Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hidden Thoughts and Desires

"Sometimes you have to do something terrible to go on living." - Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender)

That terrible thing is one of the central points of A Dangerous Method, the engrossing new film from David Cronenberg. Pitting doctor against patient and doctor against doctor, the film touches upon hurt feelings, passions and hidden thoughts that eventually must emerge from the film's main characters if they indeed are to continue to face life and all its challenges.

The film deals with the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a troubled young woman suffering from neuroses, who seeks a cure from Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The time is 1904 and the setting is Jung's office in a lovely forest in Switzerland. As Jung initially questions Spielrein, she stammers and thrusts her jaw forward, as though possessed by the devil. Clearly puzzled by her physical mannerisms as well as her inner demons, Jung decides that he will use the newly developed "talking cure"- the foundation of psychoanalytic treatment at the time, as created by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) - as his basis for treating this woman.

As Jung starts to unravel the deep neuroses inside Spielrein, he notices how intelligent and perceptive she is and asks her to assist him with some of his patients. The first case she works on is a practice one, where Jung has his wife hooked up to a machine that will record her blood pressure and heart beat - sort of an early day lie detector - that he uses along with word association. As Spielrein assists, she notes that Jung's wife was hesitant in answering certain questions about sex. She wonders if Jung has a happy marriage and soon afterwards, acts on this, as she passionately kisses him.

Jung realizes he must not have an affair with one of his patients, but he is clearly attracted to her and despite his inner doubts, goes ahead and sleeps with her. This behavior goes on for some time, with Jung finally letting Spielrein know that he cannot continue with this situation. As she has the upper hand on him, she suggests that he put all the details of this affair in a letter to Sigmund Freud in Vienna.

Freud had become a mentor and somewhat of a father figure to Jung, who had contradictory feelings about him. Clearly he respected Freud's original work, but he was also dismayed at how Freud tied in everything to sex. Now that Jung himself has had sex with a patient, he has left himself open to a brutally honest analysis from Freud and their friendship is tested.

Meanwhile, Spielrein who is now cured, has gone on to study pyschoanalysis and has published papers that are respected by Freud. The film at this point turns to examine how she came between Freud and Jung on the specific (the affair between Jung and her) and the general (which one would trust her and vice versa).

The screenplay is an intelligent one, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play, The Talking Cure, which was itself adapted from the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method, written by John Kerr. All three main characters are real-life individuals (with Freud and Jung being world famous) and each is given his or her due here as three-dimensional characters. Naturally, having actors of this caliber is a great aide to this work and each one turns in an expert performance. Knightley takes chances with her role, not afraid to look unattractive; by the film's end she generates a lovely warmth. Fassbender exudes a quiet approach, one that appears quite confident on the outside, while actually full of doubt on the inside. Mortensen delivers my favorite performance in the film, giving us a Freud of great dignity and polish; given this man's public notoriety over the past century, it's nice to see Mortensen deliver such an understated turn.

I've not been that big a fan of Cronenberg in the past; much of that having to do with his use of extreme violence to spice up his films. How nice then for the director to take on a project such as this, a thinking man's story of lust, deception and professional relationships. Cronenberg lets the storylines play out, never overwhelming us with obvious symbolism, as might have been so easy to do, given the role of psychoanalysis in this work. His cinematographer Peter Suschitsky and he give us some lovely images, including Jung and Spielrein walking along a bridge in the forest and Freud lying down in Jung's sailboat that is tranversing a sun-splashed lake.

The ending of the film is a graceful one, as Spielrein, now a successful child psychologist meets with Jung, who has suffered a falling out with Freud. She clearly has the upper hand now, a 180-degree turn around from when they first met. Yet they treat each others as equal and each uncovers some of the secrets to living life in a meaningful way. Suppressing certain thoughts and behavior may be rational, but as we learn from all three characters, it is not always healthy.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Virtual JFK"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films during the month.

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kenned Had Lived takes a look at what might have happened regarding the American commitment in Vietnam if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated and had been able to make the critical decisions. Combining rarely seen film clips and presidential conversations, this is a thoroughly researched work that is among the very finest political documentaries I have ever seen.

The film is the work of director Koji Masutani and co-producer James Blight, who narrates the film. Blight, a PhD from the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, is well-versed in the history of the Vietnam War; he was the principal substantive adviser to documentarian Errol Morris for his Oscar-winning film The Fog of War. That film detailed the role that Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, played in America's role in Vietnam during much of the 1960s.

Blight's hypothesis in Virtual JFK is spelled out in a question he asks early on in the film; "Does it matter who is president on issues of war and peace?" Blight asks other questions on the same theme, arguing perhaps that public sentiment may hold the answer. But Blight's response to his own question is that, yes, it does matter who leads the country and makes the decisions regarding a commitment to war. His evidence consists of six events during the JFK administration when he could have sent troops into combat, but refused. Thus, argues Blight, our time in Vietnam would have been much shorter and there would have been much greater loss of life eventually, if JFK had been alive to set the agenda.

The first urgent situation regarding war in JFK's presidency came only a few months after he took office; this was the Bay of Pigs crisis in Cuba in April, 1961. Kennedy decided not to send in American troops to support the Cuban rebels who were trying to kill Castro. His reasoning, as explained through his answers in film clips shown here, is that sending in troops on foreign soil to fight when there has been no attack on the United States is counter to our long-standing policies. At a press conference the day after he made statements to this end, we see the president face some pretty tough criticism from the reporters at a White House press conference. Even Blight in his narration says that Kennedy knew that he would be sensed as a "failure" by many Americans, based on this decision.

Other events include the Berlin Crisis in late 1961, when the Russians wanted to take control of all of Berlin just after the Berlin wall had been built and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During these situations and the others examined in this film, Blight notes how JFK resisted the urge to go to war, despite recommendations to do just that from his main advisers as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Kennedy preferred the relative orderliness of negotiations to the impulse of declaring war and as it turned out, met with great success with his non-combative philosophy.

There are numerous film clips that detail everything that surrounded these events and the makers of this film have included not just images of Kennedy, but also comments from the Russian leaders of the time, such as then foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and chairman Nikita Khrushchev. We also see the famous Kennedy sense of humor on display again and again in this film, especially in his give and take with reporters. At one point, a journalist mentions to Kennedy that the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution staing that the president was a failure in office, to which JFK responded, "I'm sure it was passed unanimously."

Blight's arguments are well-structured and well thought out. He mentions how another leader who was not as skeptical or cautious as Kennedy would have made decisions that might have caused disastrous actions. Yet, this film is not hero-worship of Kennedy, but rather one that presents the president as a serious man who took on his critics with the proper tone, maintaining his role as a leader who would battle on as he would see fit. If it meant arguing with his chiefs of staff, even if he was alone in his beliefs, so be it.

I loved watching the old film clips, especially the ones of the press conferences I had never seen before. It's pretty neat today with the passage of time to see reporters scribbling down notes on a legal pad with pen or pencil in hand - no smart phones or laptops back then! It's also fascinating to hear the sound clips in this film; the most enlightening for me is the one where he argues with several generals about not attacking Cuba during the missile crisis. This shows the president as his most defiant - and arguably - his most persuasive tone.

As this film ends, we see the results of how Lyndon Johnson's decisions as President turned out. "We intend to bury no one and we do not intend to be buried," is one of LBJ's quotes; these of course, turned out to be highly ironic words, given the tens of thousands of American troops who would lose their lives in Vietnam.

The overall structure of this work with its film clips and statements given by James Blight along with a beautifully sensitive musical score by Joshua Kern make Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived a memorable and necessary film. It is very highly recommended.

Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived will be shown on Documentary Channel on Friday, December 30 at 8:00 and 11:00 PM (EST).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Documentary Channel "Trimpin"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films during the month.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is a highly entertaining look at a man who hears music in every sound he encounters. It's also an engaging look at an inventor/composer/visionary who is truly one of a kind.

Trimpin - he uses only his last name - was born in the Black Forest section of Germany, an area where cuckoo clocks are crafted and it seems that the mechanisms and music of these clocks heavily influenced him in his lifelong journey in creating novel sounds. Now living on the West Coast of America, Trimpin buys all sorts of junk as well as scrap metal and plastics and assembles any manner of strange and unique machines as well as musical instruments.

Director Peter Esmonde does a wonderful job telling the artist's story, as he moves from simple tools to more complex structures that are assembled in his warehouse, which is bursting with all sorts of random parts. Trimpin works with the ridiculous - plastic violins and guitars - to the sublime - often building megastructures made from various pipes and tubes that are whimsical musical entities.

One of the most ingenous of these sound sculptures is what Trimpin calls a Seismaton. This is a series of tubes linked up to marimbas and xylophones that play notes according to the seismic movement of the earth! Trimpin points out how the melodies vary, whether the tremors occur in Asia (thus music based on the pentatonic scale), Europe (western-oriented music) or Africa (polytonal). What an imagination this man has!

Esmonde shoes us in great detail how he creates a special musical concert, along with the input of the performing musicians. He also has a few enlightening scenes of Trimpin back in Germany, as he notes the sounds of the Rhine River as well as the wind rustling through the trees that he first heard as a child; the artist notes these influences in his life. "I knew this would be a lifetime investigation," declares Trimpin and indeed it has been.

Though never represented by an agent and despite the fact he has no website, Trimpin has garnered much attention; his $250,000 grant from the MacArthur foundation (the so-called "genius" grant) is evidence of that. Yet I'm certain that very few people know who this creative man is or what he does. Thankfully, Esmonde in his wonderful film, gives us a captivating glimpse into this man's life and work. This is a highly recommended film.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention will be shown on Documentary Channel on Thursday, December 29 at 8:00 and 11:00 (EST)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Space Tourists"/ "Crisis"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films during the month.

Space Tourists is a straightforward documentary about the current shape of the Russian space program, focusing on the 2006 flight of Anousheh Ansari, an American businesswoman born in Iran, who flew aboard the International Space Station for eight days. For this privilege, Ansari paid $30 million of her own money to help fund the Russian Soyuz flight that eventually hooked up with the space station.

Interesting stuff, right? Well it's just matter-of-factly presented in this film, as we see the usual shots of Ansari and the other astronauts and cosmonauts living in the gravity-free bounds of space. So we see her hair all stretched out and note how difficult it is to eat and drink on board the ship. There's nothing new here and if it wasn't for a couple of gorgeous NASA images of the earth below, there would be little that's watchable in this section.

I would have preferred knowing more about Ansari - who she is and what really drove her to make this decision. She's quoted as stating that she would have loved to stay longer, but what does that tell us about the individual?

Actually the most interesting scenes in the film are when we see a team of technicians drive through the Russian countryside to retrieve that various stages of the rocket that have fallen to earth. We see at one point how a farmer found some of this metal, kept it and transformed it into a farm implement.

Given that this is the most intriguing part of this film, it's difficult to recommend Space Tourists to anyone except the most passionate follower of the space station.

A far more effective work is Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, an incisive look at the moment in 1963 when two African-American students were going to be the first of their race to attend the University of Alabama. Filmmaker Robert Drew, then a producer for ABC News, had his team of cameramen at the critical centers that mattered during this time, following Governor George Wallace of Alabama along with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the nation's attorney general. Wallace had promised to stand in the doorway of the university to block the students' admission, while Robert Kennedy had to initiate commands among his staff as to how to deal with this situation. Would he send the national guard? Would his assistant attorney general be able to maintain dignity and order on that famous day?

Drew does not trick things up or overdramatize here, but instead cuts back and forth among these black-and-white clips, which tell the story brilliantly. We eavesdrop on the primary individuals and get a nice sense of what this encounter will mean for themselves as well as the people of Alabama and the nation. The filming of these clips were for news, thus there is no attempt to make us feel that any one individual is a hero or villain, so the viewer can decide for himself what to think.

This was when news was news and not so much entertainment, as it is today. For that reason, Crisis works beautifully as a vital piece of American history; it is also a very engaging film and is recommended for anyone interested in that era of American history or to see how certain pieces of the executive branch work.

Space Tourists will be shown on Documentary Channel on Sunday, December 25 at 8:00 and 11:00 (EST).
Crisis will be shown on Documentary Channel on Monday, December 26 at 8:00 and 11:00 (EST).

Through January 5, Documentary Channel is asking viewers to vote on their favorite documentaries that will be shown in December. By voting, individuals will also have the chance to win prizes, ranging from t-shirts to camcorders to iPads. For information, go to this page on the Documentary website.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The End of the World - According to Lars Von Trier

Melancholia, the latest film from Danish director Lars Von Trier, is a highly original, thought provoking work that calls to mind what Stanley Kubrick accomplished with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); that is, to challenge the viewer to think about our place in the cosmos. Though more conventional (at least on the surface) than Kubrick's opus, Melancholia is no less unsettling a film. It is quite simply, a mesmerizing work that ranks among the finest films of the past several years.

The foundation of the film's story line is that of a young woman named Justine (beautifully portrayed by Kirsten Dunst) who is getting married at a very upscale wedding hosted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). It is John's money, as he constantly reminds both Justine and Claire, that is paying for this over-the top-affair at a lakeside castle, complete with an 18-hole golf course. Everyone is dressed to the nines, champagne flows and it's a special day.

Except that it isn't very meaningful for Justine. Instead of this being the happiest day of her life, it's little more than a distraction in her existence. We sense this even before the wedding sequences, as Von Trier gives us a dazzling prologue - accompanied by the somber strains of the Overture from Wagner's Tristan & Isolde - consisting of images of what is to come in the film. These include one of Justine in her wedding dress, floating down a stream as well as a shot of her running in slow motion through a field, as she is being pulled by plant roots that try to hold her still.

The prologue also shows us a planet colliding with the Earth, so we know what the ending of this film will be, yet realizing the finality of life helps us better understand the motives of the characters we meet. Justine clearly is bothered by something during her wedding; does she know for a fact that the end of the world is coming? As she arrives at the reception, she notices an extremely bright light in the sky and wonders what it is. She is told it is a faraway star, but when she briefly exits the reception hall to look at this light again, Von Trier seems to hint that Justine thinks this is no ordinary light among the heavens.

Justine's point-of-view at the wedding reception is the first part of this film; the second half is told from the viewpoint of Claire. She is much more down to earth than Justine; certainly caring for a husband and a young son Leo (Cameron Spurr), make her existence more based in everyday routines than that of Justine, who left her husband at the end of the reception.

It is during the post-wedding sequences, still at the castle, where Von Trier presents us with the opposing outlooks of the two women. Jack, an astronomer, has now told the women that the star in the sky that Justine saw earlier is in reality a planet that had been previously unseen as it has been hiding behind the sun. This fly-by planet, named Melancholia, is on an orbit that will have it come very close to earth, which mesmerizes Jack, who assures Claire that it will approach very near to earth, but it will not collide.

Yet, we as viewers know better, having seen the prologue and soon both Claire, who had been worried about this possibility and Justine, who seems to have foreseen it, become aware of the impending doom that awaits them and everyone on earth.

While Claire's reaction is one many of us can identify with, it is Justine's thought process about this disaster that confronts us. Von Trier, in several interviews about this film, has been quoted as stating that melancholiacs are better prepared for terrible moments in life, as they are better adjusted for them; it is their way of saying, "I told you so." This is certainly helpful in understanding how Justine remains calm amidst the impending doom. In a nice touch, Von Trier has her walk in the forest with Leo and shape long wooden poles to build a small fortress that the two of them - along with Claire- can sit under as the final chaos occurs. Their fortress will be to no avail against an exploding planet of course, but building it it is a splendid insight into the tranquility Justine has with the end of the world.

So while we know that Justine is serene with this apocalyptic moment, did she actually hope for it to happen? This is a question that goes unanswered and makes this film that much more daring. The end of the world has been the subject of many books and films before; now Von Trier gives us his vision, one that's deeply satisfying, especially in terms of trying to understand the human psyche. Kubrick may have given us a more positive ending with 2001, but the resolution that Von Trier presents in Melancholia is no less confrontational. Like Kubrick's film, Melancholia is a masterwork, one that stays with you for a very long time.

P.S. The use of Wagner's Tristan & Isolde is for me, the finest utilization of classical or neo-classical music in a film since Kubrick used Strauss and Ligeti in 2001. Again, that comparison!

P.P.S. The symbolism of circles in this film. There are the circular shapes of the two planets as well as the circular shape of the lens in a telescope and wine glasses at the reception. There are others, but one small one that I noticed; as the reception draws to a close, Justine tells her father that a room at the castle can be made up for an overnight stay. That room number is 8; this number of course, made of two circles. Yet when Justine goes to visit her father in that room, all she finds is a hand-written note that claims he was offered a ride back to town, meaning there was no need to stay. Could Justine's father also have had a premonition about the end of the world?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nice, but a bit too tidy

What we have with The Descendants is a kinder, gentler Alexander Payne. The writer/director who gave us such films as About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004), delivers a film that is less cynical about its main characters than much of his previous work. It's a good movie with a few beautifully honest moments, but in the final analysis, it's a bit too nice and tidy and just doesn't hold up as well compared with his previous efforts.

The story itself is a serious one; that of a successful lawyer named Matt King (George Clooney), who has been given the task of selling a family trust of thousands of acres of prime native Hawaiian land that some of his relatives and he have inherited. Due to a law that prohibits ownership in perpetuity, they have only seven years left to decide who to sell the land to, be it a local group or out-of-town developers. 

It's a big task and it keeps Matt knee deep in paperwork and meetings. But that pales in comparison to his most serious concern; his wife was seriously injured in a boating accident and is in a coma at the local hospital. It isn't long before Matt learns that there is no hope for his wife, so he must take care of this business as well as the real estate sale and perhaps most importantly, break the news to his two daughters, 17-year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller).

This is of course, a difficult and slightly clumsy challenge for Matt, but it becomes more complicated when he learns a fact about his wife that his oldest daughter knew, but had not previously shared with her father. Matt is floored by this news (I won't give this plot detail away), something that affects both him personally and as it soon turns out, could alter his business plans as far as the land sale.

What I like about this film is the way that Matt deals with his daughters. The dialogue (by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Payne, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) is smart and realistic; this is a far more accurate depiction of how young girls talk than a film such as Juno, for example. It's the same on other levels as well, as when Matt goes to his neighbors for advice with his problems. There are a lot of clumsy moments that nicely reflect the awkward moments in our life.

Clooney, who is in every scene in this film, is the glue that holds this story together and he's more than up to the challenge. He deep voice confirms a sense of calm, even when things are going haywire. He's even more effective however, when he doesn't speak- his focus sharpens and his face tightens, as you know he wants to say something, but doesn't. This is especially true in the scenes with Robert Forster, who portrays Clooney's father-in-law, who blames Matt for the accident that gravely injured his daughter.

The scenes that Clooney and Forster share - one at Forster's home and one at the hospital - are the best moments in this film. There's an anger that pervades Forster's vision, as he doesn't know all the facts. Clooney could tell him everything, but doesn't, if only for not wanting an even bigger conflict on his hands. The screenplay at these moments asks us, "how much is enough?"- are there indeed secrets that are not worth sharing, even if divulging those secrets can ease our pain?

This overriding message is the one that makes The Descendants a successful film. It is a strong enough point to outweigh some of the pat situations here, as I feel that things are wrapped up a bit too tidy with this film. A few more serious questions could have been asked and I believe this would have been a better film for it. Dealing with the death of a loved one is a somber challenge to anyone and this is a good look at the subject, but except for the scenes with Forster, there isn't the bite to this film that you expect. Payne gave us some pretty cynical characters in his previous works and for me, these characters added a lot of depth to those stories, which dealt with a number of crazy- and sad - moments in the human condition. I prefer the old Payne and hope he returns to that vision in his future works. But for now, The Descendants will have to do.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Documentary Channel: "The History of American Film Criticism"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films over the next two weeks. Here is my review of the film For The Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism - Tom Hyland

"Why is agism acceptable in the print media and the electronic media?," asks Michael Wilmington, former film critic for the Chicago Tribune at one point in the documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. Wilmington's question is a response to the fact that as traditional media wants to court a younger audience, those are exactly the people who are now being assigned the job as critics.

This issue is one of several intriguing ones introduced in this excellent film, a work that is aptly titled as it thoroughly examines the history of film criticism in America. The film is divided into chapters, beginning with the first reviews - little more than plot synopses - coming at the end of the 19th and during the beginning of the 20th century and continuing up to the digital age where reviewers fill the internet via personal blogs. In between these eras, writer/director Gerald Peary - himself a film critic - addresses and interviews some of the country's finest film reviewers, from Roger Ebert to Stanley Kauffmann to Molly Haskell.

One of the aspects of American film criticism that's analyzed here is the spat between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Sarris, was one of the first (perhaps the first) American film critic to espouse the auteur theory that had been popular with the French critics of the 1950s and '60s. This theory stated that the director was the author of the film and Sarris went on to explain this in great detail in his famous book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, which he wrote in 1968. Kael, who had recently been hired by The New Yorker as their film critic at that time, disagreed with this theory, calling it "amateurish." Critics throughout America took sides, some opting for Sarris' approach, while others preferred Kael's thinking. Sarris is quoted here saying that "We helped each other establish a dialectic."

Other topics in this film include the need for film criticism, how directors and producers react to negative reviews (the famous story of Kenneth Turan's less than stellar writeup of Titanic is detailed) and how younger film critics of today have arguably changed the way movies are made in Hollywood. Of course in a film that deals with the history of American film criticism, reviewers such as James Agee, Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther are given their due.

While this is a film aimed at movie buffs, I think anyone interested in American films will find this film to be most entertaining. Highly Recommended

For the Love of Movies: The History of American Film Criticism will be shown on Documentary Channel on Thursday, December 15 at 8:00 and 11:00 Eastern time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Tell Them Who You Are"

During the month of December, Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films over the next two weeks. Here is my first review of the film "Tell Them Who You Are." - Tom Hyland

Tell Them Who You Are (2004) is a documentary made by Mark Wexler about his father, celebrated two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. Moving, funny and deeply touching, this is a first-rate film about how these two filmmakers struggle with their differences while at the same time, coming together in the mutual respect and love only a father and son could share.

Haskell Wexler has been one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers for more than four decades (he is  currently 89 years old- he was 82 when this film was made) and his talent is legendary, as evidenced by his photography in such films as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), In The Heat of the Night (1967)  and dozens of other films including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976); these last two being his Oscar winners. Wexler has also directed a few films, his most famous being Medium Cool (1968), much of which was filmed during the Democratic National Convention of that years, held in Chicago, when anti-war demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Chicago in protest. Wexler has always been an activist with left-wing views and it's something he's quite proud of.

But the elder Wexler has also been a bit of a difficult person to deal with and that's much of the focus of this film. We get interviews with directors, producers and actors he's worked with and there are many comments as to how they would never work with him again. Milos Forman, who fired Wexler late in the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), talks about this experience, as does Michael Douglas, the producer of that film.

Yet it isn't just his work in Hollywood that has Haskell arguing with someone; it happens at home as well and his son Mark shows us a few of these instances. In one memorable scene, the two of them argue over whether or not Mark should shoot an interview of his father outside to obtain the light from the sunset, while Haskell thinks what he has to say onscreen is much more important than getting the right visual tone. This scene goes on for a bit and I loved watching every minute of it, as we see the friction between father and son on what seems to be a relatively minor point.

Lest you think that Haskell is always a handful, there is a very moving scene late in the film where he goes to visit his first wife (he has since remarried) at a care facility, where she is suffering the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. Mark's camera gives the two of them proper space and then slowly creeps in, as we see Haskell softly tell his wife about the wonderful times they shared when they were youngsters. Haskell finally breaks down, as we see him shed a few tears, as he realizes the love of his life is slipping away from him. Especially after seeing the cantankerous moods of Haskell, this scene is quite powerful.

You will learn a bit about Haskell Wexler's movie career while watching Tell Them Who You Are, but more importantly, you will see how he reacts with his son. It isn't always an ideal relationship, but at the end of the day, there's a great deal of respect there as each respects the talents and wishes of the other. This is a marvelous film that is Highly Recommended.

Tell Then Who You Are will be shown on Documentary Channel on Wednesday, December 14 at 8:00 PM Eastern time. For a schedule of the special documentaries that will be shown this month, go to the website for a schedule.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Scorsese's Love Letter to Early Cinema

Hugo is a dazzling visual treat that tells the charming story of how a little boy helped rescue the career of Georges Mélies, one of the founding fathers of cinema in the 20th century. Martin Scorsese has given us a marvelous cinematic present with this work, delivering a message that like clockwork, our dreams and passions will be in fine working order at the end of the day. Charming and ever-delightful, this is one of the finest films of this year - as well as the past few years.

Shot in Real 3-D, the film is about a 12-year old boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who resides at a train station in Paris in 1930. He lives there as an orphan, after his father died in a fire, leaving one of his uncles to take him in at the station, so he could wind the various clocks at that building. Hugo has to steal pastries and fruit from vendors at the station to survive, ensuring a constant surveillance from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a subdued performance) and his eager doberman.

One day, Hugo is held by Georges (Ben Kingsley), who operates the station's toy store. Georges calls Hugo a thief and demands that he give back all the various tools he has been taking from him. As Hugo returns some of these, Georges also sees that the boy has a small notebook with numerous drawings, the most intriguing of which are of a human face, each one slightly different, so that when he flips through the pages in a hurry, the face moves as in a motion picture. Georges seizes the book, much to the disappointment of Hugo.

This is critical scene in the film, as we see that Hugo has been stealing tools in order to fix an automaton, a robot that his father and he had been working on for some time. Now following his father's death, the need to repair this robot - and thus learn of an important detail that will open up a new world to Hugo - is  a driving factor in his life. When he soon meets Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), a similarly-aged young girl who is Georges' goddaughter, Hugo will find the missing tool to repair the automaton and realize his dreams.

This sets things up for one of the most delightful scenes in the film, as Isabelle has the heart-shaped key that is the final piece needed to operate the automaton. The machine comes to life, slowly creating an amazingly detailed drawing of an image from the famous film, A Trip to the Moon, directed by George Mélies, who was celebrated for his amazing work on hundreds of films decades earlier, but who then suffered a career downfall and is presumed dead. It turns out he did not die, but is indeed Georges, the owner of the toy store. The drawing that Hugo and Isabelle take to Georges will unlock the mystery of his career.

The film, up to that point a marvelous tale of Hugo's trials and tribulations at the train station, now takes on a new identity, that of Martin Scorsese's love of early cinema, especially that of Mélies. Scorsese goes to great lengths - along with his brilliant production designer Dante Ferretti - to bring to life what Mélies' cinematic work must have looked like. This sequence, showing rehearsals of actors costumed as everything from ghosts to pirates to oversized crustaceans, is simply delightful. Scorsese goes on to show us how some of these scenes were filmed and edited and the result is sheer, unadulterated admiration of Scorsese's love for the trailblazing work of Mélies.

A note on the Real 3D process in this film; it works beautifully and is rarely used to call attention to itself. Speaking simply as a viewer, it's also a lot of fun, especially in the opening sequence, when you are positive that snowflakes from the Paris winter are going to land in your lap - they're that close. Even small pieces of dust are shown flying through the train station and boy, does that doberman look threatening in the foreground of several shots - watch out! The 3D is a lovely addition to this film not only in a surface level way, but also an emotional way, as when we see Hugo emerge from behind the giant clock at the station, looking and feeling quite inconsequential. Leave it to Scorsese to bring 3D technology to a peak, at least so far.

Scorsese has been reunited with several of his favorite collaborators here and what craftsmanship they bring to this film! The cinematography by Robert Richardson is brilliantly accomplished, the costumes by Sandy Powell are just right, the editing by Thelma Schoonmaker is seamless and the lovely score by Howard Shore is very sweet and touching. All of these artists will surely receive Oscar nominations as will Feretti, who seems to me at least, to be a lock for an Academy Award. It's the contributions of these supremely talented individuals along with Scorsese's confident and usual technically proficient direction that add so much to the enjoyment of this film.

So yes, Hugo is a superb film on a visual level, but it is also an enchanting story beautifully told by Scorsese that will enthrall a wide range of audiences. "They'd never seen anything like it before," Isabelle tells Hugo, when recalling the audience reaction to an early film of Mélies. No doubt, you'll be sharing a similar thought after viewing Hugo.

I can't wait to see it again!

P.S. One final note on the performance of Ben Kingsley as George Mélies. This is a touching, lovely, bittersweet turn by the great actor and one of his best. His characterization is one that carries a lot of emotional weight with it and Kingsley finds the perfect balance that helps this film find its grace and captivating appeal.