like his father, as he too inhabits both worlds, in which the boy lends one ear to a lecture on the Torah, and one ear to Grace Slick(of The Jefferson Airplane) imploring that Danny find "Somebody to Love" emanating from a tiny plastic earphone. Even better, this negotiation of traditional and popular cultures clash to even greater heights when Danny reads from the ancient religious text while stoned on marijuana at his Bar Mitzvah. Perhaps, the Gopniks' Americanization angers Hashem. (The everyday presence of Hashem in such modern trappings is suggested by "The First Rabbi", the junior rabbi that Larry seeks counsel with.) Larry's son wants to watch "F-Troop". Larry's wife wants a divorce so she can marry a man who believes in magic, Sy Ableman(Fred Melamed); he insists that Judith(Sari Lennick) get a ritual divorce so the two may marry in the faith. Larry believes in science; he just goes through the motions of his Judaism. A serious man believes in empirical evidence to prove that something exists, like an oncoming tornado, or a shadow that mysteriously appears on an x-ray, weeks after the patient was issued a clean bill of health. What looks like science, might actually be the wrath of god, of Hashem. A less serious man would see it in such a light. A serious man, like Larry, will miss the irony.
Earlier in the film, Larry fixes the aerial on his roof(so Danny can watch "F-Troop"), and sees his neighborhood from a different perspective; the perspective that remains obscured by his dogged insistence that the children(he also has a daughter) grow up Jewish. From his position of elevation, he sees a miracle, a secular miracle, a nude woman sun-bathing in her backyard. The math tells Larry how this "divine" act is made possible.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Contrary to popular belief among the narrow-minded, not all Arabs are
Muslims. Case and point: only one of the two female office workers,
employees at a Palestinian bank, have their heads covered, in the
opening scene of "Ameerka", a relevant film about the emigrants that
makes some of us leery, still, eight years and counting after that
fateful day in September. Even if Muna(Nisreem Faour) was a Muslim, and
did wear a headscarf in compliance with Islamic law, would it make this
divorced mother of one any less likable? Of course not. Not all Muslims
are terrorists, contrary to popular belief. By default, "Ameerka" is a
political movie, but it doesn't have to be one; it's the people that
Muna and her son Fadi(Melkar Maleem) meet stateside, who make their
presence a political matter. Despite having no outlying signifiers to
correspond with their ethnicity, as if being Arab itself is supposed to
denote one's religious affiliation in the first place, people prefigure
their disposition, and treat them accordingly, with suspicion, with
At the outset of "Ameerka", the small Palestinian family is made instantly relatable in a sequence that establishes how close-knit Mni and Fadi are, which completely transcends their "otherness". When the mother asks her son about his homework, having just picked the boy up from his private school, they could be American, but this parental concern is transformed by context and becomes a Palestinian scene, as their intimacy is interrupted by the car's arrival at a checkpoint, ending any semblance of normality, in which the Israeli soldier goes about his vehicle inspection. Once home, a house they share with the family matriarch, Muna quietly asks Fadi to get the tomatoes from the car, reining her temper in while Fadi's grandmother complains about her daughter's forgetfulness. Those tomatoes came from the produce market, a hole in the wall where Muna, recently divorced, had encountered her ex-husband's new wife, who is both younger and skinnier, and arguably, prettier, than her. When Muna boards the plane to America with her son, she's carrying around a broken heart, not a bomb.
The Farahs go to Illinois. That's where Muna's sister Raghda(Hiam Abbass) and her family lives. It's also where Fadi got accepted to an expensive school. Blissfully unaware of her own Americanization, Raghda possesses an American's arrogance, talking about Palestine as if she still knew her. Muna knows. She knows it's better to be a foreigner than a prisoner. Muna corrects her older sister, who feels Palestinian because she shops at a Palestinian grocers, and can speak in her own native language without the cold stares of American housewives that greeted them at the supermarket. With enough English to get by, Muna goes job-hunting, and ends up serving burgers at White Castle, a last resort to unemployment, after being turned away by a host of prejudicial bank managers. The job embarrasses Muna, but she's a go-getter, so there's definitely a place for her in this country. When Muna's principal, a Polish-Jew(remember: Muna is Palestinian), drives her back to work(after being called in for a conference over Fadi's fisticuffs with his tormentor), he stays for lunch, after returning the handbag she left behind in his car. As he eats the famous White Castle fare, she mops, but then he invites her to sit with him(remember: the principal is Jewish), because she's entitled to be there, like she and Fadi are entitled to be in America. Muna has the right to dream of a better life. Living paycheck to paycheck is not good enough for her. She sells a weight-loss drink, and later in "Ameerka", she slips on the liquid, the handiwork of Fadi's tormentor, who knocks an open can off the White Castle counter. Flat on her back, that's where Muna might end up in this country, but she has a right to fail, and she has a right to get up, and try again.
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