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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

J. Edgar is an overlong, ultra serious biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who ran the FBI with an iron fist for more than four decades. As it stands, this film would be a failure from any filmmaker, but as Clint Eastwood directed it, it has to be considered a major disappointment.

As you might expect from Eastwood, this is a handsome-looking film with outstanding production design, appropriately moody cinematography and impressive costume design. Eastwood has done a first-rate job recreating scenes from the 1930s through the early 1970s, but all of that is eye candy, given his plodding direction. Eastwood has always taken his time telling his stories and he does so here again (the movie is two hours and seventeen minutes long), but to little or no avail, as the story just doesn't have much dramatic tension to hold our interest.

Eastwood seems content merely recreating famous incidents in Hoover's life and to be sure, the careful analysis of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping makes for interesting viewing, especially with the subplot of Hoover lobbying Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime, so his bureau could take over the case and grab any potential headlines.

But many other sequences are merely filmed recreations (complete with some obvious CGIs) that serve merely as moments in this man's life. It's a little like flipping through a deck of cards - when you're finished, what did you accomplish? When you think about the way that Eastwood told the heartbreaking story of Japanese and American soldiers in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), you can hardly believe this is the same filmmaker.

Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Hoover (does he ever give a less than interesting performance?), although I preferred his turn in The Aviator (2004). I also liked the honest way that the film deals with the homosexual relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who was second in command to Hoover at the FBI for many years. Their penultimate scene together at a dinner at Tolson's home late in each other's life, where they express their feelings for each other, is sensitively written (Dustin Lance Black who authored the screenplay for Milk in 2008, performed those chores here) and directed and scored by Eastwood.

But truly interesting scenes like this one are too rare in this film. Eastwood and Black went for too much of an historical angle here, while a more pointed personal analysis would have been welcome. There's even a brief scene that answers the controversy of Hoover as a cross dresser. This could have been a much-talked about scene, but as it's presented in the film, it simply feels tacked on.

When I saw Gran Torino (2008), I thought to myself that this would have been the perfect closing act in Clint Eastwood's directorial career, as it summed up much of what he has been saying in his films for forty years. I hope I can change my mind soon and see one more great film from Eastwood, because he hasn't been in top form lately (last year's Hereafter was rather dull). This film, as serious and as well-intentioned as it may be, doesn't break any new ground and worse off, has Eastwood play it safe in his directorial choices. Given that, one wonders why Eastwood made the film in the first place, unless he was attracted to the private world of his main character. Whatever the reason, J Edgar is a rather uninspired film.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Loss of a Musical Legend

Uan Rasey (1921-2011) 
Photo by Tony Gieske

Whenever a celebrated film director or actor dies, the authors of film blogs write their appropriate tributes. But it's rarely that way when a cinematographer, editor or other technician passes away. I'd like to remedy that with this post, as I note the recent death of Uan Rasey.

I realize that few of you reading this post have ever heard of Uan Rasey, but you have certainly heard him perform. Rasey played trumpet for hundreds - perhaps thousands - of films, with perhaps his most famous performances in the films An American in Paris (1951) and Chinatown (1974). If he only played on those two films, his reputation would be forever remembered, but add to that his performances on the soundtracks for such movies as Singin' in the Rain (1951) and Gigi (1958), when he was first chair trumpeter for the MGM orchestra as well as West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and Taxi Driver (1976) and you have a remarkable body of work.

Rasey, who taught himself how to play trumpet with the help of a $9 instruction booklet from Montgomery Ward, was also a celebrated teacher of trumpet. Among his most famous students were the jazz trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jack Shelton.

As I'm not a musician, I can only say so much in this tribute, so let's have his playing do the talking, so to speak. Here is his solo from Chinatown, as he plays the main theme, composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

I've read several descriptions of this performance by Rasey, with terms such as "sexy", "steamy" and "smoky" to describe his playing of this gorgeous theme. Call it what you want, it's certainly one of the most memorable solo trumpets I've ever heard in a film score!

Rasey passed away in late September of this year and as I mentioned earlier in this post, that news was largely ignored by film bloggers. Thankfully, we have the soundtracks of so many great films Uan Rasey performed on to recall his influence as one of the greatest trumpeters ever to work in Hollywood.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Last Rites of Joe May

I am rerunning an earlier review of The Last Rites of Joe May, which opens today (Friday, Nov. 25) at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago for a one-week run.

You may have met someone like Joe May at one point in your life. He's a helluva guy, but don't tell him that- he thinks he's just a regular fella. He does the right thing, bottom line, even if his actions may get him in trouble. He's also one of the most memorable characters you'll see this year in film and you'll remember him for a long time, thanks to a dazzling performance by Dennis Farina.

The Last Rites of Joe May was written and directed by Joe Maggio, who also performed those tasks for Bitter Feast (2010) and Paper Covers Rock (2008) among others. For Last Rites, Maggio has created a character that we feel for from the start; in his sixties, Joe May is being released from the hospital after a seven-week battle with pneumonia. But apparently Joe forgot to tell his landlord, who thought he either died or moved away, so the landlord has thrown all of Joe's belongings away and has rented his apartment to a single mother named Jenny (Jamie Allman). She's not exactly doing great financially, as we see her pilfer the small orange juice containers that her patients at a nearby hospital don't consume. She's raising a young daughter named Angelina (Meredith Droeger), who never knew her father.

The individual stories of these three slowly start to intertwine, as Joe agrees to share the apartment with Jenny and Angelina, as he will pay part of the rent each month. Now that Joe has a place to stay again, he can go back to his old friends and try make a few extra bucks. He's been a small time crook, fencing watches and radios on the street, but in his heart, he believes he can truly make a lot of money, if only the right situation comes along.

                            Photo by Jay Silver

Meanwhile, we learn that Jenny has a boyfriend who beats her from time to time. When Joe sees him for the first time, he tells him to leave or he'll call the cops. Trouble is, he's a police detective, so there's little that Jenny or Joe can do to stop him. All Joe can do is try and comfort her, but that's not an easy thing for a rough and tumble guy like him. In one scene she asks him if he would hold her, to which Joe replies, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Joe however does start to look after Angelina, tucking her in bed at night and chatting with her at breakfast. She's thrilled to have a father figure in her life and she asks if Joe will have breakfast with her the next morning and the one after that. It's a simple scene, but a critical one in the film and it's one of several moving moments.

There are several factors as to why this film captures our attention from the first frame. Much of the credit goes to Maggio for his script, which has a honest ring to it and is never forced. Every character, from the three major players to the ones with small roles, talk just like you'd expect them to. This is a street drama at its most basic, taking places in the ethnic restaurants, alleyways and neighborhood bars of Chicago and it sounds just right. One other note about the script: Joe May swears a lot in this movie and he'll swear at anyone. It's not for shock value - it's just the way he's talked for most of his life and it's part of this character's charm as well as a good deal of the film's humor. There is one line that Joe May yells at a cabdriver (I won't give it away) that is one of the funniest lines I've heard in a film in years - you may fall out of your seat when you hear it!

The visuals are another reason why this film is so strong, so realistic. I've lived in Chicago my entire life and I love the look of this film. This is not about the lakefront or tall buildings - only the tops of skyscrapers are visible in a couple shots - but rather the snow-covered streets of Halsted Street in winter time. There's a cool, blue tone to the cinematography which fits the visuals perfectly and gives the film a bit of a bleak look. There are several marvelous shots here; the two I loved the most are the #8 bus on Halsted under a viaduct on a windswept snowy evening, while the other has Angelina and Joe swinging a pole around on their roof in order to scatter his pigeons in flight, as they are released from their coops. This last shot is quite hypnotic as well as being lovely to look at; it's also a tender moment between Joe and Angelina, as their affection for each other grows.

I've read, by the way, that Dennis Farina himself had a major influence in having this movie shot in Chicago. The film was originally scheduled to be shot in New York City, but Farina, a native Chicagoan, asked Maggio about doing it in his (Farina's) hometown. Once Maggio and his team scouted out some of Chicago neighborhoods, the decision was made to film in Chicago and a few minor script changes were made.

So a first-rate script and just-right visuals (as well as an impressive bare-bones original score by Lindsay Marcus) are among the strong points of The Last Rites of Joe May, but above all, it is the performance by Dennis Farina as the title character that ties everything together. I've always liked Farina for the honest emotions he displays in his roles - everything about his work has been just right. He looks perfect for the part with his thick grey hair and time-worn face and he finds a nice balance between quiet frustration and explosive bursts of temper. It is quite proper to use the cliché that he was born to play this part, but it's entirely accurate in this case. Dennis Farina is simply great as Joe May and for my money, it's the performance of his career.

Honestly written and acted, The Last Rites of Joe May is primarily a quiet film about a man who only wants to continue doing things as he's always done them. It is a wonderful piece of work and one that I highly recommend.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Need for Journalism

Page One: Inside the New York Times is an engaging, important documentary that is an inner look at how the editors and reporters at America's most famous newspaper are dealing with a vital question - is journalism, the kind of journalism that the Times and several of the country's best daily papers provide - still relevant in today's digital and electronic world?

Directed by Andrew Rossi, who applies a journalistic, fact-gathering approach, the film focuses on a few individuals that give the paper its essence today. One of those is David Carr, a former drug addict who turned his life around at the age of 31 and has become one of the paper's finest reporters. Carr has a unique sense of humor to say the least. He's self deprecating, but he's also ready to pounce on someone who makes fun of him or his paper. At times he comes across as a smart ass, know-it-all, but in the final analysis, he's very loyal to his friends and his bosses and is one helluva reporter and writer.

David Carr (l.) with Bruce Headlam, media desk editor

Another important character in this story is Brian Stelter, who was 22 years old when he was hired by the Times as a media reporter. Stelter, who constantly updates his Twitter account with news leads he assembles all day long, is the new face of journalism at the paper, someone who approaches his job in an entirely different direction than Carr and other investigative reporters. For Stelter, it's a question of why wouldn't a journalist be on Twitter, while for Carr, it's his belief that "Stelter was a robot assembled to destroy me." 

It's this multidimensional way of journalism that is now standard operating procedure at the Times. Rossi argues that social media has - at least for the short term - saved the paper. The death of several excellent American newspapers is noted in the film and the question of could the New York Times be next is dealt with for much of the second half of this film. One television reporter notes how the paper's trading value is $3 per share, which is less than the cost of the Sunday edition. We also view scenes of a few employees - some of them with decades of experience at the paper, being let go as the managing editor had to make the tough call of which 100 employees would be eliminated in cost-cutting measures. Could the paper go out of business?

Given the ways that the public can access information these days, the answer to that question is certainly, yes, it could. To that end, we witness how the reporters and editors at the Times are doing everything they can to stay relevant; the online edition is the most read of its kind in the country and Carr notes how there are dozens of videos each week on this site, thus giving readers who prefer visuals to words their fix for facts and opinions.

The recent WikiLeaks situation is dissected in great detail in the film. The editors examine these documents and videos and ask themselves if these would indeed be harmful or not before they make the decision to publish them. One point worth noting here is that Rossi does not question the fact that the Times seemed to be a willing partner for Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, when they became his partner in crime, so to speak, by publishing these reports over the course of several weeks in late 2010. Whether you believe the paper was serving the public's need to know or thought that this was an improper use of journalism, it certainly seems that the editors at the Times made this determination based on staying relevant; as this news was being broadcast all over television and the internet, the decision makers at the paper clearly wanted to stay in the game and keep readers thinking about the need for the Times.

This aside, I recommend the film quite highly, especially for its look at how journalists do their job. One of the most absorbing sequences deals with Carr and how he breaks the news about the new management team at the Chicago Tribune. The new owner admitted he was not a newspaper man, but clearly a business man interested primarily in money, who then went ahead and hired a former radio general manager to run the paper. It was a disaster in the making which only became worse when Carr learned that several female employees complained of sexual harassment at their workplace. 

Carr makes dozens of phone calls, gathers all the information, shares what he knows with his editor and gets the OK to write the story. He did his job magnificently - I still recall the day that story was issued and I emailed it to dozens of friends who lived in Chicago or once lived in Chicago. The details of the article were shocking, especially for a once-great paper such as the Tribune and within weeks, the management team resigned. Yes, print journalism still has the power to change things and when reporters  like David Carr are given the freedom to do their job, the power of the printed word can be devastating.

We are left to wonder how long the New York Times will exist as we know it. Change has come to the paper and Rossi argues that this change has pumped new life into the publication and has certainly staved off its death knoll. But for how long?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

All Me- Winfred Rembert

Chain Gang - The Ditch, Winfred Rembert (2005)

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is an illuminating documentary about a black artist who lived through the racial strife of the south in the 1960s and who today creates strikingly original artworks that recall his own struggles as well as those of his friends and counterparts. In the process of this film, we meet a remarkable man who has gone from poverty to the status of a celebrated artisan, all the while remaining someone who has retained his simple country heritage.

The film is directed by Vivian Ducat, a native New Yorker, who has produced a number of films in England and in America over the past twenty years; these ranged from series episodes for the BBC to 
an episode of The American Experience for PBS. In early 2010, she attended a show of Rembert's works at a gallery in New York, where she met the artist. Impressed by his craft as well as his storytelling ability, she decided to make a short film about him and soon afterward got the news that she would direct and produce a feature-length documentary on Rembert.

Ducat has made a highly entertaining film about Rembert and it's clear watching the film that she believes this is a truly special man whose life story needed to be chronicled. Rembert, now 65, grew up in the small rural town of Cuthbert, Georgia and was given away at birth to a great aunt. He spent much of his youth and early adulthood working in the local peanut and cotton fields and this time clearly meant a lot to him, as many of his works portray scenes of workers "toiling"- as he likes to describe it - at their work.

Rembert was impressed by the speeches he heard from Martin Luther King, Jr and decided to attend a civil rights demonstration; he was jailed for this and after escaping, he was then strung up by a local gang who were ready to kill him. This part of the film is told by Rembert in clear, stirring detail, as we see some of his works depicting this act.

He survived, but was forced to work on a chain gang for several years. While in prison, he drew scenes of his life's experiences and started to experiment with art on leather. Later on, he would make small pieces of jewelry and even a jacket for his children, who were the envy of all their friends when they wore these pieces of art. Encouraged by this, Rembert continued with his craft, eventually catching the attention of some influential individuals along the way who were able to help fund his studio work.

Chain Gang Picking Cotton (2004)

Rembert creates by starting with a drawing that he then reproduces on a leather canvas by numerous hand tools, among them a number of small hammers and picks. He then illustrates the canvas with dyes, as paint would crack on leather if folded. Along the way, Ducat includes several scenes of Rembert at work and it's fascinating to watch this unusual handiwork of the artist.

The director also includes a scene where Rembert speaks to college students about his experiences from decades past and about how ugly racial tensions were in the Deep South. It's interesting to see the reactions of the students, most of whom probably have never met anyone who has been a first-person witness to that time.

There are many scenes that focus on Cuthbert, as we see what the town looks like today and watch and listen to some of Rembert's boyhood friends. We also see what the artist's current life is like, as he lives near Yale University (where his first one-man show took place) in a simple neighborhood where he can roast a pig or play a little pick-up basketball with friends (he still has a few slick moves at his age!).

But it's small town Georgia that still means so much to Winfred Rembert and the film concludes with his art being moved from a gallery in New York City to a special show in Albany, GA, not far from Cuthbert. "Nothing compares to coming back home... I'm here and I'm somebody," the artist says.

His journey is complete and has a nice circular nature to it, from a poor background to a celebrated artist; from the simplicity of a humble town in Georgia to the rich interiors of a New York City gallery and finally back home again. All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert is a nicely detailed look at one special man's path in life, one that has a few more chapters to be written.

All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert won a silver plaque in the documentary category at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. The film's next showing will be on Saturday, November 12 at the Albany, GA Civil Rights Institute for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Albany, Georgia Movement.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Best of the Fest - The Top Seven

The 47th Chicago International Film Festival ended it fifteen-day run last week, but I'm still catching up on some of my reviews. Several of these will appear in the short run, but for now, here are notes on my favorite films from the fest (top seven in order of preference):

We Need To Talk About Kevin (UK) - director: Lynne Ramsay
A haunting, mesmerizing film about the relationship between a teen-aged boy and his parents. I love the way Ramsay slowly reveals the chilling details of the plot as well as the dreamlike manner of the flashbacks. This is a superbly directed film that might have been excessive in lesser hands. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the mother who struggles to learn the strange behavior of her son.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey) - director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A visual treat with stunning cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki, this is the story of a murder investigation that takes us through the remote landscapes of Turkey. The first half of this 150 minute work takes place entirely at night, often in very long shots with sounds of footsteps, car engines and clipped dialogue in the background, while the second half takes place during the day, as the search is finalized and we head back to town. Along the way, we watch in fascination as the police along with a prosecutor and doctor share their inner thoughts about the immediate work as well as their private lives. The length of this film is perfect - it is never slow moving - and lets us discover for ourselves what this world is all about. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Miss Bala (Mexico) - director: Gerado Naranjo
Director Naranjo tackles the subject of the drug wars in contemporary Mexico, basing this film upon a real-life incident of a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to deal with a vicious gang. This is a highly entertaining thriller that balances moments of brutal honesty (shootouts on local streets) as well as total artificiality (a beauty pageant the young woman enters) with equal aplomb. This is certain to fuel the discussion of the terrible tragedies that have been suffered by too many of Mexico's people.

Into The Abyss (Germany) - director: Werner Herzog
Herzog's outstanding documentary about the effects of a triple homicide on several individuals, ranging from the family of the victims to the police who investigated the crime to the convicted parties as well. Herzog was actually granted the right to interview one of the killers on death row, a mere eight days before his execution and this short sequence is one of the highlights of the film. Yet the most gripping interview may be with the woman whose mother and brother were victims of this senseless crime. Herzog is clearly against the death penalty, yet the film is not a cry to banish this punishment in America, but rather a beautifully balanced work that is dedicated to the victims. Gripping from start to finish.

The Kid With a Bike (Belgium) - director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Just under 90 minutes, this is a remarkably direct look at the life of an 11-year old boy who has been abandoned by his father. The young boy Cyril (Thomas Doret) rebels against adults, even the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) who takes him in on weekends and helps restore his shattered psyche. The two leads are both gifted performers and the Dardennes' telling of this story is an enlightening look at the fears and pleasure of youth - and adults - as they mature in their understanding of life and each other. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Le Havre (Finland/France) - director: Ari Kaurismaki
A witty, sometimes droll, sometimes heartwarming fable about a middle-aged shoe shine who helps a young African refugee to freedom. Kaurismaki does not make speeches about the problem of refugees, but instead weaves a marvelous story about the kindness of humanity at large. Every character, even the smallest roles, are perfectly written and fleshed out by the actors. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The Last Rites of Joe May (USA) - director: Joe Maggio
A look at a proud, decent man in his 60s who is seeing his role in life diminish, but who wants to do one more great thing in his life. Dennis Farina portrays the title character and it's the performance of his life. Writer/director Maggio populates this sensitive and kindhearted film with honest characters in real-life moments, with scenes of simple dialogue about the people the characters deal with on an everyday basis. Along with his cinematographer Jay Silver, Maggio presents Chicago as a synthesis of neighborhoods filmed in bleak grays and blues during the chill of winter; there are no glossy skyscraper or lakefront images in this film. In the process, it's arguably the most visually honest film ever made in Chicago.

Other films I was impressed with include: All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a fascinating documentary about the unique art of a black man from rural Georgia who suffered through the racial strife of the 1960s; The Return of Joe Rich, a funny and intelligent look at the Chicago mob that unites today's wiseguys with those of decades past; Cairo 678, a nicely written piece about sexual harassment in modern Egypt and Wild Bill, a quirky and smart film about a father who has to care for his two teen-age sons after being away for several years in prison.

I'll get back to regular reviews with the next post. I want to take this opportunity to thank Kate McMillan and Brie Dorsey for their help in arranging several interviews with some of the directors of these films. They made my job a lot easier and more enjoyable!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Le Havre - Chicago International Film Festival

Le Havre is a film that celebrates life and does so in a most charming, unusual tale that centers around a simple man who only wants to do the proper thing. Beautifully written and acted with honest performances, this is a film with impressive insight into the everyday feelings all of us encounter from time to time.

Set in the French port town of Le Havre that borders the English Channel, the film opens as Marcel (André Wilms), a middle-aged shoe shine, takes care of a customer at the train station. He notices that his wrist is handcuffed to his briefcase, so he suspects evil doing, but he knows better than to say anything. In a few seconds, the customer will encounter trouble, which allows Marcel a hilarious line which I won't give away here, but the offbeat tone of the film is firmly set in place.

Marcel once lived a Bohemian life in Paris as a writer, but middle age and marriage to an honest, devoted woman has given him focus not on the big picture, but rather on the small things in life, especially when it comes to devotion and friendliness. Not long after we meet Marcel, his paths cross with a teen-age boy named Idrissa from Africa who has landed in Le Havre as an illegal immigrant, along with 20 or so of his fellow countrymen and women. He is able to flee the police at the harbor and once Marcel sees this boy's plight, he knows only that he must help him.

Director Ari Kaurismaki from Finland has stated that the European cinema has not addressed the problem of refugees, many of whom are treated rather inhumanely. He admits he does not have the answer to this problem, but no matter - he has started the ball rolling by making this film.

As Marcel begins to assist the boy, his life is complicated when his wife Arletty has to be rushed to the hospital after suffering some severe pain in her mid-section. After Marcel leaves his wife's side under doctor's orders, Arletty learns of the seriousness of her condition - she has a malignant tumor. She begs the doctor not to tell her husband the whole truth, as she believes he will not be able to deal with this news. Though reluctant at first, the doctor agrees with Arletty and tells Marcel that her tumor is benign.

Marcel, thinking that his wife will recover completely, can now address the problem of the young boy, who wants to be reunited with his mother, a refugee in London. He was also supposed to land in London, but the cargo container he was on landed in Le Havre by mistake. "Computer error, probably," says an employee at the dock, a inhuman, bitterly ironic comment that speaks volumes about the treatment of these individuals in France and other countries. (The newspaper headlines, reporting on the discovery of 20 illegal refugees asks the question of the readers, "Is there a link to Al-Queda?").

I won't give any more plot details away, except to say that the police inspector (Jean-Pierre Daroussin in my favorite performance in the film) assigned to finding this refugee, has some surprises in store for Marcel and the boy. An authority figure, inspector Monet questions his role - and his emotions - in this battle between law and individual freedom.

I loved the way that Marcel deals with his neighbors who are grocers. While often broke, he usually has to pay for a loaf of bread or some vegetables on credit. But once these people discover that Marcel is working to deliver the boy's freedom, they forget past problems and help him in his cause.

It's this recognition of humanity along with some marvelously droll scenes that make Le Havre such an engaging film. Add to this the troubling situation that director Kaurismaki tackles with great subtlety and wit and you have a film that pleases on several levels.

Le Havre was awarded the Gold Hugo as the best film of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival. It will be shown at 5:45 on Wednesday, October 19th as part of the "Best of the Fest" evening.