Before Monday: My review of Le Week-End

C+ Drama

  • Written by Hanif Kureishi
  • Directed by Roger Michell

If the shockingly misleading trailer for Le Week-End makes you want to see the movie, don’t. It is not, as you may have been led to believe, a romantic frolic about an aging couple rekindling their romance in the city of lights. Quite the opposite. It’s a dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline.

I can’t blame the film for bad marketing. But I can blame it for it’s own faults. While Le Week-End has several very good scenes and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character, it suffers from a overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight.

The plot is reminiscent of the Before… trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), and yet feels far more contrived. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.

image

What empathy the film offers goes entirely to Nick (Jim Broadbent), a man of deep insecurity coming to the end of his rope. He’s lost his job and is running out of money. Age is delivering one new physical pain after another. His wife treats him with contempt, and their son has become a father without growing into responsible adulthood.

That wife, Meg (Lindsay Duncan) , is horrible. She refuses to stay in the modest hotel where they have a reservation, and insists on going to the most expensive place in Paris–despite their serious money problems. She insults him, flirts then rejects him, and argues about everything. When he falls on a cobblestone street and lies there in pain, she walks away.

Why doesn’t Nick simply divorce her? He can’t afford to.

Halfway though the film, they run into an old, once-very close friend of Nick’s (Jeff Goldblum), who somehow never met his wife of 30 years. This chance meeting leads to an insufferable party filled with annoying intellectuals. A series of toasts at the dinner table become of the film’s climax, where the main characters stand up and express their feelings out loud to strangers.

The film has a few light-hearted moments, and even a few comic ones. Occasionally, Nick and Meg appear to actually love each other in some strange way. But these moments never last. The entire cast give excellent performances, but only Broadbent is well-served by the script. His character is the only reason to see this film.

A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows.

Quick Opinions on The Past and Dallas Buyers Club

I know. I haven’t been writing much lately aside from the weekly newsletter. I’ve been busy. But I have managed to get to a couple of current films.

And I chose well. I really loved both of these pictures, although The Past is definitely the best of them..

A The Past
Between this new film and A Separation (read my review), I’m ready to declare writer/director Asghar Farhadi our era’s Ozu. Like them, his intimate family dramas catch unique yet universal human beings at their best and worst. His low-key films don’t tell you what to think or feel–the camera work feels neutral and there’s little or no music–but he catches ordinary people in their moments of crisis, and in doing so tells us a lot about our species.

image

This story concerns a married but long-separated couple. The man returns from far away to his old home, temporarily, to manage the divorce. He finds a dangerously dysfunctional family, with a selfish, manipulative, and possibly insane mother, a boyfriend trapped in a moral dilemma, and children in desperate need a sympathetic parental figure. The story moves quietly from one crisis to another, without ever feeling forced or melodramatic.

Although officially an Iranian film, The Past is set and was shot entirely in France, and most of the dialog is in French. Outside of the children, all of the main characters are Iranian immigrants. Little is made of that. There’s no sense of religious Islam or political exile.

A Dallas Buyers Club
Compared to The Past, this story of people dying of AIDS is practically upbeat. But then, it’s an American movie. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself alive for a long time.

image

And not just himself. He sold the drugs to other AIDS sufferers. At first this was purely a for-profit business. Eventually, it became a crusade.

And yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, albeit one that acknowledges that many of the characters will die young. Jared Leto particularly stands out as a dying transvestite whom the initially homophobic Woodroof befriends. Leto’s character, like most of the supporting roles, is fictitious.

The Once-Great John Sayles Makes a Pretty Good Mystery in Go for Sisters

B Mystery/thriller

  • Written and directed by John Sayles

Back in the 1990s, independent filmmaker John Sayles turned out one great film after another. But he’s been turning out mostly disappointments for a long time now. His latest film, Go for Sisters, didn’t disappoint me, but that’s only because I’ve lowered my expectations about this once-great auteur.

This is Sayles at his most conventional. A pair of mismatched protagonists join forces to find a missing person, with the help of a colorful retired cop. Along the way, they’ll face evil criminals, fire a gun a couple of times, and bond. In all but the details, you’ve seen this film before.

The heroines grew up as best friends but have long ago went their separate ways. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer, and a tough one. Fontayne (Yolonda Ross) is a recovering drug addict and an ex-con. They’re both lonely.

Then Bernice’s grown son, who hasn’t been returning her calls, becomes a person of interest in a homicide investigation. To make matters worse, he’s disappeared, and there are reasons to believe that he has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. Bernice calls on Fontayne to help her find her son.

But neither of them have any experience with this sort of thing, so a third character is added to the group, a former LAPD detective named Freddy (Edward James Olmos, who also produced the film). He’s clever, funny, knows the underworld, and plays a mean electric guitar. He’s also going blind, a serious problem for this sort of work.

image

Their investigation takes them south of the border, primarily into Tijuana. Latin American culture, and its relationship to the USA, has always fascinated Sayles. Consider Lone Star, Men with Guns, and Casa de los babys. This story allows him to dig into that culture’s seamier underbelly.

This is a American movie almost completely lacking in white people. imageBernice and Fontayne are both African American, as are many of the people they have contact with in their day-to-day lives (Fontayne is also gay). Freddy is Hispanic; his parents were both born in Mexico. The villains tend to be either Mexican or Chinese. I don’t recall a single white character important enough to turn up in more than one scene.

Aside from the three leads, we really don’t get to know anyone. Surprising for a Sayles picture, we never get a moment where a minor character reveals something interesting about themselves. Go for Sisters is heavy on plot, and really doesn’t seem interested in all but a few main characters.

I’ve seen all but a couple of his films, and while this isn’t Sayles’ worst (that would be Silver City), it’s certainly his most conventional. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Hollywood genre flicks have their pleasures, and when made by competent filmmakers, are almost always entertaining.

And this one is competently made. The three lead characters are well drawn and interesting. You care about what happens to them and enjoy their company. The story is intriguing, if at times a bit opaque. The dialog is well written and acted, and the violence is kept to a minimum.

It’s still a John Sayles film after all.

Taxi Driver, Alamo Bay, and 4K Digital Projection at the PFA

Saturday night, my wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. Both were parts of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. And this time, unlike Thursday night’s screening, the movies were actually projected in 4K.

And they both looked fantastic.

This was not a double feature. You had to pay for each screening. On the other hand, there’s a discount for the second feature, and the total came to only $10.50.

Let’s take the movies one at a time:

Alamo Bay

The evening started with a short talk by Sony Senior Vice President for Asset Management (translation: VP for old movies), Grover Crisp. On Thursday night, his talk was the main attraction. This time, it was just a quick introduction.

Crisp knows that many cinephiles are offended by the digital conversion that he and Sony are a major part of. He may have felt defensive. "I have nothing against film," he explained. "I love it. But that doesn’t keep me from loving digital, which I like better."

By Sony’s definitions, there’s "very little difference" between a 2K and 4K restoration. "The films are always scanned at 4K resolution." In a 2K restoration, the digitized images is downgraded to 2K for mastering–the creative and difficult work done after scanning. That saves money, and still results in an image as good or better than a 35mm print.

Of course a 4K presentation is going to look better than a 2K one, but Crisp didn’t think it was that big a difference. He estimated that in the PFA theater, "You can see the difference from the first 5 rows…if you know what to look for."

In answer to an audience question, Crisp acknowledged that if a film is scanned in 4K and mastered in 2K, they can always go back and master it again in 4K without a new scan.

He also said said that a 4K master looks significantly better than a 2K master when transferred to Blu-ray–a 2K medium.

Before the movie, the PFA played a videotaped introduction by Alamo Bay’s cinematographer, Curtis Clark. He discussed the film stock he used, director Louis Malle’s desire to have a wide contrast ratio, and the problems of getting good release prints. The digital restoration, and DCP projection, now fixes that later problem.

Made in 1985, Alamo Bay dramatizes and fictionalizes some ugly, racist incidents that happened on the Texas coast only a few years earlier. As refugee Vietnamese fishermen arrive, looking for the American dream, they run up against the local bigots, who are for the most part dirt poor and worried about their own economic conditions. It stars  Amy Madigan as a young woman of very conflicting views, Ed Harris as a violent bigot made more dangerous by both drink and fear that he will lose his boat, and Ho Nguyen as a cocky young Vietnamese fisherman. Still relevant today, it tells a powerful story, even if it gets a little preachy and a bit Hollywood at times. I’d give it a B+.

image

The transfer looked very good. There were a couple of shots where the colors looked a bit flat–especially with Madigan’s lipstick–but for all I know, they may have looked like that on film.

Taxi Driver

Once again, the program started with a talk by Grover Crisp. Since the audience was different, he repeated a few items (as well as a few from Thursday). He "explained ‘K thing: "4K is the amount we really need to capture the visual image in a 35mm film frame."

He followed that with a demonstration that he also did Thursday night, as well as last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He projected the same frame, a close-up of Peter O’Toole, from Lawrence of  Arabia, from 4K and 2K scans. The difference was huge. O-Toole’s headgear, which looked blurry in 2K, was detailed enough to see the threads in 4K.

I might point out that Lawrence of  Arabia is a large-format film, and I would expect 2K to be very inadequate for scanning. After all, when Sony scanned the film, they did it in 8K, and mastered it in 4K.

Actually, I’d like to see similar demo showing the same same, mastered at 4K, but projected in 4K and 2K.

Crisp insisted that he’s "not anti-film," but is merely "being pragmatic. I think that in this changeover period, now is the time to make sure that we’re actually [restoring these films] correctly so that you have a cinematic experience." A DCP should be "the best print you’ve ever seen."

Then he talked about Taxi Driver, which was restored about two years ago. It was "Typically abused when it was new…scratches and things like that. All the things that we can fix digitally now."

He compared stills from a pre-restoration DVD and the restored version. It was shocking how much had been lost but is now restored. The earlier versions had dull colors and what looked like flat lighting. Worse, even though it was in the wrong aspect ratio, much of the image was cropped off. All that is fixed now.

I’ve written about Taxi Driver before, and I don’t feel a need to discuss it in detail again. I’ll just say that I give it an A+. You can check out my Blu-ray Review (taken from the same restoration) for more.

image

But I will say that I’ve never seen Taxi Driver look so good. And I don’t mean looking beautiful, because Taxi Driver was never meant to be a beautiful movie. It’s dark, ugly, and has an intentional film grain texture. But the details of the grain and within the grain, the perfect color, and the lack of film vibration took me into Travis Bickel’s head like nothing ever had before.

Those who object to digital projection insist that without physical film, the theatrical experience becomes nothing but television. That simply is not true. With a good-sized screen, a well-transferred DCP, and an enthralled audience, there is nothing that a 35mm print can add (unless there’s something very special about the print).

This was the ultimate Taxi Driver experience.

Music, Fame, and American Insanity: My Blu-ray review of Robert Altman’s Nashville

For an all-too-brief time in the 1970s, the Hollywood studios financed and released serious art. They greenlit films without likeable heroes, clearly-defined villains, or conventional, three-act plots.

They even financed Robert Altman, who did his best work during that time. And Nashville was unquestionably one of his best. It’s tragic, funny, thoughtful, and filled with interesting and entertaining characters. It’s a realistic slice of life, an over-the-top melodrama, and an absurdist comedy. As is appropriate considering the titular city, the film is filled with great music. And amazingly, it all works.

In lieu of a conventional plot, Nashville follows a lot of different people, all with some overlapping connection to each other, as they go about their business in country music’s home town. In the course of the film’s long running time (160 minutes), Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce us to famous singers, obscure singers, one horrible singer, businessmen, and a politician whom we never actually see, but whose voice we hear constantly over loudspeakers.

image

And Altman–a director that every actor wanted to work with–put together one of the most impressive casts in movie history. And almost everyone got to play a fully-developed character and show their acting chops.

And their singing chops. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson and 70′s icon Karen Black play big music stars. Not only do they sing in the film–and sing very well–they wrote their own songs.

I can’t discuss everyone who stands out in Nashville, but here are some of my favorite characters:

Lily Tomlin plays a devoted wife and mother, a religious Christian, and the only white person in a Gospel choir. But she has something to hide, and that something–or perhaps I should say someone–comes back to town.

Like Gibson and Black, Ronee Blakley plays a big country western star. But she’s been away for a while; and she is very much not well. Her public loves her, but that love may slide as she mentally deteriorates.

image

Keith Carradine plays a singer/songwriter who enjoys being irresistible to women (and not much else). In one scene in a bar, Carradine sings the song "I’m Easy" (which he wrote), and four different women think he’s singing about them.

Geraldine Chaplin plays an astonishingly inept BBC reporter (if she really is a BBC reporter), with a knack for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Chaplin proves herself an excellent comedian, which is hardly surprising considering her father.

Also worth noting is Ned Beatty’s businessman, Shelley Duvall’s groupie, Keenan Wynn as a man with a sick wife, and both Barbara Harris and Gwen Welles as hopeful singers. Two actors who would become famous in the following decade, Scott Glenn and Jeff Goldblum, turn up in many scenes with little explanation..

Tewkesbury’s script finds many ways to bring all of the characters together. There’s a triumphant return at the Nashville Airport, the aftermath of a car accident, and several concerts. Many of the characters know each other and their lives overlap in various ways, but they all have their own separate stories.

Altman was not the first filmmaker to use this type of multithreaded narrative. To my knowledge, Agnès Varda did it first in La Pointe Courte (like Nashville, named after the place the story is set). Kurosawa did it in Dodes’ka-den. And even George Lucas did it in American Graffiti. But Altman did it so often that it became one of his trademarks. And his first time, in Nashville, he did it best.

First Impression

imageThe dead-tree parts of the package–the cardboard slip cover, the outside of the disc holder, and the small booklet–are treated to look like old, yellowed pulp paper. The booklet contains credits for the film and the transfer, and an article by Molly Haskell.

Following Criterion’s current policy, the package offers the same content on DVD and Blu-ray. Because of all the extras, this requires three discs–two DVDs and one Blu-ray. Only a Blu-ray can hold both the movie and the extras–and have bookmarking features that DVD doesn’t support.

I do wish, however, that the package contained one other disc: the soundtrack album CD. This movie has some great songs.

How It Looks

Great. The Nashville Blu-ray has the look of the original movie–a 1970′s Hollywood film shot in anamorphic Panavision and Eastmancolor. The film doesn’t look razor sharp, but it was never intended to look that way. This was always–and I assume intentionally–a soft-focus movie. The colors are spot-on. The film grain is there if you look for it, but it’s not distracting.

How It Sounds

When I looked at the box, I was disappointed to read that it sports only a 5.1 surround soundtrack. Nashville was originally released in four-track magnetic stereo, and I was hoping that Criterion would recreate that original mix in 4.0 surround–as they did for High and Low.

But after watching the film and listening to the lossless MTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, I can’t complain. It sounded great, and had that "Wow! This is in stereo!" effect that movies had before Dolby made the whole thing ubiquitous. I suspect it was very close to the original mix, with maybe a little bit of barely-noticeable split surrounds and subwoofer lows.

And the Extras

  • Commentary track by Robert Altman: As I write this, I’ve only gone through about half of this. Altman has some interesting things to say, mostly about his seat-of-the-pants working methods, but he doesn’t seem to have enough to say, overall. He pauses a lot, often for long stretches.
  • The Making of Nashville: This new, high-def documentary by Criterion runs for 71 minutes. Cast members and other collaborators talk about Altman and the movie. Easily the best extra on the disc.
  • Robert Altman Interviews: Three different TV interviews, from 1975, 2000, and 2002. About 40 minutes total. Although there’s some repetition, all three are worth watching.
  • Behind the Scenes: 12 minutes. Footage shot during production, specifically of the traffic jam sequences and the big closing concert. Bad video, no sound. The little bit I saw wasn’t interesting.
  • Keith Carradine Demo: 12 minutes His three songs, recorded in Altman’s LA office. 12 minutes. Audio with photos to give us something to look at. Really rough.
  • Trailer: 2 minutes

Nashville is one of the great American films of the 1970s. Criterion has done it justice. The disc goes on sale next Tuesday, December 3.

Life as we all must some day know it: My Blu-ray review of Tokyo Story

Before watching the Blu-ray Sunday night, it had been years since I’d last seen Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I remember loving the film, but I wasn’t ready for the emotional wallop it delivered. Perhaps my own mental state contributed to the experience–I’ve seen my son get married and lost two close relatives this year. That certainly put me in a receptive mood for a drama about losing your children to their adult lives, and losing your parents to their mortality.

But I don’t think my recent past marred my critical faculties. Tokyo Story is a great film. You don’t need to have experienced the life changes in it to appreciate it. And if you haven’t experienced them, don’t worry–you will.

An elderly couple travel from their small-town home to Tokyo. They have a son and a daughter living there–each married and with a life of their own. They also plan to visit their daughter-in-law–the widow of another son who was killed in the war. (They also have another daughter, still living with them, and another son who lives elsewhere.)

But their Tokyo-based children are busy with their own careers and their own families (the son, a pediatrician, also has two spoiled, misbehaving brats). Everyone greets them with the proper respect, but only the widowed daughter-in-law offers real warmth, and takes the time to give them a tour of the city.

image

This could easily have turned into a melodrama about worthy parents and ungrateful children, but Ozu was too smart to take that easy approach. The younger adults (they’re not all that young) really do have responsibilities and concerns that make hosting Mom and Dad difficult. And the old man once had a drinking problem, which returns in the course of the film.

After a trip to a resort hotel doesn’t work out (it’s geared to a much younger  clientele), the elderly couple are moved from one house to another like King Lear–except that this time the children feel guilty about it.

Eventually the elderly parents cut their trip short, but the story takes another turn and becomes about dying and loss. And even then, the grown children have to return to their own lives and their own kids.

Ozu and cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta shot Tokyo Story in a way that is simple, direct, and extraordinarily Japanese. The camera never movies, and is usually about the height of someone kneeling on the floor—appropriate considering Japanese sitting and eating traditions. And yet, every so often, the film cuts to an empty room, or a landscape, or a factory, or a train. Ozu is putting his story into the context of the world where it’s set.

Most films look at the exceptional–people showing great courage or doing amazing deeds. In Tokyo Story, Ozu does something altogether different and remarkable. He looks at an ordinary family going through experiences that don’t happen every day, but happen pretty much in every lifetime.

First Impression

imageCriterion’s new release of Tokyo Story comes in a fold-out disc holder inside a slip case. Instead of the illustrations that have adorned most recent Criterion box covers, this one is decorated with stills from the film. Considering Ozu’s simply style, that’s appropriate.

Following Criterion’s new policy, the package contains both the film and all of the extras on both Blu-ray and  DVD. It’s actually a three-disc set; the Blu-ray can hold both the feature and the extras, but all that content requires two DVDs.

There’s also a slim book with credits for both the film and the restoration/transfer. It also has an article, "Compassionate Detachment," by university professor and film blogge David Bordwell, author of Pandora’s Digital Box

Like all Criterion Blu-rays, Tokyo Story has bookmarking. If you remove the disc and insert it again later, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

In a word: Lovely.

Visually speaking, most of Tokyo Story shows people in cramped rooms, talking. That’s not cast-of-thousands viuals, but you want to see every facial detail, as well as get a good sense of what those rooms are like.

And when Ozu cuts to an exterior long shot, the fine details of everything you see puts you into 1953 Japan–despite the black and white, narrow-screen aspect ratio (pillarboxed to 1.37:1).

image

How It Sounds

Criterion presents the original mono soundtrack in uncompressed PCM. Unless you feel that everything needs to be in surround–including dramas originally released in mono–you should have no complaints.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by David Desser: As I write this, I’ve only had a chance to listen to the first 20 minutes. So far, it concentrates on Ozu’s artistic choices, from the screenplay to the blocking, camera setups, and editing. I’m looking forward to finishing it.
  • Talking with Ozu: 39 minutes.  Different filmmakers talk about Ozu, and some of them have important things to say. Stanley Kwon talks mostly about his family–a reasonable reaction to watching Ozu films. Claire Dane offers the best insight: "I knew that the film had spoken to me and addressed me in a way that had nothing to do with being a film buff."
  • I Lived, But…: Running more than two hours, this Japanese 1983 TV biography covers Ozu’s life and work. It’s interesting, but would have been better at half the length.
  • Chishu Ryu and Shochiiku’s Ofuna Studio: 45 minutes. I haven’t yet had a chance to see this documentary on the actor that appeared in so many Ozu films, including Tokyo Story..
  • Trailer

Few cinematic family dramas work as well as Tokyo Story, and Criterion has done the film justice with this release. It goes on sale today.

No Capital in the Bay Area

I got an email this morning with the subject "CAPITAL Has Been CANCELLED."

"Wow!" I thought. Maybe Obama really is a socialist.

Of course, it was about Costa-Gavras’ latest film, Capital. Apparently the film’s American distributor decided against releasing it in the Bay Area. That seems pretty weird to me. I can’t imagine a better location in the country for a corporation to make a profit with an anti-corporation movie.

Anyway, now I don’t feel so bad about never having written a full review.

For what it’s worth, I gave the film an A+.  Here’s what I had to say about Capital:

Gad Elmaleh stars as Marc Tourneuil, a young bank officer who by a stroke of luck becomes CEO of one of the largest banks in Europe. Soon, an American hedge fund wants to do business with him. Or maybe the hedge fund wants to take over his business and destroy him. Early on, Marc shows some signs of scruples,but he’s soon playing the Americans’ games, laying off thousands of people in order to improve the company’s stock price. He’s definitely Capital’s protagonist, but I’d be hard put to call him the hero, since he spends so much time acting like a villain. Much of the film’s financial talk went over my head, but the human factors driving and being driven by the high-stakes poker game were all I needed to enjoy Capital.

image_thumb[1]

I saw the film at its Bay Area premiere at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. You can read my report on the whole evening, including an interview with the director, here.

My Thoughts on Fargo

Saturday night, my wife and I showed Fargo to another couple. About half an hour in, immediately after the first set of grisly murders, one of our guests asked "Why are we watching this?" After it was over, she asked us why we thought it was a great film.

I never thought I’d have to defend Fargo. But it’s worth defending. Many motion pictures have dealt with issues of good and evil. But few have dealt with them as thoughtfully, as vividly, and as entertainingly as Fargo.

The following includes spoilers. I’m writing this on the assumption that you have already seen Fargo. If you haven’t, stop reading. Or better yet, see it ASAP (really, it’s worth it) and then return and read.

image

Within the context of a darky comic film noir, set against bleak snowscapes (just watching this movie makes you feel cold), the Coen brothers juxtapose good and evilimage as a matter of character. Easily the most evil character in story, the large, hulking and sulking, violent Gaear (Peter Stormare) is totally withdrawn into himself. His partner Carl (Steve Buscemi) complains of four hours without a word spoken. And this is a man who can kill in cold blood, without even a thought that he might feel remorse.

At the other end of the moral scale, Marge (Frances McDormand) is fully connected to imagethe people and society around her. She’s pregnant (giver of life while Gaear takes it away), and happily married to an easygoing artist who clearly adores her. A small-town police chief, Marge has a way of putting people at ease. When an old boyfriend makes a clumsy pass at her, she lets him down in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge the pass. She starts out seeing the best in everyone, but is nobody’s fool.

It’s fitting that late in the film, Marge gives Gaear, now handcuffed in the back of her car, a lecture on right and wrong. "There’s more to life than just money." He sits there, poker-faced and apparently unmoved. I’d hate to be his prison cellmate.

Other characters fall in between them on the moral scale, but most veer towards evil (this is, after all, primarily noir). With the film’s most interesting character, Jerry (William H. imageMacy in a performance that made his career) the Coens show us how evil begins. We’re never told what exactly put him in such horrible economic straights that he’d contrive to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law, but we get the general idea. He’s self-centered, stupid, and cowardly. If he had Marge’s backbone, he would have gone to his wife and explained his situation. If he had had Marge’s brain, he wouldn’t have gotten into whatever fix he was in. But since he is who he is, he concocts an idiotic scheme that will end in disaster.

A large part of Fargo’s pleasure comes from watching Jerry self-destruct. The "mastermind" behind the kidnapping plan, he sees everything go wrong and his entire life fall apart. Six people are murdered in the course of the story, and he’s indirectly responsible for every single one of them.

in addition to character, the Coens play brilliantly with tone and genre. At first, Fargo seems simply a darkly comic thriller. The early kidnapping scene manages to be both horrifying and funny. The comic timing separates you emotionally from the violent act, and almost makes you root for the kidnappers (but not quite).

Then, as almost always happens in noir, the crime goes wrong. Gaear calmly kills a highway patrolman and two bystanders. The violence is gruesome and horrifying, Gaear’s utter lack of remorse–or any emotion–makes it even worse. Suddenly, we’re in a terrifyingly dark and violent film.

Fade out. Fade in.

Then we meet Marge for the first time, in bed with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Note the name the Coen’s gave him: Norm. He’s normal. Actually, he’s better than normal. When his wife gets a call in the wee hours of the morning, he insists on getting up first and making her breakfast. Marge and Norm are funny characters. We laugh at their eating habits (Arby’s) and their small-town Minnesota accents. (Of course, we laugh at everyone’s Minnesota accents. The Coens, Minnesotans themselves, know how to milk laughs out of white people talking funny.)

But we also admire this couple–especially Marge. Introduced immediately after Fargo’s darkest moment, she becomes the film’s primary shaft of light. When things look darkest, the Coen’s cut back to her, and we enjoy her humor, her empathy, and her ability to see through the bullshit that everyone throws at her.

She is, in a sense, a small-town, pregnant Columbo–the working-class cop who nails the bad guys with one more question.

And in the end, she arrests the baddest bad guy in Minnesota, returns home to her husband, and compliments on his painting.

The world is full of evil, but there’s a lot of good, too. At least sometimes, it prevails.

Fanciful Thriller About Israeli-Palestinian Bonding: My Review of Zaytoun

C+ Heartwarming wartime thriller

  • Written by Nader Rizq
  • Directed by Eran Riklis

Think Hell in the Pacific. Two soldiers on opposing sides must work together to survive. And in doing so, they find each other’s humanity. Except that this time, one of the soldiers is a pre-teen, and the world they’re trying to escape from is war-torn Lebanon of the early 1980s. If you don’t know someone personally, they probably want to kill you.

Actually, that description sounds a lot better than the actual movie–a disappointment from the director of Lemon Tree. The thriller scenes range from the exciting to the ridiculous to the conveniently unexplained. The character-bonding scenes are often predicable and overly sentimental. And in the third act, everything falls apart.

Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a Palestinian boy living in imagea Beirut refugee camp, trains to be a fighter to one day liberate his homeland. But instead, he helps an Israeli prisoner escape. His price? He wants to travel with the escaped POW Yoni (Stephen Dorff) and plant a baby tree by his parents’ old home.

Of course the two hate and mistrust each other from the start. They stick together because they have to. And just as obviously–at least if you know anything about movies–they’re going to bond in the course of the trip. First, they’re protecting each other for their own selfish reasons. Soon, they’re doing it because they care.

The film occasionally feels as if it was cut by someone who didn’t care. At one point, They’re chased by men with machine guns, and are trapped in a way where their only options are surrender or death. Cut to the next morning, and they’re free and unharmed. Yoni wears handcuffs through much of the film; Fahed had swallowed the key. Then, one morning, Yoni is happy that he’s no longer wearing cuffs. No explanation.

Despite these shortcomings, there’s much to like about Zaytoun. The film provides an evocative and–I suspect–accurate picture of life in Beirut 30 years ago, when factional war and Israeli bombing were shredding the country’s social fabric, and the Palestinians were at the bottom of a very bloody pecking order. The two leads are likeable, and while many bonding scenes ring false, just as many of them ring true.

In fact, I could recommend the film with more enthusiasm if it wasn’t for the third act. I can’t discuss this without serious spoiling, so read on only at your own risk.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!!!!

image

About half an hour before the film ends, Fahed and Yoni make it to the UN buffer zone, where it’s an easy step to Israel proper. Suddenly, no one’s life is in imminent danger and the film is no longer a thriller.

But there’s still an interesting question: What will happen to Fahed? They’re not going to allow a Palestinian orphan–and one who has been trained to fight "the Zionist entity"–to simply live in Israel.

The UN’s solution? Send him back to the refugee camp and the grandfather who is his only living relative. This is, almost certainly, sending him to his death. After all, someone must have figured out that he helped Yoni escape.

Yet this danger doesn’t occur to anybody. Not to Fahed, Yoni, the kindly UN doctor, and certainly not to the filmmakers. His leaving for the camp is the movie’s big hug happy ending.

But not before Fahed and Yoni drive around Israel, looking for the deserted and half-forgotten town where Fahed will plant the tree. After an exciting second act, where their lives were in constant danger, this mild road trip is a letdown. Besides, the two already love each other and there’s no more character development needed.

Zayoun is a film of good intentions. But good intentions can only take you so far.

Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave

I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave Friday night. Absolutely amazing.

True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. Movie: This film shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year.

I’m giving it an A, although it’s far better than most of the films I give that grade to.

image

After the film, Festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin and Director of Programming Zoë Elton brought up director Steve McQueen (not related to the late American movie star with the same name), star Chiwetel Ejiofor, and supporting player Lupita Nyong’o. Both McQueen and Ejiofor received awards.

Then Fishkin left the stage, and Elton moderated the Q&A with the filmmakers. Here are some highlights, with no guarantee that every quote is 100% accurate. I was typing as fast as I can.

  • Ejiofor: I’ll have a life before [making this film] and a life after it. The process, the way Steve works with actors, the whole cast and crew, was amazing. Everyone was enabled and allowed to bring their creativity to the process. It changed my relationship to acting.
  • McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery because I felt in the history of film this subject had not been tackled. My wife discovered the book [the non-fiction memoir that the film was based on]. I’d never heard of it. Everyone knows The Diary of Anne Frank. Every school should have this book on their curriculum…To me this book is a kind of a gift to the world.
  • Elton asked if the film would have been less effective if it had been made by an American (McQueen is a black Englishman). McQueen: No. I’m not a nationalist. The only difference between me and an African-American is that my parents’ boat went left instead of right.
  • An audience member pointed out the difficult subjects covered not only in 12 Years a Slave, but also in his last film, Shame. "Where do you draw the line?" McQueen:: I draw the line at the truth.
  • Someone asked about the lack of editing in a particularly harrowing whipping scene. McQueen: I don’t do coverage. For me it’s a waste of time. I know what I want. That scene was about being in real time. not letting the audience off the hook.

image

12 Years a Slave will screen again at the festival, at the Sequoia, Sunday at 11:00am. The screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

Fox Searchlight has picked up the film, and it will receive a regular theatrical release. I’ll post a full review before the film opens.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers