The election is over, thank God. The economy is still tanking, I’m still getting into hot-headed debates with conservatives on other blogs, and there are still endless problems plaguing our world. But with change finally on the horizon, I’m ready to go back to one of my favorite pursuits during tough times: escaping into the movies. I’ve seen a slew of great movies since Election Day and I thought I’d briefly “review” them here. It’s an eclectic group, to be sure, and not one that would typically be labeled as escapist fare. Let’s see…out of the ten films, all involve some kind of family dysfunction, nine include scenes of intense violence, seven involve various forms of mental illness, and five feature the death of a young child. Fun times at the movies! I’ll list them in alphabetical order since I’d rather not rank them:
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. At the beginning of this film, we meet a boy and his picture perfect family—his beautiful, loving mother, his sweet older sister, and his caring, attentive father. They live in a spectacular mansion and are giving a glittering party full of beautifully dressed guests to celebrate the father’s recent promotion. Everything about the boy’s life seems charmed—like something out of a fantasy. Oh…did I mention that they were Nazis? Not only Nazis, but the father’s promotion involves leaving Berlin and dragging his family to Poland to assume his new post as commandant at Auschwitz. Oy. Bruno hates moving to the countryside, but he’s curious about the farm that he can see from his upstairs window. But why are all the farmers wearing blue-striped pajamas? One day, while secretly exploring the area around the “farm,” he comes across a boy his age wearing the pajamas and strikes up a friendship with him through the electrified barbed-wire fence. This captivating film is told entirely through Bruno’s perspective. We see the mother’s gradual disillusionment and horror with her husband’s work, the sister’s infatuation with an SS guard and her transformation into a rabid Hitler Youth, and Bruno’s own struggles as he comes to terms with his beloved father’s true ideology. There are some plot points in this film that defy historical credulity, but the ending is so chilling that it stays with you long after leaving the theatre. Special kudos to Vera Farmiga as the perfect Nazi wife and Asa Butterfield as the innocent boy who just wants to help his pajama-clad best friend.
The Changeling. This Clint Eastwood film has been getting mixed reviews but we loved it. Any film that recreates Los Angeles in the 1920s is going to get me going and the depiction of this true story had me riveted throughout. Angelina Jolie is sure to get an Oscar nomination for her fierce portrayal of Christine Collins, whose nine-year-old son goes missing one day in 1928. Months later, to her utter joy, the boy is found across the country, a victim of kidnapping. The LAPD, needing a PR boost, make a big deal out of the successful end to this case, but when they reunite mother and son, Christine is stunned. “That is not my son,” she tells the officials at the LAPD-organized photo op. But the police department insists she is confused and send her home with the boy. The department is so eager to avoid embarrassment that when Christine continues to maintain that the boy is not her son, they have her locked up in an insane asylum, something that was shockingly easy for the police to do in the 1920s. Meanwhile, a gruesome serial murder case comes to light near Riverside. I’ll leave it at that, and agree with the critics who said that the film lacked a certain nuance (characters tend to be all-good or all-bad). Still, I found this film to be gripping, including its depiction of how independent women were treated in back in the day and how easy it was for them to be abused by male authority figures. The minute I got home I spent hours researching the real story and was surprised by how close Eastwood came to the physical appearance of these characters. Christine’s lawsuits against the LAPD brought some much-needed changes to that institution.
A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel). If this were an American film, the dysfunction shown by this family gathered together for the holidays would be amusing, over-the-top, and bookended with poignant scenes showing the love that was underneath the family drama. Not so in this story by French director Arnaud Desplechin. In this film, the multi-layered dysfunction leaves every family relationship in ruins, except the one between the heads of the family, Abel and Junon. Years earlier, when their son Joseph was a child, he developed a rare blood disease. A bone marrow transplant was needed to save the boy’s life but no one in the family, including the couple’s young daughter, was a match. Abel and Junon conceived a third child in an attempt to find a donor, but alas, young Henri was not a match either. Sadly, Joseph died at seven. Years later, Junon develops the same disease and needs a marrow transplant. This time one of her children is a match. But...it gets complicated. As Junon, 65-year-old Catherine Deneuve is a revelation. While her ageless beauty is referred to in the script (“Grandpa, how come you’re old and Grandma isn’t?”), Deneuve plays against type in a courageous and exquisite performance. Although she loves her husband, she could take or leave her kids, especially Henri. My favorite exchange in the film breaks a taboo about cinematic mothers—Junon: You still don’t love me, do you? Henri: No, maman, I never did. Junon: Me neither. This film is disturbing, funny, and maddening, and like many French films, it ends without much resolution. I loved it.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father. This heartbreaking documentary by Kurt Kuenne tells of the brutal murder of his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, by his estranged and mentally unhinged girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner. Following the murder, Turner escapes to Canada. Bagby’s parents go to Canada and work to get Turner extradited back to the U.S. but the mourning couple faces many hurdles in the Canadian justice system. Then, a bombshell: Turner is pregnant with Bagby’s child. The film follows the crazy case against Shirley Turner, paints a wonderful portrait of Andrew Bagby, and shows the Herculean strength of his parents who form a relationship with their son’s murderer just so they can have access to their grandson. This is a devastating and cautionary tale about mental illness and the legal system. Several tragedies depicted in the film (including a whopper I’m not telling you) could have been avoided were it not for the ineffective bureaucracies that victimized the Bagbys.
Happy-Go-Lucky. I am a huge Mike Leigh fan and also an admirer of actress Sally Hawkins who stars in this film. Dawson plays Poppy Cross, a cheerful London schoolteacher whose relentless optimism drives everyone around her a little nuts. I so wanted to love this film but I found a lot of it difficult to sit through. Why? Because Poppy’s relentless optimism drove ME nuts! I wanted to be inspired and moved by Poppy’s positive attitude to life’s challenges but instead I just wanted to slap her. Does that say more about me or the film? Nevertheless, it is chock full of excellent performances and I give Hawkins a lot of credit for making this irrepressibly happy character seem believable by the end of the story. As in many Mike Leigh films, the smaller parts are so well written and conceived that they shine as brightly as the leads. I loved Alexis Zegerman as Poppy’s refreshingly cynical flatmate Zoe, Karina Fernandez as a hot-blooded Flamenco teacher hiding her pain, and Eddie Marsan as a driving instructor with serious anger management issues.
Prodigal Sons. If you’re going to see only one documentary this year, do your best to find a screening of Kimberly Reed’s moving family memoir called “Prodigal Sons.” What starts as the filmmaker’s journey home to a small town in Montana to attend her high school reunion turns into a fascinating exploration of gender and identity with more plot twists than you can keep track of. It all comes together beautifully, painting a portrait of this amazing family that defies all stereotypes. I’ll keep some of the film’s stunning revelations to myself in case you go see it, but I’ll reveal a jaw-dropping one that occurs more than midway through the film. One of Kim’s reasons for returning to Montana was to reconnect with her adopted brother who’d been having a lot of challenges in his life. The brother had been trying to locate his birth mother with no success but during the filming he finally finds her. They connect but she dies just before they are scheduled to meet. And then the shocker. The birth mother turns out to be Rebecca Welles, the daughter of screen goddess Rita Hayworth and director Orson Welles. This sends the film into a bizarre side trip to Serbia to meet up with Welles’ companion during his later years. It’s fascinating stuff, but just to show how compelling this family’s story is, the surprise Welles/Hayworth connection never becomes the focal point of the film. Go see this, you won’t be disappointed.
Rached Getting Married. I enjoyed this Jonathan Demme film very much. Anne Hathaway gives her best performance to date, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she scores an Oscar nomination. Note to young actresses, particularly those who got their start in Disney movies: find a script in which you can play a tormented drug addicted ex-model who is just coming out of 10 years of rehab and you will be surrounded by Oscar buzz. The Rachel in the title is Hathaway’s sister who is getting married and is highly resentful of her sister’s squeaky wheel always getting the grease, even on her special day. Bill Irwin is particularly good as the girls’ emotional father and it was a treat to see Debra Winger back on the screen as their distant, emotionally complex mother. What a great actress she is in her brief scenes. The film was written by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director Sidney Lumet and the granddaughter of Lena Horne. Her biracial background is present in this film but not an important plot point. By the end of the film we feel like we were guests at this weekend-long wedding and that’s my only complaint—there are far too many scenes showcasing the family’s talented musician friends playing all sorts of instruments. At one point, stepmother Anna Deveare Smith is trying to deal with the friction between Anne Hathaway and her sister but she can barely hear herself think because of her musical houseguests. Smith steps out onto the porch and says, “Could you guys please SHUT UP for a while?” Exactly.
The Secret Life of Bees. I just took Leah to see this chick flick based on Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel. We loved it. Sure, some elements of the plot were a little hard to believe, but despite the fantasy elements, the realities of life for African-Americans in the South in 1964 are movingly depicted. A teenaged Dakota Fanning does a good job as Lily Owens. Lily escapes her abusive father and rescues housekeeper Rosaleen (played by Jennifer Hudson in a much better follow-up to her Oscar-winning turn in “Dreamgirls” than her appearance in the “Sex and the City” film) from the town’s white racist thugs. They find shelter in the magical home of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, played by Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys. Is there any way I could get Queen Latifah to adopt me? Does it matter that I’m 10 years older than she is? I find her one of the most appealing actresses in films today and she evokes a kind of mother love that seems all-powerful.
Synecdoche, New York. Damn it, I wanted to love this film. I like writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s work and I am crazy about every member of this talented cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams—you can’t find better people than that. And I so admire filmmakers who veer from conventional linear storytelling, playing with time and space and reality in general. But…oh, I just couldn’t handle the driving existential angst and surreal approach to the main character’s crumbling life. I know people who think this film is a brilliant masterpiece and I feel terribly unhip criticizing it in any way but all I know is I needed to down half a bottle of Advil when it was over. Maybe it was the mood I was in. I should really see it again, there’s so much to take in here, but I…just…don’t…want…to. And forgive me, smart people who made this film, but was it really necessary to give it a title that is literally impossible to pronounce? You should have heard the line of people at the box office. Final note to Catherine Keener: I love your work—you play those unsympathetic self-absorbed bitchy women so well, but boy, I’d love to see you in a different kind of role for a change. Maybe in your upcoming live action/ animation film of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are?” Can’t wait for that although last I heard the studio was delaying it because they weren’t happy with the tone of the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers script or the little boy who plays Max. Serves them right for not hiring my nephew Sam who actually auditioned for the part (along with a million other boys). Okay, he’s not an actor but I think he would have been perfect for that role!
Witch Hunt. In this documentary by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy (with narration by Sean Penn), we learn about the rash of wild child sexual abuse accusations that were levied against a host of innocent people in Bakersfield in the early 1980s. Thanks to the opportunistic Kern County District Attorney and his crew of untrained, abusive investigators who forcibly coerced young children into telling them whatever they wanted to hear, many families were destroyed in the process. The film focuses on nine innocent victims of this period who served prison time (between six and 20 years) in California’s roughest prisons. All were eventually exonerated but, shockingly, the power-crazy District Attorney is still in office despite the civil suits that he currently faces. In the end, this is a horrifying but inspiring story. I saw it at the AFI Festival and got to meet the subjects of the film who miraculously survived years of injustice with positive attitudes.
Hey, I told you the list of films was intense. To close, here’s a brief list of upcoming films that make me want to camp out at the theatres where they’re opening:
Australia. This World War II era film looks right up my alley. I was glad for Nicole Kidman that she could finally use her real accent until I realized she was playing an English aristocrat. I like Hugh Jackman but I hope his part doesn’t revolve around his hunky torso as it seems to in the trailers. (November 26)
The Reader. Loved the book by Bernhard Schlink and again, the World War II plot has my name all over it. The thought of Kate Winslet as a former SS guard at Auschwitz who defends herself in a war crimes trial makes me giddy with anticipation. (December 10)
Doubt. Kendall and I both think Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar nomination just for her performance in the trailer. This film version of John Patrick Stanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play looks fantastic, I can’t wait. (December 12)
Revolutionary Road. I didn’t care for “Titanic” but I’m thrilled that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have reunited for this saga about a troubled couple in the repressed 1950s. Both of these fine actors are only getting better with age and the preview looks so damn good it makes me want to get in line six weeks in advance. (December 26)