Hollywoodland is a sad little movie about sad people living in a shiny town where no smile is big or fake enough. Though the film is not really about the suicide of George Reeves, a small time actor who's best known for playing Superman on the 50's television series, it uses the career of Reeves, his personality, his demise, and the ensuing investigation by a no-luck but clever private detective (Adrian Brody) to spin a yarn about the insecurity and disconnect that exists under cover of Hollywood's bright lights. The film's commentary about fame and misfortune comes through loud and clear, but at the same time we are treated to a highly engrossing Elmore Leanord type mystery.
The film is carried out in appropriate 'noire' fashion by writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter, and most of the cast fits in like a trench coat and a wispy cloud of cigarette smoke. Brody was built for stuff like this (and apparently about any other type of film). Diane Lane in another rather fearless role as an aging beauty and Bob Hoskins as her devoted philandering (you heard it here first) movie mogul husband are naturals here as well. Since we are discussing performances, we must point out TV actor Jeffrey DeMunn as Reeves' agent in a remarkably quirky and unique embodiment of a character.
What was surely unexpected is the return of Ben Affleck to his roots in a supporting role in a dialogue driven movie. After just a horrible run of big budget, over-the-top travesties and choices (with some exceptions like the sweet and funny Jersey Girl), Affleck almost made us forget about Dazed and Confused and Good Will Hunting. Affleck will surely be the underdog favorite to pick up some Supporting Actor trophies this season for this hefty and substantial "supporting" role. In Hollywoodland, he is noticeably older though still boyish, but there is just a heart wrenching glow to his performance as the overconfident under-talented Reeves. Perhaps Affleck, who would prefer to have been considered more of a legitimate actor than Matt Damon's tag along buddy, feels some of the anguish of Reeves and lets it fly in the portrayal. Reeves, like so many of us and especially those to be found on the fringes of "artistic" communities as in Los Angeles, aspires and hopes and dreams to be so much greater and larger than the average life allows. Most of us accept early on that the novel won't get written, or the stand-up act at Carolines won't lead to the pilot, but there are many who carry the vision of stardom and success wherever they go like a suitcase filled with bronze medals. Especially those who are teased with success, as Reeves was.
What is interesting of course is that we heard of Reeves. His suicide (or murder as the movie can be seen to suggest) made the front pages. "Superman Takes His Life" or "Superman is Dead" or "Superman puts a Bullet in Skull" or what have you. Reeves made it - one might think. But dreams of fame evolve. And where once it would have just been enough to be recognized, it becomes apparent only later that this is not quite enough. For Reeves, the tights and child admiration were killing the serious leading man, and did eventually lead the man to a serious and solemn end.
CATCH A FIRE
By Jordan Hiller and Dawid Malan (Born: Johannesburg, South Africa)
It has been almost sixteen years since the unbanning of the ANC (African National Congress) and thirteen since democratic elections were held in South Africa, as the country emerged from the ugly official national policy called apartheid. Though it has ended and the country struggles in the aftermath to make reparations and somehow cure its history and close the wounds; as America has learned from its racist past and as Germany has learned from its Nazi past, forgiving and forgetting is a nice sentiment, but not necessarily a realistic option. Stopping a practice does not erase what the practice set into motion when it was alive, and apartheid is no exception.
A film such as Catch a Fire - which tells the "based on true events" story of Shangaan tribesman Patrick Chamusso and his brutal treatment by the white security police lead by inspector Tim Robbins' Nick Vos, eventually turning Chamusso from law abiding citizen to effective terrorist - brings the past into the present. It once again lashes the villain for long ago committed crimes. As Jews, with our two most recent historical traumas related to the Holocaust and the Middle East, we must ask ourselves a relevant question here: When is it enough? Really. When can a line be drawn to say, "The sins of the father have been wiped clean"? There must come some point – but when? Will Germany ever have a right to demand an end to Nazi associations? Can America ever honestly escape slavery or its treatment of Native Americans? Can Israel ever separate itself from its roots in occupation? And, as Catch a Fire recalls, can South Africa somehow move on from apartheid?
While I suggest this question to the reader as a mere point of reflection, I can anticipate that films such as Catch a Fire will be produced as long as there are people who feel personally affected by the transgressions of the past. As long as there is a black man in this country who does not have the same opportunities as a white man, slavery will be rehashed. As long as there is Jew who knows his great grandfather was put in a ghetto, the Holocaust will be brought up. As long as there is an Arab who feels the infidel Jew has been wrongly inserted in the Holy Land, the Palestinian issue lives. In other words, these things don't go away easily if at all. Applying this same logic to South Africa, the white man can expect to be bedeviled for years to come.
Is this fair? It is about as fair as anything else. The danger with films like Catch a Fire is that it wields the past purposefully as propaganda without tipping off the audience. For example, a simple internet study of Patrick Chamusso's life will tell you that it is not as depicted on film, and the timeline of Chamusso's conversion into a terrorist is not as black and white as in this rendering.
While there is no doubt that the torture of political prisoners and suspects occurred fairly frequently in South Africa and were done with the ignorant heartlessness as seen here, it is highly improbable that a Security Branch officer would take a recently tortured prisoner to have lunch with his wife and teenage daughters (as Vos does with Chamusso). The men who made up the Security Branch were basically animals, without conscience, and would never consider a black prisoner human enough to sit them down with their families. An oversight like this is just one of the more obvious inaccuracies in the depiction of the dynamic between white and black in South Africa. It is unfortunate that the truth of the situation was not enough for the filmmakers (led by semi-acclaimed Philip Noyce) to persuade the audience. It is almost shameful how American and Western filmgoers are being manipulated because apparently we would be unable to associate with the plight of the Africans without the pandering. So we have Donna Summer's Hot Stuff played at a tribal wedding with the native Africans boogieing, and we get a co-worker of Chamusso at the Secunda oil refinery where he works as a manager calling him an Uncle Tom. Such cultural gaffes won't be picked up on by the average viewer, and that is probably why South African writer Shawn Slovo thought she could get away with it. IMDB notes that Shawn Slovo's parents were leading white South African anti-apartheid activists. So there is an agenda which makes such mistakes less forgivable.
The propaganda is unfair to the extent that it is propaganda. It is very fair to the extent that the peaceful transition to a democratic South Africa is not the miracle that many now claim it is - many a black and white citizen suffered and died in the struggle for a non-racial democratic South Africa. While we are being fed big chunks of slanted information with our popcorn, Ms. Slovo is fighting on the right side and her provocative film is digestible for this very fact.
As soon as Amy and I finished watching the fractured and enrapturing Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film Babel, she said it best – "It's about not being able to communicate." Although on the fringes of my mind I might have made the rather glaring connection between the title of the film, its content, and the episode in Parshas Noach where, disgusted and disturbed by His creations' attempt to battle Him by building a tower – the "Tower of Babel" - G-d sets His children apart, dividing them forever by jumbling their languages. Without the ability to speak to one another, to convey even the most simple thought in an comprehensible way, His precious human beings were at an utter loss, and with unity undermined, the tower failed. The builders of the tower and their clans are referred to regularly in Talmudic and Midrashic texts as the "Dor HaFlaga" - the generation of separation - as the verse states that G-d spread them out across the Earth. Without a common language, they were naturally dispersed.
When I think about it with the above in mind, it makes the simplicity of Babel all the more profound. The fact that someone was so inspired by our pathetic and pitiable inability to communicate with our fellow man to craft a film with that message and that message alone is noteworthy. The fact that they used a biblical source to express that this problem is as old as the flood is monumental – it hits home. Because while everyone knows that we are all human and share this planet and share so many basic hopes and aspirations, that knowledge is taken for granted. It takes a film like Babel which dwells and lingers, and forces its audience to face the barriers we erected, to make one properly nauseous about the misery and degradation caused by our communication deficiencies. To find with all our technology and wisdom of experience, we are still running wild eyed in all directions, confused and confounded, with hammers and nails, clay and straw, perplexed by our brothers as if encountering aliens, in the shadow of that looming tower.
While we mostly hear about Brad Pitt in a grizzled dramatic role (though his acting leaves so much to be desired) and such stars as Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal contributing their significant talents, the film belongs to a slew of unknowns including Arab child actors and twenty-five year old Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi. In a risky conceit perpetrated by the filmmakers, Kikuchi's character, Chieko, has really nothing to do with the main storyline which involves the accidental shooting of a white woman (Blanchett) touring in Morocco and her children simultaneously being dragged/kidnapped down to Mexico for their housekeeper's son's wedding. Chieko is a young pretty deaf mute living her life thousands of miles away (the gun used in the shooting belonged once to her father but that is irrelevant). Because she is such an extreme, arguably didactic personification of the "inability to communicate", her presence could have toppled the integrity of the film, but instead she delivers the message most poignantly. Without our words we are helpless, we are reduced to frustrated infants with so much to say bottled up that it is unbearable. Infants tend to cry. Adults who can't maturely get their point across….start wars, commit suicide, apply stereotypes, laugh, mock, harass, embarrass, minimize, criticize, fear - create even further divides.
A legitimate first reaction to the film when viewing the main storyline is that this affluent American couple does not belong in this poor Arab country, and their white blonde children don't belong in Mexico; but in light of Chieko, I felt differently. Wouldn't it be nice if we stopped using cultural differences as an excuse to remain separate? Wouldn't it be nice if we tried that much harder to dialogue and to listen a bit more attentively to the answers?
In Babel, great crises occur with horrible repercussions, but there are moments in the crisis where humanity is shared between diverse peoples – and in that moment we see the potential. We see those who are blind, unable and unwilling to communicate – and they are prevalent - but we also see the exceptions – and they are few but beautiful.
Babel is an unabashed message movie about our overwhelming refusal to hear each other, but the film itself speaks clearly in a universal language.
Anyone who would view Judaism as a means to get from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah in a nice orderly fashion with the holidays guiding the calendar misses the boat. Judaism does not intend on giving us a nice social pattern in the guise of spirituality so we always have something to look ahead to; rather, it provides a means for us to exist with a healthy outlook. Maybe one can grow fed up with some elements of the rabbinic law, sure, but never throw out the underlying philosophy to spite the halachah. You can't but appreciate a good philosophical perspective, and Judaism provides a fundamentally sound one with all the right ingredients: purpose and grand schemes and big pictures and happy with what you have and think of others and step up and be responsible and consider everything. Just the perfect recipe to follow to get through a lifetime in a world where one can easily become lost and depressed, confused, hateful, jealous, and despondent as the years pass.
Little Children is a film that is not at all as shocking as you may have heard. In fact, most of it is not shocking at all. We see it every day. The film is about adults who have grown up, gone through the education system, gotten married, had children, and held jobs, yet have never taken the time or have never sustained the focus to develop a healthy philosophy to live by. Fully matured adult humans, who live and breathe, see and feel, without ever having set up for themselves internally the most basic premise for why they are here and why they do what they do. Never gave thought – even slowly over years - about the point of their existence. Adults who merely inhabit adult bodies and possess adult possessions, but are no more than little children who do so. It is a dangerous way to live, and if not checked by some strong moral sense (which typically becomes corrupted and corroded daily by our liberal environment), the result is normally catastrophic.
In Todd Field's film, the beautiful Kate Winslet manages to convincingly play Sarah Pierce, a frazzled married mother living well in the suburbs. Her husband does not do it for her (she is an intellectual in a previous life) and only internet porn does it for him. So she has a short lived but typically intense affair with a local married father (Patrick Wilson). The End. Okay, there is a rather disturbing crossover story revolving around a child molester released from prison and living in the neighborhood and played creepily and somewhat sympathetically by former child actor Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Bears). But really that is all. This is a small movie, with mostly quiet moments that manage to devastate. Why don't we care enough to satisfy our spouses? Why are we obsessed with youth and acting young? Why do we sometimes wish we didn't have the kids we love? Why do we look at every person on the street as a sexual adventure waiting to happen? Why do we day dream about leaving everything behind and running away?
Little Children is a fable, complete with a full throated narrator and Aesopesque moral. It teaches its lesson almost like one that would be taught to children - with extreme scenarios and exaggerated characterizations. A normal human being baggaged with a family and approaching the nether regions of adulthood asks and tempts themselves with questions. An adult with a healthy, well developed philosophy will know how to answer these questions. If not…well, you may not end up like Sarah- searching the streets in the middle of the night for your daughter with a psychotic sexual deviant lurking about – but you surely won't find happiness either.
Little Miss Sunshine
Although outside of Terminator 4: The Search for 3 I have never made a film, in the recesses of my brain I consider myself quite the filmmaker. Seriously. We all do it. In our heads we lead lives that objectively there is no proof to support. Some consider themselves great and accomplished athletes, or writers, or spouses, or studs, but they do this without a single trophy or award or satisfied customer. So as an accomplished filmmaker in my head, I often view movies and judge them based on how easy I would find it to make the movie myself.
Little Miss Sunshine is an example of a very nicely done small movie about family that is content and secure enough to deliver everything in a simple, straightforward way, all while being silly and implausible. While it seems to be impressing all the right people, I think I could have done better. The writers manage a difficult trick by conveying profound sentiments about blood ties, without a shred of complex, soul bearing dialogue. Screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris value, above all, the succinct exchange and the penetrating expression or gesture, and they have the intelligence and confidence to put that moment on display – let the audience recognize what really just happened, and move on in the narrative.
The narrative unfortunately is ridiculous, but partially excusably so. Little Miss Sunshine is the name of a beauty pageant for children which, despite the odds and oddness allows peculiar but cute Olive (Abigail Breslin) as a replacement entrant at the last minute. The thing is of course that this small time gig is in California and our hapless band of New Mexicans (led by mom and dad, Toni Collette and Greg Kinear), are in Albuquerque. But what is life about if not overcompensating for the meaningless of it all and personal failures by going all out when a small time gig presents itself.
From there, Little Miss Sunshine is not much more than a well done (but even more-so well meaning and well acted) quirky road trip dramedy. While on the road the family must deal with a barrage of bizarre and trying challenges (as always manifest in road trip movies). Here, the issues are drugs, suicide, and sex (and that's just grandpa!)
The reason Sunshine scores high is not because Steve Carell is in it and everyone loves the brilliant Steve Carell, but because the film really gets family. Family is a teenage son one minute raging at his parents, "I hate you fucking people! You're all losers!", and then apologizing for it the next (and the parents – who have surely seen and heard it all – quietly understanding the precise gravity of the situation without blinking). Though the highs and lows of real families won't come close to the shenanigans in this movie, Little Miss Sunshine speaks to the heart. Add our sweet faced, chubby hero and ….okay, you got me, the brilliant Steve Carell, and you can't but smile and cry on cue.
The Curse of the Golden Flower
There is no doubt a formula to Zhang Yimou's Imperial Chinese epics (subtitled from Mandarin), but what a grand, impressive formula it is. The combination is immaculate, elaborate sets with bold, stirring dialogue. Add intrigue, betrayal, interfamilial deception, and of course high flying, acrobatic and brutal violence (known as the wuxia tradition). The formula has proven to be Yimou's utterly mesmerizing expertise. What began in 2002 with Hero and continued with House of Flying Daggers, has now spawned Curse of the Golden Flower. Prior to this, Yimou was best known for his 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern which was a more classically told story of a young woman (Gong Li) who must compete with her stranger husband's other wives for his "attention." That was fifteen years ago.
Now Gong Li returns at age 41 looking as radiant as she did all those years ago standing quietly outside the pagoda watching longingly for the red lantern to be lifted higher than the lanterns of her rival wives. Gong Li plays the character of Empress Phoenix well over the top (as all Yimou's actors must to raise or actually meet and reflect the sharp, concentrated intensity of the narrative), but she holds the film together like a thirty ton steel anchor.
While the film looks beautiful and the cinematography and staging by Xiaoding Zhao is as magnificent as ever, Curse of the Golden Flower is the weakest of the class (like being the worst student at Yale). Mainly because the formulas staple betrayals, which came as shocking revelations in Hero, are by now more or less anticipated, and Yimou (along with co-writer Cao Yu) pushes the boundaries of believability (even for them) in order to keep us enthralled. The film is heavily mired in unconvincing relationships including a number of forced incestual affairs. There is nothing inherently wrong with asking an audience to witness an illicit romance; however, an intelligent viewer will be suspicious of the writers' motives. It is almost as if the story was a hastily constructed afterthought in order to provide an excuse to display their evident cinematic visual artistry.
The filmmakers claim that this story was not hastily constructed, but rather is loosely adapted by Yimou, Wu Nan, and Bian Zhihong based on Yu's stage play "Thunder Storm". That play was set in the 1930's and dramatized the power struggles within an industrialist's family. Here, the power struggle is within the family of the Emperor Ping, played with malice and great stature and grace by Chinese star Chow Yun-Fat - and it is a horribly tragic one. Yimou makes another rousing, if less action oriented film, though its final effect is unreasonably somber and speaks to the worst elements of family.
For a film about a mystical entertainer performing wonders for a skeptical, sophisticated audience in turn of the century Vienna, The Illusionist politely requests that its viewers suspend belief. Once we allow The Illusionist to stare deeply into our eyes and cast its spell, we can dreamily allow it take over and entrance. If you choose to maintain a cynical, show-me-how-it's-done attitude, Neil Burger's tale of murder and transcendent romance (based on the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser) will leave you unfulfilled and uninspired. Personally, I bought in. Edward Norton, goateed and sporting a helmet of jet black hair, speaks gently with eyes aglow and is utterly convincing as a mortal man who, though he is meticulous in the planning of his act, has apparently tapped into some force that borders on supernatural. How? Perhaps as a boy he was given the gift by an old magician who appeared to him like a spirit on the road, or perhaps there is no magic at all and Eisenheim merely exploits the fact that the hand is quicker than the eye – but it really does not matter. The Illusionist is intent on maintaining a serious and sinister, yet serene temper allowing its four main characters to play off each other and explore their individual dynamic as each represents a different segment on the wheel of good and evil that is embedded in the conscience of man.
Eisenheim is good though any virtue he inherently possessed as a peasant youth has been corrupted by world wisdom, a broken heart, and his dabbling in the dark art of magic. Sophie, played by inexplicably fortunate graduated TV actress Jessica Biel, is sweet, pretty innocence as Eisenheim's child love. Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is villainous deceit without redemption, and then there is introspective Chief Inspector Uhl wonderfully realized by the gifted Paul Giamatti. Giamatti infuses the film with a very necessary and palpable inner conflict and humanity as the blue collar inspector employed by the Austrian municipality, but hoping to attach himself to the aristocracy by doing Prince Leopold's bidding. Because Uhl is a man always climbing and distracted by the glare from Leopold's crown, he is surprised to find himself struck in awe and respect for Eisenheim's personal integrity and his mastership over the craft of illusion. When Sophie, fiancé to Prince Leopold, seeks to rekindle her childhood affair with Eisenheim, it is the conscience of Uhl, and the internal struggle between his sense of right and wrong, that allows the plot to arrive at its final show stopper. Whether the culmination of all the mayhem and mystery entirely satisfies, that all depends on if you were the kid at the birthday party magic show who constantly screamed out how the tricks were done.
 The current ruling political party in South Africa. During the apartheid years it was banned by the then ruling Nationalist Party government.