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January 12, 2017

Reserved Seating at the Movies Gets Thumbs Down!

© By John Arkelian

There’s an old adage:  “If it’s not broken, don’t ‘fix’ it.”  But it seems that cinema chains are so intent on coming up with ‘the next big thing’ to justify ever-escalating admission prices, they’ve thrown meaningful customer service to the four winds, along with common sense.

For as long as movies have been shown, filmgoers line-up, buy their tickets, and decide where to sit when they get into the theater.  The new, purportedly “improved” way of doing things is to select your seat in advance, as though you are attending the ballet, opera, or a live theater production.  Will equivalent pricing soon follow?   The arrival of all-reserved seating at cinemas is a terrible idea.  It turns movie-going into an unpleasant, over-regimented experience – robbing filmgoers of the freedom to choose where to sit when they get into the auditorium.

And there are plenty of reasons why one might want to change seats before or during the movie:  It is common now, alas, for a great many people to use their so-called “smart-phones” during the movie, blithely shining a blindingly bright light into the eyes of everyone behind them.  That behavior has become ubiquitous at movie theaters – and cinema staffers make no effort to stop it.  (Ushers patrolling the aisles disappeared long ago.)  Other people are fond of talking, rustling candy wrappers, loudly shaking popcorn containers (as though rehearsing for the percussion section in a brass band), coughing, bringing infants (who are as apt to cry as to coo in the alien environs of a movie theater) where they ought not to be, and kicking the chair in front of them (while practicing their Morse code skills on the unsuspecting back of the person in front of them).  By contrast, such uncouth behaviors are wholly absent from live theater venues and concert halls, where reserved seating, accordingly, makes more sense.  In short, too many people are devoid of good manners and common courtesy in movie theaters.  It never occurs to them that their antics are disturbing other patrons:  Filmgoers therefore need to be free to change seats at will to put some distance between themselves and the source of the disruption.  It is pointless to assert that we can go fetch staff to deal with such issues.  Doing so would mean spending more time in the lobby than in the theater, which rather defeats the purpose.  (Indeed, if we had to find a staff person every time somebody had a brightly-lit smart-phone on, we would rarely be in the theater.)

Furthermore, some of us are fussy about where we sit:  We consequently go early to get the seat of our choice.  That won’t necessarily work with reserved seating.  In the first place, some of us will never be reserving our seat online:  It’s not at all convenient for those (few) of us who are not attached at the hip to a telecom-gadget.  That leaves us with the alternative of choosing our seat at the theater.  But, the imposition of all-reserved seating means that no matter how early we get there, someone might have beaten us to the punch, and scooped up our preferred seat from afar – by reserving it online from offsite, perhaps days before we ever arrive at the theater.  Reserved seating penalizes those without smart-phones or the wherewithal to reserve seats online – turning us into second class customers.  The previous system – of general admission seating, with seat choices made in the theater itself on a first-arrived, first-served basis – is the only sensible and fair one.

The theater chains assert that filmgoers “love” this new “service,” but they are dead-wrong – judging by the irate reactions we have witnessed at the check-in desk over and over again.   The verdict has been far, very far, from approving:  Rather, when confronted with the unwelcome new fait accompli, a great many filmgoers have been moved to loudly vocalize their resolute view that reserved seating at the movies is an awful idea!  “This is ridiculous!” are words we have heard repeatedly at theaters in the wake of the change.  Bring back general admission seating – or, at the least, do what airlines do, and restrict advance offsite seat selection to a finite period (of, say, 45 minutes) prior to show-time.  Reserved seats are assigned seats:  Give us back our freedom instead.

And, please, while you’re at it, get rid of the commercials which currently assail your audience.  Paying customers should not be subjected to an advertising blitz before the show they’ve paid a lot of money to see.

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist, author, and film critic for Artsforum Magazine.

Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.

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Face-to-Face with the Triune God

© By John Arkelian

“The Shack” (USA, 2017) (B-) is the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by William Paul Young about a man who is stricken with grievous pain over the sudden loss of his child.  He descends into what he calls “The Great Sadness,” and its dark pall threatens to unravel his family and his faith.  How can we reconcile the worst things in life with our faith in a loving God?  Life inevitably brings with it a litany of bitter losses:  They cause us pain, and sometimes it feels unbearable.  It’s bad enough if illness or accident steals a loved one from us; but what if human evil does so?  It’s a question as old as man’s inhumanity to man, a question which was doubtless murmured in the death camps of the Holocaust, in the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and in the misery of today’s Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and South Sudan.  And, not just in far-away lands:  Violence, abuse, and neglect are as close as our own communities.  Wherever man’s wickedness causes torment, enslavement, injury, or death to another, we cry out:  How can God allow this?  Why does He not intervene on behalf of the oppressed and victimized?

In “The Shack,” a family is robbed of their youngest daughter when she is taken from a campground.  (The victim of a serial killer, her remains are never found.)  The pain that causes her family closes them off from love and hope.  As the child’s father, Mackenzie (Sam Worthington) blames himself for failing to protect her.  A cryptic note draws him back to the mountain shack where the crime occurred.  The note is signed ‘Papa,’ the affectionate term Mackenzie’s wife Nan (Australia’s always watchable Radha Mitchell) uses to refer to God.  Something – is it a glimmer of hope, or the last gasp of despair – takes Mackenzie back to the mountain.  Winter suddenly turns to summer, a dilapidated ruin becomes a spacious home made of hewn logs, and nature is in full bloom.  There he meets ‘Papa,’ in the form of a jolly black woman (Octavia Spencer); her son (Avraham Aviv Alush), a Jewish carpenter who greets the newcomer as a long-lost friend; and an ethereal young woman (Sumire Matsubara).  They are, in fact, the film’s depiction of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And their purpose is help Mackenzie free himself from the sadness, anger, guilt, and grief that threaten to drown him.

Their revelations are as gentle as their welcome is warm.  How refreshing to see God presented as our loving parent (and, through Jesus Christ, also as our sibling) – a parent who loves each and every one of us unconditionally, respecting our free will while seeking only to share His love.  The film asks why bad things happen to good people.  Its answers to that mystery may not be complete, or completely satisfying.  Neither may its homey portrayal of God be all there is about God:  Majesty, awe, and reverence are put aside in favor of companionship and the ultimate familial bond.  But there is food for thought here, and considerable comfort – in bringing God down to earth in a way that makes Him accessible and familiar.  Shot in Canada, the film has a solid cast, with Graham Greene and Alice Braga in supporting roles.  Sometimes the didacticism gets too overt; and neither the narrator nor the flashback structure is needed.  But the film’s occasional awkward moments pale in comparison to its touching ones – and in its warm depiction of the God of love.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist

Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.

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When Bad Things Happen to Good Puritans:
Superstition as the Dark Side of Dogmatic Religiosity in “The Witch”

© By John Arkelian

“The Witch” (USA/U.K./Canada/Brazil, 2016) (A):  Here is one of the best movies of 2016.  But be warned, it may not be for all tastes.  It’s the grim story of a family of Puritan settlers expelled from their 17th century New England colony for failing to conform.   A man, his wife, and their four children set out to create a new home for themselves in the wilderness.  Then, bad things, seemingly inexplicable things, start to happen to them.  Is some malevolent supernatural force preying upon them?  That’s what their rigid and dogmatic religious views cause them to wonder.  The story focuses on the eldest daughter, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as she contends with fear, suspicion, and mounting dread.  The result is a foreboding but utterly engrossing fable – smart, beautifully acted, relentlessly dark in tone, and highly original.   The cast is first-rate, with Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, Harvey Scrimshaw as her brother Caleb, Ralph Ineson as the father (William), Kate Dickey as the mother (Katherine), and Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson as the twins, boisterous children who have the ever more abrasive habit of reciting unpleasant rhymes about the family’s black goat and its supposed whisperings.

The film, from writer/director Robert Eggers, has northern Ontario filling-in for New England.  “The Witch” is a truly creepy film and a memorable one, despite a significant misstep:  It shows (or seems to show) us, but not its hapless family under siege, a physical cause for their troubles – a cause that cannot logically be there.  Or, do our eyes deceive us?  Is what we seemingly see just an externalization of their fears, a manifestation of what these characters imagine must be there, a representation of superstition as the dark side of dogmatic religiosity?  Better to have left the actual agent of their misfortune to our imagination:  Is it mass hysteria?  Is it superstition born of extreme misfortune and unbearable tragedy?  Or is it something supernaturally wicked that this way comes?

Subtitled “A New England Folktale,” “The Witch” is a journey into the unconscious, a story of determination and faith colliding headlong with grievous misfortune and loss.  It touches on the power of suggestion, the very human tendency to look for scapegoats, and the blurring of the line between reality and fairy tale in the minds of these 1630 Calvinist Puritans.  A word of warning:  Some of the film’s content is disturbing; but, this film is mesmerizing, if you can brave the darkness.  “The Witch” won Best Director at Sundance, where it was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  It was nominated for Production Design by the Directors Guild of Canada.   It has one of the most effective trailers we’ve seen in years (winning in its category at the Golden Trailer Awards), which has inexplicably been omitted from the DVD’s too skimpy extras.  For ages 18+ only:  Disturbing content and violence.

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Down in the Bayou:
Coming Face to Face with Society’s Other

© By John Arkelian

“The Other Side(France/Italy, 2015) (B):  Here we are in the summer of 2016, in the midst of a US presidential election which pits a bloviating boor and bully, who is manifestly unfit to even be considered for the highest office in the land, against an opponent who is widely mistrusted and disliked, however ‘entitled’ she seems to think she is to the top job.  It makes us wonder, “What has the country come to that we are reduced to these unsatisfactory choices for chief executive?”  Candidates (in America and just about everywhere else) with integrity, humility, real decency, and the wisdom, instincts, and grace of a statesman are in alarmingly short supply.  Why is that?  There’s clearly a longing for someone who’s not part of the status quo establishment; but the leading contender is the Establishment Woman writ large.  Are these two candidates (one of them underwhelming, the other positively distasteful) the best the big parties can offer?   With such questions in mind, it is useful to reflect on the presence of other attitudes within our own society.

Here’s an up-close-and-personal look at one corner of the underclass in our midst.  Italian documentary filmmaker Roberto Minervini takes us to the bayous of rural Louisiana.  The people we meet are poor, but they aren’t just poor.  They are also coarse, given to harsh talk, ignorant (or, at best, unsophisticated) attitudes, and an undue fondness for either drugs or guns.  This is a sector of the marginalized we’re mostly unaware of.  And, don’t get smug about it:  America has no monopoly on this sort of underclass.  For about two-thirds of this film, we spend time with a rough down-and-outer.  He’s a convicted felon (presumably for drug-related offenses), who describes himself as ‘a pimp and a drug-seller.’  The first of those self-bestowed titles seems to be empty braggadocio, but he certainly uses drugs – snorting cocaine, ‘cooking’ other narcotics, and even injecting a pregnant stripper with heroin.  His crude language and cruder views of the powers that be leave us very little with which to identify.  He and his circle seem tailor-made for the disapproving moniker of ‘white trash.’  How the filmmaker gained such intimate access to his daily life – nudity and sex are open and shameless, severe cussing and drug use are wanton – is a mystery.  Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to believe that this is a documentary film.  There is no narration, no editorial comment, no intercession between us and these rather unpleasant characters.

Vices are on open display here, but we get the sense that they are the product of deprivation and consequent desperation.  It doesn’t make the vices, the coarseness, the vulgarity and crudeness, or the retrograde attitudes any the more palatable to the ‘civilized’ middle class viewer, but it helps us perceive these coarse folks as much as victims as undesirables in polite society.  And, however, distasteful their behaviors and attitudes, we surely can find commonality with the humanity that peeks though.  Playing himself, Mark Kelley, is tender, loyal, and kind with his ailing mother, aged grandmother, and siblings.  There’s love between him and his girlfriend (Lisa Allen), however debased their lifestyles and talk may be.  There are moments of poignancy:  Mark says, “Every day’s a good day,” as if to persuade himself that that were so; a minor (perhaps Mark’s nephew) stands quietly at an armed services memorial for fallen soldiers; and a girl at a Christmas picnic sings an a cappella hymn.  There’s also irony here:  Mark wants to sober-up and concludes that only a few months of incarceration will make that possible.  Meanwhile, an old man, with whom Mark does blue collar piece-work, rambles on about the importance of freedom, though he seems to use his only to remain in a state of permanent drunkenness.  Still, even there, a touching moment peeks through, when the old man points to an inspirational message from some well-wisher posted on his refrigerator.  It says:  “To all those who feel worthless, you’re worth the world to me.”  And there are puzzles here:  When we first see Mark, he’s walking along some deserted back-road stark naked.  When it comes time to part company with him, we see him put on a suit jacket, only to strip to his privies in the forest.  Why, we are not told, though it seems a symptom of emotional dysfunction.  There’s ugliness amidst this underclass, but the film takes aesthetic pains with the lighting and camera angles to present pleasing pictures of Mark paddling through a swamp or standing in the sun-dappled woods.  Documentary realism mitigated by moments of staged aesthetic beauty?  Perhaps.

The last third of the film abruptly switches gears. We leave Mark alone in the woods and join in his stead a small group of men who are training themselves as a self-styled militia, arming against the feared imminent take-over – by Obama, the U.N., or just a rogue US government.  They shoot targets (including an effigy of Obama), practice stalking imagined foes in paramilitary formations, and unwind with a rowdy hootenanny (wet tee-shirt contest and an extremely crude sexual pantomime included).  Their leader is actually quite articulate, but, it is a tad unsettling to hear his distorted views of what he takes to be geopolitical realities.  As a DVD extra, we get an interesting four and a half minute deleted scene with a protest in Texas in favor of so-called “open-carry” laws.  For the urban middle class viewer, the scene speaks for itself:  Protesters include a woman with a babe in arms, as well as a father pushing a baby-stroller while he has a long gun slung over his shoulder.  Such tableaux seem alien, disconcerting, and retrograde to us.  But they seem as natural and benign as breathing to these folks – the same folks, alas, who persuade congressmen and courts to take Second Amendment rights (to ‘keep and bear arms’) to absurd extremes:  For this is ‘the other side,’ a lifestyle and mindset that seems unfathomable to us but which is enthusiastically embraced by others.  As appalled as we may be by some of the lifestyles and attitudes presented in this film, we also get to see these people as people:  Even the most degraded and/or deluded among us still have the same loves, worries, and frailties as the rest of us.

The Other Side” is a remarkably candid (not to mention utterly unvarnished) look at some specific corners of the underclass and the marginal.  It’s not pretty.  On the contrary, the lifestyles and outlooks depicted here are coarse, crude, and raw.  These bayou folk are far removed from polite middle class society, let alone a sophisticated intelligentsia.  The man and woman whom we follow for much of the film are far (very far) from paragons.  But they demonstrate the love, pain, loss, and endurance common to all of us – and that’s enough to create common ground and sympathy.  The DVD would have benefited from subtitles, as bits of the dialogue are occasionally hard to clearly make out due to accents.  “The Other Side” was nominated for two awards at Cannes, including Best Documentary.

Warning:  For ages 18+:  Very coarse language; graphic nudity; strong sexual content; graphic drug use; and brief disturbing content.

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Nothing New Under the Suns:
“Star Wars” Redux in “The Force Awakens”

© By John Arkelian

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (C+): The seventh film in the franchise launched in 1977 hearkens back to that first film in plot and style.  It has a couple of good moments, but mostly it just underwhelms, precisely like the overrated original film did.  It can’t live up to the tsunami of hype; and like all but one of its predecessors, it can’t even live up to its musical score (the good bits of which are all borrowed from previous outings).  The music is full of portent and rousing emotion; the movie, not so much.  This is the first outing without the involvement of franchise originator George Lucas (he sold the franchise, kit and caboodle, to Disney for billons).  But so-called wunderkind J.J. Abrams brings nothing memorable to the mix as this installment’s director.  (For us, rumors of Abrams’ movie-making magic have always been greatly exaggerated: Witness his heavy-handed ‘reboot’ of “Star Trek,” which, heavy on noise, action, and effects, and light on everything else, bears precious little resemblance to its illustrious forbears.)

The goal here, very clearly, is to recapture the supposed magic of the first film.  A young adult with untapped potential on a backwater planet gets drawn, as if by fate, into an adventure of galactic import.  Along the way, our protagonist learns of “the Force” and of powers (incipient telepathy, telekinesis, and a remarkably sudden aptitude for swordsmanship) she never suspected she possessed.  And, yes, this time out, the fresh new hero-in-the-making is a she – in the person of “Rey,” who ekes out a marginal solitary existence as a scavenger on a desert world.  We learn little about her (she was separated from her parents as a child and stubbornly awaits their return), except that she is strong-minded and resourceful.  She also has a sound moral compass, rescuing a droid in distress, an act which unites her with the film’s cute rolling sphere of a smart-bot, named BB-8, and, in the process, changes her life.  British actress Daisy Ridley invests the character with appeal, despite the script’s skimpy attention to characterization.  BB-8 had all the makings of a cloying or silly character, but it actually is one of the film’s strengths, along with Rey.

Indeed, some of the early scenes of Rey making her way through the immense dead hulks of fallen Imperial Star Destroyers have a haunting quality – the derelict man-made behemoths lay deserted and forgotten, along with the hubris and aggression they embodied, amidst the sand dunes.  Even a simple, quiet scene of Rey sliding down a towering dune on a make-shift sled, has a surprisingly poignant quality.  If only such moments would last.  Soon enough, they are displaced by new, improved war machines, aerial dogfights, shoot-outs on the ground, captures, escapes (more than one of each), and a series of crossed paths with allies and foes alike.  Rey is far and away the most interesting newcomer; though John Boyega’s Finn, a Stormtrooper with a conscience who switches sides, garners some of our sympathy as everyman out of his depth.  His fears and uncertainties are things the rest of us can relate to; just as we aspire to follow his example and step up to challenges he never imagined he’d be called upon to face.  On the other hand, the fact that both he and Rey are able to adroitly wield a light-saber (a weapon neither of them has ever seen before, let alone used) the instant they pick one up utterly beggars belief.

Elsewhere, Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, a diminutive stand-in for Yoda:  She’s not a Jedi master, but she’s small and computer-generated, as well as being old, eccentric, wise, and a bit funny-looking. S omething tells us we may be seeing more of her in later installments.  Oscar Isaac is okay as an ace fighter pilot Poe Dameron, a role that is more stock-type than fully realized person.  On the down (may we say dark) side, there’s Adam Driver, who is badly miscast as Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren.  He’s all dressed in black, with a seriously pointless mask, but he’s no Vader.  Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi were the truly memorable characters from the earlier films.  Vader was the epitome of the dark knight, bringing elegance, mystery, and sinister power to his role of uber-villain.  But the new pretender to that role has no gravitas whatsoever; he’s more of a whining poseur stuck in adolescence: ‘Alas poor Vader, I knew him not.’  His motivation?  He just wants to be evil to spite his parents.  Really?

Domhnall Gleeson, who (along with Oscar Isaac) was so good in this year’s “Ex Machina,” plays a one-dimensional, half-rabid general, practically foaming at the mouth as he delivers a gloating sentence of doom that will destroy millions.  Several cast members from the first three movies make an appearance here, though few play a significant role in the story.  The two who do – Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca – are as good here as ever they were in earlier installments.  The rest of the veteran cast have very little to do – though Carrie Fisher (as Princess Leia) and Anthony Daniels as the gold-plated mechanical comedian C3P0 fare better than R2D2 and especially Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker), the latter making only an absurdly brief appearance in a tiny cameo.  Newcomer Max von Sydow, an actor with real chops, is sadly underutilized.  For her part, Gwendoline Christie (“Game of Thrones’” noble warrior Brienne) is utterly wasted in a ridiculous role of a chrome-plated martinet.  Strutting around in her shiny silver plated helmet and cape (like a filmmaker’s clumsy hybrid of long-gone villain Boba Fett and a Stormtrooper), she’s as much a silly poseur as the supposed junior dark lord, Kylo Ren.  Even her character’s name, Captain Phasma, is too dumb for prime time.  But that’s nothing next to the nomenclature employed by the new evil emperor in waiting, the overblown, cartoonishly-named ‘Supreme Leader Snoke’ (voiced by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame).  Snoke?  Sounds like a card-shark or leader of a pack of (actual) rats.

If the characters are a mixed bag (some showing potential, others not so much), they are far better than the film’s half-baked, seriously underwhelming plot.  The whole things revolves (well, weakly limps) around a quest.  A quest for a map.  Will it show the way to treasure?  No.  To a weapon of unimaginable power?  No.  To the answers to questions that have haunted mankind for ages?  Nope.  Just the possible whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, who quit the scene years ago, in dismay at the parlous state of galactic affairs.  Why a man who wanted to disappear would leave a map showing precisely where he went is a mystery the script does not address.  And why everyone is so obsessed about finding him is never convincingly explained.  If the outcome of the grudge rematch between good and evil is so dependent upon him, why didn’t he make some real impact when he was still around?

Here we venture into the story’s heavy-handed disregard for internal logic.  Some 30-odd years ago, in the first group of films that culminated with “Return of the Jedi,” Luke and friends destroyed the evil Emperor, blew-up his second Death Star super-weapon, defeated the Imperial fleet, and redeemed the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, who before his seduction by the Dark Side had fathered Luke and Leia, unbeknownst to himself.  Cue the celebrations:  Ding, dong, the witch is dead.  The Empire, it seemed clear, was fallen, along with its wicked mastermind.  So why has the Rebellion of those days morphed into the Resistance of this film?  Who are they resisting exactly, and why?  They are allied to the New Republic, which is the restored democratic government that resumed operations after the tyranny was overthrown.  If the Republic has been restored, and it has, then why is a Resistance necessary?  The script skirts this awkward question by disposing of the Republic in one fell stroke.  And what about the new bad guys in town – the First Order.  Where did they get the Star Destroyers and the armies of Stormtroopers?  What’s their raison d’etre, other than the professed one of ‘finishing the work’ started by Vader & Company?  Is wrecking havoc, with wanton death and destruction, in the apparent absence of any governmental legitimacy or discernible ideology, sufficient motivation?  No, but then the film doesn’t care about reasons or explanations.  They exist (how or why doesn’t seem to matter).  They’re bad.  And they have to be fought.

The trouble is that besides being arbitrary and heavy-handed, this state of geo-political play is kind of depressing.  If a renamed Empire still exists, with massive resources behind it, the momentous victory of the earlier movies is reduced to meaninglessness.  Same bad guys with new names:  Nothing’s changed; nothing’s been accomplished by past heroics.  And we get only the most superficially unconvincing explanation for the absence of a new crop of Jedi knights.  On the plus side, though, light-saber duels never grow old.  The chief one here is even invested with some tangible emotion: It has some real power as a result.  Trouble is it is sorely diminished by its outcome.

The Millennium Falcon spaceship makes a welcome (and surprising) return.  But too much else smacks of the series’ trademark gratuitousness:  Gratuitously odd looking aliens, gratuitous shoot-outs (as between competing gangs aboard an old freighter), and the usual, been-there, done-that, whoops and hollers during dogfights.  Too much here is derivative of the earlier films, especially the first one, in its blatant attempt to recapture the energy and vicarious excitement of that first film.  (Truth be told, though, the second film in the series, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” far exceeded the original film in every way – including creativity, gravitas, and surprises – and it remains the only truly memorable film of the whole lot.  “The Force Awakens” has more of the series’ hidden familial bonds, followed by a shocking surprise of its own; but it’s an unwelcome one for viewers.  The result is a moderately entertaining film that hews closely to the unambitious movie serial formula loosely dressed in an amalgam of action/adventure, ‘low sci-fi,’ and comic book conventions.  It’s no more involving than its made-for-television animated cousins (like “Star Wars: Rebels”), superficially (and mildly) entertaining, yes, but rarely rising above mediocrity in terms of storytelling.  It’s not bad, but not memorable; it’s also not very ambitious and not worthy of all of boisterous, fawning hype.

Copyright © December 2015 by John Arkelian.

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“Phoenix”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

Phoenix” (A):  Post-WW II Berlin. Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration camp survivor, returns home after having suffered a gunshot wound to the face.  (No explanation is given as to how it happened.)  After reconstructive surgery that leaves her looking like her old self (but, y’know, different), she embarks upon a mission to locate the husband who may – or may not have; she’s not really certain – have denounced her to the Nazis.  Does she still carry a torch for him, or is revenge in the offing? Phoenix,” the latest triumph by critics’ darling Christian (“Barbara”) Petzold, keeps us guessing, and the suspense is both unnerving and delicious.

When Nelly and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld, fantastic) finally cross paths he doesn’t recognize her.  (Like I said, she kind of looks like her old self only different, and she’s now going by the name of Eva.)  Her passing resemblance to Nelly gives Johnny (“Call me Johannes”) an idea, though.  If Eva pretends to be Nelly, she’ll be able to claim the inheritance being held by occupying Allied forces.  They can split the money 50/50, then go their separate ways.  You don’t have to have seen a lot of 1940’s Hollywood film noirs to know how this is going to end.  Everything builds to a climactic scene so flat-out incredible, so fraught with conflicting, ricocheting, transcendent emotions that it ranks with the greatest moments in cinema this decade.

Some have criticized Phoenixfor trivializing the Holocaust by making it the back-story of a romantic thriller in the “Vertigo”  tradition.  But this very real historical setting only enhances, ennobles even, the dramatic ballast of the characters.  Of course, Phoenix is a movie that is haunted on multiple fronts. Besides the starkness of a (still) war-ravaged city and horrific memories of the camps that stalk Nina and fellow survivor Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, quietly touching) like malevolent ghosts, there’s the whole specter of the German New Wave to contend with.  Specifically, the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, that filmmaking movement’s brightest light.  The baroquely stylized Berlin recalls Fassbinder’s biggest hit, “The Marriage of Maria Braun.”  Plus, the nightclub (the titular Phoenix) where a good portion of the movie takes place (Nelly was a singer and husband Johnny accompanied her on piano) is richly evocative of the hothouse cabaret atmosphere of both “Lola” and “Lili Marleen.”

Petzold and his muse/preferred leading lady Hoss (one of the finest screen actresses working today) have always had a kind of Fassbinder/Hanna Schygulla sort of vibe going for them anyway, which makes the comparison both inevitable and irresistible. (Hoss also starred–brilliantly–in Petzold’s “Barbara,” “Jerichow” and “Yella.”  If you haven’t seen them, what are you waiting for?)

The key artistic difference between Petzold and Fassbinder isn’t simply a matter of heterosexual versus homosexual sensibility. It cuts much deeper than that.  For Fassbinder, genre (especially domestic melodramas like the ones his cine-god Douglas Sirk used to make) was a prop, a tool, a way to explore his pet theme of emotional fascism and how it poisons virtually every relationship: men/women, men/men, women/women, parent/child.  Because Petzold is a film nerd who digs rummaging in the past (think of him as the Coen Brothers’ long-lost Teutonic sibling), genre is akin to a toy box.  And with the Hitchockian trappings of Phoenix,” he’s found a really cool playground to roam around in.  One thing’s for certain. Petzold is the best thing to happen to German cinema since the halcyon days of Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders.

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“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (A):  “We want to help people have fun.”  That line is repeated at various times throughout Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence” by an itinerant novelty salesman.  While the old crone never quite makes good on that claim – for starters, he and his equally morose partner are probably the worst salesmen who ever lived – Andersson does, and then some.  Of course, your idea of fun might not be the same as mine, or Anderrson’s for that matter, so caveat emptor and all that.

Even after two viewings, I still can’t decide whether “A Pigeon…” is the funniest sad movie I’ve ever seen, or the saddest funny movie.  Either way, this 2014 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner for Best Film is definitely some kind of masterpiece.  It’s also the sort of well-nigh uncategorizable work that could have only emanated from the uniquely deadpan sensibility of Sweden’s (tragically) best kept secret.  One critic has described Andersson as the “slapstick Ingmar Bergman,” and I can’t think of a better description of his admittedly rarefied, if completely irresistible oeuvre.  Andersson spends years laboring over – and endlessly tinkering with – each movie.  That’s probably why he’s developed a reputation as a Swedish equivalent to the late Stanley Kubrick.  It could also explain why Andersson has made just three films this century (“Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living,” both wonderful, are the others).  All the more reason to treasure the few pensees Anderson gifts us with.

Don’t go into an Andersson movie looking for classical narrative filmmaking.  That’s not his bag.  While determinedly non-narrative in form, his films are oddly cohesive just the same.  Andersson likes to hang dripping fragments of themes and ideas on his imaginary cinematic clothesline and watch as they dry-age to perfection.  Some characters – like the novelty salesmen and various members of an 18th century Swedish army brigade and their elfin king – recur throughout the film but it’s not like they’re part of any conventional plot structure.  (‘Plot’ is beside the point in Andersson movies anyway:  think of them instead as an extended series of blackout skits.)  It’s the very same fun-peddling salesman I quoted earlier who delivers a line that best sums up the film:  “It’s so beautiful but horribly sad, too.”  He’s referring to a lachrymose song that he can’t stop listening to, but it’s the perfect exegesis for Andersson’s art (dare I say “genius?”).

I can think of few living directors whose compositions are as rigorously layered with “stuff” as Anderrson.  One of the most remarkable shots – a tableau vivant really – comes early in the film.  We see a schlubby middle-aged man struggling to open a bottle of wine as snow falls silently outside a window.  At the same time, in the background of the frame we observe the man’s wife merrily chirping away in the kitchen as she prepares dinner.  No cutting is required: foreground and background interior, even exterior (courtesy of the falling snow) are all meticulously choreographed in the same pointillist image.

An existential/surrealist comedy of the bleakest despair, “A Pigeon…” is among several area premieres that inaugurated the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque’s new venue, the Peter B. Lewis Theater.  As such, it’s a perfect choice since Andersson’s film represents precisely what John Ewing’s venerable institution has always stood for:  a place to see the type of movies you can’t find anywhere else in the Cleveland area. Rejoice, Northeastern Ohio cineastes.

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“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” (B):  The first thing you notice in “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is the butt-ugly early-’70s coiffures and facial hair adorning nearly every cast member.  That and the incessant smoking, both of which are a lazy director’s shorthand for, “Psst: this is a period movie, folks.”  For awhile that’s pretty much all I noticed.  Oh, yeah:  And trying to identify the familiar faces underneath all of that mangy hair.  Truth be told, the film’s basic set-up – based on a controversial real-life 1971 study conducted by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo – did little to grab me.  Certainly not the ham-fisted way it was playing out courtesy of Tim Talbott’s glib, facile script (based on Zimbardo’s book, ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”) and Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s equally unsubtle direction.  To put it in academic terms, “Stanford Prison” was flunking out as both psychology and sociology.

But at the midpoint – I think it might have been when the titular experiment begins to disastrously disassemble and all hell breaks loose – the damnedest thing happened.  Seemingly against my will, and despite all of my previous misgivings, reservations, complaints, etc., the movie began to exert an irresistible sort of pull, even a palpable tension.  Maybe it was the performances, nearly all of which are impressive (Billy Crudup’s wan Zimbardo is the one glaring exception).  Or perhaps it was just the old-fashioned proscenium arch-style framing that brought back nostalgic memories of my college days spent watching ‘agit-prop’ theater in countless off-Broadway venues.  Despite Alvarez’s valiant attempts to make it breathe cinematically with widescreen cinematography, a propulsive score and remarkably effective sound design, the film would probably work just as well, maybe better, as a stage play.

Set almost entirely within the claustrophobic basement of Stanford University’s Jordan Hall where Zimbardo’s “observational study” took place in August 1971, “Stanford Prison” does nothing to help fill us in on the backgrounds of the 18 male participants who comprise the experiment.   All we really know is that: (a) they’re students, and (b) each is to receive $15 a day for their participation in what’s supposed to be a two-week simulation of prison life.  The fact that everyone is virtually a blank slate actually works since we have no preconceived notions about any of them, or how they might react in such a pressure cooker environment.   Zimbardo and his associates (one of whom is played, very nicely, by James Wolk, best known as the hapless Bob Benson on AMC’s late, great “Mad Men”) randomly select who will “play” guards or prisoners.  (During their screening interviews, nearly everyone chooses to be a prisoner when asked which role they’d prefer.)

Quite frankly, the first half of the movie is rather tedious.  The “prisoners” behave like docile sheep while the “guards,” all of whom are to be addressed as “Mr. Correctional Officer,” take an almost sadistic glee in their alpha status.  Watching everything on surveillance cameras is Zimbardo and staff who mostly cluck-cluck amongst themselves and take copious notes.  Even with all of the prodigious thespian talent on display it’s neither particularly compelling nor edifying.  Instead, the singular effect is that of watching gifted young performers work up a healthy sweat in an especially grueling actor’s workshop.

It’s only when the clinical study starts slipping irrevocably out of control that things get progressively interesting.  Alvarez turns the screws so expertly that “Stanford Prison Experiment” somehow morphs into a gripping, edge-of-your-seat yarn.  You might not learn anything new about peer pressure, abuses of power or the roots of fascism that you didn’t know going in (can you say Abu Ghraib?), but the performances are so electrifying and the action so kinetic at times that you aren’t likely to care.  As the most hung-ho (unhinged?) of the faux guards, live-wire Michael Angarano comes close to stealing the entire movie. (He certainly has the juiciest role.)  Equally impressive are Ezra Miller (the most rebellious inmate), Chris Sheffield (the most principled – and therefore the most victimized – inmate), Jesse Fletcher (a steely ex-con Zimbardo recruits to help “keep it real”), and Olivia Thirlby who brings a much needed dose of estrogen to the testosterone-crazed environs as Zimbardo’s fiancee.  Also very good are Tye Sheridan and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s” Thomas Mann as sundry prisoners.  On second thought, maybe the actor’s workshop vibe of the first hour was deliberate since, at its best, “Stanford Prison” serves as an attention-grabber of a calling card for Alvarez whose first two features (“C.O.G.” and “Easier With Practice”) were promising, yet failed to generate any significant traction.  Alvarez ultimately proves that he’s capable of crafting dynamic cinema even when working with material that, on paper, seems like the antithesis of what’s normally perceived as “cinema” (CGI overkill, ADD cutting, ad nauseam) by 21st century Hollywood standards. As if.

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“Gemma Bovery”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Gemma Bovery” (B):  Was Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary the original Desperate Housewife?  A bored trophy wife who turned to adultery as a way of escaping the tedium and dull conformity of middle-class life, Emma was clearly ahead of her 19th century time. Which probably explains why Flaubert’s masterpiece has been filmed so many times, and in so many different ways.  World-class auteurs as diverse as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli, and Claude Chabrol have all taken a crack at Emma.  Just last month the latest iteration (Sophie Barthes’ “Madame Bovary” starring Mia Wasikowska as the titular heroine) briefly played in a smattering of theaters.

While not a literal adaptation, Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovery” – like the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds its based on – takes Flaubert’s most enduring work as its principal source of inspiration.   A welcome return to form for Fontaine whose most recent films have been either disappointing (waxworks biopic “Coco Before Chanel”) or downright disastrous (Australian-made farrago “Adore” with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright).  With “Gemma,” Fontaine brings the same sly wit and voluminous sensuality that have always characterized her best work (including “Dry Cleaning” and “Nathalie”).  The splendid Gemma Arterton plays the title character, a blushing bride who has recently moved from England to a quaint Normandy village with her older husband (Jason Flemyng).  It’s never entirely clear why Charlie and Gemma Bovery (notice the difference in spelling) have moved to France in the first place.  (Possibly as a way of fleeing Charlie’s clinging ex wife?)  At first, the (relative) newlyweds’ lives appears to be nothing but bucolic bliss.  Charlie restores antiques, while Gemma does the occasional interior design job.  Plus, there’s an absolutely fabulous bakery nearby that makes the most scrumptious breads and pastries.

In fact, it’s the resident baker, cagily played by inveterate scene stealer Fabrice Luchini, who’s the real problem.  A closet literature buff (he reveres Flaubert and “Bovary”), Martin instantly makes the connection between Gemma and her (almost) namesake.  Throughout the course of the film, it’s as though he wills Gemma into following the same self-destructive path as poor Emma.  Her fling with a strapping boy-toy (Niels Schneider) is the first sign that not all is well in the Bovery household.  And when a dashing, newly divorced old flame (Mel Raido) appears, seemingly out of the blue (or maybe as a byproduct of Martin’s overactive imagination), it’s clear that Gemma is in way over her pretty little head.

Watching from the sidelines – sometimes lasciviously, sometimes in an almost paternal fashion – Martin is powerless to prevent the inevitable from happening.  When he finally confronts her, expressing concern that she’ll wind up committing suicide like Emma, she blithely responds, “I’m me; I’m free; I’m capable of being happy.”  Gemma’s seemingly pragmatic approach to adultery, stripped of adolescent romantic illusions, belies the tempest quietly brewing just beneath the placid, picture postcard surface.  Because so much of the movie plays out in such a light, summery, sensual note, Fontaine’s bittersweet ending has an unexpected and potent sting.  Beautifully lensed by Christophe Beaucarne who gets fantastic scenic mileage out of the overripe settings, “Gemma Bovery” could almost pass as a travel brochure for Air France.  Sexier and smarter than your average rom-com, Fontaine and her cast of gifted farceurs prove that the title of Preston Sturges’ 1955 film, “The French, They Are a Funny Race,” still holds true.  Even if some of them are transplanted Brits.

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“The Overnight”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“The Overnight” (B):  If Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer from “Rushmore” had grown up to become an internet fetish porn mogul and moved to Los Angeles with his (French!) wife and young son, he could be Kurt in Patrick Brice’s “The Overnight.”  That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it.  Of course, virtually every role Schwartzman has played since his breakthrough performance in Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece –many of them in other Anderson movies – has felt like an extension of uber-precocious nerd Max.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Certainly my abiding affection for Schwartzman-as-Max helped in navigating Kurt’s considerable “ick factor.”  When we first make his acquaintance, Kurt is charming the pants off recently transplanted Seattle married couple Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black”).  After an impromptu meeting in a Silver Lake park – their toddlers have just hit it off on the playground – Kurt impulsively invites mom, dad, and RJ (RJ Hermes) over to his house for a play-date, both for the kids and their parents.  Since Emily and Alex had been hoping to make some new friends, it’s an offer they simply can’t refuse.

The evening gets off to a pleasant enough start.  Kurt’s wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche) seems as smitten with her house-guests as hubby Kurt, and the grown-ups appear to be on the verge of becoming bosom pals. V ery quickly, however, things begin taking a weird turn.  When Kurt brags about Charlotte being a great actress, he proudly shows everyone a breast-pumping video in which his wife’s, uh, talents are the star attraction.  There’s also the matter of Kurt’s gallery of [bodily aperture] paintings that he’s affectionately dubbed “Portals.”  Then, after smoking pot and drinking way too much booze, Kurt and Charlotte propose that they all go skinny dipping in the backyard pool.  (Cue Schwartzman’s hilariously oversized prosthetic penis.)

Slyly satirical rather than laugh-out-loud funny, “The Overnight” is more a study of the unique stresses of contemporary married life than it is any grand statement about the social mores of hip, thirty-something Los Angelenos.  (Despite its surface similarities, Brice’s movie isn’t a wink-wink, nudge-nudge 21st century update of Paul Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”)  Both couples have seemingly reached a crisis point in their relationships.  Kurt and Charlotte have grown increasingly distant sexually, and Alex is still adapting to his new role as house husband.  (Emily’s executive level job is what brought them to L.A. in the first place, and she’s the one who, somewhat guiltily, brings home the bacon.)  All four of them are desperately in search of something (anything?).  For Kurt, it could be as simple as exploring his latent bisexuality.  (With Alex’s help maybe?)  In Charlotte’s case, it might be her side job at a Thai massage parlor.

Brice’s skill at making his film as viscerally discomfiting for the audience as the increasingly outré onscreen situations become for Alex and Emily is undeniable. Instead of becoming a turn-off, though, it’s actually quite impressive.  Not everyone will share my enthusiasm. S ome may feel a bit like RJ when, early in the movie, Alex asks whether he’s having fun at the park. “Not really,” the kid responds.  There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the film’s flat look – it shares the charming shapelessness of movies co-directed by the producers, Mark and Jay Duplass (“The Puffy Couch,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”).  But visual sheen has little to do with “The Overnight’s” considerable appeal.  Think of it instead as a short (barely 80 minutes including end credits), semi-sweet and wryly amusing palate cleanser in a particularly noisy summer of CGI bombast/overkill. (Don’t tell me you actually had fun at “Terminator Genisys” or “San Andreas.”) On those admittedly narrow, if not unwelcome terms, it’s something of a cockeyed triumph.

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“Results”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Results” (B+): Andrew Bujalski’s 2006 masterpiece “Mutual Appreciation” was sort of the mumblecore** answer to Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine Feminine.”  Both share the same chiaroscuro-style black and white cinematography, that whole “Generational Statement” thing, and a finely honed formal intelligence.  “Results,” Bujalski’s latest, is sort of a mumblecore equivalent to the 1967 Neil Simon chestnut “Barefoot in the Park” which starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda at their most puppy dog adorable.  Which is shorthand for saying that Bujalski has taken many of the conventions of Hollywood (and Broadway) rom-coms and put his uniquely idiosyncratic (catnip for some, maddening for others) spin on them.  Many, not all.  For example, there isn’t a race-to-the-airport-to-proclaim-undying-love scene.  And also a dearth of montages scored to Top 40 pop tunes.  But make no mistake:  “Results” is as glossy and slick as a Katherine Heigl vehicle (remember those?).  It just has a lot more on its mind than the average studio product.  Not that Hollywood makes a whole lot of romantic comedies these days anyway, probably because of their limited franchise potential.

Like Joe Swanberg’s glorious “Drinking Buddies” from two summers ago, “Results” finds the mumblecore dudes and dude-ettes in unexpectedly high spirits and with enough charm, humanity, and wit to put most Tinseltown rom-coms to shame.  If I ultimately prefer “Buddies” – it’s about as perfect as a contemporary American romantic comedy can get – that doesn’t mean Bujalski’s film isn’t almost indecently pleasurable for most of its fleet, funny 105 minutes.  Set like his two most recent movies (“Beeswax” and “Computer Chess”) in Austin, Texas, Bujalski uses the laid-back, post-slacker vibe of that hipper-than-thou metropolis as an impossibly sunny backdrop for the romantic permutations of a group of highly specific yet instantly recognizable characters.  There’s Trevor (Guy Pearce), the roguishly handsome, hard-bodied Aussie transplant (Aussie, Austin, get it?) who owns a trendy gym and fancies himself a fitness guru/visionary; Kat (the sensational Cobie Smulders), his equally hard-bodied #1 personal trainer and occasional bedmate; and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker Danny (character actor MVP Kevin Corrigan in one of the few leading roles in his two-decade-plus career) who has just moved to Texas after inheriting a shitload of money from the mother he hadn’t seen in years.

Watching these three fool around and fall in (and out) of love is a hoot and awkwardly touching.  ‘Awkward’ because mumblecore protagonists are invariability clumsy about expressing their true feelings, particularly around people they harbor romantic designs on.  Which doesn’t mean they don’t talk themselves, and each other, into circles with their dithering verbal gymnastics.  They’re just not as socially adept or smooth as they’d like to think they are.  Take Kat, who’s really just a bundle of anxieties and neuroses underneath her buff exterior.  Trevor, despite his outward confidence and entrepreneurial success, is kind of a big baby – or at least a tongue-tied little boy – when it comes to matters of the heart.  Danny is either the most maladjusted and emotionally constipated of the bunch, or eerily savant-like in his almost telepathic ability to deduce what everyone around him wants and needs.  Except when it comes to himself, that is.  He’s so in love with his ex-wife (Elizabeth Berridge of “Amadeus” fame, Corrigan’s real-life spouse) that he actually feels guilty for coming into his inheritance after their split.  Living alone in a rented McMansion, Danny mostly spends his days thinking of ways to spend his fortune.  That is when he isn’t getting high or attempting to get his doughboy physique into a semblance of shape.  That’s where Kat and Trevor fit it, and why things turn increasingly sticky for all concerned.

Like Cameron Crowe’s unjustly derided recent flop “Aloha,” “Results” moves to the quirky beats of its own particular rhythm section.  As rambling and discursive as it occasionally feels, the fact that it ultimately coalesces into a sui generis work of termite art only seems miraculous if you’ve never seen a Bujalski film.  Fans will recognize the same shaggy dog storytelling, artfully sculpted (yet seemingly on the fly) mise-en-scene and casually lived-in performances.   Another Bujalski specialty is scene-stealing supporting actors.  That particular quota is supplied here by former brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall (hilarious as a Russian-accented fitness mogul), and the dependably droll Giovanni Ribisi (a dissolute lawyer and Danny’s local pot connection).  Both are so engaging and entertaining I wouldn’t mind Bujalski spinning them off into their own stand-alone movies someday. On second thought, maybe there’s franchise potential here after all.

**Editor’s note: The descriptive term “mumblecore” refers to a subset of low-budget independent films that use an amateur cast and allegedly ‘naturalistic’ dialogue.

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Corruption Lurking Behind the Face of Innocence?  Jack Clayton’s Masterpiece:  “The Innocents”

© By John Arkelian

“The Innocents” (U.K., 1961) (A+):  The key players in Henry James’ brilliant novella “The Turn of the Screw” are a pair of unnaturally precocious children and their prim, proper, and repressed governess.  She comes to believe her charges to be in “dreadful peril [from something] secretive and whispery and indecent.”  Are these seeming innocents in the grip of ghostly possession, by spirits both pitiless and wanton?  Or, is the governess losing her mind? Jack Clayton’s film adaptation (penned by William Archibald & Truman Capote) matches the book’s brilliance, maintaining an exquisite tension between the opposing elements of psychological and supernatural horror.  The result is more than the sum of its parts.  It excels in each of its two constituent genres, while at the same time surpassing them to achieve the status of a masterwork.  It has that in common with 1963’s “The Haunting,” which similarly juxtaposed internal breakdown of the psyche with a malevolent external force.

Every element of the film – acting, screenwriting, music, cinematography, and direction – is a classy tour de force.  Deborah Kerr delivers a finely-honed study in barely suppressed hysteria:  “All I want to do is to save the children, not destroy them.”  Is her single-mindedness a necessary response to very real peril or a ruinous course of self-delusion – or, maybe, both at once?  The film relentlessly sets up opposites: imagination vs. reality, the subjective vs. the objective, light vs. shadow, the supernatural vs. the psychological.  It makes smart, subtle use of imagery:  One child admires a “lovely spider” eating a butterfly; elsewhere, an ugly insect emerges from the open mouth of a sculpture of a child, suggesting that ugliness and corruption lurk behind seeming innocence.  Imagery and artful ambiguity are the stuff of sheer brilliance here:  At a climactic moment, one of the children, forced to face his tormentor, frantically shouts, “Where, you devil?  Where?”  But who is the devil to whom he refers – a spectral figure intent on possessing him or an obsessed governess?  Every viewer will draw his own conclusions.

The film is a masterpiece – one of the best films ever made!  Why, then, has it been given a ‘no-frills’ DVD release?  Whole books have been written about James’ classic story. T he film likewise merits thorough, intelligent analysis; but, there’s nothing here.  It cries out for a two-disc release, with full-length commentaries, inter-disciplinary panel discussions (with film critics, literary critics, psychoanalysts, and those who study paranormal phenomena), a stills gallery (the film’s contrasting use of light and shadow is a marvel in itself), backgrounders on the sets, the music, and other film adaptations of the same source material, and so on.  It’s a great film – a prestige film – one that richly deserves the kind of features for which “The Criterion Collection” is known.  Instead, a casual observer looking at the packaging of this DVD would expect nothing more than a routine ghost story.  The only extra is a trailer.  Let’s hope that Fox will re-release the film in the manner it deserves.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

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Whatever Walks There, Walks Alone:  “The Haunting” – A 20th Century Cinematic Masterwork

© By John Arkelian

“The Haunting” (U.K./USA, 1963) (A+):  A masterpiece that exquisitely combines psychological and supernatural horror – the filmic equivalent of literature, as intelligent as it is scary.  A group of four strangers (perfectly played by Richard Johnson, Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Russ Tamblyn) assemble at a forbidding old mansion with an evil reputation.  It is “a deranged house… born bad,” and its watchful malevolence is chillingly evident:  “It’s staring at me… vile,” and, “I’m like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, and the monster feels my tiny movements inside.”  We experience this chilling environment through the eyes of Harris’ character – a desperately unhappy outsider, she’s a fragile, damaged psyche subjected to monstrously intense pressure.  And therein lies the brilliance both of Robert Wise’s 1963 cinematic tour de force and of the Shirley Jackson novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” on which it is faithfully based.  Neither settles for merely being a wonderful ‘ghost story;’ each is also a complex, subtle character study – the story of a personality breaking down under unbearable strain.

The film is ‘a model of restraint,’ as Richard Johnson says on the full-cast commentary.  One of the scariest movies ever made, it conjures up unrelenting suspense and terror without gore or computer-generated effects.  And why not? T he most frightening things are in our minds:  “Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”  Harris conveys a sense of barely suppressed hysteria – reminiscent of Deborah Kerr in 1961’s equally brilliant “The Innocents.”  Her desperate loneliness and aching need to belong make her character simultaneously pitiable and grating.  The story’s border between subjective and objective reality is deliciously ambiguous.  Through masterful use of voice-overs, we share Harris’ perceptions, but we are left to draw our own conclusions:  “Suppose the haunting is all in my mind?”  The evidence suggests that it is not all in her mind, but the deterioration of her psyche is so subtly interwoven with the apparently supernatural phenomena that other interpretations are possible.

The very model of perfection, the film is beautifully acted, written (by Nelson Gidding), scored (by Humphrey Searle), directed, and photographed.  Elegant, subtle, intelligent, and multi-layered, it transcends the supernatural genre to earn its place as one of the best films ever made.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

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“In the Name of My Daughter”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“In the Name of My Daughter” (B+):  Despite a ghastly title that makes it sound like an unwanted sequel to “Not Without My Daughter,” Sally Field’s 1991 Iranian button-pusher, “In the Name of My Daughter” is considerably classier than its Lifetime Movie monicker would suggest.  Of course, why shouldn’t it be?  “Daughter” was directed and co-written by André Téchiné, one of the brightest lights of the post-New Wave generation of French auteurs.  If Téchiné’s latest— which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—isn’t among his finest work, it’s still infinitely better than 99% of what passes for “entertainment” at Ye Olde Multiplex these days.  Re-teaming for the seventh time with screen legend Catherine Deneuve, Téchiné has taken a seamy true-life story (affectionately referred to as “Affaire Le Roux” in French tabloids) and given it a luxe, nearly (Douglas) Sirk-ian treatment.  It’s easy to imagine a 1950’s Hollywood version starring Lana Turner in Deneuve’s glamorous role as imperious casino magnate Renée Le Roux.  And just like numerous Sirk (or Joan Crawford) heroines of yore, Renée has major issues with a problem child.

Agnès (Adèle Haenel), Renée’s daughter, has just returned to the nest after a rocky five-year marriage ended in divorce.  At loose ends, the capricious Agnès decides to open a boutique bookstore (financed by Mommy Dearest’s dwindling fortune, natch) and, even more impulsively, embarks upon an affair with Renee’s womanizing, upwardly mobile lawyer, Maurice (Guillaume Canet, best known as director of the 2008 sleeper hit, “Tell No One”).  Agnes’ bookstore, after some rough early patches, is a qualified success.  Her affair on the other hand has disastrous consequences for all concerned.

Miffed that Renée has passed him over for a promotion, Maurice coerces Agnès into teaming up with him to snatch Renée’s ‘Palais de la Méditerranée’ away from her.  A key accomplice in their nefarious scheme is Fratoni, a Mob-connected businessman wonderfully (under) played by Jean Corso.  But when Agnès grows increasingly clingy, Maurice does everything within his power to, um, distance himself.  Whether or not that included murder—Agnes disappeared after a lover’s spat, yet her body was never found—is a mystery that has bedeviled French authorities and delighted scandal-mongers for more than thirty years (the movie opens in 1976 and concludes three decades hence).

The incomparable Deneueve remains an international cinema treasure.  She single-handedly makes a not especially likable character (the uber-pushy Renée can be a real handful at times) seem both noble and even sympathetic.  Renée’s dogged quest to get to the bottom of Agnès’ disappearance—and punish Maurice for his real, and merely perceived, criminal misdeeds—consumes the bulk of the film’s somewhat lumpy third act.  A busy postscript would seem to indicate that the film might have worked even better as a television miniseries.  There’s only so much juicy material Téchiné can cram into a two-hour movie after all.

Ostensibly more frivolous in its “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” concerns than such previous Téchiné/Deneueve pairings as “Ma Saison Préférée,” “Les Voleurs” and “Changing Times,” “In the Name of My Daughter” is still expertly, even sumptuously crafted (Julien Hirsch did the glistening cinematography), splendidly acted (Haenel is a major discovery) and utterly riveting throughout.  It’s also more enjoyable than “The Girl on the Train,” Téchiné and Deneuve’s last (and considerably more somber) collaboration which was also based on a true story about a mother and her troubled daughter.

Even though the pulpy melodrama and oversized characters seem better suited for a Harold Robbins potboiler (“Where Love Has Gone” anyone?) than French arthouse cinema, it’s remarkable how Téchiné is able to make the material his own.  Since nearly all of Téchiné’s films (some more obliquely than others) have considered l’amour fou as a central motif, the increasingly tortured push me/pull you power dynamics between Renée, Agnès and Maurice are ideally suited for his (frequently neurotic, ever fascinating) wheelhouse.  What’s the French word for “yummy?”

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“Good Kill”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Good Kill” (B):  “Good Kill” is a bit like an Oliver Stone movie on Quaaludes. Certainly the topical subject—drone warfare in the post-digital age—is uber-Stone-y, but the execution is dreamy and purposefully disorienting. It’s as though the “Doors”-era Stone had directed World Trade Center.”  Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s background in thinking man’s sci-fi (“Gattaca,” “Simone,” “In Time” and “The Truman Show” which he scripted for Peter Weir) informs his new film both stylistically and intellectually. Yet the Niccol work it most eloquently bookends—it almost serves as a companion piece—is his bonkers 2005 dark comedy “Lord of War” in which Nicolas Cage played an international arms dealer. “Kill” is a modern take on combat in which the very concept of “arms dealer” seems almost quaintly old-fashioned.  Why bother stockpiling military hardware (or WMDs for that matter) when a drone can do the job with no muss or fuss?  All you really need is a computer console and a moderately skilled gamer.

For Ethan Hawke’s Major Thomas Egan, who previously flew F-16s during six tours of duty in Iraq, manning a control panel inside his boxy cubicle at a military base outside Las Vegas feels almost punitive.  “I miss the fear,” he confesses.  “The most dangerous thing I do is drive home on the freeway.”  The adrenaline rush Tommy used to experience in a cockpit has been replaced with an almost narcotized sense of detachment.  That disorientation extends to his home life as well:  he’s essentially blocked out his wife (“Mad Men”’s January Jones, very strong in an underwritten role) and two young kids. Unwilling and unable to share what he does every day at “the office,” Tommy has become a closet booze-hound to help dull the (psychic) pain.  He’s also turning into a dime-store cynic.  When a friendly cop asks how “the war on terror” is going, Tommy snaps, “Kind of like your war on drugs.”

Things reach a breaking point when the C.I.A. (snarkily nicknamed “Christians in Action” by his workplace compatriots) becomes personally involved in the drone program.  The disembodied voice of a ruthless C.I.A. analyst in Langley, Virginia begins calling the shots, and collateral damage becomes an increasingly frequent, even desirable part of the job.  (Peter Coyote, who played a more humanistic sort of government op in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial,” provides the voice of the C.I.A.)

Hawke is dependably solid in what is essentially a recessive role.  There’s more heat generated by Bruce Greenwood as Tommy’s superior officer (of course, Greenwood’s Lt. Col. Johns gets Niccol’s best lines) and Zoe Kravitz (the daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet) as Suarez, an idealistic rookie officer who joins the team.

Suarez’s gradual disillusionment with her new line of work coincides with Tommy’s professional and personal meltdown.  She at least can ask for reassignment.  The only available options for Tommy are considerably more somber.  He’s either going to screw up on the job (which he does intentionally) or take a (self-inflicted) bullet.  After his wife moves out, taking the kids to live with her sister in Reno, Tommy is forced into (finally) taking some kind of decisive action.  The cautiously optimistic ending rings false, though, and feels like the one time Niccol’s otherwise bleak vision may have been muted.  “Good Kill” is marked with the same chilly intelligence, visual bravado and sly wit that’s distinguished every Niccol film to date.  But with chilliness comes emotional detachment, and the movie ultimately suffers from the same problem many military personnel have experienced in Tommy’s shoes.  The tone is curiously emphatic and muffled at the same time.  It all feels a tad remote, even surreal, and we never quite experience the sting of death inflicted by the drone operators.  First-person shooter video games offer more catharsis.

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“Clouds of Sils Maria”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Clouds of Sils Maria” (A) She’s like the wind.  Not to get all Patrick Swayze-ish or anything, but Kristen Stewart really does come across like a gale force twister in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.”  It’s nearly uncanny—and even a  little spooky—how you can’t take your eyes off Stewart no matter who she’s sharing a scene  with.  Even Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche is pretty much left in the dust by the former Bella Swan.  Stewart’s fierce intelligence practically burns a hole through the screen, and I was mesmerized by her single-minded intensity and astonishingly vivid, lived-in performance.  As an on again/off again Stewart fan, it’s with a tremendous sense of relief, pride and joy to report that she’s never been better, more self-possessed or quite frankly alive than she is in Assayas’ marvelous new movie.  From the opening scene aboard a commuter train where Stewart juggles two cell phones, a jostling caboose and her diva-licious film star boss (Binoche) without breaking a sweat, it’s pretty clear we’re seeing a supremely confident young actress at the top of her game.  You can sense just how liberating it must have been for Stewart to release herself from the shackles of tentpole/franchise-dom and cut loose with a world-class auteur like Assayas.  The fact that Stewart makes her palpable excitement contagious only makes the experience of watching her all the more exhilarating.

Assayas is telling a tale as old as time, or at least talking movies (“All About Eve,” “Persona” and Assayas’ own “Irma Vep” are just some of the films he pays homage to).  Accompanied by her uber-competent personal assistant Valentine (Stewart), celebrated film and theater actress Maria Enders is traveling to Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps to accept an award on behalf of former mentor, Wilhelm Melchior.  En route, Maria learns that Wilhelm has died.  Instead of attending a celebration in his honor, she’s now preparing a eulogy for Wilhelm’s memorial service.  Things become increasingly complicated when theater director wunderkind Klaus (Lars Eidinger) uses the occasion to ask Maria to star in his upcoming production of the same play Wilhelm directed her in decades earlier.  But instead of playing the ingenue, he wants Maria to essay the neurotic “older woman” instead.

Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), the young actress tagged for Maria’s former role, is a brash, Lohan-esque tabloid magnet with a tumultuous personal life (she’s currently dating a married novelist whose wife has recently attempted suicide).  Needless to say Maria has serious qualms about accepting the new gig.  Valentine, her trusted confidante, extols Klaus’ genius and assures her that Jo-Ann, despite a toxic public image, is really a serious artist.  When Maria and Valentine begin running lines in preparation for the start of rehearsals, it’s sometimes hard to know where the text ends and real life begins.  Which is Assayas’ entire point since the play is all about the sickly, co-dependent relationship between a conniving younger woman and her increasingly vulnerable (female) boss.  Not that Valentine is conniving or duplicitous in any way.  In fact, she seems to be the only thing that keeps prone-to-melodrama Maria both sane and grounded.  When Valentine abruptly exits her employ prior to Klaus’ London rehearsals, it’s potentially catastrophic.  What do you do when your bullshit detector stops working?  Particularly if your life is all about navigating bullshit.

Whether directing small-scaled, intimate dramas (“Summer Hours,” “Late August, Early September”) or propulsion-fueled genre riffs (“Carlos,” “Demonlover”), Assayas’ films always have a sinuous, supremely tactile quality.  They seem to float directly off the screen and into your subconscious.  “Clouds of Sils Maria” is no exception.  The heady world of celebrity and privilege navigated by Maria, Jo-Ann and, by osmosis, Valentine, is as seductive and alluring as it is fraught with danger, mostly of the psychological variety.  When your job is all about make-believe, it becomes increasingly difficult to parcel the quotidian stuff—i.e., everyday life.

Assayas craftily chooses to end the film with a backstage chat between a hotshot young film director (brilliantly played by Brady Corbet as a cross between the young Steven Spielberg and a post-“Memento” Chris Nolan) who’s trying to convince Maria to star in his latest big budget sci-fier.  (He claims he wrote the lead role with her in mind, that she alone can do it justice, yadda yadda).  Watching their push/pull negotiations—the seducer and the worldly wise, but desperate to be seduced star—is like being privy to the real guardians of the galaxy.  It’s both fantastical and real (well, real-seeming) because it cuts to the heart of all of our fantasy projections and mundane realities.  They’re lives being lived just like ours, only on a (much, much) larger scale.  The angels weep.  And maybe giggle a little, too.

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“3 Hearts”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“3 Hearts” (**½):  Nothing satisfies the heart and the head like a good French film.  For me, there’s always been something deliciously comforting about sitting in the dark and listening to attractive, intelligent actors speak French.  If you close your eyes, it’s like being transported to ‘Gay Paree.’  And really, is there anything better than that?  French movies are invariably more grown-up and sophisticated than their American counterparts.  Nobody makes a big deal about sex, smoking isn’t treated like a federal offense, and large quantities of wine (usually good French red wine) are invariably consumed without anyone dying of cirrhosis.  Everything seems—and sounds—better in French.  On paper, “3 Hearts” seemed like it had the makings of a quintessentially Gallic thrill ride.  The director, Benoit Jacquot has made some terrific movies (“Farewell, My Queen,” “Adolphe” and “A Single Girl” in particular), and the cast (Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni) is certainly to die for.  Yet despite those portents of bliss, “Hearts” left me feeling a tad lukewarm.

The plot is like something out of a 1930’s dime store novel. Unbeknownst to each other, sisters Sylvie and Sophie (Gainsbourg and Mastroianni) both fall in love with the same man (Benoit Poelvoorde’s Marc) at different points in their lives.  Because Sylvie is already married when she meets tax inspector Marc, she chooses not to answer the pitter-patter of her heart.  (Moving with her husband to Minneapolis insures that the affair won’t go any farther.)  But, after a reasonable amount of time has passed, antiques dealer Sophie allows herself to be swept off her feet by Marc and they soon marry.  Poor Sophie, of course, has no idea of her husband’s previous relationship with Sylvie (whom he still loves).  The major suspense lies in waiting for the other shoe to drop.

There’s a conspicuous—and fatal—lack of heat between the three leads despite the fact that they’re all playing amour-stricken characters.  Instead, we merely see some very good actors, well, acting without ever truly inhabiting their roles.  We have to take on faith all of their intense feelings since it isn’t visible onscreen.  The only performer who seems to exist under the skin of her character is Deneuve as Sylvie and Sophie’s mom.  Of course, Deneuve has become such a veritable force of nature at this point in her career that there probably isn’t any other way for her to essay a role except by literally inhaling it.  As always, she’s a joy to watch.  Which doesn’t mean that “3 Hearts” isn’t enjoyable on a strictly surface level.  (Hey, it’s French!)  Unfortunately, Jacquot’s formalistic, intellectualized approach to genre prevents it from ever becoming the transportive wallow I’m pretty sure he must have intended.  At least I think so.  Otherwise, why bother directing (and co-writing) a film so clearly in the Douglas Sirk-ian wheelhouse.  Sirk famously used distancing tropes—mirrors, an emphasis on interior design, frequent long shots, etc.—to detach himself from the melodramatic excess swirling around him, but he never lost sight of the story or his characters.  That’s why audiences responded to them—truly, madly, deeply— the way they did back in the 1950’s.  Nothing about “3 Hearts” could engender that same type of emotional (hyper-emotional?) response today.  And our post-post-modern culture has nothing to do with it.

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“Amour Fou”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Amour Fou” (***):  Writer-director Jessica (Lourdes) Hausner’s “Amour Fou” is a very particular, some might say rarefied, kind of fun for cinephiles who enjoy pinpointing various directorial influences.  But since cine-literate audiences are increasingly hard to find, I’m not sure how many will be able to spot early Werner Herzog (“The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” “Heart of Glass”), Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (“The Chronicle of Magdalena Bach”), Manoel de Oliveira (“The Strange Case of Angelica”), Eric Rohmer (“The Marquise of O…”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”), Robert Bresson (“Four Nights of a Dreamer,” “The Devil Probably”) or even Carl Dreyer (“Gertrud,” “Day of Wrath”).  Which is a shame since familiarity with those touchstones and signifiers of arthouse cinema would surely enhance one’s appreciation and enjoyment of Hausner’s delectably bent, “based-on-a-true-story” period yarn.

Inspired by an 1811 suicide pact between German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, Hausner approaches the material with a sense of comic deadpan that Jacques Tati himself would have admired.  The largely affectless performances (you don’t know whether they’re bad actors or were simply directed that way; probably the latter) help create a distancing effect that, under the circumstances, is perfectly understandable.  Certainly getting into the mindset of characters willing to die for love—or some hyper-aestheticized concept of amour—takes some doing, particularly in this post-ironic era.  We watch in bemused horror as Kleist (Christian Friedel who carries himself with the pomposity and callow airs of a deeply pretentious prep school student) makes a case for reciprocal suicide to Vogel (Birte Schnoeink whose ineffable, beatific blankness gives her the feel of a 19th century Manson Girl), a proper bourgeois housewife/mother who’s recently been diagnosed with a fatal disease.

It’s clear that Vogel is some kind of hothouse flower just waiting to be plucked when Kleist makes her acquaintance at a salon musicale.  he’s not even Kleist’s first choice to join him in the lethal pact:   cousin Marie (Sandra Hueller) has already rebuffed his request.  (Of course, “Would you care to die with me?”  With pistols it would be quick” is hardly the greatest pick-up line.)  Kleist somehow manages to convince Vogel that, despite an attentive husband (Stephan Crossmann) and doting daughter (Paraschiva Dragus), she’s deeply lonely and profoundly unloved. “I’m looking for a partner in death, not life,” he cheerfully tells her.

Despite the funereal tone and at times somnambulant pacing, Hausner injects a good deal of funny ha-ha mirth into the proceedings.  Vogel’s maid (Alissa Wilms, a dead ringer for the young Tilda Swinton in her Derek Jarman movies) is a certifiable hoot, as is her scolding, snobbish mother (Barbara Schnitzler).  In fact, it’s Vogel’s imperious mom who has the film’s best line.  While being introduced to hot-new-writer-kid-on-the-block Kleist, she summarily dismisses his work by saying, “I really prefer Goethe.”  As unexpected as the frequent laughter is, how curiously touching “Amour Fou” becomes at the very end.  Even with all of Hausner’s distancing techniques and the flatly declamatory acting, Schnoeink’s Vogel somehow manages to break your heart.  When she tells Kleist, “I have become the woman you saw in me earlier,” it’s hard not to shed at least a tiny little tear.  After all, this is the same woman who earlier claimed, “I am my husband’s property, and I should never dare to demand my freedom,” when the subject of personal freedom came up during a political debate with her husband’s cynical business associates.  Vogel has at last become her own woman, even if she has to (literally) die to achieve said liberation.

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“Effie Gray”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Effie Gray” (**½):  Since “I Am Sam” in which she played the preternaturally mature daughter of a mentally retarded parent (Sean Penn), Dakota Fanning has been cast—sometimes romantically, sometimes not—opposite older man.  There was Denzel Washington shielding her from harm in “Man on Fire,” the backwoods rapist who violently stole her pre-pubescent virginity in “Hounddog,” Boyd Holbrook in “Very Good Girls” and, most recently, Kevin Kline’s dissipated Errol Flynn opposite Fanning’s jail bait-y Beverly Aadland in “The Last of Robin Hood.”  In “Effie Gray,” Fanning plays the child bride of Victorian-era British art critic John Ruskin (48-year-old Greg Wise), but there’s precious little about this union that’s romantic.  When an accommodating Effie undresses for her husband on their wedding night, he runs from the room in abject horror.  During the course of their six-year marriage, Ruskin never so much as touches his wife, let alone makes love to her.

Directed by BBC vet Richard Laxton and written by Emma Thompson (who plays a small role in the film), “Effie Gray” makes an interesting companion piece to Mike Leigh’s recent J.M.W. Turner biopic, “Mr. Turner.” Ruskin, an ardent fan of Turner’s work, was a minor character in Leigh’s movie.  Although Turner is referenced in Thompson’s script, he doesn’t make an onscreen appearance.  The differences in the two films are telling. “Gray” has a fusty “Masterpiece Theater” taint; “Turner” was visceral and supremely tactile, the very antithesis of standard “Great Artist” biopics.  Art took center stage in “Turner” while here it’s reduced to the occasional topic of drawing room conversation (“The purpose of art is to reveal the truth,” someone pretentiously opines).  Both movies, however, are visually sumptuous.  Andrew Dunn’s widescreen lensing may lack the pointillist luster of Dick Pope’s Oscar-nominated work for Leigh, yet this is still an exceptionally handsome film, one best appreciated on a big screen.

If the Ruskin of “Turner” was a simpering mama’s boy played for laughs, Ruskin’s mommy (and daddy) fixation in “Gray” has more profound consequences.  Despite his standing as the preeminent art critic of his day, Wise’s uber-creepy Ruskin allows himself to be thoroughly dominated—and frequently humiliated—by his haughty, aristocratic parents (David Suchet and Julie Waters, both terrific).  The casual humiliations Ruskin endures on a regular basis may or may not have been responsible for his sexual maladjustment, but it becomes the central theme of the movie.

At times, “Effie Gray” almost has the feel of a Charlotte Bronte or Daphne du Maurier adaptation populated by real-life personages.  (Ruskin could be unyielding stick-in-the-mud Rochester; his mother an even more imperious, and vastly more terrifying, Mrs. Danvers.)  It’s on this level that “Gray” satisfies as an old-fashioned bodice-ripper, even though no ladies undergarments are actually torn during the course of the film.  When hunky Ruskin protege John Everett Millais (an appealing Tom Sturridge) is introduced, there’s some mild suspense as to whether Ruskin or his wife will make the first move since both seem equally infatuated with his lissome male beauty.  Because Effie remains steadfast in her virtue, the only way she’ll entertain Millais’ reciprocal romantic interest is by first ending her marriage.  A sympathetic lawyer (Derek Jacobi) is enlisted to help attain an annulment, not an easy task in 19th century Great Britain.

I’m not certain what attracted Thompson to the Ruskin/Gray story (apparently it was a longtime passion project of hers).  Perhaps she was intrigued by the female emancipation/empowerment angle (Effie is kith and kin to fairy tale heroines like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty).  Or maybe she just had an axe to grind with critics.  Along with the New York Times harridan in “Birdman,” the Ruskin of “Effie Gray” is among the least sympathetic portrayals of a critic I’ve ever seen.  Fanning’s porcelain doll-like features are a perfect fit for the role, and she even manages to pull off a satisfactory English accent.  It’s a lovely, at times deeply affecting performance.  Wise, Thompson’s husband in real life, fares somewhat less well.  His Ruskin remains pretty much a one-dimensional jerk from beginning to end.  The plethora of familiar faces that regularly pop up—James Fox, Robbie Coltrane, Claudia Cardinale, et al—are less distracting than amusing.  In fact, they lend a quaint “Tradition of Quality” imprimatur to the proceedings.   Speaking of which, this is precisely the type of cosseted British period piece that used to be catnip for art-house habitués a quarter century ago.  But today?  I’m not even sure whether that (theatrical) audience exists anymore.  I guess we’ll find out once the box-office receipts are counted.

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“Wild Tales”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Wild Tales” (****):  Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines wild (adj.) as “uncivilized,” “barbaric,” “indicative of strong passion, desire or emotion,” “escaped from normal restraints of control” and “characteristic of, or appropriate to, or expressive of wilderness, wildlife or a simple or uncivilized society.”  Damien Szifron’s Oscar-nominated Argentinean omnibus film “Wild Tales” pretty much lives up to every one of those descriptions.  Co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, it shares many of the strengths (an uncanny ability to orchestrate pitch-black comedy for starters) of that Spanish auteur’s best movies.

The omnibus or anthology film has a spotty track record throughout film history.  Invariably some chapters—at heart, they’re the cinematic equivalent of short story collections—are stronger than others, which only makes the weaker episodes seem that much worse by comparison.  Probably because the form seems ideally suited for suspense, horror anthologies have been the most commonplace variant dating back to 1945’s diabolically clever “Dead of Night.”  Yet for every “Tales from the Crypt” (Freddie Francis’ 1972 anthology based on old E.C. comics) or “Two Evil Eyes” (Dario Argento and George A. Romero adapt Edgar Allan Poe), there have been scads of tony arthouse samplers, too.  “Boccaccio 70” (directed by Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica respectively) and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (all DeSica) wowed them in the 1960’s.  More recently, “Eros” (Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai tackled amour in its various permutations) and Paris je t’aime” (utilizing 18 different directors, it was kind of the speed-dating equivalent to the omnibus template) tried resuscitating the genre with decidedly mixed results.

What helps distinguish the extravagantly enjoyable “Wild Tales” from virtually every previous anthology movie, though, is its remarkable consistency.  There really isn’t a stinker in the bunch.  (Szifron wrote and directed all six episodes which might explain how he manages to maintain such enviable quality control.)  The opener—more of an amuse-bouche—is set aboard an airplane whose motley crew of passengers soon realize they’re in the hands of the same man they all wronged at one time or another.  One guess what he has in store for them.  Having expeditiously established both tone (mordantly funny) and theme (revenge is a dish best served, well, at any temperature), Szifron merrily devises ever more diabolical variations in his remaining tales.  “Road to Hell” (road rage writ cartoonishly oversized) revises Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” for the “Mad Max” era; “The Rats” (a diner waitress enacts vengeance on the obnoxious customer who destroyed her family years earlier); and “The Deal” (class-consciousness takes a homicidal turn after a hit-and-run accident) are all world-class divertissements.  But “’Til Death Do Us Part” and “Bombita” are the stories you’ll likely be talking and arguing about once you hit the parking lot.

In the latter, Ricardo Darin (Argentina’s answer to George Clooney) plays a demolitions expert who uses his very specific skill set to get back at mindless government bureaucracy.  Darin’s Simon is a latter day Howard Beale:   mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore. The ebulliently horrific (and deliriously romantic) “’Til Death” could be my favorite “Wild” tale, though.  Set against the backdrop of a lavish wedding reception, it details the lengths to which a bride will go upon discovering that her new husband has been cheating with a coworker.  As site-specific as “Wild Tales” is to Argentinean culture/society, it’s amazing just how universal and accessible it is.  A North American remake would most likely be as popular here as Szifron’s film was back home.  After all, everyone loves a good “worm turns” scenario, whatever their country of origin.

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“Mr. Turner”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Mr. Turner” (U.K./France/Germany, 2014) (****):  “Mr Turner” isn’t the most ingratiating movie Mike Leigh has ever directed.  In that sense, it’s a lot like the curmudgeonly true-life figure, 19th century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, who gives the film its title.  It’s as far removed from the chronicles of contemporary middle-class life Leigh normally specializes in (“Life is Sweet,” “Another Year,” “Secrets and Lies”) as a movie can be.  Yet, like Leigh’s equally splendid Gilbert and Sullivan biopic, 1999’s “Topsy Turvy,” it’s another Leigh masterwork.  At a time when even the most ardent North American cinema buff considers foreign films culturally irrelevant, I’m not sure what theatergoers will make of “Mr. Turner.”  While it’s in English, subtitles would probably come in handy with some of the thick, well-nigh impenetrable British accents.  And its stately rhythm and two-and-a-half hour running time will surely incur the wrath of those who think that movies are merely time-killing entertainment.  But since Leigh is one of the greatest living filmmakers, I pray there’s a sympathetic audience out there willing to give it a try.

When we first meet Turner (memorably played by Leigh regular Timothy Spall, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance), he’s just returned from a brief trip.  The brusque—to put it kindly—manner with which he greets his doting, servile housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) tells you everything you need to know about the man.  (Some quickie, fully clothed sex is involved.)  Turner’s elderly father (the wonderful Paul Jesson) lives with him, and he seems like such a dear old soul it’s amusing to think they could actually share the same bloodline.  As chatty and affectionate as Turner is with his peers at the Royal Academy, he’s less than congenial to his former wife (a fiery Ruth Sheen), and doesn’t even bother acknowledging his two grown daughters.  Watching Turner’s simmering disdain for the primary women in his life, it’s a bit of a shock to see his more courtly side emerge in a discussion on the properties of light with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (Leslie Manville).

During an impromptu sojourn to the bucolic seaside town of Margate, Turner makes the acquaintance of Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) who runs a cozy bed and breakfast with her husband.  On a return visit, Turner and the newly widowed Mrs. Booth embark upon a surprising, and surprisingly affectionate, relationship.  He even adopts her last name in an attempt to remain anonymous.  (Turner’s artistic celebrity-hood apparently follows him everywhere.)  In the process, he softens considerably and becomes—dare I say it?—an almost sympathetic figure.

Leigh’s collaborative approach to directing—a finished script emerges only after months of rehearsals and improvisations in a workshop-type environment—is reminiscent of the late Robert Altman.  But Altman’s dyspeptic worldview and cynicism are far removed from Leigh’s unstinting humanism.  The subtle layering of his characters, and the unexpected dimensions they reveal to us over time, is as fascinating to the viewer as it probably was to Leigh and his actors during their preproduction journey.  So it is with “Mr. Turner.”  This utterly remarkable film would be inconceivable without the yeoman contributions of Spall and longtime Leigh cinematographer, Dick Pope.  Spall’s braying, roiling, damn near convulsive force of life performance is the very definition of “tour-de-force.”  I can’t imagine another actor in the role.  And Pope achieves something equally astonishing here.  He somehow manages to imbue the film’s settings (natural and otherwise) with the same painterly eye Turner brought to his work.  Rarely have I seen a film about an artist that’s as tactile and, well, artisanal-seeming as this.  (Altman’s 1990 Van Gogh biopic “Vincent & Theo” comes close.)  A work of art about a great artist? That’s definitely not something you see every day.

© 2015 by Milan Paurich

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“Still Alice”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Still Alice” (USA, 2014) (***):  Julianne Moore is one of those actresses who’s been so reliably good, often great, for so many years that it’s been easy for some (particularly Oscar voters) to take her for granted (which might explain why Moore is the designated front-runner in this year’s Oscar race for Best Actress).  The fact that she gives a typically strong performance in “Still Alice playing a Columbia University professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s certainly doesn’t hurt.  More than likely it’s simply a case of, “She’s due.”  I wonder how many Oscar voters who check off Moore’s name on their ballot will even bother watching their “Alice” screeners.  The subject matter is certainly daunting and may even hit too close to home for certain elderly Academy members.  It’s the same reason that, despite its awards patina, husband-and-husband co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s movie surely faces an uphill battle at the box-office.  I’d love to say that “Still Alice isn’t depressing and that Moore’s performance makes the pain seem worthwhile somehow.  Yet, there’s no getting around the fact that watching a brilliant, formerly vibrant middle-aged woman like Moore’s Alice Howland slip deeper and deeper into dementia until she practically becomes invisible, even to herself, is excruciating at times.  So, no, this is not an “easy” film, but it is a good and solidly, cleanly crafted one.  Whether that’s enough to make it a hit remains to be seen.

A case could be made that “Alice” might have been a better fit on a premium cable channel like HBO where equally “difficult”—and difficult to market—movies like Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart” or Lisa Cholodenko’s “Olive Kitteridge” have found large, appreciative audiences.  Certainly there’s nothing about it that wouldn’t play just as well on a television screen. Glatzer and Westmoreland (whose previous collaborative efforts include “Quinceanera” and “The Last of Robin Hood”) have never been the most visually adroit filmmakers.  And the deliberately small scale of their movies makes them more tube than big screen-friendly anyway.  Adapted from Lisa Genova’s well-regarded book, the film tells a fairly straight forward story in an equally unfussy manner.  As Alice begins to experience memory loss/disorientation and starts fumbling for words in the middle of a classroom lecture (a truly Kafka-esque nightmare for a linguistics professor), it becomes increasingly clear that something is amiss.  But since Alzheimer’s is a disease more commonly associated with people several decades older, Alice is blindsided by the diagnosis when it arrives.

Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and adult children (Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish and Kate Bosworth) are sympathetic and supportive, of course, but it’s only black sheep daughter Lydia (Stewart, terrific) who’s willing to make the type of life-altering sacrifices that being a full-time caretaker involves.  Lydia abandons an acting career in Los Angeles to move back home to care for her mom.  The scenes between mother and daughter—with their roles now suddenly, irrevocably reversed—are the most wrenching and poignant in the entire film.  (As someone who has spent the past several years serving as primary caregiver to a parent with Alzheimer’s, Moore and Stewart’s pas de deux hit especially close to home.)  Moore is simply a wonder to behold.  In a remarkably subtle performance that’s all the more impressive for its utter lack of sentimentality, she allows us to witness Alice losing more and more of her identity until all that’s left is a blank stare peering into the abyss.  The beauty of Moore’s acting is that she never loses sight of Alice’s soul, if such a thing even exists.   Thanks to the brilliance of Moore, you’ll want to believe that it does.

© 2015 by Milan Paurich

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“Leviathan”

© Reviewed by Milan Paurich

“Leviathan” (Russia, 2014) (****):  A masterpiece by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the greatest Russian director to emerge in the post-Soviet era, “Leviathan” sucks you in like a vise grip.  I think I held my breath for the entire 141-minute running time.  With intonations of Chekhov (real estate squabbles) and Dostoevsky (crime, punishment), Zvagintsev’s Job-like parable set in Putin’s Russia has an intensity of feeling that seems almost primordial.   Although set in present day, “Leviathan” might as well be taking place hundreds of years ago.  The unsullied natural setting—an Arctic town in northern Russia—is as stark and elemental as its quasi-Biblical narrative.  Kolya (magnificently played by Aleksey Serebryakov), Zvyagintsey’s everyman protagonist, will lose everything he holds dear during the course of the film.  His home, land, wife, son, best friend, and livelihood will all be brutally taken away from him through a domino-like series of catastrophic events.  Which doesn’t mean that Kolya goes down easily, or without putting up a fight.  But when the gods have seemingly conspired against you, raging to the heavens will only get you so far.  Either way he’s screwed.

Kolya’s first mistake is refusing the mayor’s offer to buy his property.  A mini-despot who runs his fiefdom like an iron-fisted New Jersey crime boss, Vadim (Roman Madianov) could give Dick Cheney tips on playing dirty.  After Kolya spurns him, Vadim doesn’t just get mad, he gets even.  Soon, the entire municipality has aligned themselves against Kolya, including the local priest who proves as brazenly craven and corrupt as Vadim himself.  Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), the Moscow attorney (and old family friend) who takes Kolya’s case, only stirs the hornet’s nest after threatening to expose Vadim’s past criminal infractions.  When Dmitri recklessly embarks upon an affair with Kolya’s long-suffering wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), Vadim and his minions have all the ammunition they need to take Kolya down once and for all.  The cosmic fallout is equal parts Kafka-esque nightmare and Old Testament fire and brimstone.  Evil trumps virtue again.

In earlier films, like “The Return” and “Elena,” Zvyagintsev impressed like a nouveau Tarkovsky (albeit one less bogged down in metaphysics) or Sokurov (but with more of an interest in classical storytelling).  Ironically, “Leviathan” sometimes feels like an off-shoot of the New Romanian Cinema, with its emphasis on heightened naturalism and exposure of societal ills.  Yet it’s as quintessentially Russian as a bowl of steaming borscht chased with an icy shot of Stolichnaya vodka.   “Leviathan” is also Zvyagintsev’s most accessible movie to date:  his previous films worked on more of an intellectual than emotional level.  That’s probably why it scored a U.S. distribution deal with heavy-hitter Sony Pictures Classics and garnered a richly deserved Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  Despite generating considerable controversy in its native land for Zvyagintsev’s scathing indictment of the status quo, “Leviathan” was actually released in Russia.  And unlike past homegrown masters (Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, et al.) who were forced to pay dearly for their art after running afoul of Soviet censors, Zvyagintsev continues to live, and hopefully work, as a free man.  It’s definitely not for all tastes, but if you’re willing to meet it half way chances are you’ll be sucked into its inexorable maelstrom, too.  Like Kolya squaring off against Vadim, resistance is pretty much futile.

© 2015 by Milan Paurich

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“Black or White”

© Guest review by Milan Paurich

“Black or White” (USA, 2014) (***):  Let us now praise Kevin Costner.  A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far, away – actually the late 1980’s and early-to-mid ‘90s, long before many of you fanboys and girls were even hatched – Costner was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.  And he achieved that enviable feat without appearing in a single Marvel Comic Book movie (I know, perish the thought) or franchise/tentpole picture.  Costner became a star by – are you sitting down, kiddies? – headlining a series of intelligent films made expressly for grown-up audiences.  “The Untouchables,” “No Way Out,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “Dances With Wolves,” “J.F.K.,” “Tin Cup,” et al.  Pretty groovy, or at least pretty retro, huh?  After sitting a good chunk of the past decade out (he must have figured there was no place for him in an industry where Marvel and D.C. reigns supreme, and the medium-budgeted adult drama that used to be his bread and butter had become an endangered species), Costner is in the midst of a most welcome mini-renaissance.  He starred in a string of mostly solid efforts last year (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” “3 Days to Kill” and the terrific, albeit under-performing “Draft Day”), and has now reunited with writer-director Mike Binder, who helmed 2005’s “The Upside of Anger” which gave him his last indisputably great screen role.  Binder’s “Black or White” isn’t remotely in the same league (for starters, it lacks a great female lead like “Anger”’s Joan Allen), but it proves Costner can still hit it out of the park if given half the chance.  Tinseltown, please take note.

A throwback to the sort of socially conscious “message” movie that veteran directors like Stanley Kramer used to specialize in, sometimes to embarrassing effect (e.g., the appalling “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), “Black or White” tackles 21st century race relations with kid gloves.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Considering the fact that most Hollywood movies prefer to dwell in an imaginary, post-racial universe, the fact that Binder even bothers to confront such a repressed, thorny issue like race feels almost tonic.  I just wish that his racial politics were a tad more evolved.  (At times, “Black or White” plays like a movie that Kramer could have made if he’d risen from the dead.)

Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a successful Los Angeles attorney who’s been raising his bi-racial granddaughter, Eloise (charming newcomer Jillian Estell), after his daughter died in childbirth.  When Elliot’s wife (the always welcome Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a car accident, Eloise’s paternal grandmother, Rowena (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), sues for custody with the help of her lawyer brother (Anthony Mackie from “The Hurt Locker”).  Because Elliot finds even the notion of joint custody untenable (he’s desperately afraid of losing his only connection to his late daughter and wife), he’s suddenly put in the precarious position of proving his mettle as the child’s sole guardian.  The fact that he’s been hitting the bottle since his wife’s death doesn’t help his cause.  Of course, making Eloise’s biological dad (Andre Holland) an ex-con seemingly incapable of getting his act together helps tip the scales in Elliot’s favor.  But to the film’s credit, it makes a legitimate case for the child growing up – at least part of the time – among relatives who happen to share the same skin color.

Binder wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  Even though he brings up uncomfortable discussions of race (Costner has a fantastically brave monologue in which his true feelings about certain African-Americans – namely Eloise’s no-account dad – come to the surface), he’s too quick to wrap things up on a not entirely convincing “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” note.   Another issue I had with the film was its total and complete waste of the wonderful Ehle whose “role” consists of maybe a half-dozen (silent) flashbacks.  No fair.  Fortunately, everyone here does strong work (Holland, Mackie and Spencer in particular), with Costner its undisputed ace in the hole.  He brings such gravitas and bone-weary sadness to Elliot that you can’t help but pull for him, even when he’s behaving badly.  Which, quite frankly, is a good deal of the time.  Costner makes you feel the wrenching sorrow Elliot confronts on a daily basis after losing both his wife and daughter in such cruel and seemingly arbitrary ways. It’s another splendidly lived-in Costner performance (few actors have ever seemed as comfortable in their own skin).  I hope we continue to see a lot more of him in the future.

Copyright © 2015 by Milan Paurich.

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“Cake”

© Guest review by Milan Paurich

“Cake” (USA, 2014) (**½):  In “Cake,” the first thing you notice is Jennifer Aniston’s hair.  It’s definitely not ‘The Rachel,’ the iconic hairdo Aniston popularized while starring as Rachel Green on the beloved NBC sitcom, “Friends.”  The most remarkable thing about Aniston’s “Cake” ‘do is how truly ghastly it is:  you’d swear Claire Simmons (Aniston’s character) hadn’t even picked up a shampoo bottle in months.  The utter lack of vanity evinced by Aniston in Daniel Barnz’s new movie only begins with her hair.  Physically and emotionally, Aniston has never been more nakedly, even brutally, exposed than she is playing chronic pain sufferer Claire.  Aniston’s performance is remarkable on multiple levels, yet the lack of cosmetic niceties – beginning with, but not limited to said hair – is what initially draws you in.  We’re simply not used to seeing one of our most glamorous stars reduced to a ratty housecoat as her principal wardrobe choice.

“Cake” isn’t a great or even very good movie.  Barnz, whose previous films include lachrymose tweener romance “Beastly” and the wretched “teacher unions are evil!” polemic “Won’t Back Down,” is hardly a subtle or even particularly interesting director.  He does very little with the camera, and his movies invariably look like middle of the road cable flicks.  But Barnz clearly had a tonic effect on Aniston who delivers in spades with the best dramatic work of her career.  (She’s always been a wonderfully deft, if frequently undervalued comic actress.)  Some of that credit rightfully belongs to screenwriter Patrick Tobin who’s written a juicy, refreshingly layered role for Aniston to sink her teeth in.  On the surface – and for a good chunk of the running time – Claire is remarkably unsympathetic, even actively unpleasant.  She proudly describes herself, only half-jokingly, as a “raving bitch.”

Holed up in a suburban Los Angeles home with only Mexican immigrant housekeeper, Silvana (the wonderful Adriana Barraza of Babel fame), as her sole companion, Claire is clearly suffering from something.  There’s a weird facial scar, lots of prescription drugs and, from the look of things, Claire has been avoiding sunshine as assiduously as a “Twilight” heartthrob.  The survivor of a traffic accident that claimed her only child, Claire’s physical pain has clearly taken a psychic toll as well.  Her survivor’s guilt has effectively pushed away her husband (the always welcome Chris Messina), and the support group she attends on a semi-regular basis only seems to piss her off more.  When a group member (played in flashbacks and not-always successful fantasy sequences by Anna Kendrick) commits suicide by jumping from a freeway overpass, Claire impulsively pays a visit to the dead woman’s husband (Sam Worthington).  As the grieving widower, Worthington is so good – achingly vulnerable and unimpeachably virile at the same time – you wonder why his career didn’t take off after starring in Jim Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Only gradually does Claire/Aniston allow the audience to warm up to her – which is only fitting since she does the same thing with the various people navigating her life, even those closest to her, like Silvana and estranged husband Jason.  While Barnz and Tobin allow the film to end on a note of cautious optimism, it feels less like a contrivance or cop out than a blessing.  If there’s hope for a lost, wounded soul like Claire, maybe there’s hope for all of us.

Postscript:  Despite scoring SAG and Critics’ Choice Best Actress nominations for “Cake,” Aniston, sadly, was shut out of the Oscar race. Most awards pundits theorized that surprise nominee Marion Cotillard took Aniston’s spot for her fine work in the Dardenne Brothers’ “2 Days, 1 Night.”  But for me, the actress who stole Aniston’s slot was the undeserving, underwhelming Felicity Jones for a nondescript, “anybody-could-have-played-this-nothing-role” turn as Jane Hawking in the egregiously overrated “The Theory of Everything.”  Aniston may not be as fashionable as a twenty-something Brit flavor du jour, but hers was the (vastly) more compelling and accomplished 2014 performance.  Judge for yourself by voting with a ticket to “Cake.”

Copyright © 2015 by Milan Paurich.

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“American Sniper”

© Guest review by Milan Paurich

“American Sniper” (USA, 2014) (****):  “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.  Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”  That line from Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning twilight western (“Unforgiven,” 1992) is never spoken in Eastwood’s latest film, “American Sniper,” but you can hear it reverberating inside the head of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle from beginning to end.  Because Kyle, who served four tours of duty in Iraq, racking up 160 confirmed kills, is a stoical type who internalizes his emotions, we never hear him actively comment on the toll his military-sanctioned killings may have taken on him.  But it’s written loud and clear across the face of Bradley Cooper who embodies Kyle in an intensely physical, deeply empathetic performance.  Death has consequences, and a human life is precious.  Those sentiments have informed much of Eastwood’s directorial oeuvre, and have helped turn him into the American cinema’s Poet Laureate of screen mortality.  The weight and substance of a life, and the irrevocability of death have rarely been as vividly portrayed or felt than in Eastwood masterpieces like “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” or “Million Dollar Baby.” “Sniper” once again embraces those recurrent themes with the snub-nosed grace, unerring professionalism and mournfully elegiac tone one has come to expect from America’s greatest living classicist.  It’s a great American movie by a great American filmmaker.

Rather than traffic in hagiography, Eastwood unfussily presents Kyle as a good man forced to deal with the unimaginably brutal reality of combat on a 24/7 basis for the greater portion of his military career.  The fact that his targets are “the bad guys” doesn’t make pulling the trigger any easier: you can feel the weight of his actions just by the way Kyle holds his rifle and the way his eyes narrow onto a target. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man” indeed.  As astonishingly visceral and heart-poundingly intense as the Iraq scenes are, Eastwood’s greatest achievement may be in making the home-front scenes between Kyle and his family (Sienna Miller eloquently plays his wife, Taya) register as sharply and indelibly.  They make their spousal connection so seemingly authentic – and with such a frisky intimacy to their early courtship scenes – that you’d swear they were really man and wife.  Cooper and Miller did it for me in ways that Oscar front-runners Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones didn’t playing another true-life couple, Stephen and Jane Hawking, in “The Theory of Everything.”  This is screen acting of the highest caliber.

Seeing the completed film, it’s hard to believe that Eastwood replaced Steven Spielberg as director a mere 15 days before the start of principal photography.  The material, and the treatment, seem so utterly, unmistakably Eastwoodian it seems inconceivable that another director (particularly one with as pronounced a filmmaking style and ethos as Spielberg) could have inaugurated the project.  But that’s what the greatest directors in Hollywood’s Golden Age – the Fords and Hawks in whose pantheon Eastwood surely deserves to be included at this stage of his remarkable career – used to do all the time.  The fact that Eastwood is 84 years old (an age at which both Ford and Hawks had long since retired) makes his achievement all the more prodigious and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.  Along with Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Sniper” is one of the few truly essential Iraq movies to date.  I have a hunch that audiences will embrace it like no war movie since “Saving Private Ryan” and that, like Spielberg’s 1998 film, it will become a classic.  It already feels like one to me.

Copyright © 2015 by Milan Paurich.

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Maleficent:  A Fairy Tale for Grown-ups

© Review by John Arkelian

“Maleficent” (USA/U.K., 2014) (B): In the wake of 2012’s dramatically effective “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which re-imagined a classic

Angelina Jolie is "Maleficent" (courtesy of Film Frame/Disney)

Angelina Jolie is “Maleficent” (courtesy of Film Frame/Disney)

fairy tale as a grown-up, live-action fantasy, and which derived much of its power from the dominant presence of a strong, charismatic female villain (played by Charlize Theron), a different set of filmmakers do something similar with the story of Sleeping Beauty.  The difference is that in this story the villainess is really no villain at all.  Rather, she is aggrieved and embittered, turned to ferocity and darkness and the wielding of power by the grievous betrayal and injuries she has suffered.  Angelina Jolie is made-over with curved horns, alien eyes, and impossibly sharp cheekbones as the eponymous faery of the title.  As a child, her heart is bright as she soars through the faery-realm that is inexplicably called ‘the Moors’ (there are no actual moors in sight in this broad, idyllic land of forests, lakes, and mountains, so the name seems a misnomer).  Playful and

Angelina Jolie is "Maleficent" (courtesy of Film Frame/Disney)

Angelina Jolie is “Maleficent” (courtesy of Film Frame/Disney)

full of joy, she is beloved by the diverse denizens of this delightful land.  She even befriends a human boy, a friendship that persists as they grow older and becomes a deep, implicitly romantic, bond.  But the neighboring human kingdom has its greedy eyes fixed on the faery realm (for what reason is unclear).  War breaks out, and Maleficent leads her folk’s defense.  But said conflict leads to her betrayal, the violent loss of her wings, and the darkening of her heart.  The chief object of her anger and vengefulness is the human king.  That character is the story’s weak link, as the motivations for his actions never fully persuade us.  As an adult he is played, with too much madness (and badness) and not enough charisma, by South Africa’s Sharlto Copley.  But Jolie more than compensates for the charisma deficit, providing us with a mesmerizing character.  Is she a villain?  Not really,

Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora in"Maleficent" - photo by Frank Connor (courtesy of Disney)

Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora in”Maleficent” – photo by Frank Connor (courtesy of Disney)

despite the curse of unending sleep (to commence on her sixteen birthday) with which she dooms the infant Princess Aurora.  Maleficent has been terribly wronged, and she is fiercely bitter; but, as she watches over the ‘strange beastie’ she cursed, she soon comes to regret her impulsive action and even to care for the girl who regards her as her faery godmother.  Elle Fanning plays Aurora as a teen, and she is all smiles, happiness, trust, and bright innocence.  She is effective in the role, and so, too, is Sam Riley as Diaval, the raven who can become a man, who is Maleficent’s eyes, ears, and wings.  Pressed into service, his he becomes a loyal servant and friend to the solitary dark faery.   In a curious oversight, when the blessings of three absent-minded diminutive faeries are interrupted by a gate-crashing Maleficent, the third faery never finishes giving her blessing.   In the

Angelina Jolie is "Maleficent" - photo by Frank Connor (courtesy of Disney)

Angelina Jolie is “Maleficent” – photo by Frank Connor (courtesy of Disney)

original version of the story, that third blessing was used to ameliorate Maleficent’s curse; here it remains unuttered.  Told more or less from its title character’s point of view, “Maleficent” has an unexpected (but very satisfying) twist on “true love’s kiss,” and the appearance of its dragon in the climactic battle scene also plays out very differently than in “Sleeping Beauty.” The changes are fresh and welcome, giving nuance and emotional resonance to these characters.  The film is lovely to look at.  The muppet-like appearance of some of the faery creatures seems at first to tread too close to the juvenile, but they grow on you as things progress.  That goes for the trio of protective fairies, too.  They spend part of the time as diminutive CGI creations, with distorted versions of the actress’ faces superimposed; the rest of the time, they appear in human disguise – as the actresses themselves.  But, truth be told, the faery who gets most of the screen time (by far) is Maleficent herself.  Among the most visually appealing scenes are those involving flight; the magical raising of an impenetrable encircling wall of spiked thorns; and the child version of Aurora scampering across a sun-dappled meadow.  The film skips over the contradiction inherent in the etymology of its lead’s name:  ‘Maleficent’ suggests the root word ‘mal,’ and it means bad. How does that name suit her younger self – when there’s yet nothing dark or vengeful or malicious about her?  On the other hand, it certainly suits the adult character, who is embodies both the dark malice and magnificent elegance suggested by her nomenclature.  Often clad in jet-black capes, she’s from the select tradition of ‘Black Knight’ characters, whose ranks include such diverse figures as Ivanhoe, Batman, and Darth Vader.  Tolkien’s satanic figures (Morgoth and his successor, Sauron) are likewise clad in unadorned black armor cloaked with obsidian capes, though the latter two villains have long ago abandoned any sense of moral ambiguity or desire for redemption:  They are forces of unmitigated malice and domination of other life.  “Maleficent,” by contrast, is all about redemption; and, it earns its happy ending through the trials and suffering its key characters endure and overcome.  Highly recommended, but it’s meant for teens and grown-ups, not young children.  For ages 14+.

© Copyright 2014 by John Arkelian.

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Man, Freedom, and the State in
“V for Vendetta”

© Review by John Arkelian

“V for Vendetta” (USA/U.K./Germany, 2006) (A+):  Imagine:  A film about ideas.  And what ideas!  This dark, cautionary tale of the near future has profound ideas – about courage, about freedom, and about man and the state – and it also has intense, soaring emotions.  Intolerance of what’s different, the insidious demonization of dissent as “unpatriotic,” and the subjugation of a free people through fear (do those things sound familiar?) are juxtaposed against the power of integrity to change the world, in this story about a mysterious man who dares to challenge a ruthless totalitarian state.

The place is Britain; the time is the very near future.  The world depicted here – of democracies subverted into fascism through their own citizens’ complacency and timorousness – could be just around the corner.  After all, we in the superficially ‘free’ and self-avowedly ‘enlightened’ West already have pervasive illegal eavesdropping (in the form of state surveillance of its law-abiding citizens on a massive scale); captives held in indefinite limbo who are denied basic legal rights; torture and other abuse of prisoners; so-called “preventive war,” “rendition,” and “shock and awe;” state assassination in our name of real or purported enemies (and untold numbers of innocent bystanders) by aerial drone attacks; a media that is reduced to cheerleading the powerful; and leaders who lie to us with impunity.  The film extrapolates from today’s world, arguing that the real-world undermining of our most cherished rights and values by the duplicitous Powers That Be is on a direct continuum with the creeping imposition of a police state.  It posits that such an outcome would suit powerful interests in the political, financial, security, and (even) religious establishments.

But, for every ill there is a cure.  In the film, it comes in the form of a rebel who wields inspiration and violence in equal measure to confront a ruthless enemy holding sway over the liberty of man.  That solitary champion of justice and freedom dons a Guy Fawkes mask in homage to another rebel – the historical figure who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 in the name of minority religious freedom.  Clad in a mask and cloak, and armed with knives, wit, and TNT, this avenging angel strikes fear into the heart of Big Brother.  The society depicted here is Orwell’s vision from “1984” come true, with one critical difference – this time there’s a deadly (and delightfully droll, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) foil to the forces of tyranny.

The result, full of thoughtful questions about man and the state and seasoned with sentiments both philosophical and poetical, is a brave political statement about subversion of freedom and justice in the here and now.  It’s a timely cautionary tale about ideology, fascism, and the manipulation of people by the unscrupulous through fear.  It’s also a call to at least metaphorical arms to oppose that creeping real-life blight.  And, it’s a splendid example of transcending genre and source-material (in this case, a graphic novel), blending, as it does, elements of a political thriller, a dystopian vision of the near future, a revenge fantasy, and a dark romance à la “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Phantom of the Opera.”  There’s even a bit of a swashbuckler about it, with a protagonist who, in some ways, lives out the romantic deeds of his cinematic hero, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”   Suspenseful, moving, mysterious, romantic, and remarkably thoughtful, it’s the best film of 2006 – a masterpiece that reminds us how important it is to vigilantly safeguard our freedom, however much fear of war, terror, and other dangers may seduce us into exchanging it for the illusion of security:  “Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression.  And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance, coercing your conformity and [soliciting] your submission.  How did this happen?  Who is to blame?…   Fear got the best of you…  He promised you order, he promised you peace.  And all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent…  Fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words.  They are perspectives…   But if you see what I see, if you feel what I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me…”

The score by Dario Marianelli is sublime – intensely emotional, poignant, and inspirational, it wrings tears of emotion from the listener.   It is note-perfect and award-caliber.   And so, too, is the formidably strong cast:  They create finely-drawn characters.  Hugo Weaving works wonders with his voice alone – with words that echo and thrill.  Natalie Portman is gripping as a young woman who is brought to the brink of despair and who then experiences the transfiguration of her soul in scenes of intense power.  And every other member of the rest of the talented British cast – among them, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam, Sinead Cusack, Natasha Wightman, and Imogen Poots – is nothing short of outstanding.

How rare and wonderful a thing it is to experience a film that grips the emotions and engages the mind.  This story, these characters, and these ideas will linger in the viewer’s heart and thoughts:  “Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have.  It is the very last inch of us.  But within that inch we are free…  I shall die here.  Every inch of me shall perish.  Every inch, but one.  An inch.  It is small, and it is fragile.  And it is the only thing in the world worth having.  We must never lose it or give it away.  We must never let them take it from us.”  And, there’s just the right blend of action, drama, and suspense – not to mention an early scene with a virtuoso display of alliteration.   A story about challenging oppressors is a good thing; one that’s propelled by serious principles is even better:  Vi Veri Veniversum Vivus Vici” (“By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe”).  Perhaps this cautionary tale will remind us that liberty, justice, and the rights of man are, and always have been, revolutionary ideals – ideals that need to be guarded with courage and vigilance.

The anti-establishment tone of “V for Vendetta,” with its passionate call to stand-up for the West’s core values, is rather remarkable in a film attached to a major studio (Warner Brothers) when you recall that it was made in 2006.  That was in the midst of the unfortunate presidency of George Bush the Younger and in the aftermath of the traumatic terrorist attack on America of 9/11.  We were fighting a war of choice under false pretenses in Iraq; we were bogged down in a second war in Afghanistan (one that still simmers there in 2014); and our governments were routinely (and shamelessly) contravening the most fundamental human and democratic rights – at home and abroad.   How little things have changed as of the date of this review in 2014:  Past injustices and illegalities continue apace; and, as courageous whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden have revealed, our own unaccountable governments have put into place grotesquely intrusive and all-pervasive systems of unlawful state surveillance of their own citizens.  As the eponymous protagonist of “V for Vendetta” says:  “People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.”   Amen, say we.  The two-disc special edition DVD has some interesting extras, but no cast commentary, which is a shame.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language and violence.

© Copyright 2014 by John Arkelian.

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Don’t Let Go of Me:  Redemption and the Blues in “Black Snake Moan”

© Review by John Arkelian

“Black Snake Moan” (USA, 2007) (A-/A):  A compulsively promiscuous, even nymphomaniacal, young woman, and a man who is embittered by the recent desertion of his wife, find comfort and a measure of healing in this unexpected love story.  Its unconventionality springs partly from the fact that one character is young, female, and white, while the other is much older, male, and black – but also from the fact that the most troubled of the pair (Christina Ricci’s Rae) spends much of the story as the captive of the other (Samuel L. Jackson’s Lazarus).  She is sexy, worldly, and charismatic; he exudes strength and determination, as well as an obsessive need to salvage the emotionally wounded wild thing that fate lands at his door.  But they are both emotionally damaged in their own ways; and, for all her outward worldliness, Rae is clearly a fragile, vulnerable young woman.  She’s on death’s door when Lazarus finds her on the road outside his home.  In her delirium, she shouts like a possessed woman; but Lazurus responds with conviction that, “I ain’t gonna let you die! I ain’t letting you die!”  Her welfare gives the embittered man a sense of purpose: He becomes a surrogate father to Rae.  And his radiator (complete with the deep clang it makes, that sounds like a church bell peeling, when Rae yanks against the long chain) is the symbolically immoveable object which figuratively anchors and grounds Rae and gives her the strength to connect with others and get control over her self-destructive compulsions.  He proclaims that:  “God seen fit to put you in my path.  And I aim to cure your wickedness.”  And he proceeds to chain the out-of-control Rae to a radiator – for her own good.  “We ain’t gonna be moved…. Like Jesus said, I’m gonna suffer you!,” Lazarus says, as he literally reels Rae in, like a latter day fisher of men (or, at least, of one wayward woman).

That scene sounds downright menacing in the abstract; but it’s surprisingly funny in context.  And there’s no menace to Laz at all.  He’s a good man, however unconventional his actions are when he resolves to take responsibility for Rae’s well-being – something no one else has ever done for her.  Lazarus comes to realize that Rae acts out sexually (the film’s depiction of her wanton carnality is frank and raw) as a result of severe psychological and emotional trauma born of childhood sexual abuse.  She doesn’t know what to make of a man who harbors no sexual designs on her and who waves aside her advances.   He becomes the rock of her life:  “I don’t want you to let go of me,” says the girl who’s always been afraid of being abandoned or abused.  For his part, Jackson overcomes the rage and bitterness occasioned by his broken marriage and rediscovers his passion for music in his long-lost vocation as a blues singer.

The result is a sublimely fascinating character-study, with two very fine, award-caliber lead performances – and a uniformly strong supporting cast, which includes Justin Timberlake as Rae’s boyfriend Ronnie, Michael Raymond James as Ronnie’s not so benevolent false friend, John Cothran as Laz’s true friend and preacher, S. Epatha Merkerson as the new lady in Laz’s life, and Kim Richards as Rae’s criminally neglectful mother.  The story’s situation and characters are bracingly original.  It’s a unique love story and an affecting study of two people in need of redemption.  And it’s one of the very best films of 2007!  Some regarded the subject matter as controversial and somehow socially ‘taboo;’ maybe that’s why the film never got the recognition it deserves.  Its startling motif – of a half-naked blonde white woman chained to a radiator with a stern-faced black man twice her size standing over her – does suggest something transgressive and exploitative; but what the film actually delivers is something redemptive, tender, and upliftingly transformative.  Like the radiator’s clarion bell-sound, the film’s hopeful message is that, “We’re okay.  We’re okay.”  And it’s got some irresistible blues music, too.  “Black Snake Moan” was written and directed by Craig Brewer, who directed 2005’s “Hustle & Flow.”   DVD extras include a very interesting director’s commentary, deleted scenes, and some behind the scenes featurettes.  Highly recommended!  For ages 18+ only:  Frank sexual content; nudity; abundant coarse language; and some violence.

© Copyright 2014 by John Arkelian.

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“And So It Goes” as Cinematic Comfort Food

© Guest review by Milan Paurich

“And So It Goes” (USA, 2014) (***): Anyone who loves Diane Keaton will experience a whiff of nostalgia when she takes the stage in Rob Reiner’s “And So It Goes.”  Keaton doesn’t sing “Seems Like Old Times” or “It Had to Be You,” but the “Annie Hall” flashbacks linger pleasantly throughout the rest of the movie.  It’s like an impromptu reunion with a dear old friend you’d lost touch with.  Since Reiner already made his own “Annie Hall” homage with 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally,” that musical reminder of Woody Allen’s seminal ‘70s masterpiece was surely intentional.  Of course, everything about “And So…” feels a tad deliberate and calculated for effect.  Still, as predictable and formulaic as much of the film is, it satisfies like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.  (Think breaded veal cutlet with mushroom gravy and a side of lumpy mashed potatoes.)  Once upon a time, Reiner was a director whose winning streak seemed unstoppable. Everything he touched turned to gold.  Then his luck – as well as box-office grosses, critical huzzahs, and industry clout – petered out.  (1994’s woebegone “North” officially marked the beginning of Reiner’s demise.)  Which hasn’t stopped fans of Reiner’s early hits from hoping that he’d eventually return with another “Princess Bride” or “Stand by Me.”  If “And So It Goes” isn’t in the same league as his best work, it’s at least a step in the right direction.  Like Reiner’s last bona fide hit (2007’s “The Bucket List,” also written by Mark Andrus), smart casting makes all the difference. Keaton and Michael Douglas (coming off a career-best performance in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra”) are pretty much everything you could wish for in terms of an opposites-attract odd couple.  The fact that they’re playing variations on roles they’ve played countless times before (Annie Hall and Gordon Gekko) is part of the fun.  Hard to believe it’s the first time the two have acted together because they – and their “types” – play off each other so beautifully.  Douglas’ Oren Little is a widowed real estate mogul who reluctantly moves into the apartment building he owns (“Little Shangri-La,” get it?) while his McMansion is in the process of being sold.  The abrasive Oren is nobody’s idea of a nice guy – or a good neighbor.  (For starters, he hogs all the best parking spaces). When his estranged son (Austin Lysy) shows up one day and begs him to watch his 10-year-old daughter (Sterling Jerins) while he does time for a white-collar crime, you just know Oren will pass babysitting chores off to someone else.  Oren’s designated babysitter is his new next door neighbor, Leah (Keaton), a lounge singer who performs at an area restaurant.  A widow who never had any children of her own, Leah takes to little Sarah like, well, Grammy Hall.  Only gradually does Oren warm up to the kid, mostly because he starts seeing her through Leah’s adoring eyes.  Yes, Andrus’ script is riddled with contrivances and sitcom-friendly punch lines (at times, you can almost hear a laugh track); but, being the old pros that they are, Reiner, Keaton, and Douglas somehow manage to make it work.  While Reiner’s glory days as a film director may never return, “And So It Goes” is his most relaxed and enjoyable effort in years.  In a summer dominated by rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots, giant lizards, X-Men and damn, hairy apes, consider it the pause that refreshes.

Milan Paurich is a film critic based near Cleveland, Ohio.

Copyright © 2014 by Milan Paurich.

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“Jersey Boys” Lacks Get Up and Go

© Guest review by Milan Paurich

Jersey Boys” (USA, 2014) (**½): Imagine if John Ford had opted to direct “Bye Bye Birdie” instead of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  On paper, Clint Eastwood helming a screen version of the long-running Broadway musical smash Jersey Boys” made about as much sense.  Don’t get me wrong.  I dearly love Eastwood and consider him one of America’s greatest living filmmakers.  And he’s to be applauded for thinking (way) outside the box by electing to direct his first musical at the ripe young age of 84.  Yet Eastwood’s signature directing style is all wrong for Jersey Boys,” and this is very much an ‘Eastwood Movie.’  The stylistic tropes (an elegiac tone; deliberate pacing; a muted color palette; and an abiding preference for medium shots over close-ups) that worked so brilliantly in films like “Million Dollar Baby” and Mystic River are cinematic Kryptonite to Jersey Boys.”  Since Martin Scorsese clearly wasn’t interested in tackling the project (maybe it was too much inside his wheelhouse), why didn’t the producers ask David Chase?  Chase proved as smart and intuitive about classic rock-and-roll in “Not Fade Away” as he did about Italian-American jersey boys on “The Sopranos.”  Both skill sets would have served him beautifully here.  Rarely have I seen a movie musical as, well, sedentary as Jersey Boys.”  The camera barely moves, even during the numerous musical set-pieces (“Walk Like a Man,” “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” et al).  Who knows?  Maybe they were intended as an homage to Sam Katzman-produced cheapies from the early 1960’s like “Twist Around the Clock” and “Don’t Knock the Twist” where the camera remained stationary as it dutifully recorded numbers performed by chart-topping acts of the day.  Because Eastwood is such a masterly director, Jersey Boys” never feels remotely stagey despite its theatrical origins.  Of course, neither did the Broadway version in which the proscenium arch seemed to magically disappear before your eyes as though you were watching a live-action movie.  But not being stagey isn’t the same thing as being cinematic.  The only time Eastwood’s film truly comes to life is during a rousing production number shoehorned over the closing credits.  Most of the time, it just feels sluggish and curiously devoid of energy.  Except for Vincent Piazza (best known as Lucky Luciano on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) and a restrained Christopher Walken, as Four Seasons member Tommy DeVito and goodfella Gyp DeCarlo, respectively, the cast was largely recruited from various stage companies of the show.  Everybody (including John Lloyd Young who won a Tony award for his portrayal of Valli in the original Broadway production) hits their marks with precision and neatly scales down their performances for the big screen.  On stage, Jersey Boys” was electrifying: a propulsively exciting jukebox musical elevated to great popular art in the hands of book writers Marshall Brickman (yes, Woody Allen’s Marshall Brickman) and Rick Elice and wizardly veteran theater director Des McAnuff.  The story of the rise and fall (and rise again) of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was a snapshot of mid-twentieth century American life (and show business), as well as a microcosm for the seismic cultural changes that erupted in this country during the period.  For Baby Boomers like me, Jersey Boys” was a blast from the past and a fitting memorial for one of the most beloved musical acts of the early rock era.  Jersey Boys” on film will probably work best with audiences unfamiliar with the original theatrical incarnation since they’ll have nothing to compare it with.  If, like me, you’ve already seen and loved Jersey Boys” on stage, Eastwood’s film just seems superfluous.  Even in its fatally flawed form Jersey Boys” is still infinitely superior to such recent stage-to-screen translations as “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Miserables.”  Yet it’s not half as entertaining as the critically maligned 2012 box office flop, “Rock of Ages,” which had an aptly sleazy, trashy rock-and-roll vibe.  On the basis of his listless film, you’d swear Eastwood had never listened to a rock-and-roll record in his life.  Or had any idea who Valli was and what the Four Seasons and their music were all about.   I have too much affection for the material, the music and Clint Eastwood to completely dismiss Jersey Boys.”   It just isn’t the movie I wanted it to be.  Or the one I dreamed of while watching the stage version.

Milan Paurich is a film critic based near Cleveland, Ohio.

Copyright © 2014 by Milan Paurich.

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The Dark Knight Falters?

© Review by John Arkelian

“The Dark Knight Rises” (USA, 2012) (C+/B-): There is something compelling, something iconic even, about the character of Batman.  With his

Christian Bale & Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

black armor, cape, and accoutrements, he seems to be the personification of the night, a dark avenging angel intent on confronting evildoers on the mean streets.  With an alter ego born of personal tragedy, he turns violence against those who wield it against the innocent, remaining all the while a solitary, somewhat

Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

tragic figure.  British writer/director Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” 2000) restored the character to its gritty, deadly serious origins, happily discarding the cartoonish tone that dominated the Tim Burton and (even more so) the lamentable Joel Schumacher films that went before: You’ll see no clowns on motorcycles in Nolan’s films — thank goodness!  Nolan improved upon his

Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

first entry in the franchise (2005’s “Batman Begins”) with the superlative “The Dark Knight” (2008):  That film ended with Batman taking the blame (somewhat pointlessly, to this reviewer’s way of thinking) for a madman’s murderous rampage in order to preserve unblemished the reputation of a once noble (but ultimately fallen) public hero.  As the final film in Nolan’s trilogy opens, our protagonist is bereft of all purpose, having sacrificed his standing as a heroic figure and lost his true love to violence.  With his Batman attire

Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

locked away, and his body damaged by past battles, Bruce Wayne has been a complete recluse for eight years.  He is brought out of self-imposed retirement when new dangers threaten a relatively peaceful Gotham City with urban Armageddon.  When he’s back in fighting trim, swooping out of the darkness to deliver a richly deserved come-uppance to villains, the film soars with him, helped along the way by Hans Zimmer’s darkly ominous musical score.  But Nolan’s third outing is weighed down by a less than compelling plot; an array of gadgets, threats, explosions, and effects that distract from the film’s real strength, which is its grounding in a realistic tone; and an overlong (at 164 minutes) running time.  Tom Hardy is serviceable enough as the

Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

villainous masked mountain of a man known as Bane.  But his plans for Gotham are neither original nor believable:  He blows-up all the bridges, buries the entire police force alive in underground tunnels, and holds this major metropolis (which is New York City in all but name) hostage for three months while no one does anything to stop him.  Here’s where Nolan indulges in some pretentious social commentary.  Referencing recent discontent by ‘the 99-percent’ and the inequity intrinsic in a society (ours!) in which the preponderance of wealth, power, and privilege is in the hands of a small minority, Nolan has his terrorist masquerade as a class-warrior, offering to liberate the masses

Anne Hathaway in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

from their oppressors.  There are references to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and the French Revolution, in the form of a direct quotation from one of that novel’s best-known passages (“Tis a far, far better thing I do…”) late in the film and a fleeting glimpse of the hulking Bane knitting at the foot of a revolutionary kangaroo court — à la Madame Guillotine.  But all the social injustice allusions end up amounting to nothing at all:  Nolan doesn’t have any real interest in exploring them, save as an excuse for showing citizenry running amok; and Bane is really just an urban terrorist pretending (none too convincingly) to care about inequality.  His first act, not counting blowing up innocents at a

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises” (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

football game, is to storm Gotham’s nearest facsimile to the Bastille: But, no one would mistake the dangerous criminals he lets out of prison for political prisoners.  Worse still, Bane’s motivations are preposterous, involving, as they do, the supposedly defunct League of Shadows (who originally trained Bruce Wayne) and a long lost love.  All this sound and fury ends up signifying absolutely nothing — nothing except pretentious over-reach by Nolan.  For her part, Anne Hathaway is just okay as the cat-burglar formerly known as (but never referred to as) Catwoman.  She has a couple of fairly good moments; but, overall, Hathaway the actress seems a tad too perky, sweet, and innocent for the role.  She’s a contrivance at times, nowhere more so than when she is made (by the screenplay) to voice words that don’t suit her:  “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large… and leave so little for the rest of us.” That’s the screenwriter talking, not Selina Kyle, and it’s more of the same faux social commentary that undermines the primary villain’s actions.  As to other missteps:  The film leaves Bruce Wayne to wallow overlong in figurative and then quite literal pits of despair; the ease and absolute thoroughness with which Wayne’s business empire, secret identity, and hidden high-tech arsenal are uncovered by the villains strains credibility; that goes double for a revelation and betrayal late in the film; recovering from a broken back in the nick of time to undertake daunting feats of acrobatics and extreme martial arts may make undue demands upon the viewer’s suspension of disbelief; the several thousand police officers who have been trapped underground for months with meager rations seem remarkably none the worse for wear; the filmmakers sacrifice common sense for a nice visual when they mass a legion of lightly-armed liberated policemen against cannons in a solid (and therefore stupidly vulnerable) mass of manpower that is just asking to be turned into cannon-fodder; the expedient of something extremely dangerous being secreted beneath Manhattan by well-intentioned private citizens defies belief; the conflict between Wayne and Alfred is contrived; and the laying of the groundwork for an apprentice bat-hero is none too convincing.  Much of the cast from the first two installments is reunited here, with Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as his faithful retainer cum surrogate father figure Alfred, along with Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman.  Newcomers include Hardy, Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard.  This final installment of Nolan’s turn at the controls of the Bat-franchise is entertaining summer fare.  It retains the pleasing darkness and somber tone of its two immediate predecessors; and it is still far more ‘realistic’ than your standard issue super-hero blockbuster.  But, one cannot escape the feeling that it is hollow and half-baked whenever Batman is off-screen (which is all too often).  Last, but not least, a better title for this film would have been, simply, Gotham.”

© Copyright 2012 by John Arkelian.

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In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream (in Disappointment)

© Review by John Arkelian

“Prometheus” (USA) (D+): They say that in space, no one can hear you scream.  Were it otherwise, those involved in making this ill-conceived piece

Meeting our makers? Photo from “Prometheus” by Kerry Brown (courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

of space-junk would be instantly deafened by howls of bitter disappointment.  33 years after directing “Alien,” Ridley Scott returns to that gritty, frighteningly realistic hybrid of science fiction and horror with a prequel which is at once conventional and pretentious.  In 2093, a deep-space mission arrives at a distant solar system in search of the origins of man.  What they find instead is a dumbed-down derivative of the great

Charlize Theron & Idris Elba in “Prometheus” (photo by by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

1979 motion picture, a pointless monster-bash in which nothing makes a lick of sense.  Evidently, character development and common sense weren’t wanted on this particular voyage.  The emphasis is on would-be spectacle, with a surfeit of gruesome visual effects.  And, sad to say, there are no signs of intelligent life among any of

Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus” (courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

the life-forms (human or otherwise) proffered by this monumentally bad screenplay.  The result is hugely disappointing, especially given the sense of urgency and emotional heft falsely conjured by the film’s advance trailer.  The trailer’s eerily howling musical score instantly brought to mind the second film in the franchise (James Cameron’s “Aliens” from 1986), as did its use of visual jump-cuts to relentlessly ratchet-up a sense of mounting

Logan Marshall-Green, Noomi Rapace, & Michael Fassbender in “Prometheus” (photo by by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

suspense and dread.  Too bad the high expectations raised by the nifty trailer were so thoroughly dashed (or should we say trashed) by the film itself.

Spoiler alert:  The remainder of this review gives everything away. Among the many questions which this misfire makes no attempt to answer are the following stupefying leaps of illogic:   (1) Why do a pair of scientists leap to the wild conclusion that a simple motif found in cave

Prometheus as ship of the damned? (courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox).

paintings and in the art of several distinct ancient terrestrial civilizations mean what they think it means:  That mankind was seeded on Earth by extraterrestrials who are now waiting for us to go in search of them?  (2)  Why would a corporate tycoon fund a deep-space voyage (to the tune of $1 trillion) on such preposterously flimsy evidence?  (3)  Why does the mission’s resident android deliberately infect a scientist with alien organic material?  Is it an act of gratuitous malice, or what?  (4)  Why does that poisoning have the gross effect it does, unless as a transparent excuse for the filmmakers to roll-out some icky make-up work?  (5)  Why do canisters of black goo on an alien spacecraft suddenly spring numerous leaks and rapidly mutate into carnivorous alien eels?  (6)  What causes the goo to quicken in the first place?  Just a drop of android perspiration?  (7) How does the heroine race across a desolate plain, survive being swatted by a giant, and leap crevices in a spacesuit — minutes after conducting a caesarian on herself?  (8)  Why is Noomi Rapace (who was very effective as the titular girl in the original Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” so utterly underwhelming here?  (9)  How could a very old, terminally ill man, a man who is already halfway through death’s door, survive the rigors of suspended animation and the even more arduous process of resuscitation?  (10)  Why has a supposed ancient progenitor of man been in suspended animation for what may be centuries or longer?  (11) Why does said progenitor behave like an enraged rampaging troll when it awakens?  (12)  Why has mankind been marked for extermination by its purported makers?  (13)  Why does the extraterrestrial ship spontaneously replay three-dimensional holographic recordings of past events at convenient moments, except as a contrived and painfully heavy-handed way to provide story explication?  (14)  Why does the crew meander to and fro in a potentially hostile environment so carelessly?  (15)  Why would one of them reach out to pat an alien eel which may, for all he knows, want to eat him?  (16)  How does the only halfway sympathetic character on board (Idris Elba, as the ship’s nominal captain) suddenly divine (on the basis of no evidence at all) the exact nature and purpose of the mysterious and massive alien ship?  (17)  Why do none of the characters (Elba is a near-miss) on this ship of the damned engage our interest or sympathies?  And, (18)  Why do Ridley Scott & Company dispense with any pretense at story and characterization in favor of over-sized storms and explosions, monsters large and small, and the usual tedious array of so-called special effects?  Everything here looks big and shiny; but it is all as lightweight and hollow as cardboard.  Skip this voyage:  It’s neither scary nor involving; and it is an insult to the memory of the first two “Alien” movies.  It seems Scott’s best work is behind him — far behind him.

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist and author.

© Copyright 2012 by John Arkelian.

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“Dark Shadows — The Vampire Franchise That Would Not Die”

© By John Arkelian

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (From “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare)

Jonathan Frid as the brooding Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows” (courtesy of Dan Curtis Productions)

You can’t keep a good vampire down, or so it would seem, judging by the impending return (on May 11,2012) of “Dark Shadows” more than forty years after its demise.  It is being reinvented for the big-screen with Johnny Depp in the role of the genre’s first romantic vampire.

Vampires have long been a popular subject among audiences and storytellers alike.  The genre has been going great-guns in recent years thanks to the likes of “True Blood,” the ever-so-tiresome “Twilight” movies, and the engagingly witty seven-year run of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on television.  But earlier waves of popular interest in this fictional creature date back to 1819 and a story by John Polidori, a physician and one-time traveling companion of Lord Byron.  And, why not? What other creation of fiction can evoke such strong and disparate reactions?  The vampire can be horrific, seductive, pathetic, enigmatic, or, at his most complex, all of those things at the same time.  That is the real secret of his enduring allure.

The vampire’s power is that of fear and longing.  Who can resist the allure of a creature who possesses potent sexuality, grace, and charm, and who is

Johnny Depp strikes a similar pose in “Dark Shadows” (2012) (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

untouched by aging and disease?  We may envy the vampire’s earthly immortality, but we recognize and abhor its essential emptiness.  To survive, the vampire must steal the blood, and hence the life, of others.  Vampires literally “love” their partners to death, moving promiscuously from one partner to another.  As fantasy, such an existence offers a certain appeal to our baser instincts.  We are bewitched by vampires because they embody, and evoke, our strongest desires and our most heartfelt dread.

The definitive vampire of the 20th century got his start on a daytime

Above and below: Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins in the original “Dark Shadows” (courtesy of Dan Curtis Productions).

television serial called “Dark Shadows.” The complex, tormented figure of vampire Barnabas Collins inspired menace and pathos in equal measure.  Here was the first overtly sympathetic portrayal of a vampire as a tragic, lonely figure who loathes being “compelled by desires I cannot control to commit acts which sadden and repulse me.”  According to pop sociologist Norine Dresser, female viewers of “Dark Shadows” were attracted to the vampire’s romantic manner and courtliness.  For some, he represented eroticism combined with danger.  Others felt sympathy and protectiveness toward a tragic figure who “doesn’t want to be what he is.”  Many female fans wanted to ‘help’ the vampire, in the belief that ‘the right woman’ could save him from himself.  But the allure of Barnabas Collins was not felt only by those with maternal or romantic inclinations.  For the show’s legions of teenage fans, this deeply conflicted figure, constantly struggling with dark inner cravings, was a vivid metaphor for the awkwardness and turmoil of adolescence.

When it debuted as a daytime serial in 1966 on ABC-TV, “Dark Shadows” was a Gothic romance in the true sense of the term:  A sweet young heroine arrived in Collinsport, Maine to serve as governess for the wealthy, but tragedy-prone, Collins family. The Collins family lived in a brooding old mansion high on the cliffs above the sea; and, in short order, the new governess found herself menaced by the dark shadows which surrounded her…  Initially, the emphasis was on mystery and suspense.  There were plenty of skeletons in the closets of Collinwood, but nothing overtly supernatural.  But, after ten months of mediocre ratings, drastic measures were called for.  So, one stormy night, ne’er do well drifter Willie Loomis, intent on robbing graves, opened one chained coffin too many and unleashed vampire Barnabas Collins onto an unsuspecting world. The ratings soared and “Dark Shadows” never looked back.  In the ensuing years, a legion of vampires, witches, warlocks, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, phoenixes, and other creatures of the supernatural became standard fare for the show’s 20 million viewers.  The plots weaved through different generations of the Collins family, jumping backwards in time to 1795, 1897, and 1840, and then into the realm of parallel time.  But the chief draw always remained Barnabas Collins.  Here is a figure who expresses anguish and shame when confronted by the spirit of his young sister:  “Please do not hate me!  I cannot help myself!”  The role made a star of Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose classical stage background enabled him to bring surprising nuance to the character.

The rest of the cast developed into an unprecedented repertory company, with each actor playing many different characters.  Indeed, several actors played 10-12 different roles during the series’ five year run.  Such

Above: Ben Cross (Barnabas Collins) & Joanna Going (Victoria Winters) in “Dark Shadows” (1991). Below: Cast of 1991’s “Dark Shadows” (both courtesy of MGM/UA).

well-known actors as Kate Jackson and David Selby got their start on “Dark Shadows.” Screen star Joan Bennett played the mysterious matriarch of the Collins family and top character actors like Oscar nominee Grayson Hall and Thayer David were regulars.  Even Marsha Mason made an appearance.  The undisputed star of “Dark Shadows,” however, was Jonathan Frid, who was catapulted, in his mid-40’s, into instant fame.  He received thousands of fan letters weekly, and in 1968 a Dallas newspaper named Frid and Jacqueline Kennedy as the top two ‘publicity names’ of the year.  Like the rest of the “Dark Shadows” cast, Frid played his role seriously.  His portrayal of Barnabas Collins emphasized the conflict within his character.  The result was a sympathetic portrait of a tortured man constantly struggling with his own dark side.  Originally hired for a brief stint, Frid’s impact on the program’s ratings made him a permanent fixture.  It also made his portrayal of the tragic, romantic vampire an icon of American popular culture in the same league as “Star Trek’s” Captain Kirk.  After the show’s cancellation in 1971, Frid returned to a Broadway stage career.  Prior to retiring, he toured North America with his one-man reader’s theater shows, which drew their repertoire from Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and O. Henry.

“Dark Shadows” reached the pinnacle of its popularity from 1968 to 1970.  Its large and enthusiastic audience ran the gamut from housewives to teens to university students.  Joanne Woodward and Tricia Nixon were counted amongst its fans.  Frid’s successful portrayal of vampire Barnabas Collins was emulated when David Selby was introduced as Quentin Collins — portrayed first as a malevolent ghost and later as an unwitting werewolf.

The show spawned two MGM motion pictures, “House of Dark Shadows” (1970), and ”Night of Dark Shadows” (1971), a bestselling soundtrack LP featuring Robert Cobert’s eerily evocative score, more than 30 paperback novels by Canadian writer Dan Ross, comic books, Viewmaster sets, models, games, and more.  Although the first movie adaptation was a box office hit and a reputed life-saver for the then ailing MGM, the popularity of the television series declined abruptly thereafter.  No one has ever figured out why.  Overly complex plots may have been one nail in the series’ coffin.  Or, it may simply have run out of steam.

Fan interest didn’t die, however.  It persisted, feebly at first, but slowly

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins & Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in “Dark Shadows” (2012) (courtesy of Warner Bros.)

gaining strength as the show appeared in reruns on PBS and other stations.  Nowadays, annual fan conventions attract over a thousand adult fans from across America.  Those fans have made their presence felt:  CDs containing additional music from the original series have appeared in recent years, as have new audio dramas reuniting the original cast, hardcover books exploring the “Dark Shadows” phenomenon, and new novels that continue the story of its characters.  MGM released both of the movie adaptations on VHS and laser-disc (though still not on DVD, for reasons unknown), and another firm has released all 1,225 of the original television episodes on both VHS and DVD.

“Dark Shadows” was the brainchild of producer Dan Curtis, who literally dreamt up the idea.  Curtis went on to do some highly-rated work in the horror genre, including a definitive version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” starring Jack Palance (a co-production with the CBC, filmed in Toronto), and ”The Night Stalker,” which for years was the most highly rated

The cast of “Dark Shadows” (2012) (courtesy of Warner Bros.).

television-movie ever made.  Curtis later hit the big-time with his “Winds of War” opus.  Then, to his own surprise, Curtis returned to “Dark Shadows” in 1991, recreating the series for prime-time broadcast on NBC, this time taking on the added responsibility of directing the new series.  An entirely new cast of actors recreated the familiar characters, with British actor Ben Cross in the pivotal role of Barnabas Collins.  He had strong support in the persons of Jean Simmons, Roy Thinnes, Joanna Going, Lysette Anthony, Barbara Steele, and Jim Fyfe.  With a budget that dwarfed that of the original program, Curtis fashioned a thoughtful and beautifully-produced drama about dread and desire.  Sexier and slightly darker than its original incarnation, 1991’s “Dark Shadows” was easily the most entertaining drama on television, as well as being a powerful portrayal of a vampire.  Debuting in early 1991 as a mid-season replacement series, the elegant new “Dark Shadows” had to contend with a poor time-slot and scheduling interruptions caused by the First Gulf War.  Despite its solid ratings, only a seemingly unlucky thirteen hours were made and aired before its untimely cancellation in the spring of 1991.

Curtis tried again in 2004, with an attempted reboot of the series for “The WB” network.  British actor Alec Newman was cast as Barnabas, with Blair Brown, Martin Donovan, and the recently ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) in supporting roles.  This time out, however, Curtis took a back-seat to others, and the pilot, directed by Australian P.J. Hogan (best known for 1994’s “Muriel’s Wedding”) was neither broadcast nor picked-up as a series.  Reportedly, it lost its way in a day-glow color palette and in its over-eagerness to appeal to a ‘hip’ young demographic.

The strength of the original series and the continued loyalty of its fans —

Jean Simmons (as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard) & Ben Cross (as Barnabas Collins) in “Dark Shadows” (1991) (courtesy of MGM/UA).

after nearly half a century — are key factors in “Dark Shadows’” stubborn refusal to die.  Its upcoming big-screen adaptation from director Tim Burton is the subject of keen speculation by fans.  Although both Burton and leading man Johnny Depp claim to have been childhood fans of the original series, Burton has a frequent propensity as a filmmaker for going way over the top.  More often than not, his films are overblown and cartoonish.  The garish, gratuitously flamboyant filming style he represents seems ill-suited to “Dark Shadows’” unique amalgam of tragedy, high romance, and supernatural — all of it embodied in a Gothic setting.  It is hard to picture Johnny Depp in the role of the 200-plus-years old Barnabas Collins. True, Depp has done good work elsewhere, but isn’t he too round-faced, superficial, and modern-looking to bring the necessary gravitas to a serious portrayal of this tragic, tormented vampire?  Indeed, early photographs of Depp in character, which were smuggled from an on-location shoot on the coast of Cornwall seemed to confirm fans’ worst fears.   If one can judge by appearances (an outlandishly pasty face, blue shades that look like they belong on an attention-seeking pop-celebrity, an overly spiky hairdo, an oddly effeminate expression, a jarringly out-of-place fedora, and a flamboyantly green coat), it seemed that Barnabas Collins had been re-imagined as Michael Jackson — or, possibly, as a gay mime.  What might be next?  Perhaps werewolf Quentin Collins (known for his abundant sideburns) re-imagined as Elvis, in full voice with “You ain’t nothing but a hound-dog?” Are Burton & Company intent on lampooning this well-loved franchise, substituting a gratuitously kooky, oddball sensibility (a trademark of most Burton/Depp collaborations) for its original darkly romantic (but serious) tone?  Whether it will be a parody or a respectful revisiting of a story and characters which have had an unshakeable place in viewers’ imaginations for so many years remains to be seen.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist based near Toronto.

Copyright © February 2012 by John Arkelian
All rights reserved.

Editor’s Note (March 16, 2012): The first trailer for the new film is out at last, and there is no longer any room for doubt about what Messieurs Burton and Depp have wrought.  It’s a bloody disaster! And it was so predicable:  The grotesque, the garish, the unsophisticated, and the inane are mother’s milk to Tim Burton, and, frankly, to Johnny Depp, too.  The cartoon-like trailer makes it abysmally clear that the object of Burton/Depp’s so-called “reimagining” was to make fun of Dark Shadows.  (Indeed, it looks like Depp is still doing his pirate captain routine.)  The joke’s on those who appreciated Dark Shadows’ unique brand of Gothic romance and suspense.  One wonders what series creator Dan Curtis (now deceased) and others closely associated with the original or the 1991 versions of the ‘Shadow-verse’ would think of the mockery this film has made of the story and characters that so captivated its loyal viewers for nearly 50 years?   In place of High Romance, we get Low Comedy — of the slapstick variety.  It’s appalling. That early publicity shot of Depp in character with an inappropriately Nosferatu-like index finger extended straight up should have used the next finger over, for that is what this travesty of a “reboot” is saying to those who care about the Dark Shadows mythos.  The original Barnabas did not suffer fools gladly.  If that tragic, dignified character still had a voice, one can only guess that this is what he would say, cane raised in anger (something very much like what he said to a disloyal subordinate in both the 1970 film and 1991 series):  “Timmy, you have betrayed me!”  ForBurton & Company have utterly betrayed the integrity of the very material they so disingenuously claimed to respect.

© 2012 by John Arkelian.

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On December 28.11

My Year in Movies — 2011

© By Milan Paurich

Whoever said “all good things come to those who wait” must have been

Jessica Chastain & Brad Pitt in “The Tree of Life.” (Photo by Merie Wallace – courtesy of Fox Searchlight.)

talking about the 2011 movie year.  Until September, I didn’t even think I’d find ten worthy contenders for a best list.  By year’s end I had the opposite problem.  The goodies (“We Need to Talk About Kevin,”The Artist,”A Separation,” et al.) began raining down in such dizzying succession you needed an umbrella to keep from drowning.  For most of the year, the major topics of conversation were declining box office revenues/DVD sales and the abject wretchedness of most studio product.  It was no wonder audiences seemed to be turning their collective backs on Tinseltown.  One “can’t-miss” movie after another (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Cars 2,” “Zookeeper,” ad nauseam) stumbled out of the gate and wound up seriously underperforming–at least domestically.  (International audiences still appear to be suckers for Hollywood’s CGI-trumps-all 3-D extravaganzas.)  Whether the recent upsurge in quality fare (including David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and two instant classics from Steven Spielberg: “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin”) will translate to an uptake in ticket sales for 2012 remains to be seen. Yet hope always springs eternal, right?

So without further ado, here’s how things stacked up for one inveterate cinephile, who spent a good chunk of the past year furiously scribbling notes in the sacrosanct darkness of a movie theater.

THE TEN BEST

(1) “Melancholia” (Lars von Trier):  Eternal enfant terrible von Trier’s ecstatic, deeply felt and rapturously, transcendently beautiful vision of the End of Days moved and thrilled me like no other movie this year.  As a bride stuck between a rock and a hard place (actually a falling planet), Kirsten Dunst gave the greatest female performance of 2011.

(2) “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick):  A thing of beauty is a joy forever.  Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”) turned his quasi-

Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life.” (Photo by Merie Wallace – courtesy of Fox Searchlight.)

autobiographical account of growing up in 1950’s small town Texas into a poetic meditation on the beginnings of the cosmos.

(3) Hugo” (Martin Scorsese):  A valentine to the history–and artistry–of motion pictures. Truly one for the ages.

(4) “War Horse” (Steven Spielberg):  Who said they don’t make ‘em like they used to?  Classical Hollywood moviemaking, Spielberg-style.

(5) “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne):  Like Terrence Malick, Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”) doesn’t make a whole lot of movies, but when he does, it’s always a celebratory occasion.  His latest–the finest family ‘dramedy’ since James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment”–was no exception.

George Clooney & Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants.” (Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.)

(6) Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen):  Allen’s biggest box-office hit ever was also one of the finest, funniest movies of his 40-plus-year directing career.

(7) “Drive” (Nicolas Winding Refn):  This hypnotic, sleekly designed urban noir delivered the same jolt of uber-stylized adrenaline that Michael Mann routinely delivered back when he still was making great movies (“Heat,” “Thief,” “Manhunter”). An eclectic cast of marvelous actors (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, et al.) insured that it wasn’t all sizzle.

(8) “Moneyball” (Bennett Miller):  The jock equivalent to “The Social Network” (both are breathlessly paced, brainy and stuffed to the gills with eminently quotable Aaron Sorkin dialogue) featured a career-high performance by Brad Pitt as former Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane.

(9) “Weekend” (Andrew Haigh): A gay “Brief Encounter” set in present-day England, Haigh’s jewel of a film was perfectly scaled and beautifully acted by its two unknown leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New. The year’s best–and most touching–love story.

(10) Bellflower (Evan Glodell): Made for $17,000 this stunningly original debut by writer, director, producer, star, co-editor and digital effects creator Glodell was an apocalyptic love-on-the-rocks fable of well-nigh cosmic proportions.

RUNNERS-UP (in no particular order):

“We Need to Talk About Kevin;” “A Dangerous Method;” “Crazy, Stupid, Love;” “J. Edgar;” “Martha Marcy May Marlene;” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo;” “Mysteries of Lisbon;” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives;” “Contagion;” “The Trip;” “The Skin I Live In;” “Take Shelter;” “The Artist;” “Young Adult;” “Margin Call;” “Margaret;” “The Adventures of Tintin;” “Project Nim;” “City of Life and Death;” “To Die Like a Man;” “The Future;” “A Separation;” “Poetry;” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy;” “Coriolanus;” “We Bought a Zoo;” “The Ides of March;” “Le Quattro Volte;” “Film Socialisme;” “Tuesday After Christmas;” “Le Havre;” “The Sleeping Beauty;” “Pina;” “Aurora;” & “Tabloid.”

THE TEN WORST:

(1) “A Serbian Film” The most reprehensible thing about this nauseating slice of “extreme” European cinema was how woozily pretentious and simple-minded it was. Naturally it picked up a cult following, thanks largely to Netflix’s refusal to stock it.

(2) “The Green Lantern” In a year rife with pointless and pedestrian comic book/super hero movies (“Thor” anyone?), this laughably inept 3-D catastrophe came across like a Travolta-less remake of “Battlefield Earth.”

(3) “The Killer Elite” Some good actors (including Clive Owen, Jason Statham, and Robert DeNiro) were stranded in this incoherent wasteland of an action flick that made so little sense you’d swear they were making it up as they went along.

(4) “The Three Musketeers” Pretty much what you’d expect if the hack (Paul W.S. Anderson) responsible for the wretched “Resident Evil” franchise ever got his hands on Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling perennial. In ho-hum 3-D, no less.

(5) “Priest” Director Scott Stewart seems to be cornering the market on laughably lugubrious Biblical-themed horror/sci-fi flicks.  His 2011 edition was even worse than last year’s (“Legion”) thanks to the inclusion of some headache-inducing 3-D.

(6) “I Melt With You” I have no idea what good actors like Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, and Christian McKay (the Big O in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles”) were doing in this repulsive, off-putting, thoroughly depressing Sundance alum about four boyhood pals reuniting to make good on an adolescent suicide pact. “M*A*S*H” had it wrong.  In this clunker, suicide is painful (to watch anyway) indeed.

(7) “Something Borrowed” Yes, there were worse romantic comedies this year (hello, “New Year’s Eve”).  But this May stinker deserves 10-worst ignominy for wasting the talents of such likable rom-com ringers as Ginnifer Goodwin and John Krasinski on a witless, predictable script that wouldn’t pass muster as a Fox Family cable flick.

(8) “Mars Needs Moms” At a reported cost of $150-million plus, Disney’s ugly-looking, utterly charmless performance-capture 3-D ‘toon was the year’s biggest box-office disaster.

(9) “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” The film where “Super Size Me” auteur Morgan  Spurlock officially ran out of ideas.  And lost whatever remaining audience he had left in the process.

(10) “Attack the Block” What hath Edgar Wright wrought? The cultish “Shaun of the Dead”/”Hot Fuzz” director executive produced this slapdash alien-invasion-in-the-hood comedy which fanboys (and most critics) adored despite the fact that more than half the dialogue was virtually incomprehensible to non-Brit ears.

NOBODY DOES IT BETTER…THAN HBO:

Besides their usual bounty of terrific weekly series (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Enlightened,” “Game of Thrones,” “Bored to Death,” etc.), HBO served up some of their best original movies/documentaries ever in 2011. Todd Haynes’ spectacular “Mildred Pierce” miniseries would have handily topped my best list if it had been eligible. And “Cinema Verite” (by husband-and-wife directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini of “American Splendor” fame), Martin Scorsese’s remarkable three-and-a-half hour George Harrison doc “Living in the Material World” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” were equally memorable.

WHO SAID MOVIES HAD TO MAKE SENSE TO BE GOOD?

Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals,” Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame?” and Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” didn’t make a lick of sense on a narrative level.  Yet their drop-dead gorgeous visuals made them some of the most yummy eye-candy of the year.

WHO SAID MOVIES HAD TO MAKE SENSE TO BE NEAR-GREAT?

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a classy adaptation of the 1970’s John le Carre spy novel, was virtually impossible to follow on a scene-by-scene basis, yet a killer cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy) and Tomas (“Let the Right One In”) Alfredson’s effortlessly elegant direction made obfuscation part of the fun.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR:

Last year I opined that kid-lit derived “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was so much unexpected fun that I hoped it would turn into a new kidflick franchise. Unfortunately, “Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules” was so lazy and uninspired it made me want to eat my words.

BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW:

“Margaret,” Kenneth Lonergan’s years-in-the-making follow-up to “You Can Count on Me,” grossed a pitiful $50,000 during its truncated theatrical release despite some of the most ecstatic reviews of the year.

BIGGER IS BETTER:

At four-and-a-half glorious hours, the late Raul Ruiz’s “Mysteries of Lisbon was the “most” movie of the year, and one of the greatest.

“‘PARIAH,’ YOU’RE NO ‘PRECIOUS:’”

In the hopes that it might turn out to be another “Precious,” Focus Features acquired distribution rights to this dreary slice of urban teenage life at last January’s Sundance Film Festival.  After the movie elicited zero traction on the year-end awards circuit, I bet they’re regretting that decision.

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO (AKA “LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD”):

In “Bellwether,” a cuckolded boyfriend goes medieval and takes “Road Warrior”-style revenge on the ex who did him wrong.

BEST JAMES BOND MOVIE MINUS 007:

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”

STICK A FORK IN IT, IT’S DONE:

Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to try resuscitating a franchise that had been lying dormant for more than a decade after all (“Scream 4”).

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT AND I FEEL FINE:

Some of the year’s best movies literally (“Melancholia,” “Take Shelter,” “Contagion” and “Kaboom”) or metaphorically (Wall Street crash drama “Margin Call”) portrayed the destruction of the planet.  Just call it a sign of the times.

NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER:

The “Harry Potter” series finally concluded last summer with “Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of the series’ dullest and most underwhelming installments.

PROOF THAT HOLLYWOOD STILL KNOWS HOW TO MAKE GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES:

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” So much better than the Gap.

PROOF THAT THEY DON’T:

“New Year’s Eve;” “Something Borrowed;” “The Dilemma;” “Just Go With It;” “Arthur 2.0;” “From Prada to Nada;” “Jumping the Broom;” “Love, Wedding, Marriage;” “Waiting for Forever;” “Monogamy;” “Ceremony;” “happythankyoumoreplease;” “Larry Crowne;” “Monte Carlo;” “I Don’t Know How She Does It;” “Swinging With the Finkels;” & “What’s Your Number?”

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN:

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”

SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR:

Viggo Mortensen proved to be the screen’s definitive Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s enthralling Freud/Jung buddy flick, “A Dangerous Method.”

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR:

Method actress supreme Michelle Williams gave it the old college try, but her one-dimensional portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn” was utterly lacking in the effervescent sensuality that was Monroe’s most defining characteristic.

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION:

Miss Wyoming and the Mormon missionary in Errol Morris’ “Tabloid.”

MONKEY SHINES:

Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The year’s hairiest–and most provocative–double-feature.

BEST MOVIES I SAW AT 2008/2009 FESTIVALS THAT FINALLY (IF BARELY) OPENED IN 2011:

“The Other Woman” & “A Summer in Genoa

WHEN DID EVERYBODY START HATING PENGUINS?

Neither “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” nor “Happy Feet 2” found much of a theatrical audience, a far cry from the mid-‘00s when anything penguin-y (“March of the Penguins,” “Happy Feet 1”) elicited Pavlovian oohs-and-aahs from kiddies and adults alike and raked in beacoup box-office bucks.

PAGING CHRISTOPHER GUEST:

Those doggone adorable Jack Russell Terriers in “Beginners” (Cosmo) and “The Artist” (Uggie) were truly “Best in Show.”

YEAH TO THE NAG:

Joey, the equine star of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” deserves his very own animal Oscar for the most uncanny four-legged performance since the noble beast of burden in Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar.”

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED:

After three mostly terrible movies, Fox’s “X-Men” franchise finally got it right with the prequel “First Class,” the most stylish and entertaining entry in the 11-year series to date.

COMEBACK OF THE YEAR:

After more than a decade in the wilderness (his last good film was 2000‘s “Almost Famous”), Cameron Crowe rebounded with two winners this year — the rousing rockumentary “Pearl Jam Twenty” and “We Bought a Zoo.”

EMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL:

Thanks in large measure to the wonderful performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep, J. Edger Hoover and Margaret Thatcher both came across as less monstrous than they probably were in “J. Edgar” and “The Iron Lady.”

HIS WICKED, WICKED WAYS:

In “The Devil’s Double,” Dominic Cooper’s wildly charismatic dual performance as scion of Satan, Uday Hussein, and his body double, Latif Yahic, didn’t skimp on the Iraqi bad boy’s cruelty and savagery, but was so seductive you would have followed him (Cooper, not Hussein) anywhere.

FURTHER EVIDENCE THAT VANESSA REDGRAVE IS GOD:

“Coriolanus” & “Anonymous”

LEAST OBJECTIONABLE TWEENER BAIT:

The“Footloose” remake was like a solid Broadway revival of a beloved musical. The surprises were minimal, but everybody did their job really, really well.

BEST DUELING ROBOT MOVIE:

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

LAMEST DUELING ROBOT MOVIE:

“Real Steel”

“BAD” SOMETIMES CAN BE GOOD:

Cameron Diaz was a certifiable hoot in Jake Kasdan’s raucous “Bad Teacher.”

SO CAN “HORRIBLE:”

As the titular bosses-from-Hades in “Horrible Bosses,” Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston were delightfully, uproariously venal.

WHO KNEW THAT SEX COULD BE SO BORING?

“Shame,” director Steve (“Hunger”) McQueen’s latest art gallery installation disguised as a movie, made sex addiction seem as dull as watching paint dry.

SCARIEST 3-D SUCCESS STORY:

Last fall’s alarmingly lucrative 3-D retro-fitted re-release of Disney’s “The Lion King” has spawned an alarming new Mouse House trend. Already announced are 3-D re-releases of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Monsters Inc.” What’s next? “The Fox and the Hound,” “Oliver and Company” and “The Black Cauldron”? Enough already.

TEABAGGERS ARE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY;

“Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” & “Sarah Palin: The Undefeated.”

A STAR IS BORN (THIS YEAR’S MODEL):

In 2011, stunningly gifted, beauteous newcomer Jessica Chastain wowed critics and audiences in one film after another (“The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “The Debt,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “Coriolanus”).  I can’t wait to see what she does  next.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MANDY MOORE?

The lovely Moore is a gifted singer and actress, yet she continues to evince the absolute worst taste in material. This year alone she starred in two of the most cringe-inducing rom-coms in recent screen history (“Swinging With the Finkels” and “Love, Wedding, Marriage”). If Doris Day (Moore’s logical antecedent) had this much trouble finding decent scripts, she would have never met Rock Hudson, or sang “Que Sera, Sera” in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

ADAM SANDLER MEET AL PACINO:

In Sandler’s loosey-goosey “Jack and Jill,” the former Michael Corleone gave–are you sitting down?–his best, most purely enjoyable screen performance in years.

MOVIE YOU’D MOST LIKE TO ACCIDENTALLY DISCOVER ON CABLE YEARS FROM NOW:

Like Nora Ephron’s irresistible Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-coms (“You’ve Got Mail,”Sleepless in Seattle”), Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” was as warm and comforting as a toasty blanket you wrap yourself up in on a cold winter’s day.

FRANCHISE REVIVAL THAT DIDN’T QUITE HAPPEN:

“The Muppets” Sorry, Miss Piggy.

FRANCHISE REVIVAL THAT DID:

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” Hail, Caesar!

MOST NICOLAS CAGE-Y NICOLAS CAGE MOVIE:

“Drive Angry” (Runner-up: “Season of the Witch”)

BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE:

Besides the considerable guilty pleasures of Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Bard is a Fraud’ conspiracy theory-meller, “Anonymous,” Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” got a brilliant modern-dress adaptation in Ralph Fiennes’ smashing directorial debut.

DEMOGRAPHIC UNKNOWN:

Alas, the robustly entertaining “Anonymous” never did find an audience.  Shakespeare enthusiasts were turned off by the premise, and non-fans had zero interest in a movie about playwriting in Elizabethan England.   A lose-lose proposition for Sony Pictures who (charitably) bankrolled it.

IT SUCKS TO BE RYAN REYNOLDS:

Reynolds had a truly abysmal year. As if toplining “The Green Lantern” wasn’t humiliating enough, Reynolds also costarred in August’s profoundly unfunny “The Change-Up” which single-handedly killed the R-rated comedy revival launched earlier by “Bridesmaids.” Adding insult to injury, Reynolds’ long-shelved labor of love indie “Fireflies in the Garden” finally got released on a handful of screens where it died a quick and merciful death.

IT’S GREAT TO BE STEVEN SPIELBERG:

In December, Spielberg directed two wonderful movies that opened within days of each other.  Besides being the first performance-capture ‘toon with real soul, “The Adventures of Tintin” was arguably Spielberg’s best pure adventure movie since “Raiders of the Lost Ark. And “War Horse,” the director’s personal best since 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can,” instantly joined the ranks of his all-time greats.

BEST COMIC BOOK/SUPER HERO MOVIE:

Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen’s impishly amusing “Green Hornet” was just what the movie doc ordered to shake off the January blues.

I LIKED IT BETTER WHEN IT WAS CALLED “NO STRINGS ATTACHED:”

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis’ lightly likable romantic comedy “Friends With Benefits” had the misfortune to arrive just six short months after an identically themed (and marginally better) rom-com starring Kunis’ “Black Swan” and “That ‘70s Show” costars, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.  With “Friends” like that…

Milan Paurich is a film and theater critic, who also directs live theater.  He is based in Ohio.

Copyright © December 2011 by Milan Paurich.

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On September 19.11

A Commentary on “The Help”
Race Relations in 1960s America

© By Julia W. Rath

 

 

“The Help” provides a very good portrayal of the subtleties of race relations in the American South in the early 1960s.  The movie focuses on the racial segregation under Jim Crow as it affected the customs, taboos, and mores in Jackson, Mississippi.  The story is a medley that combines the perspectives of individual women, both black and white, chief among them Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone).  Aibileen, who is a tried-and-tested black maid working for the Leefolt household, thinks about her role in relation to her child-rearing duties by asking the question (paraphrased): “Why does a white child eventually grow up and turn out to be as closed-minded about black people as their mamas are—even though it is the black nanny who comforts thechild and instills the importance of good character, openness, honesty, and self-respect?”  From Aibileen’s point of view, all white children eventually come to identify with their mothers’ rigid understanding of the “color line.”  Yet, in an ironic twist, the movie demonstrates just the opposite:  Although Aibileen’s statement appears true prima facie, it does not accurately account for how different people and families, both white and black, have internalized the concept of race in daily life in different ways.

While the “color line” was clear as a bell in public life and within public discourse, the reality was often much more nuanced and subject to negotiation privately and within specific families.  Certainly there were extreme cases–white women like Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who adhered to segregation above and beyond what was required by Southern custom, even to the extent of advocating for separate toilet facilities for blacks and whites in the home.  More common were individuals like Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Riley) “who went along to get along” and who would never make any waves.  But then there are many whites behind the scenes—from Miss Skeeter, the aspiring writer, to the very poor “white trash” Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), and even the very rich son of a U.S. Senator, Stuart Whitworth (Chris Lowell)—who were uncomfortable with the strict racial codes.  Their respective beliefs against segregation and inequality originated from their various life experiences (which in Miss Skeeter’s case came about through her great love and affection for Constantine, the maid who had raised her).  As this empathy made its way into individual behavior, it determined how (and whether) these white characters cared to socialize (or not) with those from their own race who were more judgmental about maintaining segregation.  So, while one group fought any infringement on their customary way of life, another set of whites sought to promote the possibility of significant change in the conduct of race relations.

Likewise, many individuals within the black community had to come to terms with the reality that the white community was not a monolith.  Each of the maids had to learn which white people they could trust privately to glean support for their cause, for they could not do so openly.  Holding confidences took place quietly and bravely, one person at a time.  But changes in the private relationships between blacks and whites also occurred incrementally as certain social norms were shifting.  For example, the mere act of whites and blacks watching television coverage within the household in the same room at the same time could be taken as a sign of greater personal familiarity and decreasing social distance.Keeping this in mind, the title “The Help” has more than one meaning.  First, it has to do with the fact that the story is largely about black domestics in the South and their way of life and how their work situation impacts their own community and family.  The second meaning is related to the assistance that Miss Skeeter received from the black maids such as Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) in ghostwriting a book on Southern households and society as seen through the eyes of these black maids.  The third meaning has to do with the assistance that Miss Skeeter provided to the maids in helping them relate their personal stories to the world.  The existence of a published book elevated their combined experiences into discourse on the racial situation in the South in conjunction with what was happening in the political sphere in the push for racial equality.  The final meaning of the term “The Help” is in the sense of “Help Us, Oh, God!” such that it refers to the request to God Almighty to provide a resolution to the hatred and street violence that erupted with the assassination of Medgar Evers.  It also was a plea to God to improve the racial situation as whole—as well as a recognition that Divine Help had indeed come.

Although some depictions in the film were superficial, some performances exaggerated, and some characters ridiculous, the dramatic portrayals of Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter were all well done.  Having said that, the characters in the movie each play a role in demonstrating an important truth, that is, how every one of us negotiates the line between what culture, society, and tradition dictate, and what we must do as a matter of conscience and personal reflection.   In the end, it is the little decisions we make in matters of personal relationships that are important, no matter who or what we are.  Hence, this story is a hopeful reminder that, regardless of our place in society, integrity and honesty can eventually win the day.  More to the point, it was the changing web of human interaction among whites and blacks that formed the building blocks of the larger Civil Rights Movement, for in small but bold actions, history was created.  The story’s elements of buffoonery, silliness, pettiness, and revenge-seeking provided moments of comic relief, a light-hearted counterbalance to the larger story of courage and social change — making this film about a very serious topic highly entertaining as well.

Copyright © 2011 by Julia W. Rath.

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On May 14.10

“The Pedagogy of Love”

©  By John Arkelian

“O Contador de Histórias” [“The Storyteller”]  [aka “The Story of Me”] (Brazil, 2009) (B+/A-): A young black boy has fond memories of his early childhood in the Brazilian shantytown of Belo Horizonte.  His family was very poor, but he was happy:  “My mother was a washerwoman.  She used to make the clothes so white, it was as if there were white clouds on the line.”  But Roberto’s mother is desperate to give the youngest of her ten children the chance at a better life, so she takes him to “FEBEM,” a government-run institution for needy children – a place that holds out the promise of education and nutritious meals.  While the place isn’t all bad, it’s not the first step on the road to achievement and happiness, either.  Bullying, loneliness, and the bad example of older boys soon sets Roberto on a rather different course:  As a serial run-away, he’s well on his way to becoming a street-kid and petty criminal.  When Margherit Duvas (the always fascinating Maria de Medeiros), a teacher from France, visits the orphanage one day, the first thing she sees of 13-year old Roberto is him being dragged back after his latest escape.  She’s told that:  “He ran away again, he’s always running away.  A problem child.  We’ve tried everything; nothing seems to work… He already steals, smokes, sniffs glue.  Beyond hope.”  But the challenge of a child who’s deemed to be “beyond hope” only captures Margherit’s interest.  For his part, the sullen child is intrigued by the foreign teacher’s tape recorder:  “Will my voice stay inside there?”  So, they come together – as teacher and student – in a relationship that will change both their lives.

Set in the 1970’s, the film is the biographical story of the beloved real-life Brazilian teacher and writer, Roberto Carlos Ramos (b. 1965), a kind of Latin American Leo Buscaglia, who is regarded as one of the world’s greatest storytellers.  (Revealingly, one of his books is subtitled ‘The Pedagogy of Love.’)  The tone, at first, feels uneven or uncertain.  Occasionally, we see what the child is imagining, through fantasy sequences.  Some of those, like a flock of kites fluttering above rooftops, really are magical; others feel somewhat heavy-handed and intrusive.  The tone fluctuates from warm nostalgia to wry humor to darker scenes of emotional deprivation and outright abuse, and on to a character-driven pas de deux. The first time we meet Margherit, she seems a tad too much the wide-eyed innocent.  (And, we never really find out what the nature of her educational research in Brazil actually is.  She approaches Roberto to have him describe his life.  But why?)  A hint of absent-mindedness persists (she’s always misplacing her eyeglasses), but her character, and the child’s, really come into their own after the traumatized child finds desperate sanctuary at her place, holed-up in her bathroom.  There’s scarcely any dialogue then, or in some later scenes with the pair, but the characters gather gravitas and deeper humanity in those scenes, in contrast to the semi-comical tone of their first, brief meeting at the orphanage.  The actors and director wrest considerable poignancy from the gentleness of those quiet, understated scenes.  Maria de Medeiros brings impressive authenticity and naturalness to all her roles.  Her Margherit epitomizes those very attributes:  She’s guilelessly playful, open, and gentle.  It’s a marvel of naturalism, a kind of acting that is as seamless as it is irresistible.  The actors who play Roberto at varying ages likewise convey persuasive authenticity; and, the actress who plays Margherit’s opposite number at FEBEM also makes a strong impression in a supporting role.

The film succeeds admirably as a story of hope and redemption, even if its disparate ingredients initially fail to gel in an even broth.  The narrator offers dryly ironic quips about life in the orphanage reminiscent of the wonderful 2004 French film “Viper in the Fist.” At their best, the moments of magic realism offer a quirkily imaginative view of the world:  “We lived in a house with a zinc roof.  It made the house so hot, so very hot, that if you entered with a live chicken, it would be roasted in no time.”  Perhaps it’s not so much a child’s-eye view, but that of a nostalgic adult fondly recalling his childhood; and, in that respect, it is reminiscent of 2003’s “Big Fish,” which was also about a born storyteller.  However, a gritty scene involving sexual violence has a cruel, unpleasant tone that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the film.  What’s best of all about the film is the developing relationship between Margherit and Roberto.  More than teacher and student, they become surrogate mother and child, as she teachers him not only to read and explore his imagination but also to see past the color of his own skin and to look others squarely in the eye.  It’s a bit like the 2009 French film “Welcome,” with a surrogate parent/child relationship unexpectedly developing between people from different countries and cultures; a scene near its end reuniting two long-sundered characters brings to mind the closing of 2005’s French/Israeli film “Va, vis, et deviens,” and, it’s also a Brazilian variation on 2009’s “The Blind Side,” with a caring woman choosing to get involved by taking responsibility for a stranger – a choice that transforms both their lives.  By the film’s end, we’ve come to care for these characters almost as much as they care for each other.  For ages 18+.  Warning: Coarse language; one scene of sexual violence; and other violence.

Copyright © 2010 by John Arkelian.

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On May 14.10

“Passion and Obsession Collide in ‘Il Compleanno'”

© By John Arkelian

“Il Compleanno” [“David’s Birthday”] (Italy, 2009) (B+): Fresh from the Venice Film Festival, this engrossing look at the lives of two couples, long-time friends whose lives are thrown into sudden turmoil by sexual

Maria de Medeiros in “David’s Birthday” (courtesy of Zen Zero films)

obsession and betrayal, is, by turns, a closely-observed character study and an excursion into the realm of deliberate melodrama.  At first, the seaside setting of Sabaudia (about 50 miles south of Rome) seems idyllic, resting, as it does, in the shadow of Mt. Circeo – the legendary site of Odysseus’ encounter with the seductress and sorceress Circe in Homer’s epic poem.  There are four main players:  Matteo (Massimo Poggio) and Francesca (Maria de Medeiros) are devoted parents to a young daughter and seem to be in a stable, loving relationship with each other.  Instability lurks nearer to the surface with their close friends Shary (Michaela Cescon) and Diego (Alessandro Gassman), who’ve married, divorced, and reunited.  Shary may love her partner, but she still decries the fact that he’s a “man-child.”  For her part, Francesca admires the passionate intensity of Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera “Tristan und Isolde,” exclaiming yearningly that, “It’s about a love so absolute, so devastating.  Who wouldn’t want that!”  Her words are eerily prescient, for they unwittingly anticipate the birth of obsessive desire in her husband – for another man.  As writer/director Marco Filiberti points out, Wagner’s emotive strains are “the musical leitmotiv” of this story, and the film echoes not just the opera’s passion, but also its preoccupation with fate and the destructive ends to which our unrestrained passions may doom us.

The quartet is joined in their tryst by the sea, first by Diego and Shary’s teenage son David (is his name meant to remind us of that paragon of male beauty, Michelangelo’s 1501 marble figure of David?), and then by Shary’s itinerant brother Leonard.  From the moment he arrives, Leonard espies what no one else seems to have noticed – the incipient, forbidden attraction between Matteo and David.  There’s very little in the story to explain the basis for that attraction, we’re simply meant to accept it as a given.  Frankly, David mostly seems fascinated with himself, and in the face of his unabashed autoeroticism, Matteo is initially reduced to a Peeping-Tom.  His fascination with David is doubly transgressive, of course, insofar as Matteo is married and his adulterous new passion is homoerotic.  On a couple of occasions, the depictions of Matteo’s sexual frustration and jealousy tread dangerously near (but not quite over) the precipice of excess. His febrile, overwrought visions of male sailors as he watches the object of his lust on a dance floor with young women is one such misstep, albeit a small one.  Likewise, his sudden outburst of anger against his wife lacks subtlety.  But, we must remember that the filmmaker has very deliberately embraced the conventions of melodrama, and, truth be told, those conventions suit the operatic structure of his story.

Musically, the film returns to “Tristan und Isolde” at key moments.  Elsewhere, the classy and moodily impressionistic score is somewhat Hitchcockian in flavor and even more reminiscent of Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’Apres-midi d’un Faune” (1894).  Indeed, its use in a moonlit scene that’s painted in dark blue hues as David emerges lazily from the sea to face a rapt Matteo conjures the meeting of faun and would-be satyr.  All four leads get strong emotional moments; the sublimely talented Maria de Medeiros gets three or four.  There’s an innocence to her character:  Director Filiberti calls Francesca “as pure as a child… absolutely uncontaminated;” and a character in the film tells her, “You’re still a child, a very sensitive child. And that’s the beauty of you.”  There’s nothing derogatory or childish about her childlikeness; rather, her sweetness is genuine and affecting, and it is tempered by self-doubt.  She confides to Shary that, “Sometimes I feel so inadequate,” and there are recurring hints at feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis her psychologist husband:  “Poor Matteo.  No one’s ever his intellectual equal – his own wife for one.”  Those words, addressed (intriguingly in the third person) to her unresponsive spouse, are as much a critique of him as they are a lament for herself.

But, despite her unassuming ways, Francesca is very much the emotional pivot for the story.  Sensing that something is amiss between her and her husband, she has an emotional scene in a nearly empty town plaza, proposing repairs to the “cracks and stains” of their house and the addition of a private veranda for him, where “no one will bother you,” when she clearly has far more on her mind than mere home repairs.  Francesca has another good scene on the telephone with her daughter, proposing to send Matteo to fetch her and reunite the family, as Matteo looks on attentively:  Does his wife’s idea represent a barrier to his designs on David, or a welcome way out – an escape from the fate toward which he is hurling?  There’s a nice ambiguity in his expression in the scene.  Finally, a climactic moment near the end of the film makes a perfect, operatic bookend for the opening scene of the film at the opera.

The homoeroticism and its ultimate consummation are somewhat discomfiting for those of us who are not similarly-inclined, but there is, happily, far more to the film than its same-sex passion.  It’s an engrossing character study, in which each of its four main players has an important role to play in the building drama.  And the emotions alternately swell and subside – very much like the sea and the strains of a tragically romantic opera.  Filiberti has a number of adept directorial and visual touches:   At one point, following Francesca’s emotional turmoil over the accidental drowning of a young swimmer, we get a succession of brief scenes without dialogue, narrated only by the gentle strains of a violin.  Elsewhere, the camera glides languidly across people at rest at a poolside; while another scene has the shadow of a man walking across a white wall, perhaps representing the ‘tabula rasa’ of our lives, upon which we advance to our destined rendezvous with happiness or sorrow.  Late in the film, there is a very effective juxtaposition of scenes as the four friends are parted, each on their own trajectory toward their appointed fate.  Is it destiny that prefigures our ends, or the choices we freely make?  Il Compleanno poses such profound questions even as it moves and involves us in the lives (and fates) of its quartet of flawed, and therefore readily recognizable, men and women.

Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.

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