Friday, November 14, 2014

REACHING FOR THE MOON

Director: Bruno Barreto

Writers: Matthew Chapman (Screenplay)  Julie Sayres (Screenplay)

Stars: Gloria Pires (Lota de Macedo Soares)
         Miranda Otto ( Elizabeth Bishop)
         Tracy Middendorf (Mary)
         Treat Williams (Robert Lowell)

Producers: Lucy Barreto
                 Paula Barreto

Reviewed by Hugh and Ann Aaron


  In this masterful biopic, we delve into the personal life 

of one of the great American poets, Elizabeth Bishop, set 

amidst the political turmoil of Brazil during the 1950s.

     We learn that Elizabeth has a poor opinion of her 

ability as a poet. We also learn that she may not be 

interested sexually in men, which opens up the possibility 

of what follows.

     Because of her seeming failure as a writer, she seeks a 

"vacation," spending an expected limited time with her 

college friend Mary, who lives in Brazil with her lover,

Lota, a talented, self-possessed, flamboyant and politically 

active architect. 
   
     Elizabeth is immediately shy and uncomfortable in the 

presence of Lota and Mary, shrinking from their 

uninhibited behavior. Lota, in turn, sees Elizabeth as stiff 

and cold. When Elizabeth confesses her deep insecurities 

about her poetry to Lota, there develops a primal 

connection between the two women. Elizabeth gradually 

welcomes Lota's sexual advances, releasing her own long 

repressed passion.

     Lota has designed a sublime, romantic environment in 

the Brazilian hinterland, creating a haven for Elizabeth to 

begin again writing her beautiful, touching poetry. She 

is fulfilled both romantically in her love for Lota, and 

creatively in her new found productivity. 

     All is happiness, except for her old friend Mary, who 

soon resents Elizabeth for replacing her in Lota's heart. 

Mary and Lota adopt a baby to ease Mary's discontent.

     Elizabeth’s published poetry collection eventually 

earns her a Pulitzer Prize. She is also invited to teach at a 

New York university and contribute on a regular basis to 

the New Yorker magazine. The offers are increasingly hard 

to resist as Lota becomes more and more demanding of her 

presence, bordering on possession.  Elizabeth returns to 

the States purportedly to teach for one semester before 

returning to Brazil and Lota, but her unraveling 

relationship with Lota leaves her return in question.

  It would be heartless of us to go on with the plot, 

which is rich in incident and full of surprises that you, the 

viewer, must experience. The cinematography captures the 

grandeur of Brazil. The characters are intimately 

understandable. The actors are superb. Most surprising, we 

had never heard of any of them, nor of the director.  

     This film deserves to be seen by all who love American 

poetry, by all who appreciate the conflicts we experience 

through life, and by all who realize that the world has its 

share of evil. 



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE NUN'S STORY (1959)

A Woman Comes To
 Terms With Herself

Director: Fred Zinneman
Writers: Robert Anderson – Screenplay, Kathryn Hulme – Book
Reviewed by Hugh Aaron in 1959

     Audrey Hepburn, being an actress of unusual growth capacities, has found in this unusual motion picture an opportunity to reach for and accomplish a role that few movie vehicles are able to offer. For it is about a woman becoming a Nun in a strict Belgian order which requires total self-abnegation of the human inner life, as well as material things, and performing as a nurse in a Belgian mental institution, then as a surgeon’s assistant in the Congo. The story concerns a woman’s inner life; it is the woman.

It is about the inner conflict of her wish to sacrifice herself to God, and her need to express herself as an individual, to feel all the human feelings that relentlessly exist within her, such as pride, and nostalgia, and personal satisfaction in achievement. The conflict, which begins shortly after she enters the convent as an adolescent and continues through her first vows and those that follow as steps in a Nun’s growth, becomes unmanageable within her. Out of the need to be honest to herself, she disavows her Nunhood and enters the un-Christian battle of life in the secular world.

It is a story of failure. The women of the convent, who were successful in their renunciation of worldly life, are like unattainable mountain peaks with inner cores of solid rock. Their dedication to their calling is the ultimate, rewarding them with a peace and strength that are truly moving. As if from an underground spring humanity flows from their discipline. They have the patience of ages and the control of a precision instrument. Dame Edith Evans, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, and everyone else portraying the Nuns offer remarkable representations of these women. Sister Luke, the principal Nun of the story, fails to measure up to their dedication despite her rigid adherence to ritual.

It is also a story of success—the success of a woman coming to terms with herself. Sister Luke  (Audrey Hepburn) knows her limitations; her inner penance due to them is worse than that inflicted on her by the order. When she comes to accept herself, her resulting decision to leave the convent and its mission is a sacrifice comparable in magnitude to that required by the order.

It is also the victory of the worldly over the otherworldly, the real over the ideal. It contrasts the prevailing thinking of our time, forced on us by its inherent brutality and tension, by the need to smote the other’s cheek, with the proposition of turning our own.

Beyond the exquisite performances, the intelligent writing, and the picture’s portrayal of character and offering of ideas in depth, it is a work of art. It presents a human truth, and a religious truth. As with most works of art, it lacks perfection, mostly in its construction.

Divisible into two distinct parts, the movie is too long. The first part, concerning the tribulations of becoming a Nun, is hardly a story at all, only a pictorial course on the subject. It is monotonous and static.

The second part, which deals with Sister Luke’s activities in the Congo, involves a cynical doctor,  (Peter Finch) religiously devoted to his practice, who loves and respects the Nun. This portion of the story has movement, and satisfies.

Another defect derives from the moviemaker’s striving for perfection, giving the movie a neat, un-human, untrue-to-life quality. It all seems too planned, worked over, formalized into a polished gem. But this is characteristic of Hollywood’s way of doing things. Even so, it is worth going along with this perfection because it recounts a woman’s profound experience with which an audience can empathize.

Friday, August 1, 2014

CASH McCALL (1960)


        Director - Joseph Pevney
       Writers - Screenplay: Leonore J. Coffee, Marion Hargrove 
       Based on the novel by Cameron Hawley
       Reviewed by Hugh Aaron
        Imagine yourself watching a poker game played by a group of gambling titans. Walk around the table, if you will; observe the cards each player is holding; watch each play, observe each facial expression, each droplet of perspiration. You know who is bluffing, who has the high hand, who uses a card tucked in his sleeve. You spot the master of the table. Now let’s call the hands positions of power and the chips financial fortunes. There you have the elements of the story of Cash McCall. From start to end the film will hold you in fascination with the game—not poker, but finance which is the same by another name.
Cash McCall (James Garner), a superman of finance, buys and sells businesses for profit. His manipulations are reputedly shady though he doesn’t look the type, and we quickly learn he isn’t. Indeed, his honesty is pure, as is his romantic involvement with the daughter (Natalie Wood) of the owner (Dean Jagger) of a company he is negotiating to buy. Both his influence and affluence transcend the common view of the American dream of success. Since Cash is so intrinsically decent, we are always on his side. We cannot help but vicariously enjoy his triumphs abetted by his powers of persuasion. Author Cameron Hawley has thus created for us an adult fantasy that bears just enough resemblance to truth to give us a kick. The trouble is that superman Cash is not human.
Only one character has more than one dimension, and she (Nina Foch) exists on the sideline only as a complication. All the others give resounding performances as far as their characterizations permit them to go, which is no deeper than a dollar sign. But we shouldn’t mind too much because the film is paced at a perfect cruising speed for enjoyment. The poker game, by the way, ends without a loser. This is not stuff for export to Moscow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ask Any Girl (1959)

Director: Charles Walters
Writers: Winifred Wolfe (novel) and George Wells

Reviewed by Hugh


    Thursday, June 25, 1959
       When Shirley MacLaine, as Meg Wheeler, age twenty-one, comes to New York from a provincial home-town, she has three objectives: to find a job, to find a husband, and to retain her chastity during the struggle. In achieving her first objective she is employed by a sweater manufacturer (Jim Backus) who requires only that she wear sweaters of his manufacture, one size too small, while on the job. This requirement turns out to be so effective that it compels a young business visitor (Rod Taylor) at the office to methodically carry out a campaign aimed at seducing the young lady. But when the boss himself comes under the influence of his own fulfilled knitwear, Miss MacLaine quits in panic, indignant that her chastity is so often placed in jeopardy.
 She goes to work at an advertising agency which is operated by two brothers, one of whom is David Niven portraying a sober minded egghead who holds a dispassionate view of wine, women, and the world. The other is Gig Young, his brother’s opposite in personality, a man whose preoccupation with women is occupational.
The provincial girl is dazzled by the relaxed charm of Mr. Young, and while realizing that he dates her only after his extensive female listing has failed him, she nevertheless is out to snag him for a husband. For this purpose she becomes a client of her other employer, Mr. Niven, and engages his talent in motivational research, the method by which a subject is unknowingly induced to show preference for a specific product.

Mr. Niven masterminds the project brilliantly, and through researching his brother’s preferences in women by personal contact, he succeeds in creating a Miss MacLaine who is an irresistible composite of all that appeals to Mr. Young’s overly libidinous mind. The victim is a dead duck, but such conniving is bound to backfire, and both client and expert become their own victims. You won’t regret finding out how this comes about if you care to watch a neat bit of acting professionalism in one of the most pleasurable movie vehicles anyone can see.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Labor Day (2013)

           

Directed by Jason Reitman
Screenplay written by Jason Reitman
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard


Reviewed by Hugh

            Be prepared when watching this film for several surprises. Not surprises all of a sudden, but rather a gradual revelation of them as the story progresses. While Adele (Kate Winslet) and her teen age son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are shopping in the local supermarket Henry is approached by a wounded man, Frank (Josh Brolin) who asks for assistance. When, in his naivete, Henry asks his mother to help him, Adele refuses, but becoming fearful of possible violence, eventually agrees. The viewer cannot help but identify with Adele’s caution. Aren’t mother and son taking an awful chance following Frank’s demand that they drive him to their home? After all, unbeknownst to mother and son, at this stage anyway, Frank is a newly escaped convict.  
            But soon enough they learn who he is from the news on TV. Incarcerated for having committed murder, although we don’t yet know the details, Frank protests simply that the accusation is not the full story. Still, both mother and son, as well as the viewer, are alarmed by the possibility that Frank, a declared murderer, will harm them. But as the film progresses he doesn’t. Quite the contrary, he is sympathetic; he understands their unease and makes every attempt to alleviate it. In fact, at one point he binds Adele’s arms and feet to a chair on which she is sitting, explaining that he is doing this only to relieve her of being accused as an accomplice were he discovered.
            To reveal more of what happens in their respective relationships, plus the many complications that arise, would not be fair to a prospective viewer. It would spoil the surprises that develop later. But to reveal some things about Frank would not qualify as a spoiler: he is a man of many talents, surprising both Adele and Henry, and this viewer as well. In other words, you learn about the whole man, not that he is only an escaped prisoner, but why he was sent to prison for murder. Eventually, you learn why Henry’s father, now remarried, left Adele, and of Adele’s resulting depression due to her loss of a husband’s love.

            Beautifully directed and acted, this luscious, powerful, simple and tight film is a delight to watch as the complications between the characters begin to disappear, developing into full-fledged commitments. I expect that most viewers will become totally involved in both the characters and the story. Watch it and enjoy a special human experience. 

A Comment on Labor Day from Suz:
"The intensity of emotion happened far too quickly to be believable for me.  Three days?  No.  Even under the most heightened emotional experiences, people don't change and/or reveal themselves with that depth that quickly.  Unfortunately, that got in my way, despite the fact that the emotions displayed were all terrific."

My response:
I don't disagree with you at all about the un-likelihood that two adults would fall in love in three days. But I chose to overlook it because 1)Adele was ripe for a man and 2)Frank was such a kind and admirable character. The writer could have chosen a week or two weeks to develop the relationships, which would have been more realistic, but the story was so intriguing and the acting and directing so good that I found myself captivated anyway. I simply didn't let probability intervene because I found myself so identified with the characters that I put aside realism. Y'know in several of my short stories I could be accused of the same stretching. I think we authors often gamble that the reader or viewer won't notice; after all, character's the thing, eh. And also, remember Suz, with we humans anything is possible.




Thursday, May 8, 2014

Everybody Has A Plan (Todos Tenemus un Plan)


True confessions time.  I have a thing for Viggo Mortensen.  My husband and friends know about it.  Viggo doesn’t, as far as I know.  It’s not a crazed stalker sort of thing, just being intrigued.   It started in 2009 when I saw him at the Telluride Film Festival . . . I know, I know, you don’t care.  

More confessions: Quality English-language films can be hard to come by here in rural southwestern France.   During a recent film drought, I got antsy. “Well, gee, I haven’t seen Viggo* in a while.”  My husband would challenge whether there was an actual drought.  Anyway, what better choice than to stream Everybody Has a Plan, where Viggo plays twins?!  Turns out that I could have made any number of far better choices.    

This is Argentine director Ana Piterbarg’s first feature-length film.  Piterbarg seems eager to tell us a moving, multi-dimensional story yet she loses her way.  We’re left perplexed and unsatisfied by a plot that touches fleetingly on betrayal, childhood abuse, familial and marital estrangement, existential crises, crime, mystery, and a sweet love story.  No single thread loops its way through the disparate themes of the screenplay to evolve into a sustained, weight-bearing knot.  I feel disappointed for her!  I wanted to love the film.  

Argentina was Viggo’s homeland for a decade of his childhood, and this film marks his acting debut there.  He was involved in the film’s production, and rumors have it that the multi-lingual Viggo personally developed the English subtitles, to ascertain their accuracy.   What a guy!  I wonder if this is a passion project for him and Piterbarg.  A problem with such multi-disciplinary projects is that the creators can lose objectivity and miss the dangling threads.  Or so it seems here.

Viggo’s performance is the reason to see this film, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a statement of my blind devotion.  The cinematographer, Lucio Bonelli, makes some terrific, inspired contributions, too.

As Agustín, the physician who has recoiled from his existing life, Viggo is remote, silent, passive, tender and occasionally erupts with unforeseen strength.  As Pedro, the twin, a beekeeper and sometime corrupt smuggler, he is threatening, beguiling, physically disheveled and ever so slightly more loquacious, words often delivered as grunts. Only the most assured, masterful actor could so effortlessly slide between these two divergent, yet occasionally intersecting, characterizations.  I was transfixed by his performances and ceased to care about the story (which I won’t flesh out completely). 

In a set of scenes when Pedro confronts his estranged brother and the two appear together, we’re treated to the virtuoso’s greatness and breadth. He seems to shape-shift, his two characters having little in common but a straggly beard. There’s a reason Viggo is respectfully celebrated as an actor, and it’s not because of those soulful blue eyes.   Though I must say, he uses his eyes very effectively for a silent form of language.  In these scenes, Pedro is dying and “asks” Agustín to kill him.  During the moment when we least expect it, Agustín does the deed.  This scene is quite nicely done. 

For the remainder of the film, Agustín, assumes the bleak life of his brother.  He leaves Buenos Aires for his childhood home, the Argentine Tigre Delta, where the deceased Pedro kept his bees and made a crime-riddled muck of his life.  Viggo magnificently maintains Agustín’s persona while pretending to be Pedro.  We actually see his struggle; he can’t quite not be himself while trying to assume the posture of his brother.   The subtle obviousness of the struggle is extraordinary.  So fine, in fact, that it’s an embarrassment to the film that supporting characters don’t immediately suspect something is rotten in the state of Denmark.   (The actor, of course, is part Danish, and in 2010 was knighted by the queen.)  

The understated double performances of the film’s star are finely tuned and nuanced, making the highly impassioned performances of other characters, such as Soledad Villamil as Agustín’s wife, and Daniel Fanego as Pedro’s partner in nefarious activities, seem misplaced and overdone.  Only Sofia Gala as Rosa, the much-too-young-to-be-believable love interest of both brothers, conveys convincing, appropriate shades of subtlety.   And still, her part in the film seems incomplete.

For the future, I wouldn’t dismiss Ana Piterbarg.  She has terrific insight into the human condition, specifically the nature of emotional pain and yearning.   She’s sure to give us a winner when her screenplays and directorial skills mature.

I’d hoped that Everybody Has a Plan would be as rich and abhorrently compelling as director David Cronenberg’s excellent 1988 twins escapade, Dead Ringers.  Viggo is every bit as effective as Jeremy Irons was playing the “dead ringer” twins, but the films don’t exist on the same plane of expertise.  To see what Viggo can do with a great screenplay, watch him under maestro Cronenberg’s direction in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method. 

For we Viggo fans, disappointment needn’t linger.  I invite you to impatiently await the release of his next film, The Two Faces of January, slated for this year.



*Forgive my use of the more personal “Viggo” throughout, eschewing the more formal surname.  Viggo is an original.  Could there be another?


Directed by Ana Piterbarg – Argentina 2012
Written by Ana Piterbarg and Ana Cohan

Reviewed by Suz