Thursday, April 24, 2014

LOVE IS STRANGE - 4/23/14


LOVE IS STRANGE, a film, unaffectedly directed by Ira Sachs, is so natural and unassuming in its portrayal of relationships that the divide between audience and the characters on the screen disappears; we are directly slipping into their lives with the ease of familiarity. There is a formal beauty to the movie, thanks to the cinematography of Christos Voudouris - the way he captures each space - delineated not only through d├ęcor, but through the light which mutates with the atmosphere, very much like a Chardin still-life painting, classic in its grandeur and silence.

The plot revolves around two gay men who have lived together for 39 years and finally get married, a decision that will alter their lives in ways that are unexpected and transforming. We first meet Ben, a seventy-one year old artist, (John Lithgow in a breathtaking performance) and his partner George (Alfred Molina in an equally fine portrayal,) a music teacher in a Catholic school  - both excitedly, and nervously preparing for the ceremony and the post-wedding party. From the moment we first view Lithgow and Molina singing a duet together  - their voices and theatrics in synch and at odds - tender intimacy is apparent. Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have created two remarkably gentle and loving individuals, their intimacy and enduring connection, is both understated and powerfully passionate.

The consequences of ultimately legitimizing their union bears witness to the harsh realities that accompany that choice. Soon after the nuptials, George gets fired from his job, and the economic demands of existing in NYC, forced to sell the apartment in order to find more affordable housing, interrupts their former cadence of living. Having no alternative, George and Ben, temporarily separate to move in with friends and relatives till they can find a home of their own. Molina and Lithgow stunningly convey the anguish of living apart and the intense longing of being united again. It is as if one person is sliced in half – going through the motions, but not fully functioning without the other.

LOVE IS STRANGE also references the mysterious corridor of generational diversity - both fractious and enriching. The anxious, rebellious teenager slowly embracing life’s uncertainties embodied by Joey, Ben’s great-nephew in an excellent performance by Charlie Tahan who is likable, secretive and obnoxious – an eternal artifact of an adolescent’s growing awareness of life’s promises and aching discomforts. And approaching mid-life, are his parents - Kate (Marisa Tomei - a natural wonder)  - a writer trying to meet the demands of motherhood and still do her own work and Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) a father too wrapped up in doing business (supporting the family?) to notice the splintering family dynamic. Tomei’s facial expressions convey a woman’s inner tug-of-war between being a caregiver and accomplishing her own ambitions, shifting from haggardly frustrated to a luminous empathy, particularly for the growing pains of her son on the cusp of adulthood.


Director Ira Sachs has given us a tone poem to the beauty, delight and fragility of living in a city - New York - dynamic, diverse and constantly changing, echoing the vicissitudes of life as we stumble through our own personal unfolding. A love story that has depth and endurance - delicate and supple, both romantic and mundane, LOVE IS STRANGE is wrenchingly lovely and generous, but also a reminder that nothing is permanent.

Postcript: This film will be in theaters in the summer of 2014. I saw a preview at  The Tribeca Film Festival.

Monday, April 14, 2014

THE LUNCHBOX 4/14/14


 THE LUNCHBOX is a graceful, delicate film directed by Ritesh Batra about two lonely people who get to know each other the old-fashioned way – through delectable, beautifully prepared meals, and the passing of folded notes tucked away discreetly in a lunchbox. Mumbai with its mesmerizing lunch delivery system, reminded me of an assembly-line of various conveyances racing to different locations - scooter, bicycle, and foot, incredibly well-organized and always efficient – delivered on time and most importantly to the proper destination. Except in this case a mixup occurs. And that is the kernel of this tale of emotional transformation.

Nimrat Kaur portrays Ila, an underestimated, disregarded housewife who believes that she can rekindle the magic of her relationship with hubby through the art of culinary skill. She is being coached and advised on food preparation and love relationships by a neighbor called Auntie who she communicates with by screaming out the window - a bit of a heavy-handed comic distraction, but also a narrative device to fill in historical and familial stories.

We see the coldness of Ila’s domestic situation when her husband comes home from work, barely noticing his wife and their young child. The only prospect of contact she has with him is the daily lunchbox meals that get delivered to his place of work. Ila’s fantasy that the metal canisters of various dishes, carefully and tenderly prepared, can bridge a gulf of indifference is both poignant and heartrending.

The amazingly expressive actor, Irrfan Khan plays Saajan Fernandes, a widowed bureaucrat in a busy office, weeks from retiring; a man who does his job well, keeps to himself, seemingly standoffish, rarely interacting with any colleagues at work. His solitude and desolation are evident when he comes home from work, smoking on the balcony wistfully watching another family across the way responding to his intense gaze by drawing the curtains to shield the view.

Saajan is the recipient of the mis-delivered lunchbox, and as the film progresses, we witness his re-emergence into society and humanity, the initial reawakening through the savory reception of Ila’s lovingly cooked meals. She quickly realizes that her husband did not receive her special “gift”, but the anonymous person who licked up every last bit of her cuisine appreciated her artistry, so she continues to send out the lunchbox, but includes scraps of paper with bits and pieces of her life slowly opening up to a sympathetic and sensitive association  - one that will subtly and softly burnish both their lives.

Once Saajan opens the door to his inner secret self, even if ever so carefully, another character appears – a young man, charmingly portrayed by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shaikh, an ambitious apprentice in the office who is being trained by Saajan to be his future replacement. Their complicated relationship is both intensely heartrending, and eloquent in the way it conveys Sajaan’s growing awareness of the inequity of class distinctions in India.

THE LUNCHBOX is more than light comedy. It is a gentle tale of lives inadvertently bumping into each other and careening off in distinctive directions, influencing one another by encounters that are humble and often unassuming, but reverberate, echoing permanently.


Friday, April 4, 2014

CESAR CHAVEZ 4/4/14

Saw director Diego Luna's film CESAR CHAVEZ - a docudrama about the non-violent civil rights advocate and union organizer of the farm workers in California - a film worth seeing for all of you who do not know about this important man and the National Farm Workers Association he co-founded with Dolores Huerta. 

The fine performer, Michael Pena plays Chavez, but physically he is a very different body type from Cesar Chavez who was a lean, intense looking man, so the mis-casting intruded on my memory of Chavez. Yet Pena conveys the quiet indomitable spirit and rage of those who fight a system which is tied to corporate dollars....and how that determination can eventually succeed..(for the time being.)

The steps to realize social justice and the toll on the workers and their families including Chavez' own conflict with his son brings a personal element to the movie. The farm workers' struggles inspired people all over the world to boycott grapes - even I did at the time.

Monday, March 17, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL


I absolutely adored Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM – a film that was enchanting, eccentric, visually as clear as breathing in the early morning light. The director successfully used actors against type making me realize the range of their abilities. I was held captive and surrendered my prosaic reality for almost 2 hours until the magic ended.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was about 70% as mesmerizing even though the dialogue was snappy, the actors racing back and forth – torsos rigid and legs moving like Keystone Kops right out of a Mack Sennett film  were endearing, but “sight gags” too oft repeated can be tedious. Anderson walks a tightrope – between being overly cute, and conjuring incisive transformations that are entrancing. He teeters on both sides of that thin line – sometimes outrageously playful and facetious, and at other times predictably slapstick and repetitive.

Through flashbacks, we are introduced to Gustav H. (a wonderful stately, farcical Ralph Fiennes) who is the ideal concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel located in a fictional kingdom somewhere in Central Europe in the 1930’s. We are shown inklings of a tremulous and uneasy time period between the wars, and the cataclysmic changes that will soon overtake the continent. Glimmers of fascism are on the rise, but the movie treats the black-shirted “thugs” with short shrift – ridiculing them as if they were burlesque characters out of a Marx Brothers film – impotent and ridiculous.

Gustave H is a gentleman who lives by the rules of his profession and has a genuine affection for his job and his patrons. He is a man who believes in “service,” and has the personality and charismatic appeal to glide in out of seductions, preferably with the older and wealthier of his female clientele. Cynicism is made palatable by the undeniable joy and high spirits of his antics.

 Basically this is a mystery tale – a whodunit involving the murder of one of the hotel’s customers; a missing will and the theft of a valuable painting. It is also essentially a film about a friendship – a mentorship of a young apprentice, aptly named Zero Mustapha (an enthusiastic and winning Tony Revolori) who is the most fully realized individual in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL,) a “lobby boy” taken under the Concierge’s wing becoming his ally and devoted friend. Their adventures combine whacky perilous undertakings overlaid with the innocence of innate goodness, often involving Wes Anderson’s ensemble cast – Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson with “newcomers” Jude law, F. Murray Abraham, William DaFoe, Jeff Goldbaum and the fragile Lea Seydoux thrown in the mix.


Visually THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL feels like a fairy tale. Once upon a time…in a far off land …describes what Anderson’s world evokes. Emotional resonance does not peek out very often, except for a few tender scenes between Zero and Gustav H. and even then there is a wall of self-conscious drollery that separates us from them. But I definitely think that this is a film one should see by a director who deserves our attention. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

TRUE DETECTIVE 3/10/14


True Detective, an ambitious 8 part series on HBO, where the word Detective is singular not plural. Always wondered if the title gave that designation to Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) who obsessively continued "detecting/searching" for 17 years after a serial killer case in the backwoods and swamps of Louisiana was "solved" with lots of unanswered questions left in the dank and steamy air. His partner - Marty Hart ( Woody Harrelson), a mercurial, womanizing, down-to-earth antithesis to Cohle saw the conclusion of the case, and the end of their relationship as the finale to a tormented, life-altering period.

We meet them again in 2012- a plot device which had many "red herrings" -the two former Louisiana detectives being interrogated - a flashback technique - addressing issues of hindsight, marriage, prevarication and the attempt to bring some clarity to the intervening time period.

Basically this series was about the relationship between these two men; their different approaches to investigation - the ups and downs of their personal connection - interspersed with mysticism, philosophical gibberish, religion, hard drugs, drinking, rough sex, shootouts, and most importantly deeply ingrained familial tragedies that slowly leak - drip by drip down to the next generation. We can not escape the "darkness' of our forebearers, at least that is what creator Nic Pizzolatto would have us believe.

What held my interest, despite the convoluted plot and Rust Cohle's pretentious monologuing, was the strong acting performances by McConaughey and Harrelson. The chemistry between them was strong, their human failings and the burdens of life's heavy lifting were etched in their body language as well as their oftentimes passionate and eloquent features. Each stayed in character - one mask like and inscrutable, the other engaging with a seductive grin - the tongue peeking out with delight out of the corner of Harrelson's lips.

I believe the last episode left an opening for a sequel. I hope so.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

LONE SURVIVOR 2/16/14



Peter Berg’s LONE SURVIVOR based on a true story, gives us a view of war’s brutality, tactical decision making, heroism and machismo – all very close up and corporeal. The camera places us in the midst of the horror and camaraderie of four Navy SEALS on a mission in Afghanistan to assassinate a Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. I sit in a half-empty theater – an ice storm swirling outside on this wintry day, wiping clean the tears flecking my glasses wondering why I am emotionally perforated. I realize I am moved watching such young men attempting to survive an undertaking gone awry, due to equipment and communications break down; life and death determinations (which luckily most of us rarely have to make) involving ethical and tactical judgments affecting not only their lives, but radiating out to communities and families – war is heartbreaking..

 We penetrate the requisite male fuck-you banter (there are no woman in this film) glimpsing each of the main character’s lives  - family, children, upcoming weddings, etc. yet these young men are steel hard, having been trained to kill for their country. This is a propaganda film for The Navy SEALS and the “brotherhood” of men who are the “elite corps” disciplined to carry out operations quick and clean – no messy questions asked back home stateside – a place which seems very far away psychologically and physically. The camera contrasts the minuteness of man against the larger tapestry of Afghanistan’s breath-taking mountainous landscape  - dappled with Taliban warriors whose fierceness and savagery are both alien and a response to the many invasions over the past decades into their homeland,

Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Lutrell and his well-acted “team” performed by Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster – four individuals who have bonded not only due to their rigorous indoctrination process, but additionally through their exposure to risk and isolation. A good part of LONE SURVIVOR contains an outnumbered fight-to-the–death gun battle; what made those scenes so singular was the tracking choreography – we move from macro to micro – we see an overview of strategy, and then the camera focuses directly into the eyes, deep gashes, and bleeding wounds of the casualties shocking us to the vulnerabilities of the flesh.


We also are made aware of the Afghani’s own code of ethics – the villagers who risked their own lives to fight the Taliban and help an American – the lone survivor. The movie glorified bravery and courage but at the same time revealed the profound attachments that are formed in combat. This is a war movie that does not show sweeping battles but rather a small group of soldiers who won’t stop fighting no matter the conditions and odds. We viscerally perceive humanity’s carnality and its mortality in the fight for survival.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

GLORIA 2/4/14


The preview snippets for Director Sebastian Leilo’s GLORIA were more alive than the actual film which I was really looking forward to seeing, primarily because the leading lady played by Paulina Garcia, a woman on the latter side of middle-aged was portrayed in the “come-on” openers with vitality and singular humor. What a disappointment - those 3 minutes of exuberance ended up being the best parts of the movie.

We meet Gloria after work, looking for male companionship in one of the many dance clubs in Santiago Chile – the TV turned on, giving us a glimpse into the political backdrop and upheaval of Chilean society past and present. This story is a much-told tale – the beauty is in the telling, and in this case the joy and abandon that attracted me originally turned out to be predictably flat as the camera kept rolling along.

The essence of GLORIA is the sojourn of an older woman with gumption, who is extremely lonely and eventually learns to be alone and at peace with herself. Gloria is searching for love and sex…age does not matter – the pursuit is never ending.  A divorced woman living by herself with a cat who intrudes on her space every now and then; the cat becoming a glaring metaphor of self-recognition, once Gloria accepts the animal into her life...sigh! Back to Gloria who has two grown children whose lives are also filled with uncertainties and turbulence, rarely calling their mom - a scenario that sounds familiar.  Even though Gloria is outwardly aging, she is inwardly erupting with sexuality – yet her choice in men doesn’t seem very promising. UNTIL she locks eyes with Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez) and they whirl, spin and swing into the wee hours of the night and into bed. 

Gloria has allowed herself to be penetrated in every way - the aura of romance is blinding and passionate. The world is turned upside down; nature seems to radiate greater intensity; we inhale scents we have previously disregarded; we view the commonplace with raw sensitized nerve endings  - that is amour’s beauty and its momentary illusion and Gloria is caught in its grip. A relationship with Rodolfo begins, which at this time of life, involves one’s past often intruding on the present, and the question of how to deal with long-standing obligations and alliances, can be elusive and claustrophobic.

Gloria’s disappointments are allayed with a stiff drink or two, or some long tokes on a joint, Being diagnosed with Glaucoma and being prescribed eye drops becomes a recurring symbol of seeing the ”other” with greater clarity  - an allusion that drove me nuts with its medical inaccuracy. We are talking lowering pressure here not sight enhancement.

Music dominates the movie and the most sparkling scenes involve Gloria accompanying tunes that she hears while driving, relaxing at home or lounging in a dance / disco club – spontaneously singing along – cutting loose, unchecked and liberated. Then her innate complexity and indomitable will shine through, giving me insight into a woman who is developing a serenity with herself.

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