Thursday, February 28, 2013

THE CONTENDER (2000) 2/28/13

Recently Verizon raised my FIOS rates by an incredibly large percentage after their two-year contract expired; shortly thereafter the company offered me the “lure” of 3 months of free HBO. Tonight, I was in the mood to switch on the TV and felt mildly - but only mildly - compensated for Verizon’s greed, after seeing a 2000 film entitled The Contender directed by Rod Lurie depicting a fictional “progressive” President Jackson Evans”s (Jeff Bridges) nomination of a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) to be Vice President of the US, filling a vacancy after the former Veep suddenly dies. We observe the candidate’s confirmation hearings and are shown how the system is perverted through innuendo and outright lies.

This movie reveals the underpinnings of the nomination process focusing on the particularly vicious political maneuvering against a woman candidate.  By now most of us have watched confirmation sessions and we are familiar with the hollow moral righteousness of the political players. In The Contender the treatment of the female candidate is strewn with double standards that no male nominee would ever have to endure.

There is an idealistic tenor to this film that might be considered too sentimental and sappy, but in fact stirred me deeply. Joan Allen, a wonderful actor in another impressive performance portrays a woman who will not be deterred from her deep-rooted principles displaying a stoic dignity in the face of the opposition party’s attempts to defame her character. She is a person who understands and respects herself and that is the crux of her mettle. What made this more than just another Hollywood film was Joan Allen’s incorruptible grandeur, her dialogue often stunned me with its simple truths.

One last point - I don’t want to forget to mention that the “conservative” opposition is led by the imposing actor Gary Oldman who can bring humanity to even the lowest of cockroaches.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


This is my kinda film incorporating politics, romance, tragedy, and a strong, unwavering belief in one’s ideals which totally took me by surprise since I had never heard of it, and then found out it was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. This movie is an accurate account of political intrigue in the battle for progressive reforms against the Danish Court’s conservative values that kept the Danish people under their rule in poverty and ignorance.

A historical drama about the increasingly “mad” King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) of Denmark (reigned 1766-1808) who is married off to an idealistic 15 year-old British Princess of Wales ignorant of what she is getting into when she moves to the throne in Copenhagen; this well educated youthful woman arrives into an environment of conservative religious values and censorship. This is also the period when the ideas of The Age of Enlightenment promoting intellectual skepticism, humanism and scientific exploration pervaded European thought. Very quickly the young Queen Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander) realizes how mentally ill her husband is–she fulfills her “duty” and gives him an heir to the throne, and then she foregoes any further conjugal relations with him.

The catalytic force in this movie is the arrival of German Dr. Johann Struensee  (Mads Mikkelsen) who is hired to be the King’s personal physician – a man who believes in fighting intolerance and making life more humane for “the people,” through literally tending to them as a doctor, as well as writing anonymous tracts publicizing the ideas of the Enlightenment such as universal education, banishing censorship of the press, abolishing torture and dissolving the slave trade in the colonies, etc. Struensee and the lonely, isolated Queen become aware of their profound philosophical bond, which eventually blossoms into a physical love affair albeit a dangerous liaison. Together they are able to influence the King to enact laws which will improve the lives of the Danish populace until intrigue and a backlash sets in.

A film which is very well-acted, expressive, utopian and a history lesson which was not in my ken. I visited Copenhagen recently and am sorry that I had not seen this movie before visiting – I think the trip would have been even more meaningful.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Les Miserables is a musical directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) entirely performed vocally, based on the 1985 Broadway stage play situated against the chaos which ensued after the return of the Bourbon Monarchs to power in France and the Rebellion of 1832 where many of the populace were slaughtered in their attempt to bring back the Republic.  This film focuses on the hero, Jean Valjean’s attempt to rebuild his life and restore the 19 years that were lost to him when he was imprisoned under brutal conditions for stealing a loaf of bread vs. a fanatic law abiding Inspector Javert who rabidly hunts him for over 20 years after Jean Valjean breaks parole.

The film juxtaposes rehabilitation and the path to humanity via the power of love, kindness and merciful acts, with the equally obsessive adherence to the letter of the law that clearly should not be confused with justice and righteousness.

I loved the book Les Miserables published in 1862 by Victor Hugo which was filled with revolutionary fervor, great compassion for the “wretched” of Paris and pages dedicated to architectural detail about the construction of the Paris Sewer System – a place where the final confrontation between the past and present of Valjean and Inspector Javert climax in the book and film.

Upton Sinclair wrote about this great novel:  “…So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless…”

I found the film version to be disappointing both emotionally and visually. The production felt like a transposed stage set. Even though the movie runs for close to 2 1/2 hours, I had very little sense of the characters – perhaps it was the format– totally sung with no dialogue that seemed to take precedent. Hugh Jackman gave a fine depiction of Jean Valjean, though I felt he seemed to be too slight in build to be able to enact the feats of physical as well as inner strength, that are the essence of this character, that physicality plays an important part in moving the plot forward. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) – the “fallen woman”, the victim of abandonment, and harsh treatment by her fellow workers, jealous of her beauty and innocence, do not evince any empathy to a single mother whose aim in life is to be able to support her daughter Cosette – worker solidarity be damned. After her death, Jean Valjean brings up Fantine’s child, removing her from the heinous servile situation she was placed in under the care of Innkeepers performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and as his wife Helena Bonham Carter, both providing unnecessary comic relief. I found them to be the most distracting burlesque elements of the film – popping up everywhere and grotesquely transparent. On the other hand, I did not mind Russell Crowe or his non-professional voice as Inspector Javert and found that when he was on the screen he radiated the presence that the others lacked. His character was also quite interesting - his strict adherence to brutal principles, no matter how corrupted they were by a system which relegated the poor – the “miserables” to oblivion and deplorable dissolution.

This modest movie relates a saga told over many years, from the time we meet Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as a child and later as a lovely, elegant woman who catches the eye of Eddie Redmayne’s Marius who is one of the young idealistic revolutionaries building the barricades in an effort to overthrow the existing political system. Their wildly fairy-tale relationship ties together an account of romantic and familial love, heroism, and political upheaval bringing the cycle of redemption and ambush full circle to a melodramatic conclusion.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I have been a big Steven Soderbergh fan since his first film Sex, Lies and Videotape which radiated a voyeuristically erotic undertone; many of the film’s images are still lingering in my mind’s eye after all these years.  I have also been in awe of Soderbergh’s directorial breadth and the fact that he could not be pigeonholed – his work dealt with themes ranging from a charming, prankish crime caper with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney entitled Out of Sight, to “brat-pack-like grifter boys” in Ocean’s 11 to the recent Contagion which was a lesson in how the Center for Disease Control deals with a pandemic and how it is tracked globally. And I will never forget my all-time favorite Soderbergh film, Traffic – a beautifully structured, ambitious cinematic “masterpiece” set in different locales, but eventually giving us a wrenching 360 degree view of the drug trade including buyers, sellers, law enforcement officers, and most importantly the customers/users.

Side Effects, his latest effort is a twisty, light-weight production; a strange schizophrenic film which on the one hand begins as an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s rampant use of medications for psychiatric disorders, and then morphs into a disappointedly predictable crime thriller. I figured out the angle pretty early on. The story revolves around a young depressed married woman (intensely acted by Rooney Mara) who is prescribed a new drug by her psychiatrist (Jude Law) after a suicide attempt, and the resulting side effects of that drug which unravels the young woman and the film itself.

This is a movie about lying, cheating, and deception so perhaps this ricochets full circle back to Soderbergh’s first film, but regrettably without the freshness and visual excitement that the original offered. The rumor is that Soderbergh is going to retire from film-making to become a visual artist.  Maybe it is time for him to take a breather and hopefully come back to the magnitude and scope of his most profound works.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

AMOUR 2/3/13

Amour directed by Michael Haneke is a movie that is very hard for me to review objectively. My father had a serious stroke and my mother at 80 years old was his main care-giver for two years along with wonderful 24 hour live-in help, and my sister and I. It was wrenching to see my father who was a retired Architect not able to talk, barely move one arm, have a feeding tube because he was unable to swallow, etc. confined to a wheelchair. He would scribble down letters that were almost indecipherable in an effort to communicate, words sliding up and down the paper. And in spite of the tragedy of this situation, I cherished those last years. My parents like the couple in the film were a very close, devoted couple. My father as opposed to the heroine in Amour wanted to live one more day just to catch another glimpse of my mother - his eyes following her around the room– that says it all.

Therefore I was surprised at how dispassionate I felt seeing this film which portrays the reality of approaching death and how it pits the will to die vs. the will to keep someone you love alive as long as possible. We first meet the two retired music teachers, entering their elegant apartment and seeing that the front door lock has been tampered with – indicating an attempted “break-in”, a bit too obvious a metaphor for all that follows. There is also a pigeon flying in and out of a window – another patent metaphor about allowing in or shutting out the vitality of  “living.”

The story continues the next morning at breakfast when the couple’s contented lives are upended by the wife (Emmanuelle Riva) staring blankly into space not responding to her husband’s questions - most probably she had a TIA (Transitory Ischemic Attack) - a forerunner of a stroke which shortly thereafter becomes a full-blown stroke paralyzing her on the left side. Though confined to a wheelchair she is still able to talk, eat and communicate, but the narrowing of one’s life that illness can envelope you with continues; soon after she experiences a more devastating stroke and this time the wife is confined to bed frustrated by her inability to communicate and her deteriorating circumstance. The tug-of-war between living and dying now seriously begins. Isabelle Huppert, their daughter who is a musician, and is constantly traveling, comes in and out of the picture with unwelcome (to her father) advice; her character gives us a more rounded picture of the “family” – grandchildren, etc as well as getting a peek at mother-daughter issues.

I found both Emmanuelle Riva’s and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performances to be delicate, sensitive, and physically convincing. The acting was superb with its attention to exquisite non-verbal details. A halting step moments before an oncoming stroke revealed the cataclysmic brain storm ahead. Attempting to lift his wife out of her wheelchair, Trintignant holds her tightly to his chest a beat too long, speaking volumes about their past and the present. When communication is reduced to pleading looks passing between them, and the gutteral sound of a voice uttering seemingly meaningless words, we know that separation is inevitable.

On reflection, I realized that the gist of the movie is not only a penetratingly honest study of the last years of life, but also a study of a claustrophobic love relationship, and both Riva's and Trintignant’s “pride” that bordered on martyrdom. Even in a crisis the husband decided to do all the work that a nurse, physical and speech therapist  should be doing, and I tired of hearing  “pardon” (sorry) constantly being uttered by the couple to one another because naturally guilt and resentment arise out of this devastating tragic occurrence. The initial humiliation and pride in having to rely on others to tend to our most  basic needs is a fact of end-stage of life for many people. What frustrated me most with Emmanuelle Riva's character was when she was still clearly able to communicate, could read, eat, listen to her beloved music, etc. - she still wanted to die. I thought of all those people with disabilities confined to wheelchairs who go through much more than she did at that stage, but eventually accept their situation and live full intellectual and productive lives. 

 In conclusion, despite all that I have written,  I salute this film for its ruthless honesty and have to remember that  each individual copes with the abyss of the unknown in his/her own way. My response to Amour cannot be separated from my own family’s personal experience and while watching it I conceded that I was too clinical and angry. Any other emotional reaction might hit too close to home so I preferred to remain detached.