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Monday, April 29, 2013

IN THE HOUSE (DANS LA MAISON) 4/29/13



The director Fran├žois Ozon’s new film IN THE HOUSE (DANS LA MAISON) is an unusually structured movie where the plot construct is self-consciously overweening. I am still mulling over my own response to IN THE HOUSE. The interweaving of reality and fantasy, the dislocation of time, the artifice of the “story-line,” and the nature of the teacher/student relationship, becomes the movie’s dizzying underpinnings. YES this one is still rattling around in my head especially since I have been insinuating myself into historical works of art, through the manipulation of photographs for the past few years, so I felt an uneasy personal affinity to the blurring of the edges of fact and fiction.

The film starts off with digital animations that rush by us on the screen during the opening titles – so we are visually alerted to the fact that what we see can be toyed with, and we are not dealing with traditional straightforward movie fare. We then  meet one of the two protagonists – Monsieur Germain, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini)  who is at a meeting in a Lycee (High School) named after one of France’s greatest authors - Gustave Flaubert (the ultimate literary stylist), a clue that we will be dealing with ideas about writing and the “creative” process.

Monsieur Germain, a self acknowledged “failed” novelist is grading assigned papers at home, disgusted and bored with the level of idiocy in his writing class complaining to his Art Gallerist, equally self-absorbed wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) about his students, when he reads an essay titled “In The House” containing a spark of lucidity and a flair for language and  observation written by Claude Garcia (confidently acted by  Ernst Umhauer.) We then meet this handsome 16 year-old boy who is furtively spying on another young man, his home and family. Claude’s background is barely revealed; we know he lives alone with a disabled father- his mother having left the family when he was a child. By the intensity of his expression and the mutually collaborative passion of the symbiotic student/teacher relationship, we become aware of Claude’s obsessive desire for what he perceives as “normalcy.”

We, the audience, are then drawn into the film’s ensuing drama, witnessing the endless revisions, editing and re-editing of the original “In The House” essay. Ultimately Claude through his friendship with the "model" family's son gains access into the “house” and participates in their family life, where he himself becomes a pivotal, creepy, catalytic force in the development of the narrative. Subsequent episodes psychologically reveal the lives of the characters that Claude covets. Throughout this complicated stagecraft, the student is in constant collaboration with his abject teacher  who is advising him as to style and literary do’s and don’t's, and occasionally pops up (invisible to others) at critical moments in the film with plot contrivances and recommendations.

The prevailing question is how much of what we are seeing is real and how much is simulated by a fertile imagination? Watching IN THE HOUSE I felt drained by the brain-twisting, chilling and yet pathetically touching incidents of a boy in need of a family, and having to invent one – over and over again. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

MUD 4/27/13


Jeff Nichols the director of MUD was also the director of TAKE SHELTER – a film whose hallucinatory cinematography stayed with me so “hard and long” that eventually I needed to make a painting to push it out of my head. MUD has some of that same visual power and palpable sense of place – this time we are not in the fields of Ohio, but rather in Arkansas in houseboats along the Mississippi River.

This is a movie about trust, and LOVE, revealing the different forms this powerful emotion engenders - familial love, obsessive love, romantic love, the innocence of first love, and the disillusionment that often comes when we eventually step out of love’s rose-colored “bubble” and come face to face with the reality of loss and separation - all seen through the eyes of young boys inching toward adulthood. Two expressive smart fourteen years old best buddies, the sensitive dreamer Ellis (soulfully acted by Tye Sheridan) and his more down-to-earth pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland ) live their lives and participate in their family livelihood along the banks of the Mississippi River; the river being a major character in this film beautifully unearthing mysteries and the expansive dream of freedom.

 One early morning the two boys piloting their motorboat come upon a magical scene – a large boat perched in a tree on an island in the bayou. They decide that this will be their secret hideout. But upon further investigation they find that someone else is already living there. We then encounter a scraggly man called Mud ( Matthew McConaughey acting against pretty-boy type) who is both chilling and portentous, but also vulnerable and in need of help. Ellis, with the candor and freshness of youth, trusts his intuition and decides to assist this stranger - the quintessential vagabond who can spin yarns that enchant. The more skeptical friend Neckbone goes along for the proverbial “ride”, but eventually he too is bewitched by Mud’s persona and his explanation for why he is hungry, literally exposed, and in circumstances fraught with danger. Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper the gorgeous long-legged, woman – the actualization of Mud’s life-long fantasies and his Achilles heel. Sam Shepard whose presence often steals most scenes, is again stoic and compelling, portraying  another sphinxlike loner  living on the river who has a past relationship with Mud and along with Michael Shannon (the hero of TAKE SHELTER) a surrogate father figure.

The boys are then drawn into a complicated scenario of flight, menace and rescue. Ellis, with his essential goodness strengthened because of meeting the enigmatic Mud, displays an honesty and directness which is unusually refreshing. He ultimately accepts his own family's intricate relationship, and becomes prepared to  confront the puzzle that is life with his youthful idealism still intact.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES 4/20/13




I am attracted to films that allow me to enter lives and sub-cultures that often are chilling, alarming and at the same time perversely compelling. I am able to penetrate worlds that I do not inhabit, but am afforded a glimpse into a cloudy window of human despair and joy. Therein lies the fascination and I am able to do this in the refuge of a darkened theater. The director Derek Cianfrance’s new movie The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious attempt, but not a wholly successful one, to address what I felt was a profane “reckoning.” Coincidence and “karma” are underscored in this multi-generational film of fathers and sons; the tragic deeds– even in the act of extreme confusion and good intentions - will be handed down upon their sons.

An electric Ryan Gosling plays Luke a motorcycle “drifter” whose actions in an attempt to behave responsibly and to monetarily support a one-year-old son, the existence of which he recently became aware of, and the ensuing consequences of his reckless exploits, evolves into the narrative groundwork that weaves throughout this film. Not only is Luke’s appearance frightening– tattooed to the hilt, living an aimless life on the precipice - he nevertheless, through the emotions perceptible in his facial expressions, is able to elicit our sympathy with a humanity that belies his outward veneer. Ryan Gosling is an actor that is so riveting that he takes over every scene; his presence sucks the life out of most other performers, though Ben Mendelsohn as his accomplice, a fellow ‘outcast”, is clearly up to the task and does not disappoint.

The story contrasts Luke the “outlaw” with a young, idealistic policeman Avery, played by Bradley Cooper, also with a young son, who eventually “hunts” the "vagabond" down. Cooper does not have the interior girth to make me care about him, but soon he becomes the crux of the film - which I found to be a weakness - fighting corruption and tapping into his own appetites for success and eventually participating in the political arena. Guilt, regret and the past are the haunting motifs of the rest of the movie. Fifteen years later, we see the consequences of these emotions on the two protagonists’ young sons as they grow up and eventually meet up and collide in High School where the drama from years ago explodes anew. 
The circle is completed.






Saturday, April 13, 2013

42 4/13/13

I cannot write about director Brian Helgeland’s new movie 42 and be clearly objective since baseball is so tied up with some of my greatest childhood feelings of elation and sorrow. I sat in the darkened theater choked up with tears in my eyes – pure nostalgia – for how much baseball meant to my twin sister and I, and the passion with which we rooted for rival teams - Florence was the Brooklyn Dodgers fan and I was an avid New York Giants fan. During the baseball season, my father who personally cared nothing about the game, took us weekends on the subway either to Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds whenever the teams played at home. Our shared sibling bedroom wall was divided down the middle – like an iron curtain - with posters of Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, etc. on her side of the room, and Willie Mays, Don Mueller, Bobby Thomson, Monte Irvin, Hank Thompson, Sal Maglie, etc. on mine.


42 is an interesting, and admittedly sentimental, baseball film about the intense desire of Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Brooklyn Dodger’s General Manager to integrate baseball and to find the one baseball player in The Negro Leagues who could withstand the pressure and racism that Rickey knew would be heaped upon the super athlete who broke the “color barrier” in this our National – NOT All- American pastime. That person was Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and the choice was an ideal one as he was a great baseball player (42 was the number on his uniform) who had enough confidence to brave and confront this heroic task, not with his temper, but with his bat and glove on the baseball diamond. Off the field we are offered an intimate love story between Jackie and his beautiful wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) who is as spirited as he is, and from the onset of their relationship his main supporter notwithstanding the simplistic Hollywood-style treatment of woman as helpmeet.

 The film is not reluctant nor does it gloss over the prevalence of racism wherever Robinson played; be it on the field, among teammates, in the stands, in the baseball administrative hierarchy, and of course in the showers. Chadwick Boseman looks like Jackie Robinson and gives an admirably stoic performance deflecting the taunts and abuse – both verbal and physical thrown at him– while still maintaining his character’s dignity. I was distracted seeing Harrison Ford’s strangely warped make up, and his theatrical depiction as Branch Rickey, a character who spouts the Bible and Greek mythology in one breath, as well as avuncular philosophical advice with the next. I personally loved seeing baseball legends, those I had actually seen play, such as Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca,  Eddie Stanky,  Enos Slaughter and Leo – oh that philanderer!- Leo Durocher “revealed/exposed” through their interactions with Jackie Robinson.

The theater erupted with applause at the end of the movie. I too clapped – something I rarely ever do, knowing that in my case memory and the personal were the measure of my response. Before I even left the theater I called my sister. No, this was not a great movie, but yes, it was great entertainment and its message should be told over and over again to the men and women and particularly the youth that will be its audience. 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

STARBUCK 4/7/13


I never realized that being a sperm donor could be such a lucrative way of making money, particularly if you are a habitual “contributor.” STARBUCK directed by Ken Scott (V), introduces us to the young David Wozniak – code name Starbuck masturbating in the act of donating sperm in a fertility clinic near his home in Quebec. Twenty years later we soon discover that this prolific tool-handler has become a perpetual “misfit,” lovable but constantly screwing up, working in the Wozniak family butcher shop driving a truck delivering meat - the only job he can do fairly well. Hmmmmmm.

This charming, sloppily sentimental, comedy/drama erupts – oh dear! when the Fertility Clinic is sued by 142 of the 533 products of his seed, who want to know the identity of their biological father. Therein lies the tale – should Starbuck identify himself or not. There are many contrivances in this movie such as David being given the dossier of each of his brood; the film focuses on how he follows/stalks  a few of them just at the right moment when his presence alters their lives. YES quite corny, but what saves this movie from total bathos is the performance of Patrick Huard (who reminded me of a youthful Gerard Depardieu) whose likeability factor shone through and kept me in my seat, though I must admit I kept worrying that I would have to sit through 142 separate encounters …luckily that did not occur. My popcorn was almost finished after about 4 meet-ups. This fairy tale of an eccentric “loser” maturing into a caring “winner” ends with a predictable progeny group- hug and love fest.
Cute!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

LORE 4/5/13



Many years ago I became infatuated with a young man who I met while going to Art School; intense and full of bewitching “talk” he seduced me with his language. I was a willing victim.  We had a relationship and I eventually found out that he was one of those “wild/lost” children abandoned after World War II in German – living in the forests, foraging for food and survival after his parents were either killed during the War or interned by the Allies.  I mention this because LORE, a film directed by The Australian, Cate Shortland shows us another family – 4 young children and a baby (a few months-old infant) that are left to fare for themselves after their Gestapo father is killed, and their mother - one suitcase in tow, disappears into the lush German landscape. The 14 year old eldest daughter Lore, beautifully portrayed by Saskia Rosendahl, is fiercely determined to protect her siblings – just a child herself  - Lore is thrust into a bewildering adulthood; a teenager who has lived a good part of her life under National Socialism has passionately internalized Nazi Anti-Semitic propaganda, innocently awaiting Hitler’s victory – unaware of impending defeat and the turbulent uprooting of family life.

The cinematography is mysteriously disturbing and gorgeous – extreme close-ups, so abstract that often we are unable to make out the entire picture – which correlates with this young girl/woman’s  un/awareness of the outside world. The story takes on a fantastical turn when the small family lugging their meager belongings on the road trying to make their way to their Omi’s (grandmother’s) house in Hamburg (500 miles to the North)  are stopped by American soldiers who ask for their “papers” which they do not have. A young Jewish man Thomas (Kai Malina) – an escapee from Buchenwald who had noticed Lore earlier, materializes and  says he is their brother/bruder showing the soldiers his own papers with a large Jewish Star emblazoned inside. We never get to know why Thomas decides to be this vulnerable family's "savior" except  perhaps his attraction to the lovely Lore. This is the catalyst for our heroine’s journey from hatred and self-ingested propaganda against all Jews to a slow comprehension of human dignity, respect, and a growing realization of a nation and family’s horrific acts. The movie describes this excursion as an interior exploration as well as an external one - both being circuitous and fraught with violence, confusion and regret.

We can see Lore as a generational view of the German people’s denial of Hitler’s decimation and acts of extermination supplanted by a new generation slowly breaking with their heinous past. But this takes time, lots of time if it ever does succeed.