Archive for August, 2009

Summertime Must-see: American Casino

August 29, 2009

When American Casino gets going with an on-screen quote (“The U.S. Government has pledged over $12 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers to bail out Wall Street. Most people would like to know why.”), you know right away it’s time to fasten your seat belt.americancasino2

In this film (that all American taxpayers should rush to view), the complex, still-molten mortgage meltdown is brilliantly dissected in a tour-de-force that is one part crystal-clear economic primer, and one part revelation of its effect on homeowners who were duped and traumatized by appalling practices. Filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn have managed to remain even-handed by fielding a cast of movers and shakers (good guys and bad), unusually articulate and appealing victims (largely well-educated, middle-class professionals whose lives will never recover from the body blows they received),americancasino3 a real estate investor who made $500 million by “betting against Wall Street” that the bubble would implode, and even a pest-control expert who tries to keep up with the plague of rats and mosquitoes that breed in and around abandoned homes and pools. AMERICANCASINO_STILL2_thumb

At a compact, energized 89 minutes, American Casino will make you cry, and certainly make you mad as hell. Bring your friends and family, or miss it at your own peril.

Summer Biggies: Two really worth the candle……………..

Another achievement by the Japanese master animator, Hayao Miyazaki, brimming with the mixture of realism and fantasy at which he excels. An up-to-date story (with a feisty mom, voiced by Tina Fey), a little boy (Frankie Jonas) and a fish named Ponyo who turns gleefully into a little girl in love (Noah Lindsey Cyrus). ponyo1There’s a hollow-eyed ex-hippie (Liam Neeson) married to an underwater goddess (Cate Blanchett who, like Meryl Streep, can do absolutely anything with her voice, as well as with the rest of her), and plenty of suspense and glory. For children and their adults who enjoy the ride.

District 9
What a blast! You’ve seen the components before (giant prawns from space, the spineless good guy who turns heroic even as he turns into, well, a giant prawn, the evil businessmen and apparatchiks who make things worse, and the selfless wife who remains constant). But stir in allusions to the still-simmering pot of South African politics,district9ebaysign the grim humor, gore, imagination and rueful humanity of director-writer Neill Blomkamp, (whose special-effects background is put to spectacular use here), and you have a blockbuster original for the dog days of summer. District 9

In Every Family, Dreams are in the Details……..

August 14, 2009

Headless Woman

In Headless Woman, Veronica (Argentine actress Maria Onetto) drifts through the aftermath of a tragic car accident smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa, while the lives of others flow around her. Has she killed someone, something, or only imagined it? Has she checked into a hospital afterwards, stayed overnight at a hotel? She can’t remember.Headless_Woman_1-medium

The entire film has a dream-like quality, with Onetto going through the motions of work, family, marketing, household, friendships. Directed by Lucretia Martel (and generated, not surprisingly, by a dream of Martel’s own), Headless Woman draws the viewer in seductively, detail by tiny detail. We learn more: Veronica’s niece is attracted to her; her cousin is having an affair with her; her languorous persona and that mysterious smile are like magnets. headless woman2Yet she can’t quite escape her memory of what may have happened. Consequences of the economic gulf between haves and have-nots are implied, and Martel’s eye for what counts is unerring.

In the end, Veronica’s relatives have her hospital and hotel records erased; memory of the accident’s victim quickly disappears into the working-class family that mourns him, and Veronica is free to take up her routines as if nothing had happened. The film is beautifully made, its lives meticulously observed. It casts a spell, just like its leading lady.


Santiago was the Salles family’s butler for decades, supervising a palatial home and a staff of 22. Director João Moreira Salles, (brother of filmmaker Walter) returned to that home (now deserted) to film Santiago (now retired) for three days in 1992, interviewing him about his duties with the Salles family and his life-long magnum opus—a 30,000-page history of mankind’s kings, emperors, and aristocracy, especially the Medicis, whom he worshipped above all others. It now lies on shelves behind Santiago, each dynasty neatly typed and bound in ribbon, extended by images of its subjects framed on the walls.santiago2

Santiago is forever obsessed with every detail of their outsize human drama. “They are dead,” he admits, “but not for me.” As Salles interviews him, he displays the soul of an artist manqué, who did his job for the family to perfection, but existed emotionally entirely in the pursuit of his real life’s work.

Too late (Santiago has died since Salles first filmed him), Salles recognizes the value of his subject. Out of the original three-day interview, the pages of Santiago’s enormous manuscript, his paintings and sculptures, some family ghosts in the deserted house, and poetry, Salles fashions his film–“something out of nothing” — an original and haunting portrait. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Maximillian Schell’s film of Marlene Dietrich; she allowed him to audiotape her at length, but refused to permit him to turn on his camera. Schell stubbornly, slyly, rose to the challenge, and so does Salles.Santiago1

Santiago grows steadlily richer as Salles probes Santiago’s passion, revealing his own failings in the process. As Salles observes ruefully, “He was embarrassed. I placed a distance between us; I was the son of the owner, and he was the butler.” His ability to make fun of his own directorial role, with hindsight and humility gained in the intervening years, is very much part of the film’s charms.

Still Walking

Inspired by the loss of both his parents, Hirokazu Kore-Eda says Still Walking is a film “launched by the experience of regret that we all share.” The family is Japanese, but its generational tensions and pleasures are universal. Taking place (mostly) during one long day and night during a son and daughter’s visit to their parents’ seaside town, the minutiae of their shared history is revisited over painstakingly prepared meals extended by take-out sushi. Stillwalking1The family visits the grave of another son who died young and will always be mourned. The surviving children are indifferent to their parents’ concerns.

Once again, details that give shape and meaning to everyday life are observed, here by Kore-Eda’s clear and sympathetic eye but, this time, accumulate to express regret for what we all fail to do for the living. This is a really beautiful and elegaic work, shot mostly in the claustrophobic space of the family dining room, occasionally opening up to nearby streets and parks and, once, to the sea itself—the source of life and, in the case of the Yokoyama family, the scene of the tragic accidental death of the son so full of promise. Like the recent French film, Summer Hours, Still Walking is both delicately expressed and deeply satisfying. stillwalking_forweb


Iceberg and Goldmine: WWII

August 1, 2009

Flame & Citron
A Woman in Berlin
The Hurt Locker

World War II is a subject that refuses to quit. With a body count in the tens of millions, it also forever changed the lives of millions more, as survivors criss-crossed the world to find new homes, languages, and cultures. Their stories remain the tip of an iceberg for those who want to see, hear, and read them, and a goldmine for producers, directors, and writers who burn to tell (and sell) them.

Flame and Citron is one: a harrowing real-life tale of two Danish resistance fighters recruited to oppose the Nazis who have occupied their country. Despite their initial idealism, nothing turns out as expected; issues come only in several shades of gray, as sides are chosen and chosen again. Almost disguised as an action-packed thriller, it’s really an engrossing morality tale about the nature of war and man. flamecitronpz2This Danish-German co-production is stylishly contemporary and operatic in its approach – dark in color, with intense closeups, gorgeous long shots, stark sets, costumes, and art direction, and often accompanied by music that owes everything (appropriately) to Wagner’s Gőtterdammerung. There is a great deal of violence, which escalates as the two Danes become—despite their misgivings—heroes of the resistance army, and assassins-at-large in the process. thure and mads

The filmmaker’s closeup lens probes deeply into their character and motivation, and subtly accrues the telling details that draw viewers into the noose that tightens around them, delivering tension, twists and gore in equal measure. Propelled by the spectacular performances of Thure Lindhardt as Flame, Mads Mikkelsen as Citron, and outstanding featured players, plus masterful filmmaking from director Ole Christian Madsen, Flame and Citron is that rare bird: a character-driven film that also delivers a visceral charge right to the last frame. It’s deeply satisfying on both counts. Because the Danish resistance is not as familiar as the European Holocaust, or the war in the Pacific, it feels particularly fresh, and keeps you guessing until a long post-finale scroll brings the story up to date.

A Woman in Berlin, (based on a controversial memoir by “Anonymous,” published in 1959), is stylistically more conventional than Flame and Citron, but reports from the other side of the WWII divide—the last days of Hitler’s Berlin, and the Russian occupation that followed it.4287EC69F764E5C17BF6AA9C5F793 It, too, reveals that black-and-white issues turn gray under the realities of war and occupation.

One thought to take away from both these excellent films: almost every country in the world is familiar with the horrors of invasion and the chaos that comes with it. After seeing Flame and Citron and A Woman in Berlin, the geographical isolation that has long protected North America from invasion seems more enviable than ever. But it has also fostered a lack of empathy that can make “Speak softly and carry a big stick” something of a defining stance. On the one hand, it has kept things tidy at home. On the other, it has obscured the terrible damage the stick can inflict.

Update: after seeing The Hurt Locker (a deeply disturbing edge-of-your-seat film), in which the US is the invader in Iraq, it’s obvious that the here-and-now is still shades of gray. But—judging from the quote by Chris Hedges that precedes the film, as well as the film’s final scene—the filmmakers’ conclusion seems to be that living with the giddy adrenaline rush of high-risk occupations hurt-locker-june2-590x331(defusing intricate bombs planted to destroy anyone who approaches them), renders the risk-taker unfit for the mundane tasks of civilian life. In creating two hours of blighted streets, corpses, bombed-out buildings, and the horror of a country destroyed, there is one burning question that seems to have escaped their scrutiny: what, exactly, were we doing there in the first place? It remains unanswered.

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