Sunday, January 27, 2013

QUARTET 1/27/13

I am of the age where I am very sensitive to Ageism and what I consider stereotypical portrayals of the elderly and their mental “failings”. One in eight seniors – particularly “upper seniors” (above 80 years old) has Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia.  Forgetfulness has become a joke in many films and people in the audience have a good chuckle over "memory loss" humor. Quartet, a slight film, affectionately directed by Dustin Hoffman, though well intentioned, takes advantage of this aspect of “amusement” through the behavior of some of his personalities – lively but also predictably typecast. A sadness pervades the movie, even if laced with comic situations and light-heartedness.

The drama takes place in Beecham House for Retired Musicians and involves the need to raise money through a Gala Event to keep the Home solvent for the residents to continue living there. The Quartet in the film are made up of four opera singers who were luminaries in the past planning to sing Act 3 quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Part of the plot revolves around getting one egocentric diva, Maggie Smith whose presence is a catalyst for emotional disruption, to join the other three in this endeavor, knowing that her presence would bring in patronage and much needed funding.

The movie focuses on professional and personal relationships past and present – the vagaries of aging and the sentiment that there is a need for camaraderie and supportive relationships at the end years of one’s life. The inhabitants are all getting older, but of course there is still a future ahead of them. Most of the residents are opera singers and classical musicians, and one of the most enjoyable highlights of Quartet was listening to them rehearse and interact with one another in a very idyllic physical environment which often belied their own physical impairments.

Dustin Hoffman is now 75 and this movie addresses the passing of time, often with sympathy but also too often with banal characterizations. He has compiled a terrific cast of actors – Maggie Smith, the imperious Michael Gambon, an excellent “still-wild-after-all-these-years” Billy Connolly, the perky Pauline Collins, and Tom Courtenay who made a powerful impression on me when in 1962 I saw him in  Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner. To be honest I would not have recognized him today had I not known who this actor was.  And that is the crux of Quartet. Does being advanced in years erase the memory of our achievements? I don’t think so. I believe that our life stories change and alter who we are, bringing us  new challenges, richness, and  the  pathos that every one of us must struggle with.

Friday, January 18, 2013

56 UP 1/18/13

I am an inquisitive person who loves to hear and view the arc of people’s lives. I wonder what they were like as children, imagine them as teenagers, young adults, arriving at middle age, etc. Now that I am older I look back and see life as a narrative that has its high and low moments – surprises, delights, tragedies and emotional trajectories. Michael Apted the director of 56 Up took on this challenge with his Up Documentary series following a group of 14 individuals from differing backgrounds and regions of the United Kingdom from the age of 7 in 1964 – interviewing them and coming back to film them every seven years – so we are now in their 56th year.

Expectations and regrets are tied up in this amazingly ambitious undertaking. I am in awe of the scope of this project that is astonishing in its wide-ranging breadth of investigation. Apted’s revisiting his subjects, viewed by some with ambivalence, and others with delight, or as an intrusion, can be both boring and mesmerizing. Depending on the interview-ee, a few were witheringly honest with the film-maker about the distortions (after editing and cutting) that the snippets/synopsis of the hours of footage of their lives, during these 7 year summary intervals, projected about their personal existence, often resorting to sound-bites without delving into a deeper understanding of how singular a life is lived.

Class distinctions were evident in the language, the clothes, the schools and Universities that the subjects did or did not attend. The World’s economic downturn impacted the working class much more than those who went to Universities, particularly the single mothers who had the hardest time coping to provide for their offspring, but had a resilience that was quite stirring and impressive. The family unit was a source of joy in almost every instance. The impact of how one’s life is lived is seen on their physiognomy as well. Some aged more attractively than others; life’s richness and disappointments are patina-ed and burnished on their faces and bodies. But what I found wonderful to experience is how some of the participants’ lives were more deeply realized at the age of 56 than they had ever envisioned.

I recommend this Documentary – despite Michael Apted’s often cursory and “pat” repetition of the same basic questions addressed to each subject. The gracefully edited flashbacks from previous films helped make sense of the years gone by, and were brilliantly interspersed with present-day footage.  This is a movie that reinforces the speed of life’s passing… time does go by quickly and unrelentingly which can be both depressing and invigorating. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is basically a penetrating film about a woman's  obsession and her part in the dramatic search for Usama Bin Laden (UBL).  The movie starts at the beginning of this country's pursuit of UBL and travels through time showing us the manpower, intelligence, interrogation and physical means used to eventually capture “the mastermind” of the September 11, 2001 attack on the USA. To say that this is a film about torture or condoning torture adulterates the vast scope of this massive and critical undertaking. Torture is treated realistically – not gratuitously and in the film is revealed to be both salutary and non-beneficial often resulting in false leads and baseless information. Though there is a documentary aspect to the film – we must not forget that this is an exciting, action MOVIE vividly and artfully dramatized. Time is capsulated, torture is distinctly displayed referencing images that were already familiar to most Americans  from the many photos we had seen at Abu Ghraib which “shocked” our nation around 2004-2006.  Water-boarding, dog collars, humiliating degradation of the detainees were all part and parcel of the news which captured the headlines daily.

The trail starts early - beginning with the attack on 9-11, we hear voices of the people who were trapped in the Twin Towers crying for help. There is a blank darkened screen with no visuals or gut-wrenching images of the coming tragedy.  We then proceed to meeting the young CIA operative, beautifully and cooly acted by Jessica Chastain, who becomes the film's focus. Her quest to capture UBL, which includes pursuing him by finding his associates and getting the intelligence that is needed to link to Bin Laden is her single-track preoccupation. Chastain is fixated on capturing Usama Bin Laden never deviating from her instincts. According to the film – it is her unyielding passionate certainty that propels the movie into the final apprehension and death of UBL. The storming of his compound is electrifying and stunning visually, and the resulting destruction is disastrous and as often happens, innocent lives are tragically lost.

This movie is not as emotionally wrenching as was The Hurt Locker, which fixated on the psychology of those fighting in Iraq and how that War penetrated their very beings and revealed who they were to themselves and their families. Rather this film is about the mechanics and methods used by a US Agency – CIA to carry out the biggest manhunt in American history. It is almost clinical in its depiction – we don’t get intensely involved with the individual characters, but rather we see a Government in action and the individuals who motivate, impel and drive the narrative to get what they feel they need to “protect” our country no matter how ruthless the struggle reminding us that war is hell.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


The Promised Land is a simplistic film which does not live up to any promise. It will be welcomed by those who are against "fracking", but it turns out to be purely propagandistic cinema - good vs. evil - starring MattDamon, a representative for a major Gas Corporation, who when we first meet him has been promoted to a high position in that company. Damon is so wishy-washy a character that I found him totally unbelievable having difficulty articulating his pro-fracking position as well as his shaky moral values. His partner in manipulating the populace is Frances McDormand - who is on her cellphone throughout most of the film, and does add a comedic presence to the movie, but not much more. I have heard better balanced anti and pro-fracking arguments on NPR than anything I learned in this conventional tale of righteousness.

The debate pits an ex-engineer, MIT graduate, greatly admired schoolteacher- Hal Holbrook as the voice of the fracking opposition who makes much more sense explaining the insidious consequences of fracking than poor Matt Damon who in his one intense scene speaks to local townspeople about "fuck-you" money which he doles out to farmers who allow the Gas Company drilling rights on their lands. The Fuck-You money Theory (if you have money then you can say "fuck you" to obtaining student loans for your kids, "fuck you" to having a mortgage, etc) speaks to money buying you that freedom. Damon's other "nemesis" is an "environmentalist" (John Krasinski) who starts a grass-roots campaign to make the townspeople aware of the dangers to their farms, their livestock and the drinking water, etc.

The plot is predictable with a predictable love story thrown in, and a narrative that has to resort to a "deus ex-machina" ending that is manipulative, unrealistic and totally out of character with the earnestness of Damon's early beliefs.

I was groaning and muttering under my breath, not only with the lame dialogue but with some of Gus van Sant's cinematic techniques that were so hackneyed that I could not believe that this was the same Director who did Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, films that I have loved in the past.