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The Monster of Mangatiti (2015)
I'll admit it; I chose it in Netflix fully aware of the content of this film, and for the most part, it lived up to its promises. Now, gentle reader--do you need yet another reminder that unadulterated evil runs unchecked in those who live among us--and that justice is often not served?
As a documentary, Monster is accurate and believable: a naive 19-year-old girl with a sketchy job history and a fantasy of traveling the world accepts a reportedly well paying and temporary job as tutor to a young boy at a home secreted away in the tangled underbrush of New Zealand's outback. The fact that her new employer is a hermit, seems not to have bathed or shaved in years, and has several locked gates separating the homestead from the nearest road an hour away, fails to register as cause for alarm. After a month of friendly bonding, the abuse begins..sexual, and more. Now pregnant and literally barefoot, the girl becomes a captive both physically and psychologically. As with all victims of Stockholm Syndrome, she comes to believe, even in brief trips to town, that escape is impossible and if attempted would lead to the murder of her family.
The tension and suspense as the story is told by accomplished NZ actors in a memorable, lush setting, are powerfully effective, and the viewer gets just enough information about the sadistic Bill Cornelius to understand the strength of his control over both the protagonist and other victimized women who came before and after her. But questions stubbornly hang in the air. Why is Bill's son seemingly oblivious to the abuse, even as bruises appear, his new friend gets pregnant, and then mysteriously loses the baby? Why is it surprising to the boy that she would want to leave, as she is forced into more and more horrific situations and he has seen three other tutors come and go? And why does it take the New Zealand courts almost four years to start to bring Cornelius to trial once the abused woman finally goes public thirty years later--by which time the man was mentally incompetent?
Photos of the participants in the original kidnapping and a final interview with the victim bring the story to life. But with a better fleshed out story, the public would better empathize with other kidnapped and abused women who fail to run when they can, and live decades hiding secrets that need to be brought into the open. If the film had provided that insight, it would have risen above exploitation and sensationalism and provided a genuine public service.
An Extraordinary Story Shortchanged
Imagine a bioflick about George Washington that goes something like this: 95% of screen time depicts the misery of crossing the Delaware to capture the British in mid winter. In the remaining few minutes, these statements flash on the screen: , "after this, the British were defeated, and the Colonists ultimately won the war. Oh, right, and by the way, George went on to become the country's first President and immortalized as a Founding Father."
"Unbroken" suffers from the same skewed imbalance and misplaced priorities. Louis Zamperini is a hero, but why? It's an impressive starting place, both in Lauren Hillenbrand's intricately researched biography, and in the corresponding movie, that he overcame budding delinquency by running; that he became the fastest high school sprinter of his day; that he could catch and kill live shark barehanded from a life raft; and that he survived starvation and sadism in Japanese prison camps. But what sets Louis head and shoulders above other war veterans is something almost unbelievably extraordinary: his coming to terms with the cruelest imaginable enemies and actively working to forgive them. Yet, it's that essential fact that's relegated to a few written sentences at the end of Jolie's film. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
It's common knowledge that the Hollywood mainstream is uncomfortable with religious conviction--yet we know from Hillenbrand that Zamperini would not have survived and overcome his PTSD without it--and it's the heartbeat of his life story. Unfortunately the only reference to belief within the movie is Louis' spoken promise to God to make something of his life if he is allowed to live--and it's introduced almost as a throw away line. Further, real emotions and character change don't seem to be within Director Jolie's repertoire. The special effects, such as the air bombardments and raft scenes, are fine for the most part, and the details of boyhood are mostly accurate, but when we look for the man within the history lesson, we're given sensationalism instead. Not any statements or acting that might suggest a descent into pathological hatred of the sadistic Japanese camp commander, but instead almost endless scenes of whippings, beatings, broken bones, and head punches (which elicited groans, complaints and mutters from the audience in the showing I saw). Under the circumstances, his survival seems a result of athletic training and luck as much or more than any strength of character or personal belief.
A better movie would have started with Zamperini's marriage as it floundered,..the uncovering of the consequences of PTSD as rooted in war, flashbacks of survival on the raft and camps, a look at Zamperini's alcoholism, and finally, his journey towards healing and forgiveness. It would still be a lot to fit into two hours, but it would be coherent and relatable.
Want the real Zamperini? The end of the movie shows a glimpse-- a minute of happy footage of him running with the Olympic torch in Tokyo at age 80--fully healed and absolving of the past. But you can save yourself over two hours of dramatic but pointless action on the big screen up to that point by just bypassing the movie and going straight to You Tube.
Wholly original and well played, with universal themes (if not universal appeal)
Ambitious, messy, confusing, over-the-top; there is merit in all of these criticisms, if you look at Birdman from the bottom up. Several issues loom, in that respect. For example, for an overly long two hours, viewers are forced to run through the claustrophobia-inducing hallways of a theater as a troupe of actors prepares to put on a play, despite infighting and other setbacks. Outside, the cinematography flows seamlessly, with brilliant effects, thanks to Emmanual Lubezki, but seemingly separate from a consistent story line. The actors and casting were spot on, if few characters are inherently likable (Ed Norton as antagonist Mike is as stereotypically self- absorbed as you'd expect any heralded celebrity to be, for example). Setting is fully familiar, with Broadway memorably represented, but related scenes, like protagonist Riggan (Michael Keaton) being forced to run through crowds in his underwear to make his stage scene on time, seem tacked on to add needed humor to a story about a man on the edge.
But what happens if you consider the plot from top down? What if, like a soaring Birdman, the Superhero that Riggan once so successfully and lucratively played on film, you could see Riggan's world all at once? Here's the essence of the story. A man who spent years being self deluded as to his own importance and place in the world attempting re-entry in his last viable years as a respectable stage actor. is going through a life transition to determine exactly what his final legacy will be. He desperately must reinvent himself for his daughter, Sam (waif-like Emma Stone), his ex-wife, his current girlfriend, and a harshly judgemental theater critic. It's his last gasp. He looks in the mirror repeatedly after removing all manner of wigs and disguises, only to see an aging face and vanishing capabilities. At the same time, his still-vibrant imagination convinces him that he can move objects, even hurl furniture at the walls, through sheer force of will. Decades ago, an obscure salesman named Willy Loman faced a similar challenge. In Miller's play, he clings to memories of long-ago but now irrelevant successes in order to believe, and convince others, that he still matters. Audiences rooted for Loman in all of his ego-blindedness and flaws, knowing he was, after all, Every Man. When do we say it's over? Wouldn't we really rather, as Riggan says passionately to his hostile critic, "kill ourselves" so that the play can go on? And so we can re-invent ourselves, before all the minutes run out?
This is the theme that pulls Birdman together in the end. Keaton, who was woefully under-appreciated in a number of roles--Clean and Sober is just one of many examples-- nails the essence of what director Inarritu has set out to do, above and beyond the flaws that sometimes occur when a talented director is overly ambitious. Sit back--be patient--look for the big picture--and look for solid mentions (in acting, cinematography) at Oscar time.
American Hustle (2013)
There is a lot to be learned from watching American Hustle:
1. An unusual premise is a start, but without well developed characters and a fathomable plot, you are studying a map to nowhere. 2. popular and talented actresses can only do so much in unsympathetic roles, no matter how hard they try and how much skin they show. (Jennifer Lawrence gets to add some color, but can't change the basically tedious arc of the story line and action deadening dialogue) 3.. Good directors occasionally misfire, even one with the talent for Silver Linings Playbook. 4. At some point, at some level, we want to be One of Them, the characters we see on the screen...to live outside of our lives for two plus hours and get some kind of transformation or change as a result. But with American Hustle, . I didn't want to be someone routinely taking other people's money in fraudulent loan schemes, or selling fake art ( the Christian Bale and Amy Adams characters), nor did I want to put a notch on my FBI agent gun by taking down a well meaning politician for attempting an unorthodox way of raising money to rebuild a slumping Atlantic City (the Bradley Cooper character ). No one was likable or relatable, although I woke up for a tense five minutes in which Robert DeNiro morphed into a senior mob apparatchik who throws the schemers for a loop by speaking Arabic to a faux sheik set up by the FBI. Still, this little delight not worth the time wasted. I don't want to be one of them and I don't particularly want to watch them, either. Save your $$, if you want to stay impervious to scams including those perpetrated by the Hollywood publicity machines.
Gui tu lie che (2009)
Spare language, Expansive Story
A 22-year-old Chinese journalist working in a Beijing TV station stumbles across a pile of written transcripts from a documentary project. Fascinated, new college graduate Lixin Fan begins reading and doesn't finish until 15 hours later. He is struck at how people reveal themselves with just a few words. And--fortunately for those who would later watch "Last Train Home" years later, a documentarian is born.
Filmmakers like Lixin are the antithesis of Michael Moore, who appears to start with a premise and work from there to turn it into populist, self-aggrandizing entertainment. In contrast, Lixin looks at people first, context second. "Last Train Home", his third film and the first solely directed by him, is an enduring testimony to the classic, observational, verite approach, perfectly and narrowly true to the spirit of the earliest documentarians, like Fred Wiseman. One can only image the difficulty of taking three years of footage and crafting it so that a story unfolds with hardly more than a page of dialog, total. The totality of "Last Train Home" is not due to luck or any predetermined endings-- but due to passion--passion to understand who people are and the circumstances that shape their lives.
"Last Train Home" teeters between two worlds represented by several plans: the model versus the traditional; the parents versus the children; the rural versus the urban; the centered and stable versus the fragmented. As the film begins, we learn that stalwart and value-driven parents Chen Suqin (mother) and Zhang Chunghua (father) left their village in Szechuan province l7 years ago to earn enough money to support their children. While their sacrifice is not unusual for 21st century peasant families, it fails to register on their children--Qin, about 14 at the start of the story, and her 10-year-old brother. They were raised by their grandparents: their parents are only dim figures who appear once a year at Chinese New Year and then vanish again. Although there are phone calls, the human connection is missing. Suqin can only bring herself to ask about grades, and Zhang is a taciturn man who can only let his wife speak for him. This is a family like many of the 130,000 migrant families in today's China: teetering on the edge, acting with determination to move the next generation forward. But by the end of the film, a question hangs in the air: will the efforts all come to nothing? Will the increasing materialism seen in China today, and other industrial nations, be all encompassing, destroying family bonds? Extraordinary patience and fortitude were needed to play this story out. Portraying Chinese New Year travel is just one example. The camera person braved physically crushing circumstances in the remarkably poorly managed and desperate crowds teeming in the Guangzhou railway station to go home. The scenes were essential, to show the Zhang family departing for their village once, twice (with Qin, who briefly worked in the same city with her parents), and a final third time - when it becomes painfully clear that the family cannot continue as it is. The camera also managed to capture an amazing sequence: a physical altercation between father and daughter - one in which the girl "breaks the fourth wall" and acknowledges to the lens what is happening --then defiantly continues her behavior. The fight itself is emblematic. It seems to represent the rift between the generations - parents with one clearcut set of dreams, and a young woman who wants to become her own person--not merely the object of her parents' hopes and desires--a young woman who is so hungry for selfhood and recognition that she will drop out of school to begin the same rat race that her parents have endured for almost two decades.
There is no definitive ending to the story. The viewer only knows that the brother at home will face greater pressures than ever - with less and less motivation to withstand it. The Confucian ideal of the closely linked family, with dependable submissive ties, is disappearing before our eyes. Like a male polar bear pacing across expanses of ice and encountering the weaker of its kind, China seems to be devouring its own, to flourish and establish its dominance in the world.
What Makes a Person Exceptional?
The morning after watching "My Left Foot", and musing on how the main character became more and more comprehensible through the film through the help of speech therapy, I had an odd thought: what if Christy Brown had been born able bodied? And the answer was obvious: he would have been just another of 13 poverty-afflicted kids in a struggling working class family in Dublin. He would be just another profanity spouting, booze swilling, day laborer with undependable income, like his father, and probably a high school dropout with as little interest in reading a book as writing one.
It was being born with Cerebral Palsy that, paradoxically, made Brown into a hero. It was an opportunity. A terrible one, but an opportunity just the same. And in the film, with the help of the best actor one could possibly have chosen for the job, Daniel-Day Lewis, we are forced to face the fact that heroism is not just for the powerful. It's not just for brawny firefighters storming into the World Trade Center before it collapses, or for police officers who put their lives on the line every day. Being saddled with the inability to speak, eat or even drink normally, much less walk across the room, is a challenge that would make most people crumple--and submit to everyone's expectations. In the movie, that meant becoming a vegetable. But Christie - that is, the Christie on the big screen, refuses. He manages to scream a word when his mother's life savings are about to go up in smoke in the fireplace; he finds humor in being used as a tool to divert a truck driver so his brothers can nab bootleg coal to warm the house; he falls in love and is rejected, but refuses to be treated with anything less than dignity and respect. And hardly least - he manages to write a book, painstakingly, with his left foot - so that his voice is a real voice and he endures as nobody's victim or source of pity.
In addition to Day-Lewis' channeling the spirit of Brown in an extraordinary way (other reviewers on this site who have C-P have testified to this), the movie is blessed with the performance of child actor Hugh O'Connor who should have shared Academic Award honors. All other characters were equally convincing.
So--why give this movie less than ten? It's hard to escape the reality that listening to a severe speech impediment for over an hour can be taxing--and for some, seeing the physical struggles will be painful. And, while the scene where he tells off his patronizing speech therapist in a restaurant tells us he can be fully human (arrogant as well as charming, cruel as well as witty) it's a stretch that his rants are allowed to go on for what seems like forever until the whiskey is finally taken away.
Brown was lucky: in the end he found not only affirmation and praise for his writing and art, but love as well. I hope the movie reminds us that most people with severe physical limitations aren't as lucky, but live their lives as heroically as they can.
Diamonds sparkling in a muddy bog
Imagine, if you will, Judy Garland getting the chance to come back to life (a.k.a. "Our Town") to live one day - one day in which to experience the thrill of being at her best - reprising, at age 21 - in a movie showcasing her talents. It's a busy day in heaven, so God arbitrarily assigns her to play Andy Sachs, the popular heroine of The Devil Wears Prada, forgetting that Garland's voice is, after all, her greatest asset. She complains; He says, "fine - let's try something else - bring along the same characters, the ingénue, the difficult boss with a uber-loyal sidekick manager and an impossibly bitchy colleague: but to add the music you say you want, let's set the story in ..in." and now He's stumped, because 2010 is a far cry from Garland's prime, the 30s and 40s. "A cabaret?" she suggests, helpfully. "Well, along those lines, but this is America, so, not exactly."
"Right," she nods, "so, say, L.A., and 2010, so the sexuality has to be kicked up a notch..so can I tart it up a little? And throw in a few gay references?" "Well..." He responds reluctantly. "A promise is a promise. Just keep your clothes on but anything else goes. Got it," he agrees, scribbling the script on a cloud and kicking the story into action.
Welcome to "Burlesque." Derivative? Totally. A strong talent base? Absolutely. Christina Aquilera channels Garland, or least matches her considerable talents, both vocal and dramatic,as the ingénue. Cher is the seemingly ageless, club-owning boss, who confidently owns the stage in a big opening number with the same title as the film. Rounding out a stellar cast are Stanley Tucci, the AC-DC right-hand friend and manager; Kristen Bell as the impossibly wicked fellow dancer; Cam Gigandet as the low-key love interest for the heroine; and Eric Danes, the too-good-to-be-true wealthy would-be lover pushing for a chance with the New Little Dancer with the Big Hidden Talent.
The problem is that the talent deserves a fitting forum, but the plot is so full of holes that it ranges from being merely tedious to being ludicrous. In a strip-joint setting where willingness to show skin and lynchsync is the only required skill for dancers, and in an industry where the women are a dime a dozen, Our Plucky Gal Ali can't seem to beg her way out of waitressing and onto the stage. Later she gets the chance only when Rival Nikkie(Bell)is sent away, drunk; Nikkie then sabotages Ali's big musical number by cutting off the sound, out of sheer jealousy. Despite all this, the venom-spouting Nikkie gets to keep her job with not a single eyebrow raised. And then there's club owner Tessa (Cher), who has supposedly has been savvy enough to run the club for decade, yet seems clueless as to why she is in debt or what to do about it. Jack (Gigandet) finally beds Nikki after her extended resistance, without mentioning he hasn't really broken off with his fiancé after all. Said fiancé storms into the apartment and Nikkie is disgraced and thrown out in the middle of the night with Jack's consent - but after an attempt at apology from Jack a few days later, no prob, all is well and happily after after. There's more, but you get the picture. So--film potential, a thousand percent; realization, not so much.
If you're all about the music and dancing, go for it - this is a movie you'll love. Aquilera fans - yes, this movie shows her in top form. Cher lovers - yes, she's still got what it takes - although she seems to have had so much "work" that one struggles to remember her original lips and eyes. The other actors work hard to pull it all together. But for those wanting the whole nine yards - the kind of movie musical that made Judy Garland the darling of her day and revered throughout America - this ain't it. This is a muddy bog of a story, sprinkled only at odd intervals with all too brief glimpses of talent. Garland, in looking at the big picture, might even have taken a pass - and gone back to heaven to savor memories of "A Star is Born." It's a shame that, in trying to be that movie - and "Prada," and "Cabaret," and "Fosse" that "Burlesque" has yet to find an identity of its own.
Temple Grandin (2010)
Extraordinary accomplishment on every front
As the parent of a child on the spectrum, I began watching "Temple Grandin" on the recommendation of friends and relatives, but guardedly, having seen the media present autistic individuals too many times as either hopelessly retarded or idiot savants.
What a thrill to be so wrong! This representation was so far from what we see by Hollywood or People Magazine that for me it was more than art: it was an act of love. Further, it stands about as close to true documentary as a scripted film can while still engrossing the viewer. This accuracy was possible due to a director with true passion for his subject - who read Grandin's books carefully, researched the places and people of her life, consulted closely with the animal scientist herself, and--most of all--chose the brilliant Claire Danes to represent her. There is no made-up romance ("that wouldn't have been characteristic," Grandin herself has commented wryly) and no fairytale ending of all social problems dissolved. This is the real deal.
Danes, with benefit of both body movement and speech dialect coaches, has nailed Dr. Grandin in every respect (if we can ignore the prettier features and better dental work). Without question, had this been a big-budget, nationally marketed film, an Oscar would have been in order. The avoidance of eye contact, awkward verbal expression,and intense anxiety in high-sensory situations will be familiar to anyone who is close to an autistic person - as will the single-mindedness, determination, and authenticity that the world could use more of.
The story itself is relied in varying points of time, sometimes out of sequence, and we are treated to images of the kind that Grandin herself experiences, constantly, as she sees the world around her in pictures,rather than words. We learn that this unique perspective aligns her with that of animals - and made her transformative designs for cattle chutes the ingenious devices they are.
The parents among us nod to see the lengths Mrs. Grandin will go to, to make sure Temple is not institutionalized, and to force her daughter to speak at age four; like both the mother and aunt, we can't help but choke up to see Temple daring to croak out "When You Walk Through a Storm" as a commencement speaker at college. We see her ability to help cattle get managed humanely as an extension of how we, after all, should treat other humans,whether or not they appear different from us. It is almost impossible in fact, NOT to be inspired by this woman, once thought retarded, who achieved not only a PhD in her field but status as a spokesperson for all autistic individuals.
How could this be done without being sentimental or saccharine? For one, Grandin is never presented as pathetic: she is tough,clear sighted and determined, even when others openly ridicule her or she faces paralyzing panic attacks. She is different, to be sure: funny, clumsy, socially inept, odd - but real, believable. Even Dr. Grandin, in her voice-over commentary has said "it was uncanny - it was exactly like watching myself in high school, but from a distance."
Are there any flaws? Well, a few: we learn absolutely nothing about Grandin's father. And, while Mrs. Grandin claims early on to a psychologist "I have another one and have treated both children the same and she is the one who didn't respond to me," the mystery sibling is never introduced. True, one has to shorten and telescope a life for effect - but a few mentions could have helped fill in the blanks.
But--this is a small quibble. Watch the original film once; then listen to the commentary to get additional insight from director, Danes, and subject. There are heroes all around us. If you ever doubt, spend a good afternoon watching, learning, and thinking - whether in pictures like Grandin, or just through your own mental filters - you will be better off for it.
Fred: The Movie (2010)
Fred: The Flop
Fred Figglehorn, or least Fred the Movie, starts with a shaky premise--that film shorts popular with teens on the U-Tube Channel can morph into genuine movie material. Two hours later, this shaky ground has turned into an earthquake..one in which the pretense of plot, characterization, and setting have toppled into a black hole. If you want to spend almost two hours listening to a teenager with the mental capacity of a 4-year-old, the nasal intonation of your aunt Gertrude with adenoids, and the scream of a 6 year old girl, fine. Fred, supposedly 15, may be palatable in a 4 minute clip, and I confess I haven't seen those. I just know I began to get a headache twenty minutes into the story watching my home screen. Dressing him in various wigs and oddball roles to show the actor's range only expands the range of the migraine.
The story is simple. Fred is trying to relocate his girlfriend, the glamorous Judy, who has moved (played by a well known British actress evidently ten years his senior). His capacity to function as he wanders about varies, but we see him become pathologically unhinged by events as varied as having to ride a public bus to listening to a stranger speak a phrase in Spanish. Cue the screams. Cue the tears. One humiliation leads to another. He's dissed at Judy's party, tossing his cookies on various and sundry. The incident goes viral. His only friend Bertha (Jeannette McCready from I-Carly) , whose interest in him is unfathomable, helps Fred video a mock party that through trick photography appears to attract hundreds. It's posted on u-tube, finally leading to acceptance and popularity. Right.
Now, I'm not completely a "Mr. Grumpy Gills" (I got a lot out of Finding Nemo, for example, and snorted myself hoarse over the great lines, all uttered by seafood). I admit to giggling from time to time out of the sheer, unremitting silliness of Fred the Movie and, yes, the loony lack of logic that's in all of our lives that we'll never really cope with and can only run away from. Maybe that's the whole point of Fred. Needing balance, I asked my ten year old, who accepts every kind of movie without question, for a rating and got a five. I asked her what she liked and she said, "it was loud." Pressed for more detail, she said "I liked when it was really disgusting, like when they smeared pizza on his shirt." OK. Fair enough. Judge for yourself, and compare this movie with whatever floats your boat. But I'd say that if you're a grownup looking to keep your food down and remember a movie the next day--maybe your minimum entertainment threshold should be a movie based on Good Luck, Charlie or Jonas Brothers, LA. At least they give some plausibility for solid ground to stand on.
Mao's Last Dancer (2009)
It is a testament to the compelling visual richness of ballet that my 10-year-old (adopted from China) remained transfixed throughout the two hours of Mao's Last Dancer. And if you think about it, if you view the film through the eyes of a child, what's not to like? A good-looking, engaging, and extraordinarily talented hero; a rags-to-riches story line; black-and-white characterizations: Chinese government bad, America good.
The problem is with me, the analytical mom. With just a little tidying up of a plot and lines that seemed created by a recent graduate of a soap-opera screen writing school, this movie could have gone from merely watchable and entertaining to fantastically inspiring to young and old. If only a few scenes had been added or a bit of logic introduced.
Just a few issues here. I won't rehash the entire plot itself, as others on this forum have already explained it in detail. Li Cunxin's life story parallels that of many other talented immigrants to the U.S., and deserves attention in its own right, along with a discussion of whether his decision to abandon his home country was selfish or not. But translated to film, the story has more bumps than it needs to have. As the story unfolds, Li is seen as a quiet, undernourished 11-year-old in a poverty stricken elementary school who seems invisible to almost every adult, including his teacher. Yet for unknown reasons, his teacher points him out to the government seekers of dancing talent: "what about this boy?" Why? Where is this sudden insight of hidden promise coming from? Li spends his years from age 11 to 18 in Beijing, one of the largest and most modern cities in the 21st century, certainly crammed with tall buildings. Yet he is seen in New York City as a hick, gasping at the sight of skyscrapers and parroting "fan-tas-tic"! in imitation of his new mentor, the ballet school director. The same director never so much as twitches an eyebrow at Li's many late nights out, even when his guest returns glowing with lust for young dancer Elizabeth and claiming to yet again having seen another Bruce Li movie. Later, when challenged about his sudden marriage, Li claims to love Elizabeth,but there is no evidence that he is not using her as a ticket to freedom instead, which would be a natural enough suspicion on the part of many observers. For that matter, we are not even sure he has enough world experience to know what romantic love it. (For that matter, no character is fully developed or multidimensional here). Li says nothing while sitting captive in the Chinese embassy to ensure the safety of his family back home, even when they threaten that his family will suffer if he stays in the States-- this, even though it appears in the rest of the movie that his missing family is the only issue that mars his happiness. We are left hanging about the likable Elizabeth's fate, wondering whether or not Li could have made an effort to salvage the marriage, although her melodramatic flinging herself on the bed in tears facing the camera tends to reduce her to a cartoon.
But stop: let me be fair. The dancing talent throughout Last Dancer was spellbinding, even to those not versed in ballet. The "ballet as athleticism" motif in Chinese dance was recognizably represented, as well as the exquisite blend of potent masculinity and grace in the Russian prototypes that Li secretly studied. The awe-struck Houston audiences seen in the film in fact were mirror copies of the rapt people around me in Princeton. More than one sob was heard as Li's parents were (improbably) brought to the US by some unknown benefactor and led onto the stage immediately after a major performance. Without a doubt, the responsiveness from grown adults was real, and the interest in staying for all the credits was genuine. One can only say it's the universality of the themes (the nature of love; attachment to family), and the transporting gift of sublime body language that allows us to let go of expectations and submerse ourselves in Li's world--dancing that tells the meaning of tenderness in a gesture, a character trait with an extraordinary leap into space.
In short, the dancing saves the film. And in the end, maybe that's not such a bad bargain for the $7.50.
Extraordinary Witnesses, Enriching Reflections (long)
About an hour into my viewing of this documentary about Jewish children transported out of Germany for their own safety on the brink of WW II, my 10-year-old came up and, seeing how engrossed I was, slipped me a note that said:
"Can you change to Disney at 9:30?
This movie is scaring me. Check One: ____yes ____no"
I hadn't occurred to me that from a child's point of view, the movie would be, by turns, frightening, disturbing, and dark. Certainly, up to that point, it was going in that direction. But what I was able to convey later to her (a former orphan herself) is that underneath the darkness there is light, if you look for it. This film was richly layered, as others on this site have already noted, with grief, despair, horror, regret and anguish, true. But countering it is the knowledge that there are good people in the world that will reach out in generosity to the victimized--just as British couples agreed, over a two year period and longer in the late 1930s, to provide homes to 10,000 endangered Jewish children.
Another important positive is evident in every testimony in the film--from former transportees, a foster parent, host families, transport organizers. And that is the fierce, all-encompassing devotion between the Jewish family members affected by a perfect storm of historical events: the rise of a convincing megalomaniac who turned an entire country to antisemitism; increasing hostility in the immediate environment; the inability to earn a living or go to school; the wrenching separation of sending beloved children away; and finally the ultimate crisis of the adults "being transported" to the death camps. Through it all the devotion remains, unshaken. A father who adores his young daughter, hobbling with a cane after the train that is taking her away, takes her hands through the window and manages to pull her out--his overriding love trumping the knowledge that she would be safer away from her family. A 10-year-old on her own initiative goes door to door in London begging wealthy residents to hire her parents so that they can get work visas in order to escape Germany. An older transportee relates with quiet dignity and awe how her father died in a camp: beaten to death for protesting the guard's treatment of older inmates. Photos and restrained musical accompaniment throughout the movie lend both strength and pathos to each story.
One doesn't have to be Jewish--and I am not--to appreciate how family ties and identity can remain intact through sheer will, despite horrific experiences as shown through this film. "Into the Arms" is universally compelling in its scope. It's also expertly crafted by director Harris so that interviewees become familiar and sympathetic protagonists and we raptly follow their stories, all different, in stages. Astutely, he makes sure we see that they are fully human--not angels or mere victims. One woman admits openly that she was taken from foster home to foster home because behaviorally, she was a handful (as one might expect of a child who finds herself living with complete strangers, speaking a foreign language). Another lied to her foster parents to arrange for her sister to be taken in, and cheerfully threw the lie back in their faces when the sister arrived, not at all what they expected.
Finally, I was moved, as I always am, to see how the documentary format helps people deal with their demons by speaking about them. The man whose witness ends the film, whose experiences have been as anguished as anyone's, seems to say it all in discussing why he was saved and others were not, impassioned but optimistic. If you haven't seen "Into the Arms" but are looking for a new prism from which to view the Nazi era and what people in all circumstances can extract from suffering, I highly recommend this film.
El secreto de sus ojos (2009)
"Sus Ojos" as Literature on the Screen (long)
To get the big picture before beginning this piece, I did a quick sweep of previous reviews and immediately had to ask myself: why does the same film generate such passionate applause on the one hand, and such punishing comments on the other? I suppose it goes back to the question of "sus ojos" (your eyes). Those looking for an American style murder mystery or a boy-meets-girl, loses-girl, finds-girl romance may in fact have their eyes closed to some important possibilities. But those willing to see film as a novel have an experience to look forward to an experience that satisfies and enlightens on every level.
"Sus Ojos" is a multilayered film that, like the work of Dostoevsky, makes us totally vested in the lives of its characters while exploring universal themes that can resonate with all of us. There are two major threads here that are worth close examination: the first is the unrequited passion that the intelligent and humane legal affairs clerk Benjamin Esposito feels for his well-bred supervisor, the beautiful, distant and self possessed Superior Court judge Irene Menendez. Having only completed high school, he has convinced himself he has nothing to offer her. In fact, his life is comparable to the clunky typewriter he has been given, with the defective "a" that always pops up as a capital letter: flawed; just not good enough. Esposito is held back by his self-doubt to the extent that, 25 years after the relationship begins, as he tries to start a novel based on an unresolved murder case, the prompt he uses to remove writer's block is "TEMO"--I fear. Yet he is not a true coward: he simply, like any blocked writer, doesn't know how to reach his goals--both the completion of the novel and true connection with Irene.
The second theme, one that is strategically intertwined with the first, is the murder case itself. Soon into the film it becomes apparent that Esposito's inability to resolve the rape and stabbing of a beautiful, 23-year-old school teacher--that is, to bring the murderer to full justice--represents his de facto impotence in bringing his relationship with Irene into reality. And on an immediate level,too, his obsession with the case makes perfect sense. Empathetic and perceptive to begin with--who else would continue to give support to an alcoholic friend, as Esposito does--he wants to bring justice to the dead girl and some element of resolution to her traumatized husband.
Soon we are intrigued by the growing relationships between not only Irene and Esposito, but between Benjamin and his friend, who disparages him to barfly friends; Esposito and the husband, who insists that life in prison is the only acceptable punishment for the murderer; Esposito and the murder suspect; the murder suspect and Irene, revealing a toughness and ingenuity we hadn't seen before; and ultimately, the husband and the killer. And it is when Esposito sees that the final resolution is left to the husband that he is free to move on with his life. A simple act brings the decision to life: he suddenly realizes that by putting his "defective" letter A into the word "TEMO", he will end up with "teAmo"--I love you: the declaration he must make--the action he must take--in order to go forward and leave the past behind.
Visual motifs keep the viewer connected and grounded throughout the film but placed to appear to be a natural artifact of the story telling. The most obvious one is the door image, used in promotional posters for the film. The judge's chamber door consistently is kept open or closed, depending on her relationship with those who enter. Esposito, attempting to put the final piece of a 25-year old puzzle into place, must wait for the husband to leave his house and enter a secret door. In the same way, secrets are hidden or revealed throughout the movie by means of doors large and small, obvious or subtle. A second motif is the train image, showing arrivals and departures, journeys and moving on from situations that cannot be resolved. Esposito, his life threatened by associates of the murderer, must take the train to a new town, leaving behind a regretful, running, Irene. The husband tells about murdering the suspect,the roar of a passing train disguising the sound of gunshots. A third, of course, is the eye, seen open and waiting in Esposito in the beginning shots--this is the eye of a person open to experience. The dead girls' eyes must be physically closed by an attending police officer. Esposito feels deep connection to her husband, citing the love for the lost wife seen in his eyes. A fourth is the interplay of columns at the department of justice--seen top down or bottom up--representing the aloof justice system, corruption and bureaucracy of the Argentian course system that prevents justice from taking place.
This film has it all under the accomplished hand of director Jose Campanella. Acting is up there:Ricardo Darin as Esposito, Soledad Villamil as Irene, and Pablo Rago as the friend are equally affecting. Then again there are the strong story lines; thematic development; pitch-perfect cinematography (the chase seen through an enormous soccer stadium is as believable as they come); and even touches of humor, developed through perfectly synchronized dialogue. Is there a happy ending? Well, as both Esposito and Irene tell each other at the end--and as we see in the best loved novels--"it's complicated."
The Children of Huang Shi (2008)
Less Glamour, More Facts Would Do Justice
Who was George Hogg, really? Do an Internet search and you'll see that his name is variously interpreted as a "footballer," a midshipman on the Titantic, and various unknowns in genealogy charts. But Nie Quangpei, a Chinese orphan whose life Hogg saved, had this to say: "They say there isn't a perfect man in this world, but Hogg was." Nie,now a middleaged tradesman in the PRC, seems to have had more insight into the forging of character than the writers and director (Australian Roger Spottiswoode) of the film. "He changed," says Nie of Hogg's transformation from a raw university graduate to a father figure to 60 boys under extraordinary circumstances. "He became a different man."
While the facts are not widely public except to Sinophiles, they are impressive on their face. An English blueblood and Oxford grad, the handsome Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)tried his hand at journalism in wealthy, up-and-coming Shanghai and could have led the good life for the duration of WWII. Instead he connected with a like-minded benefactor, Rewi Alli, to determine what could be done with orphans and the homeless. After mastering Mandarin he became the headmaster of Shuangshi-pu school, mostly for orphans, in a northwestern province. He made a success of teaching and administering there until fear of the oncoming Japanese invasion convinced him to leave. Managing to cross some 600-700 miles in the dead of winter with children and books on carts, he re-established them in a converted monastery--all with little help and few resources. Though keenly aware of the irony of staying in China while his own country was under threat, Hogg came to terms with who he was and was deeply loved by his charges in the process. Today a statue in his honor stands in his final resting place in Shanan, Gansu.
Spottiswoode, though, prefers to go for the blood, sex, and supposedly, the glory. Briefly seen as a journalist at parties in Shanghai, his Hogg finds a way to make it to Nanking to get the perfect story on the Japanese invasion, but while there nearly suffers a beheading when the invaders discover him. (In reality, the Japanese had their hands full with just dispatching locals with guns--the efficient killing method of choice--for the most part ignoring Westerners.) Just in the nick of time, Hogg is saved by a counter-revolutionary (a suave, goatee-bedecked Chow Yun Fat) and a beautiful American nurse, Lee (Australian Radha Mitchell), whose presence in circumstances of extreme personal peril is never entirely explained. But no matter: she is portrayed as the one who convinces Hogg to take shelter in an orphanage, to learn Chinese and otherwise take a breather. As she comes and goes to the orphanage, her existence means a film opportunity for romance, as though Hogg's real-life challenge of adapting to near-starvation conditions and nurturing traumatized children could have been inspiration enough for anyone. A hint of a love triangle also surfaces in the person of a beautiful, exquisitely dressed local merchant of opiates (Michelle Seoh) who will go to any lengths to serve Hogg's cause.
History, as documentarian Ken Burns has proved, can be compelling in its own right. It can both stranger than fiction and more powerful, as we see the choices others have made that we do or don't choose to emulate. A decent tribute to Hogg's life would have demanded that his unheralded acts stand in stark relief to the pointless cruelties of war around him. That didn't happen in this movie. His legacy to the weak and unfortunate lives on, most recently in a book published this January in Beijing (Ocean Devil, by James MacManus). And final testimonies at the end of "Children of Huang Shi" from boys saved by Hogg--boys who are now in late middle age--do something to capture the essence of respectful biography but still, not nearly enough.
The movie was exquisitely filmed in Chinese and Australian locales at a 40 million budget and unfortunately has grossed only 691,000 as of late July. If history and film could align a little more closely, I like to think that both the audience and box office would have profited.
Into the Wild (2007)
The Case for Verisimiltude
When I was six, I decided in a pout to run away from home. I reasoned that dandelion leaves make a good salad, honeysuckle produces sweet nectar, and some peanut butter sandwiches for the road would take up the slack, food-wise. Not a bad plan--that is, until it was deep-sixed by my mother, who could see that survival outdoors wasn't my forte.
What strikes me the most about Into the Wild is, aside from the exceptionally engrossing quality of the film itself, was the skew of the facts: Chris McAndless had less practical awareness and planning ability than I evidently had as a first-grader (marksmanship ability aside), but the movie presents him as a wise and spiritual soul in the making, cut down before his prime. The truth is that going into the wilderness without a store of food goods, a map, a compass, knowledge that snow melt leads to swollen streams in late summer, or even a coherent plan for shelter were not smart moves. They point to a personality which, though life-loving, open-minded and likable, remained stuck in adolescence at 23. Fatally so. It's a testament to the film, though, you do see his death as a true tragedy in the end.
Jon Krakauer, an extremely conscientious journalist (see Into Thin Air), who spent three weeks in the Alaskan wilderness himself, created a balanced portrait of McAndless in his original research, published in Outsider magazine. Krakauer took pains to point out to the adventure loving readership that personal quests such as the one McAndless undertook are never solo enterprises: loved ones invariably suffer when things go wrong, and detaching from them can be needless cruelty. That version of Into the Wild was a cautionary tale. I wish that element had remained in the movie.
But then, Hollywood wants a neater portrayal of its heroes. Producer Sean Penn, to his credit, saw to it that the original material amounted to several back story sequences that sustained the attention far better than two hours of a wilderness experience would have. He won Krakauer's cooperation in co-writing a screen play, and after waiting ten years got the permission of the family for the film, despite an unsympathetic portrayal. And, especially, he chose a superb cast that has the viewer living fully in the moment. Emile Hirsch as Chris is astonishing--losing 40 pounds for the role and convincing at every moment--fully meriting the six film nominations and two that he won for this performance. Not to be forgotten are Hal Holbrook as the achingly lonely retiree revived by Chris' charm, gaining our full sympathies; Catherine Keener as the seemingly carefree woman who tries and fails to remind Chris what it means when a child disappears; and Martha Gay Harden/William Hurt as his dysfunctional but fully human parents. It was for good reason that the entire group was nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture by the Screen Actors Guild.
If only Chris had gone a few more miles upriver: he would have discovered the bridge that would have allowed him to return to civilization. And if only the film had been clearer about his missteps, this film would have been both outstanding entertainment, and a worthwhile object lesson.