Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

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Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

Gone Baby Gone


Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

(2007) Thriller (Miramax) Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael Kenneth Williams, Edi Gathegi, Mark Margolis, Madeline O’Brien, Slaine, Trudi Goodman, Matthew Maher, Jill Quigg, Sean Malone, Brian Scannell, Jay Giannone, William Lee, James LeBlanc, Fanshen Cox. Directed by Ben Affleck

The American Experience 2015

There is no worse nightmare for a parent than the disappearance of a child other than that child’s death. In some ways, it’s more wrenching not to know – is the child alive? Is it dead? Is it suffering? Where could it be? A parent will do just about anything to get their child back.

South Boston is in an uproar when the baby of Helene McCready (Ryan) is discovered missing. Nothing will put together a neighborhood, particularly one as tight-knit as Southie as a kid in trouble. Like most of Boston, private detectives Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) hear about the incident on the news, shake their heads and wonder about how bad times have turned, and move on.

That is, until they are awakened by a knock on the door. It’s Helene’s aunt and uncle, Bea (Madigan) and Lionel (Welliver). They’re desperate to get their nephew back and are willing to do whatever it takes. Being longtime residents of South Boston, they know that there are people who might talk to Kenzie and Gennaro who might not open up to the cops. The two private eyes protest; they’re reluctant to take the case on. They’re new at the game and most of their experience revolves around tracking down people who have skipped out on their payments for their jet skis. But Bea and Lionel have faith in them.

They approach the police and Captain Jack Doyle (Freeman), in charge of a task force devoted to crimes involving children, is sympathetic. He also knows that the McCready clan is right – it might not be a bad idea to have some guys helping out the cops that aren’t on the payroll. So he assigns the two inexperienced private eyes to Detectives Remy Bressant (Harris) and Nick Poole (Ashton).

Pretty soon, the addition of Gennaro and Kenzie pay dividends as they begin to get some of the area lowlifes to cough up information. However, the two are taken in directions they couldn’t possibly expect. They’re in way over their heads and they know it. The problem is that a child’s life is depending on them – and their own lives are hanging in the balance as well.

This is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and like all of Lehane’s novels, the plot is amazingly tight and well-constructed. Ben Affleck, who would go on to Oscar-worthy work and becoming one of Hollywood’s most promising directors, was working on his first feature here. He is remarkably self-assured in his direction; apparently all that time as a pretty boy actor paid off as he definitely seems to have made notes from the various directors he has worked for. Nothing here is extraneous, from the images to the dialogue.

It helps that Affleck has assembled a fantastic cast, beginning with his brother. Some eyebrows were raised when Casey was cast in the lead; nepotism, right? Wrong. Casey had been mostly relegated to supporting roles but the guy can act – he would receive an Oscar nomination the same year this came out for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this performance is at least as good. Kenzie is not as self-assured as most thriller heroes; he is only too aware of his limitations, but given the stakes soldiers on as best he can.

The supporting performances are solid as well. Freeman and Harris are two of the finest and most respected actors in Hollywood and given material like this, they can’t help but shine. Ryan, mostly known for her Broadway work, absolutely breaks out with a magnificent performance. Helene is a drug addicted, selfish and promiscuous woman, absolutely unworthy of being a mother. To her credit, Ryan portrays her without any sympathetic moments; we only feel contempt for Helene and that’s the way the plot needs it. Madigan, Welliver and Ashton are all superb as well.

Sadly, Michelle Monaghan – a fine actress – is given little to do other than stand by Affleck and look concerned, or nod in agreement. She is little more than window dressing, which as I recall is not the way Gennaro was in the novel. Sadly, it feels like the Hollywood powers that be felt little confidence in having a woman be an equal to a man in a detective thriller.

Affleck had been in the middle of a slow spot in his acting career when this came out; he not only established himself as a director to be respected, but shortly afterwards resurrected his acting career as well. These days, he is much in demand in both capacities. Gone Baby Gone is the kind of movie that will punch you in the gut repeatedly until you’re breathless and wiped out. Some may find the tension unbearable, particularly in terms of having a child at risk. This was a sleeper critical hit when it came out and remains one of those hidden gems that not very many people think about in terms of movies they want to revisit – but it is worth doing that very thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellently written thriller. Fine performances throughout. Realistic heroes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Monaghan given little to do. May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of foul language, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amy Ryan’s Boston accent was so convincing that security guards refused to let her on the set because they thought she was a local trying to get in. It was only when a producer noticed her on the wrong side of the barricade that she was allowed on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette detailing the thoughts behind the casting and how it was accomplished.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.6M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Inside Out

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld

Rabbit-Proof Fence


Took the children away.

Took the children away.

(2002) True-Life Drama (Miramax) Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford, David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, Natasha Wanganeen, Garry McDonald, Roy Billing, Lorna Leslie, Celine O’Leary, Kate Roberts. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Some stories are so unbelievable, so outlandish that they can only be true. Rabbit-Proof Fence is, sadly, one of those cases. I say sadly simply because of the hardships endured in this movie by a woman who was blameless of anything but of having a white father and an aboriginal mother.

Molly Craig (Sampi), her sister Daisy (Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Monaghan) live with Molly’s mother (N. Lawford) and grandmother (M. Lawford) in Jigalong, an Aboriginal community in the desert outback of Australia.

In the 1930s, Australia had a policy for half-caste children. Led by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs A.O. Neville (Branagh), the idea was to take the children out of their aboriginal homes and train them as domestic or slave labor. There they would join the white culture, marry and have children with white mates, and eventually breed the black out of them, as is graphically illustrated during a scene early in the movie when Neville explains the policy to a women’s group, using slides.

The order goes out to round up the children, and the three young girls are taken from their homes in an emotionally wrenching scene and transported to the Moore River Native Settlement, some 1,500 miles away – roughly the same distance as Minneapolis, Minnesota is from Orlando, Florida. The girls spend some time there, long enough to decide for themselves that what is being done to them is wrong and that their only hope is to escape and walk back home.

Escape they do, chased by a taciturn tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), whose heart may or may not be in his work, and also by the Australian police. The girls’ odyssey becomes a media sensation in Australia; sightings of the runaways keep the story alive, and the vast distance they are covering, with no food, no water and no shelter make survival a real problem.

What’s worse is that the girls don’t really know where their home is. They only know that their home is alongside the great ”Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the longest fence in the world, built to keep rabbits from destroying the crops of the fertile farmland nearby. If they can find the fence, it will lead them home.

The story is simple enough, but powerful. Director Phillip (Dead Calm) Noyce wisely uses powerful cinematography to convey the vastness of the Outback, and the land itself emerges as a character in the film; unforgiving, but bountiful enough when respected. The three children survive their ordeal mainly because of the tutelage of their grandmother, who taught them how to live off the land. The music of Peter Gabriel further enhances the vast expanse.

The three girls who play the main characters are not actresses, although Everlyn Sampi certainly has a future in it if she chooses. They can’t really conceive of how impossible is the task before them; they are just walking home, as naturally as if they were walking 1 mile instead of 1,500. Certainly, they get frightened, they get depressed, their feet ache, but Molly’s strength holds them together. At the end of the journey, when only two of the children reach their destination (one is entrapped by the police), Molly weeps in her grandmother’s arms because she had not brought them all back. It is a powerful moment, one that will affect even the most stone-hearted moviegoer.

The Australians call the children who were taken in this manner The Stolen Generation, and it is not a period in their history of which they are particularly proud. That it lasted until 1970 is mind-boggling. A large percentage of their aboriginal population were affected by these events, and remains so today – singer Archie Roach made a wonderful CD about it, Charcoal Lane, with the powerful ”Took the Children Away” – and it remains a sore subject in Australia today, one which their government has refused to recognize or to apologize for until 2008.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is as a powerful testament to the human side of this issue. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being deeply affected. Here in North America, our treatment of the aboriginal peoples of the continent has been shameful as well. The experience of seeing this movie got me thinking about my own attitudes not only towards the American Indian culture but also about my attitudes towards other ethnic groups. We are all human beneath the skin and what color that skin is makes no difference any more than the color of the wrapping paper makes any difference towards the gift inside. Rabbit-Proof Fence celebrates this. It’s a movie everyone should see.

WHY RENT THIS: Powerful issue that is a celebration of life. Terrific performance by Everlyn Sampi. Moving and wrenching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too wrenching for those who have lost children.

FAMILY MATTERS: The themes of the movie bring out some very intense emotions; may be too intense for children and those who are sensitive to the taking of children from their parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The premiere of the film was held in an outdoor venue in Jigalong where the descendents of the children still live. The real Molly Craig appears in the last shot of the film although her health was so frail that the decision was made to shoot that scene first.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Making-Of feature is far from standard, giving a look at the history behind the events of the film. The commentary track similarly veers from typical fashion, including author Doris Pilkington, daughter of the real Molly Craig and whose book the film is based on. Her recounting of her own experiences and those her mother shared with her are heartbreaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.2M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Breaking Upwards

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World