Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant opens to a serene Arcadian scene: horses in a field at twilight, shrouded in mist, munching grass.  For a moment, we’re lulled by the mood of an idyll.  Then, crash!  A cacophony of screaming, thrashing, almost-too-close shot of fists and feet pounding on the underside of a bed; an out-of-control boy jolts us alert.

This is a strong, well-executed film of abandonment, exploitation, friendship and loss. Sounds and visuals play a dramatic role in Clio Barnard’s heart-breaking film. The cinematography, by Mike Eley, is powerful and brilliant. Throughout, a series of still shots emphasize a triptych of crucial elements: black lines of electrical power plants etched on colorful sunsets belie a savage lethality; fog-shrouded nuclear reactors have great explosive potential; and those horses show unexpected tenderness in a harsh environment.  Each of these repeated scenes offers us possibilities of the film’s development, which are both ominous and hopeful.

The Selfish Giant shows bald truths of a contemporary, lower-class substrata of life in Northern England.  I found it brutal to watch.  It is, however, brutality well-placed, on the shoulders of characters and a society in which ugly selfishness is rife.

Arbor (Conner Chapman), of the fist-pounding scene, and his best friend, Swifty, are complicated 13-year-old boys whose bond is the core and the emotional weight of the story.  They are lost, victims of the decay around them, deeply devoted to each other.   They’re desperate to find a foothold in a world that offers them literally nothing. Wincing and hopeful, we observe their process and are let into their heads.

At the outset, in darkness, the boys secretly watch thieves gather precious electrical wire, and stealthily out-wit them, taking their haul.  Goods in hand, they bang on the door of Kitten, the corrupt scrap metal dealer (Sean Gilder), anxious to sell.  Kitten is a scary figure.  He seethes while he buys. His every move seems tied to exploitation.  The boys are willing.  In this world, exploiting the exploiter is fair game.

Arbor is hyperactively unstable, unpredictably violent, and paradoxically tender towards his mother whose only parental acumen seems to be neglect.  He is puny, a bully who is bullied, and he is in constant motion.  Chapman’s performance is amazing!  When we watch his lean, young face twist into a sly smile, and then swiftly contort into wildness, we are witnessing a mature performance.  And this is his first screen role!

By contrast, Swifty (Shaun Thomas, in an excellent debut performance), is the gentle member of the pair, but an equal accomplice in generating trouble.  He’s pudgy, sweet-natured, loyal and has a special kinship with horses.  It is this gift that really sets him apart from the urchin Arbor, and makes him particularly valuable to Kitten who needs a steady hand to race his horse, yet another of his illegal activities.   

After their first encounter, the boys rent horse and cart from Kitten and scour the city for scrap.  Filth, beautifully presented, leaves us feeling queasy and unsettled.  

The boys are good at the scrap game and have time for it. Arbor is a truant, kicked out of school and, in an effort to help Swifty find his power, gets Swifty expelled, too.  They steal and sell “scrap” with increasing boldness.  The plodding horse takes them to the streets, home to dysfunction, and back to the treacherous Kitten for their cash. 

Needy for recognition, the boys each present their earnings to their respective mothers, like young cats presenting the feathers and guts of their recent conquests.  The mothers are wary: Arbor’s scorns him, Swifty’s whimpers that she wants better for her son, and takes the cash.   Siobhan Finneran (taking a break as the evil O’Brien of Downton Abbey) plays Mrs. Swift.  Her character reminds us that kindness and love can co-exist with despair, if not transcend it.  It’s a small role but a big performance with deep heart that lifts us out of total misery.

Through a palette of greys, Barnard takes us deeper and deeper into the menacing and depressed aspects of this culture.  We watch scrap-hunters maneuver for position, see live electrical wires left dangling, and angry men seeking dominance through a terrifying, violent horse race on the street.

Arbor absorbs the nastiness of these relentless surroundings. He becomes greedy and turns his hurt on his friend when Swifty is preferred by Kitten.  He ratchets up his escapades, steals from Kitten, and toys with the horses that Swifty loves unconditionally. 

The action is slow yet this film keeps our attention, releasing a tension that builds and builds.  When the climax arrives sharply and painfully, it’s heart-stopping.  There is supreme tragedy, manufactured by Kitten and wrought by the bleakness of this society.   

When the credits rolled, I was surprised to see that The Selfish Giant was based on an Oscar Wilde story (one I have not read).  While it is impossible for me to compare this film with the Wilde story, I know that Wilde was brilliant at revealing human flaws, first representing them as benign and ultimately exposing their highly dangerous potential.   Barnard does the same.  The last few scenes allow Arbor the guttural, and also silent, bellows of the bereaved and internally tortured.   Then the screen cuts to a protracted black.  Yes.

Written and Directed by Clio Barnard, U.K., 2013

Reviewed by Suz on 1/28/2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

Remembrance (Die Verlorene Zeit)

Director Anna Justice has created an intensely gripping and deeply emotional film based on actual events.

Set amidst the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, the story of two lovers, Hannah Silberstein (Alice Dwyer), a young Jewish woman, and Tomasz Limanowski (Mateusz Damieki) unfolds.

With the painstakingly secret collaboration of a few of his fellow prisoners, Tomasz has prepared his escape to carry precious photo negatives to the Polish resistance, to reveal to the world what is transpiring in the camp.

When his moment comes, he cannot bear to leave Hannah behind. Together they flee for their lives with the Wermacht and their dogs at their heels, bringing the viewer with them every terrifying step of the way.

They eventually manage to reach the safety of Tomasz’s mother Stefania’s (Susanne Lothar) estate, only to find the main house and grounds occupied by Nazi soldiers and Stefania forced to live in a tiny cottage on the estate. Their relief is again shattered by Stefania’s vicious expression of her own anti-semitism when she is confronted with the fact that her son loves a Jew.

Despite the dangerous situation, Tomasz is forced to leave his beloved Hannah with his mother while he fulfills his dangerous mission.  Expected to return for her in a few days, he does not show. His only friend on the estate, the loyal stable man, Janusz (Miroslaw Zbrojewicz), keeps his promise to get Hannah away to Tomasz’s sister Magdalena’s (Joanna Kulia) rural home where Tomasz is certain she will be secure.

Hannah and Magdalena bond, waiting for their men to return. While time passes ever tensely for fear of being discovered, Hannah waits and hopes. Magdalena’s husband eventually arrives, expecting Tomasz to have already reached the house. Eventually, Stefania arrives, Russian soldiers having driven the Nazis out and taken over her estate. None of them believe it is possible that Tomasz could still be alive, no one but Hannah.

After yet another narrow escape, this time from the brutal Russians who drag Magdalena and her husband away, Hannah and Stefania are left alone in the house.  It is winter. Hannah leaves a note for Tomasz and, not knowing where else to go, attempts to make her way to her former home in Berlin, still cherishing his worn photograph.  Exhausted and collapsed on a snowy road, she is picked up by a Red Cross bus. She is rescued and survives.

With tragic irony, Tomasz then arrives at the house, searching for Hannah. Stefania cruelly tells him that Hannah is dead.

The film alternates from that past to Hannah’s life 30 years later, married and living with her family in Brooklyn, NY.  We learn that she had tried desperately, unsuccessfully, to locate Tomasz after the war.

One day, on a routine errand, Hannah overhears a TV interview and suddenly thinks she recognizes Tomasz’s voice. This electrifying shock rekindles her deeply private, obsessive quest to find him. She can think of nothing else. The years vanish as she is immediately transported to her past, haunted by visions of her beloved Tomasz. She refuses to share her turmoil with her husband, causing a crisis in her marriage, which sets in motion the conclusion of the film.

Remembrance is beautifully directed and acted by all. Anna Justice welds the viewer to her characters. We feel their suffering, pain and hope. We are riveted to them. We feel the shock of realization that they could’ve been together all of these years; their stabbing regret that now it may be simply and cruelly too late. Their time has passed. The impact is total.

This is a film that reverberated within me long after it ended.

Directed by Anna Justice (2011)
Screenplay by Pam Katz and Anna Justice

Reviewed by guest contributor, Ann, on 1/27/2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Room at the Top

Meet Joe Lampton. Age: twenty-five. Appearance: tall, clean cut, fine looking young man, eyes lit with fire. Attitude: angry. Ambition: to rise from his working class back-ground, to reach the top. His plan: marry the daughter of the wealthiest industrialist in Warmely, England. His price: his soul. The angry young men of England are intelligent young men who fought a war and returned home to get some education. As they went into the world they found a class society with high fences blocking their ambitions. Then they shouted “down with the fences.” Not down with the classes, but, down with the fences. Their clamor arose not from indignation over social injustice but from envy. They wanted a share. Those who made it had to pay, and this film is about the price. It is to the point, honest, human. It slams a shovel down into the earth of life and spreads it out unsifted for all to see.  This is not only England—it is America too. What price success!

Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) succeeds. Before he does, he takes up with another man’s unhappy wife (Simone Signoret). She is an earthy, sincere woman whose strength and ingrained nobility cause Joe, against his will and contrary to his plan, to fall in love with her. Joe is like a boy. His mistress, ten years older than he, is like a mother. The two fulfill their hungers through each other. Representing control and maturity, she protects him from himself. Giving her the youth she missed, he represents the unfettered, the irresponsible, the boy she would have married if she had the chance many years ago.

Their love is doomed. In his quest for the higher reaches, Joe causes the rich industrialist’s daughter (Heather Sears) to become pregnant. As planned, the upper class must open the gate to him and he steps through, forsaking his mistress. She destroys herself. Joe Lampton gets to the top, but he will never be able to let himself forget how.

The film is done with consummate brilliance. Yet, listening to the spoken lines by themselves, one realizes how ordinary they are. Even the plot consists of events that are common to scores of other films. Why then is this one exceptional? There are two reasons: one is that the actors perform their roles to perfection. The other is that the camera, being uniquely adept at building various moods, feelings and impressions, cleverly bolsters the action.

As paint is the medium of the artist, the camera is the medium of the movie-maker. It should do the primary work in a film. It can work through angles, or closeups, or a thousand other simple devices of which we are unaware. When Joe walks out on his mistress, he opens then closes a door. A closed door suggests an ending as well as an exit. But here the camera does not simply show a door closing; it shows a knob and a lock slamming tight in one effective, quick cut closeup.

The young wealthy girl has just given herself to Joe. She loves him, feels as one with him. But Joe is preoccupied with his love for and betrayal of his mistress. The young girl wishes to talk, but Joe insists on leaving. Although he is triumphant he is disgusted with his triumph. The camera remains implanted on the two, at one angle, as they rise and she takes his arm and they walk away as the sound of her bubbling joy and his silence fade slowly to only an incomprehensible, distant girlish tinkle. By simply standing still, focussing relentlessly on its subject, the camera produces a dramatic effect—the contrast of hopelessness and a girl’s futile joy.

    When you view a film such as this, you will readily agree that the motion picture has come of age. What a pity that more film-makers don’t realize it.

Directed by Jack Clayton
Based on the novel by John Braine
Screenplay by Neil Paterson and Mordecai Richler
Reviewed by Hugh on Thursday, 6/18/1959

Monday, January 13, 2014

Stand Up Guys

This movie exudes pure delight as its three main characters, likeable, loyal and decent committed criminals, take us on a wild ride, gradually revealing their pasts and their deep regard for each other.  Their antics will shock you and make you laugh out loud at the same time. They proceed casually, as if every outrageous gambit is just another perfectly normal activity.

Doc (Christopher Walken) greets his old buddy Val (Al Pacino) at the prison gate upon his release after more than two decades. Now, while Doc is quietly reserved and lives a simple, albeit lonely, life in his small apartment, Val is a wild man. Since he’s been celibate and generally deprived of emotional warmth and the pleasures of humanity for a very long time, he has pent up demand for just about everything. His ravenous appetites, not the least of which is for hot sex, leads him, with Doc calmly at his side through thick and thin, through a series of fantastic escapades. However, Doc has a secret, overriding  interest, indeed a mission,  that is best discovered by the moviegoer.

Soon we learn there is a triumvirate when they locate their ailing, near death buddy, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), who readily bolts from his nursing home confinement to join them in one more adventure. Hirsch amazes as he reverts to his youthful self behind the wheel of a stolen car, fearlessly leading a chase with moves that would put a NASCAR driver to shame.

Stand Up Guys is a feel good romp, not only because these guys do things that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to do, and get away with it, but because they are on the right side of our humanity.

Directed by Fisher Stevens (2012)
Written by Noah Haidle
Reviewed by Hugh 1/14/2014

The Lunchbox

Mumbai.  Vibrant, loud, urgently throbbing and chaotic, it is the colorful public face of India. With The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batras, in his astonishingly accomplished (masterful?) and tender first feature, creates a powerful juxtaposition to a sprawling urban Indian location by showing us the intimacies of life in India.  He gives us a story that could be trite, but isn’t.  It’s delicate and delicious, like the food that plays such a central role.  Batras weaves together human experiences that aren’t bound by culture:  loss, longing, burgeoning love, hope, and the shattering self-consciousness of aging.  You will see yourself here.

Every day in Mumbai, the legendary dabbawalas deliver millions of lunchboxes to their hungry patrons – without error.  It’s a beautiful sight, these brightly-colored fabric containers riding on the backs of scooters.   The green-striped sack is our focal point, landing, mistakenly, on the desk of Saajan Fernandes. 

Curiosity and surprise! As he looks at the lunchbox, we sense that it’s an effort for Saajan to crack these expressions from a face that’s dried and solid like a footprint in concrete.  And thus the story begins . . .

Irrfan Khan (known to American audiences for his roles in Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionare, The Namesake) is Saajan Fernandes.  With his expressive, hooded eyes, Khan introduces us to a man who seems uninvolved, perhaps mean-spirited. He’s become deadened by the sameness of his routine, the unimaginative world of his career as an accountant, the death of his wife, middle-age, and life’s cruelties.  Spare of words, it’s a spell-binding, rich performance.

Nimrat Kaur, a newcomer to the screen, plays Ila.  She shimmers in the light of the camera as a young mother who yearns to rekindle her husband’s lapsed affections through her luscious culinary creations.   The early morning crush in Mumbai looks like every-household:  rush around, get the kid out the door and onto the bus, sort laundry.  Ila sweats before the stove.  She yells to “Auntie” in the apartment above, who yells back with tidbits of knowledge about just the right pinch of saffron (or such) to generate amour.   It’s a lovely light touch, using the exotic flavors and colors that inhabit and move the story.  The doorbell rings, dabbawala grabs the sack filled with a tower of tins, and off it goes.

Of course the destination of the lunchbox portends the destiny of the characters that touch it.  Ila’s every movement is necessary, contrasted expertly with the non-movement of her distracted husband.  Daily the lunchbox returns, lunch devoured, tin wiped clean.  Quickly she gets it:  not my husband.  Surprise and curiosity are hers now, passing hands, binding Ila and Saajan.  She sends him a note, hidden in the folds of her naan.

The exchange of notes, via lunchbox transport, is the hot chili that spices the story.  Saajan softens, becomes uncharacteristically revealing; Ila is direct and strong, also intimate.  Through written revelations to an unknown man, Ila breaks through the iconic social norm of subservient wife, supplicant and second-class daughter (to her traditional mother she will never fill the important shoes of her deceased brother) and forms a self with needs.  Saajan, we imagine, rejoins a sentimental and self-reflective self who may have existed at an earlier time.  He sheds his visage of middle-age, loses years and adds hope, intention, bounce. 

Caring, or the bud of love, form between these two sad characters, who know nothing more about each other than their carefully selected words and the food that one creates and the other loves.  Each time the lunch sack is placed on Saajan’s desk, and we see him unzip the cover and rapturously smell the contents, we’re at the ends of our seats.  What has Ila written today?

We want these two to be happy – a great testimony to how Batras has captured their simple, private glances and made the characters full and real.  At one point we watch Ila gently place a sheet of naan on a burner, and it expands like a blowfish.  We want them each to be reborn in this way.  Intensity builds until Ila suggests that they meet . . . and I won’t spoil the story for you. 

At the start of this film, we learn that Sajaan’s retirement is imminent, within a month.   Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is his eager replacement, a man whose integrity is questionable, yet who operates in the world with the confidence of one who calls his own shots.  Batras uses this character deftly. Through Sajaan’s interactions with the smarmy, wide-smiled Shaikh, we get to observe his transformation.  The frozen man thaws and over time becomes generous, kind, even protective.  We like the potential of this new Saajan and watch him, wearing a grin as resplendent as Shaikh’s.

How strange that the bustle of Mumbai could reveal such a quiet, slow gem of a film.  This may be one of India’s best.

As of this writing, The Lunchbox hasn’t opened in the U.S., save for brilliant film festival appearances.  Originally it was primed to be India’s 2013 contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.  Unfortunately the Indian powers that be selected another.  Too bad.  This film deserves attention and awards aplenty!

Written and Directed by Ritesh Batras – India (2013)
Reviewed by Suz on 1/13/2014 

The Lunchbox will be released late February in the USA.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Green Mansions

            Would you mind very much if your reviewer put down his mask of objectivity just this once? His pretension to objectivity is only a formality anyway. Even scientists can't separate their personal biases from their quest for truth; how much less can a critic who must evaluate a man-made work by the effect it has on his sensibilities? The story of Green Mansions was read by your reviewer in his early youth, and the mystery and romance of it, of Rima, and the haunting South American forest never died from his memory. Are the impressions in our imaginative youth tucked away in metal envelopes, like the first cut curls of a child, and kept sealed through the whole of our adult lives? Or could something come along, some chance occurrence, to unseal it for us and give us a glimpse of those experiences in our lives when everything seemed possible?

            There was a hope that the film of this beautiful story would stir up again those same feelings your reviewer had when he read the book as a boy. But it was not a convincing hope because the adult mind, deadened with sophistication, knew how impossible it would be for the film makers to create an experience equal to any boy's imagination.

            A half century ago W. H. Hudson wrote memorably about a young man who fled from a political upheaval in Caracas to the impenetrable interior in the south. He went there in search of gold with the hope that he might eventually return and avenge the murder of his father who was a wealthy government official. What he found was not gold. He found a fierce tribe of savages whom he could not trust. And he found a jungle sanctuary in which there lived a beautiful girl called Rima, and her "grandfather" who brought her up in this isolation.

            The girl was out of a dream. She had incorporated this paradise into herself and was as simple and gentle as the dazzling tropical birds around her. The young man and Rima fall in love and their love changes his mind about gold and revenge. It fills Rima with a sense of wonderment, and with suffering. The old man becomes miserable from the fear of losing his Rima to love. These three, so remote from civilization, cannot escape its grip, but it is even truer to say they cannot escape the woes of conflicting human needs. No, the young man did not find gold; he found a human treasure, and what theme could be more gratifying than this?

            The film-makers were very conscious of the appeal and depth of Hudson's idea. And more than anything, they were aware that the setting and mood of the story had to be duplicated exactly as the author created it if they were to succeed at all. It had to have a mysterious and haunting simplicity. The actors had to reflect in their words and motions the feeling of dreamlike unreality.

            Audrey Hepburn as Rima looked and was capable of acting the part, and she did the best that was possible with the lines and direction given her. Anthony Perkins as the young man seemed too young and too American for his role. Lee J. Cobb as the grandfather can and does, when the situation lets him, act with power, but his role was limiting.

            The picture fails. The makers tried too hard. They created a perfection. The forest was perfect, the savages were perfect, Miss Hepburn was perfect. It is the clean, gleaming, antiseptic perfection of so many Hollywood productions. If only the makers had relaxed a little and left more to our imagination, and left out a slew of silly over-dramatization, they may even have made something that was not only romantic but also human. They may even have come close to bringing out the boy again in your reviewer's stultified imagination.

Director: Mel Ferrer (1959)
Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley
Reviewed by Hugh on Thursday, 5/28/1959