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The Namesake (2006)
What's In A Name? Everything
Having been to India myself, the opening minutes of "The Namesake" immediately struck an emotional cord within me. The familiar sights of an over packed train journeying across the sprawling Indian countryside evoked a time of searching. India is a land of great mystery and soul, even for those who call it home.
On this particular train journey, an older man sitting across from a student questions him about the book he reads. The elder man encourages this young student to see the world, not just read about it through books. Then, almost instantaneously, tragedy strikes...then darkness...and silence. As the lovely opening titles ebb and flow before us, with soothing music, a powerful sense of a great journey about to unfold washes over you. It is a rewarding journey, and a very human one.
Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name, "The Namesake" effortlessly ushers us through the life cycle of a Bengali family. The relationship between the spouses, Ashima and Ashoke, is at first a landscape as unfamiliar to them as is New York, where Ashima joins her newly married husband after their arranged marriage in India. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of "The Namesake" Jhumpa Lahiri, has fashioned a beautiful example of two people very much in love with one another who never fail to respect their individuality in their union. This is poignantly displayed in a scene where, Ashima, in an effort to please her husband, has accidentally shrunk his sweaters in the dryer. She isolates herself in the bathroom, in tears at her husbands frustration. Ashoke is quick to recognize his shortcoming acknowledging to her through the closed bathroom door that her intention was good, and that it was his fault for not telling her she did not need to do the laundry. He also offers to make her some tea. She is surprised at how untraditional he is in his expectations of her.
Two children follow and the focus soon settles on the eldest, Gogol, a name given him after his father's favorite author and one we learn has extra special meaning as the film plays out. Gogol is a typical youth, struggling to find his own identity outside of the one fashioned for him by his parents and the traditions they raised him with. We follow him from boyhood to manhood and experience the pain that comes with moving forward and the doubt that comes from what we've ignored in the process. Yet even though our gaze follows Gogol, we are given a balanced experience of everyone's journey. Ashima is a striking example of a woman in touch with the cycles of life and surrendering to the meaningful nature of its many seasons. Ashoke is a silent pillar of strength and wisdom, loving his son despite of the distance Gogol prefers. But for as much distance as Gogol creates through his interest in his American girlfriend's family, he is pulled back to his roots and eventually succumbs, unaware, to the preferences of his family tradition, only to lose it. But as is true in life, we must lose it, to find it.
"The Namesake" is a full circle tale about finding ones home in the world, after many journeys away from our own back yard. It's about ultimately coming to accept and being thankful for the longings of our heart, and the many journeys it can take us on in life. - Thomas O'Connor
Ambitious feature film debut
It isn't until you find yourself re-counting the plot of "11:59" to someone, that the significance of director Jamin Winan's ambitious feature film debut begins to dawn on you. The subject matter is heady and involved, touching on a myriad of issues, from the role the media plays in our lives to the importance of following ones instincts. Ultimately however, Winan's aspirations are grander than his achievements in "11:59," yet we do get a glimpse of the potential to come from this film school dropout.
As with all Double Edge Film productions (Winan's and producing partner Joe Sekiya's Denver based film company) "11:59" is concerned with perception and purpose and the themes the duo have explored in their preceding short films, re-emerge here in broader more refined strokes.
The picture opens with a burst of nervous energy as a breaking news story unfolds. The camera hand held, the edits quick, the music lively. Winans is eager to draw us in but doesn't quite achieve sure footing until after the initial 15 minutes when the action settles down. The films strongest visual styles recall moments from two other indie darlings - "Trainspotting" and "Requiem for a Dream", of which the latter is the most blatant. Director of Photography Jeff Pointer frames the sequences well and Winans, not only writer and director, does triple duty as editor, saving the films mediocre performances with smart cuts that keep the pacing steady and engaging.
Raymond Andrew Bailey gives a committed performance in the role of Aaron Doherty, the Jimmy Stewart of the piece, who experiences a flash forward revelation which allows him to ultimately touch ground and reconnect with something more significant than his career ambitions have. Bailey is likable and very watchable in the role, however he brings nothing particularly unique to his character, other than communicating mild frustration in relation to the existential mire in which he finds himself entwined. The juiciest role of the enterprise falls in the hands of Liz Cunningham, an alum of Double Edge, who previously was lensed by Winans and company in the short film "The Maze". Here Cunningham gets to play an edgy high profile news producer who seems hell bent on her station becoming "Colorado's News Leader" but in fact has some dirty laundry. It is Cunningham who gets the best dialogue,although at times she comes across as caricature. In every scene she appears, she plays the same level of intensity. A more nuanced performance would have made a world of difference. Laura Fuller as Lisa Winders, reporter and sidekick to cameraman Aaron, comes across as mousy at times but does have effective moments. As with director Winans, these actors seem poised for future success.
The films imagery does linger in the mind. Perhaps the most standout imagery and finest moment comes near films end. Aaron is pushing himself to the limit in a race against the clock so as to alter a foreshadowed outcome. The scene serves as a fitting metaphor to this indie accomplishment,nearly five years in the making, which like our hero in "11:59" is sure to propel Jamin Winans into a fuller realization of an already purposeful career.
When thinking of the revelation that the main character in "Bubble" comes to at films end, I am reminded of last years "Machinist" with Christian Bale. The only difference between the two films is the literal physical weight of the characters.
An understated, yet entirely realistic portrayal of small town life. The title is cause for contemplation. Perhaps, we, the audience are the ones in the "Bubble" as we are given no payoffs in the films slim 90 minute running time. Audience reactions were often smug and judgmental, clearly indicating how detached people can be from seeing any thread of humanity in characters so foreign to themselves. These characters are the ones people refer to as those that put George W. back in office for a second term.
It's sobering to consider how reality television has spoiled our sense of reality when watching an audience jump to their feet for the exit as soon as the credits role. This film has it's merits, and is deserving of consideration for the things it doesn't say outright.
The Same River Twice by Thomas J. O'Connor
In this 1966 psychological thriller, director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) explores the dark side of human longing.
A surgical procedure transforms a fifty-something working class man drained of any passion for life, into a youthful new existence, identity and all. Cosmetic alterations, no matter how stunning, still leave the mind of our main character struggling with his personal dilemmas of inadequacy and unhappiness.
Actor Rock Hudson confidently embodies a man awakening to an unalterable reality in this broad psychological and emotional landscape of a film. An intricate script provides fertile ground for existential and metaphysical discussions. The use of black and white and pristine lighting uniquely brings forth a safe as "Leave It to Beaver" feel, yet portrays opposite ideologies, evoking the spirit of a "Twilight Zone" episode.
"Seconds" is a haunting study of one man's shattering universe and ultimately the terrors our own mind can create.
Writer's Block by Thomas J. O'Connor
If you paid any attention at all in your undergraduate literature class, the name Sylvia Plath will most likely ring a bell. Her dark, inward rage, the place from which she penned her famously strong verses, remains immortalized in numerous anthologies of literature worldwide. Now, she gets the big screen treatment, her spirit channeled from the ethers through the skillful talent of Gwyneth Paltrow in the film "Sylvia." At face value, it's nothing but a cinematic re-telling of a tragic life. How inspirational or interesting is that to make you want to set aside time to take in? On a deeper level, if you so choose to go there, it's an effective film, free of imposed interpretations by the filmmakers, leaving the viewer free to decide what her life means to them.
On the grounds of what a bummer of a life she created for herself, I was ready to say nothing virtuous about this film. However, in removing my criticism about how Ms. Plath chose to exist in the world, the film becomes a worthwhile exercise in observing how ones preoccupation with being loved by another really takes the joy out of any relationship and the passion from our own interest in personal expression.
Naked States (2000)
Body of Work by Thomas J. O'Connor
There are moments of undeniable beauty and grace in witnessing some of the transformative tales of those who freely posed nude for photographer Spencer Tunick during his five-month trek across the United States. One man communicates his own epiphany post photo shoot by noticing that being naked doesn't really reveal who a person is - it's the clothes, rather, by which a person defines himself.
In elevating his work above porn, Tunick often photographs the nude in large numbers. Placing the subjects against the background of daily life, amid urban streets or modern architecture, and in glorious black and white, some moving and timeless images have been created. The body of work Tunick has produced through this documented project alone will serve as noteworthy in the timeline of 21st century artisans.
Overlooking pacing and editing, the film (which oftentimes resembles an episode of MTV's "Road Rules") stands as a testament to artistic integrity and persistence of vision.
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
Who's That Girl? by Thomas J. O'Connor
As with Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa,' 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' is a masterpiece that has inspired many an inquiring mind to ruminate as to whom the subject was in relation to the artist. It was novelist Tracy Chevalier's own curiosity that inspired the authoring of her world-wide best selling novel of the same name. Now, in the hands of filmmakers we find out that the 'Girl' is actually Scarlett Johannson (Lost in Translation, Ghost World). Seriously though, Johannson bears a stunning likeness to the painting, an illusion held beautifully until Vermeer's actual painting is presented just before the credits roll. In her younger day's, Shelly Duvall would have been the spitting image.
Thankfully, Ms. Johannson is more than just the face to match the painting; she is an actress who is growing in greatness with each new role she takes on. As Greit, THE Girl with the pearl earring she says, "The raw emotion of a girl who is in love and not able to express it is universal, because very often you can't have what you love." This isn't just a chick flick, our man Vermeer is equally repressed and painting is his outlet for exorcising his unrealized inner desires. At its core, this is a story about repression giving birth to something greater.
If a visit to an art museum leaves you feeling bored rather than appreciative, than this may not be a movie for you. The pace is as leisurely as any true lover of art would take in surveying the framed canvasses hung in the hallowed halls of a great gallery. First time feature film director Peter Weber is in the company of many accomplished artisans. Together cast and crew bring forth the virtues of Vermeer's skillful work, largely revered for its stunning study of the play of light on the subjects he chose. Kudos to cinematographer Eduardo Serra who used different film stocks to juxtapose the atmospheres between the household space and the "sacred" upstairs studio space Vermeer worked in.
In the end, there's nothing particularly powerful about the movie's 99 minutes, save for its overall beauty. Which quite possibly will linger in your head much the same way Vermeer's work has for so many down through the ages.
24 Hour Party People (2002)
A Strung Out High by Thomas J. O'Connor
"24 Hour Party People" chronicles the unlikely rise of British journalist turned record producer/promoter Tony Wilson amidst the emerging Manchester music scene in the late 70's. It's questionable as to how big a role Wilson actually played in the success of such bands as the "Sex Pistols" or "Joy Division", but the screenwriter makes him the protagonist. Wilson's biggest contribution was offering a venue a la Studio 54 where the exploration of music there evolved by happenstance into what is todays Electronica genre.
The film's pace resembles the doldrums of a strung out high and is as aimless as the success that came to its real life counterparts. One of the disc's two audio commentaries features the real life Tony Wilson bemoaning the apparent sensationalism of the film in contrast to the "truth," to which the filmmakers cleverly counterpoint in the film's narrative, "When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend."
The Station Agent (2003)
Crossroads at the railroad by Thomas J. O'Connor
A lot of what I enjoy in film is embodied within "The Station Agent." It's a well crafted tale of three people who, having isolated themselves from wounds of their pasts, collide into each other's lives. We are fortunate to get to witness the beauty that unfolds as a result.
The story has a thirtysomething dwarfed man by the name of Fin (Peter Dinklage) at its center. Fin has been bequeathed an old railroad station house in the beautiful landscape of Newfoundland, which he wastes no time pulling up his roots and relocating to. His longtime preoccupation with his size as well as his skepticism concerning people's true interest in him as a man has made Fin inwardly as tiny as his height, well concealed by his outward bitterness.
Providing much of the humor is a Cuban snack vendor named Joe (Bobby Cannavale), whose truck does business right at the country road intersection besides Fin's station house. Joe becomes obsessed with connecting with Fin, especially after he assumes Fin has managed to woo a very attractive female customer, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson)to bed. Olivia, is a painter with her own pain, which is better left undivulged here, as the greatness of the story comes from the discoveries you'll make.
The film has many buoyant moments where laughter lingers into a chuckle when you recognize the quirky parts of yourself on the screen. When I am able to see a little bit of myself in the people on screen, I know my time has been spent in good company. I love the movies for that.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Scaling the heights and depths of human love by Thomas J. O'Connor
On the website for "Brokeback Mountain" an anonymous man from Atlanta writes, "It would seem that after 14 years of marriage to a women I love endlessly, my father's death, three career changes and twenty two years that I should be able to press onward, and thought I had, but I haven't. I wept uncontrollably after watching this film....and I can't watch it again, because it is too painful...however, thank you for the film. It touches a chord that nothing else has." His is one of a score of intimate portraits featured on the site. It is apparent that this seemly unique love story is not as uncommon or shocking as one might think.
At this time, anticipation for the film version of "Brokeback Mountain," referred to unjustly by many as "the gay cowboy movie," has reached near fever pitch with already 7 Golden Globe nominations. Such early accolades can be a blessing and a curse, as there now exists the potential for the film to be over-hyped, thereby lessening its quiet dramatic impact, as was the case for me. Still, it is undeniably an important film, one that has the potential to bridge the gap between the homophobic intellect and the unbiased heart. Not only is "Brokeback Mountain" a story of a deep love between two men, but of those who share in their lives yet exist at the edges, their spouses and their children, aching as much for a connection with them as the main character's do for each other.
Well into the film, when Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) reunite four years after an intimate summer as sheepherders in the majestic Wyoming mountains, they abandon any sense of their surroundings, quickly indulging in passionate kisses, witnessed unbeknownst to them by Ennis' wife Alma (Michelle Williams). At the screening I attended, the audience reaction to the Alma's discovery was one of laughter, perhaps relieving any tensions the story may have built up to that point. But for me the laughter was odd. Watching a woman discover something so foreign to what she has understood her relationship with her husband to be is understandably painful. As Ennis quickly introduces Jack to Alma he simultaneously grabs his jacket and informs her not to wait up for him as they most likely will be out all night drinking and he's out the door. Alma remains in the quiet of her kitchen. She is gradually overcome by confusion and sadness after having witnessed the most pep in her husband's step in a long time. It is at this point that the movie emerges beyond the simplicity of it's gay identity to broader themes, among them fear and regret.
"Brokeback Mountain" is an extremely well crafted movie all around. The Wyoming landscape (which here is actually Alberta, British Columbia) is as stunning and impressive as is its uniformly skilled cast. While watching the film one gets the feeling that they are witness to a part of cinematic history. At times you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.
Adrian of Sydney, Australia, another website visitor, sums up quite nicely the role this film can have in peoples lives. He writes, "
it is a powerfully honest look at the most profound sort of connection you can have with another human being -- the sort of connection which defies categorization, the sort of connection which seems to re-write the way we need to look at ourselves."