Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Film (Page 2 of 5)

Art Review | Silver Screen Silver Prints | Hollywood Glamour Portraits from the Robert Dance Collection | Curated by Ann H. Hoy | Grolier Club, NYC

… star struck …

Theda Bara as Cleopatra, by Albert Witzel, 1917, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8". Photo: Grolier Club

Theda Bara as Cleopatra, by Albert Witzel, 1917, gelatin silver print, 10 x 8″. Photo: Grolier Club

This exhibition brings together 90 publicity photographs, made by the big studios, of major Hollywood stars:  the earliest is of Theda Bara as Cleopatra of 1917, and the latest of Elizabeth Taylor — not as Cleopatra (that would have been fun) — but as Barbara in Ash Wednesday (a woman driven to plastic surgery to keep hold of her husband), dated 1974.

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FILM NOTE – Brighton Rock, with Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, and Andy Serkis, directed by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel by Graham Greene

… the hesitation …

I went to Brighton Rock (not usually going to gangster films) because   Graham Greene writes great stories and I hoped this one would survive the movie.  It does:  the story is terrific and the film is well done, and well worth seeing.

And at heart an absolute classic on how to build a character and a story on … hesitation.

Set in Brighton, England in the 1960’s, the film tells the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), a small-time, ruthless gangster trying to be a bigger one.  Killings lead to killings and as Pinkie’s group tries to take over from a rival, powerful gang, Pinkie commits a revenge killing.  On the sunny Brighton boardwalk filled with strollers and “every day” people, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a waitress in a café, innocently taking the air and reading, accidentally comes into possession of evidence linking Pinkie to the crime, and thus is drawn into his murderous life — it helps that he’s handsome, though awfully grim.

To purloin the evidence, and then to keep her quiet, Pinkie takes her out for an evening on the town.  She falls for him — ignoring all danger signals including the fresh knife cut across his cheek (doesn’t she recognize that mark of Cain?  maybe, but she never hesitates), and the attempts to protect her by the café owner, Ida (Helen Mirren).  And he, somewhere in his rotten soul, is touched by her trust and falls in love with her — or maybe he falls in love with her.  Or what is love anyway?  And can it coincide with hate?  We never know:  the emotional ambiguity of this movie is brilliant. 

Whatever he feels for her, it’s powerful and sets up a conflict in him, because clearly the easiest thing to do about her, now that she knows too much, is to murder her:  but he hesitates.  He can’t quite bring himself to do it, he makes excuses to his friends, and, not a man for honor among thieves, he knocks off his closest associates as they get in his way about her and about challenging the gang run by powerful, rich Colleoni (Andy Serkis);  Pinkie does everything conceivable to keep her quiet except kill her.  Even at the end, well, I can’t tell you the end but it is absolutely superb.  

The violence in this film is necessary — nothing gratuitous about it (a refreshing change) — because it’s part and parcel of the hot conflict within Pinkie:  seeing how totally brutal he is, his hesitation becomes all the more powerful, and thought-provoking.  Inner conflict in this brute?  Yes.  Which is exactly Graham Greene’s point.  We all have a soul, and somewhere in all of us is the possibility of love.  Maybe.  It’s a human message as well as, in this film and in Greene’s work, a Catholic vision.  Maybe.   

You have to see the story through to the end to understand its powerful embedded ambiguities about a really bad man.  Pinkie tells Rose early on, “I’m bad, you’re good.  We’re alike.”   What was that supposed to mean?  By the end, I knew.

The film is set against the background of violent conflicts between motorcyclists (“Rockers”) and scooter drivers (“Mods”) that disrupted the pleasant resort of Brighton, near the White Cliffs of Dover, during the 1960’s.  The Rockers-Mods’ hectic speed, noisy collisions and dangerous hatreds spill over onto the mild pleasure seekers on the boardwalk, providing cover for the dark chases and murders beneath it.  While the novel (1938) and the first film made of it (1947), are set in the 1930’s, I think that bringing it up to the time of the Rockers v. Mods is a creative act:  this way the film shows violence as not something below the surface, sequestered among men who make their livings as gangsters and so, if you’re lucky, potentially avoidable:  violence is surround-sound.   

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on “comments,” write in comment box and click on “post.”  Emails are private and never appear with comments.

Film Note | Sarah’s Key | Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner | Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frederic Pierrot

                                    … history

Sarah’s Key contains some of the most powerful, heart-wrenching scenes ever filmed — and this is not sensationalism, but truth.  This film is important for making everyone aware of a particularly horrific episode in France during World War II and — if you didn’t know — what human beings are capable of, for ill as well as for good.

Based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, Elle s’appelait Sarah, “her name was Sarah,” this is an unsparing account of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup in which tens of thousands of Jews were literally pulled from their homes to be sent to their deaths in concentration camps.  The Starzynski family is being dragged away but Sarah, 10 years old (Melusine Mayance), manages to hide her younger brother in a wardrobe, taking the key with her as she, her mother and father are brutally transported to the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium — hence the name Vel’ d’Hiv’.  With the unflinching realism of a great documentary, we see the thousands of people of all ages held there for days without access to food, water or toilets.  Here is  Hell on Earth.

Surely it can’t get any worse but it does as the men are violently separated from their wives and children and then — can it get worse than that? — the children under 12, Sarah, feverishly ill, among them — are literally torn from the arms of their mothers.  These police are not Nazis but French functionaries of the wartime Vichy government that cooperated with the Nazis, which makes no difference in their level of brutality.

Through it all, separated from her brother, her father, and her mother, Sarah, ill, alone in a children’s concentration camp, is totally focused on getting back to her brotherl and unlock the closet.  With astonishingly daring, she escapes with another girl from the barbed wire compound, helped by a kindly guard who lifts the entangling wire.  Once they’re out, the guard is left with the bloody imprint of the jagged wire on his palm, like the stigmata of Christ.  It’s his second kindness to the little Jewish girl.  One worries about what will happen to him, too.

Some of the French say they weren’t aware of the Roundup (though living across the street from the stinking stadium), some admit to a vague awareness but “What could you do?”  But some are courageous in their opposition to inhumanity.  Sarah and her co-escapee find their way to the rural home of a couple with grandchildren Sarah’s age, the Dufaures, who at first try to “avoid trouble” but then take them in and bravely brazen it out with the police in order to call in a physician to attend the other little girl who is, however, beyond saving.  And — since Sarah is unstoppable in her attempt to get back to her little brother — the Dufaures accompany her to Paris, risking their own arrest, in a great train scene in which the police share their compartment and the conductor comes looking for everybody’s transit papers.  And what happens when Sarah gets back to the old apartment and the locked wardrobe … ?

The film blands down as it turns to the aftermath of Sarah’s return to Paris.  Two stories run parallel, Sarah’s and, to bring it to the present, that of Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist who, in our own time, is writing an investigative story about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup.  In the course of her research, she uncovers Sarah’s story and learns that she, unlike her mother and father, did not die in the concentration camps.  Julia sets about finding out what happened to her, and learning more and more about the brave and agonized little girl, takes Sarah deep into her heart.  Meanwhile Julia and her French husband are about to move in to an apartment that had been in her husband’s family for 50 years — until Julia, through her research, comes upon the nauseating fact that her in-laws apartment, that she’s about to move in to, had become vacant 50 years ago because the  Starzynskis had been ripped out of it.

Confronted by Julia, her husband’s father recounts what happened when he was a boy during the war and Sarah returned to the apartment with the key to free her brother.  His memories provide a breakthrough in Julia’s search for Sarah: as she uncovers the full complexity and tragedy of Sarah’s existence, Julia frees herself from a careless, overbearing husband who wants her to abort her unexpected late-life pregnancy but — having learned of the deaths of so many children, she cannot go through with the abortion.  Eventually, Julia shares her knowledge of Sarah’s background and fate with Sarah’s now adult son who gains a deeper understanding of his mother and himself.

The story about the present — Julia, her pregnancy, her distracted, ambitious, cell-phone addicted husband, and that of Sarah’s son — is superficial compared with the story of the past.  We see Julia in the U.S. with her little girl — but what about her twelve-year old daughter left in France?  And the French father who, even if he opposed the birth, might now welcome his new little daughter?  Julia says she’s planning to go back to Paris so she, the younger child, her older daughter and the father can be “near”.  Near.  What would the Dufaures, who so lovingly took in Sarah, have thought ofthat?  Julia in fact abandons her older daughter, her husband, too, in favor of the new child which dissipates the impact of what she has come to feel as the gem-like value of each child.  At the end Julia and Sarah’s son embrace powerfully.  With understanding?  Maybe.  But it has the movie look of “they all lived happily ever after”.  I don’t think so. .   

This “present” story dominates the later part of the film so, on leaving, one has to think back to connect again with the true power of Sarah’s Key.  Without that thinning out, it could have been one of the great films but it remains compelling, gripping, important.  

It’s interesting to think about Sarah’s Key in comparison with another recent film with a similar theme, Inglourious Basterds (reviewed here below):.  In that film, too, one little Jewish girl escapes the massacre, by the Nazis, of her entire family and, growing the maturity in Paris, must deal with her survival in the face of total family loss.  Inglourious Basterds is a more thrilling, artful film, brilliant, with a driving dramatic arc and a climactic finale one can wish were true — but, plain and simple, is counter to history.   In contrast, Sarah’s Key, though with a “present” story that saps some of its strength, remains more faithful to the truths of history, which  gives it an equivalent weight and lasting impact. 

I’m glad for both of them.

                                                                                         Yvonne Korshak

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FILM NOTE – Cave of Forgotten Dreams, written and directed by Werner Herzog

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you follow Werner Herzog and his 3-D camera into one of the rarest and least accessible spots on earth – Chauvet Cave in Southern France.  Here, on its bumpy walls, approximately 32,000 years ago our human forbears painted hundreds of astonishingly lifelike wild animals — horses, cattle, reindeer, rhinoceri, lions, panthers, bears, antelopes – 13 or more species.  What a lot of game – and predators — there were  back then!  These are among the earliest paintings ever found.  Many are overlaid by the rougly parallel scratch marks of cave bears, now extinct.  The 3-D filming brings the region, the river valley, the rock face and the interior of the cave to vivid life, and gives a context for the paintings beyond photographs or conventional film.

Herzog was given exclusive permission to film inside the cave but in order to protect the paintings, discovered in 1994, and because of the toxic atmosphere, access was extremely limited, so Herzog and his crew had four hours a day for six days inside for filming.  What they achieved is dazzling.  How could it not be?  The artists are great.  The paintings are magnificent, and on top of that, are so distant in time, they seem filled with mystery, raising questions.  If they are speaking to any one, it’s to people of their own time – not to us — and they don’t come with a commentary.

Two rhinoceri, their low slung, massive bodies seen from the side, lock horns in battle, 32,000 years ago.  A bison is done largely in outline as are most of the paintings, but its face is naturalistically shadowed, giving it that man-like look people often notice in bison today – just go see them at Yellowstone.  A male and a female lion are partially superposed as an eternal pair – the male is without a mane:  the artist has answered the question of whether or not European male lions had manes like African lions.  But in general these paintings raise more questions than they answer. 

And those horses!  One magnificent, large painting of a solo horse seems given a special place inside a natural niche.  The edge of niche is painted with smaller animals, the way Symbolist painters around 1900 often painted the frames around their main subjects.  But beware!  Resemblances like this can be amusing, even intriguing, but misleading.  The visual resemblance doesn’t mean the meanings or purposes are in any way similar.  We don’t know what these humans were thinking when they made these paintings.

The tradition of cave painting was very long lived and remarkably constant.  Some contrasts and developments can be seen in comparing the paintings of Chauvet Cave with those of, say, Lascaux Cave, 15,000 years later, but a remarkable constant that animals are by far the major subject of cave paintings, with only a very small number of human representations.  One intriguing image is not fully visible from the walkway since it partly bleeds around the stalactite it's painted on, and so was photographed with the use of a camera held up on a stick (didn’t anybody have a mirror?): it appears to show the lower part of a woman with an emphasized pubic triangle, and the upper part of a bison.  One has to wonder if this (if that’s really what it is) is a hybrid of imagination or a representation of a masked figure.  Arguing backward in time proves nothing but moving from the known to the unknown in thought can be useful.  Humans wearing animal masks are almost ubiquitous in tribal cultures, as part of Shamanism, and in rituals.  In this, and the stick-like figure of a bird-headed man from Lascaux cave, are we glimpsing a tradition that stretches from the Palaeoloithic to our own time?       

So this film is a wonder to see, mainly because the material is a wonder, not the filming.

The choices made in writing and editing are disappointing.  Access, as we know, was limited, but we see the same figures again and again.  With 24 hours  of filming time, they could have shown us more of the hundreds of animals and 13 or so species represented in Chauvet Cave.  The related archaeology and information about the region, while interesting, should have taken up less of this 95 minute film and more given over to what's truly unique and inaccessible, the cave.   

Also, the film is more interested in “mystery” and “dreams” than in the paintings themselves.  Even the title is irksome — why “forgotten dreams?”  That title is just misleading mood music — there’s no reason at all to think the artists thought they were depicting dreams.  Much has been suggested, and virtually nothing known for sure, about the purposes of the cave paintings, these or others, but the suggestions themselves are stimulating and should have been included in the film.   Shamanism?  Totemism?  Hunting magic?  Whatever the paintings purpose or purposes, they were very likely practical, at least in the views of those who made them.

Too much romance is thrown around in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,”  too many shadows cross the camera image just when you’re trying to get a good look.   

More should have been said about the materials the painters used and their techniques.  We’re shown remarkable right hand prints in red ochre and told these are “positive” prints but without explanation that there a many examples in cave paintings and rock paintings around the world of “negative” hand prints made by spray-painting — blowing pigment around a hand pressed to a wall as in a stencil.       

But then, you're looking at the palm prints of someone who lived 30,000 years ago, prints with poignant individuality in a detail:  a distinctively bent pinkie finger.  Who was there to purposefully dip the palm of a right hand in red ochre and press it to the wall?  Was the bent pinkie casual or was he or she chosen to leave prints because of the odd finger?  Or take it upon himself or herself … perhaps fascinated by the "different" finger.  Given the context, are they a kind of painter's signature?  And of course:  what would this individual of 32,000 years ago think if he or she could know we were puzzling over those palm prints today?   

It's hard to think about the missed opportunities in the making of this film.  The rights should have gone to a film maker less centered on himself, and more focused on fulfilling the material.  But then, this is the film we have.  The paintings are so beautiful and the sights so rare, these are reasons in themselves to see it.  Not seeing it is to miss a unique and important glimpse into our human past. 

Yvonne Korshak     

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down and click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private and never appear with comments.   

FILM NOTE – Midnight in Paris, written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Owen Wilson

… It was the best of times …

Midnight in Paris is as much a pleasure to watch as Woody Allen’s best films even though it’s not as good — the fantasy is so powerful.  This time travel film takes us, and its main character, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screen writer, back to the Paris of the 1920’s where we meet the artists and literati who made the city the brilliant center that we all go to Paris looking for – even those too young or unworldly to realize it. 

Gil is ensconced in a fancy hotel with his beautiful fiancee, Inez – of course that’s part of the fantasy, too, that and the French food.  She and her rich, conventional right wing parents are dutifully intent on seeing the sights – Versailles and all that — guided by a know-it-all smart guy and his adoring girlfriend, but Gil – vaguely discontent, and yearning to be a serious novelist, has another agenda.  He withdraws from family fun to search out his own Paris – the Paris of his imagination – and wonder of wonders at the stroke of midnight, finds it.

Swept off mysteriously in a chauffeured car, he’s delivered to the intellectual and artistic soirees of 1920’s Paris, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald rub shoulders with Hemingway and Picasso while Cole Porter plays the piano [partial list of famous people], and eventually everybody who is anybody ends up at Gertrude Stein’s for intellectual discussions, artistic critiques, gossip and lovemaking.

Oh how marvelous to encounter Hemingway (Corey Stoll), young, darkly handsome, intense, having just published his first novel speaking in the dead-pan of his writing style about courage under fire  (“I’ve read all you work,” Gil tells him though at this point Hemingway's only published one book).  How delicious to see Zelda dive too deep into the absinthe with the Princeton-elegant Scott guiding her to the next party.  And joy of joys, how wonderful that our very American Gil with Wilson’s farm-boy drawl, patent simplicity and naïve aura (though he is a successful screenwriter, Woody Allen has his cake and eats it to on that one) not only meets but draws to himself Picasso’s mistress, played by Marion Cotillard looking like the dancer Olga Khokhlova whom Picasso loved at the time.  (So much for prissy, materialistic Inez, in any time zone.)

And. here's something really valuable, Gil gets a focused critique on the pages of his novel by none other than Gertrude Stein – it’s going to serve him in good stead back in his own time.  To see Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein sitting under Picasso’s famous, groundbreaking portrait of Gertrude and looking exactly like her is a high point of the movie and feels, for the moment, a high point of life (they really don’t have the same facial structure but Bates and Woody’s camera pull it off). 

Gil’s travel back to the 20’s in the chauffeured car is smooth but some of the other time travels lurch and are less believable, and are accompanied by preaching about the value of being of one’s own time that sounds like forced virtue.

And Allen seems so in love with the idea of this movie that he hurries through characters, settling on caricatures for his artists and writers from the past rather than on real people, let alone the creators they were, engaged in hot struggles to develop their modes of expression.  For all the fun it is to engage with Hemingway, his clipped, cliché-ridden courage talk is so obvious it's camp, and while Adrien Brody does a great look-alike caricature bit of Salvador Dali, it’s a bit, not a person.  So if you have another way of being in Paris at its beautiful best (appealing photography) and chatting with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Matisse and Picasso, by all means do it. 

If not, see this movie.  It’s a treat:  once again we have to thank Woody Allen for giving us great pleasure, the most fun, and a fantasy fulfilled. 

Yvonne Korshak

Comments very welcome.  Scroll down, click on "comments," write in comment box and click on "post."  Emails are private, no emails ever appear with comments.

FILM NOTE — Meek’s Cutoff starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, directed by Kelly Reichardt

… existentialism among the pioneers …

Which way to turn?  Whom can we trust?

It's 1845 and three couples, one wife pregnant, one couple with a little boy, journeying west in covered wagons, are lost in Oregon territory.  Low on food and lower on water, they've been led into a trackless wilderness by their arrogant guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who thought he knew a better way.  Fighting fear, everyone refrains from complaining but in time the men admit among themselves, "We should have followed the main trunk."

We're used to Westerns that show us the appeal of the vast, mountainous, natural terrain but this is a dry, desolate stretch of Oregon that would likely appeal only to those who after seeing the photos want to trek across Mars, pulled by oxen in a wagon and without a map, GPS or support system. 

At every juncture, choices have to be made with no useful evidence and life and death stakes.  With water low in the wooden barrels ("We should have taken on more water at the river"), Meek returns from a scouting trip with a good report: there's a lake ahead!  They arrive at its shores to find that the water's too alkaline for drinking (think sulphur springs).  And the lake's so broad and presumably deep — much more of an obstacle than the fast rushing river they've crossed — that it stops them dead in their progress westward.  Furthermore, the lake extends too far North-South to see either end.  They'll have to go around it, with no knowledge of its full extent.   

But should they go via the North or the South?  No way to know.  The women hear the men whispering, "north", "south".  Meek is for going North;  they've learned the hard way his knowledge and judgment can't be trusted — but that's still not an answer to the question, is it?   

Meek, with a history as an Indian killer, fans the fear of Indians who may be in the region.  A new crisis occurs when an Indian (Ron Rondeaux) appears on the crest of a hill on horseback.  Two of the men go out after him and capture him and — they don't have much but they have guns – bring him back to the night's camp tied up and without his horse.  He's in their power.  What should they do with him?  Should they let him live or kill him?  Meek's for killing him on the spot.  The men argue, uncertain.  The Indian listens to the men debate his fate, not knowing the language but knowing exactly what they're talking about. 

The Indian lives, at least for now, and here the leadership subtly shifts.  The women have hovered in the background as the men made the decisions that would affect their living or dying, but now the young, calm, competent wife, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), makes some decisions of her own, first to bring food to the tethered Indian.  Meek's enraged.  So, at first, is the proud, angry Indian.  But when, later, she brings him water, he accepts it:  the Indian's made some decisions, too.  Perhaps there's a humanitarian feeling in Emily but her explanation for protecting the Indian is purely pragmatic:  "I want him to owe me."

Dogged by whether they should trust the Indian but in need of food and water, they decide to follow him instead of killing him, Meek tight behind him with his rifle, as the conflict between Emily and Meek intensifies to a thrilling climax.  

As if you were voyaging along with them, you get to know all your fellow travelers over time and really well.  The three wives and three husbands differ distinctly from one another in strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies – no mix-up about who's who but there are some interesting surprises about who responds how to the grueling voyage. 

The emotional intimacy of husbands and wives — persisting even when their only times alone together are in the bare interior of a covered wagon at the end of a day's dusty trek — is engaging.  The volatile conflict between Emily and Meek forms a gripping dramatic focus. 

And as often happens in Westerns, the Indian is the most charismatic character:  he's not sentimentalized, nor overly handsome, but there's great charm in the way he takes in the ways of this alien group from behind a largely stoic mask, registering how they're like him and what he knows, and how they're not. 

Which way to turn?  Whom can we trust?   The highest stakes and not a clue as to how to chose.  But a choice has to be made.   

This is a brilliant movie, intimately human and profoundly philosophical — and what an ending!

Yvonne Korshak

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FILM NOTE — Barney’s Version, with Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, directed by Richard J. Lewis

… mixed …

With flashbacks and fast forwards, Barney's Version follows Barney Panofsky through the saga of his three wives.  First, as a sort of straight-man in Rome among his more footloose and artsy buddies, he marries the gorgeous and flaky Clara (Lefevre) because he believes he's fathered her unborn child (don't count on it).

A strength of the film is the naturalism of Giamatti's portrayal of Barney, and the complex conception of his character: smart, successful (he's a tv producer), loving, loyal — and selfish and opportunistic.  Too many scenes, though, are hyped for farce.  Take this first wedding:  with the baby's birth imminent, Clara staggers on stiletto heels, ignored by the men, toward the church where she and Barney will be married, ungainly and off-balance from the weight of the bulbous pregnancy, her beautiful long legs silhouetted and forced apart by the size of it.  I think I may have laughed but then, this movie gets you to laugh at things that aren't really funny.

Barmey's second wife, played by Minnie Driver, is described in publicity as a "Jewish American Princess" (although we're in Canada) but really, what do we see of her?  (She isn't even dignified with a name in the film.)  She's the daughter of well-to-do Canadians who are Jewish — as if that's enough to make her a joke.   And she truly and sincerely falls for Barney — one wonders why since he's not particularly attractive and his charm is not overwhelming, but she does.  Their wedding is satirical farce, a Goodbye, Columbus catered affair complete with a lavish "Viennese Table" that older women who don't need another pastry dive into.  And since in the course of the wedding dinner, Barney separates himself emotionally from his bride and her family, we, too, get the feeling that they're gross and this is a gross event.  Hey wait a minute — Barney's actions are really gross:  he flirts with another woman, Miriam, at his own wedding, falls instantly in love with her and, drunk, disheveled and abandoning his bride, chases Miriam to a departing train.  One tends to root for the course of true love but — this is a stretch.

Barney continues to court the elegant Miriam long-distance after the wedding, leaving his wife high and dry.  She tries to maintain their marriage and their sex life, he's lost interest in all of it, but eventually, at their isolated lake house she succumbs to Boogie, Barney's handsome writer friend from the old days in Rome.  Arriving unexpected and finding them at sex, Barney seizes upon the situation as an easy way out of this marriage so he can go on to marry Miriam.  But first he has a drunken fight with Boogie who falls into the water and disappears, leading a detective to hound Barney for decades as a murderer.

Barney succeeds in winning his true love, Miriam, but eventually goofs up their idyllic marriage.  Not even perfect Miriam is perfect:  turns out she's unforgiving.  Sadness ensues.  And eventually deepening of character, and learning, and everything else that happens if you live long enough.

Barney's is a complicated life, well acted by Giamatti who grows old subtly as we watch.  Too bad the film makers didn't find in that enough of a story and hyped it by resorting to farce and by reducing some characters to caricature.  One actor in the film is even more natural, more completely believable and more humorous than Giamatti:  Dustin Hoffman, playing Barney's father, Detective Izzy Panofsky, who protects his son from the ruthless detective who haunts him.  The complete naturalness with which Hoffman speaks even the simplest lines is startling, even in a face-off with the excellent Giamatti.

All in all, a well acted, well photographed, mean spirited movie.

… nixed …

Yvonne Korshak

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Film Note | Inside Job | Documentary film by Charles Ferguson with contributions and narration by Matt Damon

Mark P. Haggard writes from England …

… disturbing questions …

Many people had their say on the Wall Street fraud (it would be indulgent to merely call it a crisis or crash, when a bank is mis-selling mortgages which it knows are trash and will fail, but is also insuring itself against such failure).  This documentary says a lot, very clearly and comprehensively (see for example the New York Times review:  http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/movies/08inside.html).  So what is there to add 5 months after the film's debut and 29 months after the collapse?  And what is there to say from a country not included in the critique to the extent it might justifiably have been by virtue of its considerable financial muscle and its own spectacular bank failures?

Sometimes the most pivotal or revealing aspects take time to see.  Fiction can often communicate more freely and effectively than fact, unfettered by detail and reservation.  But fact is stranger than fiction, and for an issue that needs to be nailed, facts are ultimately more convincing.  In the audience with which I saw this film, the gasps at the enormity of the revelations and the derision of the outrageous posturing by the interviewed apologists for the fraud far outstripped any I have ever heard occurring in response to movie car-crashes or virtual tsunamis.

I went to the film knowing pretty much that it would be an expose of greed and the folly of deregulation and Wall Street, but was not prepared for how deep and substantiated a critique it would be of the conspiracy to subvert and to corrupt academia and Washington (both all too corruptible, it seems);  or for the scandal of how little has changed and how few have been held to account.  Shameful though I feel to admit this, the City of London and the last Government of the UK should have received more of a broadside than they did, for failings entirely parallel to those in the U.S. and in the colorful little hot spot of Iceland.  

The closing moments of the film show a fly-by shot of the Statue of Liberty and succinctly and unsentimentally pose the question of values that our societies represent, and project the hope that some of those values can be re-found and promoted.  As I write we see protests from millions in the Arab world wishing to cast off oppressive and inefficient governments.  What can we offer Arab countries that is better than what they have had?  Let us cling to what we can;  we still have good models for Citizens' Advice Bureaux (remain vigilant, there!), and we are not being tortured for exercising the right of free speech.  Ferguson was allowed to make, and to a limited extent to distribute this film, although, as with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the people who really need to see it probably will not.

As is well known from economic history, one main cause of the French Revolution was the inefficiency of concentration of great wealth in the hands of a very small aristocracy arbitrarily selected not by merit but by accident of birth, coupled with the restriction of economic spin-off to a few producers of luxury goods and vice supplying them.  The sharp steepening of the socioeconomic gradients of income and capital in western countries in the last 30 years is efficient only in the eyes of the top few percent who define efficiency in terms of their own growth of capital income.

Of course there are problems with excessively flat income distributions, with excessively large public sectors and with perverse incentives in welfare programmes but these are mostly departed extremes of a fairly remote past.  Our populations have been sold an opiate of the people, about deregulated markets as the efficient alternative.  If the people who commandeer such a high proportion of national wealth are smart (and many are quite smart), then it is not impossible that their efforts may be on driver of efficiency.  But we rightly call fraud a crime and, pointing at mafia-ridden societies we say, rightly, that crime is not efficient.  It is an arbitrary qualification for the aristocracy.

Enough people in the finance industry were smart that their defense (no-one saw the crisis coming) does not stand up.  The bankers threatened the regulators with the spectre of a crisis if they were regulated, so when it inevitably came, it was bigger than the blip it might have been.  There was enough quantitative obfuscation (by academics whom we can now see as possibly corrupt), that a few in the finance industry and many ordinary politicians might honestly claim they really thought that complex derivatives could spread risk, although these people will now look a little foolish.  Spreading is not the same as reducing risk.  A good deal has at least two parties to it for whom it is advantageous and even efficient to do business by making the deal.  We see in the many foreclosures and in the unemployment statistics just how widely the risk was spread. 

The questions raised by Inside Job roll on, and many of them are much more profound than technical issues about complex derivatives:

Who competent and non-corrupt can be recruited to do government finance and regulation jobs?  And will taxpayers foot the small bill to have enough of them to avoid the stock- and mortgage-holder and taxpayer from being defrauded again?  Will Europe succeed in implementing some form of appropriate regulation and will the lower risk lead to an inflow of funds and financial business?  Will Harvard and Columbia take any steps to regain academic credibility or just bluff it out?  Has the self-seeking fashion-obsessed society produced an inability to say or to hear that the Emperor has no clothes?  Is there any way to reverse the social pathology of this great distraction from the real issues of industrial decline, geopolitics and global warming?  Can any large-scale citizen lobby energized by this film turn pressure on elected representatives to take some action?  Watch this space, but shudder as you remember how slow and modest were the effects of the critical documentaries by Michael Moore and Al Gore.

Mark P. Haggard

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FILM NOTE – True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010, and comparison with True Grit, starring John Wayne, directed by Henry Hathaway, 1969

… true grits …

True Grit, filmed by the Coen brothers in 2010, is a western with a true twist, a young girl's quest for revenge and her determination to stick by the sides of the two pistol slingers in a manhunt through rough western country.

Mattie Ross, a composed and purposeful fourteen-year old girl, hires the grittiest Deputy Marshall she can find, scraggy, old, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, to track down and bring back alive her father's killer, Tom Chaney.  Rooster teams up with a Texas ranger who's after Chaney for his own reason and, since she's paying — this girl knows money, she was her father's bookkeeper — she insists on going along.  The two pros try to shake her but she's courageous, resourceful and unshakable.  She's also refined and educated and part of the film's charm is the playoff between Mattie's serious, formal way of speaking and the rough and ready crudity of the Western tough guys.  The little girl knows what she wants and pushes these two big men around to get it — although they aren't always pushable.

Maddie also knows the law, as it applies to her case, and her references to it set against the law-in-his-own hands Cogburn carries an essential and significant theme of the story:  the insinuation of law and order into Wild West eye-for-an-eye anarchy; the weaking of that Western tradition in the face of "gentrification".

The manhunt leads to dangerous situations and brutal killings and Mattie shows that as far as true grit goes, she's every bit the match for Cogburn.  She never yields to panic in terrifying incidents when, I think, most of us would, and she emerges unscathed until, finally, and as a result of her own bravery, it looks like all is lost.  But each man, in his own, unspoken way, has come to love Mattie, the young Texas hot-head with a tenderness faintly suggesting romance, and Cogburn with a protective fatherliness.  We don't know this fully until the chips are down and we see the lengths each man will go to save her.  There's an epilogue in which Mattie, grown up and a successful business woman, almost manages to re-encounter the elusive Cogburn.  The Texas Ranger has faded from the picture.

The acting, with the exception of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, isn't as brilliant as the story.  Jeff Bridges is visually convincing as the worn, lonely bounty hunter, but his voice is monotonous — he falls back on his growl to convey complex experiences and emotions.  Matt Damon has no particular hold on the role of the dare-devil Texas Ranger and seems to just walk — or ride — through the part.  Still, don't miss this movie – the story's just too good and it's told well enough.

Are we arriving at maturity too late, these days?  Are there fourteen-year old girls around today like Mattie Ross?  I hope so!

… from light to dark …

There have been two major Hollywood productions of True Grit, one starring John Wayne as the sharp shooter Rooster Cogburn in 1969, and the current one with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn.  Each tells its truly great story well, based on the novel by Charles Portis.  Here are a few thoughts on differences between the 2010 True Grit and the 1969 version.

Wayne won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn but I think they must have given it to him more as a career award than for this role.  He's quite wooden as Rooster, with a few facial expressions and a few tones of voice that he cycles through.  It's easier to believe that Bridges could soften inside than Wayne, who's all on the surface.  As the Texas Ranger, Glen Campbell is more exciting and individualized than Matt Damon, which sets up a tense, dynamic contrast between Cogburn and the ranger.  In the 2010 film, bland Damon seems like just a hanger-on.  As for Mattie, well — how can you choose between Kim Darbie in the 1969 movie and Hailee Steinfeld in the current one — both, in different ways, are marvelous!  Darbie is round-faced and conveys a sunny disposition behind her seriousness of purpose;  Steinfeld seems more intense.  Neither is just "cute" — thank heavens!  

In some ways, the 2010 movie is like a translation of the 1969 from light into dark.  Darbie is fair and light haired, Steinfeld deeply brunette.  The earlier movie is filmed in daylight with direct camera shots, and the fast-action scenes make sense.  In 2010 the same scenes are shot at night, with oblique camera angles and surrounded by an aura of mystery, with some confusion thrown in.  Generally, the 1969 movie tells its story in a straightforward manner, like prose read in a good light.  The 2010 film is more startling and filled with forboding.  In it, Maddie spends her first night in town in an undertaker's coffin;  in 1969, she goes straight to the boarding house.  The Texas Ranger encounters Mattie across the boarding house dinner table in the 1969 film;  in 2010, as she's in bed and gradually waking up, she finds the man watching her.  In 1969, Maddie's crossing the river on horseback is filmed from a distance;  in 2010, we're right there with the struggling, splashing horse.  The 2010 film is more shadowed with scenes constructed to heighten suspense.  

A strong positive of the 1969 movie is that it presents the precipitating situation and the critical action that generates the plot, which helps us to understand the characters better than in the 2010 movie where this is only referred to.  On the other hand, by giving plenty of space to the early courtroom scene of Cogburn toying with the lawyer, the story's important theme of anarchy in the old West versus the enroachments of law and order is more fully developed in 2910, which gives the later movie more depth.

Starting earlier in the plot, the 1969 movie also ends earlier, and upbeat, pretty much "happily every after".  The 2010 film, following the novel, let's you see how things wind up years later down the line.  Maddie, now a business woman, is strong as ever but, poignantly, just misses her last chance to re-encounter Cogburn.  He, the old bounty hunter, had wound down to a Wild West sideshow, resolving that essential theme.  The lower arm Maddie lost from the snake bite has become part of her silhouette.  Not a "happily ever after" ending here, but not exactly a bitter one either: it carries a strong sense of truth. 

Yvonne Korshak

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FILM NOTE — Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, with Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, directed by Darren Aronofsky

… alter egos …

In the ballet Swan Lake, the White Swan princess, Odette, good and truly loving, is opposed by Odile, the Black Swan, wild and destructive, both ideally played by the same dancer.  What a role for a ballerina!  And now, in this film, the Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet is looking to cast a new dancer for his new version of Swan Lake.  Which soloist in the company will rise to star in this most coveted role?  Nina (Portman) is in the running:  the charismatic European impresario (Cassel) finds her dancing technically brilliant, great for the role of the White Swan, but lets her know she must loosen herself emotionally and sexually to fullfill the White Swan's fascinating alter ego, the Black Swan. 

How does a young woman, strung tight as a bow, loosen up emotionally and sexually — and when the stakes are so high?  And when every other soloist in the company is after the part, too?  And when the former star hates her for honing in on the part?  And when a jealous rival smears the word "whore" in crude red lipstick letters across the mirror of the ladies' room because the Artistic Director is attracted to her?

High stakes — and plenty of jitters even for a woman with a rock solid psychology — but Nina, we see, is pathologically tense and has a strong streak of self-destruction.  What looks like a raw rash on her back is the result of compulsive scratching, particularly frightening on the highly scrutinized body of a dancer, with the premium on perfect beauty.  She's also prone to hallucinations, terrifying in themselves and something else that must be kept hidden, increasing her tension.  How much her mother (Hershey) heightens her tension and how much she assuages it is never clear.

And, wonder of wonders, the Director chooses her for the role!  This triumph of her life (and her mother never even made it out of the corps de ballet, hah!) intensifies the jealousy that surrounds Nina, as well as her own inner fears.  Genuine rivalries blend into paranoia.  The on and off sexual attentions of the Artistic Director excite her and confuse her.

Through it all there are gorgeous glimpses of ballet and Tchaikovsky's passionate ballet music … AND glimpses of the battered toes of a dancer on points, and daily discipline of classes.  Black Swan and White Swan:  two sides of ballet, two sides of Odette, two sides of Nina.

Will she make it to towering stardom on opening night?  Or will her hallucinatory terrors overwhelm?  For how long can she hide her sore back?  The questions burn as one watches the film.  Their resolution is brilliant, though not totally believable.  Portman is superb portraying, side by side, the magnificence of dance and psychological deterioration, in this Academy Award worthy performance.

The film would be greater if we understsood more about the Artistic Director.  What's important about his "new version" of Swan Lake.  What drives him?  And — an intrusive question as you're watching — why does he choose Nina when he has reservations about her dancing for the Black Swan? — he's not that in love with her.  We have to take his creativity on faith so he comes across as a suave, European version of "just another pretty face", too simple a foil for Nina's complexities.

Mila Kunis is terrific as the solo dancer with a tough, humorous personality opposite in all ways to Nina, another alter ego, as are all the women.  Barbara Hershey, looking just like an older Portman, is convincing as Nina's loving, over-protective mother (but given Nina's self-destructive tendencies, is she too protective?).  Winona Ryder is powerful as the enraged prima donna pushed aside for the new "little princess".  In keeping with the theme of alter egos set by the ballet, New York City plays a double role of its own, from expansive views of glamorous Lincoln Center to scenes of lonely, grafitti'd subway tunnels.

Black Swan is a compelling portrait of a woman caught between her demons and her potential for great achievement.     

Yvonne Korshak

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