Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Available on DVD: “A Dangerous Method”


A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s most recent film, starts out with a case of hysteria. A woman, clumsily restrained by nondescript handlers, writhes and howls inside a horse-drawn carriage, her mania at once drowned out and underscored by the thunder of hooves and the shrieking of strings on the soundtrack.

We learn soon enough that she is Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a disturbed young Russian en route to a clinic in Zurich some time in the early 20th century. But at the moment, she seems more like a wild animal. This abrupt and rather frightening introduction — the viewer is pitched headlong not only into Sabina’s company but also into her condition — is an emphatic announcement of some of the film’s intentions.

The subject of its analysis — a deceptively dry clinical term that is not out of place in reference to this subtle and intellectually thrilling true story — is the way unruly desires and emotions struggle with efforts to tame and confine them.

The startling violence of Sabina’s disorder, which turns her, even in moments of relative calm, into a twisted, sputtering wreck, is also a signal that, appearances to the contrary, A Dangerous Method (based on a play by the film’s screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, that was drawn from a book by John Kerr) is not just another decorous Oscar-season costume party. The rigor and repression on display here are hardly the quaint artifacts of a bygone social order, which we in the audience can congratulate ourselves on having left behind. What we are witnessing, rather, is the raw, liberating and terrifying emergence of a distinctly modern way of understanding, and trying to assuage, some of the pain and intensity of being alive.

Sabina is treated in Zurich by Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who calls the nascent method for dealing with problems like hers "psychanalysis." Jung’s mentor in Vienna corrects him — he says it sounds more "logical" with the "o" in the middle — and since the mentor in question is none other than Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the younger man defers, at least on matters of pronunciation, and at least for a while.

Hopscotching through a series of episodes from 1907 up to the eve of World War I, A Dangerous Method traces the shifting relationships among its principal characters. Sabina is Jung’s patient, his lover and finally a colleague. At the same time Freud and Jung act out a complicated Oedipal drama, as the younger analyst evolves from promising disciple into Freud’s heir apparent and then a dangerous rebel, whose mystical interests fly in the face of psychoanalytic orthodoxy.

Sabina, emotionally connected to Jung (who remains guiltily devoted to his aristocratic wife, Emma, played by Sarah Gadon), finds more intellectual affinity with Freud, who reminds her at one point that, unlike Jung, they are both Jews. (This is of course perfectly true, but in the context of the movie, the observation is a bit surreal. Viggo? Keira? Who knew!)

A Dangerous Method is full of ideas about sexuality — some quite provocative, even a century after their first articulation — but it also recognizes and communicates the erotic power of ideas. There are scenes of kinky activity between Sabina and Jung that will no doubt enjoy long life in specialized corners of the Internet, but the most unsettling aspect of A Dangerous Method may be the links it suggests between sex and thinking. The mind is both slave and master of the body’s appetites, and the absurd and terrifying task of stabilizing that dynamic, in theory and in practice, is embraced equally by the film and the fragile, serious historical figures who inhabit it.

The technique Jung adopts with Sabina, even before traveling to Austria to meet Freud, is the talking cure. She sits with her back to him and recalls traumatic episodes from her childhood, while he takes notes and asks questions. This kind of scene is familiar enough — from Woody Allen and Portnoy’s Complaint and The Sopranos, and maybe from real life as well — that seeing a primitive incarnation is at once droll and curiously exciting. It is also marvelous to see Freud, that embattled colossus, restored to his human dimensions by Mortensen. His sly performance is so convincingly full of humor, warmth and vanity that it renders moot just about every other posthumous representation of the patriarch of psychoanalysis.

In various combinations and in shifting roles, Sabina, Jung and Freud are engaged in an expedition into the uncharted territory of the unconscious. Jung and his patient, in particular, do so with a sense of novelty and risk. The feeling of stepping into terra incognita makes A Dangerous Method something of an adventure story. It also at times has the quiet, uncanny mood of a horror movie, albeit one whose monsters are invisible, living inside the souls they menace.

Cronenberg is, of course, one of the great living practitioners of the horror genre, with a history of bringing fears both primal and contemporary — about sex, dreams, technology, the media, the grossness of the body — to vivid, shocking and grotesquely funny cinematic life. After the brilliant and nightmarish creepshows of the ’80s (including Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers and The Fly), he has recently worked in a more classical and at least superficially less extreme mode. Given its long stretches of earnest and erudite scientific talk, A Dangerous Method might seem to be his calmest and most cerebral film yet.

It is and it isn’t. The ambient quiet allows you to pick up tremors of deep dread, and Cronenberg’s fastidious and elegant compositions hum with the latent possibility of chaos and destruction. Jung, with his neatly trimmed mustache and his studious Protestant politesse, seems to embody an ideal of upright Germanic propriety. He is serious, attentive and curiously passive, becoming aware of his own feelings only when other people point them out to him.

One of these is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a fellow analyst, sent to Jung by Freud, who turns out to be a feral and charming emanation of pure id, an imp of the Freudian perverse. Otto does not just sleep with his patients; he also takes the flouting of ethical norms as a therapeutic and moral necessity. He manages, through a blend of rhetorical flim-flam and Byronic charisma, to argue the fastidious Jung into bed with Sabina (though she is the one who makes the first move).

She and Otto represent both the lawlessness of the Freudian unconscious — the disruptive force of untamed libido — and what might be called a Cronenbergian principle of uncontrollability. Knightley’s performance might at first seem grotesque and overdone. She twists her arms together and extends her lower jaw like a demented snapping turtle, stammering (in a thick Russian accent) and making her already prominent eyes pop out of her skull. But what looks like willful freakishness is crucial to the film’s logic, which depends partly on the contrast between Sabina’s hysteria and the respectable reserve of Carl and Emma’s domestic life, and partly on Sabina’s growing ability to understand and express herself.

Knightley’s facial expressions and bodily contortions seem deliberately drawn from the 19th-century iconography of hysteria. But if she is a revenant from an age before Prozac, Sabina is also an uncannily modern spirit, whose torments are as recognizable as her symptoms are outlandish. And Jung, as he gropes after ultimate meanings and obscure symbols, is surely one of us, an ambivalent inhabitant of the country Freud discovered. A Dangerous Method is so strange and unnerving precisely because the world it depicts is, for better and for worse, the only one we know.

The Boss pays his respect to Trayvon Martin

Think it was just a coincidence that Bruce Springsteen chose to premier this song on his Wrecking Ball tour in Tampa, Fla.? I think not.

Best TV dramatic series of the last 25 years, and the winner is …

A couple of days ago I wrote about a discovery I made about this Web site or magazine or whatever that was staging a matchup of 16 lauded television dramas to determine the best TV drama series of the last quarter century.

Each day or so two shows were pitted against one another and a noted television critic was asked to decide which of the two was the best.

I loved the whole thing because it finally came down to my two favorite TV shows of all time The Sopranos and The Wire. Matt Zoller Seitz, the television critic of New York Magazine, was tabbed to pick the winner.

Seitz used six criteria on which to base his decision. The Sopranos won two of them, The Wire won two and two he judged ties. But ultimately he chose The Wire as the best dramatic series of the last 25 years. Here’s why.

Poetic justice or the reason thousands of Tea Party members are contemplating suicide

According to The Guardian, director Lee Daniels, whose previous effort was the widely lauded Precious, is now working on a film about Eugene Allen, who served as the White House butler for 34 years and eight U.S. presidents.

Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is the leading contender to play Allen (who retired in 1986 and died March 31, 2010) with Oprah Winfrey possibly playing his wife. Daniels is also hoping to sign Liam Neeson to play Lyndon B. Johnson (if Neeson can tear himself away from those brain-dead paycheck films he’s been starring in of late) and John Cusack to play Richard Nixon.

But the real killer here is none other than Jane Fonda is talking to Daniels (or at least her agent is) about portraying Nancy Reagan in the movie. That’s the Jane Fonda who opposed the Vietnam War, supported the Black Panthers and fueled a civil rights campaign for Native Americans — basically the person who opposed everything Ronald Reagan stood for. There are still Reaganites out there who refuse to see a Jane Fonda movie for the same asinine reasons liberal Democrats refuse to see a John Wayne movie.

Nancy Reagan was 68 when her husband left the White House. For what it's worth, Jane Fonda is 74.

This could get interesting.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A filmmaker’s challenge

This from my ever vigilant South Florida correspondent:

"Legendary British film director Sir Ridley Scott launched a global film making contest for aspiring directors. It's titled "Tell It Your Way." The film could be no longer than three minutes, contain only 6 lines of narrative & be a compelling story.

There were over 600 entries.

The winner was Porcelain Unicorn from American director Keegan Wilcox. It's a story of the lifetimes of two people (1930 – 1945) who are totally opposite, yet, very much the same — all told in less than 3 minutes."

Here it is.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

OK, the patriarchal thing is weird: The young women prepare the meals, laying out the table for the men to eat. Afterward, the women clean up, and then sit down for their food. In silence.

But at first glance, there’s something idyllic, in a retro-hippie, back-to-the-earth way, about the group of people living and working on a big farm in an isolated corner of the Catskills. And the man presiding over this commune — older than the rest, with craggy features and a guitar he pulls out to concertize his flock — well, they adore him.

Of course, this Patrick (a modulated and creepy turn from John Hawkes) belongs in a gallery next to names like Manson, Jones, Koresh. But one of the remarkable things about Martha Marcy May Marlene, a first film from the preternaturally accomplished Sean Durkin, is that the word cult is never uttered — the truly dark and disturbing goings-on on Patrick’s farm are presented in a low-key, naturalistic style that makes the narrative all the more unnerving.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a scarred, scared woman — an extraordinary, mesmerizing performance from Elizabeth Olsen — who escapes from this place, and seeks shelter, and support, in the lakeside country house of her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). But Martha, as the title of Durkin’s beautifully spooky film suggests, no longer knows who she is — her sense of self is gone, her hold on reality tenuous at best.

Something happened during her time in the mountains. Something bad.

Martha Marcy May Marlene moves from its protagonist’s dream state to her memories to her waking present in imperceptible shifts — the effect is disorienting, at first, but ingenious. We’re as rattled and wary as Martha is — we’re seeing the world as she does, pulled under in the wake of her trauma.

Durkin has clearly studied some masters of the subjective eye — Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion) and Haneke (Cache, Code Unknown). He knows how to use the camera (and sound — the sound in this film is amazing) to evoke paranoia and a profound sense of confusion. But he has also found an actress, Olsen, who is every bit as adept: She’s like a quiet force-field of shattered nerves, with deeply haunted eyes, with gestures, small and controlled, that convey big, wild emotions.

Olsen inhabits Martha’s broken world completely. And at the movie’s end — a jarring, boldly ambiguous end — we’re in her head, too, not sure what is real, and what is not.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Goodell right, Cowlishaw wrong

In a column on the front of the sports page of today’s Dallas Morning News, Tim Cowlishaw mistakenly writes that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s punishment handed down to the New Orleans Saints surrounding the "pay-to-permanently cripple" program was too harsh. (I would inlude a link to the column, but because the News makes people pay to read it, you might as well use that money to purchase an entire paper or, even more nourishing than that, use it to buy two tacos at Jack in the Box.) It appears Cowlishaw also thinks former President Richard Nixon was impeached because of the Wartergate break-in.

Cowlishaw's opinion
a real head-scratcher
Of course, that’s not the reason Nixon was driven from the White House. His crime was the systematic cover-up implemented to hide his administration’s involvement in a series of election dirty tricks.

By the same token New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was not only punished for overseeing his reprehensible bounty program. Goodell came down hard on him because on two different occasions Payton sat down with the commissioner and outright lied to him about any knowledge Payton had about the affair. He was the caretaker of the program and then he tried to cover it up. At least twice.

I have already expressed my admiration for Goodell’s correct handling of this incident. And, fortunately, the News has an expert on all things NFL and other sports, Rick Gosselin, who also applauds Goodell (although Gosselin’s more reasoned column is buried inside the sports section). Someone needs to educate Cowlishaw before he makes himself look even more wrong-headed on this issue.

"Death to My Hometown"

A look at one of the songs from Wrecking Ball as performed live on the new Bruce Springsteen tour.

The Greatest TV Drama of the Last 25 Years

I just ran across this gimmick that a publication or a Web site (I’m not sure which) called Vulture is doing. It is conducting his own NCAA-tournament like playoff to determine the greatest TV dramatic series of the last quarter century.

It began the tournament with 16 contestants: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Shield, NYPD Blue, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Twin Peaks, Battlestar Gallactica, Lost, Mad Men, Deadwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, West Wing, The X-Files, My So Called Life, and The Wire. (I was somewhat dismayed he didn’t include one of the Law & Order franchises, but so be it.)

Each day, the outfit has a notable television writer decide the winner between the two playoff contestants. I don’t know which show is the winner yet — New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, no less, is expected to make that decision sometime later today, but it looks like it’s going to be a contest between my favorite two shows of all time: The Sopranos and The Wire.

Anyway, a second round of this tournament featured a contest between The X-Files and The Wire with critic Marc Bernadin deciding the outcome. I found this essay Bernadin wrote on the subject to be a particularly good read and I especially recommend it for the multitudes who have yet to discover the sweep, the grandeur and the Dickensonian overtones of The Wire.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Goodell done good

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s harsh punishment against the New Orleans Saints — a one- year suspension for head coach Sean Payton, the loss of second round draft picks the next two years and more — was appropriate for a reason that many are overlooking.

Yes, it does make it incredibly more problematic that the Saints will be playing in a Super Bowl in their own stadium at the end of the upcoming season,. Heck, it even makes it problematic the Saints will win their own division.

But the most important message Goodell sent — and the one I’m sure has been received loud and clear by every single team in the league — is this type of bounty program will never, ever, happen again in the NFL. And that’s the most important thing Goodell accomplished.

Nice going, commish.

City announcement raises more questions than it answers

Received this announcement from the good folks at the City of Dallas which proclaims that on Saturday District 6 Councilmember Mónica E. Alonzo, "on the occasion of the birthday of Don Benito Juarez, who was a national hero and president of Mexico in 1867 to 1872" … "will recognize the life achievements of past and current Community Heroes whose accomplishments have enriched the quality of life in our City."

Councilmember
Monica Alonzo
Sounds like a great idea. The release goes on to say the event will be held at the Benito Juárez Parque de los Héroes, located at 3352 North Winnetka in West Dallas. In case of rain, the entire shindig will be moved a tad further west to the Mattie Nash Rec Center at 3710 North Hampton.

All this is fine. But there’s one section of the announcement that gave me pause. It was the section labeled simply "Who." Not "Who will be there" or "Who will be honored," but just "who."

The names listed in this section are, in addition to councilwoman Alonzo, Cónsul General of Mexico, Juan Carlos Cué Vega; State Rep. (Dist. 104), Roberto Alonzo; Dallas County Commissioner (Dist. 4) Dr. Elba Garcia; Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez; Cockrell Hill Mayor Luis D. Carrera; and former Dallas city councilmember Steve Salazar.

My immediate question when I saw this was the one I hinted at above. Are these folks being honored or are they hosting? And of they are hosting, who exactly is being honored and why? And if they are being honored, than what did they do to "enrich the quality of life in our city." And why is someone who is not even from "our city" (Carrera) in ths lineup in any capacity? Another question just as vital (if not more so) was: Wonder what Domingo Garcia thinks about all of this? Domingo is a candidate for the new 33rd Congressional District as is Salazar. Doesn’t this give Salazar an advantageous political platform? Or is Dr. Garcia serving as her husband’s beard?

Go ahead. Accuse me of making everything political. But isn’t it that time of year? I just wish the city authors hadn’t made that damn "Who" so ambiguous.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Problems with new “Snow White” movie

C'mon guys: If Charlize Theron looks into a mirror seeking its help on "who’s the fairest one of all," even a brain dead piece of reflecting glass is going to admit it has to be Charlize Theron, especially if the closest competition is Kristen Stewart. That’s no contest. That’s the equivalent of a top seed against a 16th seed in the NCAA basketball tournament. Only an idiot would believe otherwise, which destroys the entire premise of this film.

Monday, March 19, 2012

It was 50 years ago today, Bob taught the world how to play

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s first album for Columbia. For all the success, for all the honors Dylan has received during the last half-century, it is interesting to note the first album never once cracked Billboard’s Top 200 selling album chart during the year in which it was released.

Although Dylan became known for the songs he wrote (there are 375 covers of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind alone), it is also interesting to note the first album contained only two original compositions, a tribute to Woody Guthrie and Talkin’ New York. However, at the same time, it is also important to remember that at the time of this album’s release, the so-called "folk music revival" that was rolling emphasized interpretation over composition. The major artists of the revival included non-composers Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

One of the myths surrounding this album is Dylan’s version of House of the Rising Sun inspired the Animals to record the song. Actually, that inspiration came from Josh White’s recording.

In the last 50 years, no single artist has had a bigger influence on popular Music than Bob Dylan. He was the reason the Beatles’ lyrics became more sophisticated. His launched the singer-composer movement and the genre known as progressive country. Even his Subterranean Homesick Blues is credited by many as being the first rap song.

And it all began 50 years ago today.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Available on DVD: “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”

The impalement is a nice touch. The death by wood chipper, pretty sweet. But the best bit of comedy in the ridiculously gory Tucker and Dale vs. Evil eviscerates the field of psychology with no bloodshed at all.

Eli Craig, directing his first feature (from a script he wrote with Morgan Jurgenson), has put together a droll sendup of the killer-in-the-swamp genre that gets funnier as it rolls along. If you are one of the few who saw the dreadful Creature, don’t be alarmed that this film starts out identically: preppy-looking young people driving around the swampy South pull into a tattered store where they encounter creepy locals, then inexplicably decide to explore the woods.

Two of those creepy locals are Tucker (Alan Tudyk, currently trapped in the lame new sitcom Suburgatory) and Dale (Tyler Labine), who are harmless despite their appearance. (Tudyk and Labine mesh perfectly.) When the young visitors run into them again in the woods, they assume the worst, and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, the worst comes to pass. Only Allison (Katrina Bowden), a psychology student, figures out that Tucker and Dale are pussycats, but her crisis-intervention techniques need work.

Friday, March 16, 2012

For your weekend listening and viewing pleasure

Bruce Springsteen, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Low Anthem, Tom Morello, Arcade Fire, Eric Burdon (yes, that Eric Burdon from The Animals) and the South By Southwest All Stars channeling Woody Guthrie. Now that's what I call a hootenany.

Available on DVD: “Melancholia”

In Melancholia, the clinically depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst), is trying to keep it together on her wedding night: She got through the ceremony, but the reception won’t be as easy. So many photographs. So many people. So many toasts.

Justine's husband Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard) is doing his best to accommodate his new wife’s mood swings. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is also trying to be understanding, but she’s been in this situation before, and her patience is wearing thin. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who footed the bill for the lavish reception at a posh country club, isn’t quite as understanding: He’s fuming mad.

Oh, and scientists have discovered that a new planet named Melancholia that was hiding behind the sun is going to pass dangerously close to Earth in five days. Some people believe it’s going to crash right into us.

If Ingmar Bergman had directed Armageddon, the result might have turned out a lot like Lars von Trier’s latest movie — the second born out of the writer-director’s much-publicized bout with depression. The first one, 2009’s Antichrist, was an intentionally graphic, shocking, bloody work, as if von Trier had wanted to take his anger and frustration out on his audience. But Melancholia is something entirely different. Von Trier got the central idea while in therapy, when he discovered that severely depressed people would be able to function rationally in the face of incomprehensible doom. Their familiarity with despondency would give them an edge over everyone else.

Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder — and then make it work so astonishingly well. The Danish filmmaker has always thought out of the box (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville): His creativity is often so startling, and his joy at working over the audience so enthusiastic, you approach each of his movies with equal parts curiosity and dread. But Melancholia isn’t merely a fiery provocation, nor is it an experimental melding of two seemingly incompatible ideas. Von Trier has thought his conceit through, and his vision was thorough enough to attract a superb cast to join him on his one-way joyride to hell.

As the brittle, impulsive bride, Dunst won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year — even after von Trier was sent home for making some tasteless jokes about Hitler at a news conference. His behavior might have completely derailed a lesser movie, but Dunst is marvelous at depicting Justine’s emotional volatility and petulant behavior: You understand why the people around her are tired of her antics, but you also sympathize with her, knowing she’s being buffeted by forces beyond her control. Gainsbourg is just as good as the increasingly frustrated Claire, who deeply loves her sister but wonders if at least part of her tantrums may not be desperate attempts to gain attention.

Sutherland brings the attitude and swagger of 24’s Jack Bauer to his portrayal of a confident man who has an answer for every problem — until he doesn’t (arrogance is one of the sins von Trier never forgives.) The supporting cast is deep, and all the players contribute their unique notes to Melancholia’s symphony of dysfunction. Two standouts: Charlotte Rampling as the sisters’ mother, a smoldering ruin of a woman who hasn’t gotten over her divorce and wants to make sure everyone shares her misery; and Udo Kier as the hilariously irritated wedding planner who is furious at Justine for sabotaging his efforts.

Melancholia opens with some staggeringly beautiful images, set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, that won’t make sense on first viewing (a horse collapsing to the ground, Justine emanating small lightning bolts from her fingertips) but end up being a preview to the craziness ahead: They're postcards from the apocalypse. Von Trier also shows you the end of the world in that opening prologue, letting you know he’s not kidding around and that the movie is not going to wuss out. As Melancholia nears its climax, you share the panic and fear the characters are experiencing: This Armageddon feels real, and the decisions the characters have to make are heartbreaking (would you tell your frightened young son what was happening if you knew Earth was going to be pulverized in a few minutes?) And in Dunst’s Justine, von Trier has found his most eloquent mouthpiece. "All I know is life on Earth is evil," she observes. No wonder she feels fine! This is a tremendous, daring movie. Get ready to be rattled.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I see only one No. 1 seed in Final Four

Team’s seed is in parenthesis

First Round Winners
Kentucky (1)
Iowa State (8)
Wichita State (5)
Indiana (4)
UNLV (6)
Baylor (3)
Notre Dame (7)
Duke (2)
Michigan State (1)
Memphis (8)
New Mexico (5)
Louisville (4)
Colorado State (11)
Marquette (3)
Florida (7)
Missouri (2)
Syracuse (1)
Kansas State (8)
Vanderbilt (5)
Wisconsin (4)
Cincinnati (6)
Florida State (3)
Gonzaga (7)
Ohio State (2)
North Carolina (1)
Creighton (8)
Temple (5)
Michigan (4)
North Carolina State (11)
Georgetown (3)
Purdue (10)
Kansas (2)

Sweet Sixteen
Kentucky (1)
Indiana (4)
Baylor (3)
Notre Dame (7)
Michigan State (1)
New Mexico (5)
Colorado State (11)
Missouri (2)
Kansas State (8)
Vanderbilt (5)
Cincinnati (6)
Ohio State (2)
North Carolina (1)
Michigan (4)
Georgetown (3)
Kansas (2)

Elite Eight
Kentucky (1)
Notre Dame (7)
Michigan State (1)
Missouri (2)
Kansas State (8)
Cincinnati (6)
Michigan (4)
Kansas (2)

Final Four
Kentucky (1)
Missouri (2)
Cincinnati (6)
Kansas (2)

Championship Game
Cincinnati defeats Missouri

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Available on DVD: “Octubre”

When you first meet Clemente, the humble, eventually humbled moneylender who becomes something of a reluctant hero in the unassuming, low-key charmer Octubre, he’s counting pennies instead of blessings. You can scarcely blame him. Unsmiling, seemingly friendless, he lives and works out of a run-down apartment in Lima, Peru, that — with its peeling wallpaper and badly scarred walls, and its passing parade of men and women hocking bits of their lives — makes a fitting setting for this hard stone of a man. The specter of his admired dead father hovers here, a twin perhaps to the images of Jesus seen everywhere else.

Whether this stubborn loner, played by Bruno Odar, could use some polishing isn’t a question. The writers and directors, the brothers Daniel and Diego Vega, efficiently sketch in the shabby details of Clemente’s life. Shooting with a digital camera that picks up every face and wall crack, and in surprisingly elegant widescreen, they suggest the entirety of Clemente’s mean life in a few, short, pitilessly comic scenes. This is a man who eats a dry egg sandwich with the same lack of animation and evident pleasure he evinces when frequenting a prostitute. For him eating and fornicating have the aspect of habits, something he does because they serve primal needs — both are sustenance for a body that could use a little soul.

Something happens — as it must even in slow-to-boil fictions like this one — in this case a baby and a woman, followed by an old man and an old woman. The infant, a girl later called Milagritos, materializes first, mewling in a plain straw basket left on Clemente’s bed. More inconvenienced and aggrieved than shocked, he initially tries to ignore the baby and then dump her with the police. "I saved her life," he claims at the precinct. A cop, after telling him that his name will end up in the newspapers, urges him to do the right thing. "It’s not my responsibility," Clemente insists without a twitch, his subsequent search for the mother — yet another prostitute — only affirming the depth of this lie.

Yet even as he looks for one woman, another materializes, Sofía (Gabriela Velásquez), a client who comes knocking at his door. She might as well have broken it down. She visits Clemente to pawn jewelry and, after being hired to stop the baby’s crying, ends up as his live-in nanny. A religious woman with other longings, Sofía creates a bridge to the movie’s title, the month in which the annual festival of the Lord of Miracles (Señor de los Milagros) takes place. A celebration dating back centuries, the fiesta unites thousands of penitents who flood the streets to follow an image that represents a Lima mural of Jesus that’s said to have escaped an earthquake unscathed. To walk in such a procession means to not walk alone.

It’s Sofía who calls the baby Milagritos, a baptism that confirms the child as the resident miracle, and who also fills the apartment with other people. Not much happens beyond passing and true moments of life. The Vegas, having pared their script to the bone — there are no speeches and not a line of exposition — hew to the less is more school of art-film realism. With a visual style and a deadpan humor that owes an obvious debt to the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (Drifting Clouds), they hold their shots long enough for you to scan details, look deep into faces and think on how little (or much) it takes to be happy. Here a painted Jesus hovers on a chipped wall, but it’s an unholy family of three that finds heaven on earth.

Available on DVD “London River”

Rachid Bouchareb’s tidy little two-character film, London River, demonstrates how great acting can infuse a banal, politically correct drama with dollops of emotional truth. This cozy tale of the rapprochement between two cultures, each personified by an individual, is likable in the same way as Driving Miss Daisy, though London River is tougher and sadder and not as well written.

Its stars, Brenda Blethyn and Sotigui Kouyaté, couldn’t possess more dissimilar screen presences. Blethyn, the British actress best known for Secrets and Lies, belongs to the Mike Leigh school of minutely detailed naturalism. Kouyaté, who died in April 2010 at 73, was associated for many years with the ritualistic theater of Peter Brook. Tall and gaunt, with graying dreadlocks, his deep-set eyes conveying a stoic, bone-weary resignation, he suggested a mythic African pilgrim leaning on a walking stick while roaming the world on an endless spiritual journey. London River, whose title evokes the city’s multicultural stream, was his final film.

Blethyn’s character, Elisabeth, is a war widow who lost her husband in the Falkland Islands conflict and now lives a rustic existence with her brother on a small farm on Guernsey, the English Channel island. Her attitude evolves from one of tight-lipped suspicion into an emotionally unguarded vulnerability. At a hint of good news, she bursts into giggles; bad news makes her crumple into a tearful heap.

Kouyaté’s character, Ousmane, is a gentle West African forester who has lived in France for 15 years and has devoted much of his life to preserving elm trees. Ousmane is a Muslim, and Elisabeth a Christian, but the movie barely begins to explore their potential conflict.

Both are drawn to London after the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings that killed 56, including the 4 attackers, and injured hundreds more. After watching the news, Elisabeth becomes increasingly alarmed when she is unable to reach her daughter, Jane, by cellphone. She obsesses that Jane might have been injured, or worse.

Ousmane, who hasn’t seen his son, Ali, since he was 6, has been asked by his estranged wife to find the boy and bring him home. An unspoken fear felt by both is that their children might have been among the terrorists who were blown to pieces.

Ousmane and Elisabeth first meet after the imam in the heavily Muslim North London neighborhood where Jane lives gives him a picture of Ali taken in an Arabic-language class. After identifying the young woman sitting next to Ali as Jane, whose picture Ousmane noticed on an adjacent leaflet on a missing-persons board, he telephones Elisabeth. She impulsively shuns him.

This 90-minute film has the fussy, programmatic feel of an extended one-act play in which two worlds collide and connect through the shared bond of fearful parenthood. Or, as Elisabeth puts it a little too bluntly, "Our lives aren’t that different."

As she keeps running into Ousmane at hospitals and a police station in their common search, she warms to him. Her hostility and condescension evaporate once they become a team. Ali and Jane (herself in the process of converting to Islam) were apparently lovers sharing quarters in a shabby red brick apartment building.

London River is nothing like its French-Algerian director’s sprawling historical films, Days of Glory and Outside the Law, which go out of their way to examine French and North African relations from an Algerian perspective. This movie is not concerned with history or politics. It is simply a well-drawn portrait of two lonely souls facing the shared possibility of grievous loss.

Goodnight, Bugs


Bugs Henderson: 1943-2012

(The wrong) Garcia for Congress

So Domingo Garcia is running for Congress and, by the looks of things, has a great shot at winning. But is there anyone else out there who wishes she was running instead?

Available on DVD: “The Skin I Live In”

There’s an early decisive moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s exhilarating film The Skin I Live In, when Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon and madman played with soul weariness by Antonio Banderas, gazes at the image of a woman on the wall of his bedroom. She’s bigger than life, this woman, and more beautiful. He calls her Vera (Elena Anaya), and she’s stretched out in the classic recumbent pose of the odalisque: that exotic Turkish harem dweller and Orientalist fantasy painted by the likes of Goya, Ingres and Manet, and given opulent new life and reverberant meaning by Almodóvar, a master of his art.

In paintings of odalisques, the often naked women lie across the image like unwrapped gifts, exquisitely available to the men who paint them and to the patrons who value such female voluptuaries. There’s something different about Vera, though it’s initially difficult to pinpoint what. Ledgard lives in a mansion brightened with paintings of big nudes and blooms, and when you first see him looking at Vera, it’s as if he were viewing another canvas or a photo, or peering into a window. Yet this is no ordinary image; rather, it’s a surveillance video, and Vera has just tried to kill herself. Ledgard won’t stand for that and rushes in to save her, patching up a body that’s the centerpiece in an intoxicating, lush mystery.

There are several genres nimbly folded into The Skin I Live In, which might also be described as an existential mystery, a melodramatic thriller, a medical horror film or just a polymorphous extravaganza. In other words, it’s an Almodóvar movie with all the attendant gifts that implies: lapidary technique, calculated perversity, intelligent wit. There’s also beauty and spectacle, of course, especially as embodied by Vera, who usually wears a body stocking with gloves and booties, and knows exactly what she looks like. Watch how she watches Ledgard watching her, a relay of looks that evokes John Berger’s observation: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at." Were we born this way or made? Almodóvar has his ideas, which he playfully explores with each labyrinthine turn.

The story is impossible — and weird, dark, funny and fractured, even jagged. It opens on a cityscape and the dateline "Toledo 2012" (as in Spain, not Ohio), the first indication that we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a shivery intimation of a futureworld, but it’s followed by a nod to Citizen Kane as the camera glides past a gate and into an isolated mansion. There Vera lives in a bright, locked room with a Spartan-modernist ambience, where she does little else except watch nature TV, practice yoga, scribble on the walls and create little busts inspired by the biomorphic forms of Louise Bourgeois. Ledgard calls her his patient, though she would rightly call herself his prisoner, as well as the object of his obsession.

How Vera got in that room and why are only two of the many mysteries in The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar seeds the narrative with assorted teasing clues, quickly draping a shadow across half a face, for instance, a bifurcation that suggests both a divided self and a yin-yang symbol. Mostly, he plunges you straight into a story that moves, restlessly, at times imperceptibly, between the present and past. As in Vertigo (another of this film’s touchstones), the past and present exist in a loop, at least for a man obsessed. Eventually, the galvanizing points on that time continuum come into focus, including an accident that badly burned Ledgard’s wife, prompting his search for a new type of skin.

It takes time to get a handle on the story (and even then, your grip may not be secure), though it’s instantly clear that something is jumping beneath the surface here, threatening to burst forth. Vera’s plight and the temporal shifts help create an air of unease and barely controlled chaos, an unsettling vibe that becomes spooky when Ledgard puts on a white lab coat and begins doing strange things with blood. Almodóvar doesn’t paint the screen red, at least not right away. Instead he daubs it on, the crimson easing in by way of the curtains Ledgard lectures in front of and in the droplets he perfectly places on glass plates. Later the blood will splash across a white bed in a frenzy of violence, an Abstract Expressionist splatter.

There are times in The Skin I Live In when it feels as if the whole thing will fly into pieces, as complication is piled onto complication, and new characters and intrigues are introduced amid horror, melodrama and slapstick. "You’re insane!" a colleague tells Ledgard, who doesn’t look terribly surprised by the news. Later, a rapist, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), in a tiger suit rings the doorbell, and one fateful night Ledgard’s daughter, Norma (Blanca Suarez), meets a young man, Vicente (Jan Cornet). Despite all these moving, spinning parts, Almodóvar’s control remains virtuosic and the film hangs together completely, secured by Vera and Ledgard and a relationship that’s a Pandora’s box from which identity, gender, sex and desire spring.

Banderas and Anaya are excellent, though neither has been directed to seduce like some of the director’s past memorable characters. (A spikily human, funny Marisa Paredes, as Ledgard’s fanatically loyal housekeeper, Marilia, supplies plenty of warmth.) For good story reasons, Vera is largely opaque, while Ledgard remains at arm’s length: She is a question that he’s asked but at first can’t answer.

There’s a vital toughness, in particular, to Banderas, as this likable if often misused actor goes dark without compromising his character with softness or light. It’s a gutsy turn, and while your eyes are often, reasonably, on Anaya, it’s a pleasure to experience a performance from Banderas that peels away his persona and burrows under the skin.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Available on DVD: “Like Crazy”

The actors keep their clothes on, but everything else is naked in Like Crazy, a romantic drama that makes other romantic films look obvious and calculated in comparison. The emotions are raw. The technique is spare — very little music, long shots, long scenes. And the characters are left unprotected by the filmmaker, who doesn’t worry too much about what we’ll think of them. He lets them go down some dark roads.

Sometimes you need to see something in order to realize what you haven’t been seeing onscreen, and what we haven’t been seeing is young love as it really tends to happen. In Like Crazy, people don’t "meet cute," they just meet. Their connection is rare, and yet comes with a feeling like this is the easiest thing in the world. And although their joy and excitement are all-consuming, the relationship takes place against the real-life tensions of being in one’s early 20s, a time of life that often seems enviable in retrospect but in practice can be stressful: It’s all well and good to have your whole life ahead of you, but what happens if you choose the wrong life and get stuck with it?

The first hint of something special about Like Crazy comes in the first 20 minutes, in which Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), two college seniors in Los Angeles, go on a date and soon become inseparable. In these minutes, writer-director Drake Doremus does something quite skillful, so skillful that you might not notice it. He commands an audience’s complete attention, even though, at this point, there is no plot question hovering in the air, no power imbalance in need of resolution; there is really nothing going on but the spectacle of two nice, intelligent people becoming increasingly crazy about each other.

In these minutes, Doremus holds us by making us believe, completely, in the reality and specialness of this bond. Anna is English, hyper-verbal, crisp and starched, and yet capable of such demonstrations of affection that you start to wonder if any woman in history has ever loved anybody more than she loves this guy. And Jacob is American, a bit slower, sloppier and simpler, but with something behind the eyes that lets you know that he’s very present and nobody’s fool.

In life, the stress inherent in happiness is our knowledge that it can end. Doremus infuses these early scenes with that underlying ache, even before we know that Anna’s student visa is running out and that she’ll have to go home to London for a whole summer before she can return. When she decides to violate the visa and spend the summer in bed with Jacob, it’s the sort of moment that will make everyone over 30 feel very wise yet very old: No, young lady. You must not do this. Oh no, no …

The "like crazy" of the title refers to missing someone like crazy, which is what these two people have to go through when immigration troubles keep them apart. The vast bulk of Like Crazy deals with the difficulties of maintaining a relationship across 5,000 miles, and the movie’s take is anything but flowery. There is the inevitable inner questioning — "Do I really need this person, is it worth it?" There are arguments and betrayals. The situation is more than hard; it’s damaging.

Which leads me to what is most impressive about Like Crazy, even beyond the shrewd plotting that consistently skips over unnecessary detail, and the two lovely, sharp performances, and the tender conveying of exquisitely painful moments, as when Anna rides home alone on the London subway, having dropped Jacob off at the airport. Like Crazy is about the real destructiveness of separation, about how two people change, hurt each other and even sully what’s most precious within themselves. Yet with this comes the sophisticated suggestion that, in the end, it is precisely this shared history, including the betrayals, that may keep them together.

To that end, Like Crazy not only depicts the moment of initial connection but also the deeper and more complicated thing that happens way down the line. That’s when two people look at each other and realize, "This person is my person. Somehow this has happened, and there is no turning back."

Available on DVD: “Senna”

Senna is a documentary with the pace of a thriller, a story of motors and machines that is beyond compelling because of the intensely human story it tells.

Brazil’s Ayrton Senna was the boy genius of Formula One racing, winner of three world championships before dying in a crash in 1994 at age 34, a driver current and former Formula One racers recently voted the greatest who ever lived.

But if all Senna could do was race, this wouldn’t be much of a story. Though he could drive like the devil, Senna was a spiritual person who believed deeply and profoundly in a higher power. A philosophical mystic with a jewel thief’s nerves and a poet’s sensitivity, not to mention killer good looks, Senna was an altogether remarkable individual. And a deeply contradictory one.

On the one hand, Senna was a sensitive, articulate man who wore his heart on his racing sleeve, someone your own heart can’t help but go out to as he tries to maintain a sense of decency and dignity in cut-throat surroundings. But Senna was also the fiercest competitor imaginable, someone who lived to win and never hesitated to push cars beyond their designed capabilities. Triumphing at Formula One, he tells one interviewer, is "something so strong, like a drug. Once you experience it, you search for it all the time."

More than anything, Senna was a driver who wouldn’t play the game, a moral person in an immoral world who loathed the politics and the injustices he felt he saw all around him. It’s not for nothing that Senna begins with the driver talking about his teenage years as a go-kart driver. "It was pure driving, pure racing," he says, looking back with a kind of longing. "There was no money, no politics, it was real racing."

Senna’s story is in fact so compelling that at various times directors like Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Walter Salles and Antonio Banderas were reportedly contemplating features. Yet Senna’s director, Asif Kapadia, turned out to be someone who’d never been to a race.

Yet Kapadia (whose debut feature The Warrior won the British equivalent of an Academy Award) brings essential gifts to the table. He has a keen sense of drama, a gift for narrative drive, and the kind of unerring eye necessary to cull 104 minutes of film from 5,000 hours of archival footage from 10 countries (the editing of the film took a full year and a half).

Not just any footage, either. Aided by screenwriter Manish Pandey, a Formula One enthusiast who was essential in getting the cooperation of Senna’s family and the equally protective Formula One hierarchy, Kapadia and his editors Gregers Sall and Chris King had access to material no one else had been able to use before.

This includes intimate home movie footage, shots taken from inside Senna’s car while he was driving, and riveting footage of frequently tempestuous drivers-only meetings held before each race. Looking at endless interviews, the filmmakers also made use of the fact that Senna had been more candid and forthcoming when talking to Brazilian TV than had previously been known.

Kapadia conducted numerous contemporary interviews for Senna, recording the driver’s family and experienced journalists like ESPN’s John Bisignano and Brazil’s Reginaldo Leme. He also made the bold decision not to show the people interviewed, using their comments strictly as voice-over. It turns out to be a wise choice, enabling us to stay completely involved in the reality of Senna’s life as he lived it.

The game that Senna detested playing started with his first significant race, the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, where the Brazilian, described as a genius in the rain, came from 13th place to almost about win the event before a controversial maneuver gave it to France’s Alain Prost.

Prost, a four-time world champion, turned out to be Senna’s bête noir, a driver whose calculating, legalistic personality led to his nickname of "The Professor." The savage rivalry between these two is something to behold, leading to on-the-track encounters at the 1989 and 1990 Japanese Grand Prix that have a potent symmetry.

Senna was such an innately dramatic personality that every race he took part in feels like the most intense possible. Until you see the next one. Perhaps his most emotional race was the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, an event which Senna, a national hero in his home country, was desperate to win. The emotions and physical strain this exceptionally arduous competition put him through beggars belief.

Speaking at Sundance, where the film won the world documentary audience award, screenwriter Pandey talked about showing the film to Ron Dennis, the head of the McLaren Group that Senna raced for, a man known for being unemotional and for being so conscious of not wasting time he has a car and driver waiting for him everywhere he goes.

"After the film ended, Ron Dennis cried for 10 minutes," Pandey recalled. "Then he sat and talked about Senna for two hours." Such is the power of this man, and this film.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Manning’s future

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts will file for divorce today. To me, there hasn’t been a player departure from a team this significant since Joe Montana left San Francisco for Kansas City. And, no, I’m not forgetting Brett Favre.

The entire story has an ironic twist. Manning is leaving because the Colts are set to draft his replacement, Andrew Luck. But if Manning had not been injured this past season, the Colts would have come nowhere close to claiming the first-round draft pick. Manning would have led them to too many wins.

So where does Peyton go from here? The way I see it, there are only three NFL teams — the New York Giants, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints — who should have absolutely no interest in Manning whatsoever. All the rest are in play. I keep hearing talk about Washington and Miami, but I think Manning wants to win too much to go a team where his chances of winning are much less than they were with Indianapolis. I also keep hearing talk about the New York Jets. That would be a great destination for more reasons than the fact that Peyton could take that team to the Super Bowl. Imagine both the Manning Brothers in New York? Now that would be fun for all concerned, including fans.

But I gotta tell ya, if I’m with the Steeler organization, I would take Manning over Ben Rothlisberger. Manning could take that team to even grander heights. Manning makes the Steelers instant Super Bowl favorites.

He could have the same dramatic impact with the Cowboys. Tony Romo wouldn’t want to stay here, playing behind Manning, so Jerry Jones would have to trade his former starting QB. But he should be able to get significant defensive help in such a trade, probably with some future draft choices thrown in. Instant upgrade to Super Bowl contender. And I imagine Manning would relish a helmet with a star as much as one with a horseshoe.

Don’t want to go on this Cruise

I am a comparatively late arrival to the novels of Lee Child, having read my first 61 Hours, just late last year. I have read two more since then, Killing Floor and Die Trying, both of which I liked more than the first one I read, and am know starting my fourth, Tripwire. While reading these books I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone hadn’t optioned them for a motion picture.

Now I learn that not only has someone decided to bring Jack Reacher, the hero of Child’s novels, to the big screen but they are intent on ruining the entire experience by casting Tom Cruise, of all people, as Reacher.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Look: Jack Reacher stands 6-feet, 5-inches tall. When they were married, Nicole Kidman towered over Cruise (she still does, in more ways than just physical stature, but that’s a story for another time). Cruise is, shall we say, charming. Reacher is anything but.

Dolph Lundgren is too old to play Reacher by about 10 years, but that’s what’s needed — a Dolph Lundgren type, a James Arness type. Hey, if someone could teach him to act, the NBA player formerly known as Ron Artest could be an interesting choice. And, if he couldn’t act, he would still be a better choice than Cruise. How about European rugby star Lawrence Dallaglio. Examine his picture on this page and if you've ever read a Lee Child novel you have to admit he's Jack Reacher and not Tom Cruise.

Cruise at 6-5? Are they going to cast Munchkins in all the other roles?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

“Les Miserables” may be good

As regular readers know by now, I am a huge fan of the musical version of Les Miserables. I would guess, conservatively, I’ve seen it on stage close to 40 times, including numerous times in London and New York when it first opened in those cities.

I was exited to hear that it was going to become a movie when I heard Alan Parker was attached to it as the director. But nothing ever came of that.

I was somewhere between lukewarm and slightly optimistic when I saw the film was back on track with Tom Hooper directing. The optimism rose when I saw Hugh Jackman had been cast as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway would be Fantine (although that character dies relatively early in the story). I didn’t mind Russell Crowe as Javert and I think Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter could be ideally cast as the Thenardiers. Samantha Barks is an interesting choice as Eponine, but I was crestfallen to learn Amanda Seyfried will play Cosette. Nothing against Seyfried, but I don’t think she’s right for this pivotal part. I’m hoping I’m wrong.

And maybe I am because a couple of folks have placed Les Miz on their lists of likely best picture nominees at next year’s Oscars. Now that’s a really good sign.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Myth of the American Sleepover”

With The Myth of the American Sleepover, first-time writer-director David Robert Mitchell tells a coming-of-age tale with such freshness and such bemused insight it’s as if it has never been told before. Its setting, in the present, is an idyllic Michigan suburb on the last night of summer — just before a new school year starts. Mitchell may focus on several young people but deftly characterizes three to four times that number, and not surprisingly the film won the acting ensemble prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival last year. Mitchell’s poignant film marks a significant screen debut not only for the writer-director but also his youthful cast.

In the course of a very long night, these young people try to connect with one other, to pursue certain individuals, to get to all the parties in their spread-out neighborhood — to have fun and to feel adventurous and, above all, experience a sense of belonging. Key are Claire Sloma’s Maggie, a pert blond with a pixie haircut, determined to make an impression; Marlon Morton’s Rob, intent on tracking down gorgeous twin sisters (Nikita and Jade Ramsey); and Brett Jacobsen’s Scott, captivated by a glamorous blond (Madi Ortiz).

It turns out that virtually all of Mitchell’s people are highly vulnerable, even those who put forth a fairly convincing façade of self-confidence. The filmmaker may find some of their self-discoveries amusing, but he is above all deeply compassionate.

The Myth of the American Sleepover’s true achievement — and its strong pull— is in evoking a coming of age as it should be rather than the way it really is.

Available on DVD: “Life, Above All”

Life, Above All, a grave and quietly moving story about a South African girl of extraordinary character, does something that few painful dramas accomplish: It tells a tale of resilience without platitudes about the triumph of the human spirit or without false promises about an unclouded future. The battle fought by its 12-year-old heroine, who struggles to save her family and best friend from prejudiced neighbors who often look like a mob, may be over when the movie comes to its stirring close, but there’s no end to the fight.

That’s partly because the movie is dedicated to children orphaned by AIDS. (In a 2010 annual report Unicef puts the number of such South African orphans at an appalling 1.9 million.) But the sense that this story doesn’t end when the movie does, and that what unfolds on screen flows into the world beyond, is due to how the director Oliver Schmitz has approached this tricky material. Schmitz first attracted notice in 1987 with Mapantsula, a gangster film that made the festival rounds. He went on to direct another gangster movie, a documentary and television projects, experience that seems to have served him well for Life, Above All, which is at the intersection of fact and fiction.

The girl, Chanda (the self-possessed newcomer Khomotso Manyaka), takes over the movie as soon as you see her, standing near her weeping mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), in their dark, shabby home in a township near Johannesburg. Chanda’s newborn sister, Sara, has just died, perhaps of complications from AIDS, leaving Lillian bereft and Chanda in charge of the burial and, it soon emerges, everything else, her surviving younger sister and brother included. Dry eyed, determined, she marches to a funeral parlor where she’s shown a tiny coffin that, she’s assured, will make the infant look pretty. Chanda wordlessly scans the room, her eyes falling on the metal table where the dead are prepared.

Chanda’s silence is unnerving, as is the absence of tears, and while her calm conveys a preternatural strength of character it also suggests a lifetime of pain. No child, you think, should have to pick out her baby sister’s coffin. But she does, taking in the horror of the funeral home and its metal table without flinching and then pushing forward, still dry eyed, still determined, taking on life with an appealing (and enviable) toughness and grace that make this difficult story not just bearable but also absorbing. As the weight of the world bears down on her slender frame, she becomes the movie’s moral compass and its authentic wonder: the child who is forced to be an adult yet remains childlike enough to feel real.

Based on Chanda’s Secrets, a 2004 novel by the Canadian writer Allan Stratton, and adapted for the screen by Schmitz and Dennis Foon, the movie throws plenty at her, including a drunk of a stepfather, gossipy neighbors and devastating illness. Taken together, her tribulations have the makings of bathetic melodrama. But Schmitz, shooting in hand-held digital, gives the story a suitable, effective visual and narrative grittiness. The colors are golden but never honeyed, and the same could be said of the movie’s prevailing worldview. (The cinematographer Bernhard Jasper knows how to shoot and light for black skin: faces never melt into shadows, as sometimes happens in more careless films.) There’s ugliness here, trash in the streets, violence in the people, but these are just facets of Chanda’s world rather than the sum of it.

The episodic story follows Chanda (the camera tagging after her) as she busily tries to hold her family together while keeping an eye on her best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), and the snooping neighbors (including a fine Harriet Manamela as the complicated Mrs. Tafa). A pretty child with a prepubescent body and a face that sometimes looks frighteningly old, Esther lives alone in a small shack behind her family’s abandoned house. Her parents are both dead because of AIDS, and her brothers and sisters now live elsewhere. She has a wide, heartbreaking smile that belies her pariah status in a community where the fear of AIDS fuels fear, cruelty and worse. The only kindness shown her comes from Chanda, who promises never to leave her. The world has abandoned Esther, but Chanda is holding her tight.

Why Rick Santorum would be the best GOP nominee

The reason is simple. President Obama would crush him in a national election. It would be a landslide reminiscent of Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, Nixon over McGovern in 1972 or Reagan over Mondale in 1984.
Rick Santorum

In 1964, Goldwater was painted as right-wing extremist. In 1972 and 1984, the Democratic Party had been taken over by the extreme left wing of the party, much as the Republican Party has been hijacked today by its extreme right wing. When extremists take control, the independents and moderate members of their party desert the cause.

That's when common sense takes over.

Look what happened after Reagan-Mondale. Democratic moderates like Charles Robb and Richard Gephardt began weekly meetings in an attempt to reshape the party. Another person attending those meetings, a fellow by the name of Al From, took the messages gleaned from those get-togethers to form the Democratic Leadership Council, the base from which Bill Clinton launched his successful presidential bid. It should be noted that the centrist Clinton was the first Democrat to be re-elected President since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Today, the Republican Party is concentrated too much on social issues and not enough on pocketbook issues, more interested in contraception than jobs. Santorum is the poster boy for this extreme wing. Should he be the nominee and get swamped in the general election, as he surely would, perhaps moderate Republicans, who are now being driven from their party (Olympia Snowe, Christine Todd Whitman, Lincoln Chafee), would recapture control of the party, much like the Democratic Leadership Council recaptured the Democratic party. If the more moderate Mitt Romney is the nominee and lose the general election, as he surely would, the fringe would say "You see! We need a much more conservative candidate."

That's why Republicans should prey that Santorum is their nominee this year. It's their only hope for eventual recovery.

Dallas too cowardly to follow Austin’s lead

I’m betting right now that Dallas doesn’t have the cajones to do right by our environment and follow Austin’s lead in banning plastic and paper shopping bags.

The Austin city council voted unanimously — unanimously — this week to enact a broad ban on the bags, requiring consumers to use reusable bags when shopping. The ban doesn’t go into effect until a year from now, giving the city more than enough time to educate residents on the change.

Can you imagine our city council — which is going to be far more protective of the Tom Thumbs and Central Markets than they are about our environment — taking a similar action? Our city council barely had the courage to pass a pro-environment flow control ordinance and now many on the council are having second thoughts about that since major business contributors are suing the city to stop its implementation. Plus, with all the furor over flow control, I doubt the city’s staff has the fortitude to even suggest such a plan.

But, as studies prove and Austin knows, such a ban is necessary. Plastic bags last for years and consume valuable landfill space. They have been discovered in the stomachs of marine animals. It takes 12 million barrels of oil a year to produce the number of plastic bags used in America every year. The manufacture of paper bags wastes energy and emits gases that contribute to global warning.

I love taking my dog to Moss Park because it contains fields and forests where she can romp around to her heart’s content. But I have been terribly saddened recently to see hundreds of plastic bags dangling from the branches of trees in that forest. Is that how we "Beautify Dallas?"

I would love to see the City of Dallas prove me wrong. I would also love to see world peace, Rush Limbaugh banished to a women’s prison and never hear another word about the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. The odds on all of those happening are just about the same.

Available on DVD: “Outrage”

Outrage, the latest offering from prolific Japanese filmmaker and actor Takeshi Kitano, marks his return to the pure, visceral gangster picture, so low-key and offhanded in its mastery that it becomes something like a pulp sleight-of-hand trick.

Kitano plays a middle manager of sorts in the Japanese yakuza gangster underworld, destined never to rise to the heights of the true bosses even as promotions are constantly dangled before him. Against a complex web of deal-making, promises made and broken and alliances well above his paygrade, he finds himself simply fighting for survival.

With an undercurrent of dark humor, like the severed thumb that lands in someone's veggie noodle soup, Kitano abstracts the contemporary struggle, apparently an international one, to just hold a once-visible career path in view as industries crumble and realign.

Though it may at times seem like just another Japanese gangster picture, in Outrage, Kitano's sense of pacing is so precise, at once restrained and relentless, that the film becomes a vortex, pulling viewers in deeper and deeper.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Available on DVD: “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within”

Propulsive, hyper-violent and ridiculously exciting, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within can be described as The Wire transplanted to Rio de Janeiro — a top-to-bottom panorama of corruption and crime, from the city’s favelas to its highest offices of government. As in the monumental HBO series, wire-tapping and surveillance are critical plot elements. But in this stand-alone sequel to 2007’s Elite Squad, director José Padilha (Bus 174) doesn’t stray far from the brutal action and gunplay that helped make the original a box office smash.

The Enemy Within was an even bigger hit — it is the highest-grossing film in Brazil’s history and that country’s entry into this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race — in part because Padilha and co-writer Braulio Mantovani (City of God) are actively playing to their audience. Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura), who previously waged a near-fascist war against drug dealers as head of Rio’s special-military police, is promoted to Secretary of Intelligence. At his new post, Nascimiento encounters criminals far scarier than gun-toting hoods: Corrupt policemen who execute informants and witnesses in broad daylight; politicians who abuse their power to guarantee their re-election; and a TV news media that patronizes public opinion for ratings instead of challenging it.

There is a deep sense of indignation at the core of The Enemy Within, a righteous fury that pelts every cog of "the system" like machine-gun fire. Padilha wants to rile you up and make you seethe over sights other movies might have used for shock effect: The horrific murder of an inmate during a prison riot; a hired killer pulling the teeth from the charred skull of his latest victim; the cowardly, ignominious murder of a major character. Whereas Nascimiento once favored fighting violence with even greater violence, the battle he must wage in The Enemy Within requires a lot more finesse than a well-stocked arsenal. Over the course of the movie, he and his arch-enemy Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a human rights activist who constantly decries police brutality, eventually find themselves on the same side.

Padilha, who landed the gig of directing the upcoming reboot of Robocop on the strength of this film, knows how to orchestrate elaborate action sequences, including a near-surreal aerial attack by police helicopters on drug dens (apocalypse now, indeed.) Like Michael Mann, Padilha also relishes the tactile aspects of gunfights and car chases and bullets plowing into metal. The movie is saddled with an incessant, utterly superfluous voiceover narration that exists only to keep summarizing the plot and state the stunningly obvious (e.g. "Rio’s public security was in the hands of crooks" or "Politicians only care about the media .") Elite Squad: The Enemy Within would have been a better, more subtle movie without it. The ending also feels more than a little convenient; the film loses its merciless nerve at the last moment. But a less-accessible Elite Squad might not have reached as many people, and for all his social concerns, Padilha is first and foremost an entertainer. His take on cops-and-robbers just happens to pack the punch of a bazooka.

Available on DVD: “Take Shelter”

Everything seems fine at first in Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ deeply moving, deeply troubling film. Curtis LaForche (an extraordinary Michael Shannon) is the crew chief for a small sand-mining outfit in an Ohio town.

It’s a good job. He has good friends and a beautiful wife — played by The Tree of Life’s beautiful wife, Jessica Chastain. Their 6-year-old daughter is hearing impaired, but they’re talking to doctors about a cochlear implant, and his company’s health plan should cover the cost. They’ve even got money saved for vacation.

And then, Curtis starts having these dreams. The kind of dreams that feel real, that physically and psychically hurt, that are full of doom and dread.

He doesn’t let on about the nightmares, doesn’t share his torment with his wife, Samantha. But it isn’t long before she senses something is wrong. The LaForches’ world is beginning to unravel.

On one level, Take Shelter is the story of a man who may be wrestling with madness. Curtis’ mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the possibility that he could fall prey to a similar illness has long lurked in his consciousness. But Curtis also feels — he knows — that his dreams are signaling something momentous, apocalyptic.

Nichols’ film — with its telling specificity of place, of relationships, and with heartbreaking performances from both Shannon and Chastain — traces Curtis’ downward spiral and the devastating effects it has on his marriage, his family, his friendships.

But the anxiety and anger Shannon projects can be read as metaphor, too. The profound unease evident across the land right now — a crisis of confidence in government, uncertainty about the economy, joblessness, foreclosures, mounting poverty, a sense that things are turning bad, and turning fast — all of this is captured in Take Shelter, in the look in Curtis’ eyes.

Shannon received an Oscar nomination for his small but striking turn in 2008's Revolutionary Road, playing a damaged soul who could see right through the sham of a couple’s marriage. He has played unhinged heavies before, too, and has a presence that demands attention. But the sadness and pain he carries around with him in Nichols’ movie are so palpable, and so finely modulated, that his past work pales by comparison. It’s impossible not to empathize with Shannon’s Curtis, to feel his burden as if it were ours.

And if I sounded dismissive in describing Chastain as the "beautiful wife," well, she is beautiful, but the despair and — this is what’s so striking — the faith she projects in Nichols’ film, as Samantha struggles to find a way into Curtis’ tortured inner life, is pitch-perfect and riveting.

Take Shelter, which, it should be said, boasts haunting but seamless visual effects, is a movie for this moment in time, this moment in our lives.