Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Film Review #104: Old Joy
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Tanya Smith

It’s such a classic American moment, when the whole sky suddenly opens up with promise and possibility. Midway, this overnight road trip seems to take a turn for the better for past roommates Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (musician Will Oldham, a.k.a. Chicago-based Bonnie Prince Billy). After an unspecified separation they’ve headed, at Kurt’s sudden suggestion, out of Portland for Oregon’s Cascade Mountains – to Bagby Hot Springs in the Mt. Hood National Forest, specifically, a pristine spot nestled in old-growth cedar and Douglas fir, a mile-plus hike in.

The old easy familiarity and fit aren’t there. Kurt hears about Mark’s ill father, makes a careless remark about Eskimos going off to die on the tundra, and Mark shoots him a look of startled discomfort. When Kurt gets them lost, they camp in what looks like a dump. Starting over next morning, they get directions from the waitress at a crossroads diner. Now, they find that arrow toward the trail, Mark’s Volvo wagon veers and suddenly the windshield framing them – it’s gotten cramped inside – flashes and reflects that enormous blue sky with its white piles of clouds backlit in gold.

This perfectly timed, breath-taking shot captures visually what may be the trip’s best, most fleeting moment – even though their hike into deep woods, their hot soak with its lingering, sexually ambiguous stillness, and their silent walk back to the road are all ahead. New York City-based writer/director Kelly Reichardt used a similar sky-in-the-windshield shot in her first feature film, River of Grass (1994), another road trip movie that’s found in the cult section of rental shops.

An astute tale of aspiring North Miami crooks, River of Grass holds its own with classics of its type like Terence Malick’s Badlands and Robert Altman’s Kansas City. The moonlit swimming pool scene is priceless, when Cozy (Lisa Bowman) does her idea of a seductive dive and water ballet for Lee’s benefit as he fondles a pistol. “I just had the urge to go out,” she shrugs about leaving her two toddlers. Indie horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden plays Lee (his The Last Winter, with Central New Yorker Joanne Shenandoah, is out in September). Mocked by superhighways all around them, Cozy’s moment of truth – as the sky hits the windshield – occurs when they haven’t a quarter between them to pay the toll out of town.

River of Grass and Old Joy are first cousins. Cozy and Lee’s frustration and malaise – for them, clueless isolation in tension with their media-inspired “crime spree” – show up on the opposite corner of the country among an altogether different social strata in Old Joy. The nervous, jazzy drum score of after-hours Miami dives emerges in Portland as the New Jersey trio Yo La Tengo’s smokier strings. When Mark and Kurt drive home to their liberal stronghold, they pass the landmark Bagdad Theater in the heart of the hip Hawthorne arts district. More than a nod to Portland’s vibrant film community – local indie filmmaker/PDX festival founder Matt McCormick and video artist Tanya Smith have bit parts, and Reichardt’s old friend Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), who now lives there, executive-produced – this signals both art’s alternative to war and a pervasive angst among the thirty-somethings now too old to be living out of vans.

Lee and Cozy seem stuck in a hazy time warp, but this last presidential election tightly book-ends Old Joy’s leisurely walk in the woods. A John Kerry poster adorns Kurt’s porch window. Mark spends his drive time with “Air Radio,” listening to rants about the last Voting Rights Law and economic uncertainty, as if – says Reichardt on the commentary track – just listening to activist radio were enough. It’s hard to watch them both – Kurt still cadging his way through life, Mark still saying things like, “It allows me to feel about carpentry in a way I haven’t in a long time.”

In the inconclusive end, Kurt goes back out immediately after Mark drops him off. He denies a homeless vet spare change, then thinks better of it. Restless, he searches the street for something unspecified – dope? sex? – and just steps out of the frame.

The unsettling, deceptively simple Old Joy results from collaboration between Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond. His story “Old Joy” appeared in earlier form in the 2004 book of the same title by photographer Justine Kurland, known for her photo series of teen-aged girls as runaways and post-hippie era commune members posed naked in wilderness landscapes. Now, Reichardt and Raymond are at work on the script for another road trip movie, entitled Train Choir, no doubt with another flash of truth.

This review appears in the 5/31/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not appear theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Film Review #103: The Weight of Water
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Sarah Polley, Catherine McCormick, Sean Penn

Smuttynose Island lies six miles off the rocky coast of southern Maine, almost into New Hampshire waters, the third largest of a cluster of nine islands together called the Isles of Shoals. Smuttynose gets its name from the profuse growth of thick seaweed in the shallows off one nose-shaped corner of the island. Myth says the pirate Blackbeard honeymooned on Smuttynose. In real life, two women, sisters-in-law in a Norwegian immigrant fishing family, were murdered there one night in March 1873 while their men were away, one strangled, both hacked with an axe. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt, reported that she fled to the pitch dark shore and hid through the night beneath a craggy, spray-soaked overhang that is still called Maren’s Rock.

Not much else seems to have happened there – except for a Spanish shipwreck in 1813 and the establishment of an arts community by the poet Celia Thaxter on nearby Appledore Island – so the well-attended mainland trial and hanging of itinerant German fisherman Louis Hinds, accused by Maren Hontvedt, was a sensation. Various lurid theories have persisted – Thaxter herself wrote one book – and in 1997 novelist Anita Shreve published The Weight of Water.

Shreve then quickly signed to co-author a screen version which, like her best-selling book, presented the Smuttynose murders not as a free-standing historical event but as true crime filtered through the curiosity and imagination of a modern-day journalist investigating for a magazine piece. The movie takes the journalist, named Jean (Catherine McCormick), there aboard her brother-in-law’s sloop with her “difficult” poet-husband Thomas (Sean Penn) and the brother-in-law’s girl friend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). This quartet engages in considerable self-flagellation out of guilt and jealousy, and their voyage ends badly during a storm.

The Weight of Water premiered in 2000 at Toronto’s international film festival and went to 18 other countries before finally opening in the US nearly two years later. Irish actor Ciarán Hinds plays the accused fisherman. He gropes the women at the humble cabin where he lodges when his rheumatism prevents him from working. After he grabs a new bride in the family, Maren accuses him of stealing money and her husband brusquely evicts him. His glowering, resentful exit suggests a ready-made cover story for the forthcoming double murder.

Sarah Polley plays Maren and this is her film from start to finish. Polley is the remarkable Canadian actor in her late 20s who wrote and directed the new, also remarkable Away from Her, starring Julie Christie, which has been out at Manlius Cinema this week. The DVD release of another Polley acting gig in the little-seen 2005 Spanish film, The Secret Life of Words, coincided with the opening of Away From Her. Discovering The Weight of Water was part of rounding up the few stray Polley films I hadn’t seen yet.

Polley’s Maren in a Norwegian girl forcibly married into servitude to an older man after a family scandal. John Hontvedt (Ulrich Thomsen) heads for the New World’s opportunities and lands on this two-cabin speck of fishing island. About ten years into their marriage it occurs to him that his young, silent, hard-toiling wife might be lonely, so he brings a puppy home to keep her company. Then Maren’s older, jealous, pinch-faced sister Karen (Katrin Cartlidge) arrives – her judgment originally condemned Maren to this fate and now she needs their hospitality – followed by their adored brother Evan (Anders Berthelsen) and his effervescent bride Anethe (Vinessa Shaw). Of all the melodrama that occurs during this film – in 1873 or in the present – Maren’s behavior is the most extreme. Yet she is the character who seems the least melodramatic, whose reasons and desperation are the clearest. Maren’s story – which really is just the subplot anyway, the historical nugget of truth to get journalist Jean (Catherine McCormack) on her quest – is actually the part of this movie easiest to identify with.

This is one of those stories where a dramatized historical event is framed by a modern fictional one, presumably because the example of a contemporary character’s curiosity about a distant, removed event will maybe rub off on us – a kind of psychological body English. This play-within-a-play device has a long and honorable lineage of mutual illumination. But here, it’s murky and distracting, and suggests that the film’s audience can’t imagine its way into Maren’s story without a guide. Sarah Polley makes that story a small gem worth finding.

This review appeared in the 5/24/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not open theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Film Review #102: Straw Dogs
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney

Many movie-goers know director Sam Peckinpah best for his Westerns – those depicting the end of the Old West and especially his slow-motion choreographies of extreme violence. The signature example is 1969’s The Wild Bunch, with outlaws Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) on collision course with each other and forces larger than themselves. Peckinpah was criticized for that film’s unsettling mixture of lingering with such balletic grace on detailed, hyper-realistic gore, even accused of glorifying violence. Films as diverse as George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released only a couple months after The Wild Bunch) and Doug Limon’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) seem to have lifted their climatic shoot-outs from Peckinpah. But Peckinpah himself seems clearly to have meant the film as a cautionary tale, saying after its premiere, “Now they know what killing is really like.”

Two years after The Wild Bunch, in the holiday season just before New Year’s, Peckinpah released a modern-dress film. Starring Dustin Hoffman and the English actress Susan George as David and Amy Sumner, Straw Dogs depicts a contemporary young couple who have left the US to escape its violence and find “some quiet,” as David says, in the English countryside of Amy’s hometown at St. Buryan, Cornwall. Tea roses is not what they find.

David is a research mathematician. Algebraic formulas cover the blackboard in his study. Amy has a habit of erasing his plus signs on the blackboard and replacing them with minuses when she wanders through the room. He takes this not as affectionate, or even wanting attention, but as dismissive of his serious work. So she is immature, he defensive. Add to this that the locals – and Cornwall, its remote moors on the poorest, western-most tip of Briton, with its own ancient language and archeology, was fiercely insular and historically separatist – mostly regard David in his white sneakers and high-water pants much like an Eastern tender-foot, the stock fool in countless Westerns, and a coward.

At first these men smirk and taunt David in the pub. Some of the same men, ostensibly roofing the garage but mostly drinking and leering at Amy, hang her cat in the bedroom closet. They take David hunting in order to leave him lost on the moor, tripping over a borrowed gun. The loutish Charlie (Del Henney) and Norman (Ken Hutchison) move on to rape – a long scene that kept the film banned in England from 1984 until 2002, unsettling for its roughness and its deep ambiguity about whether Amy is aroused. There is an alcohol-soaked invasion of the Sumner house and David – who has actually been getting crosser for some time – defends his home, wife and a mentally fragile local man. The film’s tag-line calls David’s metamorphosis “the birth of a man,” while some reviewers call it a “homicidal rampage.” Neither catches Peckinpah’s far subtler direction or Hoffman’s performance, but you can see the battle lines drawn here, before Charles Bronson’s Death Wish franchise.

It’s worth recalling that a young couple – with or without particular social consciousness – might want to retreat from 1971 America, even then resembling the set of a Peckinpah classic in modern costume. Less than a year after the Kent State shootings, the Weather Underground blew up a restroom in the Capitol’s Senate wing in Washington, DC – this was the moment when Capitol police began checking all visitors for weapons. The US was still in Vietnam under Nixon, though our allies were withdrawing their forces and Nixon had to reduce troop levels. In 1971 a military tribunal convicted Lt. William Calley of murder in the 1968 deaths of twenty-two civilians at the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Sentenced to life in prison, Calley was freed by Nixon. And in September, just a few miles west of here in Wyoming County, 29 inmates and 10 hostages died when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the re-taking of Attica Prison.

The Sumners sought an older, more civilized retreat to ride out America’s shock waves. The film’s opening shot, which comes into focus as slowly as a dawning realization, shows children playing ring-around-the-rosy in the village square’s cemetery. So Peckinpah moved from the end of the Old West to the death of the West itself. And right now Rod Lurie (The Contender) is directing the re-make.

This review was published in the 5/17/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent films that didn’t open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth. Recommended DVD edition is Criterion Collection’s 2003 2-disc set.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Film Review #101: Disappearances
Director: Jay Craven
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, Charlie McDermott

Early in writer-director Jay Craven’s yarn about Prohibition-era whiskey smuggling across the Vermont-Quebec border, fifteen year-old “Wild Bill” Bonhomme – a grave and thoughtful young man played by Charlie McDermott, whose nickname comes more from his father’s dreams than his own temperament – seeks his Aunt Cordelia’s help. Hard times have driven Wild Bill’s father, Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson), back into the whiskey-running business, and the son wants in the worst way to go with his father, his Uncle Henry (Gary Farmer) and the quirky hired man, Muskrat Kinneson (William Sanderson), on this run for twenty cases they’ve heard are sitting there for the snatching. What fifteen-year-old would not want to canoe over the border with this crew, drink his first whiskey in a Quebec roadhouse with his Arcadian fiddlin’ dad, and race through the deep cedar woods in his Uncle Henry’s souped-up white Cadillac, outsmarting legendary, possibly supernatural bandits?

“Your mother treats you like a prize fish. Leave it to me,” says Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), who agrees against her own better judgment to convince Wild Bills’ Cherokee mother Evangeline (Heather Rae) to let the boy visit a larger, wilder pond.

So Wild Bill goes with his father on a trip some would call ill-fated. Near the story’s end, the two are alone in the woods, Wild Bill hauling the wounded older man on a travois as the merciless and seemingly unkillable bandit Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau) chases them. Quebec Bill directs his son to chop a frozen trout out of the brookside ice. Though the boy protests the fish is dead, Quebec Bill stashes it inside his coat and a little while later hands it back, wriggling, for Wild Bill to return to the stream. Perhaps underestimated as a mere man of action next to his mystical sister – Cordelia offers oracular advice, sees the future, and suddenly materializes and vanishes throughout the story – Quebec Bill delivers one of the film’s more graceful lessons on our illusions about the frozen present moment in the vast flow of time. Surrounded by revelations about lost fathers and whole freight trains gone missing, it’s a lesson more powerful because so modest.

Set in 1932 shortly before Prohibition ended, Disappearances completes what Jay Craven calls his “Vermont frontier trilogy,” three features based on interconnected novels by his old friend Howard Frank Mosher. Craven’s career has largely succeeded by his staking a claim as a regional filmmaker – he says “indigenous filmmaking” – and the frontier trilogy, along with some shorts and docs and The Year That Trembled (2002), an ensemble drama framed by the 1970 Kent State shootings, all come out of that aesthetic territory. His first feature, Where the Rivers Flow North (1993), is a brooding, atmospheric tale set in 1927 about a stubborn old woodsman and his long-time Native companion (Rip Torn and an incandescent Tantoo Cardinal) pitted against a hydroelectric project. A Stranger in the Kingdom (1999) depicts a World War II Black Army chaplain accused of murdering a white woman in a Vermont town. Craven has a pool of actors he works with often (the marvelously versatile Bill Raymond, for example) and typically lands much larger names who turn out to be old friends, believers in indie filmmaking, Vermont property-shoppers, and supporters of Craven’s summer camp for young filmmakers, Fledgling Films.

Mosher and Craven both live in Vermont – Craven teaches film at Marlboro College, and with his wife Bess O’Brien and producer Hathalee Higgs runs Kingdom County Productions – in the three-county area that residents traditionally call the “Northeast Kingdom,” also the setting for Mosher’s novels and Craven’s frontier trilogy. In their collaboration, this is an intricate, many-layered world. Disappearances was Mosher’s first novel – published in 1977 – but Craven may have left adapting this one till last because its thickets of criss-crossing, echoing symbols are more treacherous to film than to encounter on the page.

Craven likens the Disappearances film to a Western, with the Depression’s ragged hardship and Prohibition’s outlaw mentality transplanted to the lakes and woods along Canada’s border. The “magical realist whimsy” Craven finds in Mosher’s novel also dove-tails with his own fondness for dream-state cinema and the region’s already rich, trans-border blend of French Canadian and indigenous mythology – for example, the bandit Carcajou as menacing, shape-shifting loup garou and the snowy owl as signal of impending death.

There is an ambitious third anchor. Besides opening Disappearances with novelist William Faulkner’s warning – that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – it’s clear that Craven and Mosher’s joint project aims to build a mythical world of Vermont’s “Kingdom County” that rivals Faulkner’s fictional “Yoknapatawpha County” in Mississippi. So one finds a “Faulknerian” web of associations, memory, family allusions and betrayals throughout Mosher’s novels that reverberate in Craven’s film adaptations. Wild Bill’s Uncle Henry Coville, brought so vividly to life here by Native actor Gary Farmer, appears briefly back in 1993’s Rivers Flow North film (played by another actor). Muskrat Kinneson’s clan occurs in several Mosher novels – including his newest, set in 1930 and titled On Kingdom Mountain, whose release in early July will coincide with the DVD release of Disappearances. Just as Faulkner’s novels carry an undertow of the South’s racial intermingling, the Vermont trilogy includes Native characters in sometimes sharply conflicted relations to white Vermonters, complicated all the more by the cross-border French factor. Like all American stories, then – to point to the tip of an iceberg – Disappearances is about disinheritance.

So Disappearances is ladled from a rich stew – its blessing and its major obstacle cinematically. Though it seems severe to say so, the film has loose ends – transitions that seem mechanical rather than organic, and moments when Kristofferson is coasting rather than moving the scene – that I can’t help thinking would have surfaced and been dealt with if less went on here. But mostly Disappearances is a welcome and often enough wondrous window on a corner of America that we really haven’t seen on-screen like this before Craven’s work. Disappearances did the festival run and – Craven’s done this with his other films too – spent last summer touring a hundred rural Vermont communities, filling the state’s relatively few movie theaters and church basements, Grange halls, and school auditoriums. Road-tested on home ground, the film is now one of twenty chosen by AFI as part of their 20/20 Project global film exchange for 2007.

This review appeared on 5/14/07 in Disappearances opened May 4th in San Francisco & Seattle & May 11th at Quad Cinema in New York City for one week runs, with subsequent limited theatrical release through June & DVD release in early July. Craven’s other features are available at

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Film Review #100: Come Early Morning
Director: Joey Lauren Adams
Cast: Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Wilson

If you’re an HBO movie watcher, you can catch Joey Lauren Adams this Sunday as Addie in The Break-Up (the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Anniston romantic comedy) and remember her from a string of Kevin Smith films, beginning with Mallrats (1995) and then reprising Alyssa Jones from Chasing Amy (1995) through Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) and Clerks: The Lost Scene (2004). Now there’s a chance that Adams – who wrote the country songs she sang in Chasing Amy and laments the lack of good women’s roles – could quit her day job as comedic actress. Nearing forty, Adams has written and directed her first feature, starring Ashley Judd and shot on the outskirts of Adams’ home town, Little Rock.

This is a good deal for them both. Judd portrays Lucy Fowler, whom we meet waking up in a motel room, very hung over, next to a stranger. Unlike other recent films about women who imbibe too much, excellent though they are – Clean with Maggie Cheung and Sherrybaby with Maggie Gyllenhaal spring to mind – this one’s central character is neither an addict who must struggle through protracted recovery nor a tragic mother.

Lucy Fowler has hit thirty, shares a bungalow with an old friend named Kim (Laura Prepon), and drives a lime-green pick-up that’s seen its way around the construction sites she helps her boss Owen (Stacy Keach) manage. She’s sharp at what she does – Owen tells her she’s been running the business for the last four of the nine years she’s worked for him – and during the story she acquires this little business with his blessing. Lucy has a fractured family – her unhappily re-married mother (Diane Ladd), her nursing home-bound grandmother named Doll (Candyce Hinkle), an alcoholic father so shut down he’s practically mute (Scott Wilson), and her Uncle Tim (Tim Blake Nelson), who fills in the gaps for her about her father’s former glory days as guitarist who once played with Chet Atkins and named her for the song “Lucille.” Lucy would like to get closer to her father. In some of the film’s best scenes, she tries, but he can’t do it.

And Lucy spends too much time at The Forge, one of those unfancy strip hangouts selling beer, pool and pizza. One day she buys the juke box of “old songs” that’s being junked – the film is drenched in a gorgeous country soundtrack heavy on songs from composer Alan Brewer – and after she loads it on her truck, meets Cal (Jeffrey Donovan). New in town and a little reticent about why, he’d like an actual date and he wonders when she last kissed someone sober. They try, but they can’t do it.

Sometimes reviewers describe non-blockbusters as “closely observed,” a poppit-bead kind of term that’s stuck in when well-done little movies seem true-to-life and offer colorful detail in place of sweeping drama. Adams has written tight, purposeful scenes and directed her cast to clean, nuanced performances. The notion and value of paying attention to one another is embedded in the story itself. “Are you going somewhere? I see you have your gold shoes on,” says Lucy to her grandmother as soon as she walks in to visit one day. Kim and Lucy talk about getting to know the men they meet – wondering, as Kim says, “what his middle name is and what he looked like as a kid” – and you can see Lucy’s mind working as she asks questions of her life and tries out small, brand new behaviors.

Adams avoids mistaken short-cuts that would lead us through flashier but less satisfying territory. Lucy’s romance with Cal could work out, for example, or she could go with Owen to that newer, bigger company out of town. What happens instead seems truer, even more hopeful. Given that opening motel room moment, this could’ve also been a movie about men being rotten. A couple bad apples here don’t spoil Owen, Uncle Tim or Lucy’s older pool-table buddy Eli (Wally Welch), and along with Lucy, we are finally just deeply sorry for her father.

Previously beset by glamour, serial killers and possibly the most dramatic left eyebrow in film, Ashley Judd gets to act here. The job she does bodes well for her lead as Agnes White in William Friedkin’s just-released screen adaptation of Bug. And I hope Adams is somewhere working on her next script.

Come Early Morning opened last November & went to DVD in late March. This review appears in the 5/10/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing recent movies that didn’t screen in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Film Review #99: The Aura
Director: Fabián Bielinsky
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Dolores Fonzi, Alejandro Awada

Esteban is an odd bird all right. An amateur taxidermist living in Buenos Aires, tongue-tied to the point of dumbstruck much of the time, he shambles through life with a baffled squint. He is formidably imaginative though, with a nearly photographic memory. Scenes of the jewel heists and payroll robberies that fascinate him spring geyser-like from his mind’s eye and pour across the screen.

An epileptic, Esteban (Ricardo Darín) is likewise fascinated by “the aura,” those few vivid seconds that warn him a seizure is coming, when he says “everything stops and a door opens in your head.” Esteban must be goaded to defend himself, but he wades easily into another man’s life and the ready-made plot to rob a backwater casino’s armored truck when it stops at a one-woman brothel on a blank stretch of road. Having traveled impulsively to the desolate southern region of Patagonia with an acquaintance for a botched hunting trip, Esteban is deep in the woods now, running for his life. This trip itself is like the aura – a surrealistic step out of daily life and time before a bloody convulsion of violence.

As one source of inspiration for this 2005 film, Fabián Bielinsky cited John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). When the Argentine screenwriter/director suffered a fatal heart attack on a trip to Brazil last June to cast a TV commercial, he left just two feature-length movies of his own from twenty years of working in Argentina’s film and television production. His pair of films both starred Ricardo Darín, in a set of roles like day and night.

Darín was all wise-cracking, shameless surface as the self-described and self-deluded master crook Marcos in Nine Queens (2000). And Nine Queens, a dazzling con game of a story, is all switchbacks taken at red-line speed. While Marcos and another petty swindler, the sweet-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls), work each other – and an ever-expanding circle of accomplices – to unload a phony set of rare stamps on deadline in downtown Buenos Aires, a dark tussle of family revenge between Marcos and his sister Valeria boils and breaks the surface. Finally produced because Bielinsky won a screenwriting contest with the script and was thus able to shoot as he wanted, Nine Queens succeeded handily with ticket-buyers, festival juries and critics on home ground and then opened in Europe and the US to substantial enthusiasm.

Then last November, The Aura reached US theaters and played steadily in New York City for months. Despite a DVD release in early April, the film is still booked in some art house theaters around the country. Nine Queens and Bielinsky’s sudden early death guaranteed the second film a serious look, but The Aura is a decidedly different take on the heist movie formula and its star a radically different breed of crook this time.

Compared to its predecessor, The Aura proceeds at an almost stately pace. This story unfolds over seven carefully demarcated and labeled days – from Wednesday to Wednesday – and its screen time stretches almost two and a half hours. Stripped of his former mobilizing confidence, Ricardo Darín as the taxidermist Esteban has an identity so imprecise that his actual name appears only in the closing credits. Esteban first appears stretched prone upon the ground at night near an ATM after an epileptic seizure.

Next he’s squirreled away in his shop, fitting a cured fox pelt over a skull form and setting its glass eyes, his own face illuminated in the gloom by his work light. Beyond the door to his shop, where he keeps his clippings of celebrated thefts, there’s a woman waiting. He ignores her and the next day he’ll come home to find his wife has simply left. Goaded earlier about his freedom by his acquaintance Sontag (Alejandro Awada, also a gangster in Nine Queens), Esteban agrees to fly into Patagonia.

Once in the woods, Esteban finds that life falls away like an old overcoat. Other characters vanish or die silently, suddenly, without ceremony or grace. Touched by Diana (Dolores Fonzi), the much younger wife of the backwoods thug Dietrich whom he kills by mistake, Esteban has a moment of reaching out as convulsive as his seizures, and as passing. During Esteban's deep-woods dash for survival, Bielinksy turns his protagnist's capacity for visual conjuring into a switchback as dazzling as any in Nine Queens.

Worth seeing together, Bielinksy’s films are absorbing, technically masterful and unsettling parables of modern life.

This review was published in the 5/3/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVD releases of recent films that did not have a regular theatrical run in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.
Film Review #98: The Namesake
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Kal Penn

On its surface, The Namesake spans more than three decades and territorial points between Calcutta and the US. Focusing on the immigrant experience, its governing images are bridges (the 59th Street Bridge in New York City and Calcutta’s Howrah Bridge), trains and airports. But its range is implicitly even grander too, given that its inspiring source is a story by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol about the idea of travel itself and that its plot unfolds as a clash between East and West as played out between generations in one Bengali family.

Indian director Mira Nair – who says she read Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2001 novel of the same title during a transatlantic flight and landed knowing she wanted to film it – insists vividly that “clash” is much more than a suggestive but conventional word choice. In the adaptation – which for example moves the US setting from Cambridge to Queens – Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala retain one defining event they might have cut. As a young man in 1974 dutifully visiting his grandfather, Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan, soon to be seen again in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart) survives an actual train wreck that occurs just after he’s read the Russian story and a mysterious stranger has advised him to travel. So we are perhaps in league with Ashoke – who indeed does travel, who names his son Gogol, and who is really the central character here – in anticipating something epic and portentous.

The Namesake’s title and plot certainly encourage us to see Ashoke’s son as the central character, as if the early marriage of Ashoke and Ashima (Tabu), with its struggles and loneliness in a strange culture, and the relatively painless progress of younger sister Sonali (Sahira Nair) serve to add background poignancy to his confusion. Rejecting the name Gogol in adolescence – his American schoolmates suggest it will be unhelpful with girls – he takes up his seemingly more versatile “good” name Nikhil, shortening that to an Americanized “Nic.” Of course this only echoes the Russian writer’s whole name – and Nic’s attempt to escape himself – more fully. Years later Ashoke tells his son about that defining train wreck and the name’s history, as Nic’s own full-circle journey begins to round the far turn. This involves young love with a blond named Maxine (Jacinda Barrett) and brief marriage to the brainy, cosmopolitan Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), who then leaves him for a European colleague.

Kal Penn, who has actually done quite a lot more that might recommend him for this role than the usually cited Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), plays this son. Penn’s performance is problematic in the same way that Tom Cruise’s Nathan Algren was problematic in The Last Samurai (2003). That is, Cruise did not have the heft to carry Algren successfully as heroic. Except for being unintentional, his portrayal of Algren as mostly self-centered, self-deluded and callow was pretty good. Penn’s performance strays in the same way. When Nic tells Maxine, “I don’t care what my parents want. It’s what I want,” it’s hard to see what she finds attractive in him in that moment and hard to see how the supremely empathetic Ashoke’s son will find his way back.

Unexpectedly, what is most memorable in this film and what animates its sense of intimacy, tenderness and loss are moments of extreme resonant delicacy that instead center on the older generation.

First there is the matter of the shoes, which elegantly brackets Ashoke’s life – first a young woman’s attempt to divine the essence of an arranged suitor and then the son’s attempt to know the father he often ignored. As a young woman who is torn herself – she really would prefer to pursue a musical career and not to marry, but wishes to escape her parent’s home – Ashima pauses in the hallway outside the formal visit at which she’ll meet Ashoke and his parents. Spying the American shoes he left at the doorway, Ashima slips into them, as if trying to slip inside the man. During the interview, one parent inquires whether Ashima won’t mind being far from home, all alone in New York City, and she replies, “But wouldn’t he be there with me?”

Years later, Ashoke dies suddenly, away from home in an anonymous Midwestern city where he’s gone for a semester to teach. It falls to Nic to collect his father’s body and effects. He gets only as far at the front door of this utterly temporary apartment and the loneliness of his father’s last months wash over him. In a single, echoing impulse, the son slides his feet into a pair of Ashoke’s shoes left by the door.

Then there is the matter of the locked door. This occurs early in Ashoke and Ashima’s marriage, where Ashima puts all the laundry in the dryer and shrinks Ashoke’s sweaters. Shocked and upset, he raises his voice. She, startled by this outburst, rushes tearfully into the bathroom and turns the lock. With the barest of pauses, Ashoke looks down those long years in wintry Queens – his face already scowling, his mouth forming the angry demand – and chooses another future. Carefully, he apologizes, coaxes Ashima to open the door, teases her gently until he has her smiling. Much more than a charming rendition of the immigrant’s innocence, this moment lays the foundation, for example, for the scene in which Ashoke’s sexual patience with Ashima is repaid by her sudden, genuine arousal. Few bedroom scenes on-screen get as much mileage from a single, deeply felt gasp.

Really the epic and the portentous serve such moments – impulses of curiosity and yearning, impulses to search for another’s essence over seemingly impassable gulfs, as much as to go and see the world.

This review was published on 5/1/07 at