Mandel Maven's Nest Chick Flicks and Reel Romance
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women in the Movies
I elsewhere consider movies that include any inter-ethnic/race/religion/class romantic relationships. For reel romance, here is my Reel Commentary.
Why make movies with women? To make movies about emotions, explains writer/director Rodrigo García in FLM Magazine, Fall 2005.
Truth can be more romantic than fiction! In my vast experience observing Young Lovers at concerts in NYC as an invisible gray-hair, the men initiate the Public Displays of Affection at least three-quarters of the time (there are a lot of times I want to warn the guys - hey, she's just not that into you!) I’m not the only one who reads the wedding announcements in The New York Times with my Sunday breakfast when it’s too early to go to the movies or concerts. It’s the basic premise of 27 Dresses, where the guy writes the Wedding of the Week column that all the guys think no one reads and all the women do. I started reading them professionally to track the genealogy of The Rich To Raise Money From, especially on the maternal sides for inheritances, moved on to the fascinating sociology of The Masters of the Universe and Overachieving Power Elite, though I don't see where they have time to date amongst gathering all their degrees (including My Scion and Perfect Daughter-in-Law). Now I read it for vicarious romantic entertainment and for the sources of where "meet cute" movie scripts surely must come from, sort of like Law and Order "ripped from the headlines" for chicks -- and Nanci Griffith uses them to inspire her story songs, specifically her "Love Conquers All".
The impact of 9/11 has been touching, though the ones who met in college, let alone rediscovered high school sweethearts, are less interesting. There's been at least two nascent relationships that persevered through leukemia treatments. I object that so many have zero to do with NYC while too many seem to be in PR or media (a colleague who formerly worked on the page claimed that others won’t participate or else lie)– and it was cheap to include the marriage of a 40-something Oscar winner to a globetrotting PR woman half his age. While some are supplemented on line with he said/she said videos, now “The Vows” column is following up to see if they last, hmm. Ah, real and reel life sometimes come together -- as in the tale of the trendy chef who realizes his ex-waitress was the girl-who-got-away by watching High Fidelity. But will the film producer who first falls in love with a writer's script but doesn't fall for him until they're on a cross-country road trip turn their lives into a movie?
Two documentarians, whose excellent work I’ve reviewed, needed a friend of her parents meeting his parents on a Spanish bike trip to urge them to get together: how many of the same film festivals and events were Jennifer Grausman (Art and Craft) and Andy Schocken (Song Of Lahore) before this matchmaking made the difference for finally meeting up at a West Village bar? (updated 1/16/2017)
Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2 (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
What Happened To Her (short) (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/15/2017)
Home Truth (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
The Apology (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (6/23/2017)
Woody’s Order (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/11/2017)
Water Warriors (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/11/2017)
YOYO (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Viola, Franca (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
The Spring (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Run Mama Run (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Mother’s Day (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Love The Sinner (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Little Bird (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Joy Joy Nails (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Fry Day (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Don't Mess With Julie Whitfield (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Dive (Salta) (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Buckets (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Big Sister (Ahotcha) (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Again (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Beehive (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
I Am Evidence (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
The Family I Had (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (6/10/2017)
Paris Can Wait (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (6/10/2017)
My Art (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Woman of a Certain Age (short series previewed in New Online Work (N.O.W.) Showcase at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/20/2017)
The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung) (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/20/2017)
The Family I Had (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (4/15/2017)
A Suitable Girl (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/13/2017)
Blame (previewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/13/2017)
Flower (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/13/2017)
One Percent More Humid (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2017)
How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras (Kako Sam Se Zaljubio U Evu Ras/Como Me Apaixonei por Eva Ras) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
Sakura, Sakura (seen in On Resistance: International Avant-Garde Films & Videos 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)
20th Century Women (previewed at 2016 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/28/2016)
The Dressmaker Best Woman-Directed Feature 2016
Moana (in 2D) (11/23/2016)
Sand Storm (Sufat Chol) (10/9/2016)
Queen of Katwe (9/24/2016)
A Tale of Love and Darkness) (Commentary on the Jewish women) (preview for the 2016 Israel Film Center Festival) (8/19/2016)
Starless Dreams (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
Growing Up Coy (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/27/2016)
Ovarian Psycos (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
P.S. Jerusalem (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (reviewed for Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (previewed at 2015 DOC NYC Festival) (7/13/2016)
Tempest (Tempestad) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
Jackson (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
Hooligan Sparrow (My edited capsule “Best of 2016” review) (previewed at Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2016 at Film Society of Lincoln Center and at IFC Center) (7/13/2016)
The Summer of Sangaile (Sangailes vasara) (seen courtesy of IFC Center) (briefly reviewed for 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/16/2016)
The Wednesday Child (A szerdai gyerek) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/4/2016)
Anna (Per amor vostro) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)
Semele (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)
Ping Pong Coach (乒乓) (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)
Homeland (Hemland) (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/1/2016)
haveababy (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)
AWOL (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)
All We Had (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2016)
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four Best Woman-Directed Documentary 2016 (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2016)
Children of the Mountain (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/11/2016)
National Bird (to be an episode of PBS’s Independent Lens) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/8/2016)
Mother (Ema) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/5/2016)
I Do (short in Madly collection) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/5/2016)
Afterbirth (short in Madly collection) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/5/2016)
Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/4/2016)
Califórnia (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/1/2016)
All This Panic (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/1/2016)
Adult Life Skills (reviewed at FF2 Media) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/11/2016)
My Name Is Doris (3/31/2016)
Meurtrière (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
”A Matter of Visibility: International Avant-Garde & Artists’ Cinema”, including Pixel Jungle, The Tower (A Torre), and Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (women’s shorts seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/16/2016)
The Lady In The Van (12/4/2015)
Kingdom of Shadows (Notes: 2/3 of the main story-lines are about males, but the women are the strongest element of the documentary) (11/29/2015) On 12/8/2015, the director tweeted about my “awful writing” and objected to my referencing Breaking Bad, though I bet I wasn’t the only critic to do so. I think he was annoyed that other films about the drug war were getting awards attention, particularly Cartel Land.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman animator.) (8/10/2015)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Haganenet) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (previewed at 2015 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (8/1/2015)
Tangerine and Mala Mala (Mala Mala previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (7/10/2015)
Burden Of Peace (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)
The Trials of Spring (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: NonViolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/18/2015)
Inside Out has so much going for it, that its charm, good spirits, and feminism win out over tendencies towards a bland psychology lesson for kids. What a nice change for Disney/Pixar that the pre-pubescent girl at its center, “Riley” (voiced by Kaitlyn Dia), is not a wannabe princess; even as a Minnesota native who grows up loving to skate, she’s a tough hockey player, not a figure skater. The challenge she has to overcome is the emotional trauma of moving to San Francisco – and the lesson kids learn is that all of our emotions come into play in different situations and key is to keep them in balance.
Feisty “Joy” (voiced by Amy Poehler, whose admirable Smart Girls multi-media project is co-promoting), is drawn too blandly (and confusingly has blue hair) and can be insufferably, determinedly Pollyanna optimistic. But in the climax she learns that “Sadness” (voiced marvelously by Phyllis Smith, of The Office), who she had been nagging all through to not re-touch the good memories (in bowling ball-like storage units that look a lot like the Pensieves first seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) into blue sad ones (a pretty good explanation for kids of depression), can save the day by helping “Riley” to return to her parents (voiced blandly by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) for solace of her distraught feelings. “Disgust” (voiced by Mindy Kaling) is an odd emotional choice and is a stand-in for judgmental Mean Girl tendencies.
The kids at the screening I attended most appreciated the funny feelings – “Fear” (voiced by Bill Hader a la The Cowardly Lion) and especially “Anger” (voiced terrifically by Lewis Black), who takes over when “Joy” leaves “Headquarters” to explore the creative neuroscience lesson, that’s in effect a big budget version of Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus Into A Girl’s Psyche (as seen in 2D because Disney didn’t screen 3D for the press where the animation might pop more): "Train of Thought" is, of course, a train, to get to Long Term Memory, Imagination Land, with such Islands as for Family, Goofing Off, and more sophisticated ones rise up as “Riley” grows up, let alone when that “Puberty” button will get pushed, and the boy band image that helps bridge a crucial gap now will become more prominent in her thoughts), Abstract Thought, Dream Productions (like a fantasy movie set), and the Subconscious (guarded by the voice of Frank Oz), where resides “Riley”s imaginary elephantine friend from her toddlerhood “Bing Bong” (voiced warmly by Richard Kind). Best were undeveloped ideas and characters that could have encouraged more understanding of empathy, such as Paula Poundstone in charge of picking what music randomly pop up in the mind, or memories to forget and eventually turn to ash, and funny glimpses inside other people’s brains, who each have a set of emotions. (For example, Laraine Newman voices the Mother’s Fear.) (6/16/2015)
Code: Debugging The Gender Gap (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (4/16/2015)
The Hunting Ground (2/27/2015) (See with Brave Miss World that I reviewed at 2013 Women's Docs at DOC NYC)
Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem (previewed at 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (2/13/2015)
Timbuktu (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/13/2015) (Note: Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentaries have shown how music expresses the power and beauty of Mali’s devout Sufi religious observance, in Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love and Touba, that I saw at 2013 DOC NYC Festival)
Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (2/11/2015)
Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern) (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (1/9/2015)
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (briefly reviewed) (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/22/2014)
Life’s A Breeze (10/2/2014)
Tracks (Note: While I was growing up in Cedar Grove, NJ, my mother was friends with the mother of Rick Smolan, who was also a town librarian, but I don’t recall ever meeting the boy I heard referred to as “Ricky” because they lived, and he went to school, in the next town over, in Verona.) (10/2/2014)
May In The Summer (8/25/2014)
Exhibition (along with Archipelago and Unrelated) (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/3/2014)
Violette (Notes: The film unfolds in chapters, like a book: “Chapter 1 - Maurice”; “Chapter 2 - Simone”; “Chapter 3 - Jean”; “Chapter 4 – Jacques” – which is notable for the quite different image presented of Paris’s gay intelletctuals who are usually portrayed as daring, but are here shown as insensitive to women’s issues. When they play at making silent movies in costumes at a country estate, she bristles at constantly being cast as a mother, though it is a Battleship Potemkin satire, because of her upsetting memories of an illegal abortion. Weeping, she tells them I feel humiliated. It is ironic to see Genet, the explicit writer about his drug addiction, prostitution, and prisons, taken aback by a woman’s tears and protests. But she also is frustrated that these gay men resist her sexual advances; “Chapter 5 – Berthe”; “Chapter 6 – Faucon”, in Provence; “Chapter 7 - La Bâtarde”, which Got me to start read her florid book I hadn’t known of before, though I didn’t finish it in time for my review.) (6/20/2014)
Brave Miss World (reviewed at 2013 Women's Docs at DOC NYC) (4/5/2014)
Two Lives (Zwei Leben) (NB: The inspired-by-real-situations novel it’s based on is not yet available in English.) (4/5/2014)
Camille Claudel 1915 (Note: The factual coda was even worse: the brother repeated this hopeless ritual annually until her death.) (10/18/2013)
The Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour) (Background at Director Talk’s interview) (8/15/2013)
Salma (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)
Our Children (À Perdre La Raison) (previewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (8/11/2013)
Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (briefly reviewed at 2013 Death & Politics at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/23/2013)
Rafea: Solar Mama (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: Also streaming as part of the Peabody Award-winning series Why Poverty?). (7/22/2013)
Going Up The Stairs (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)
Camera/Woman (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/22/2013)
Tall As The Baobab Tree (Grand comme le Baobab) (briefly reviewed at 2013 Islam & Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch Film Fest) (7/22/2013)
Powerless (Katiyabaaz) (briefly reviewed in Shout Out for Quiet Documentaries at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/6/2013)
Jîn (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
S#x Acts/Six Acts (Shesh peamim) (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (6/5/2013)
Running From Crazy (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) .) (6/4/2013)
Kiss The Water (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Notes: Instead of the traditional songs Boyd loved, Scottish singer Angela McCluskey’s abstract vocalizing represents Boyd’s zest for country dancing in patterns as complex as her flies, fondly recalled by her female weekly set partners.) (6/4/2013)
Floating Skyscrapers (Plynace wiezowce) (briefly reviewed in LGBT Cinema at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (5/29/2013)
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Ming tian ji de ai shang wo) (briefly reviewed in LGBT Cinema at Tribeca ‘13 at Tribeca Film Festival) (5/29/2013)
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (4/29/2013)
Ginger & Rosa (4/6/2013)
Soldier Jane (Soldate Jeannette) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: Loud experimental electronica pieces by German New Wave icon Bettina Köster sonically represent the womens’ rebellion.) (3/25/2013)
Les Coquillettes (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2013)
Eden (Note: Warning – While the book that includes an interview with the woman the film is based on helps the cause of seeing sex workers as victims of sex trafficking, it is from an anti-abortion Christian publishing house and the investigative journalists promote Jesus as a solution for them, even though they mostly cover “Asian massage parlors”. There is no mention in the book, and only brief glimpse in the film, of johns, i.e. the market that keeps this despicable business thriving.) (3/22/2013)
War Witch (Rebelle) (previewed at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (3/6/2013)
A Place At The Table (Note: The bureaucratic and nutritional issues around school lunch issues were better dealt with by Jamie Oliver in his Revolution series. The problem of inner-city “food deserts” has been much more intractable over decades than presented here. When I worked at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation back in 1997, they had worked for years on a project to get supermarkets in inner cities across the country, but with the difficulties of land acquisition for an industry with thin profit margins, they only got the one, very heavily subsidized showcase built, the Pathmark in East Harlem, and gave up elsewhere. Though the gifts from food banks were not looked in the mouth, the film made a good point that volunteer efforts can’t solve the problem alone.) (updated 3/10/2013)
Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin And The Farm Midwives (1/30/2013)
Anna Karenina (11/24/2012)
Venus and Serena (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)
The Black Tulip (Note: While girls are seen happily going to school, the threats to girls are represented by the daughter’s orphaned best friend, who is cruelly manipulated by a man claiming to be her “guardian” into a horrible revenge against the family. For the climax, probably only a filmmaker who hadn’t been back in the country for awhile would think that a mullah’s security team would do a less thorough pat-down for a negotiation than the TSA in a U.S. airport.) (10/27/2012)
10 Years (9/13/2012)
The Invisible War (6/22/2012)
(seen at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) David Fine’s documentary is a well-meaning look at challenging the usual norms of behavior. But it provides little insight or background beyond the inspiring set up of the ups and downs of a year in the life of the adventurous young women playing in the first women's basketball team at Kurdistan’s American University of Sulaimani, Iraq, under an idealistic American teacher, that brings together Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites in competition against more experienced, undifferentiated teams. (6/16/2012)
Bitter Seeds (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: The teenager follows her neighbors from the pitches from slick salesmen hawking her village farmers genetically modified cotton seeds with colorful brochures, to the high-interest money lenders helping them purchase the touted product, through the harvest that doesn’t live up to the claims. She listens to her village elders about the old ways of farming with traditional seeds, challenges the local store and bank about the lack of support to return to them, and checks the (phony) facts in those brochures. Her conversations with mothers and daughters show that marriage dowry negotiations (not identified on screen as illegal) are harvest-dependent, with the claim that’s the last straw for farmers. While the well-known environmental activist Vandana Shiva gives her perspective and a barrage of unsubstantiated charges against Monsanto scroll on screen against the importation of the new seeds, Indian companies do get to present their case.) This crisis has also been satirized in Peepli Live, which I alsocommented on.) (6/16/2012)
Little Heaven (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012)
Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Note: In addition to events covered in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, the film follows the Pharmaprix Weekend to End Women’s Cancers in Montreal. Certainly the pink establishment has increased awareness of breast cancer, at least on their terms and as a definition of educational activities, and opened up discussion of a disease that was formerly hidden or a doomed threat, as in the clip from an Alfred Hitchcock show that makes it seem like something out of a horror movie. Though a school librarian friend of mine says her students can’t get through the computer filters to research it. The runs/walks do broaden donor participation in fundraising beyond the usual elite dinners, and are only possible when corporations pick up the heavy administrative expenses, even as they eat up staff attention and distort organizational priorities. Running big public events for such purposes goes back to the crafts fairs run by the abolitionists before the Civil War. (6/1/2012)
Hysteria (previewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: Particularly intriguing given Rupert Everett’s complaints that he doesn’t get cast as a romantic lead since he came out, the feminist who adopts the latest ideas seems to set off more sparks in common with his character, if the doctor hadn’t specifically teased that he was a “sexual deviant”.) (5/18/2012)
The World Before Her (briefly reviewed at 2012 Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: At least one beauty contestant, and her mother, see her very gender as a defiant, feminine victory against preferences for male children in Indian culture, from conception on.) (5/9/2012)
The Lady (Note: Background on the footage of protests from monks and students seen in the background on TV is better seen in the documentary Burma VJ. The comedian seen being arrested for performing satires of the generals is known as Zargana.) (4/19/2012)
Goodbye (Bé omid é didar) (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/24/2012)
Huan Huan (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/24/2012)
Sleeping Beauty (12/2/2011)
Tomboy (Note: I don’t think the titular character is necessarily transgender. Growing up as a boomer, I saw that the girls labeled “tomboy” did later come out as lesbians. Or it’s just as much a film version of Dar Williams’ song When I Was A Boy.) (11/16/2011)
Little Sparrows (10/30/2011)
Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (10/4/2011)
A Bird Of The Air (9/25/2011)
Higher Ground (9/10/2011)
Circumstance (previewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (8/26/2011)
The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson) (previewed at 2010 Rendez-Vous with French Film at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (8/19/2011)
The Whistleblower (Note: Emphasizing how women employees were treated unfairly, the human resources department tries to use her loss of custody of her daughter to damage her credibility. This film made me think of the cynical line: “That’s life in the Balkans” that Eli Wallach quoted in ”Chicken Soup” episode of Nurse Jackie.) (8/5/2011)
Life, Above All (7/15/2011)
The Sleeping Beauty (La Belle Endormie) (previewed at 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Film at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (7/8/2011) (Note: Breillat is just as much answering C.S. Lewis’s Christian re-interpretations of such tales. My conclusion was edited from: “could restrict the audience to teenage girls as adventurous as Anastasia, whose mothers are in touch with their inner teen. . .”)
Crime After Crime (first briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (7/1/2011)
Familia (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011)
Love Crimes Of Kabul (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011) (Note: This starts out seeming to be about persecution of love-struck and/or rebellious teens, but they are a problem that authorities the world over grapple with. While just as universal are claims that a richer boy reneged on marriage after sex, here she risks arrest in order to get him–and his very recalcitrant family–to agree, like an Afghan version of MTV's 16 and Pregnant. Another was turned in by the jealous first wife of the husband she was fooling around with, even as she refuses to the mother upping the ante for her to marry the arrested guy she seduced to get out of her parents' more restrictive, and she claims abusive, house. The women on both sides of the families in the long negotiations are far more stubborn than the men, who got dragged into these messes due to sex and just want it all over as cheaply as possible.
The Price of Sex (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011) (Note: She waxes nostalgic for the full, gender-equal employment of the Communists, even as she shows her own success as a photographer in the West. The accompanying press notes say that Israel is one of the top five destinations for sex trafficking of Eastern European women but I don't think that's mentioned in the film itself.)
Bride Flight (Bruidsvlucht) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (Note: Different beautiful landscape of New Zealand than in Lord of the Rings, including one of the world's southern most vineyards. The three women's challenges: "Ada" stifled in a converted coastal war bunker with a rigidly religious husband, "Esther" rejecting her heritage for a career in fashion design, and "Marjorie" determinedly pursuing motherhood.) (6/10/2011)
Puzzle (Rompecabezas) (5/27/2011)
The Carrier (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: The use of a non-African, classical score seems inappropriate.) (5/13/2011)
Jane Eyre (3/11/2011)
Secret Sunshine (Milyang) (12/20/2010)
The Girl (Flickan) (previewed at Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (9/17/2010)
The Kids Are All Right (6/30/2010) (Donor Unknown, briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, is like the real-life version.)
12th & Delaware (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/15/2010)
Pushing The Elephant (briefly reviewed in 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/15/2010)
Women Without Men (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan) (5/14/2010) (also briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
No Woman No Cry (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)
The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
The Evening Dress (La robe du soir) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)
Be Good (Sois Sage) (briefly reviewed at 2010 Film Comment Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (2/19/2010)
Serious Moonlight (12/4/2009)
Good Hair (11/2/2009)
The Maid (La Nana) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
Treeless Mountain (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
The Edge of Love (3/20/2009)
The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès) (7/1/2009) (also briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
Change of Plans (Le code a changé) (briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
The Joy of Singing (Le Plaisir de chanter) (briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
Séraphine (6/5/2009) (also briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center 3/9/2009)
Stella (briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
Villa Amalia (briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
With a Little Help from Myself (Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera) (briefly reviewed at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2009 of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (3/9/2009)
Phoebe In Wonderland (emendations coming after 9/6/2009) (3/6/2009)
Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons Eviga Ögonblick) (emendations coming after 9/6/2009) (3/6/2009)
Must Read After My Death (2/20/2009)
A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Annual Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/20/2009)
Our City Dreams (2/4/2009)
Blessed Is The Match: The Life And Death Of Hannah Senesh (1/29/2009) (For context clarification, see Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis)
Pray The Devil Back To Hell (missed it with the heroines in their colorful native garb at Tribeca Film Festival, previewed it at DocuWeek) Then see what is in effect Part 2: Iron Ladies Of Liberia) (11/7/2008)
Eight Miles High (Das Wilde Leben) (That’s the star singing a cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “Summer Wine” in a duet with a Finnish Goth on the soundtrack and the original bus was restored for the film from its retirement in Obermaier’s Malibu backyard.) (7/11/2008)
Flight Of The Red Balloon (Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge) (Félix Vallotton’s 1899 painting Le ballon) (4/4/2008)
Jellyfish (Meduzot) (I guess you have to be of a certain age for this to remind you of Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, to remember when that film was on TV almost as often as It’s A Wonderful Life and Wizard of Oz.) (4/4/2008) (previewed at the New Directors/New Films Series at Lincoln Center/MoMA) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)
Tuya's Marriage (Tuya De Hun Shi) (4/4/2008)
Water Lilies (Naissance Des Pieuvres) (4/4/2008 (previewed at 2008 New Directors/New Films Series at Lincoln Center/MoMA)
Alice’s House (A Casa De Alice) (1/25/2008)
The Business Of Being Born (1/10/2008)
Blame It On Fidel (La Faute à Fidel) (scroll down for my capsule review)
Arranged (12/14/2007) (emendations coming after 6/14/2008) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish woman)
Feast Of Love (My at additional commentary.) (9/28/2007)
The Jane Austen Book Club (To include reference to all her books, there’s also a Mansfield Park sensual putting on of a play) (9/21/2007)
Becoming Jane (8/3/2007) Note: For comparison to the real life, I read My Dear Cassandra: The Letters of Jane Austen, selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, 1990. The first half of the film, and Jane’s contact with Lefroy are directly out of her letters, including their scandalously frequent dancing during his vacation with his relatives who were friends of hers and discussion of Tom Jones, as well as details of the Austen household, from her early morning piano-playing, reading her writings to her appreciative family, and friendship with her sophisticated future sister-in-law, widowed from the French revolution, who was flirting with brother Henry. The second part of the relationship leaps more into imagination, though is based on more recent research into Lefroy’s activities. But I mostly liked this later quote of hers in demurral to write different kinds of novels more flattering to TPTB: To James Stanier Clarke, 4/1/1816: “I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.” (9/17/2007)
Naming Number Two (7/25/2007)
Evening (6/28/2007) (emendations coming here after 12/28/2007)
Waitress (5/1/2007) (emendations coming here after 11/1/2007)
Dreaming Lhasa (4/13/2007)
Grbavica: The Land Of My Dreams) (2/16/2007)
Close To Home (Karov La Bayit) (2/16/2007) (I saw it originally at Tribeca Film Festival with a Q & A by the directors.) (See with its non-fiction counterpart To See If I’m Smiling (Lir’ot Im Ani Mehayechet), which I previewed at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center)
Cave of the Yellow Dog (Die Höhle des gelben Hundes) (11/10/2006) (emendations coming here after 5/10/2007)
Paper Dolls (Bubot Niyar) (9/6/2006) (emendations coming here after 3/6/2007)
Princesas (8/23/2006) (emendations coming here after 2/23/2007)
Friends With Money evens the score for all those movies and books about men having mid-life crises with equal time for women. This is a distaff take on Neil LaBute.
While nowhere as cynically incisive nor sweetly relatable to as writer/director Nicole Holofcener's previous Lovely and Amazing, the unsympathetic setting of four women for-some-unknown-reason friends and their men among the upper class of the Los Angeles entertainment, fashion and entrepreneurial elite is offset by some funny dialog and breezy acting in a comfortable ensemble. One of the ongoing jokes is that just as we're thinking negative thoughts about a character, another in the next scene comments, usually talking in cars, to another just what we were thinking.
At least the L.A. professions are used to illustrate something about the characters. The always droll Catherine Keener and her husband, played by the-never-mentioned-how-hunky-he-is Jason Isaacs, are screen writing partners, but this works to good effect visually as they act out the dialog quarrels of their characters.
A marvelously salty, road-raged, hair-unwashed Frances McDormand, the stand out in the film, is a not too believable dress designer, but is paired with a fussy metrosexual botanical body care products maker. She's like a femme Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unfortunately there's no real pay-off in the trajectory of the tension in their relationship as the elephant in the room never really seems to appear.
The comic queen Joan Cusack is woefully underused as the beneficiary of family wealth, though she has an easy chemistry with Greg Germann as her husband.
The production design doesn't quite give the L.A. luxury pay-off as in The Dying Gaul of seeing Jennifer Astin cleaning other people's houses, complete with lots of product placement. Regardless of her job situation, and her ups and downs aren't that crazy these days, it's just not clear why she has such low self-esteem that she gets into a series of relationships with desultory men, regardless of their income in silly plot twists. The Scott Caan character is so macho inconsiderate as to be unbelievable for more than a one-day stand. But then it's not clear if any one learns much of anything after going through their nervous breakdowns and the movie tails off.
The kids are all sweet naturals with no phony child actor type in sight.
The new Rickie Lee Jones songs on the soundtrack are lovely to hear, but don't add any commentary to the action. There are some less heard bands such as The Weepies as well. (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (4/13/2006)
Failure to Launch feels like a cynical Hollywood attempt to create a perfect date movie, with equal time to girl talk and guys doing guy stuff. It works about half the time.
The premise was completely given away in the trailer, and we only get a bit more back story on the characters than that, as to how they got in the position of a hunky guy Matthew McConaughey living at home with his supportive parents and Sarah Jessica Parker as a professional incentive to leave.
There is a lot of funny, sprightly dialog, especially among the friends, but the movie stops to a dead halt every time the guys go off on another slapstick sports adventure and encounter silly, animatronic animals of various kinds that seem out of a Disney kids' story. The guys in the audience did seem to like those parts.
As so often happens in such movies, the best friends steal the show. Though we don't learn much about her, Zooey Deschanel is a feisty depressive. Her reluctant match up with the endearing Justin Bartha as an adorable tekkie geek is worth its own little movie, though Dopamine may have already done that.
The visual and dialog references to Philadelphia Story and Irma La Douce do not do this script any favors.
The soundtrack includes upbeat, updated covers by Fastball and the eels of romantic songs. Unfortunately, the songs do not add to the commentary.
Other than missing seeing attractive people 20 feet high or whatever, this movie will work just as amusingly on DVD as in a theater.(4/11/2006)
The Beauty Academy of Kabul documents a small but appealing cross-cultural, women to women effort based around the universal, and probably Darwinian, female urge to look pretty and scroll down for my capsule review.
The film opens with historical footage showing how Kabul got to its present ruined state from the 1970's urbane center that expatriate participants in this experiment remember, though with no mention if the post 9/11 coalition's intervention against the Taliban furthered the civilians' plight. This seems like a follow-up to the docudrama Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar) which showed women's plight in Afghanistan up through the Taliban take over.
Then, with a little name dropping of the corporate beauty products sponsors, we see a diverse group of women from England and the U.S. with different degrees of practicality and naiveté set up a school to teach local women hair styling and other beauty treatments in a three month curriculum. The project provides not only an entrepreneurship opportunity for the women (setting up both relief and possible imbalance in their family's economy), but is just barely acceptable under Islamic role as it is women touching women indoors (just as they did secretly in their homes under the Taliban -- whose wives also snuck out to visit), as long as there's some limits on type of styles and touching. Over millennia, men and prophets have railed against women's urge to preen, but all societies make much of marriage, whether love matches or not, and even the most rigid male has to give in to allow for dressing up at that important ceremony (and getting to do a wedding is the most profitable opportunity for local stylists).
Sometimes the women teachers intentionally take on the male powers that be to flaunt their Western independence when they brook no nonsense about late deliveries and shoddy work, or driving, sometimes they are not helpful in their lack of sympathy for women's fears and societal restrictions (it's not clear if there's been physical abuse or just threats from fathers, husbands and brothers). The experiences of the expatriate women, who also serve as translators, are moving, both as biography and how they relate to those who remained. When the teachers get away from trying to futilely change the local culture and focus on imparting skills, their helpfulness is clear.
The students are again and again portrayed as incredibly hard-working, cooking and taking care of their husbands from arranged marriages and many young children, practicing and handling clients until late at night while men are invariably shown as lazing around, including the ostensible manager, many with antagonistic stares, many with guns. There is one husband who seems sympathetic to his wife as he comes to enroll her while she's dealing with a family illness. (We see very few women in the Kabul street scenes and they are encased in burkhas.)
When we can apparently hear honestly from the women students they are fascinating -- we see one young woman change to robotically repeating what her father insists she say and another woman react nervously when her normally loquacious (and quite nosy) teachers are shocked into silence by her frank and contented acceptance of her second class role within the family. But while the Westerners push their philosophy, these survivors have dealt with extremists before and are good at pushing back -- especially at women who are single and childless.
Some intriguing cultural points aren't clarified -- why does one woman insist that her young daughter's hair be cut like a boy's? Shades of the gender-hiding film Osama? Why do so many of the women want curly permanents -- even as the teachers try to explain about healthy hair care? The locals seem to have a wide variety of hair types so where in such an isolated culture does the demand for a curly style come from? I was reminded of a recent Oprah focusing on her own "bad hair day" where the black women, including "super models" wanted straight hair and I couldn't figure out why there either. Given the huge, pent-up demand for these classes, which at one point a teacher calls "Beauty Without Borders," was there another session?
The subtitles are always clearly legible, using black outlining. I presume that the translations of the English-speaking instructions to students were edited out for smooth viewing.
The one man in the matinee I was at fell asleep, loudly snoring. This was co-produced by the BBC and Discovery, so I presume it will be available on cable.
This film intimately personalizes a culture much in the news that we rarely get to see this close-up, as well as the difficulties and potentials of one-on-one outreach. Even within Islamic strictures, we are left with the sense that a comb and brush are instruments of revolution.(4/3/2006)
Take My Eyes (Te doy mis ojos) is a frank, classy woman in jeopardy/Lifetime TV for Women film.
A couple of elements raise it above Hollywood's unfortunately already tired treatment of abused wives in such films as Sleeping with the Enemy or Enough, among many others.
First is the superb acting by Laia Marull as "Pilar". Her transformation from frightened mouse to tentative independent to an expressive person with a back bone is riveting. She does look distractingly like Annabella Sciorra, but that means she is beautiful and very womanly.
Second is the emphasis less on the physical violence by an abuser that American films revel in (this film opens right after such an incident) than on the psychological impact, both on abuser and victim. Even amidst strife, this is a passionate couple who were very much in love, though we get hints from the beginning that he was controlling, as in the conversations that include the titular phrase. Unlike Hollywood, her final revenge is not violent but in how she uses those words back at him.
Uniquely, we see the husband (Luis Tosar as "Antonio" looking distractingly like the Irish actor James Nesbitt) as a 360 degree person, with his own family stresses, and not just as the usual evil incarnate. Though we don't see how he got into anger-management therapy sessions for abusers that in the U.S. are usually only a result of a court-order and I couldn't tell from the untranslated credits what experts were consulted for these recreations, they are a fascinating look at an attempt to change abusive behaviors. The shrink finds he has to teach these guys even how to have a conversation with their wives to prevent triggers, let alone what to do when rage starts filling their heads.
Another difference is that while the husband jealously fixates on the possibility of her finding a new lover, a sensitive new age guy character invariably appears in the Hollywood versions (and it was entertainingly non-stereotypical that the Scottish brother-in-law is held up as a prized alternative), the threat to his marriage actually comes from her relationships with the women in her life, from family to friends. Through them she becomes more attuned to humiliation as violence than even her hospital records filled with lied about fractures. It was a bit much symbolically to have her suddenly get into artistic presentations of ancient sexy myths, though it was nice that the credits identified each of the paintings discussed.
While sadly this is a familiar story in filmed outline, the film is continually suspenseful and involving as to what they will do, together and apart. (3/22/2006)
She's The Man is a surprisingly funny take on gender roles in high school sports.
As even more loosely based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night than the rock musical Your Own Thing, with just a bit more effort it could have been up to the level of the previous bard teen adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You by the same co-writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith.
The film's good spirits lift it above difficulties that it unnecessarily sets up. Amanda Bynes is plucky but not very physically convincing as an athlete, particularly compared to Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham or Blake Lively in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, even with stunt doubles on the field.
She's also not helped by the odd casting decision to surround her with older hunky and beautiful actors and actresses in their mid-20's who would look old in a frat party movie, even if maybe she's supposed to be a freshman among seniors. The jock object of her hidden affection (Channing Tatum as "Duke Orsini") only sounds good in a towel, and is so supposedly tongue-tied with girls, that I was convinced by her argument to competitor "Olivia" on all the reasons not to date him so I couldn't figure out why she otherwise would want to. His one discussion about what he would really like from a relationship with a girl is very weak.
The script goes out of its way to avoid sexual orientation issues for its below 12 target audience, who I assume are familiar, as I am not, with Bynes's TV work. There's an implicitly gay hairdresser who for some reason hangs out with teen age girls, unless we weren't told that he's a fellow student who works at a salon, and there's several spontaneously enthusiastic embraces between a guy and the disguised "Viola" as "Sebastian" that turn awkward, but there's not a single homophobic accusation or coming out by any one. If it weren't for the cell phones and Nike symbol on the girls' soccer team uniforms I wouldn't have even thought this Illyria Prep was in the U.S. today.
While it's too bad that the girls don't take up any Title IX cudgels or consider more recruitment when their soccer team is cancelled for lack of participation, the film seems to positively say that there's issues of expectations as to why the girls' soccer training isn't as tough, not lack of skills and motivation among the girls. So too bad "Viola/Sebastian" stereotypically faints at the sight of a dissected frog in science class.
While not near Transamerica issues of course, Bynes's mannerisms are not too credible when she's being a boy (though the quick edits of her trying to learn to imitate boys and her quick switching at a carnival are fun), but she's at her best as a rebel at the ball. Unlike other girls' sports movies, there is an intriguing parallel story about debutante expectations that skirts the tomboy issues by showing that girls can knock down opponents on the field then get prettied up and get the guy too.
Too bad many of the positive images of women are lost when scantily clad cheerleaders suddenly appear to shake at the soccer match, but maybe that was to balance the many guys in the shower scenes in case director Andy Fickman thought this could ever possibly be a date movie. (The few teen boys at my matinee showing were clearly there to mock the film.) They do try to PC up the side story of the geeky girl in glasses and braces, but she's played too much for stereotyped laughs before she too gets a guy when she becomes a bit of a swan.
David Cross's principal was silly, but Shakespeare had clowns too.
Though there's a running musical joke that the "Viola/Sebastian"s cell phone ring sounds embarrassingly girly pop, the music selections were surprisingly not pop. They miss an opportunity to make a point as well done with a similar mood or lyrics as in Freaky Friday, but there's posters on the walls and selections by rockers All-American Rejects and O.A.R., as well as by Joan Jett and indie romantic crooner Ray LaMontagne. Nice touch that the twin brother is a rocker with sensitively written lyrics is how he captures "Olivia"s heart, which is not much more rationale than the original Will provided.
All in all, the film was a surprisingly entertaining girl power celebration, with lots of laugh out loud opportunities. I will now laugh at tampons in a way I never thought to before. (3/22/2006)
Casanova is a delightful comic farce that uses a period setting for an amusing cross between The Princess Bride, Much Ado About Nothing and the spirit of The Marriage of Figaro (not at all Don Giovanni that was based on the same legend).
Director Lasse Hallström gets the romantic romp tone right here, compared to what he did not achieve in Chocolat. He establishes from the opening that this is just fun opera buffo, with frequent sight gags and commedia dell'arte troupes and Punch and Judy-type puppet shows broadly commenting on the action, though it took four writers to stitch together the broad double entendres and winks at Shakespeare, from, appropriately, Merchant of Venice), to The Merry Wives of Windsor to Taming of the Shrew.
Heath Ledger has grown up since he first demonstrated he had the light touch for romantic comedy in the teen version of Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You, and he’s much more confident now. One of the cute conceits of the film is that the women are the aggressors, especially the virgins and novices. As the title character, he modestly claims that his success is solely due to his ability to submit. While he's not particularly leonine in the frequent shots of him lounging on a divan, he is dashing as he runs around Venice taking on several different mistaken identities. If his clinch with Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain wouldn't already qualify him for an MTV Best Kiss this year, the big one with Sienna Miller could earn a nomination.
Miller is a bit young for her role as a Portia-like “transvestite” philosopher defending the rights of women, but her youth makes her brash earnestness seem more charmingly naïve. As her lively mother, Lena Olin provides the older woman ballast, without the usual sex-starved widow stereotypes.
Oliver Platt should be signed immediately to do a major production of Falstaff, as he deftly and physically plays that character type, here a lard mogul representative of mercantile Genoa, even more deliciously and sympathetically than he has in Ice Harvest and Huff.
Jeremy Irons has fun playing the Inquisitor, representing religious Rome, whose purple robes fit right in at a carnivale masquerade ball.
The look of the film helps enormously, with the best use of Venice as a sensuously unique setting since Dangerous Beauty, not just for the usual gondolas and canals, but the steps, plazas, architecture, roofs, narrow streets, alleys and the light. The wigs and costumes are wonderfully colorful.
The marvelous stitching together of Baroque music keeps the mood merry, with overtures and dances from eight Jean-Philippe Rameau operas, six Italian composers, including of course Vivaldi, as well as snatches of Handel and Telemann added at appropriate water and fireworks moments. (1/11/2006)
Memoirs of a Geisha is a visually stunning melodrama that seems more like a camp, drag queen satire than anything to do with real people.
The first half of the film defensively keeps insisting that geishas are neither prostitutes nor concubines, that they are the embodiment of traditional Japanese beauty. But other than one breathtaking dance, the rest of the movie degenerates into Pretty Baby in Storyville territory, or at least Vashti and Esther in the Purim story, as all the women's efforts at art and artifice are about entertaining much, much older, drunken boorish men. Maybe it is Japanese culture that is being prostituted, and not just to the American louts after World War II.
Perhaps it's the strain of speaking in English, but Ziyi Zhang shows barely little of the great flare she demonstrated in House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) and Hero (Ying xiong). Michelle Yeoh occasionally gets to project a glimmer of her assured performance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long). Only Li Gong shows any real life. Otherwise, I kept picturing Charles Ludlam in various roles, or even Cillian Murphy, as in kabuki theater, particularly as the plot dragged down in cat fight after cat fight.
The supposed love story has zero chemistry, mostly due to the age differences, and I mostly felt sorry for Ken Watanabe and hoped his Hollywood pay check compensated for his loss of dignity as the mysterious "Chairman." I remember more chemistry in Portrait of Jennie as the young girl is anxious to grow up into Jennifer Jones to please Joseph Cotton.
We see brief glimpses of reality when the geishas pose with regular women as photographic attractions, and as an ageless Ziyi Zhang lives out the war years in a very colorful kimono dying operation. The finale has little sense of normality.
The score includes many chopped up traditional melodies, with cello by Yo Yo Ma and violin by Yitzhack Pearlman instead of traditional instrumentation, that are beautiful to listen to in accompaniment to the lovely cinematography, as long as one completely ignores the plot and stiff acting.
As my mind wandered, I wondered how the great Japanese directors of samurai movies would have dealt with this story, which probably would have been more formal, but a lot more emotional. (1/8/2006) Background on geishas as portrayed in the film and book
Ellie Parker feels like an extended episode of Unscripted through the funny lens of Albert Brooks.
It does show the strains of being expanded from a short, for bits that feel like a Saturday Night Live routine, and for typical targets for actors -- acting class, slacker boyfriends, friends competing for the same lousy roles in cheesy WB and Fox TV pilots, pretentious indie directors (and I assume it was intentional that the guy looked like Jim Jarmusch), scheming casting agents, and phony producers.
But it still manages to very amusingly have some original takes on Hollywood. The funniest angle is that no one does know who they are any more, whether from class, day jobs, rapid-fire auditions, therapy, one-night stands of flexible sexuality and recreational self-medication drugs, so that they always feel like they are acting in the movie of their lives. And everyone seems to want to be someone else anyway, such as a night out to see Keanu Reeves wannabe rock star in his band Dogstar.
Key to the success of the movie is the amazingly versatile chameleon Naomi Watts. While I presume the short started in 2001 before her break-out in Mulholland Drive as a bit of envy revenge when her good friend Nicole Kidman was already getting big roles, it now seems like nostalgia because she's so beautiful here it's hard to think of her being dumped or cheated on and so talented as she morphs from tragic Southern belle to channeling Debbie Harry as a New York doll to looking astoundingly like the naive young Hayley Mills and a self-referential take on Marilyn Monroe that it's hard to believe Leslie Bibb would get a role over her. She has terrific best friend chemistry with fellow Aussie Rebecca Rigg (who I did not recognize at all from Farscape), making me realize how few films showcase Watts with female bonding relationships.
While the in-Hollywood jokes get a bit much and the basic arc is predictable, there are a lot of chuckles. Chevy Chase is very funny in a grown-up cameo as her agent.
I know this may come as a shock to actors, but job hunting is just as merciless in other fields so we civilians can relate to Ellie Parker's travails. It is very sweet that the closing credits include director/actor Scott Coffey's tribute to the strong women who inspired him, particularly his mother. (11/27/2005)
Cape of Good Hope is the most charming, romantic, women-centered, multi-cultural urban dramedy since What's Cooking.
Yes husband and wife collaborators Mark Bamford and Suzanne Kay Bamford draw some of the characters as too good (Eriq Ebouaney's "Jean Claude LeReve" is beyond Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? as literally a Renaissance Man) or too evil, and some of the connections among them are as forced in propinquity as Crash, but I live in a large city of ethnic neighborhoods and coincidences like these can really happen. And it's a pleasure to see a film about the realities of age, gender, religion, race and class in contemporary South Africa -- including Muslims, Hindus, refugees, emigrants, Afrikaners, Christian blacks --in a humanistic, non-strident approach.
This roundelay of couples and their families have been as touched by the vagaries of universal human fate as by African politics. Each character prejudges another by their appearance or circumstance, and each is psychologically damaged by past relationships, and has amusing human foibles, pretensions or sweet ambitions that are realistically compromised. It is noteworthy that the characters are not the usual young 'uns in the throes of Romeo and Juliet-like first love, but wary, experienced adults who are incrementally challenging boundaries.
While the individuals' stories radiate out of their connections to a dog shelter as in J.M. Coetzee's bitter South African novel Disgrace, the irony of anecdotes like a dog that was trained to attack blacks or the insistence of potential adoptive owners for a purebred instead of the affectionate mutts or the veterinarian widower who longingly whispers after the woman in charge "rescue me", is a gentle look at the complicated post-apartheid city. All now have to learn to co-exist, and even become friends, as each person takes a step forward and brings their families with them. And, yeah, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
The acting by men, women and child is very natural across several languages. Accented English is their cross-cultural communication, but in the heat of moments with their own, each resorts to their native tongue. While it is lovely to see different neighborhoods in Capetown, the human experiences are universal. For example, the educational, economic and romantic strivings of immigrants are similar to what we saw in Hester Street.
There is only a little music, but it adds to the commentary on local interactions with the global culture.
The conclusion may be a bit too idealistic, but by that point the characters have all been fully established and their actions do feel right for those appealing individuals. I don't even like dogs, but it does sweetly make one believe that it is possible that individuals will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (11/26/2005)
Pride & Prejudice is a Gilmore Girls take on Jane Austen and it is delightful.
Much as I loved the BBC's mini-series the last decade and didn't think we could possible need another version, adapter Deborah Moggach (with help from Emma Thompson) and director Joe Wright have shot the story through with adrenaline so that everyone is a lot more lively (with a throw down to the 1940 version as being portrayed by too-old folks and this is the first adaptation where all are the right age). This is a classic personified by emotional people not stuffed icons.
While there is too much landscape admiration from the opening dawn on, the crowded Bennet household is immediately captured as filled with five noisy, twittering sisters surrounded by household laundry and the muck of a working farm, emblematic of Shakespearean double entendre references to "country matters." This liveliness is particularly noteworthy in the simply danced ball scenes, which are as crowded as a downtown dance club and are brimming with youthful energy and flirtations (this is the first adaptation I've seen that clearly distinguishes between public and private balls in costumes and attitudes). While fully clothed in modest period costumes, the exuberance is like the opening of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing for injecting the awareness of bodies as a visual subtext.
This constant buzz serves as a marvelous foil for an extremely dour, almost Eeyore-gloomy "Mr. Darcy," who could be accompanied by the Grandfather's bassoons in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf as a leit motif, and serves to emphasize his social awkwardness in situations where every young non-snob is just having a jolly good time. Surrounded as he is by much more amiable guy friends, just when you think that Matthew MacFadyen's "disagreeable man" could not possibly appeal to Keira Knightly's live wire "Elizabeth Bennet," he creates sudden sexual tension in the pouring rain at his first, obnoxiously-worded proposal that builds up to a moment as charged as Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone in It's A Wonderful Life. He later in the relaxed comfort of his own home splits the screen with a warm smile that suddenly makes the viewer (and "Lizzie") aware of his beautiful blue eyes, though we don't get to see his sister's startled response to their pre-Spencer/Hepburn competitive raillery.
The men are portrayed much more sympathetically and rounded than previous versions, for the benefit of the few guys in the audience dragged by the women in their lives. Though dad Donald Sutherland, barely trying to do a British accent but enjoying not being the villain he's been playing recently, prefers solace with his pigs, oddly, to dealing with his family as much as in his library, his paternal affection clearly comes through and he is more bemused, as in the book, than hen-pecked, as in other adaptations. Though we don't get to hear "Darcy"s charming soldier cousin's speech about how he needs to marry a woman with money to balance "Lizzie"s best friend's similar practical analysis, we do see, quite amusingly, just how anxious and nervous both "Darcy" and "Bingley" are in the presence of the objects of their affections. We are all indeed fools in love.
Knightly starts out seeming to be more "Jo" from Little Women, but shines with the fast-paced repartee, especially in scenes where she talks circles around the socially inept "Darcy," let alone his snobby friends and relatives. Her "gotcha" scenes of self-realization, however, are less effective than the comparable moments by Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility or Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma as the director substitutes extensive close-ups for expressions that would communicate her intelligent thoughts. The frequent shots slowly going out of focus, usually to indicate time passing, are also annoying.
There is great emphasis on the social satire, with humor from chuckles to laugh out loud funny, propelled by the busy music (which despite the complaints of the woman in back of me was of the period), and the crowded matinee I saw it at the opening weekend responded actively. Tom Hollander is a marvelous "Mr. Collins" without making the minister too clownish. Brenda Blethyn brings unexpected depth to the exasperating "Mrs. Bennet," even if her riposte to "Mr. Collins" that they can still afford a cook and warning to "Lizzie" about just wait until you have five daughters aren't in the book. Dame Judi Dench is in no need of such close-ups to carry off "Lady Charlotte", as she could be imperious to the last row of Giants Stadium, despite a hair do that does seem more 1970's New Jersey than Second Empire. Jena Malone has a ball in what might be her first period work, even as her rambunctious "Lydia" is falls to temptation as other characters she has played.
The opulence of "Darcy"s Pemberley is so staggering that it does make "Elizabeth" seem too impressed by his wealth and gives quite a ring of truth to his professed prejudices against her. The opening shot with its lake does tease us about the BBC version as he does not emerge from the lake. It is also a bit obvious to put sensuality forefront to have the mansion filled with voluptuous sculptures rather than the paintings and portrait gallery described in the book.
While the erotic mise en scene of the second proposal is more out of Bronte than Austen (my sister-in-law was shocked to see them perambulating outdoors practically in their nightclothes), "Darcy"s lengthy, open-shirted stride through the mists of dawn practically elicited swoons from the audience.
A for some reason U.S.-only coda is completely faithful in spirit to the book, which did not end in the double wedding so frequently falsely portrayed in adaptations, even if the dialog itself, oddly, was not, as there is a parallel interchange that could easily have been used.
The great bulk of the dialog throughout the film is directly from Austen, (though in interviews the
North American Jane Austen Society disagrees with me) though the writers had to invent romantic dialog where she otherwise dryly says that the couples converse as one would expect those "violently in love" to do. And that is the timelessness of this story that this film ebulliently brings to life. (11/14/2005)
I took my inner ten year old to see Dreamer, who had a mysterious passion for horses and loved My Friend Flicka and Black Beauty back around 1960.
Unfortunately, the adult me couldn't be restrained during this Seabiscuit for young girls, despite the beautiful scenery and Fred Murphy's lovely cinematography that should be seen on a big screen.
I lost count at ten of the lines in debut director John Gatins's script that made me groan with a toothache, beginning with a wonderfully grizzled Kris Kristofferson (basically repeating Dennis Weaver's grandfather role in the ABC Family series Wildfire) intoning that training horses is "in her blood."
"Her" of course is Dakota Fanning, who seems even less like a real kid than in her other recent films, particularly with the many posed close-ups. She seems much more to be channeling adult aliens as in Taken or maybe she's living Freaky Friday, though Elizabeth Shue is the most beautiful waitress mom in the world. Her lack of childishness, except for one fit of pique, makes it no surprise when Kurt Russell as the Best Dad in the World literally hands over the reins to her. I found it helped if I imagined him relating to young Kate Hudson in his real household.
While the father/son tensions are laid on a bit thick, especially as we don't really get to understand the sins of the fathers, the financial context of their struggles and decisions is well shown.
John Debney's music is an unmitigated disaster. Not only does it not shut up, but it swells way too predictably during any scene that has a modicum of suspense.
The touches of racism are unnecessary, as any film about "the sport of kings" could have dealt with the intrinsic class and snobbery issues, even if one of the Arab sheiks becomes an ally and it's a pleasure to see Luis Guzmán not have to play yet another drug dealer. There are no other pop culture reference points in the film to identify when it is taking place.
I think the only audience for this girl empowerment fantasy, regardless of how much is inspired by a true story, is very young girls. I cannot imagine my sons, who loved sports movies at that age, would have liked this, though the girls will have to understand the birds and the bees of horse breeding. (11/7/2005)
Shopgirl is an off-kilter modern romance. It plays on several conventions of movies, from the old-fashioned The Shop Around the Corner to the fairy tale Pretty Woman, but takes surprising turns away from those stereotypes.
The look and sound of the film are half of its appeal, from Peter Suschitzky's dreamy cinematography, to the production and art design that has each character in their own color scheme, to the enthralling score by Barrington Pheloung, though the atmospherics almost overwhelm the three characters who frequently seem like pieces in a set design as the camera slowly glides back to reveal an entire mise en scene.
Claire Danes is radiant and holds our eye and sympathy throughout the film, as we see life mostly from her first naive than wiser perspective, though she is portrayed as just about the last sweet young woman in the country, as all the other women seem pretty cold-blooded. While she has an underlying problem common to such in TV and movies these days, it is handled surprisingly visually and tenderly. Over fourteen months, she encounters a bumbling young suitor, the adorably scruffy Jason Schwartzman, who even as his character matures retains endearing enthusiasm and quirks, and a sugar daddy in a somewhat mysterious Steve Martin, who is more believable than Sex and the City's similar "Mr. Big." Ironically, the few physical comedy scenes are with Schwartzman, not Martin -- and that's a very funny scene about a condom, as this film in it quiet way is pretty frank about sex.
An occasional voice-over narration is obtrusive and unnecessary, even as Martin's adaptation of his novella claims the need for an omniscient observer, but the camera and the characters' body language visually communicate the same information. The sudden insertion of a parallel scene where two main characters suddenly explain themselves to listeners who we didn't know previously existed in their lives is a bit too convenient and doesn't really fit.
But the film is on the whole winning, as each character very gradually learns about who they are and who they can be, about the meaning of life, love, success and human connections, and about the clear-eyed choices they can make to attain these, to change or not. While the bulk of the film is set in Los Angeles, it feels like a picaresque journey of discovery as they go from one scene to another.
The song selections are marvelous, particularly Mark Kozelek's varied twists on different genres to reflect the different characters. It's a cute joke to have Schwartzman's "Jeremy" as a roadie when he has been on the road with Phantom Planet.
The costume design by Nancy Steiner is lovely; clearly the shopgirl was using all the discounts available to her at Saks even before a paternalistic benefactor picks up the tab. (11/2/2005)
Domino uses some facts from the bizarre life of Domino Harvey, from English boarding school to Hollywood to model to bounty hunter, as an inspiration for a rollicking, violent social satire. Stretching from England to Hollywood to Las Vegas, it is photographed in exaggeratedly unreal processed colors by Daniel Mindel like City of God (Cidade de Deus), edited with a whirlwind structure, speed and popular culture and musical references like Tarantino, and filled with political, social and class juxtapositions and crazed characters like Elmore Leonard.
While it is like a music video on steroids, it is also a very funny send-up of many stereotypes, as commentary on health care, reality TV, racial profiling, immigrants, Beverly Hills 90210 go whizzing by. And there's even a sweet, sexy love story that's squeezed in.
The truth that Domino was actor Laurence Harvey's daughter lets The Manchurian Candidate play in the background as a repeating leit motif about cultural mind control, with Frank Sinatra as a link to the plot turns in Las Vegas with the Mob. The violence is of video game-like exaggeration, as it's clearly over the top and sometimes even re-winds with different results as misapprehensions are cleared up.
Sometimes the social satire just goes on too long from the main plot, which already is so gloriously convoluted it has to be labeled and charted. Mo'Nique's rant on The Jerry Springer Show is not that funny and her cohorts later criticizing the ineffectuality of her appearance doesn't make up for it. (And celebrity first-name dropping is spoofed in the closing credits.) But the conceit of the bounty hunters being featured on a Cops-imitation reality show (much like the actual Dog the Bounty Hunter on A & E) produced by a relatively toned down Christopher Walken and hosted by bickering ex-90210er's Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green sort of playing themselves is laugh out loud funny, especially as their RVs race across the desert. The concept of "celebrity hostages" is hysterical.
Because the film is being marketed as a Tony Scott action film for guys, the studio isn't promoting the romantic thread. But Edgar Ramirez is magnetic as Domino's lovelorn friend. Every time he pulls the rubber band off that pony tail and shakes his curly hair down, watch out! The camera appreciates his casual strip tease in a laundromat that may stoke quite a few women's fantasies, and is much sexier than Keira Knightley's lap dance.
As an action heroine, Knightley is much better here than she was in King Arthur, partly due to the editing and that this character is more tense, pouty poseur than mover and shaker. She's particularly good in the interrogation scenes that frame the story as a series of flashbacks and justify the voice over narration, if not the echo chamber repetition. Lucy Liu is no Kyra Sedgwick from The Closer, but her pencil sharpening ticks are amusing.
Mickey Rourke is pretty much playing his usual tough guy, but has some sweet mentoring scenes. Jacqueline Bisset is almost unrecognizable under her make-up as the ambitious mother and clearly has fun with the role.
The climax is an amusing fantasy but thrilling blaze of glory that brings together all the elements of a life that we know really ended with far less pizzazz. The effort to tie in some reflection about fate and religion and goldfish doesn't quite work, but is visually entertaining as a way to try and get into her head and make her seem like a tough chick with a softie heart of gold. We get a brief glimpse at the real Domino before a memorial tribute to her.
The musical selections are integral to the pace and the humor and are selected for specific lines and rhythms, from hip hop to rock (you'll probably go out humming the chorus "Momma told me not to come!") and the closing Latin croon over the credits. Tom Waits has a cameo as a preacher who might be a drug-induced hallucination and lines from a couple of his songs referencing bounty hunters are included to good effect. Macy Gray sings on the soundtrack and is also funny in a small role, as good as she was in Lackawanna Blues. (10/25/2005)
North Country mines The Accused and Norma Rae tradition of crusading women with tarnished reputations in small towns, in this case to remind us just how recently sexual harassment has become a legally recognized taboo.
Director Niki Caro spends a lot of visual time establishing the beautiful and isolated snowy setting of the Iron Range of northern Minnesota (and yes we do hear Bob Dylan's "Girl of the North Country" among many other tracks from the area native, as well as a Cat Power cover as the sole female voice). This immersion in a tough environment of real people in a complex web who know each other from multiple connections at school, work, local bars and hockey games keeps the film from strident didactism.
Yes, Charlize Theron is beautiful, as well as a convincing actress, and the film does effectively, and sometimes quite movingly, show what it's like to be at the receiving end of male attention when you're the Barbie-playing, prettiest girl in town from high school on, and how that can hurt a woman's self-esteem and expectations. Theron lets the importance of financial stability from the job glow in her face and her slow build up to protester is convincingly developed.
As in Whale Rider, Caro is particularly good at the family tensions. Well shown is Theron's "Josey Aimes"s clashes with her rebellious teen son who is trying to develop his own sense of male identity within their community, well-played by Thomas Curtis, who was also very good in The Outsider.
Richard Jenkins eschews all the archness of his recent roles to bring real drama to her conflicted miner father, even if the other men aren't given much depth. Sissy Spacek, recalling The Coal Miner's Daughter now as a grandmother, pulling a quiet Lysistrata may not be completely credible, but she brings a wallop to her line to him "She had a baby. She didn't rob a bank."
Yes, it's a bit heavy-handed to have Anita Hill's testimony on the TVs in the background, but the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1989 did bring the issue of sexual harassment to the national consciousness. While time and visuals are spent on touches like offensive graffiti, calendars, jokes, potty parity, groping and condescending managers (and it's disappointing that these facts of life and a past abuse flashback give the film an R rating rather than a PG-13 so that younger teens can't see the movie easily), the film scarily demonstrates how lack of solidarity in a tough job leads to physical danger as well, when PC-ness can otherwise be mocked.
Frances McDormand, revisiting her Fargo accent, subsumes herself superbly into the best friend who deals in her own way with the job and personal issues. I can't recall the last time I saw Sean Bean be just a regular guy in a film, and he does her supportive rugged boyfriend really well, even if his accent slips a couple of times.
Woody Harrelson does regular local guy turned lawyer licking his own wounds well enough. I don't think I've ever seen a TV show or film have the lawyer ask the sexual history of an accuser as well as the accused before.
The supporting actresses as her co-workers show some variety of experiences.
While there's no way to know how accurate the story line, and certainly the legal time line is too compressed, or representations are, though the hockey metaphors have local resonance, even with the closing explanation of the Supreme Court decision that resulted, it is a stirring film.(10/25/2005)
Nine Lives is a valentine to women as a life force (from pregnancy to abortion, and only incidentally about sex, to caregiving and death), and the superb actresses bask like flowers in the sun at the attention.
Writer/director Rodrigo García creates nine vignettes, each introduced by the central character's name like a chapter heading, as master acting classes. In about ten minutes, each actress, and occasionally their male supporters, go from zero to ten, less through the language, which is so natural it seems improvised, but through their faces, bodies and inflections.
Each woman faces an emotional crisis involving her relationship with a loved one -- parent, child, lover, husband, sister; sometimes the stories start them at a high point and they reach a catharsis, others are in the midst of a normal day and then get socked with interactions that rock their balance. Each tries to stay in control of their situations, with emotional prices to pay. About half the characters briefly cross-appear in stories that may come before their previous appearance, mostly to add ironic meanings to a situation or dialog that would have a different impact without the added information from the other vignette. A refrain of "I can't stop thinking about you" comes with different meanings about love and guilt or obsession each time, though this is more about connections between people (as symbolized by the webs behind the interstitial name cards).
The two hander with Robin Wright Penn and Jason Isaacs (with a very creditable American accent, though he seemed to be playing a very similar character as he did on West Wing) packs a wallop, mostly through Penn's expressions and complete body language, from her eyelids to her fingers to her feet. A shopping walk through the long aisles of your neighborhood supermarket may never have quite the same expectations. Garcia's gliding camera work adds to the emotional freight as by widening and lengthening the frame he gradually reveals more information about the two characters.
Amy Brenneman paying respects at a funeral builds up in nervousness as we learn more about the complicated background of her relationship with the deceased, then goes for a crescendo in a brief, almost silently dynamic interaction with an explosive William Fichtner. This may be the first time that certain American Sign Language words have been used in a movie.
Lisa Gay Hamilton's character is so emotionally wrought that you get agitated just watching her, even as we cry over why she's so radioactive.
Kathy Baker facing surgery reveals more of the emotional complications for couples facing medical issues than a dozen Lifetime TV movies.
Garcia well shows women caught between strong people, particularly the vignettes with Amanda Seyfried and Holly Hunter, though the latter recalls Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? too much. Molly Parker creates warm chemistry with women as a friend in two stories. Dakota Fanning actually acts her age and seems like a natural child for a change in her vignette with Glenn Close.
I presume this was shot on digital video, judging by the saturated look of the beautiful cinematography. What will be lost by waiting to see the film on DVD will be the subtle details of the actresses' fulfilling performances that should be seen on a big screen. (10/24/2005)
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio seems like the third in Julianna Moore's period Desperate Housewife trilogy, after Far From Heaven and The Hours. Like those, this film shows the dark side of 1950's pre-feminist suburbia, but with an oddly optimistic spin, as the film veers from satire to feminist expose to sentimental nostalgia.
Baby boomer writer/director Jane Anderson captures the look of the 1950's much more accurately than most period films, which tend to be more influenced by Grease and Happy Days than reality. It's a pleasure to see a realistically messy house, lawn and piles of laundry, and even a baby's dirty bottom. She lays on a bit thickly, but accurately, the pressures a pre-Feminine Mystique mother faced. First, there's the traps of those pre-pill ten kids and not having learned to drive a car. There's the pressure from the bank manager not to co-sign the mortgage to own her house with her husband, even though she had obtained the money for the down payment. There's the pressure from the cops and the family priest to put up with her alcoholic husband's rages, as they share drinks with him.
The opening production design promises more satire than it delivers, as Moore's Evelyn Ryan talks to the camera and enthusiastically chants jingles. The dark side of the endless consumerism pushed by the TV commercials is only hinted at with a brief excerpt or recreation of several shows or ads (the credits didn't seem to include acknowledgments for the various TV programs and commercials so the authenticity wasn't clear as some morph into real time seeming announcers and singers). Notably included is that font of maudlin macabre Queen for A Day, that I used to run home from elementary school to catch, which saluted the most pathetic housewives by having them compete with tales of misery via the Applause Meter for a washing machine, or as shown here a wheel chair as it was a bathetic predecessor to today's "reality" helping shows. This sets the ironic stage for how Ryan as a determined cock-eyed optimist turned these relentlessly upbeat symbols on their ear to support her family through volumes of prize-winning doggerel.
Every now and then the film breaks through the difficulty of being based on a memoir by her daughter Terry who can only look back as a child and try to reveal what the adult was feeling. At one point the mother protests that she's "not a saint" as a few tart comments finally come out of her mouth and Moore powerfully shows us her emotions, such as her silent frustration as she's continually thwarted in her efforts to find time to even join with other women contesters, in a sort of pre-consciousness-raising women's group solidarity, though the touch of the endlessly cheerful contestant in the iron lung again veers towards satire. (As someone who was obsessed with couponing and successfully qualifying for freebies when I quit work to be home with babies, I absolutely sympathize with the pre-internet thrill of finding like-minded mothers.)
As a modern day female Pangloss, Moore only gets to show moments of doubt and pain and I actually sympathized with her husband for his criticism that she was "too happy." Woody Harrelson, as something of the villain of the piece, has to veer wildly from frustration to drunk to pitiful supplicant for forgiveness to emasculated breadloser, and he manages to stay amiable throughout to show why his wife and kids would keep forgiving him.
While her winning percentage symbolizes just how incredibly lucky the mother was, the ending loses any sense of social commentary and just gives way to unvarnished bio pic sentimentality, as Schindler's List style we see the successful adults and parents the kids became and what happened to each. Perhaps the point is to show the variety of options open to her daughters that weren't open to the mother.
The child actors are wonderfully natural and their rapport with Moore is lovely.
The film is accurate in showing that what is thought of as "the Fifties' continued through 1963, with the costumes (especially the glasses and ladies' gloves, though I was a bit surprised that Moore never seemed to wear the same dress twice) and production design. But the John Frizzell score and meager non-jingle music selections weren't very evocative and seemed mired in the earlier years of the story.
Just Like Heaven is a sweet and amusing update on a genre that goes back at least to Topper and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, until it takes a jarring plot twist that leaves more of an after taste than Ghost or Truly, Madly, Deeply.
Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo are two of the most appealing and likable actors today and they deliver here as needed. Witherspoon has proven that she's able to play non-strident so therefore non-stereotyped workaholic professional women who keep their feminism intact even as they learn to balance work and life, as in Sweet Home Alabama and the Legally Blonde set. Mark Ruffalo is a sympathetically ruffled, guy's guy who has manfully shown he's already up for the suspend-rationality magic realism chick flick genre in 13 Going On 30 (and he doesn't even have a credited assistant while she has two - plus her separate hairdresser deserves the credit as her hair does look great throughout).
Jon Heder, of Napoleon Dynamite fame, is a marvelous medium, adding delightful humor, and he should have been given more screen time.
But about three-quarters through the film the charm comes to a screeching halt with a plot twist that could have been handled without the distasteful reference to recent politicized headline news (or could have been handled funny as in a classic Seinfeld episode) and is surprising as one of the co-writers is Peter Tolan of the scabrous scripts of TV's Rescue Me. Let alone that the finale doesn't quite pack Here Comes Mr. Jordan's magic conviction, not helped by some inconsistencies. At least it doesn't go for Sweet November mawkishness in handling the guy's emotional changes.
The soundtrack is unimaginative, featuring covers of relevantly lyriced classic songs, such as "Just My Imagination" done by Pete Yorn, as well as other Sony artists. At least the original The Cure track came through over the credits. The Ghostbusters inclusion is a funny reference.
Director Mark Waters can't resist the traditional shot-in-San-Francisco fast car ride on the hilly streets scene.
I think it could have been rated PG. The product placements were a bit obvious.
I appreciate that this light entertaining froth supports Reese's husband Ryan Philippe and Ruffalo to do serious indie films, like the more realistic dead chick flick My Life Without Me. (9/28/2005)
In reading the novel it was based on, If Only It Were True by Marc Levy, I was impressed that the screenwriters were able to get as much charm out of the story as they did, making it more romantic than the original leaden writing. The movie cleverly focuses more on the woman character's self-realization, while the book on the man's (while it was a useful insight to have him be a landscape architect instead of the restoration house architect in the book, some of his self-revelations could have been expanded on in the film that felt too rushed at the end). But the distasteful plot point in the movie is in fact the major and even more bizarre element of the book, so it was actually toned down. However, the book has a more sweetly expanded romantic epilog that could have been in the film. The funny medium is invented for the movie and thankfully an investigative cop is eliminated.(11/3/2005)
Campfire (Medurat Hashevet) will probably draw the most attention for its insights into West Bank settlers of the 1980's, but I found it more intriguing as a moving and humor-filled portrait of a family caught at the conflict between feelings and society, particularly in a boys will be boys culture.
Like Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot), this is an Israeli family with teenagers struggling with apolitical grief, but that was a secular family. Like Upside of Anger, there's a grieving mom struggling with teenage daughters as all are dealing with their loneliness and sexuality. Like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Smooth Talk, it deals with teen girls susceptibility to guys. Saved! showed teens dealing with some these issues in a comparable conservative community, but satirically unsympathetic.
Here instead we have a mother in a situation that would be difficult in any time, any place. The mother has just finished her year of mourning for her husband and is at loose ends, financially, emotionally and as a now single parent of daughters anxious to get on with their lives. All three are vulnerable to persuasion. But they happen to be a modern Orthodox family in Israel so their normal developmental stages are buffeted by religious and social strictures on their behavior.
The mother is attracted to the possibility of joining her husband's friends in a group to found a West Bank settlement, more for the companionship and structure it would give to her and her family's life than for zealotry. I'm sure American audiences miss a lot of the political references during scenes of organizing committee meetings, applicant interviews and singing, sloganeering and film viewing (let alone subtleties involved with types and angles of head coverings and length of skirts worn, eating habits and the summer fast day of Tisha b'Av), but the diversity of motivations and social hypocrisy of many of those involved does come through. Going through the process of dealing with these friends and their expectations makes her stronger as an individual, particularly as she reflects on her marriage and what she wants from future relationships.
The triangle of the younger and older women's relationships is among the most emotionally frank I've seen on film in its honesty about insecurities, confusions and peer pressure in male-female relationships, symbolized throughout by the father's car and how they and the guys around them deal with it. While the mother is pushed to re-enter the dating pool and explores a relationship with some similarity to how Catherine Keener sweetly handles The 40 Year Old Virgin, the older daughter focuses on her one-track minded hunky soldier boyfriend, seems to be rebelliously secular and is opposed to moving.
The younger daughter absorbs all these contradictory signals. There's a marvelous scene of her exuberantly dancing to romantic pop music at home by herself that is straight out of My So-Called Life (or the totemic equivalent for guys Risky Business) to show that in the U.S. she'd be considered a typical teen ager. Her curiosity about boys is therefore not surprising, so that the adults around her seem rigidly clueless in not expecting that restlessness from her when the appeal of the bad boy is clearly universal. There are occasional references to the complexities of a diversifying Israel that Americans can understand, as when the mother comments the B'nei Akiva youth group isn't the same as when she was young.
The actresses are refreshingly not Hollywood beautiful, though it is clearly a running visual joke when the safe guy choices are not just nerdy but are bursting their untucked shirt buttons, even as it is sympathetic to their pressures as well, making the alternatives that much more attractive.
While this is no Norma Rae or My Brilliant Career as a feminist tract, nor is it the anti-Orthodox agit-prop of Kadosh, the film has a strong, fair and balanced humanistic and sweetly forgiving point to make about women in a male-dominated society who are expected to act a certain way and the consequences they face when they step out of line -- and how the men who love them can be supportive as they learn to live together.
While Campfire is distributed unrated by the MPAA in the U.S., as a parent I would give it a PG-13. It deals with some of the issues as the PG-rated Hollywood The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants but in a more serious and mature way as applied to a younger teen. (9/20/2005)
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is, like, way above most teen girl movies in showing four strong-minded, heterosexual young women with divergent interests. While they are uniformly middle-class suburbanites, they are not in the usual high school bubble and have some life issues to face, like a somewhat more substantive version of the flashbacks in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The magic realism of the used jeans from a thrift shop (see, they aren't mall rats) that fit four girls with three different body types is a sweet way to link their "what I did on my summer vacation" as they are turning 17, as they can't IM or e-mail or text to Baja California and a Greek isle.
The film is only as strong as each girl's story, so it's almost three-quarters successful. As she was in Real Women Have Curves, America Ferrera, as the writer, is the stand out, physically (upfront in her voluptuousness), ethnically and linguistically (wielding her Spanish like a sword), and learning to channel her anger without compromising her spunk in dealing with her divorced dad.
Blake Lively, a new actress closest in actual age to the characters, plays a type of young woman we are only beginning to see in TV and movies, a Title IX baby who is very much not a tomboy as she combines her awesome athletic prowess with her sexuality like a cruise missile, jailbait or not. So I was disappointed that the lesson she learns is that her single-minded competitiveness, in either field of action, is criticized like a boy's would never be in a film and is negatively attributed to her mother's suicide, as both a grief tool and anti-inherited depression insurance, as if endorphin rushes are, like, a bad thing. But isn't her behavior the exact kind that the experts say women need to develop in order to succeed? I wonder if it's screenwriters Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler, regular chick flick writers, or original author Ann Brashares who so meanly would prevent this striking young woman from ever being a CEO? No wonder what she learns doesn't help her depressed dad at all.
The other two are more conventional. Amber Tamblyn, sadly no longer to be Joan of Arcadia, doesn't quite cut it as a goth but her determination to make a "suck-umentary" video while she works at a Wal-Mart clone (a more optimistic take on The Good Girl) at least feels very contemporary.
Not surprisingly the tale that fans say has been changed the most from the book, Gilmore Girl Alexis Bleidel's portrait of the young artist is the weakest, the most conventional, the least interesting or even believable. Though it is nice to see on screen another girl who is at least supposed to be a hyphenated ethnic American, the Big Fat Greek Wedding clichés about such relatives are not avoided.
The secondary characters are considerably weaker, except that it's nice to see Rachel Ticotin, even briefly as a down to earth mom. Bradley Whitford is just opaquely one-note as the neglectful dad, and poor Nancy Travis's stereotyped chirpy fiancée is just wince-able, even if her Southern accent weren't inconsistent. Another character has a groanable case of Movie Star Disease that is eye-rollingly melodramatic, contradicting her character's sprightly storytelling abilities before vanishing like the Cheshire cat. Evidently it's the magic of the jeans that redeems the characters with Y chromosomes as these guys are extraordinarily gentlemanly, especially the college students, above and beyond their call (and evidently somewhat more so than they are in the book which fans are attributing to the PG rating). Only one gets to be more than a cardboard hunk, an amusing Asian video gamer who is quite charming on his passion.
I did stay through enough of the credits to appreciate that three-quarters of the behind-the-camera workers were female, though Ken Kwapis was a surprising choice as director.
The production design was appropriately suffocatingly pink and red, but that didn't explain why the cinematography had to look quite so sun-bleached to the point of whiting out - to recall distressed jeans perhaps? The song selections on the soundtrack are not particularly illuminating.
I don't see why anyone who wasn't once or will be a 16 year old girl would go to see this movie, even with the usual end-of-date bribe. (6/3/2005)
Ann Brashares, the author of the book series, provided some interesting context in Under the Covers in The New York Times on July 31, 2005:
"The bad-for-you books, on the other hand, were published as paperback originals with brightly colored covers. Their stories were sanitized in a suburban, mass-market kind of way, lighthearted and lightweight. Sunny stories of friendship and romance, they were meant strictly to entertain. The characters were 17, but by their wholesomeness they seemed to acknowledge that their readers were really 10 and 11.
In this division lay a tacit acceptance by children's publishers that you don't publish books for youngsters about sex and drugs if you can't give full weight to the consequences. That was the bargain, and for publishers, it was both a moral and a practical stance. "Young adult" publishing is not a free market. Publishers aren't selling directly to their consumers - they depend on parents, teachers and librarians to buy these books."
A Lot Like Love is practically a movie version of Amanda Peet's early television series Jack and Jill, an affable WB dramedy. It feels like that kind of period piece, comparable to 2002's 40 Days and 40 Nights as the opening "7 years ago" should be more then ten years ago to make sense for the conclusion to be amidst the crash of the internet bubble.
It's nice to see Peet again act clothed with people in her own age group instead of her trend of being the half-naked trophy object of an older man. Peet and Ashton Kutcher are very personable on screen but there is not much motivation for their characters from scene to scene, especially no convincing explanations about why their characters are ever with other partners (let alone why these internet savvy folks can't figure out how to use it to look for each other over the years or to stay in contact).
The film incorporates a disabled character quite naturally and exemplarily, with Kutscher's character having a deaf brother and a family that has comfortably adapted to that with signing.
The NYC scenes are obviously not filmed in the city, though the association of Queens near the airports with cemeteries is accurate.
The music choices in the soundtrack don't make sense for the period scenes, much as it's nice to hear Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" and Anna Nalick's "Breathe." (5/29/2005)
Look At Me (Comme une image) is a sweetly wry cross between Lovely and Amazing and Woody Allen's Celebrity.
A two generational ensemble of obliviously self-absorbed Parisian intellectuals connected through a complicated roundelay of blended family, hangers-on, co-dependents and preening sycophants demonstrates that these types are not just found in Los Angeles and New York City. Co-writer/director Agnès Jaoui has already proven she can manage comically touching organized chaos in a script co-written and co-starring her ex, Jean-Pierre Bacri, with the marvelous The Taste of Others (Le Goût des autres) and she does it again here, while casting herself and he in the least flattering roles.
The senses are again emphasized; characters complain "Don't touch!", "Don't you like the taste?", "You don't see!", and one crucially leaves a room because he's impatient with the sound -- as each ignores the obvious that is right in front of them. This is reminiscent of those Shakespearean comedies where he is in love with she who is in love with another him who is love with the other her, etc. that get complicated by little white lies to protect each other's feelings until they become comically hypocritically committed.
Marilou Berry (in a role that would probably be played in an American re-make by Sara Rue if the heart-stealing is maintained or by Nia Vardalos if they go for broader comedy -- and I doubt she'd be singing a cappella madrigals) is utterly charming as a woebegone and ignored daughter of the first marriage of a famous writer with a new younger family, with Bacri as a modern version of Moliere's The Misanthrope.
I'm not sure I've seen quite the same "meet cute" before as the adorable Keine Bouhiza falls down drunk at her feet. What would also be different from an American version is that the ensemble is almost all character actors, such that it adds irony to the guys constant girl-watching and commentary on passing women's looks.
The one overly obvious dig is that the only model handsome guy is the host of a puerile television talk show, while the beautiful trophy wife is insecure through constantly being picked on by the surrounding intellectual snobs. (5/28/2005)
Fever Pitch is a sweet and charming addition to the small genre of sports romances as date movies or movies a son could be willing to go to with his mother (though the guys in the audience got noticeably restless during the romantic scenes).
have lived through a milder version of such a story, as my first exposure to baseball was dating my husband the spring after the Mets first World Series win and then I watched the Mets clinch their next one because I was the one still up in the wee hours with our two little sons, who have grown up to teach me more about baseball through our local neighborhood National League team's other heartbreaking failures to win it again (and it was me who took our older son to his only Fenway Park game as I caught a bit of Red Sox fever as a graduate student in Boston).
So compared to reality, the script believably creates two people with actual jobs. It is particularly impressive that Drew Barrymore's character is a substantive workaholic who has anti-Barbie skills, though she pretty much only visits with her three bland girlfriends during gym workouts that allow for much jiggling and the minor side stories with her parents don't completely work. It is even set up credibly how she meets Jimmy Fallon's math teacher and how she falls for his "winter guy" -- though it's surprising that his Red Sox paraphernalia filled apartment didn't tip her off to his Jekyll-and-Hyde "summer guy." Their relationship crisis during the baseball season is also played out in a refreshingly grown-up way, from efforts at compromise to her frank challenges to him, centered around that they are both facing thirty and single.
Fallon surprisingly rises to his character's gradual emotional maturity. While the ending borrows heavily from O. Henry, the script writers did a yeoman job of quickly incorporating the Sox's incredible 2004 season into a revised story line (with lots of cooperation from the Red Sox organization for filming at the stadium). The script goes out of its way to explain why Fallon doesn't have a Boston accent, as an immigrant from New Jersey, but that doesn't explain why his motley friends don't. The most authentic sounding Boston sounds come from most of his "summer family" of other season ticket holders, who kindly kibbitz the basics of Sox lore to neophyte Barrymore (and any such audience members).
The song selection includes many Red Sox fans' favorites, from the opening notes of the classic "Dirty Water," though most are held to be heard over the closing credits as if you are listening to local radio and are worth sitting through to hear. (4/15/2005)
Nina's Tragedies (Ha-Asonot Shel Nina) is a charming mix of genres. It's a coming of age story of a young teen boy (played very age appropriately with wide-eyed naiveté by Aviv Elkabeth) who acutely observes his dysfunctional family and their friends without really comprehending their adult emotions.
It's also a sophisticated urban comedy about artists and intellectuals that we are more used to seeing in movies set in Paris or New York, including a fashion designer, a book editor, photographer, sculptor and nudist performance artist. The casual fillips that make us know they live in Tel Aviv add unique ramifications, as one character is killed while serving in the Army reserves (which for non-Israelis gives the film a post-9/11 overlay) and another gets caught up in ecstatic Orthodox Judaism.
It also capitalizes on unusual twist of fate relationships, as portrayed in such movies as Next Stop Wonderland where we think we are watching magic realism but it turns out to be grounded in coincidence. The boy's desperate crush on his beautiful aunt is the mechanism to link the stories, as his voyeurism becomes a metaphor for the viewer and for artists in general, almost a bit too preciously as the boy is, as in most every such film, a budding writer.
The film combines cheerfully earthy and frank sexuality with intense romantic longing, so it is a much more ironic view of grief than the Israeli film Broken Wings (Knafayim Shvurot) that was released in the U.S. last year. There's a long kiss that matches TV's most sensual kiss of the season in Lost with beautiful cinematography of temporary fulfillment.
The primarily night-time cinematography is lovely.
The acting is wonderful, particularly Ayelet Zurer as the strikingly lovely aunt who has intense chemistry in contrast with the solidity of craggy-faced Alon Abutbul. Anat Waxman makes the quirky mother a real person, not a silly joke.
The concluding coda seems too much wishful thinking, even if it is emotionally satisfying.
The credits are not translated into English and many of the subtitles are white on white. (4/14/2005)
Don't Move (Non ti muovere) is a European intellectual take on Unfaithful with issues of abuse, class, religion and regionalism replacing the Hollywood thriller aspect of the results of infidelity within an upper middle class marriage.
The characters start out from the get go freighted with way too much symbolism before they finally just become moving and well-acted participants in a sad affair.
Penelope Cruz, as the ragtag object of the obsession of the character portrayed by magnetic star/co-writer and director Sergio Castellitto, is actually named "Italia," is an Albanian immigrant, and lives in a condemned house amidst the ruins of a thwarted and overly ambitious luxury housing project, which somehow towards the end of the movie seems to be located in the same town as the successful surgeon who lives in a gorgeous seaside villa with his beautiful, loving, highly educated and not oblivious wife.
The two meet a la Catherine Breillat's sexually brutal films, but the trajectory of their lives becomes more conventional and tragic, as the power shifts between them. It is obvious from the beginning that Cruz (who doesn't sounds squeaky speaking in Italian as she does in English) is a poster child for low self-esteem due to childhood abuse, while the doctor, with his own father issues, clearly feels more at ease slumming with her than with his own wealthy doctor-as-god friends and their own failing marriages.
I suppose it's to the credit of the script that there isn't anything obviously annoying about the wife, except perhaps that she appears to be Northern Italian, particularly once she agrees to bear a child, whose fate will instigate the doctor's guilty flashbacks, even as a plot point recalls the silly Chris Columbus comedy Nine Months.
The parent/child relationship is well portrayed, from the warmth and sympathy to the realistic tension.
The pop music songs are lovely, though without subtitles the significance of all but the Leonard Cohen track remains mysterious. (3/27/2005)
Upside of Anger is not just a vehicle for an astounding and unpredictable performance by Joan Allen.
Unlike most dominating mothers in movies, from Stella Dallas to Terms of Endearment, which this film starts to imitate then transcends with more multidimensionality, and since, her "Terry Wolfmeyer" is a real woman with ups and downs and contradictory waves of emotion and control. A scene where she is trying to be nice to a daughter's surprise fiancé was priceless, as she is as vulnerable as she is judgmental, with men and with her daughters.
And unlike Annette Bening's bravura diva in Being Julia, Allen gets to interact with a wonderful cast. It is the best evocation of a household of sisters since Virgin Suicides in a much more positive estrogen-fest, even if having four of them is a bit much and a bit confusing (Were they all in diapers at the same time? That would be enough to permanently drive the mom over the edge and certainly justify that she's never considered working outside the home which isn't even considered).
So it's that much more surprising that it is written and directed by Mike Binder, whose previous macho oeuvre includes the most boring and pretentious buddy movie with a young hunk cast in Crossing the Bridge and the unfunny and obnoxious sitcom Mind of A Married Man. So it is appropriate that he takes on for himself the role of the jejune schmuck of the piece, a guy who represents just about all that is wrong with men.
His character and Allen's are crucially triangulated by an absolutely wonderful Kevin Costner, literally portraying a retired version of his baseball pro in For Love of the Game, as he autographs stills from that film. Key is that his character, and the film, actually like women, while the women learn not to give up on men. His choice to be a grown-up with women, whether as a lover or father figure, is the keystone of the film, allowing the mom to finally admit that needing someone isn't a capitulation.
In addition to the marvelous dialog, the production design of their living environments dovetails with the emotional differences between the men and the women, such that we really understand Costner's character's stammered explanation of why he prefers being at her house, slamming doors and all.
I'm not sure the flashback structure completely works, except to tease as we tensely wonder which action will lead to the opening denouement.
The only false notes are the youngest daughter's voice-over from a pretentious school project video she is producing with unnecessary and stereotyped images of gender and family relations and some confusing factual and chronological points, such as why another daughter's physical problems aren't identified as anorexia and how is the mom paying her bills in that amply luxurious suburb. I think the lovely Mark Cohn track over the closing credits is a new song. (3/27/2005) (It's very odd that the marketing department is bending over backwards not to label this a chick flick -- bringing out Kevin Costner and not Joan Allen.)
This film is virtually an illustration of an Op-Ed column by Maureen Dowd from The New York Times of March 20, 2005
X-celling Over Men
Off the Map is like a 1970's take on Little House on the Prairie with a dose of the realism of Wisconsin Death Trip.
We see these New Age pioneers in the beautiful high desert of New Mexico through the eyes of a precocious early teen girl, much like Anna Paquin's character in The Piano in another primitive, isolated environment. (The voice over of her as a grown-up tries to compensate for this limitation but is more annoying than additionally insightful.) So we don't get much factual information on her family's lives, back story or explanations of their behavior deeper than what she sees and overhears, let alone how they came to live mostly off the grid.
We get only hints of how Joan Allen became the supremely confident and capable Earth Mother that she is, something about her grandmother being a Native American healer, to dominate the screen as well as her daughter's life and everyone else's she touches.
As effectively though still talkily adapted by screenwriter Joan Ackermann from her play, the story hones in on one summer when the father, as played by Sam Elliott, is so depressed as to be literally catatonic-- we only get a glimmer near the end in one long, silent, resonant exchange of how the strength of the husband-wife bond got them through this emotional crisis.
It is unusual to see the impact of a family member's depression on the rest of the family, as well as friends, though it's not clear if his buddy J. K. Simmons is still Korean War shell-shocked or just plain brain damaged.
The story, however, is not about the usual romantic triangles as it careens in an unexpected direction when Jim True-Frost (of The Wire where he also plays an unhappy naif who discovers his calling) wanders in and is even more blindsided by the scenery than we are.
Until I saw the Sundance Channel's explanatory "Anatomy of a Scene" documentary, however, I was just confused by the selection of the pop song "Me and Mrs. Jones" as the ironic background to his epiphany, even while I was admiring the song selections throughout the movie.
Usually the point of bringing characters together in such an isolated, let alone Western, setting, a la Sam Shephard plays, is to force them to bounce off each other for uncovering secrets and making brutal realizations. Here, it seems the gentle theme is more how people can help give nature a little nudge to save our souls. Not a big revelation, and while it a bit mysteriously trails off at the end due to unnecessary foreshadowing and some of the plot incidentals just don't make a lot of sense, is still satisfying. The make-up is unusually realistic and believable looking, from sun-burnt bodies to un-wigged-looking long hair. (3/25/2005)
Dear Frankie is a heart-tugging family romance with decidedly non-Hollywood touches that add to its charm and poignancy.
We are swept into both sides of an unusual epistolary relationship -- one between a mother and son, as each takes on alternative identities to communicate, and we get to hear their adopted voices as well.
The son is an isolated deaf kid who won't talk but pours out his heart in letters, while his fiercely protective mother pretends to be his fictional seagoing dad in response. We are drawn into their parallel stories from each perspective, as their defensively claustrophobic relationship has an outlet in this fictional geography and they gradually start dealing with the real world.
Emily Mortimer combines strength and naked vulnerability (though she gets to keep her clothes on this time), as she did in About Adam and Lovely and Amazing, while the son is captivating in an almost mimed role without being as treacly as the kid playing "Peter" in Finding Neverland.
Debut director Shona Auerbach keeps the movie centered to reality with evocative use of Glasgow and its active port. We are anchored in a working class bloke territory that becomes a rocky shore for an untethered single mom living with her mother and her kid. This is tellingly symbolized when Mortimer braves a rough waterfront bar. And then re-emphasized in a hotel tea parlor whose atmosphere electrically changes the minute rugged Gerard Butler pops up on screen.
Epitomizing that cinematic manliness that is so talked about as lacking from most American actors these days, Butler's absolutely authentic masculinity instantly telescopes what this mother and child have been missing, and not just his sexual gravitas. Butler movingly demonstrates how a guy's guy plays paternal through such simple things as football, skipping stones, eating and of course dancing.
I don't know if I missed the clues to the concluding twists, but Hollywood would never let these lovely mysteries be, let alone as an achingly long look into each's eyes.
It's nice to see faces from Scottish TV shows in atypical roles, Sharon Small deservedly having a steady boyfriend on screen for a change, and Cal Macaninch, the nice guy from Rockface as the not nice guy here. The Scots accents are thick and I did miss some punch lines in the dialog here and there.
The song selections are lovely, including a Damien Rice track that hasn't been overused yet.(3/12/2005)
House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu) shows they can make movies like that anymore. This is a grand action love story that fully captures the eye and the heart, the pulse and ears. Yes, an action flick can be a date movie!
While building on the Wu-Xia tradition of literature and film that's as much historical fantasy as any rollicking Dumas adventure or the Lord of the Rings films, director Yimou Zhang incorporates elements we have seen elsewhere into a freshly thrilling experience.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long) had a more sophisticated plot, but this one's twisty enough in the ever more duplicitous spies/hunter and the hunted vein. It has a lot of plot similarities to another Ziyi Zhang-starrer, the drama of 1930's war intrigue Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie), minus the political lessons.
From Japanese films there's borrowing from the Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman legends as well as almost as much from Kurasawa's Hidden Fortress that Lucas did for the Star Wars saga, and then borrowing forest fighting imagery from Lucas to an open meadow as magical as in The Wizard of Oz.
The Matrix movies may have wowed us more with "bullet time" plus there is a lot of following arrow trajectories as in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, not coincidentally as the titular rebels are stealing from the rich to benefit the poor, but the contexts of the weapons for Siu-Tung Ching's martial arts choreography are more varied and emotional.
Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge is only a bit more over the top than the beautiful production design and elaborate costumes in this Peony Pavilion, but every inch of the screen and soundtrack is as operatically filled and should be experienced on a large screen.
The director's own Hero (Ying xiong) is more beautiful as this is missing cinematographer Christopher Doyle's aesthetics but Xiaoding Zhao's cinematographical debut captures a breathtaking variety of landscapes in straightforward storytelling.
The sound design is as important, with lots of heavy breathing from tension and exertion.
While it's a much smaller cast than sweeping epics like Dr. Zhivago, Titanic or Gone With the Wind it has that swept away feel of a love story amidst larger forces, even if for much of the movie it's the force of nature of the geography of Ukraine and a bamboo forest national park, which forcefully reminded me of an elementary school unit The Scion's class did on how bamboo is stronger than steel.
Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tian di ying xiong) showed that spectacular scenery can be a backdrop for a pedestrian movie. But like Hero, this enormous canvas is background for zooming in on three enormously charismatic actors in a passionate and unexpectedly tricky love triangle.
Ziyi Zhang needs to watch someone other than Mary Pickford, especially some Susan Sarandon or Jeanne Moreau, to learn that there's more levels in projecting romance than smoldering ratcheting right up to jump his bones, but one has to make some allowances as this is the first as sexy as this Chinese movie and the romance does recall pre-Code Hollywood. Her beautiful shoulders are used quite provocatively.
Takeshi Kaneshiro is ravishingly captivating but Andy Lau gives him a run for your heart in surprises that revolve around the unusual plot point of a woman's willingness being paramount, which is refreshing and adds suspense and emotion to the story.
The closing Kathleen Battle song is a bit over the top, as the music throughout verges on schmaltzy as it shamelessly reinforces what you see and hear, but you are left gasping if not weeping at the end anyway. (12/11/2004)
Noel is a lovely holiday fable that has been unfairly savaged by critics.
I found it a charming matching of everyday hard knocks (though only shot partly in New York City) and magic realism. Key to its attraction are two of the central characters amidst the ensemble Christmas Eve stories.
Susan Sarandon is marvelous as a 40-something woman dragged down by her Alzheimer's mother who undergoes in effect a walkabout through the city to reexamine her life.
Paul Walker is wonderful as a very macho, very New York cop whose explosive jealousy around his fiancée pushes her away. As she is Penelope Cruz in the only English-language role I've ever liked her in, his reaction to how guys look at her is grounded in some reality. His own reaction to her sexy private dancing for him ratchets up the seasonal temperature in terrific chemistry of his blue-eyed blond and her sultry darkness, though I don't know if the televised version on TNT cut anything from the theatrical version.
The central characters are touched by oddballs, played by Robin Williams and Alan Arkin, who are as unlikely as Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life or the old man in Prelude to a Kiss, and similarly help them reach important epiphanies at dawn.
The pay-off also finally comes in a side story about a man with nostalgia for Christmas in the E.R., but is more heavy-handed.
The repeated jokes about straight guys misidentified as gay are of the heavy handed Will and Grace mode but are useful to specific plot points. (12/3/2004)
Bridget Jones's Diary 2: The Edge of Reason is a tired movie that feels very dated.
While Colin Firth and Hugh Grant pretty much sleep walk through it (even when they have an embarrassing fist fight), Renée Zellweger's sprightliness amidst slapstick is the only reason to bother to see it.
The music and plot are surprisingly old-fashioned, with marriage a goal as much as it was for Doris Day. "Bridget" is basically enacting the Christine Lavin song "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind" ("Look at me I'm skiing/When I do not like skiing/But he loves skiing/And I love him"), though this movie isn't daring enough to use noncommercial music, instead recycling oldies and sounds-like oldies on the soundtrack, including very flat use of Madonna songs and video re-enactments.
Even the cinematography seems washed out. Some surprisingly coarse terms do come out of "Bridget's" mouth, but they seem designed to make the movie seem more like a contemporary of Sex and the City.
The Pride and Prejudice parallels, and the source of much of the original's cleverness, are gone. The incongruous scenes at the Thai beach just made me long for one of the best and most sophisticated movies of the year that takes place at the same locale, Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan).
The messages about body image acceptance are lost amidst the media attention on Zellweger's return to her usual waif-like appearance and smooth coiffure. (12/2/2004)
Being Julia is like a period version of All About Eve, such that it's a cross between Stage Beauty for gender and naturalism on and off the stage issues and Bright Young Things for time period.
One problem, though, is that it's unclear how much sub-text is intentional or accidental, particularly to an American audience. Though the cast is a mixed Commonwealth crew, as indicated by wavering accents, are the men intentionally effete (other than a charismatic Michael Gambon as a remembered mentor) such that we're more surprised that the British upper classes replicated at all rather than that some play for the other team. Or is there a message about masculinity vs. feminity on stage vs. off.
Is it to be intentionally satirical that Annette Bening's younger rival is frequently referred to as "the pretty one", but, well, Lucy Punch is certainly not conventionally pretty. Let alone that the young man they are competing over, Shaun Evans, is a bland Ken doll with zero sex appeal.
I also assume it was W. Somerset Maugham's intention that the plays Bening's diva is starring in are lightweight Noel Coward imitations (accented by the use of a witty Coward song on the soundtrack) and that there's a character named "Roger" for some double entendre tittering.
Which all leads up to my assumption that it's intentional that Bening looks so much more beautiful and lively when she's wearing hardly any noticeable make-up, especially in the transcendent closing shot, much as Juliette Binoche in Jet Lag (Décalage horaire) looked startlingly beautiful when she stopped trying to look younger.
But all these weaknesses are forgotten as Bening and the film climax to the denouement, such that you can't help cheering her victory while humming the lovely soundtrack.
The costumes are also wonderful. (11/17/2004)
Why turn Alfie into a chick flick?
Maybe for those who mis-remembered the bright, scabrous, creative original. I'm finding that most reviewers are remembering it incorrectly, whereas I saw it for the first time the weekend before I saw this too-pretty make-over. Most reviewers remember it as black-and-white, which it wasn't. Most remember it as reflective of the Swinging '60's of London, but the mise en scene was London at the cusp, as attitudes were just starting to change, so characters were flopping in moral confusion.
Most remember the women as pre-liberation, but their passivity was more complicated; Alfie had an unerring ability to hone in on women with horrifically low self-esteem, regardless of their marital or economic status. Michael Caine is such an established actor now, none remember that he was not a conventionally handsome lead to be conquering all these women, let alone that he was a cocky Cockney like the Angry Young Man of the period kitchen sink British dramas. Few remember just how heartless he was - calling all his conquests "it".
None seem to remember how vividly babies and abortion figure into the plot, a la Vera Drake. The new version is confused about all these elements.
The cinematography is beautiful, but has to cover up for the fact that while it supposedly takes place in New York City, it was actually filmed in Manchester, England so is missing atmosphere that's so critical to the same ground that's trod in Sex and the City (let alone by Neil LaBute); frequent background mattes of the Brooklyn Bridge are weak atmosphere-builders. And this is also some sort of retro NYC that allows smoking in bars and doesn't require helmets on mopeds, which is also a retro means of individual transport.
The film probably takes place in the '00's - but the flashy split screens and the women's make-up and styles are retro-'60's.
Keen Eddie's Sienna Miller is made up as a duplicate of the original's Jane Asher. Marisa Tomei even has her hair in a flip with a wide head band and Nia Long is made up like "Cleopatra Jones" from the early '70's. At least one time we do get a glimpse of a condom package, but that's only obvious now because films today show them, not that they weren't used in the '60's; it does take place in post Roe v. Wade NYC.
The women's personality upgrades are inconsistently effective and there's no drama to how the incredibly beautiful, posh-sounding Jude Law captures them. Susan Sarandon's self-assured, independent entrepreneur is a sexy, believable update of Shelley Winters' rich widow, making her closing dig at Alfie as a gigolo even more devastating. Miller's character is now trendily manic depressive, or some such chemically-dependent disorder, rather than just an insecure runaway, which weakens Alfie's hold on her; that character's passive aggressive manipulation of him and how she bypasses him to straighten out her life are missing completely, so we lose some insight into both his cruelty and comeuppance.
Long's character's crisis is weakened from the original's, as her pregnancy conflates two different affairs, with the emphasis instead put on male friendship betrayal, the friend that this Alfie claims in passing calls his women "it".
Alfie's health scare had to be updated from TB, and the cancer testing is done for laughs; the lack of mention of Viagra is odd if it is in fact taking place now. Here the older male confidante is stuck in deus ex machina, rather than in plot context.
While the original stands up 35 years later as a mordant and brilliant, matter of fact presentation of "moral lapses," the mild update is considerably weakened and Hollywoodized as respectable company, such that the finale doesn't even segue smoothly into the first musical line of "What's it all about?"
The soundtrack selections are otherwise excellent, but as confusingly retro as the rest of the atmosphere, with neo-soul teen Joss Stone singing and those golden oldies Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart collaborating on originals that sound old. (11/17/2004)
Wimbledon is a creditable addition to the sports romance genre. While not dethroning the all-time champ Bull Durham or even Tin Cup because it's not particularly sexy, it plays well with such films as Wind and Cutting Edge.
Paul Bettany is simply charming as an almost over-the-hill tennis player capable of getting through just one more tournament. But he has more chemistry with his German practice partner guy than with Kirsten Dunst as an up-and-coming American dynamo, though there is more tennis and droll tennis commentary about underdogs than romance. At least their age and cultural differences are dealt with as part of the plot and character motivations. (I got a kick out of her tending to get into the wrong side of the car.)
James McAvoy gets to once again enthusiastically represent the randy younger generation, with at least his third participation this year on film in tabloid journalism.
It was delightful to see Eleanor Bron as the amusing matriarch, for those of us who will always fondly recall her in the Beatles' Help!. Jon Favreau's agent is funny, but mild compared to Jeremy Piven's in Entourage.(9/29/2004)
Vanity Fair is an old-fashioned, huge costume drama that is delightfully more sympathetic to its social-climbing ("She's a mountaineer.") protagonist than such movies more faithful to their sources as House of Mirth or Age of Innocence and so feels more French, a la Balzac, than British, let alone American.
Thackeray (I surmise, not having read him), as well as those movies were disapproving, the latter of the doings a hundred years later and a continent away in our own Gilded Age. Here we have the British Empire as a global power, sucking in arriviste entrepreneurs and colonials -- and women who can only use their own resources to reinvent themselves -- providing much needed new genes to a fading aristocracy, that as it is bought its titles and corruptly obtained its fortunes in its own time.
Reese Witherspoon embodies plucky optimism that provides a lovely cover to her ambitious doings and shrewd survival in the face of constant odds. While her British accent is bland and wavering, "Becky Sharp" herself would probably have worked on her accent as much as "Eliza Doolittle." Her real-life pregnancy gives her a wonderful period earthiness that is contrasted nicely with the casting of pinched female opponents. I enjoyed her unusually for this kind of drama frank relationship with her husband (James Purefoy), though his suddenly being shocked, shocked to discover how she'd been covering his gambling debts seemed a naive betrayal of their understanding of each other's characters and I thought it was the norm for the upper classes to send their sons away to boarding school, not a sign of maternal disinterest.
Eileen Atkins firmly sets the satirical tone as she jabs at the reality behind society's veneer, until her character ironically protests that she prefers her societal tweaking to be through fiction only.
Gabriel Byrne was kind of too laid back as the cynically lecherous villain who finally checkmates "Becky" in comparison to the mostly milquetoasts otherwise around her.
Director Mira Nair fills every inch of the wide screen with activity in a grand variety of settings, from formal gardens and balls, to all manner of mirrored abodes and Indian outposts so it is worth seeing in a theater. Cinematographer Declan Quinn's use of richly saturated color is lovely ("Becky" does seem to wear dark red a lot.)
I hope the musical selections are period accurate because they weren't all that melodic, but the costumes and hair stylings are glorious.(9/8/2004)
I was surprised how many in the audience of Before Sunset had not seen the previous Before Sunrise as I didn't think it was possible to follow it, let alone appreciate the dialogue, stand-alone.
This "Part Deux," as it takes place in instantly recognizable Paris, contains less explanatory flashback material than the consequently essential trailer did, as the premise for the movie is a specific "what if?" portend of future potential regret that Ethan Hawke's Jesse used to seduce Julie Delpy's Celine for a night around Vienna almost ten years ago.
How can someone who hasn't seen the first film judge the tricks memory may be playing on each character if you don't know what you remember really happened? It is a wonderful premise and creative writing collaboration among director Richard Linklater and the stars to have the characters revisited in the real time of being older in a real time conversation that is filmed a la Eric Rohmer, like his Les Rendez-vous de Paris.
The movie carries an additional subtext that shadows the characters and adds to the complexity. Back in 1995, Hawke was at his most earnestly, shaggily adorable and Delpy was an up-and-coming starlet. But now we've seen Hawke rise to an Oscar nomination, as well as a novelist like "Jesse," while becoming tabloid fodder for the break-up of his family with Uma Thurman, and he bears a gaunt, haunted, shorn look. Delpy has during this time only surfaced occasionally to American audiences, so that her strong, luminous character here is particularly captivating and believable as a professional activist as well as a songwriter (quite sweet on the soundtrack and probably on her own CD, too) and you simply can't take your eyes off her. She nicely counters the image of her delicate beauty with frank exchanges and well-kicked profanity.
Elements of the premise have been done to exaggerated comic effect in the Western satire From Noon Till Three and Same Time Next Year and The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions barbares), but this feels natural. Where the earlier movie had the charm of a late night, dorm room bull session resonant of youth, this one is an amusing probing of protective defenses to honestly reveal thwarted, older and trying to be wiser expectations as they circle each other to consider once again grabbing what could be the brass ring amidst the complicated real lives they have built.
This ending is as deliciously open-ended as the first and I look forward to revisiting "Jesse" and "Celine" ten years hence. (7/22/2004)
Since Otar Left (Depuis qu'Otar est parti...) deals heartbreakingly humanistically with many of the same political and family issues that Goodbye, Lenin! treats for humor -- today's ironic adjustment to capitalism in former U.S.S.R. satellites, the cross-generational responsibilities of those who lived under the Big Lies, and filial love.
< >With dialogue in French, Georgian and Russian, debut writer/director Julie Bertucelli focuses on a Francophile household of earthy grandmother, mother and daughter in Georgia and their relationships to the dead, absent and present men who are satellites in their lives.
While there's reminders of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Last Leaf," not a single character is a cliché or dumb and none of their decisions is predictable. The audience literally holds its breath to see each woman's reactions as their emotional predicaments get more complicated in a weave of their own making.
The actresses, from 21 to 90 years old, brilliantly convey the complex emotional see saw.
A simply beautiful movie that's one of the best of the year.
Seeing Other People is very similar to the British original series Coupling so it's nice to know that American sit com writers can be guffawingly funny about sex and relationships when freed from the networks.
While it's male/female co-written, by partners Maya Forbes and director Wallace Wolodarsky, the premise feels like a male fantasy gender-switch of wanting both free love and the laundry done, though both guys and gals do end up getting their comeuppance.
Jay Mohr, as a mensch for a change, and Julianne Nicholson, who was captivating in the drama Tully, considerably humanize the coincidental goings on through their sincerity. Lauren Graham and Josh Charles enjoy being deliciously nastier sidekicks than their respective Gilmore Girls and Sports Night personas. Andy Richter does a surprisingly grown-up turn as the most grounded of the group on the sexual merry-go-round.
It may have been shot on video and blown up to 35 mm as the print was a bit fuzzy. The font on the credits was the largest I've ever seen in a film so I could read that the director and Liz Phair had a cameo, though I think we only saw her legs, and that several sit com directors and producers were thanked. The excellent songs and music were not identified, however. (5/11/2004)
Laws of Attraction is silly fluff with a couple of good lines and attractive sight-seeing of Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore.
The musical choices are particularly uninspired, not even spiked by the stereotypically retro rock 'n ' roll couple played by Parker Posey and Michael Sheen or the tax-credit induced plot twist of visits to Ireland, where, just like in A Walk in the Clouds and Under the Tuscan Sun, a colorful local festival just happens to take place.
The other locations in NYC also try for local color with no effort at any kind of reflection of real life.
There's absolutely no point seeing this in a theater, or on DVD, or even cable. It will be perfectly enjoyable cut up with commercials for its eventual showing on network television. As it is, this is the kind of movie I used to watch on Lifetime, before they switched to all-women-in-jeopardy-all-the time; now I usually watch this stuff on ABC Family's XYZ programming to get shameless romantic fluff, rather than in the movie theater. (5/3/2004)
Osama is not just an anthropological window into contemporary Afghanistan a la the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival but is a searing film.
While using some of the same sights and sounds of the Iranian-made Kandahar (Safar e Ghandehar), especially the rote yammering of the madrassa and the stifling prisons of the colorful burkhas, this manages to be less didactic than other rote screeds against fundamentalists' brutal persecution of women, as in the Iranian The Circle (Dayereh) and the Israeli Kadosh.
The difference is that true filmmaker Siddiq Barmak, as a visual artist and fluent storyteller, gives us individuated main and secondary characters, male and female, with full stories who we can really care about, to the point of physically felt heart break in watching them. We care about the mother practicing medicine against the odds at the practically destroyed hospital before she's fired as too Westernized, the grandmother finding comfort in her ancient folkloric culture, the merchant trying to eke out a living, the cocky street urchin playing the angles -- as all their cynicism turns to hope for the little girl who is forced to pretend to be a boy for survival. Osama takes the premise further than a similar idea in the Iranian Baran that took a male focus. Yentl never had it this bad - but she came from a tradition where the daughters of Zelophehad can speak up for their rights in Numbers 27 to Moses and God (even though the tribal elders whittle them down in Numbers 36:6) whereas this film opens with the Taliban attacking the women pleading for jobs like the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square or Selma, Alabama.
Even these documentary-like opening scenes are frighteningly integrated into the story line at the end. The horrifically bleak ending certainly has us crying out against fundamental Islamic law as carried out brutally against women. (2/21/2004) The Younger, however, took a different view: he felt the Taliban was now irrelevant as a story, were the most extreme of Islamists, and that they are shown as undifferentiated villains. (3/1/2004)
I went to see Les Triplettes de Belleville on the recommendation of The Younger, so was delighted to find that it is an exuberant, imaginative tribute to older women, not a group usually saluted in animation or comic book art, from which creator Sylvain Chomet, doing his first feature-length animation, hails, or in the early work of Ralph Bakshi, that this film otherwise reminds me of.
All the characters and landscapes are absurdly exaggerated caricatures that are also endearing, from French chanteuses eating frogs to urban development run amuck as commuter trains just miss old houses at full speed. Virtually dialogue-free, the film salutes Chomet's cinematic comic influences, such as Jacques Tati, with visual tributes.
The story, charming as it is of a grandmother's devotion to her grandson and determination to rescue him from kidnapping gangsters, is helped enormously by Benoît Charest's disjointedly jazzy score and especially by the eponymous singing group's signature song "Belleville Rendez-Vous" by Mathieu Chedid (available in both French and English on the soundtrack album). (1/11/2004)
More on the music: French Cartoon Looking for Oscar Gold
By Daisy Nguyen, Associated Press, Sun Feb 29, 8:30 AM
And then there's that catchy theme music nominated for the best original song. At the heart of it are sounds from a vacuum cleaner that composer Benoit Charest has named "mouf mouf." The song has kept many a moviegoer humming well after leaving the theater — despite the perplexing, nonsensical lyrics. Chomet said he created the song with his British wife, incorporating onomatopoeic sounds with words from both their native languages.
The refrain goes: "Singing Belleville rendezvous. Marathon dancing doop dee doo." "It's bizarre and it doesn't mean anything," Chomet says, "just like the triplets."
Helen Mirren considerably enlivens Calendar Girls, making it almost seem a cross between her proper British comedies like Greenfingers and her racy dares like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover.
The rapscallion Dame adds feistiness to an otherwise placidly charming story that's quite parallel to The Full Monty both in story line and in its ability to combine poignancy and humor. Though when she corrects the group's pronunciation of the name Jay Leno before their Tonight Show appearance it does seem like an added bit of satire -- how many times has she been a guest there?
The portrait of women's long-time friendship is stellar.
What a surprise that the closing song is not a cover of Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl"!
The chatty ladies in back of me had trouble with the Yorkshire accents, and frequently misinterpreted the witty repartee.(1/5/2004)
I haven't yet read the novel that Girl With Pearl Earring adapts, so I don't know if it's as much a Jane Austen tribute as the movie is or if it's debut big-screen director Peter Webber's attempt at cinematic interpretation by having virtually all the characters exchange extended longing or quizzical looks at each other in lieu of cross-class conversation.
Though an historical etiquette consultant is listed in the credits, I also have no idea of the accuracy of the production design, but the wigs were frequently distracting and the actors not exactly at home in their layered outfits, except for the marvelously imperious Judy Parfitt who has a long experience in costume dramas. This is an issue because the entire tension in the plot is built around what is and is not proper in Vermeer's sensual and fertile Delfft household in the mid-1600's.
We also are given only hints of context for how his techniques or subject matter differed from his peers. Eduardo Serra's cinematography appropriately uses Vermeer's palette.
I've been a fan of Scarlett Johansson since her childhood role in Manny and Lo and she's grown up to have the kind of luminosity that the camera loves, like it did Greta Garbo, which is lovely for passing the time as the movie mostly focuses on her face to interpret the titular girl's expression.
I think it's about the timeless temptation of a forthrightly longing ripe virgin, but I got confused by the indirect leering commentary during its painting and her pro-active challenges to trump a lecherous situation on her own terms.
It was a pleasure to see those almost Japanese-anime blue-platter eyes of Cillian Murphy of 28 Days Later. . . again, and there was lots of dissatisfied rumblings in the audience as it wasn't clear if his marriage proposal is accepted. Yeah, yeah, the whole point is that a maid has the best aesthetic sense of them all and working at a butcher's stall wouldn't exactly allow her an artistic outlet.
But with the long closing close-up of the actual painting, I couldn't tell if this movie also wanted to conclude with An Unmarried Woman-type feminist statement, or just, like the painting, to capture an unresolved moment on the cusp. (1/3/2004)
Beyond Borders tested what I thought was my unlimited tolerance for romantic nonsense.
Despite the magnetic presence of Clive Owens, one of my favorite actors ever since his Brit TV days of Chancer, even I was horrified by a film that uses starving children as a backdrop for a silly love story. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out if even old Susan Hayward or other Hollywood movies of the past had stooped this low in cultural imperialism. African Queen and the movie where Bogey pretended to be a missionary in China had some period racism, but were still good movies. Maybe Naked Jungle or other African jungle flicks would now be as un-PC?
Worse, this film damages the image of hard-working non-governmental organizations overseas. Angelina Jolie plays this as a pre-quel to her Lara Croft movies.
Bad enough that medical work has become the sexy imprimatur du jour for doctors in TV shows rather than working for the non-insured in the U.S., but Clive's loose gun doctor here is a lone wolf whose work is supported by a trust fund kid administrator and he accepts the aid of the CIA.
I can't resist saying this: Beyond Borders is Beyond Awful! I came home and re-watched The Outsider to restore my faith in chick flicks with hunks.(10/31/2003)
My Life Without Me shows off Sarah Polley's beauty and acting that has been clear to her fans since her Avonlea days.
In writer/director Isabel Coixet's first English language feature, Polley takes what could have been a drippy, maudlin story of a dying young mother and turns it into a clear-eyed path to accepting early death and taking charge of the hand that's dealt you. This delicate view is in sharp contrast to Hollywood tripe like Sweet November where beautiful healthy women in denial die of Movie Star Disease.
When Polley's "Ann" gets her death sentence from a doctor who can't even look her in the eyes, she resolves, among other items on her "To Do Before I Die" list, to tell it like it is -- but finds that instead everyone around her spills out their inner-most problems and she doesn't get to, including an amusing effort to get a Milli Vanilli-loving hairdresser to cut her hair like she wants it. Perhaps it's because she chooses to lie to them about her imminent demise.
Not only does Polley get to use her full-fledged Canadian accent complete with "Eh"s, but until I read it on her IMDb bio I didn't know that when she was 11 Polley lost her mother to cancer, so she must have had personal experience to draw on.
The symbolism of "Ann" having met her husband at the last Nirvana concert is also played upon several times. The music selections are lovely, both the romantic-sounding European ballads from one character's sister's DJ mix tape and the original music by Alfonso Vilallonga, that are poignant and keep out the schmaltz.
Polley's supporting actors are wonderful, from the lively children to Amanda Plummer, who has been MIA from films for a while, and Debbie Harry as the depressed mother. There's a couple of resonances of the TV show Felicity as not only does "Ann" leave voiced-over audio tapes to her loved ones, but, yikes, even dying, "Ann" gets both gorgeous sensitive hunks Scott Speedman and Mark Ruffalo to love her. It's effectively shown, though, that one was the love of an adolescence that ended too soon with parental responsibilities and the other of her too-short adulthood.
Inspired partly by a poem about a young women's death by John Berger, who is thanked prominently in the credits, Coixet and the cast considerably add colorful character and place individuality onto the basic outline of the short story "Pretending the Bed Is A Raft" by Nanci Kincaid, the title story of a marvelous collection of Southern-women-centered fiction where men are a befuddled other species that women learn to good-humoredly manipulate to save their souls. (10/18/2003. Added to 12/6/2003)
I have had no contact with the previous incarnations of Freaky Friday, whether book, TV, or movie. I was also leery of it from a promotional interview with Jamie Lee Curtis on The Tonight Show when she enthused about bonding with her co-star by listening to Justin Timberlake.
But the good reviews and the curiosity factor of seeing a woman near my age get to bond with WB Boy Chad Michael Murray (though even I have had trouble sitting through the plot-challenged One Tree Hill) got me in. Musically, I was relieved that the daughter's band was like The Donnas rather than Britney, and the soundtrack in general was lots of fun.
Curtis's and Lohan's responsibility switch was amusingly well-done, complete with apt treatment of the kid brother and Jamie getting to discuss Vines and Hives with Chad. Though couldn't the mom, even without a Banger Sisters-like past, have had more rock 'n' roll in her memory bank to draw on than a sole Rolling Stones concert?
And I guess the reason the teenager did not find Mark Harmon attractive was because she was having dead daddy issues?
One glaring weak note was turning Rosalind Chao, who for years on Star Treks played a sophisticated botanist, into a pidgin-English spouting immigrant. (revised 10/23/2003)
Under the Tuscan Sun is a glossy chick flick with a radiant star and beautiful scenery, but that was just not enough for me to get beyond wincible dialogue and cornball situations.
Beautiful, talented Diane Lane is certainly deserving of a star vehicle and I plunked down my full fare to be sure she gets credit for putting this fanny in a seat. I do note that screenplay co-writer/director Audrey Wells (who played on chick flick stereotype turnabouts much more creatively in her script for The Truth About Cats and Dogs) womanfully put some creative tweaks on creaky conventions of the genre -- the caustic best friend is a pregnant lesbian Asian-American (one of my favorite actresses, Sandra Oh, who has been so good in little Canadian dramas and as a comedienne in Arli$$), we don't have to meet the one-dimensional two-timing husband, the secondary stories have some different ethnic gloss, and there's a little twist in the concluding romantic expectations.
We get only a hint of real Italian men's machismo as yet again in movies a fantasy Mediterranean clime is used to loosen up an Anglo's sensuality (as Lane gloriously exults in a funny salute to herself: "I've still got it!")-- is this now a tourist marketing ploy? Even a festival is thrown in for literal local color for no other particular reason.
Poor Lindsay Duncan being the usual eccentric Brit, stuck in Fellini fantasies, complete with a ridiculous Anita Ekberg-in-the-fountain imitation. With the male eye candy here not even given any interesting characterization,