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.
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.
April 30, 2012
The concept of “paying forward” evidently has been rattling around for a long time—at least as long ago as 317 BC, when it was woven into the plot of Dyskolos, a play by the Greek writer Menander.
We encountered the idea, known in sociology as “generalized reciprocity,” much more recently, namely in the 2000 film Pay it Forward, with Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, Jon Bon Jovi, and Angie Dickinson.
Hunt plays Arlene McKinney, a woman estranged from her husband and trying to raise her son by working both as a pole dancer and as a waitress in a Las Vegas casino. Arlene and her absent husband, Rickey (Jon Bon Jovi) are both problem drinkers; Arlene, who is in a program for alcoholics, still sneaks a nip when she’s under stress, which is most of the time.
Arlene’s son, Trevor (Osment), is assigned to a seventh-grade social studies class taught by Eugene Simonet (Spacey) who has a badly scarred face. On the first day of class, Simonet gives his students a year-long assignment, which is to devise and at least attempt to carry out a plan that will change the world forever. Unlike many of his classmates, Trevor takes this assignment seriously, and he decides that his project will involve “paying forward,” by which he means that he will do a favor for each of three strangers and ask each of them to return the favor not to Trevor but to three other strangers. The goal, of course, is to set off an ever-expanding chain reaction of good will.
Trevor’s first attempt at putting this idea into practice is to invite a homeless drug addict to take a shower and have a meal at the McKinney home and to stay overnight. When Arlene discovers this plan already in progress, she has a predictable and understandable reaction, and it isn’t positive.
The incident inspires Arlene to visit the school and reprimand Simonet for making the assignment. The two don’t understand each other, and the interview is not successful. But Trevor decides to make the solitary Simonet the beneficiary of the next favor by tricking the teacher and Arlene into having dinner together, a scheme that does not succeed.
The story becomes increasingly complicated as Trevor runs away from home, Arlene and Simonet take a second look at their relationship, and Ricky reappears with the announcement that he is sober to stay.
This film begins with a sequence in which a Los Angeles reporter, Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), stops at a crime scene and watches as a patrol car drives into his own vehicle, wrecking it beyond repair. A passer-by, an older and prosperous looking gent, hands Chandler the keys to a Jaguar, tells him to take it, and refuses to explain himself.
Chandler eventually determines that this incident is part of a series of good deeds that he traces back to Trevor Chandler.In the process, Chandler comes across a woman identified only as Grace, a homeless alcoholic played by Angie Dickinson and a key figure in the McKinney drama.
I go along with the Rotten Tomatoes assessment of this film: the story line is much too emotionally manipulative, but the performances by everyone in the cast nearly redeem the movie. I think most viewers would also find the conclusion of the story, which I won’t spoil here, to be contrived and unsatisfying.
Watch it, but keep your expectations under control.
March 12, 2012
Spencer Tracy got away with playing the same character a lot of the time, and with good reason: It worked. A case in point is his role in the 1951 comedy Father’s Little Dividend, which was a sequel to Father of the Bride.
Tracy plays Stanley Banks, a suburbanite who looks forward to forging a new kind of life with his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett), now that their three children are grown. He’s especially thinking about travel — Europe, maybe, or the beach at Waikiki. This dream is disrupted by the announcement that the Banks’ daughter, Kay Dunstan (Elizabeth Taylor), is pregnant.
Ellie is delighted with this news, but Stanley is worried, depressed, and angry. He correctly suspects that first the pregnancy and then the baby will absorb Ellie’s attention to the exclusion of all other things. He also dislikes the prospects of being a grandfather, because he doesn’t like confronting his age.
The pregnancy, as pregnancies will, proceeds with or without Stanley’s endorsement. Meanwhile Ellie becomes increasingly irritated by Kay’s in-laws, who seem determined to take control of every aspect of the baby’s life, including its name and the decor of its nursery.
To complicate matters further, Kay leaves her husband whom she suspects of having an affair, and Ellie is distraught over the obstetrician’s theories, apparently revolutionary in 1951, about a mother being totally awake during childbirth and bonding immediately with her infant.
This film, which was shot in 22 days, was directed by Vincente Minelli. It’s typical of the style of the times, including the overdressed actors. (I was old enough in 1951 that I can testify that men did not wear suits to do everything but sleep and have sex.) It’s also thoroughly entertaining in the way of the comedies of that period, no little thanks to the irresistible Spencer Tracy. For anyone who has seen neither film, it might be fun to watch Father of the Bride first, but it’s not necessary in order to appreciate the sequel.
An image that is perhaps too typical of the time is the black maid, in this case Delilah, played by Marietta Canty. She appeared in more than 40 films — including Rebel without a Cause, The Spoilers, and Father of the Bride — mostly in this kind of role and often without receiving credit. Like her colleagues, she braved the criticism often directed at black actors who accepted such parts and conducted herself with skill and dignity. She retired from show business in the late 1950s. She was a political and social activist for the next three decades. She was also a nurse and a justice of the peace. Her home in Hartford, Connecticut, is on the National Registry of Historic Sites.
January 29, 2012
A couple of things Van Johnson told me about himself have stuck in my mind for more than 30 years. One was that he had a lifelong ambition to ride an elephant during the opening of a Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance. The other was that he was disappointed that living in a Manhattan apartment meant that children would never come to his door on Halloween.
I’ve been thinking about those things today because last night we watched Van Johnson in the 1954 film The Last Time I Saw Paris. He co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor. Others in the cast were Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, George Dolenz, and Sandy Descher.
This film, which was loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” is a long flashback to Paris at the end of World War II in Europe. Johnson plays Charlie Wills, a soldier and aspiring novelist who works as a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. At the beginning of the tale, he has returned to Paris from the United States, and he reminisces about the bitter circumstances under which he had left the City of Light: During the celebratory bedlam in Paris when the war ended, Charlie winds up at a party at the home of James Elwirth (Pidgeon), an impecunious American chancer who believes in living high even if one can’t afford it. Charlie is invited to the home by Elwirth’s quite proper daughter Marion (Reed), but is quickly infatuated with Marion’s ne’er-do-well sibling, Helen (Taylor).
Charlie and Helen marry and have a daughter, Vicki, played by Descher. Marion — who is broken-hearted over losing Charlie to the sister of whom she disapproves, settles on a rebound match with a thoughtful Frenchman, Claude Matine (Dolenz).
The marriage of Charlie and Helen goes well, even while they’re living from hand to mouth, but Charlie is gradually losing confidence in himself as one publisher after another rejects his novels. Then their world is permanently altered as oil is discovered on Texas land, thought to be barren, that Elwirth jokingly gave the couple as a wedding gift. While Helen struggles to maintain stability in the family, Charlie sinks further and further into a morass of depression and decadence.
When this movie was released, some critics savaged it. It is true that the story is implausible and that some of the acting is either arch or wooden. Eva Gabor, as socialite Lorraine Quarl, who plays a supporting role in Charlie’s decline, gives exactly the kind of performance one expected of the Gabors. Descher, who was only nine years old, is gag-me cute in the role of Vicki –and she inexplicably never ages as the years roll by.
Van Johnson’s light comedy is entertaining, but his drunk scenes are simply unbelievable. I once heard from a stage veteran that an actor who can’t play a convincing drunk is no actor at all. That might be too harsh a judgment on Johnson, but this film suggests that faux inebriation was not his strong suit.
Elizabeth Taylor and Donna Reed did passably well as the sisters, although a scene in which Taylor’s character is mortally ill is so unconvincing as to be ludicrous. Walter Pidgeon, on the other hand, is delightful as the irresponsible but charismatic Ellswirth and Dolenz plays Claude as the most realistic figure in the film.
I don’t know if this is true, but I have read that the producers didn’t use the title of Fitzgerald’s story because they were afraid movie-goers would think the film had a biblical theme. I wondered about the title they did use, particularly because its lyrics express sentiments exactly opposite of those in this film. The song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” is heard in the background throughout the movie. It turns out that song was written in 1940 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and it was sung by Ann Sothern in the 1941 film Lady be Good. It won the Oscar for best song. The song was composed in the aftermath of the German occupation of France. There were six versions of the song on the hit charts by the end of 1940, and Kate Smith bought the exclusive right to sing it on the radio for six months.
As is often the case with movies, the shortcomings of The Last Time I Saw Paris do not add up to a failure. The film is nicely photographed — much of it in Paris, it captures the mood and mores of the early ‘fifties, and it is entertaining. It’s also an inoffensive opportunity to spend a couple of hours indulging oneself in the kind of escapism provided by “golden-age” stars such as Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.
You can hear the title song, presented in the mood in which it was written, by clicking HERE. The performance is by Anne Shelton, a fine British vocalist who devoted a lot of time and energy to entertaining troops via radio and in person.
December 20, 2011
I don’t know if it’s possible to not be in love with Mia Farrow, but watching the 1990 Woody Allen film Alice is not the way to avoid it.
In this wonderful fantasy, written and directed by Allen, Farrow plays Alice Tate, the wife of wealthy businessman Doug Tate (William Hurt). Alice lives in a world in which her biggest concern is how to fit all the pampering she receives into her busy schedule. She and Doug have children, and Alice seems genuinely attached to them, but the kids spend most of their time with a nanny while Mom is with the personal trainer or the hair dresser or with her equally spoiled and gossipy lady friends.
Her routine is disrupted at her childrens’ private school when she meets and is attracted to Joe (Joe Mantegna), the divorced father of one of the other children. Shy and at least nominally Catholic, Alice suppresses her interest in Joe at least for a while. Right around this time, her usual hypochondria becomes focused on a chronic pain in her back, which drives her to consult an herbalist in a crummy building in Chinatown.
Dr. Yang, played in a marvelous performance by Keye Luke — his last role — understands immediately that there is nothing wrong with Alice’s back. He hypnotizes her and then introduces her to a series of herbs that have extraordinary effects on her, and eventually on Joe, including invisibility. Alice and Joe learn a great deal about themselves and about their spouses (ex-spouse, in Joe’s case). The result is a total change in both of their lives, although not in the way that might seem obvious.
Yang, who barks at any sign of self-indulgence in Alice and consistently refers to himself in the third person, is a unique and hilarious character.
As usual with Woody Allen, every character in this film is perfectly cast, including a brief turn by Bernadette Peters as a mystical “muse” who addresses Alice’s ambition to be a writer; Gwen Verdon as Alice’s memory of her mother; Blythe Danner as Alice’s somewhat estranged sister; and Alec Baldwin as the ghost of Alice’s first lover. Even the tiny role of an interior decorator is enhanced by Allen’s choice of Julie Kavner.
As for Farrow, she is simply irresistible.
The film is outstanding for its photography and for the writing, which got Allen an Oscar nomination.
Alice was loosely based on Juliet of the Spirits, a 1965 Italian movie directed by Federico Fellini, the first feature-length film he shot in color.