Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu)


A family portrait on the beach.

(2016) Drama (Film Movement) Mariko Tsutsui, Tadanobu Asano, Kanji Furutachi, Momone Shinokawa, Kana Mahiro, Taiga, Takahiro Miura. Directed by Kôji Fukada

Family dynamics are ever changing, evolving things. What appears to be on the outside may not necessarily be what circumstances are behind closed doors. The whole thing about happy families is that they are in reality a myth for the most part – they are even rarer than a unicorn.

On the surface, Toshio (Furutachi) has a good life. He and his family live quietly in apartments above the machine shop he runs and inherited from his father. If he seems a bit distracted at the breakfast table, he nonetheless provides for his family as best he can. His wife Akie (Tsutsui) is a good Christian woman and a doting mother on their daughter Hotaru (Shinokawa). She is sweet and high-spirited in the way of some children; she is also learning to play the harmonium with indifferent success.

Into the mix comes Yasaka (Asano), an old friend of Toshio. It is apparent he has just been released from prison and Toshio offers him a job and a place to live on the spot. This surprises Akie who knows that the business is struggling but being the polite Japanese wife that she is she says nothing. As the days go by she gets to know Yasaka a little better and her initial reservations seem to be abating and when he shares with her details of his crime she does not recoil. Rather, she is turned on or at least isn’t turned off by the idea of having an affair with him. When they do get physical it’s difficult to know who’s seducing who.

But a tragedy occurs that devastates the family and Yasaka disappears. Eight years later the family is still recovering, if you can call it that. Akie has lost much of her faith and Toshio has become fixated on finding Yasaka, the architect of his sorrow. A new worker joins the family – Takashi (Taiga) – who is eager to help the family heal, but when karma comes to roost it may completely destroy what little unity the family has left.

The movie is presented in two distinct sections; the first is dominated by Yasaka who is like a time bomb waiting to explode; the second is the aftermath eight years later in which the parents are trying to pick up the pieces and cope. It’s quite a bit harder to watch the second half as the emotions in it are so raw and almost overwhelming. What goes on in the first is more of a prelude, a dance around the underlying issues. The second is the after-effect, when the bomb has exploded on the dance floor.

The performances are very measured in the first part. Yasaka is stiff as a board and generally clad in white; Toshio always seems distracted and lost in his own world. Akie has the smile and the charm that she shows to the world but when she is at home she knows her marriage has crumbled into ashes and she tastes the bitterness of them in her mouth.

In the second half Akie and Toshio are still closed off to an extent but the pretenses are gone. Toshio smolders with a desire for vengeance; Akie is protective of what’s left of her family and feels her own share of guilt as to what happened. I won’t say the performances are night and day because they are not – what they are is what you’d expect how people would react to a life-changing tragedy eight years afterwards.

Fukada is one of Japan’s most promising directorial talents and this is the kind of film that shows why many think he may eventually revolutionize Japanese cinema. He has a reputation for being an outside-the-box kind of guy and while it might be difficult for those of us watching with Western eyes, he is truly turning Japanese culture inside out in this film. In its own way it is much like Luis Brunel slicing open an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou.

This is a  truly strong effort that is going to be riding the festival circuit for a short time until it gets a limited release in June (as of this writing). It would be worth seeking out at your local art house, film festival or eventually on whatever streaming service this winds up on. This is a look at changing family dynamics in Japan and what lies beneath the surface of even the happiest of families. It’s absolutely unforgettable and even if it is a little bit on the long side (particularly during the first portion of the film) you won’t be sorry you sought it out.

REASONS TO GO: There is an underlying tension that starts off quietly and slowly builds to a crescendo. The end mirrors the beginning in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Another movie that’s too long for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sensuality as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the Jury Prize winner at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Guest
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Are We Not Cats?

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)


Mother knows best.

Mother knows best.

(2015) Dramedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenҫo Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria, Bete Dorgam, Luis Miranda, Theo Werneck, Luci Pereira, Anapaula Csernik, Hugo Villavicenzio, Roberto Camargo, Alex Huszar, Audrey Lima Lopes, Thaise Reis, Nilcéia Vicente. Directed by Anna Muylaert

There are the servants and there are the served. The distinctions between the two have made up society throughout the planet essentially since humans started walking upright. Throughout history, there have been changes, perhaps never more than now but we all belong to one class or another.

Val (Casé) belongs to the latter caste. A domestic working in the home of Dr. Carlos (Mutarelli) – whose doctorate is never explained as we never see him working mainly because, we learn later, he inherited wealth – and his wife Barbara (Teles), she has also raised their son Fabinho (Joelsas) as if he were her own. She in fact has her own – a daughter – whom she hasn’t seen in ten years nor spoken to in three. Val lives in a tiny, cramped room but is content, with a fan, a TV set, a tiny bed and the family she serves nearby.

Then she gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Márdila) out of the blue. It turns out that Jessica is studying for the entrance exam at a prestigious university there in Sao Paolo. She asks Barbara if it would be all right if Jessica stayed with them while going through the application process and Barbara agrees, magnanimously insisting on buying a mattress that Jessica can sleep on while staying in Val’s cramped room.

Val, who is very conscious of her place and what is expected of her (after more than a decade of service to the same family, you’d expect that), is grateful for the kindness and is absolutely over the moon at the chance to spend some time with her daughter.

Jessica, for her part, has grown up with Val’s estranged husband and has a bit of a bone to pick with her mother who seems to have chosen the family that employs her over her own family. She also has no patience for social niceties, looking at Val’s attitudes as archaic and incomprehensible. For Val’s part, Jessica’s self-confidence that borders on arrogance is like a creature from another world. She doesn’t understand why Jessica can’t show deference to the people who pay for Val’s service.

Before long, Jessica has wheedled her way out of Val’s cramped quarters and into the more luxuriant guest bedroom suite and is eating at table with Dr. Carlos and his family, putting her mother in the humiliating position of serving her own daughter. Fabinho also clearly notices the new girl in the house as does, somewhat creepily, his dad.

Fabinho is closer in many ways to Val than to his own mother who is somewhat cold to him and doesn’t express her feelings to him as much as the more outgoing Val, and Barbara in turn is more than a little bothered that her son isn’t willing to hug her but freely gives hugs to Val. Still, Val is a part of the family and she’s willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience for a short time…until Jessica’s attitudes begin to unravel the carefully woven fabric of the family’s relationship with Val – and each other.

Class distinction comedies are nothing new, nor are they limited to Latin America. This isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but it isn’t a drama by any means. Muylaert tries to keep things light as much as possible, although occasionally her point about class consciousness is made with leaden hands. What Muylaert excels at here is developing the various relationships in the film which drive it, from the distinct employer/employee relationship between Barbara and Val to the loving mother/son relationship between Val and Fabinho. American audiences may react differently to Val’s affections towards Fabinho but using domestics as nannies who actually end up spending more time with the children than their biological parents is not unusual in Latin America.

One of the things I really like about the movie is the relationship between Jessica and Val. The two couldn’t be more different; the mother is squat, self-effacing, and the antithesis of glamorous (unlike her employer who is an arbiter of style for Sao Paolo). Jessica is thin, pretty and something of a know-it-all. The two have had little connection over the years but both have a strong work ethic and as the movie unspools, they begin to develop an understanding and eventually a respect for each other. At the end of the day, Val is still Jessica’s mom and Jessica is still Val’s daughter and that forgives a lot of sins. Not all of them, but a lot.

One thing I wish the movie had explored more was the dynamic between Barbara, Fabinho and Val. There is certainly some tension there and it isn’t really explored; I’m guessing that Brazilian audiences are more used to the concept than American audiences so there is a bit of cinematic shorthand involved; it’s a given that these types of arrangements work out. I would have liked to have seen more of what the two women thought of the other’s relationship with Fabinho, but again, I imagine it is understood by locals. There is a nice moment between Fabinho and Barbara near the end; part of the overall sweet feeling of the film.

Critics have praised the movie pretty much universally (see scores below) but I have to say I’m a little bit less enthusiastic. It’s a good film to be sure and there are certainly a lot of undercurrents worth exploring, but they really don’t get explored much. At the end of the day, this is more like a soft drink than a Caipirinha. Lots of bubbles, lots of fizz but not as much substance perhaps as one might wish.

REASONS TO GO: Frothy. Captures mother-daughter relationship nicely. Tender-hearted.
REASONS TO STAY: A little creepy in places. Hits one over the head with its point. Could have developed Fabinho a bit better and especially his relationship with Val and Barbara.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brazil’s official submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spanglish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Very Murray Christmas

Exporting Raymond


 

Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal on the mean streets of Moscow.

(2010) Documentary (Goldwyn) Philip Rosenthal, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Anna Frolovtseva, Boris Klyuev, Konstantine Naumochkin, Oleg Tabokov, Aleksandr Zhigalkin, Ray Romano, Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton. Directed by Philip Rosenthal

We grow up thinking that certain things are universal, that you can count on them no matter what part of the planet you’re standing in. However, you’d be surprised at how some of the basics differ from country to country.

Philip Rosenthal assumed that no matter where you went, family dynamics would be pretty much the same the world over. As the producer in charge of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’d used his own experiences as well as those of star Ray Romano to create a show that resonated with American audiences. While the show was never critically acclaimed (and in several of the reviews of this documentary I read some fairly snarky comments about the show) it still got high ratings mainly due to the likability of the stars and the universality of the situation – families can, after all, be pretty weird sometimes and the source for a lot of our own stories and smiles.

As the show was reaching its final episode, Sony (who distributed the series) was eager to export it to other countries (much in the way reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “American Idol” are exported), complete with local casts and crew – with Sony reaping the benefit. To this end they decided to use the Russian Federation as a test market and sent Rosenthal over there to talk with the Russian network and help set the show up there.

Before going, Rosenthal was nervous due to reports of high crime and the kidnapping for ransom of American businessmen; he was sold insurance in case of that very scenario occurring although he was later told that he “wasn’t worth the effort” which wasn’t meant in a mean way – he’s just not high enough on the food chain to make it worth the time and expense for the Russian mob to snatch him.

Once in Moscow, Rosenthal found the television industry to be much different than the American counterpart (although in some ways very much the same when it came to studio interference). He was constantly at odds with the director and in particular, the costumer (who thought that this middle class Russian family should be far more fashionable). Also the American sense of humor is a lot different than the Russian and jokes that brought rolling on the floor laughs from the Americans fell flat for the Russians, and vice versa. Acting styles were a lot different.

Rosenthal was constantly frustrated by the lack of willingness to bend by the Russians in terms of the concept of the show, the casting and other items. He has invested a great deal of his time and blood, sweat and tears into making the show successful. Can he make lightning strike twice?

This isn’t what you’d call a vital documentary. After all, your daily life isn’t going to be much affected if the Russian version of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is successful or not. I think Rosenthal wanted to make something on the cultural differences of the nation formerly known as The Evil Empire and the Good Guys.

Except this really doesn’t do the job. Rosenthal seems more inclined to take shots with cheap one liners at the expense of the various people he meets rather than to explore the nature of the differences between us. He does make an attempt to spend time with a Russian family but only manages to connect with them when he converses with his own technologically challenged parents on Skype.

This becomes little more than one man’s home movies about his vacation in Russia and to be honest, if I wanted a travelogue I’d look up Rick Steeves. There really are no attempts to really look with too much depth at the Russian culture other than to make fun of it. Still, if you liked the sitcom, you’ll probably like this as well. I just wish it had tried to get us to laugh with the Russians than at them. In the end, maybe if Rosenthal had been a little more willing to listen and a little less needing to do a comedy act he might have had a smoother time getting the show made.

WHY RENT THIS: The culture clash elements are the most interesting parts of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of a fluffy subject matter. Doesn’t really educate much and the humor can be a little mean.

FAMILY VALUES: One or two mildly rude words but really acceptable for all families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although originally titled “Everybody Loves Kostya,” the show eventually ran under the title “Voroniny,” after the central family’s surname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette comparing the American and Russian versions of the show. There is also a brief piece in which Rosenthal’s dad tells a joke.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87,277 on an unreported production budget; the movie may have made a profit but just broke even in more likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Baseball

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bernie

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Julianne Moore and Laura Dern have varying degrees of '50s enjoyment.

(2005) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds, Monte Gagne, Robert Clark. Directed by Jane Anderson

Raising a family is never an easy proposition, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Raising a family of ten children when the father is an alcoholic who spends most of what little he brings home from the machine shop on booze is nigh near impossible.

Somehow, however, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) does just that. A promising journalist, she left her career to wed aspiring crooner Kelly Ryan (Harrelson) and like a good Irish Catholic, proceeds to pump out a wagonload of kids while putting her own career on hold. Unfortunately for Kelly, a tragic traffic accident ends his singing career and sticks him in the Ford machine shop in Defiance, Ohio. Always partial to liquor to begin with, he begins to really get cozy with the bottle.

With bills due, the mortgage past due and the kids needing one thing or another, Evelyn puts her writing skills to use by entering the tremendously popular (and profitable) jingle contests that were a staple of the ‘50s, when this movie is set. She’s good enough to win appliances, shopping sprees, cars, bikes, vacations, plants, toys and yes, cash. She also manages to keep a positive outlook despite Kelly’s need to lash out and her own children’s need to find themselves. She yearns for things beyond the city limits of Defiance and makes a connection with other contesters, as she calls them, led by the affable Dortha (Dern). Denied even the comfort of friends, she becomes the rock of the Ryan household, and her older kids know it, even as their father continues to make horrible mistakes one after another.

Based on a true story (written by Evelyn’s real-life daughter Terry, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie), this is a nice portrait not only of a time and place, but a look a poverty in America, a subject that we rarely turn our attention to. It is also a peep into the role of women in the household, and while it is certainly more a view of the place of women in the 1950s, it resonates to the modern woman (and the modern man as well).

Told with a spiffy voice over by Moore and some nicely done asides that advance the story from one trauma to the next, Anderson made her feature debut with this after years in television. She uses her skills from the small screen nicely here, further giving this a kind of ‘50s “All’s well in America as long as the TV is working” gloss. In fact, if there is a problem with her work, it is that sometimes it seems a bit too small screen for the silver screen, if you get my drift.

Moore, who has four Oscar nominations to her credit, does a very nice job with this. Having to play a saint who is forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice of her situation while nonetheless aware of its inequities, she manages to convey her frustration that she hid carefully from her children and even from her husband. Harrelson tones down some of the acting excesses that took him from A-lister ten years ago to the B-list where he is now. He does some of his best work since The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Kelly as a guy helpless to his own inadequacies, wanting to do the right thing but always, tragically, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

While this was sadly overlooked during its late-2005 run, there is a lot to like here. The attitudes of the 50s male towards women, particularly when the woman you love is turning out to be a better breadwinner than yourself, are the kinds of feelings men grapple with today a half-century later. While most of the Ryan offspring wound up as faceless, being too numerous to keep track of as they aged during the course of the film, nonetheless I found this exceedingly entertaining. You may not remember the Ryan children when all is said and done, but you will certainly remember their parents.

REASONS TO RENT: Nice evocation of the ‘50s. Strong performances by Moore and Harrelson. Storytelling is quirky and fun.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many kids who tend to all blend together. Some of the vignettes seemed to be “same stuff different day” without offering much more than the vignette before it.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some mild language concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the dresses worn by Julianne Moore dresses that actually belonged to Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Betty saved them and offered to the film for use.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PRFORMANCE: $689,028 on a $12M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paris

Brothers at War


Brothers at War

The Rademacher Family

(Goldwyn) Jake Rademacher, Isaac Rademacher, Jenny Rademacher, Claus Rademacher, Robert Smallwood, Edward Allier. Directed by Jake Rademacher

One of the defining events of the first part of this century is the Iraq War. The effect of it on our national psyche, our economy and the way America is perceived in the world has been examined in many different documentaries, but few have chosen to directly examine its effect on a single family.

Jake Rademacher is an actor and filmmaker who at one time wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and his brothers and join the military. While he was unable to fulfill that dream, he undertook a lifestyle very much different than that of the rest of his family. Like them, when his brothers Joe and Isaac were deployed to Iraq, he worried about them. When they returned, he sensed a gulf growing between them.

Jake began to suspect that he could not possibly understand his brothers because he hadn’t walked in their shoes. The only way he could do that was to accompany them back on their next tour of duty, and he did just that. The Pentagon co-operated fully and the result here is a documentary that captures the points of view of individual soldiers, and of those they leave waiting and worrying back home.

Yes, there are some scenes of combat, but mostly you get a sense of what makes up the average soldier’s life; boredom and loneliness followed by brief flurries of adrenalin rush. Mostly the soldiers here joke around, reminisce and find ways to pass the time, whether it is in arguing the relative merits of hotties from the O.C. to listening to iPods.

Rademacher talks to soldiers who have returned home from tour and feeling the surrealness of overhearing shoppers in a local grocery store complain about their phone bills, whereas weeks and sometimes days before they were risking their lives in combat. There is some poignancy in listening to Jenny Rademacher (wife of Isaac) who was herself a West Point graduate who had left the military after having their child, feeling the pain of her husband who was away during his daughter’s birth and missing so much of her childhood.

At times, this feels more like a chronicle of Jake’s personal journey to win the approval of his father and brothers rather than a real attempt to understand what they’re going through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jake agreed with me on that score but nonetheless the filmmaker’s ego is occasionally intrusive, which does not serve the film – or its audience – well.

Some have criticized this movie for not having a political point of view, either pro or con. Quite frankly, that’s not what I think Jake had in mind when he made this film, to express his opinion of the war. I think in fact the movie is stronger for staying away from that particular debate.

In fact, this isn’t really a war documentary, although that is the setting for the film. What I think it is really is a slice of life albeit one that is life in the military. On that level, the movie does justice to those who do serve and to those who await their safe return home. Whether or not you believe that we should have been there, the fact is that we were there and the effect that being there had on families and the men who served deserves to be chronicled.

WHY RENT THIS: A slice-of-life documentary disguised as a documentary on the war.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times you get a sense this is more about Jake Rademacher’s attempt to attract attention from his family rather than to genuinely understand his brothers.

FAMILY VALUES: These are real soldiers in really stressful conditions; their language is accordingly salty. In all honesty, I think most teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Gary Sinese, a friend of Jake Rademacher, was one of the producers for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An update on the status of the Rademacher brothers is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $153,000 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money or broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snakes on a Plane

Summer Hours (L’heure d’été)


Summer Hours

In life there may be nothing so wonderful as a mother's touch, no matter how old you are.

(IFC) Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Renier, Charles Berling, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valerie Bonneton, Isabelle Sadoyan, Kyle Eastwood. Directed by Olivier Assayas

One of the truths of life is that sooner or later we are all affected by death in one way or another, whether it is our own or that of a loved one. Most of us will have to face the loss of our parents sooner or later. How we deal with that loss is part of what defines who we are.

Helene (Scob) has gathered her children together for a momentous occasion, that of her 75th birthday. They have come from all over – Adrienne (Binoche) works for a magazine in New York and is engaged to marry James (Eastwood), and Jeremie (Renier) works for a large corporate entity that has sent him to China. Only Frederic (Berling) remains in France and it is he that Helene pulls aside to matter-of-factly discuss the disposition of her property upon her death – the summer home they are gathered in that once belonged to her uncle, a noted painter – and of the beautiful things in it, most of which were collected by her uncle and many of which are valuable. Helene realizes, even if Frederic does not, that her children have moved into the rhythm of their own lives and have no time for the songs of their childhood. Frederic believes that the other children will want to keep the house and its things in the family.

Shortly after her birthday Helene passes away and despite her attempts to prepare them, it comes as a shock to her children. True to Helene’s prediction, Jeremie and Adrienne are more disposed towards selling the house, donating some of the things to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and auctioning the rest. For Frederic it is a difficult pill to swallow and it puts a barrier, a small one but there nonetheless, between him and his siblings.

Yet there is much left unsaid. As the preparations are made to dispose of the property, the memories that were made there begin to recede and dissipate into the shadows of time. Even Frederic adjusts to the idea of the summer house being given to the caretaking of another family. Only Helene’s maid/cook/companion Eloise (Sadoyan) and, strangely enough, Frederic’s children, truly realize what they have given up.

If a studio had made this movie, the end result would have been far more sentimental and in the end would have been a standard tearjerker. In the hands of a master director as Assayas is (Irma Vep and Demonlover are two of his better-known works in the U.S.) the end result is more touching than sentimental, more thoughtful than emotional but balancing out all of these elements to make a movie that deals with adult emotions and adult situations on an adult level.

It helps to have an outstanding cast. Berling is an outstanding actor and he gets to shine here, as the son to whom it falls to sell the house and its things. It isn’t an easy task – I thought of all of the things in my mother’s house that one day I will have to see to and it hit home in a big way. They aren’t just things, you see; they are the artifacts of a life, and when they are sold, given away, donated or disposed of, that life slips away a little more. It’s another death, in that sense, and Frederic knows it and Berling shows it.

Binoche is simply one of the most incredible actresses on Earth; she plays real people, digs down to real emotions and rarely, if ever, strikes a false note. It is truly a shame she is less known on this side of the Atlantic except to film lovers willing to take a chance on a movie with subtitles. In a fair and just world, she would be the equal of Julia Roberts in fame and acclaim but she can be satisfied with the knowledge that those who appreciate her really appreciate her. She plays Adrienne as a woman consumed by her career but is called upon to face her own life and her own choices when her mother dies. Adrienne is not the sort to let her emotions get away from her, although cracks show in the facade from time to time. It is a masterful performance.

This is the kind of movie that can make more of an impression on you than any digital effect. This is about life, the things we all deal with – the dynamics of family, the pain of loss and the persistence of memory. They are the little things; lunch in the back yard, a swim in the pond, a mother’s gentle touch; these are the sums that make the whole of our lives. Assayas captures this in a movie that is not just about the sweet warmth of summer, but the knowledge that every summer must end, infused with the golden tones of late summer as it morphs into early fall. It is sad and sweet yet inevitable and even comforting. We all pass from summer into fall and winter, because that is the nature of life. Whether it is nobler to preserve our seasons of summer or to embrace the changes of the seasons instead I cannot say; I think in fact that it is our own opinion on that which is truly what defines us as people.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performances and one of the most affecting scripts in recent times.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter of parental loss is at times very raw and hard to watch.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is plenty mature and there’s some foul language; while there’s nothing overtly adult that you need to keep from the kids, this is not a movie most kids will want to share with you.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son, cameos as Adrienne’s fiancée.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Criterion Edition includes a wonderful piece on the Musee d’Orsay and its role in the production, and the Blu-Ray edition also includes a retrospective on the career of director Assayas as well as a 24-page booklet of set photographs.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Robin Hood