Saturday, April 19, 2008

Movies about and for humans


After a winter of dark and bloody movies with larger-than-life characters, we're now seeing some smaller-scale films with characters that might resemble people we know in the real world. TVOR isn't knocking those other films--she liked several of them a lot--but sometimes it's nice to see something a bit easier to connect with. Here are a few.

The Visitor
Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy's second film tells the story of Walter, a widowed professor, who has pretty much checked out of life. He is somewhat reluctantly brought back into it when he goes to stay in his little-used apartment in New York City. There he finds a young couple, victims of a real estate scam, who have moved in, thinking they have legitimately rented it. One thing leads to another--he allows them to stay temporarily, they turn out to be illegal immigrants, etc., etc. But things don't necessarily play out the way you'd think they would. The writing, acting, and directing are all very good. Richard Jenkins plays Walter, and he is just about perfect. He's one of those actors who's been in tons of films but you probably don't know his name or even recognize his face. After The Visitor you should.

Young @ Heart
Directed by Stephen Walker

You're just going to have to believe TVOR when she says you have to see this film. Young @ Heart is a documentary about a choral group made up of senior citizens (average age = 80+) from Northampton, Massachusetts who sing rock and blues songs. And they sing them in ways you've never heard them sung before. These guys are good! You find yourself really thinking about the lyrics. Songs by The Clash, Coldplay, The Ramones, Radiohead, James Brown, The Talking Heads, Bob Dylan--does TVOR need to go on? She didn't think so. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you're wrong. It is. Go with an old person, go with a young person, just go. And take a look at lives that are well-lived.

Smart People
Directed by Noam Murro from a screenplay by Mark Poirier

Here's another widowed professor story. What's with these academics and the dead wives? Smart People is a little more Hollywood than The Visitor, but it's still a nice character piece. The widowed professor, played by Dennis Quaid, has a couple of teen-aged kids and a ne'er-do-well brother (adopted brother as the Quaid character likes to point out) to interact with, but he's still a sad sack. Enter Sarah Jessica Parker as an ex-student. See this film for the dialog and the acting, particularly by Quaid, Ellen Page (of Juno) as the daughter, and the wonderful Thomas Haden Church as the brother.

Video notes:

The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy's first film as a writer/director was The Station Agent, so he's two for two. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale are an assortment of lonely people who may or may not connect.

The Savages

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play siblings dealing with the failing health of their father in this fine film from 2007, now out on video. See TVOR's entry dated 12/3/07.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Caramel (finally!)


TVOR wrote about Caramel AGES ago--before Super Tuesday, before the Superbowl, before...well, it was a long time ago. The film had opened in New York and Los Angeles and was supposedly going to make it to the hinterlands before long. HA! Boy, was that wrong. But the time is finally here--apparently the hinterlands have been adequately prepared for this sweet slice of life in Beirut--so see it! For more information, check out TVOR's 2/2/08 entry.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Counterfeiters


The Counterfeiters
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

This Austrian film, based on a true story, won the 2008 Oscar for best foreign language film. During World War II, the Germans put into place Operation Bernhard, a plan to destabilize the economies of England and the United States by flooding the markets with enormous amounts funds in counterfeit pounds and dollars. To do this, they needed expert forgers. Enter Salomon Sorowitsch, who is sent to a concentration camp as a "habitual criminal" as a result of his forgery career, as well as for being a Jew. He is installed at the head of a team of prisoners with relevant skills to come up with the most perfect counterfeit British and U.S. currency possible. For the prisoners, making progress toward this goal means living in relative comfort with food and medical treatment in the same concentration camp where others are living and dying in subhuman conditions. To refuse to participate is to join the majority of the inmates. Yet to work on the project could affect the outcome of the war. The members of the team have varying opinions on their collaboration, and Sorowitsch, who as a criminal, has a different view on these things than some of his co-workers, attempts to walk a fine (and ultimately nonexistent) line between day-to-day survival and total collaboration. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that he's an artist who takes pride in his work. Karl Markovicz is outstanding as Sorowitsch, and the supporting cast is excellent as well. This is definitely one to to see. If you spend some time afterward wondering how you would behave in a similar situation...well, you wouldn't be the only one.

Video notes:

And while we're on the subject of collaboration with the Nazis as portrayed in academy-award winning foreign films, The Shop on Main Street, the 1966 winner, is another fine example. In this one, we spend time with a small and insignificant loser of a man who is given a shop to run as a result of the "Aryanization" of his small town in Slovakia. The results are not pretty.

And if all this is a little too serious for you, how about some lighter options? Here are some 2007 films now available on video. TVOR has blogged about the first three already:

Lars and the Real Girl
(see TVOR on 10/11/07)

(see TVOR on 8/1/07)

Wristcutters: A Love Story
(see TVOR on 11/10/07)

The Hoax
TVOR missed this underrated and under-the-radar film on the big screen (as did most of the world), but it's a good evening's entertainment. It's based on the true story of how in the early 1970's, author Clifford Irving bamboozled a major publishing company, as well as Life Magazine, into giving him enormous advances to produce an authorized autobiography of Howard Hughes. And that would be authorized, of course, by Hughes himself--in person. Everything about Clifford's story was pure fiction. The movie also moves into the politics of the late Nixon era, when other types of bamboozling and lying were going on. Richard Gere (yes, Richard Gere!) heads the cast as Irving, with Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, and Julie Delpy in supporting roles. All are very good. Lasse Hallstrom directed. (FYI--Alfred Molina = worst co-conspirator ever.)

The Good Shepherd
TVOR was housebound and desperate and caught this one only because it was available on demand through the cable company. You don't need to see it, though. It's not terrible--it just may not be worth almost three hours of your life. It's a fictionalized version of the beginning of the CIA, with Matt Damon as the central character. You may be surprised to know that the CIA is not only driven by patriotism and trust--amazingly, it's even more driven by father and son issues! And nobody and nothing comes off very well. The cast (including Michael Gambon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Robert De Niro, and Billy Crudup) and the direction (De Niro again) are all fine, but the whole thing is just kind of gloomy. And not gloomy because of the complexities of the characters and the ethics of what they do. It's gloomy because these people--especially Mr. Damon--look just plain depressed. (FYI--Angelina Jolie = worst spy wife ever.)