March 19, 2013
Sometimes a mesmerizing movie is one that leaves you uncertain as to what you just saw. Jellyfish (Meduzot in Hebrew) — a 2007 Israeli film, fits that category.
This dramatic comedy, or is it comic drama — see what I mean? — is based on a story by Shira Geffen. The subject matter is the frustrating lives of three women living in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, they are all lonely and downbeat — “resigned” might be the best term — but at the same time there is a spark of humor and warmth in the connections among them.
Batya, played by Sarah Adler, works somewhat ineptly in a dead-end job at a banquet hall. She is fired by her boorish boss, thrown over by her boyfriend, and neglected by her high-profile mother. Not unexpectedly, Batya isn’t in a good mood most of time, but her life is charmed when she encounters a mysterious mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who wades out of the sea with a flotation tube around her waist and no other visible means of support, notably parents.
Things don’t go much better for Keren, played by Noa Knoller, a newly married bride whose Caribbean honeymoon is derailed before it starts when she breaks her leg while trying to climb out of a locked bathroom stall. And Joy (Ma-nenita De LaTorre), an immigrant who cares for a disagreeable old woman, is lonely for the son she left behind in the Philippines.
Clearly, a strain of melancholy runs through this film, but in the end it is not a downer. While it portrays the weightiness of everyday urban life, it also explores the undramatic but positive things that can touch people when their lives intersect.
February 22, 2013
The book is heavily illustrated, and some of the pictures are photographs of people who were held in slavery in this country. I often pause over pictures like that, studying the faces. The faces remind me of the painful fact that epochs such as American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust were about the injustice and pain inflicted on individual men, women, and children.
The 1990 film The Long Walk Home makes that point with a sharp impact. The story, originally written by John Cork when he was a student at the University of Southern California, is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955-1956. That was the seminal protest against racial discrimination on the city’s transit system, sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man. The stand taken by Rosa Parks inspired a boycott of the bus system by black citizens of Montgomery and eventually led to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that the racially discriminatory laws in Montgomery were unconstitutional and must be vacated.
The cast of The Long Walk Home includes Whoopie Goldberg as Odessa Carter, a maid employed by Miriam Thompson, played by Sissy Spacek.
Miriam Thompson is affected by the boycott, because Odessa won’t ride the bus, and the long walk, besides being grueling, makes her late for work each morning. Miriam’s partial solution to that is to pick up Odessa two mornings a week, a decision that Miriam’s husband, Norman (Dwight Schultz), goaded by his redneck brother, Tunker (Dylan Baker), vehemently objects to. The growing tension in the Thompson family over this issue, and her observation of Odessa’s ordeal, lead Miriam to re-examine her own values and her place in the roiling civil rights issue in the city.
This is a good movie in many respects, including Whoopi Goldberg’s understated performance as a woman who solemnly decides that she has had enough of being patronized, de-humanized, and humiliated. It’s important that she is portrayed in the midst of her own family, her husband and children. Shifting the point of view to this setting reminds us that racial discrimination didn’t do violence to some abstract principle; it did violence to regular people who were trying to live as human beings and citizens.
December 27, 2012
I have written in this space about several movies that had time-travel themes, but none so elegant as From Time to Time, a 2009 British production directed by Julian Fellowes.
The story is set in a country estate in England at the end of World War II. A 13-year-old boy named Tolly, played by Alex Etel, is sent to stay at the old house with his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, played by Maggie Smith. Mrs. Oldknow’s son — who is Tolly’s father — has been missing in action, and Tolly is holding onto a conviction that his dad is still alive. Tolly’s mother, who has had a cool relationship with Mrs. Oldknow, is occupied with trying to determine her husband’s fate, and she believes Tolly would be safer in the country until the war is over.
Tolly is very interested in the house and in his ancestors who have lived there, and he is distressed to learn that his grandmother, who has a great affection for her home and loves to tell Tolly stories about its past, can no longer afford to keep the place up and is planning to sell it.
As Tolly explores the house and the grounds, he begins slipping from the mid-twentieth century into a time two hundred years before. He enters a room and finds it occupied by his ancestors and their retinue. Chief among these figures is the master of the house, a magnanimous sea captain played by Hugh Bonneville. Most of these shadows are unaware of Tolly, but one who is immediately sensible of his presence is Capt. Oldknow’s blind young daughter, Susan (Eliza Bennett). Susan is inadvertently the cause of a family crisis when Capt. Oldknow returns from one of his voyages with a black boy, a fugitive American slave named Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). This lad, the captain announces, is to be a companion for Susan, and he is to be treated as a member of the household, not as a servant. This is met by resistance from Capt. Oldknow’s restless wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), his spoiled son Sefton (Douglas Booth), and from a none too disinterested servant named Caxton (Dominic West). The jealousy and antagonism directed at Jacob when the captain is away from home sets off a chain of events that results in a mystery that is not resolved until Tolly, the inquisitive time traveler, sorts it out.
This movie gets only fair to middlin’ reviews, but we found it entertaining and engaging. The quirky characters, including Pauline Collins as the latter-day household’s outspoken cook, Mrs. Tweedle, and Timothy Spall as the gruff Dickensian handyman whose bloodline has a critical place in the Oldknow family history.
Like a lot of people, I suspect, I have been fascinated by the idea of time travel since I was a kid and have fantasized about the day when I myself could visit the past. According to a physics book I read not long ago, time travel to the future is possible, but time travel to the past is out of the question. It’s not out of the question in the movies, though, so that’s where I do it, and it has never been more fun than in this film.
December 23, 2012
If you’re not in love with Sam and Amanda Jaeger after watching Take Me Home, promise me you’ll get professional help.
This 2011 film was written and directed by Sam Jaeger, who also plays the male lead. That character is Thom, a photographer who hasn’t been able to make a living with his art. He scrapes out a mean existence by illegally driving a New York City cab he bought at an auction, but even that is not enough to pay his rent, and he is evicted.
At this low point in his life, Thom meets Claire (Amanda Jaeger), a competent exec at a non-profit organization who discovers that her husband has been having an affair. This occurs almost simultaneously with news that her estranged father is seriously ill in California.
With her head spinning, Claire hails Thom’s cab, tells him to drive without a destination and then is surprised to find herself in eastern Pennsylvania. After the shock wears off, she tells Thom to take her to California, but stops in Las Vegas to visit her quirky but amiable mother, Jill, played by Lin Shaye.
Claire eventually learns that Thom is penniless and that being a legitimate cab driver isn’t the only thing he has lied about. And since she left home without plan or preparation, her own resources are dwindling. Stuck with each other, they more or less claw their way to their destination despite several delays, a potential felony, and one real disaster. The experience inspires both of them to think again about how they have been living.
As outrageous as the odyssey seems, this is a believable and visually interesting story, amusing and thought-provoking at the same time. All of the performances are subtle and effective, and the Jaegers are irresistable.
November 22, 2012
When we took a bus tour of London many years ago, the guide pointed out that all the iron work outside the apartment windows was painted black. She said this practice dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so distraught by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she called for the paint job as a sign of mourning. That sounded a little hokey to me, but it made a good story.
Victoria’s mourning for Albert, who died in 1861, was no joke, however. The queen was plunged into a lengthy state of depression, and lived a comparatively isolated life for a British monarch, although surrounded by her children and official household. One person who managed to pierce the shell around the queen was John Brown, a Scottish servant. Their relationship is the subject of the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” which stars Judy Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown.
The queen had retired to Balmoral Castle after her husband’s death, and Brown — who had a long-standing association with the family — was sent there principally to care for her pony and accompany her when she chose to ride.
From the start, Brown showed the queen none of the truckling deference she was accustomed to. In fact he spoke to her rather bluntly, addressing her as “woman,” and said exactly what was on his mind. This appealed to Victoria, and she started to rely more and more on Brown’s advice, and he more and more took control of the affairs of the castle, and particularly of anything that had to do with the comings and goings of the queen.
This development along with Brown’s abrupt personality and penchant for drinking irritated pretty much everyone else in the household, especially Albert Edward, the prince of Wales, the queen’s son and later King Edward VII. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure for Victoria to become more visible to her subjects — pressure that included a movement in Parliament to deinstitutionalize the monarchy. At first Brown supported the queen in her resistance to this pressure, but his change of heart on the matter led to a crisis in their relationship.
To what extent, if any, there was a romance between Victoria and John Brown is still a matter of conjecture. Certainly folks at the time thought there was something afoot, and that’s why the queen was derisively referred to as “Mrs. Brown.”
Although certain aspects of the story are fictionalized in this account, the movie basically portrays real events. The film was made by the BBC for television, but instead it was released as a theatrical property and made a lot of money. The performances, including Anthony Sher’s turn as a foppish Benjamin Disraeli, are outstanding. Judi Dench won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.
September 12, 2012
Henri Verneuil created a moving reflection on family ties and cultural roots in his 1992 film, the partly autobiographical 588 rue paradis. The French-language film, which Verneuil wrote and directed, concerns playwright Pierre Zakar (Richard Berry), who has been influenced by his socially ambitious wife Carole (Diane Bellego) to change his name from the Armenian Azad Zakarian, distance himself from his working-class background, and keep his parents at arm’s length. Carole is particularly determined that the couple’s two children not be influenced by their Armenian heritage.
As the film opens, Pierre is anticipating the Paris opening of one of his plays, and he has invited his father, Hagop (Omar Sharif), to attend. Carole arranges for the elderly man, who for decades has worked along with his wife and other family members as a shirtmaker, to stay in a ridiculously large suite in a sumptuous hotel — and not in his son’s home.
Pierre lets Carole know that he doesn’t approve of this arrangement, but he doesn’t insist on changing it. Instead, he spends as much time with his father as possible, making excuses for Carole, who has deliberately sent the children off on a trip so that they won’t see and be contaminated by their grandfather.
Throughout this period, the inscrutable Pierre entertains memories of his childhood, some more pleasant than others, but especially of his mother, Araxi (Claudia Cardinale), whom he calls “mayrig,” an affectionate Armenian term for mother. He also meets a young Armenian woman whose humility and earnestness contrast sharply with Carole’s personality.
While Hagop is still in Paris, an unexpected magazine article about the Zakarian family appears, and Carole uses the occasion to goad Pierre into reprimanding his father, something Pierre will forever regret. This incident and its aftermath is the stimulus for a long delayed confrontation between Pierre and Carole and for a decision by Pierre about taking control of his own life.
Even with Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale as worthy distractions, Berry is irresistible in this part. His cool exterior in contrast to the turmoil inside him effectively creates the dramatic tension that underlies this domestic story. This is Henri Verneuil’s second film about the Zakarian family; the first, in which Sharif and Cardinale played these same roles, was Mayrig in 1991.
August 29, 2012
It’s been done to death in the movies: an aging parent travels to visit an estranged child in an effort to repair the relationship. It was done again in the 2007 film “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” and with satisfactory results.
This film, directed by Wayne Wang, was adapted from a short story by Yiyun Lee , for whom this was a first turn at a screen play. The story concerns Mr. Shi (Henry O), who travels from Beijing to Spokane to visit his recently divorced daughter, Yilan (Feihong Yu). It is clear from the moment Yilan meets Mr. Shi at the airport that the two are barely on speaking terms and that she is not enthusiastic about his visit.
When father and daughter are together, Yilan rarely makes eye contact with Mr. Shi and she says as little as possible to him, particularly in response to his softspoken but blunt observations and questions about her personal life. Subtitles are employed when they speak to each other in Mandarin Chinese. Soon Yilan invents excuses to be absent from her apartment, even when she has no reason to be.
Left on his own, Mr. Shi finds evidence in Yilan’s apartment that she has been planning to send him on tours of other parts of the United States. He also spends time in a nearby park, where he strikes up a relationship with a mature Iranian woman, whom he knows only as “Madam.” Neither of them speaks much English, but in the skilfully directed scenes, they manage to make themselves understood to each other as they discuss their families. Madam is eagerly expecting the birth of a grandchild — something Mr. Shi devoutly wishes his only child would also provide — but the curve of Madam’s life takes an unexpected turn that Mr. Shi would have no reason to envy.
Mr. Shi, who proudly tells anyone he meets that he was a “rocket scientist” in China — a half truth, it turns out — is, philosophically at least, a devout communist, something that contributes to the distance between him and his daughter. He also acknowledges that he was not a good parent because he was away from home so much, and he answers Yilan’s complaint that he was cold with the rationale that he and her mother were “quiet people.”
But the most significant factor in the estrangement is Yilan’s resentment of what she construes to be her father’s infidelity — an ironic complaint in the light of his condemnation of her relationship with a married man. But neither knows all of what has happened in the life of the other, and the story hangs on the likelihood that people so closed off from each other for so long can ever repair the damage.
The movie is beautifully photographed with a high-end high-definition camera and even viewers with conventional receivers will notice the sharpness of the images. Silence is an important element in the drama itself and it plays an important part in the film. It’s a thoughtful story that will appeal to a thoughtful audience.
July 31, 2012
When I saw a film named The Answer Man in the Netflix catalog, I thought it might be about Albert C. Mitchell, who had a radio show by that name that was still running when I was a kid. In that show, Mitchell offered to answer any question that was called or mailed in by a listener. The show was contrived to give the impression that Mitchell could answer these questions off the top of his head, but that wasn’t the case. Steve Allen famously did a parody of this show in which he played the “Question Man.” He would be given an answer, and he would provide the question. One answer, for example, was “the cow jumped over the moon.” The question was, “What happened when lightning hit the milking machine?”
Anyway, the movie isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about a writer named Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) whose one success was a book called Me and God, in which he revealed that he had had a personal encounter with the Creator of all that is . The book took the form of a series questions and the Almighty’s answers. This one success was the only one Faber needed. The original book and a wide variety of spin-offs — including a cook book — written by other people made him a wildly popular celebrity.
But Faber wasn’t interested in fame. In fact, in the 20 years after the book appeared, he hasn’t made a public appearance or consented to an interview, despite the pleas of his publisher. He spends most of his time in his Philadelphia apartment and, on the rare occasion that he speaks directly to another human being, his behavior ranges from disagreeable to obnoxious.
His routine is upset, however, when his life intersects with those of two disconnected strangers: Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mother who has just opened a chiropractic office, and Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man whose bout with alcoholism has put at risk the book store he runs with his assistant Dahlia (Kat Dennings).
Faber comes in contact with Lauren because he needs treatments for his bad back. Lauren and her receptionist, Anne (Olivia Thirlby), don’t know what to make of the volatile and manipulative Faber, but Faber is attracted to Laurenr — the first such attraction for him in decades — and he develops an uncharacteristically benign relationship with her young son, Alex (Max Antisell). Faber wants to get rid of some of the books that he has accumulated in his apartment, and he tries to sell them to Kris, who has no cash to buy them with. The impending loss of his store is not the worst of Kris’s problems, though. His effort to stay sober isn’t helped by the fact that he lives with an endearing but alcoholic father. In a desperate attempt to keep from slipping under the waves, Kris blackmails Faber into an arrangement in which Kris will take a few of Faber’s excess books off his hands each time Faber, drawing on his supposed supernatural source of wisdom, answer one of Kris’s questions .
There is, of course, a reason why Faber has hidden from public view for two decades, and that back story eventually comes out into the daylight.
This film, which was made in 2008, got mediocre reviews, but we found it engaging. I did object to some unnecessary physical humor, but the premise is unusual, the main characters are interesting, and the actors are effective in those roles. Although this is described as a romantic comedy, Pucci’s performance as a young man in the grip of addiction is particularly disturbing.
Don’t believe the critics.
July 11, 2012
On that list of “films I’m going to see someday,” put down Lou, an Australian production from 2010.
This movie, shot entirely in New South Wales, takes up a well worn topic — the relationship between a child and an elderly relative — but does it with a sensitive and touching twist. The story, written and directed by Belinda Chayko, focuses on a rural family that consists of a young mother and her three daughters, living in difficult straits since the husband-father walked off about ten months before. The mother, Rhia (Emily Barclay), is under enormous pressure because of unpaid bills, her inability to properly parent her children, and her need for a male figure in her life.
Rhia’s oldest daughter, 11-year-old Lou (Lilly Bell Tindley) is particularly troubled by the family’s circumstances which have poisoned her relationship with her mother. In a desperate attempt to increase the family’s income, Rhia agrees through a social service agency to take care of her husband’s father, Doyle (John Hurt), who is exhibiting symptoms of dementia. Since Rhia works, this arrangement means that Doyle is often left in the custody of Lou, who already resents his presence in the house. Over time, though, the girl develops first an interest in Doyle, a former merchant seaman who loves to talk about his adventures in the Pacific, and then an affection for the old man.
The time Doyle spends with the three girls — including an unauthorized trip to the beach — lifts his spirits but further alienates Lou from her disapproving mother. Doyle often fixes his imagination on his former wife, who left him many years before, and he begins to believe that she has returned to him in the person of Lou — an idea that Lou at first discourages but then, out of compassion for Doyle, permits to continue.
This is a slow-paced story in a bucolic setting but the sustained tension in the family’s life and the dangerous potential in Lou’s alliance with Lou makes the movie compelling.
This movie was the debut Lilly Bell Tindley, who was 11 at the time, and that makes her performance all the more remarkable. Chayko liked to put the camera right in Tindley’s beautiful and expressive face, and Tindley made the most of it. We should be hearing more from this young lady.
The well-traveled John Hurt is a heart-breaking but endearing figure as Doyle, and Barclay is wholly convincing as the confused and beleaguered mother.
July 10, 2012
By coincidence, we watched Barbara Walters’ absurd “documentary” about heaven two days after watching the 1982 comedy Kiss Me Goodbye. The Walters program didn’t refer to that film, but it did include clips from Ghost and other entertainment properties that alluded in some way to life after death.
In Kiss Me Goodbye, the person who has managed to live on after his physical death is a Broadway musical star and choreographer named Jolly (James Caan) who expired after he fell down a staircase during a party in his Manhattan home. As the film opens, Jolly’s widow, Kay (Sally Field), is about to move back into the house after having abandoned it for several years. Kay is engaged to Rupert (Jeff Bridges), a moderately conservative man, and she wants to begin the marriage in the stylish digs.
Her plans are disrupted when she discovers that Jolly’s ghost inhabits the place and claims that he wants to reestablish their relationship. Kate’s erratic behavior worries and confuses Rupert and the others in her circle, and eventually she worries them even more by telling them about her encounters with Jolly.
Rupert, who is already jealous of the attention Kate gets from Jolly’s former colleagues, is upset by her ghost stories, but not enough to leave her. Instead, he pretends that he, too, can see Jolly and suggests that the three of them take a trip in the country together. The result, of course, is chaos.
The key to the story is found in Jolly’s real reason for manifesting himself to Kate — and the reason is not what he claims and not what may seem obvious.
This is light fare, something on the order of milkweed spores. A story that barely stands on its own isn’t helped by some excessively broad comedy, including a particularly annoying bit of slapstick about exorcising a spirit from a dog. I read in what I admit is not an authoritative source that James Caan disliked this movie, took the part for the money, and considered the time he spent making the film one of the worst periods of his life — probably an exaggeration unless he’s had an especially charmed existence. Still, his soave, self-assured character provides by far the most fun in the film.
Sally Field was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress in a comedy, which makes sense, I suppose, because she was, as usual, playing herself, something she should be good at after so much practice.
Kiss Me Goodbye is a remake of Dona Flors e Seus Dois Maridos, a 1976 Brazilian film which, in turn, was based on a 1966 novel, by the same name, written by Jorge Amado.
Kiss Me Goodbye was the last theatrical movie made by the distinguished actress Claire Trevor, who appears as Kay’s meddling mother, Charlotte.