Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) designs footwear for a large company. When his trendy innovative new design causes the company to lose almost a billion dollars in sales, Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin), his boss, fires him. His girl friend dumps him and Drew goes to his apartment ready to do away with himself. 


As he is about to do the deed, the phone rings. His sister Heather (Judy Greer) is frantic. Their father has died on a visit to his hometown in Elizabethtown, KY where he grew up. Their mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) wants Drew to go to Elizabethtown and bring their father home to  for cremation. 


On the red-eye flight to Louisville Drew is attended to by a chatty flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Drew doesn’t want to talk, but she is irrepressible. She even gives him directions to Elizabethtown  – with her phone number written on the paper as well. 


When Drew finally arrives (he misses the exit) he meets relatives who are kindly and extend southern hospitality, but who are also eccentric and a bit odd. They make a fuss over him and he discovers who his father’s family really is. They want to bury his dad in the family plot at the cemetery and a bit of a struggle develops. It is resolved when Hollie and Heather arrive for the memorial service. Meanwhile Drew is staying in town at the hotel and contacts Claire. A romance develops.


Elizabethtown was written and directed by Cameron Crowe who also gave us the Academy Award winners Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Elizabethtown may garner some awards from groups that appreciate wholesomeness no matter how the film is put together, but the movie didn’t work for me. I was talking to a friend from rural Virginia today and she said she and her son loved the movie because all those quirky relatives are their family, but that wasn’t enough for me.


The film is like a freight train made up of all kinds of cars hooked haphazardly together bouncing down the tracks from the city to hicksville. This could be a fine premise for a film~ just not this one.


Elizabethtown takes on a topic like suicide, but we never really believe Drew is going to do it. Hollie, Susan Sarandon, does a lovely tap dance in memory of her deceased husband, but I couldn’t figure out why. I don’t think the film knew if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama, or even a good mixture. Bill Banyon, played by Bruce McGill, had done something horrible to Drew’s dad regarding a business deal, but we never find out enough information to balance out the weight the script gives it.


Shall I continue?


Sure, there are themes of family, forgiveness, growing up, looking at life as a journey, accepting responsibility, and so forth, but the film never engaged me enough to care.


Afriend and colleague of mine, Craig Detweiller, has written a Bible study-guide for the film using the lyrics of all the songs on the sound track. You can access it at www.HollywoodJesus.com . This is an ingenious idea, and perhaps by considering the film this way, one can appreciate it more. (But I didn’t even hear the music.)


The thing is, Orlando Bloom is prettier than Kirsten Dunst and he has better hair.


Corpse Bride, The

Young Victor Van Dort (voice of Johnny Depp) is to marry Victoria Everglot (voice of Emily Watson).  He goes with his stuffy parents Nell and William (voices of Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) to the bride’s house for the wedding rehearsal. Victor is not very keen on getting married, and neither is Victoria but they have a chat at the piano while the parents (the Everglots' are the voices of Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney) are preparing things and the young people get on quite well. Just when it seems the marriage might go ahead well for them, Victor fumbles his lines during practice and cannot get the marriage vows straight. So the vicar sends him off to the dark forest to practice. While there he stumbles and the ring he is carrying slides onto what seems like a twig. Instead it is the skeleton hand of a mostly decomposed Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter) with a cheerful maggot popping out of one eye socket, who had been buried in her wedding dress. She declares that she and Victor are now married and the fun begins.


This rather ingenious animated gothic treat comes from director Tim Burton (and Mike Johnson). Burton is a master story-teller of the fantastic (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, etc.) and The Corpse Bride, a musical spoof on old fashioned (arranged because of financial circumstances) marriage, played out between the undead and the living. It might also be a tale about how purgatory - and romantic movies for that matter - functions. Everything is resolved, and peace comes to the Corpse Bride when she makes a sacrifice for Victor. She sets him free, and in so doing, frees herself from the bonds of an underworld, a kind of  half-way place for souls who haven’t quite got things right yet.


The animation is stylized and clever, the voices full of character, the sound and music complimentary.


The Corpse Bride is a fun movie and probably has a lot more going on than I have mentioned here. Looking back at Big Fish, about how a story uses metaphors to stand in for truth, we learn that a story might be true even if it isn’t factual. So, what’s true about The Corpse Bride, do you think? What’s the metaphor? Maybe we all need to be content with what we have when the alternative might be … a corpse…. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2005

In Her Shoes

    When gorgeous younger sister Maggie (Cameron Diaz) gets drunk at her 10th high school reunion she calls her sister Rose (Toni Collette) to come and get her. Their dominating step-mother Sydelle (Candace Azzara) refuses to let Maggie stay at the family home again because of her continual self-destructive behavior so Rose takes Maggie to her apartment. But Maggie, who is dyslexic, not only cannot get and keep a job, she refuses to try. She helps herself to Rose’s gorgeous shoe collection, and trashes the place. Rose, an attorney who is less attractive than Maggie, comes home from work one day to find Maggie in bed with Rose’s law partner boy friend. Rose kicks Maggie out.           

      During Maggie’s brief stay at her parents’ home she had gone through all the drawers pilfering cash and came across birthday cards with the cash gifts still in them that her grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine)had sent her and Rose over the years. Their rich doormat of a father Michael (Ken Howard) had never wanted the girls to have a relationship with their grandmother after his wife’s death because of Ella’s interfering ways. Neither Maggie nor Rose, it turns out, even knew they had grandparents.

     Instead of going to New York, Maggie takes the train to hoping Grandma is rich.

     Ella is thrilled at first to have Maggie visit but wonders where Rose is. Now a widow, Ella lives alone in a retirement village and helps other residents with their shopping. Maggie struts her stuff in front of the senior citizens, basks in the sun, and refuses to work. Ella really wants Maggie’s "vacation" to be over and when she discovers Maggie going through her drawers looking for money, Ella challenges her. If Maggie will take a job in the rest home facility, Ella will match her pay, penny for penny.

     Ella is the grandmother every child needs in this spin-off of the Cinderella story. Ella challenges Maggie to grow up, and to develop the good character she knows is buried beneath the beautiful face and body. Ella also goes in search for Rose, who needs her grandmother’s loving, magic wand, too. The reason Rose spends so much money on shoes is to make herself feel better, because “shoes always fit.”

     I liked all the characters but Shirley MacLaine shines as Ella. She has a pair of shoes of her own suggesting that every woman needs a fairy grandmother to love her. The supporting retirement center cast made up of Jerry Adler, who as Lewis Feldman has a crush on Ella, and Francine Beers as the wry and kind Mrs. Lefkowitz, are a charming ensemble that embraces both Maggie and Rose. The well-crafted script was written by Susanna Grant (Erin Brockovich) and based on the best-selling book by Jennifer Weiner.

     Even though Maggie’s pre-transformation behavior may make some viewers uncomfortable, stay with it. In Her Shoes is about seeing ourselves and others. It’s about growing-up, empathy, family, mental illness, sibling rivalry, acceptance, romance, mentoring young people, transformation, character, humor, pathos, and lots of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is never a chick flick, never trite but a rare and intelligent woman’s movie worth seeing.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story



Among the year's family films Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story appeals in a particular way to dads and daughters. Dreamer, a gentle horse-opera, (or Seasbiscuit-lite) is a multi-generational story of a family's struggles, disappointments, and dreams that really do come true.


Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) runs hisfather's now-failed horse farm near Lexington, KY, but works for a wealthy trainer, Palmer (David Morse), to make a living. Ben's disappointment with life colors his relationship with his wife, Lily, (Elisabeth Shue), daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) and his father, Pop (Kris Kristofferson).


Ben uncharacteristically takes Cale to work with him on the morning of a big race. Ben senses that the champion filly, Sonya, (short for the Spanish name SonĂ£dor meaning "dreamer") is not well enough to run. He tells Palmer, but he insists that she race as planned. During the race Sonya collapses with a broken leg. The owner wants Ben to put her down then and there but Ben refuses because Cale is present. Ben takes Sonya home as severance pay because Palmer fires him on the spot.


Two assistant trainers, Balon (Luis Guzman) and Mandelo (Freddy Rodriguez), a former jockey, join Ben to heal Sonya so that she can breed. Cale loves Sonya and spends as much time as she can with her. However, the vet tells them that Sonya is infertile and their hopes for an eventual winner and prize money are dashed.


When Ben announces that he is selling Sonya, Cale decides to ride away with her, taking with them her dreams for her dad's success and happiness. But Sonya bolts and begins to run incredibly fast to everyone's amazement. Suddenly the situation changes and Sonya's value soars. To avoid ownership problems, and to show his growing faith in his daughter, Ben registers Sonya in Cale's name. He lets her make all the decisions about Sonya's races, including the famed Breeder's Cup.


This is the moment when Dakota Fanning as the lonely child Cale takes possession of the action; from then on, the horse and the film belong to her.



Dreamer, written and directed by John Gatins (Gods and Monsters) is faintly based on a true story, but what gives it the feel-good ending we know is coming is the reassurance that people can change, and that even a horse can be a means of grace.


Miss Fanning, one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood, proves that she can not only take direction but can act as well. Throughout the first part of Dreamer Fanning portrays Cale, a child oppressed by her father's melancholy, despite Lily's efforts to help them bond.  As Sonya's owner Cale matures before our eyes and demonstrates hope and faith that Sonya will win the famed Breeder's Cup for her dad. 


At first Dreamer seemed to be not only predictable but formulaic. Yet it goes beneath the surface when it addresses racial discrimination, greed, and power relations between management and workers, as well as family, relationships, communication issues, and faith.


Above all Dreamer highlights a girl, a daughter, as the family's healing leader. Sonya is the symbol that embodies thedreams of each member of Cale's family; the horse drives the action, so to speak. Sonya is injured, like the family. She rises up and runs free, as do Cale and her family. When Ben finally notices Cale, he takes a leap of faith and trusts her so she can and does respond with confidence and courage. Like Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and Whale Rider (2002), Dreamer offers girls a sturdy role model in a cinematic world where stories about boys' rites of passage prevail.


The cinematography is beautiful and the film is uncomplicated, inspiring family fare. Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story is a great date movie for 'tween daughters and their dads.


A group Bible Study Guide for Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story that I wrote via Fuller Theological Seminary and posted on the Dreamworks/Dreamer web site can be downloaded free of charge from


http://www.dreamer.dreamworks.com/familyfun/  or


www.pauline.org         or





Saturday, October 15, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

(A partial spoiler)


Very simply, Good Night, and Good Luck is the story of a couple of years in the life of American television/radio journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) that the Encarta encyclopedia describes as “one of the first journalists to provide news broadcasting with a sense of integrity and societal responsibility.”


The action takes place almost completely within the CBS building in New York beginning in October, 1953 and ending about a year later. Murrow (played exceeding well by David Strathairn), with producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney), and their team (played convincingly by many worthy actors, see www.imdb.org for the cast list) decide to investigate the story of an Air Force reserve officer in Michigan who was dismissed from the military as a security risk. There was some vague link between his father and some communist person or entity. The man was never allowed to face his accusers; in fact the charge was sealed in an envelope and never revealed because of national security. Friendly thought there was an immediate link to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) whose unsubstantiated accusations about people being communists or associated with them in any way, had destroyed many lives, mostly by innuendo – never proof. However, Murrow did not want to link McCarthy directly to this situation, but the link was inevitable as was McCarthy’s reaction.


Before the broadcast, Murrow’s team was asked if they had any links, even remote ones that McCarthy could use on them. One man recused himself because his ex-wife had gone to a meeting or belonged to an socialist organization – something he only found out after they divorced.


Murrow offered McCarthy equal time, which he took three weeks later. He used the broadcast to attack Murrow, again, with unsubstantiated claims against his loyalty as an American. He never responded to any of the information that Murrow had broadcast during the original program.


William Paley, head of CBS, (Frank Langhella) wanted to grant editorial freedom to Murrow’s broadcast, and he did. But in the end, Paley phased Murrow out of CBS. Paley, too, was under pressure because the government was (is) the one who grants the broadcast license in the first place. Plus, he said CBS affiliates wanted entertainment, not Murrow’s kind of reporting. Murrow also caused the sponsor, Alcoa, to abandon the show.


The film shows the effect of McCarthy's scare tactics, as well as the writings of journalists who would not go up against him, when one of Murrow's producers commits suicide.


Less clear is the role that Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play in the film. It could be that in the frenetic activity of the news studio, it was one thread I couldn't follow in one screening. (Were they "fellow travelers" who had infiltrated CBS or just breaking the rule that employees could not be married to one another? Or maybe both?)


Murrow caused the beginning of the fall of the Red Scare prophet, Sen. Joseph McCarthy who was investigated by the Army for making unsubstantiated accusations. McCarthy was reprimanded by the Senate, but he kept his seat.


The events in the film are book-ended by speech Murrow gave in 1958 that took a broad swipe at television, its obsession, and the public’s, with entertainment over news - and the perilous situation this creates.


Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the ethics of journalism: was Murrow creating news by his investigative piece, or was his job to just report it? How much, if any, editorializing was ethical?


One of the unique aspects of this film is that it uses original broadcast tape of McCarthy rather than presenting him as a character. Filming the whole thing in black and white made this possible. I thought it very effective.


The issue that was begun 50 years ago, however, remains: is editing, that is, selecting sound bytes and clips that serve the journalist’s purpose, ethical? The filmmakers seem to do the same. Another question is: if they haven’t given us all the exact facts, have they at least given us the truth? From a distance of fifty years we can make a judgment; when it happens daily, it is difficult to tell. Murrow made a point about the need for critical engagement with the news, that is, questioning it - and him, too.


The film is directed by George Clooney who with Steven Soderbergh (an executive producer) are creating their own smart - and frenetic - political commentary genre (think K-Street) and leaving it up to the audience to connect the big black dots. As Murrow believed, there is room enough for diverse political discourse in our country all the time. Dissent is not disloyalty, he said more than once. He also commented on the climate of fear, and its exploitation. (Just listen to your local 11:00pm news and how the anchors lead in stories; fear is a hook to keep us listening, often for no reason; advertising often uses fear as well, fear of not having the best car to fear of one’s deodorant failing. Michael Moore also addressed these kind of media generated fears in Bowling for Columbine.)


For anyone teaching media literacy, communications, and journalism, Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates how well the government, commercial media, the news, and economics all work together. One might ask how free speech really is. I think this is a film worthy of our attention because it breaks open history and asks us what happened, what really happened, and will it happen again?


What have we learned about journalism fifty years on?


Truth, it would seem, is the only antidote to fear.


From one of Murrow’s speeches (quoted at least in part in the film):


"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.


“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." Good night, and good luck."  See It Now broadcast, March 9, 1954.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Innocent Voices


Innocent Voices

(Voces Innocentes)

A film by Luis Mandoki




Innocent Voices (Voces Inocentes), a new film by Luis Mandoki (Message in a Bottle, When a Man Loves a Woman) opens this week. It tells the story of the Salvadorian Civil War (1978 – 1984) as seen through the eyes of a child. This year Innocent Voices, along with Hotel Rwanda, shared the Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) for their outstanding contribution to social justice through cinema.


Innocent Voices won the Glass Bear Award from the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year as well as a Silver Ariel in Mexico (Ariels are Mexico’s main film industry award.), and Best Film from the Seattle Film Festival.


Chava’s Story


Chava, played by Carlos Padilla


The feet of soldiers march through rain in the jungles of <?El Salvador. It is 1981 and the peasant farmers and Salvadorian Army are fighting over land rights. The farmers have now organized into a guerilla force and civil war has begun.


Cuscatazingo is the small town where 11-year old Oscar lives and it lies between the guerilla stronghold and the regular army that is guided by US military advisors. He is known affectionately as Chava (Carlos Padilla). Chava lives with his mother, Kella, (Leonor Varela), a dress-maker, his older sister and younger brother on the outskirts of the town. Their house is barely more than a shack made of tin and wood, but it is home to the little family at the beginning of the war when the father deserted them for the United States. Chava is now the man of the house.



               Kella, Chava's mother, played by Leonor Varela


With increasing frequency the guerillas and soldiers engage in battle at night, regardless of the people who live all around. The homes are damaged by gunfire and mortar and many of the town’s people are killed.


Chava and his sister go to school in the town and one day soldiers come to conscript boys into the regular army who are from 12 – 14 years old. None of the boys wants to turn twelve. Chava runs to the parish priest to tell him what has happened. The padre is shocked by the actions of the soldiers who also kidnap local women and struggles to protect the people. He aids the guerillas and is eventually taken away by the military.


One night, Chava’s uncle (Jose Maria Yazpik) sneaks home for a visit. He urges Kella to let Chava come with him to join the guerillas because the soldiers will conscript him otherwise. Kella refuses. Meanwhile, life for the children goes on even with the curfew and the continual threat of gunfire. Chava plays with his school mates and even has a girl friend. He makes friends with a bus driver (Jesus Ocha) who hires him to collect fares. The soldiers come looking for boys more frequently, and the youngsters hide out by laying flat on the roofs so they will not be seen. Things become so bad after one battle that Kella decides to move back to the village where her mother (Ofelia Medina) lives, thinking it will be safer.


As the warfare becomes more intense and as more young boys are stolen from their homes to become soldiers, Chava makes a decision to join the guerillas. What happens then, and how Chava and his family survive, gives an astonishing and poignant look into the traumatic effect of war on children and the recruitment of child soldiers that continues to this day throughout the world.





A Child’s Perspective


In 1989 actor Raul Julia played the role of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the enduring film by Hollywood priest, Father Bub Kieser. In Romero we see the story of the Salvadorian civil war through the process of human and spiritual awareness that the Archbishop experiences. When Archbishop Romero finally takes the side of the people, the US-backed military had him killed. 75,000 people died during the civil war in El Salvador, more than 8,000 are still missing and one million people were exiled.


Innocent Voices is a film about another Oscar but the same war. Innocent Voices, however, changes the perspective of the audience. All of a sudden we can stoop down to the level of a child and experience what it meant to try to survive when instability, violence and the threat of being kidnapped by your government and forced into becoming a soldier-killer became normal. When Chava turns twelve, his mother only puts eleven candles on the cake. Chava is devastated because he realizes that even in his own family he cannot grow up because it is not safe. Twelve is the age when the military comes to take boys away. It is a decisive moment in the film.


Innocent Voices is the true story of actor-screenwriter Oscar Torres who now lives and works in Los Angeles. Director and co-producer screenwriter Luis Mandoki brings it to the screen with the kind of intimate cinematography that makes us feel part of Chava’s experience, up close and personal. While Carlos Padilla is appealing and authentic as the scrappy Chava, I think the film belongs to Leonor Varella who plays his mother, Kella. Hollywood rarely gives us strong women who are able to fulfill their true nature on film, but here Varella excels as mother, provider, nurturer, protector. Varella’s performance is Oscar worthy and the heart of Innocent Voices.


Children and War


Amnesty International’s Artists for Amnesty www.amnestyusa.org/artistsforamnesty.com) sponsored the Hollywoodpress screening for Innocent Voices on December 13. When questioned about how he reconciles the irony that the very country supporting the civil war in <El Salvador is the one that welcomed him, writer Oscar Torres said that it is a complex and difficult issue, but one that he resolves by thinking in terms of gratitude. Six years after the events in the film, his entire family was reunited in the United States.


The plight of child soldiers (under the age of 18) continues in the world today, with more than 300,000 currently fighting in 40 countries. Innocent Voices tells but one story


When I spoke with director Luis Mandoki after the screening, he said that the message of hope that he offers people of faith in Innocent Voices is that “evenin the worst of circumstances we always have a choice. And even when all seems dark, we have to remember that there is light if we but open our eyes to see.


Innocent Voices, like Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener, and Lord of War, is a brilliantly intense film with the strength to engage audiences. Its story must evoke a humane response from our very souls by the story it tells. 






Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nine Lives

Nine Lives - winner of the 2005 Locarno International Film Festival's Golden Leopard Award

Directed and written by Rodrigo Garcia/ USA

A mother cleans the floors of the Los Angeles County jail hoping for an early release and the warden is sympathetic. At all costs she wants to visit with her daughter, but the prison guards are mean and uncaring.

A troubled young woman bearing a gun visits her younger sister with the intention of confronting their father for something he has done to her in the past.

A divorced wife goes to the funeral of the woman who became her husband's second wife and must confront her love for him.

A mother and her handicapped husband do not speak to each other but communicate only through their daughter, while the mother has an affair with another man.

Four more vignettes are told about nine women (all together) whose lives touch each other's, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, until a woman makes a yearly visit to the cemetary with her young daughter - or so we think.

I just read as essay by Garcia (the son of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in FLM Magazine (The Voice of Independent Film published by Landmark Theatres, www.movienet.com) where he explains, "Hidden behind these women I can explore the stuff that scares me: relationships we cannot escape; the dependence on loved ones; the caretaking of loved ones; the expectations of loved ones; the loss of loved ones. Can we share our innermost self with a loved one? And if we can't - what's left for us?" 

Nine Lives is a very good film that explores life from a woman's point of view in a credible way. The film held my attention throughout, and has a cast of A-list actors. I liked its multiculturalism and ability to create drama instantly in every vignette. The film reminded me in some ways of Crash by Paul Haggis, but only slightly.

Independent films are often such treasures, like Nine Lives.

I wrote about this film briefly in August as part of my report from the Locarno Film Festival. When the prizes from the independent juries were awarded I was able to meet Garcia; he was very affable - surprised I think to meet another American at the festival. I hope the film does well.

Monday, October 10, 2005


It is 1959 and Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), fresh from his success with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, makes the circuit of New York’s rich and famous. He is a raucous raconteur, and entertains listeners in his effeminate style.


Uncertain of what his next project will be, in November he sees a newspaper story about the murder of a family of four in a remote Kansas town. Something tells him that this is the story that will define him as a writer. He calls his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) who had just finished writing To Kill a Mockingbird to be his research assistant and they go to Kansas together.


Although the killers have not yet been caught, Capote starts to interview people and get a sense for how the murders have affected the townspeople. He manipulates everyone to get what he wants, and it works. He finally gets to interview the agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), by dropping celebtrity names to the man’s wife.


Capote’s partner, Jack (Bruce Greenwood), is jealous of the time Truman spends with Nelle and their relationship becomes more strained when Nelle finds a publisher for her book and Jack is still struggling.


When the two killers are caught Capote and Nelle return to the town. Once again, Capote manipulates his way into talking with them, especially Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Capote is fond of telling people he can recall 94% of everything he hears and indeed, he absorbs conversation and every kind of information into his memory for future reference.


When Capote meets Perry for the first time, in the woman’s holding cell in the kitchen of the sheriff’s home, there is an immediate connection, at least from Capote. Over the years and appeals for their death sentence, the two men seem to become friends. Truman even gets the convicted men new lawyers for the appeals, but as time drags on without Perry telling him the real story of what happened that night, Truman loses patience. He is feeling pressure from his publisher to finish the book – which he cannot do until the men are executed. Truman lies to Perry about the title of the book, how much he has written, evhis ability to get them a new lawyer again, everything, so he can manipulate him to tell his story. Capote is not as close to the other killer, Richard Hickock (Mark Pellergino); he holds out for Perry.


Capote is a most fascinating film and Hoffman is incredible as Capote; his range as an actor is going to make history. There are three great conflicts churning in Truman throughout this whole process: he sincerely empathizes with Perry because he understands the loneliness and suffering they shared as children at the hands of their mothers (Truman later characterizes this by saying, “We were raised in the same house, only he went out the back door, and I went out the front.”), he is attracted to Perry as a man, and he is torn by his obligations as a writer to himself and his publisher. Hoffman synthesizes these conflicts in a way that has “Oscar” written all over it.


When Perry is executed, Truman is there at his request, tears of empathy, love, and guilt, flowing down his face. Truman Capote became a tortured soul, his humanity, and conscience at war with his art and ambition.


Capote is not the feel-good film of the week but it is like reading fine literature.


Truman Capote spent four years writing In Cold Blood, a true crime novel, a new genre. Just before the credits roll, we are told that Truman never completed another book. He wrote, "Answered prayers are sometimes worse than unaswered prayers." He died of alcoholism at the age of 60.

Saturday, October 1, 2005

History of Violence, A

          A History of Violence is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. This is no obscure, film noir-ish high concept special F/X tale as we saw in Sin City. This film version of a graphic novel, while violently explicit, is philosophical. It explores the nature of violence in ordinary people, personified by those in hometown middle-America, leaving us with more questions than answers. It is also possible to view the film theologically

The Story


Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a mild-mannered, happily married man with a teen son, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and a young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hays). He owns a small diner in a small town in Indiana. One day, two really bad guys (we know this from the beginning sequence of the film) come in at closing time intending to rob the diner. When one of the men attacks the waitress, Tom fights them both until one of them stabs him in the foot - all the way through. Tom then grabs one of their guns and shoots both of them dead. Instantly, Tom is a hero


Tom’s face is on television and in newspapers everywhere. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) accompanies him home from the hospital. As he mumbles a few words to a reporter, Edie spots a luxury black sedan parked across the street. Edie thinks its more reporters. It isn’t.


When Tom goes back to work, a well-dressed man in sunglasses, accompanied by two other men, comes in the diner. The man’s name is Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and he calls Tom “Joey Cusack”, you know, from Philadelphia. Everyone but Fogarty believes that Tom is who he says he is: the adopted son of supposedly dead parents; a peaceful family man and pillar of the community. Fogarty removes his sunglasses to remind “Joey” how he almost blinded him years before using barbed wire.


Meanwhile, Jack gets bullied at school and refuses to take the bully’s bait and fight.


The sheriff warns Fogarty to stay away, but he returns, stalking Edie and Sarah at the mall. Edie gets a restraining order, but it’s no use. Fogarty and his goons appear at the house and want to take Tom to Philadelphia; they have taken Jack hostage and will release him only if Tom goes with them. A violent scuffle takes place and once again Tom uses one of their guns to kill the two bodyguards. Jack runs into the house and grabs a shotgun. Just as Fogarty and Tom face off, Tom admits he is Joey. Jack overhears this as he pulls the trigger and kills Fogarty.


And this is barely half the story.


The killings in the film seem righteous because they are in self-defense. But at one point the sheriff comes to ask Tom about his identity and all that has happened. He asks: if these violent killings are righteous, why don’t they make sense?


By contrasting Tom’s story with Jack’s dilemma at school the film subtly asks us: from whence does violence arise and when does it ever make sense?


A Theological Lens


         Tom wears a cross throughout most of the film. At first it seems to be jewelry, but the cross continually finds its way out of the folds of his shirt and lays there for us to see.


As Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, showed us last year, Jesus suffered violence at the hands of the Romans and never uttered a word in his own defense. Jesus gave an example of pacifism and non-violence that inspired Christians from the day he died until the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the <st1:place>Roman Empire</st1:place> by the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. This recognition necessitated and justified Christians, who became Roman citizens, to take up arms in the name of the Emperor. State-sponsored violence in self-defense, was rationalized by Christian philosophers as the “just war doctrine” (see paragraph 2302-2317 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church.) However, the Church today has clarified this teaching: war is a last resort. We are, instead, to make peace and avoid war.


To choose peace over violence is the struggle of the grown man, Tom; it is the boy Jack’s dilemma. St. Paul speaks eloquently of a similar conflict struggling in himself


“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Romans 8:17-20 RSV)


Names, water, the cross, the family, and sharing food are all themes and motifs in the film and we find them in Scripture as well.


The cross around Tom’s neck recalls the resurrection of Jesus and the fullness of the Paschal Mystery, rather than the crucifix with his tortured body on it which recalls in a more focused way Jesus’ passion and death. Tom’s cross asks him and us: what difference does my love, my life, and death, and resurrection, make in your life and in the world? Perhaps the filmmaker is asking us: is Jesus still relevant today?


Tom says that he is “Tom” now; he has spent three years in the desert becoming Tom. He tells his wife that meeting her is what saved him. Water is a constant motif in the film,from a water cooler, to bottles, to a lake where Tom finally washes himself and puts on clean clothes. Water is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible, and is a symbol of cleansing, rebirth, and grace.


When Edie realizes that Stall is not Tom’s last name, she is crushed because she and their children have lost their identity. What’s in a name? And if a person falls, even after a long time of trying to do right, can he still be saved? Who will forgive him? What does wearing a cross mean to Tom?


The film actually begins in Tom's diner, where people gather in peace, and share food together. "See you at church," says one man as he leaves the diner. The final scene is the family meal. Tom arrives home, in clean clothes, while the family is eating in silence. And in silence Sarah gets up, takes Tom’s plate, and sets his place among them. 


The Lens of Violence


A History of Violence is about a man’s redemption, a seeming fall from grace, and his restoration to his family and life. But the inner core of the film explores the nature of violence, and our human propensity to revert to violence; even when we have sworn off it, we don’t forget how to be violent, whether physically and or verbally.


In the film’s moral universe, both Tom and Jack have to struggle with the choice between violence and peace to solve their immanent problems. Following Jack’s story, it’s easy to see how a person can get pushed to the breaking point and become violent – but it is a choice. Tom, after a violent youth, chooses peace. But in defending his work place, customers, family and self twenty years later, he easily relapses into violence to obtain a very uncertain peace. Tom and Edie’s changing relationship is shown first in an affectionate scene of intimacy and is then contrasted in a heated, almost animal-like sex scene. This symbolizes how close love and hate are to one another, and how passion can easily make us lose the qualities that make us human.


Director David Cronenberg, known for horror and gore, does not disappoint. And make no mistake; this is a graphically violent movie.


Mortensen plays the complex Tom with detachment. He is the epitome of the co-existence of peace and aggression we all possess. This is fine acting because he makes us wonder who he really is from the very beginning. Ed Harris as Fogarty easily persuades us that under the veneer of an expensive appearance and sunglasses, his soul is as ugly as his scarred eye.


At the end of the day, I think A History of Violence questions the nature of human violence while telling us that violence begets violence - that using violence to make peace never endures. The film also asks if a violent nature is the result of nature or nurture, in people and in society. I also wondered how much a film like this contributes to the culture of violence that we live in: domestic, civil, governmental, and religious. However, because the film seems to affirm that if a person chooses violence as a life-style, as a way to solve problems, there will be lasting consequences. Violence changes us and marks us forever. For example, Edie calls the sheriff – once. After that, the characters take charge. Maybe there wasn’t time to call the sheriff; the thing is no one even tries.


Although this is an uncomfortable film, it has ideas that deserve reflection and conversation should you choose to see it. The film ends in a silent tableau. It is the key to the whole film.


I wrote about MirrorMask in August since it was an entry in the main competition at the Locarno Insternational Film Festival. This a re-post with some added commentary:


MirrorMask, directed by Dave McKean, UK and USA, 2004(produced with Jim Henson Studios)


In Brighton, England, the daughter of parents who own a traveling circus, rebels about being part of it. When her mother gets sick and is hospitalized, her father must confront his growing financial difficulties that means the circus crew is about to leave him. The girl, about 16 years old, has a long dream initiated by guilt for not apologizing to her mother for her rudeness and rebellion. 


The film seems to be a dream about growing up and how to sort out sorrow.


This is a surreal, creative, artsy film mixing reality and high concept animation. It is possible to follow the story although  the mix of Lewis Carroll and Georges Melies motifs (mirrors and the sun) other dark fantasy elements. But trying to figure out what one-eyed spiders mean rendered it rather boring for me. Also, the girl's personality or response to her situation is inconsistent - whether due to the script, acting or direction, I couldn't tell. This impressionist  film looks like it must have cost a fortune to produce, but in reality it was made for about four million dollars. I think this would only have a select audience, but it is being released nation-wide this weekend with write-ups even in Wired magazine. MirrorMask reminded me of low budget fantasy The Dust Factory, which did not do well in general release in the U.S, but you just can never tell.


Family, coming-of-age, guilt, fear, and reconciliation are some of the themes of this dark fantasy.


Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow)’s father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins) has just died. He was a brilliant professor of mathematics who in his early years did some incredible proofs that had an impact on mathematics and applied science. One of Robert’s doctoral students, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes through her father’s office the day before the funeral. He finds a notebook with what seems to be a new proof. Catherine thinks he only wants to publish it to become famous, something he denies.


Claire (Hope Davis), Catharine’s sister, arrives for the funeral. She intends to only stay for a day. She thinks Catherine is unstable, having quit school to care for her mentally ill father. Meanwhile, Catherine has flashbacks about her father; he also appears to her. 


Catherine has a melt down during the funeral and while the funeral gathering afterwards winds on, she and Hal have a brief fling. Afterwards, Catherine accuses Hal of sleeping with her just to get the notebook. He tells her he was only getting it to gift it back to her. She doesn’t believe him. It is revealed that Catherine is herself a world class mathematician when the author of the ‘proof’ Hal discovers is put in doubt by the people who are closest to Catherine: Hal and Claire.


[proof]  is adapted from a play by David Auburn, but the transfer to the screen works. (Some plays that are made into movies are mind-numbing because of too much dialogue instead of dependence on visuals to tell much of the story: case in point 2004’s Closer; so tedious.) Other elements signal a play: the simplicity of the scenes: most of the action takes place in the house. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) keeps the dramatic tenor of the film even throughout, between plot and characters (one of which is higher mathematics), even when the characters themselves are anything but even.


[proof] is about higher math but it also asks questions about love: how do you prove it? How do you disprove it? In math can you “trust” an answer? In life, can you trust the word of another, even when there seems to be proof that would contradict their assertions? Can you trust a mad man, or a mad woman? Can you trust love between a parent and child, siblings, a man and a woman? What kind of proof do you need? When is it time to have faith, to believe? What proof do you need? Proof, then, is also about epistemology: how do we know?


The math elements of the film are fascinating especially to a non-math person such as myself. There is a shot of a book called “discreet mathematics” in the film that sent me scrambling to find out what it means. Ask Jeeves; I did. Some parts are reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind, but not enough to be distracting. If anything, I think the links between CBS’s Friday night crime drama, Numb3ers were more obvious (Numb3ers is of my favorite shows). We are never quite sure if the character of Catherine, played convincingly by Paltrow, is ill or not, and the mystery of the proof’s authorship kept me hooked, even if I had no idea what it proved – or not. [proof] is a “small” film that keeps its focus. I enjoyed [proof] very much.


On the news this morning, Jeffrey Lyons, NBC/Channel 4’s critic here in Los Angeles almost seemed enthusiastic about Duma being released this week. He called it a good family film shot in exotic places (or words to that effect.) I would have to agree.


When I previewed the film several months ago, there were continuity gaps that I am sure must have been cleaned up by now. Having said this, Duma is a fine watch with one of my favorite actors, Campbell Scott playing the role of the father, Peter.


One day, somewhere in the South African outback, Peter and his son Xan (Alex Michaeletos) come across a baby cheetah. They take it home and raise it. Peter soon dies and Kristin (Hope Davis), Xan’s mother, sells the farm and they move to the city. Duma (the name means ‘cheetah’) accompanies them but wrecks havoc in the apartment. When he follows Xan to school, where Xan is not happy, they find a motorcycle with a bucket seat, and flee to the wilderness. Once there, they meet Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker) who is also on a journey of his own. They travel together for awhile but are eventually separated as they make their way home, wherever that may be.


Duma is a traditional coming-of-age-quest-animal story, but this one is fresh and shot against South Africa’s gorgeous wilderness landscape - that is itself one of the main characters.


Some themes are:


·        Family

·        Friendship

·        Trust

·        The environment

·        Wild animals and their relationship to humans,

·        Reconciliation.


Reconciliation, in one way or another, is the subtle over-arching theme of the film. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the nation’s journey, and ours as well.


The reason I say this is because at the beginning of the film Peter and Xan stop at a roadside restaurant to eat and Peter begins a conversation with a stranger. Xan is embarrassed and asks him why he always does that - talk with strangers. Peter answers that there a billions of people on the planet and it is good to get to know some of them (or something to that effect - it's been a while since I saw the film.)