The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


Miracle on 34th Street
What could be more Christmas-y than a hug by a little girl for Santa Claus?

 

(1947) Family (20th Century Fox) Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Phillip Tonge, Jack Albertson, Harry Antrim, Thelma Ritter, Mae Marsh, William Forrest. Directed by George Seaton

 

Here in the United States, it is a sign of growing up when a child sets aside their belief in Santa Claus. Perhaps in several senses it is more of a sign that they are setting aside their imagination as well.

Kris Kringle (Gwenn) is appalled to see the man who is scheduled to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is drunk as a skunk. He reports his outrage to Doris Walker (O’Hara), the event director. She persuades him to accept the role himself and he does such a fine job that he is hired to be the Santa in the chain’s flagship store on 34th street in Manhattan.

Although he is told to direct shoppers to Macy’s merchandise, he tells one (Ritter) that the fire engine her son wants that Macy’s doesn’t carry can be found at Gimbels, Macy’s archrivals. She is so impressed that she tells toy department manager Julian Shellhammer (Tonge) that she will be a Macy’s customer for life.

Doris, a divorcee, leaves her daughter with her neighbor Fred Gailey (Payne), a lawyer. He takes Susan (Wood), six years old and having been brought up in a practical manner by her mother to believe that there is no  Santa Claus, to see Kris Kringle at the store. When Doris discovers this, she urges Kris to tell Susan that he’s not really Santa. Instead, he tells her that he’s the genuine article.

Doris is concerned that he is delusional and might harm someone so she decides to fire Kringle but store owner R.H. Macy (Antrim) is delighted by the positive publicity and goodwill that he has generated for Macy’s and promises both Shellhammer and Doris generous bonuses if he stays. To alleviate Doris’ concerns, he has Kringle undergo an evaluation with company psychologist Granville Sawyer (Hall) which Kringle passes but not without antagonizing Sawyer.

Kris discovers that Sawyer has convinced store employee Alfred that he is mentally ill just because Alfred is kind-hearted and generous, and raps Sawyer on the head with the handle of an umbrella. Sawyer exaggerates his injury and Kringle is confined in the Bellevue Mental Hospital. Tricked into co-operating and believing that Doris is part of the deception, Kringle deliberately fails his mental examination and is recommended for permanent confinement. Fred however urges Kris not to give up and takes on his case as his lawyer, arranging a formal competency hearing in the court of Judge Henry X. Harper (Lockhart) of the New York Supreme Court.

Ordered by Macy to get the matter dropped, Sawyer pleads with Fred to drop the case quietly and not seek publicity. Instead, Fred thanks the horrified Sawyer for the idea and bumps up the hearing into a full-blown trial placing Judge Harper in an awkward position – having to try the existence of Santa Claus.

Along with It’s a Wonderful Life this might be the most beloved Christmas film in history. Gwenn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, one of two that the movie won (the other was for Best Original Screenplay). That it was released in the summertime is perhaps one of the most boneheaded moves in studio history – the publicity of the film wound up hiding it’s Christmas setting for fear that audiences wouldn’t see a Christmas film in the heat of summer, a fear that proved to be sadly well-founded.

Still, it remains the standard of Christmas movies, both a sly commentary on the commercialization of the holiday (an issue that has sadly only gotten worse in the 70 years since the movie was made) and also on the faith and imagination of children that we tend to lose as adults.

Wood, in one of her first feature film appearances is self-assured and definitely doesn’t have that forced quality that many of the child actors of the time had. You never get a sense she is reading lines so much as inhabiting the role. O’Hara, who initially didn’t want to do the film until she read the script (she had moved back to Ireland) gives one of the defining performances of her career.

The movie definitely is a product of its time, although as such it has more charm than you can imagine. The opening scenes of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade were actually filmed at the 1946 Parade (and yes, Gwenn did play Santa in that parade), which gives you an idea of what it was like back then. That kind of realism was unusual for films of the era.

While It’s a Wonderful Life had a much more heartland frame of mind, Miracle on 34th Street has the East Coast sophistication of its era to distinguish it. Both movies are heartwarming and both perfectly synthesize the spirit of the season and both have the uplifting quality that was present in Frank Capra’s films which It’s a Wonderful Life actually was – Miracle on 34th Street was not but very well could have been.  Those who love Christmas movies in all likelihood do so largely because of this movie. It’s a classic that may be dated at times but never gets old.

WHY RENT THIS: A Christmas classic, a perennial that bears watching again and again. Gwenn’s performance is one of the best Santa depictions ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Exceedingly dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfect viewing for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house depicted at the end of the film still exists, and is located at 24 Derby Road, Port Washington, New York. Other than the addition of window near the roofline, it looks nearly exactly the same as it did in 1947. The Macy’s Christmas display shown in the film is on display every Christmas at the Marshall and Ilsley Bank headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an AMC television special about the movie, as well as newsreel footage of Gwenn accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1948. In addition, the special DVD edition includes both the colorized and original black and white versions of the film, in addition to a one-hour television version from 1955. Do note that the Blu-Ray version does not include the latter two features although the box packaging claims that it has the colorized version – only the original black and white version is present here. Expect a deluxe Blu-Ray version of the film classic somewhere down the road.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprangdes)


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Lisbeth Salander contemplates her disdain for society.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Anders Ahlbom Rosendahl, Aksel Morisse, Mikael Spraetz, Georgi Staykov, Annika Hallin, Jacob Ericksson, Sofia Ledarp, Mirja Turestedt, Niklas Falk, Hans Alfredson, Lennart Hjulstrom.  Directed by Daniel Alfredson

When caught in between a rock and a hard place, your choices are generally limited. No matter what you do, you’re going to get bruised and maybe even squashed. Your best choice of action might just be to attack the rock.

Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) is in a hospital bed, a bullet lodged in her brain following the events in The Girl Who Played with Fire. She is recovering but now she is being charged with attempted murder. The police want very much to talk to her but Dr. Jonasson (Morisse), who is her physician, forbids anyone but her lawyer, Annika Giannini (Hallin) – who is also the sister of Millennium publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) – from visiting.  

In the meantime, Evert Gulberg (H. Alfredson) and Frederik Clinton (Hjulstrom), old comrades from The Section, a loose group of operatives in the Swedish Security Service who have operated on a quasi-legal basis, meet and decide that in order to protect their group, Salander will have to die, as well as her father, Alexander Salachenko (Staykov), who lies in a hospital bed a few rooms down from Salander, recovering from the wounds at her hands.

Gulberg, who’s dying of cancer, is elected to do it. He kills Salachenko in his bed, then tries to get to Salander’s room but Giannini, who was visiting her client, bars the door and Gulberg can’t get to her. He sits down on a nearby stool and shoots himself in the head.

Blomkvist is planning to publish an expose just before Salander’s trial in order to tell her side of the story and throw the light of day on the murky figures who have opposed her. The Section is none too pleased about either and put plans in motion to discredit Blomkvist and have Salander committed to the mental hospital where she spent much of her childhood after attempting to kill her father in an attempt to save her mother from spousal abuse (getting all of this so far?) for which Dr. Peter Teleborian (Rosendahl), a member of the Section and Salander’s former psychiatrist, has created a false report in order to do so.

With events spinning towards a reckoning and Salander’s half-brother Niedermann (Spreitz) loose in the countryside also wanting Salander dead, things are going to get a whole lot of ugly before they get resolved. The question is, will Blomkvist and Salander be alive to see things come to a close?

The third of the Millennium trilogy is in my opinion, the best one of the three and it is for somewhat odd reasons. Granted, Lisbeth Salander, the most compelling character, spends most of the movie locked up either in the hospital in jail but this I think makes her more vulnerable; her character is such a force of nature in many respects that a change is needed from the first two movies.

When Salander shows up in court in a Mohawk and leathers, it’s one of the more compelling courtroom confrontations ever. She is thumbing her nose at the system, refusing to testify in her own behalf and essentially telling the world “I’m not playing your game anymore.” It is a further example as to why this character is one of the most compelling to come on the scene in ages, and why Rapace is perfect to play her.

Some critics have excoriated the film for being too talky and they do have a point – there is a lot of conversation and little action here. That doesn’t mean it’s boring however – it is so well-written that you are interested in the conversation and given all the subplots bobbing and weaving their way around the film, it is a sucker punch to the gut when they eventually come together at the end.

The hulking blonde impervious-to-pain hitman is a staple of the Bond series but he is human here, as is the evil men pulling the strings behind the scenes and the psychiatrist in the courtroom. They are not caricatures and not figures, but flesh and blood people, greedy and reckless yes but understandable at least. They feel a part of our own world, as does Salander and Blomkvist.

The first movie in the trilogy is due to be released in a Hollywood remake directed by Oscar winner David Fincher this Christmas, with Daniel Craig as Blomkvist and newcomer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. It is already being touted as an Oscar contender and could well be as successful here as it was in Scandinavia, the Swedish movies notwithstanding. However to those who are thinking of seeing that film, I urge you to find the three films made in Sweden and see them first.

WHY RENT THIS: The best of the bunch. Combines the taut thriller with a gripping courtroom drama. Rapace continues to be impressive.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Once again a bit blander on the action than Americans are used to, although when it does come it’s pretty good.

FAMILY VALUES: The character of Gulberg is played by Hans Alfredson, father of the director.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Gulberg was played by the director’s father.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was very likely a hit.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Super 8

The Conspirator


The Conspirator

Robin Wright's bodyguards have had enough of her Civil War fetish.

(2010) Historical Drama (Roadside Attractions) James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Johnny Simmons, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Groff, Marcus Hester. Directed by Robert Redford

Sometimes in the course of a nation great events take place that change everything. Sometimes these events are terrible tragedies in which the nation’s safety is compromised. Is it during these times when the essence of that nation must be compromised in order to maintain the nation’s safety?

Such a time would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Simultaneous attempts on the lives of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also made, unsuccessfully. It was immediately apparent that the heinous actions were the results of a conspiracy, at the head of which was actor John Wilkes Booth (Kebbell).

Booth had met at the boarding house of Mary Surratt (Wright) with her son John (Simmons) and fellow conspirators David Herold (Hester) and Lewis Payne (Reedus). When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) essentially took over the government, he had the lot of them arrested including Mrs. Surratt. Only her daughter Anna (Wood) was spared.

The conspirators were brought before a military tribunal presided over by General David Hunter (Meaney) and prosecuted by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Huston). The mood of the country was such that few lawyers wanted to risk their careers representing them. However Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson) agreed to represent Mrs. Surratt, assigning the case to his associate Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a hero of the Union Army.

Aiken is loathe to represent Surratt, feeling her guilty – if she didn’t know what was going on under her own roof with her own son then by God she should have – and this feeling is echoed by his good friends Nicholas Baker (Long) and William Hamilton (Dale), as well as his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Bledel). Gradually, Aiken raises some doubts about Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and is certainly disturbed by the apparent railroading of the boarding house owner by Stanton for political purposes. He will give up friendships, his career and a potential marriage in order to save her.

Redford is a first-class director who doesn’t make a whole lot of movies but when he does they’re always interesting and this is no exception. Said to be historically accurate with the transcripts of the trial providing dialogue, he creates the atmosphere and look of post-Civil War Washington meticulously.

As you’d expect with a movie being directed by Redford, there’s a first-rate cast. McAvoy is the lead here and he does his usual strong job. It becomes necessary for him to change from stiff-necked and unyielding to having doubts about not only the guilt of his clients but also of the means by which they are being tried. Wilkinson plays a savvy politician who distances himself from the trial while keeping true to his convictions. Wilkinson is another terrific character actor who specializes in playing characters reacting to moral dilemmas. He may be soft-spoken but he projects a great deal of power.

Wright, who has dropped the Penn from her name since divorcing Sean, plays Surratt enigmatically which is as it should be because so little is known about the woman. She is a fiercely protective mother (repeatedly telling Aiken not to besmirch her son’s name in order to save her) and a proud Southern sympathizer. Whether or not she actually plotted Lincoln’s assassination is not known to history – although David Herold, who attacked Seward, reportedly insisted she was innocent – but one gets the feeling Redford and Solomon believed she was.

There are modern parallels for this story, particularly in our handling of the prisoners at Gitmo and Al-Gharib, as well as the freedoms we’ve given up in the name of security. As 9-11 has irrevocably changed us as a nation, so too did the Lincoln assassination. History tells us that the process of reconstruction was spearheaded by radical elements in the Republican Party which was far more interested in punishing the South and creating economic opportunities for Northern business interests than in re-integrating the Confederate states back into the Union. As a result, the Southern economy would be in shambles for decades, carpetbaggers would loot the former Confederate states, education would lag to the point where the cotton belt states continue to be among the worst in measurable education statistics even today and a rift between South and North would continue to divide the country in many ways throughout the years through now.

Lincoln certainly would have chosen a different path to reconstruction; one that would have been forgiving and welcoming. His assassination by Booth would have far-reaching consequences for this nation and for the South in particular. How our handling of Iraqi prisoners, how we react to the eroding of our freedoms are going to have far-reaching consequences for our future. This is not only a historic drama, it is also a cautionary tale.

REASONS TO GO: Even though I knew what Surratt’s fate was, I was still on the edge of my seat. Relevant not only in a historical sense but also for today’s events.

REASONS TO STAY: I get the sense that Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon were making assumptions about Suratt’s guilt/innocence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first production of the American Film Company, a production company dedicated to making movies about the United States that are historically accurate.  

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie takes place in enclosed spaces, it still has the grand epic sweep that requires a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Water for Elephants

My Sister’s Keeper


My Sister's Keeper

It's an awkward moment as Cameron Diaz asks Alec Baldwin about any openings on 30 Rock.

(New Line) Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson, Emily Deschanel, Thomas Dekker. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children. It is a given that we will do anything – absolutely, positively anything – to keep our child safe from harm. When we are helpless to do so – as in the case of a terrible disease for example – our fight takes on a different tone.

At first glance the Fitzgerald family seems nearly perfect. Dad Brian (Patric) is a fire chief, while mom Sara (Diaz) is a top-notch lawyer. They have three great kids; Kate (Vassilieva), Jesse (Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

“Nearly” can be a very important word, however. Kate is suffering from a particularly dreadful and aggressive strain of leukemia. As a matter of fact, most kids who have it don’t live past the age of five. However, Sara is willing to do anything to keep her daughter alive. That includes having another child, fertilized in vitro, to supply Kate with bone marrow, blood and other spare parts to keep her alive.

The plan works, although it’s far from perfect; Anna (the test tube baby) is subjected to frequent and often painful hospital procedures in order to procure whatever it is that Kate needs to continue to live. She’s a teenager now, and the disease has reared its ugly head again and this time it’s going to take more than a blood transfusion or bone marrow; Kate’s kidney has shut down and she needs a new one to survive.

Normally she’d go to the spare parts store that is her sister, but Anna has had enough. She realizes the consequences of having only one functioning kidney and it means the end to any sort of normal life that she might want to lead. She engages the services of a lawyer, the kind that advertises on bus benches and late night TV. His name is Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) and after some deliberation, decides to accept her suit for medical emancipation from her parents.

Sara is no slouch as a lawyer and prepares her own defense, but as the case drags on, Kate grows weaker and weaker and the case tears the family apart. Is Anna turning her back on her sister or is she just reaching for the only chance at a normal life she may ever have?

This is a movie that raises some interesting, fundamental questions and to its credit, gives the viewer much room for thought. The unfortunate part is that it wraps the compelling concepts in so many tearjerker clichés that after awhile what might have been a fresh take on a difficult subject seems very formula and rote.

There is some fine acting going on here. Breslin is in my opinion the best child actor in Hollywood at the moment, having dethroned Dakota Fanning who is in the teen actress realm now. She plays Anna as terribly conflicted but intensely driven. Her Anna is much more like her mother than her mother would care to admit, and rather than showing the common traits in the same way that Cameron Diaz shows them instead gives them her own take.

Baldwin, who is as hot as anyone in Hollywood at the moment, is also superb as the quirky lawyer who has a bit of a prima donna in him. He’s self-deprecating and the part is so solidly in Baldwin’s wheelhouse that you can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Diaz is not normally someone I’d turn to for her acting chops, but she delivers here. She does chew the scenery a little bit but just a little bit. The mother is a bit of a shrew and more than a little of a control freak, but there is a fierce love for her child that is so consuming that it nearly blocks her other children out entirely. It’s not an unusual situation in families, and it’s played out here quite naturally.

There are some nice turns. The hospital romance between Kate and another cancer patient (Dekker) provides the movie with some of its sweetest moments, although the outcome is somewhat predictable. Joan Cusack plays the judge who has some empathy for Kate, but much more wisdom than the tunnel visionary mom.

There is also an unnecessary third child who I guess is in the movie to illustrate Sara’s complete focus on her one sick daughter at the expense of her other children. He is usually onscreen accompanied by melancholy folk music; it gets a bit distracting, to be honest.

Still, the movie is strong enough for me to recommend. I know that it is fashionable for critics to snipe about movies that manipulate emotionally, but I find that hypocritical; all movies are manipulative in one form or another; these tearjerkers are just upfront about it. If the manipulation is done well and brings me a bit of catharsis, I consider it a job well done and so I can recommend My Sister’s Keeper on that basis. If you are in need of a good cry, by all means your ship has arrived.

WHY RENT THIS: For those in need of a cathartic release, this is the movie to see. Breslin again shows she is the best child actor in Hollywood.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times, the movie sinks unnecessarily into maudlin cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: The topic is very mature and certainly will upset children who may not understand the dynamics of what’s going on; the frank depiction of the disease and its consequences will also be difficult for the sensitive. Parents should also be aware there are some scenes of teen drinking and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Kate was originally offered to Dakota Fanning, with her sister Elle to be cast as Anna; however, Dakota reportedly balked at shaving her head for the role, so both sisters bowed out of the production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valkyrie

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)


Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations

12


12

Twelve angry Russian men.

(Sony Classics) Sergei Markovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Garmash, Alexei Petrenko, Valentin Graft, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Alexander Abadashan, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Alexei Gorbunov, Roman Madianov, Sergei Artsybashov, Apti Magamaev. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

A trial of our peers, twelve good and true. Our justice system is based on it, as is the justice systems of other countries as well. We entrust the fate of accused criminals to twelve jurors and expect that they will make their decision impartially and fairly. Of course, any jury is made of twelve human beings and any human being is a slave to their own preconceptions.

In Moscow, the murder trial of a Chechen teen (Magamaev) accused of killing his adopted Russian father has concluded and the jury has been sent off to deliberate. Because of renovations being done at the courthouse, the jury has been sent to a neighboring school to use their gymnasium for that purpose. Nobody expects them to be gone long; after all, the evidence is pretty cut and dried.

With no working phones (this is Russia, after all), the bailiff hands them a homemade walkie talkie in case they need anything (unlikely) or reach a verdict (more likely). After a bit of bantering and electing a foreman, they cast their first vote, expecting a unanimous guilty verdict. When the votes are counted up, they are astonished to find that one of their number has voted “not guilty.”

So begins the odyssey of twelve Russian men, some angry, some not so much. This is a disparate group; one is a Harvard-educated mama’s boy, another a flinty anti-Semite; one is a bit of a clown and another is an intellectual. All are linked by the events they have been only described to them. What it all means and what will happen to a young Chechen boy is up to them.

The movie is ostensibly a remake of the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men but it is more accurate to call it a movie based on the original. The writer of the original movie, Reginald Rose, is given screen credit but little more than the concept remains. While the original was something of an indictment of McCarthyism, this one is far more Russian and carries additional layers. While not as tense as the original movie, it nonetheless has a great deal of power of its own.

The movie is extremely well-acted, although in Russian so we miss a lot of nuances by having to read subtitles constantly. It unfolds like a Russian epic, Dostoyevsky gone Hollywood, and in some ways it feels like “Crime and Punishment” with an edge.

Each of the characters is fleshed out nicely, never coming off as a caricature or a cliché but curiously, none of the characters are given names. They are all identified as juror numbers or as some sort of title and yet they all like real people walking the streets of Moscow. As they are called upon to defend their positions, they reveal something about themselves, which in turn reveals to us something about modern Russia. There is some very powerful stuff here.

Russian attitudes also come into play. There is a palpable hatred of the Chechens by the Muskovites; it permeates their reasoning, particularly when it comes to this particular crime. Does it compare to white American attitudes towards the African-American in the 1950s? Probably not, but its pretty close.

This is the kind of movie that transcends language. Even if you aren’t Russian and don’t understand the Russian mentality, you’ll be moved by what you see here. It shows in clear, distinct detail that we are more alike than unalike, and that the same things that trouble folks in Moscow trouble folks in Montana. Those things need no translation.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare look inside the Russian legal system, as well as insight into the modern Russia and modern Russians. At times this is very powerful and very moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We miss many nuances due to the translation and watching of subtitles. Russians are very fond of irony so we miss facial expressions while reading subtitles that give us further clarity.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent scenes, as well as some drug references and sexual references but it’s the tension and overall mature theme of the movie that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Mikhalkov, only the third Russian director to win an Oscar, is the son of the man who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Titanic