Film Reviews

“Wind River,” a Review

Movies with a multicultural theme are always difficult to write about without appearing to be a self-taught expert. If you’re a white male writer, it becomes even riskier because, then, the stereotype of the “mansplainer” is a label easily used to discount everything you say.

Well, here goes.

Wind River is a gripping crime thriller that takes place on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming in merciless sub-zero temperatures.

Cory Bannon, a US Fish and Wildlife agent discovers the body of a female Arapaho teenager whom he recognizes as the daughter of a close friend. We find out later that part of Bannon’s life seems to come at him in a surreal rush because he lost his own daughter, Emily, who was of mixed ethnic heritage–her mother is also Arapaho (she and Bannon are currently going through a divorce).

A rooky FBI young woman, Jane Banner, is called in to investigate the homicide. Along with the local tribal police, she and Bannon eventually take the villains down, after, of course, a brutal cops-and-robbers shoot out (about and hour-and-a-half later, in movie time)

For what it’s worth, this is what I discovered about this film

(1) The film takes some risks in giving us portraits of heart-felt grief, both male and female. I might add here, there are some strong male-bonding scenes that are particularly poignant because they cross over ethnic lines.

(2) The male-as-avenger seems to be a stereotype that Hollywood film directors can’t seem to escape.

(3) The film makes some attempt at giving a woman a leading equality role as a police agent fully capable of taking physical and mental control. At the same time, she has a necessary psychological role in identifying with the plight of the young Arpaho woman and her mother.

(4) All the “reservation” social issues come at us as if they were as commonplace as a red-light at a busy city street corner—-drugs and alcohol; the number of  missing  and murdered Native American women; Indian sovereignty;  under-staffed tribal police; poverty; imprisonment as the invevitable fate of many young male Native Americans;  and the relentless brutal winter, not to mention the loss of livestock because of the many wandering predatory animals in search of food.

(5) There is a strong message in the film about the Native American ability to endure hardship. Bannon makes the point to Banner, early in the film, that the young female victim probably ran much beyond any normal human being’s ability to endure the sub-freezing weather in spite of having been brutally raped.  And it is clear, in the final poignant scene of the film, that the young women’s father and mother will eventually survive.

Have to admit I was hooked, particularly at the breath-taking visuals. There may be some criticism, however, about the violence. It is very, very graphic, although I’m not quite sure it was gratuitous given the frontier setting of the film in the wintry Wyoming wilderness and the painful reality of so many Native American women murdered and missing.  

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“Maudie,” a Review

Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.

I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).

Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.

Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings

Two things struck me about this intimate film.

For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.

Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.

The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.

Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).

And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).

I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.

The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.

To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.

Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.

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Moonlight, A Review

“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.

As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.

In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.

Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.

Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.

What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.

Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.


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Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann  a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.

Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.

The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.

Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.

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Bicycle Thieves, a Review

Images and Story: Call and Response

Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.

I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.

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“Winter Sleep,” A Review

 

Winter-Sleep2

Winter Sleep, 2014
Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Interiority, Pathos, Survival

There are many things to like about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s exquisite film, “Winter Sleep.” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 2014).

First of all, it is a very interior film. Ceylan manages to create a strong inner sensibility of pathos, an aching sense that life, in the end, is cruel, relentless, and merciless. Inside of that psychological cosmos, however, is the other half of Ceylan’s Sisyphean fatalism: people do manage to survive in spite of the quiet desperation of their lives.

There is little question that Aydin, the central character, is the personified form of Ceylan’s world of pathos. And he is also a survivor, not unlike Hidayet, his lower-class assistant, who does all the managerial tasks and is Aydin’s personal chauffeur. (Hidayet’s constant, but strong background presence in the film appears to be Ceylan’s way of reminding his audience that the poor and the service class, in their uncomplaining stoicism, will always be with us.) Continue reading

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Clouds of Sils Maria, A Review

Surrendering to Age

Aging. For some of us, it is a gradual process of surrender. For others, it is a panic-driven free-fall into mortality.

Maria Enders (Juliet Binoche), in the latest Assayas film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” is a middle aged actor who is thrown head-long into the realities of her age. After some grueling moments of rage in learning the lines of an aging lesbian character in a play she once starred as the older woman’s younger lover, she eventually, but reluctantly, takes the role.

She takes on the elder lesbian character only after being prodded by her assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and more forcefully by two other characters in the movie, particularly the new director (Lars Eidinger) of the play, who replaces Maria’s long-time friend and director who dies unexpectedly. Continue reading

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“Last Train Home,” a review

Prosperity and the Good Life

“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”

If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.

But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.

And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village.
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The Great Beauty, Film Review

The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
2013

The Squandering of Talent

“Therefore, let this novel begin. After all, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.” This is one of Jep Gambardella’s final statements in the Italian film, “The Great Beauty.”

Spoiler Alert: So, now we know that Jep will begin writing again as the movie ends. Even if Jep’s goal may be more aspirational than real, we are left with imagining what the sequel to his 65 year-old life will be.

Up to that point, it looked as if he would squander his one-novelette talent, living among Rome’s “idle rich.” And my God, are there many of that ilk in this film.

In another of his final soliloquies, Jep says, “This is how it always ends, in death. But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.”

And what was that life, according to Jep: “the silence and the emotion; the excitement and the fear; the fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty amid the wretched squalor and human misery.”

“All,” Jep says, “buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world.” Continue reading

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Modern Film and Desire (Nebraska, Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis)

Desire and Western Culture

Cupidity, desire, covetousness, avarice, craving, lust, longing—they all have a long history in Western culture.

The Old Testament is full of larger-than-life characters either wanting more from life outside the boundaries of what an Old Testament God would sanction (Adam and Eve) or allowing themselves to pursue forbidden desires (the male Israelites who used prostitutes and were avenged by God with a plague). Or longing attachment to a city (Sodom) by Lot’s wife who is morphed into a pillar of salt for turning around to see the destruction of the city (There is a hint of forbidden curiosity here, not unlike the fatal curiosity of Eve who is tempted by the devil to eat of the Tree of Knowledge)

And we have, in the many revenge tragedies of the English Renaissance, classic examples of thwarted desire (Macbeth, Richard III, Othello).

Even American writers have certainly given us a long list of desire-narratives from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s haunting novel of fatal attraction, The Great Gatsby, to Theodore Dreiser’s epic tragedy of American greed, An American Tragedy. The two contemporary television series, Madmen and Breaking Bad, also keep reminding us that the frantic pursuit of desire is not without its dark psychological descents. Continue reading

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