Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

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Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

Call Me By Your Name


The sexual tension between Hammer and Chalamet is palpable.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Under the languid heat of the summer sun in Tuscany, sexuality can be awakened, bestirred or even changed. All things are possible in an idyllic location like that.

Elio (Chalamet) is the 17-year-old prodigal son of an archaeologist/professor dad (Stuhlbarg) living and working in Tuscany with Elio’s German mother (Casar). Into the household comes Oliver (Hammer), a grad student interning with Elio’s dad. At first Elio is a bit testy to the new arrival; after all, Oliver is staying in Elio’s bedroom while Elio is exiled to the adjoining bedroom with a bathroom shared between them.

Elio is a talented pianist and composer with quite a future ahead of him. He is a bit standoffish as talented teens who know they are talented can be. There is a neighboring French girl (Garrel) who would dearly like to be Elio’s girlfriend and Elio isn’t particularly averse to the idea as he is dealing with raging hormones and desires.

As the summer wears on, it becomes clear that Elio is heavily attracted to Oliver – and Oliver is attracted right back. Eventually as the two circle each other warily their orbits eventually intersect and Elio’s sexual urges – gratified first by a ripe peach (don’t ask) and then by Marzia his French girlfriend, find explosive root in this newcomer. The two have a hard time (no pun intended) keeping their hands off each other (as well as other appendages). For Elio, this is truly first love with all the joy and heartache that it entails. Every summer, after all, eventually comes to an end.

A lot of critics have been singing the praises for this film and for some very good reasons but I must caution readers that while there are a lot of things to like about this movie, there are plenty of flaws as well. I like how evocative of time and place the movie is; you can almost feel the heat steaming from the screen on a hot summer’s day in Tuscany. You can feel the 80s vibe in a realistic way – many films set during this era seem to be of the idea that everyone sported Flock of Seagulls hair. Guadagnino got the fashions right without going overboard with the excesses of the era.

>He also did a masterful job of casting. In all the main roles exactly the right actor inhabits them. Chalamet delivers a performance that deservedly got an Oscar nomination and while he didn’t win, had he not been nominated in a year of Gary Oldman’s superlative performance in Darkest Hour I think he might have had a shot at it.

The reason Chalamet’s performance is so praise-worthy is that it is so layered. Elio has the arrogance of youth and the uncertainty of the inexperienced; he can be stand-offish but he deeply desires love. He has a high sex drive but he wants affection, both received and given. If this performance is any indication, he could be the next Daniel Day-Lewis but a note of caution; he has been anointed a once-in-a-generation performer by certain hysterical magazine writers basically off of one or two outstanding performers; let’s see how he does for consistency over the next five years or so before we begin throwing those sorts of superlatives around shall we?

Chalamet has some wonderful actors to play off of. Hammer is of course ruggedly handsome and has that preppy accent which stands him in good stead here. He has the right combination of worldliness and naiveté that makes the character such a perfect foil for Elio. The chemistry between Hammer and Chalamet is blazing hot and the relationship is never anything but genuine for a single moment.

Stuhlbarg who has acted in a number of prestige films this year outdoes himself in the almost too-good-to-be-true father. He has one scene with Chalamet in which he surprisingly gives his son his tacit approval and explains his own regret for not following his own feelings in a similar situation. It’s a terrific scene and if it is more of a fantasy coming out for a lot of gay men whose own experiences are/were somewhat different it can be at least understood.

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom turns in a lovely print with colors that pop off the screen and capturing perfectly the season (also in the coda which takes place on a snowy day) and the place. It’s a beautiful film to watch. Iconic screenwriter James Ivory who back in the day was one of the great art film directors of his time, shows that even at 89 he still has a great ear for dialogue.

As I said, though, the film is flawed. It runs almost two and a quarter hours and towards the end of the movie one gets the sense that Guadagnino didn’t quite know how to end th film, although the ending itself is beautiful and bittersweet – it comes after a series of false stops. Also, while I’m not squeamish about sex scenes – even explicit ones – it just seemed that there were too many of them. After awhile it came off as almost gratuitous. We get the sense that there is sexual heat between the two and that Elio is nearly insatiable sexually; it’s just ramming us over the head with it after awhile. A good twenty minutes of film time could have been cut with excessive sex scenes as well as a few extraneous scenes as well.

Some have said that this is this decade’s Brokeback Mountain and there is some truth to that. Certainly a gay romance has rarely been portrayed so beautifully and so naturally onscreen, particularly in a film of this importance. Gay or straight, we’ve all been through first loves (let’s hope) in our lives and there’s no doubt this film evokes the feelings of that bittersweet experience for all of us. I wish the director had been a little bit less lenient at the editing bay but regardless of that this is an important and beautiful movie.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Chalamet, Hammer and Stuhlbarg are all exceptional. The cinematography Is beautiful, evoking lazy summer days in northern Italy. The ending is lovely albeit bittersweet.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie went on way too long. The sex scenes became gratuitous after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content, some nudity and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sufjan Stevens was asked to write one new song for the film but was inspired to write two. He was also asked to re-record “Futile Devices” from his mostly electronic The Age of Adz album with a piano and vocals arrangement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killing Jesus

Paterson


Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Brian McCarthy, Frank Harts, Luis Da Silva Jr., Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Kacey Cockett, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Sterling Jerins, Masatoshi Nagase, Sophia Muller. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

Paterson is a bus driver. Paterson is also coincidentally the name of the New Jersey town in which Paterson plies his trade. It is not coincidentally the home of famed 20th century poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Paterson (the bus driver) also writes poetry in a journal he keeps with him. He scribbles during lunch breaks and before he starts work. He uses mundane, everyday subjects to inspire him. He leads a mundane, everyday life.

Director Jarmusch is notorious (or acclaimed) for finding the rhythms of life and setting his films to those rhythms. We see Paterson’s routine; getting up in the morning at 6:15 precisely, eating breakfast with his wife Laura (Farahani), going to work, coming home for dinner – Laura is apparently not much of a cook but he gamely is polite about pretending to enjoy it. Afterwards he takes his English bulldog Marvin out for a walk, ending up at his favorite watering hole talking with Doc (Henley) the bartender and then heading home to go to sleep with his wife.

We follow Paterson in his routine over the course of a week. It’s not a particularly important week – just a normal, mundane, everyday week. His wife is making cupcakes for a popup farmer’s market. She has ordered a guitar which she paints black and white like everything else in the house and dreams of becoming a country music star, which would be a bit of a stretch being that she is an immigrant from Iran which in the current climate might not fly among a certain element that loves country. He overhears conversations on the bus, adjusts his mailbox which always seems to be leaning (late in the film we find out why), and sometimes just sits out by the beautiful waterfall that is Paterson’s pride and joy.

Paterson is definitely a working class environment. Some might remember that it was the town in which Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was framed for murder; it is referenced during the film but not dwelled upon, at least not as much as the fact that it was also the home of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame. Then again, Laura’s penchant for black and white patterns might allude to the racial divide that led to one of the most notorious legal cases of the 20th century that was part of the DNA of Paterson at the time.

There is a beauty to the rhythms of life here. Jarmusch is an expert to finding the beauty in the mundane. But, as mundane as Jarmusch wants to make the environment of Paterson, he can’t help but populate it with quirky indie film characters that lend an air of “this isn’t real life in the rest of the world” to the film. I think in some ways it sabotages what he’s trying to do and for me it diminished the enjoyment of the film. Why can’t films about ordinary people actually have a few ordinary people in them?

Driver is a bit white bread here. He doesn’t really distinguish himself much which is likely what Jarmusch had in mind. Paterson (the bus driver) is basically a pretty nice guy without much ambition; his poetry is amazing (written by real life poet and Pulitzer prize winner Ron Padgett) but he refuses to publish them. He clings to them like a lap bar on a particularly scary roller coaster and when near the end of the film an event occurs that puts that to paid, it feels like it should be more liberating than it is. Or at least more traumatic than it seems.

I’m not really quite sure what to make of Paterson (the movie). On the one hand it achieves the “all about nothing” that the Seinfeld show aspired to. On the other, it definitely succumbs to indie film clichés. On a third hand, it plays as a cinematic tone poem, analogous to the works of Williams and T.S. Eliot. There’s beauty here but Jarmusch makes it oddly humorless, although there are occasional twitches of the lips that approximate smiles. It’s an elegant movie that’s not completely successful but is completely worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a cinematic tone poem.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters inhabit Paterson’s world.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Driver undertook training to drive the bus for three months in Queens; he passed is licensing test a week before shooting started and was able to drive the bus himself, allowing Jarmusch to get a broader amount of options in shooting the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mike and Molly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Country: Portraits of an American Sound

Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie


A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

(2015) Coming of Age Drama (Self-Released) Christine Ryndak, Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, Vincent Piazza, Leah Yananton, Dennis Hill, Joshua Zirger, Kevin Murray, Mikayla Park, Patrick Welsh, Rusty Clauss, Marycarmen Wila, Joanna Becker, Stefan Stratton, Matt Cannon, Ellana Barksdale, Marjo-Riikka Makela. Directed by Leah Yananton

Finding ourselves is no easy task. At 20 years old, we are expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives and who we want to be. The truth of the matter is this; at 20 we don’t have the experience to really know ourselves, and how can you figure out who you want to be if you don’t know who you are to begin with?

Sophie Hofkind (Ryndak) is entering her junior year in college. She is a poet of some talent, having been taken under the wing of her English lit teacher Professor Slateman (Lehne). Her free-spirited BFF Keira (Yananton) seems to have a moral compass that points directly at her own crotch; she pretty much bangs anything that moves and has quite a sexual attraction to Sophie, even if Sophie chooses to ignore it – most of the time. Once in awhile, Sophie isn’t above leading Keira on.

Sophie also has Jimmy (Piazza), who wants very much to be her boyfriend. Each gave their virginity away to the other; while Jimmy is hopelessly in love with Sophie, Sophie keeps a bit of a distance with Jimmy. Oh sure, she has sex with him, but it wouldn’t exactly be called making love, at least not for her.

Sophie is in a good spot. She has mostly paid for her tuition through private funds, refusing to utilize her mom as help – the two have been estranged essentially since Sophie left for school. However, the thing about life is it rarely stays in the same place for long. Sophie develops more than a crush for Professor Slateman and the professor’s enigmatic wife Jacqueline (Furlan), which begins to take its toll on all of Sophie’s relationships. Also, she has begun to run out of money for her schooling, which means she’ll have to work and given that she has an 18 credit workload means that she’s going to have little time for socializing and sleep.

Still, Sophie is making a go of it, but she runs smack into some life-altering decisions that will change her life forever but also the lives of everyone around her. These are the kinds of things that give us a road map to “finding ourselves.”

If you ever wondered what being a young co-ed in the 21st century is like, the movie gives the old college try at showing you. Not being a young 21st century co-ed I can’t really vouch for the accuracy here, but I have to admit that the dialogue doesn’t always ring true here. While college students of both sexes have a tendency to mistake literary quotes and highfalutin’ language as depth, most discussions that take place between college students has little to do with the meaning of poetry. Rather, like most young people, college students spend more time discussing social activities than they do literature and philosophy.

Fortunately, the two leading ladies – Ryndak and Yananton – are both charming, smart, pretty and sexy. While Ryndak’s character isn’t always likable in that she is capable of great self-absorption, she has a light about her that makes the audience want her to do the right thing and end up happy. Yananton, who has to portray a girl whom the judgmental among us might call a slut – although I have issues with labeling a woman who happens to enjoy sex – makes the character the sort of girl you want to hang around with, even if you have zero chance of sleeping with her.

The supporting cast is pretty good as well, but delivering an exceptional performance is Mira Furlan. Most remember her from Babylon 5 and J.J. Abrams’ Lost but she is a superb actress who has never really connected with American audiences to the degree I thought she would. She doesn’t have a huge role here but it is a memorable one and Furlan fills it with personality and emotion. Her scenes with Ryndak in the cabin late in the film are really superb.

The problems that Sophie encounters are for the most part very realistic. Young women enter an environment where their sexuality is both encouraged and discouraged at once; it can be very confusing to navigate the treacherous waters of human relationships at any age, let alone so young. Sophie makes some poor choices here but she also makes a few good ones. Whether or not she has truly learned from them is an enigma; how often do we truly learn from our mistakes? Not always. Some less often than others, but all things considered I have high hopes for Sophie.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. It occasionally falls into pretentiousness but of the kind that might come with characters who have more intelligence than experience. Particularly near the end of the film, Yananton sets up some beautiful shots and utilizes some artwork throughout that’s very feminine to the point of being yonic (the “9” in the opening titles looks decidedly ovarian). In fact, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to label this a bit of a woman’s film, although that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude men from enjoying it, but it certainly is aimed at young women with a young woman’s point of view. Using the structure of Dante’s Inferno to structure the movie is fairly interesting for the most part, but some of the segments feel like the subject matter was shoehorned in a little bit. An ambitious idea but one that I think ended up inhibiting the filmmaker somewhat.

Summing up, not all of this works but that’s okay – enough of it does that I can give it a reasonably solid thumbs up. The film is just beginning to hit the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it at your local film fest. Don’t be surprised if it turns up at one near you.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting artwork with a decidedly feminine bent. Mira Furlan is a criminally underrated actress. Some really nicely set up shots.
REASONS TO STAY: The lead character’s behavior can be frustrating. Occasionally pretentious. Some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like 20-year-old girls talking.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sex and some nudity, adult and sexual content, some foul language and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere last weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Mistress America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Key

The Reluctant Fundamentalist


Which one will blink first?

Which one will blink first?

(2012) Drama (IFC) Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Martin Donovan, Nelsan Ellis, Haluk Bilginer, Meesha Shafi, Imaad Shah, Chris Smith, Ashwath Batt, Sarah Quinn, Chandrachur Singh, Adil Hussain, Ali Sethi, Deepti Datt, Gary Richardson, Victor Slezak, Ashlyn Henson, Cait Johnson. Directed by Mira Nair

What creates a terrorist? How does one go from being a devout member of one’s religion to a wild-eyed fanatic willing to kill – and die – for his/her faith?

After an American professor (Richardson) is kidnapped after attending a movie in Lahore, Pakistan, a colleague of his at the university, Changez Khan (Ahmed) is interviewed by journalist Bobby Lincoln (Schreiber). Changez has fallen under suspicion of being connected to a terrorist group mainly based on his anti-American rhetoric and firebrand speeches in the classroom  He’d also met with a notorious terrorist cell leader

However,  Changez had started out as a rapidly pro-American, a big believer in the American dream. Born in Lahore to a poet (Puri) and a housewife (Azmi) who had been well-to-do at one time but who had blown through the money they had as poetry even in Pakistan isn’t a job that brings in high earnings. Changez gets a scholarship to Princeton and when he graduates is pegged by Jim Cross (Sutherland) to be a gifted evaluator of business worth which makes him a valuable commodity with a bright future at Underwood Samson who evaluate the value of companies and come up with ways to increase that value. It’s a pretty lucrative field and Changez looks to be on the fast track to success.

As he banters with his friends Wainwright (Ellis), Clea (Quinn) and Rizzo (Smith), Changez falls for Erica (Hudson), the artistic niece of  Underwood Samson’s CEO. It isn’t long before they move in together, although Erica has a deep melancholy – her previous boyfriend had died in a car accident and she’s still grieving. Even though Changez moves slowly and gives her as much leeway as she wants and she clearly has feelings for him, she still feels like she’s cheating on her dead lover.

Everything changes though when the Twin Towers come down on 9/11. Changez is in Manila on business when it happens and when he finally comes home, he is stripped and forced to undergo a humiliating body cavity search. People begin to view Changez with suspicion, particularly now that he’s sporting a beard to reconnect with his Pakistani roots. He is growing more and more distant from his family which hits him hard when he goes home for his sister Bina’s (Shafi) wedding.

The final straw is when he goes to Turkey to evaluate a publishing company that one of Underhill Samson’s clients had just purchased. Even though the company had done much to promulgate Turkish culture and that of their neighbors (Changez’ dad had even had a book of his poems published there) the numbers point to liquidating the assets and shuttering the doors. Changez has an epiphany and refuses to do it. He quits his job and returns home, finding a job teaching.

So now things in Lahore are a powderkeg as American CIA and local police are detaining and arresting students at the University and conducting random searches. Even Changez’ family has received a visit of the state police simply because of their association with him. It won’t take much for this powderkeg to blow. So how involved is Changez with the kidnapping. Had his treatment in America paved the way for his conversion into jihadism? Or is he simply an innocent victim of circumstance?

Nair, who has on her resume some impressive efforts (not the least of which are Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) has another one to add to that list. Based on a novel by Mohsin Hamid that is largely a monologue by Changez, she utilizes some brilliant cinematography and a terrific cast to explore the complex themes of the book.

Changez is largely a cypher. On the surface he seems a gentle, kind soul who adheres to non-violence but in practice he spent his Wall Street career practicing a kind of economic violence. While he eventually turns away from it, there is that sense that he is blaming America for allowing him to willingly participate in an admittedly immoral career. He made his choices but took no responsibility for them even after he quit. In that sense, Changez is unlikable and I personally find it a bit refreshing to have a character who turns a blind eye towards his own imperfections – most of us are like that.

Ahmed, a Pakistani-born British rapper and actor has a great deal of charisma and reminds me of a young Oded Fehr in looks and manner. He holds his own in his scenes with Schreiber who is an excellent actor so it’s no small feat. Their scenes are the most compelling in the film and it is their confrontation that provides the essence of the film.

Sutherland and Puri do great work in supporting roles. Hudson, who is also capable of strong roles, kind of gets a little lost here – it could be that she plays her character, who is weak and clings to her grief like Linus and his security blanket, too well. There are never the kind of sparks between her and Ahmed that I would have liked to have seen although that possibly was deliberate on Nair’s part. However, a good deal of time is spent on the relationship between Erica and Changez and quite frankly that is the weakest part of the story.

The film’s climax is powerful as we are left to ponder whether we are creating our own enemies out of our own arrogance and insensitivity, which I think is clearly the case. If so, then we come by that hatred honestly but we refuse to acknowledge it, one more reason for people in other countries to despise us. It isn’t until the final five minutes of the film that we discover where Changez’ sympathies lie and whether or not he is involved in the kidnapping. In a way it’s almost a moot point; ultimately this isn’t about who Changez is. It’s about who we are.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and balanced. Fine performances by Ahmed, Sutherland, Schreiber, Puri and Ellis.

REASONS TO STAY: The film is far more powerful when focusing on Changez’ conflicting feelings about America than on his relationship with Erica.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a fair amount of swearing, some violence and a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hudson was initially unable to do the film because she was pregnant at the time that shooting was scheduled to take place. When shooting was delayed until after she had her baby, Hudson was able to take the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rush (2013)

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend