Monday, December 28, 2009

Film Review #218: A Christmas Sampler
Thumbnail Reviews of James Cameron’s Avatar, Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air

It turns out that The Young Victoria, subject of last week’s preview column – it opened Christmas Day at Manlius Art Cinema and would still be a perfect reason to make that short, snowy drive east of the city – is only the tip of the late December movie iceberg. This is a good thing, because overall it’s been a scantier film year than 2008. Awards season cranks up as the year winds down, so some of us have been on targeted missions into the multiplexes – and not for Uncle Joe’s Christmas tie. This week we offer something a little different – not a Top Ten list but a holiday sampler.

First at the box office comes Avatar – in its first ten days it grossed, in the U.S alone, almost half the $430 million spent on its production and marketing – James Cameron’s fable about a crippled U.S. Marine who goes undercover on the planet Pandora, joins with the native Navi people and leads an insurrection to save their sacred lands. Like last year’s WALL-e, Avatar has a message, and Cameron has imbued it with additional Native American myth. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the Navi woman who takes him in and teaches him her people’s ways, and Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine. This is a particularly fitting role for Weaver, who brings inevitable echoes of her own Ellen Ripley from the Alien quartet, the second of which Cameron directed in 1986. (Michelle Rodriguez, who plays the helicopter pilot here and whom you may recognize from TV’s Lost, is not the same actress from that film – who can forget Pvt. Vazquez’ “Let’s rock and roll”? – but she looks enough like her to make the casting intentional). Avatar is almost three hours long, tight as a drum, visually breath-taking and moving as all get-out. Make sure to see it in 3-D.

One of three films that opened here Christmas Day, Nancy Meyers’ light comedy It’s Complicated is the latest from national treasure Meryl Streep as Jane Adler, torn between her re-married ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin, a very good sport here) and her shy architect Adam (Steve Martin). I confess that possibly only Meryl Streep could lure me into a Steve Martin movie. In this confection, Jane has three young adult kids, a delightful set of women friends (Rita Wilson and Mary Kay Place among them), and a see-all son-in-law-to-be (very well-played by John Krasinski). The cast had as good a time making this large-hearted, very funny movie as you will watching it – especially the lap-top scene.

“Pastiche,” says the British film writer Richard Dyer, is best defined as knowing imitation. I admit I found the prospect of Daniel Day-Lewis in the role created by Marcello Mastroianni for Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½ intriguing, and the cast of women – Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren – delectable. Nine is Rob Marshall’s film version of the musical based on Fellini’s film, staged in 1982 and then again in 2002. Nine is meant as a tribute to Italian cinema and some of the echoes are there. Loren’s cameo as the mother of 1960s-era director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis), creatively blocked on the eve of a new shoot, is of course close to perfect on several levels. The flash-backs of Guido as a boy running with his pack of buddies along the horizon through the wheat fields wonderfully echo Rossellini’s boys in Rome, Open City – and a number of others. And as Contini’s aggrieved wife, Cotillard delivers the smash performance of the film (with Dench coming in a close second). But Nine is bloated, uneven, and jarring in spots. It’s telling that American actress Kate Hudson’s musical number is what gets the spotlight reprise as the end credits roll, and I hope U.S audiences will not be fooled that this knock-off is the real thing.

Officially Jason Reitman's Up in the Air opened on the 25th too, but we got it here last Wednesday. It is not the best picture of the year by a long shot. But there is something brewing here worth looking at – about the toll that corporate culture has taken on us all in this recession and about the roles of men and women in the financial and social freedom that modern business culture creates for an elite class. Fine performances from George Clooney as Ryan, the ungrounded corporate hatchet man who fires people, Anna Kendrick as the young whippersnapper, and Vera Farmiga as Alex, whose secret twist should not be the jolt it is when it arrives. Alex is an especially troubling figure in her success in achieving all that a man might, complicated by very winning sequences as sympathetic older sounding board when Natalie’s boyfriend dumps her and as Ryan’s date at his younger sister’s wedding. But her turning the tables on Ryan is no victory for women. Up in the Air arrives at a seemingly perfect moment for its subject matter, with its book-end montages of people getting the news they’re fired, its aerial views and its characters' assumptions they know "the big picture," and its sleek industrial look. But adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn written earlier in the decade, its message is still older, so the film easily takes its place among a long line of films and novels deeply wary of modern business life. And the scene in which Ryan arrives onstage at the Mecca of motivational speakers’ conferences in Las Vegas – the symbol of all he is willing to walk away from for Alex – eerily reminded me of what Kevin Costner’s character wound up settling for, a kind of spiritual death after his loss of the Whitney Houston singer – in The Bodyguard. Now that was 1992, and we still didn’t get the message?

English director Guy Ritchie lost Madonna this year and he got yet another bad rap from the movie critics. But even if he is an acquired taste – see Snatch, Revolver, Rocknrolla for starters – Sherlock Holmes is much better than you’re hearing. Gloriously detailed in its look at London’s seamier side (see the January issue of Smithsonian magazine for a tour of Holmes’ London), this film has witty, sharply timed performances from Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, plus some terrific action staging. It’s a treat, and it lays the groundwork for sequel with the beginnings of a Professor Moriarty yarn.

It’s true that The Princess and the Frog is not on this list – some of my goddaughters and I are tackling that one later in the week.

This review appears in the 12/31/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. These movies are screening at area multiplexes. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column that’s also available online, usually with trailers, at – click A&E, where you can read other arts coverage from Eagle Newspapers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Review #217: The Young Victoria
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson

He has been instructed in every detail of her likes and dislikes in advance. Indeed this instruction has formed the core of his own education and defined his purpose in life, according to his uncle, the Belgian King Leopold, who has a very long-range plan for keeping the English on his side. But when Albert (Rupert Friend, the tousle-haired star of Cherie) dutifully walks in the garden with Victoria (Emily Blunt) for the first time, he finds he likes the English crown princess much more than he expected. This prompts him to blurt out the truth: he really prefers the composer Schubert, even though he knows she does not. Stronger and more astute than most adults around her suppose, Victoria grasps this burst of sincerity at once, allows she “doesn’t mind” Schubert, and something sparks between them. As will be the case at a number of pivotal moments, in this telling of history integrity proves to be very sexy.

When England’s Queen Victoria had her coronation in 1837 at the age of 18, among the more well-placed in the audience in Westminster Cathedral was an obscure, nearly penniless but well-born German prince named Albert, who was actually her first cousin. Albert was only a bit older than she and, despite the thicket of relentless intrigues surrounding them both, the two had found their way into a clearing of sorts and actually seem to have married for love. Victoria ruled until she was 81, though she lost Albert when he was only 42 to typhoid in 1861. They had nine children and their descendants eventually populated the royal families of eight other European nations. Albert and Victoria also championed reforms in education, welfare and industry, and supported the arts and sciences.

The Young Victoria focuses on a brief but crucial slice of this monarch’s long life, framed by her courtship and the early years of her marriage to Albert. There is a prologue – Victoria as a sheltered, lonely princess with little company other than her dog Dash and her governess, Baroness Lehzen (Jeanette Hain) to relieve the rigid regime imposed by her mother, the bitter, out-of-favor Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) at the instigation of her bullying advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), whose scheme is to force Victoria to sign over her rights to the throne and name her mother Regent. And there is an epilogue of sorts, in which we see a forty-ish Victoria, just widowed, laying out Albert’s clothing in the morning, as she would do each day for the remainder of her life.

But the body of the film concerns how these two attractive young people escape together from a life-time as pawns of the power brokers around them and, each having the same impulse, address the idea – quite radical to their would-be keepers – that a sovereign’s job might be the well-being of their people. In another of those pivotal moments, Victoria – who has just told her advisor Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) that she has seen “suffering” among her people, which concern Melbourne rebuffs as tinkering with the natural place of the “rabble” – already fond of Albert, warms further to his ideas that workers might be housed more humanely than has happened in the midst of too-rapid industrial growth. Enboldened by her encouragement, he sketches out an architectural plan he has been thinking about for her and she asks if she may keep it.

Now this might seem about as romantic as getting a washing machine for Valentine’s Day. But part of this film’s achievement is making a distant era with what now seem like quite rigid and insular social interactions emotionally intelligible. Albert’s presence in Victoria’s life to begin with is nothing if not coldly calculated, but we share his – and her – growing delight and amazement at what he finds there.

The Young Victoria also manages to provide us with some basic history that goes down pretty easy. As Albert is instructed in who the players are in the English court – besides eventual Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, there’s Lord Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, and the Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) – who their allies are and the nature of their policy leanings, so are we. This is not intricate and detailed history here. But you come away knowing a fair bit more than you might have before and having learned it painlessly. For many of us, the Victorian era is interminably long, brocade-stiff, and associated with repression of every sort. Fittingly, that era is often dramatized in this film by one character putting another soundly in their place. But together, Albert and Victoria loosened some of those places up a bit, and watching that is a treat.

This review appears in the 12/24/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. “The Young Victoria” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Christmas Day. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle, where Nancy's other arts coverage can be found at - click A&E. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at
Film Review #216: An Education
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Olivia Williams

Initially marketed as a vehicle for its male lead, Peter Sarsgaard as the aging playboy David Goldman, Lone Scherfig’s An Education has emerged instead as a showcase for its women. Set in the first stirrings of social ferment of early 1960s London and its suburbs, this fine ensemble film centers on a bright young woman’s detour from her path to Oxford University when she accepts a ride in the rain from a charming sleaze with secrets.

As Jenny, 24-year-old Carey Mulligan is generating Oscar buzz for her witty, nuanced performance as a 16-year-old sampling possible and widely divergent futures. As Jenny’s comrade-side kick in the clandestine adventures of their bad-boy boyfriends, Rosamund Pike as Helen strikes just the right balance between an older, worldlier and eventually tackier woman who fusses with Jenny’s hair and wardrobe now but would be implausible as an appropriate friend later. As the haughty head-mistress whose few short appearances embody distilled and blindered authority, the versatile Emma Thompson is as perfect here as she was in her recent cameo as “sexual legend” in another recent British import depicting roughly the same period, Pirate Radio. As Jenny’s mother, Cara Seymour is well-intended and a little swept-away by the times and her daughter’s slick suitor, but – crucially – never depicted as foolish. (One can say the same for Alfred Molina as Jenny’s dad and for Jenny’s young aspiring boyfriend, who may be a tad bumbling but knows when to make his exit gracefully.)

Then there is Miss Stubbs. As the plain teacher whose literary lessons about Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre should warn us and Jenny too of what’s coming, Olivia Williams just won the Invisible Woman Award from the national Women Film Critics Circle, given for the performance by a woman most ignored by critics. On the WFCC’s annual awards show, broadcast live from WBAI Pacifica in New York City on December 9th (with a patch-in from WAER 88.3 FM here in Syracuse by yours truly), Chicago film critic Jan Huttner called Williams’ performance as Miss Stubbs “the heart and conscience of the film.” Huttner wondered how come so many male reviewers felt blind-sided by the “sudden” change of tone in the movie’s third act, since Miss Stubbs’ telegraphs the outcome from virtually the first scene – certainly well before David’s partner in crime Danny (Dominic Cooper) rolls his eyes to Helen at David’s fabrications.

Despite being well-liked generally by film reviewers with a 94% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the “consensus” on the film at that site is indeed a caution that “the latter part of the film may not appeal to all [despite being] a charming coming-of-age tale.” But WFCC doubly honored An Education with its annual Karen Morley Award for the film that best exemplifies a woman’s search for identity. For those who prefer An Education as a light romp in which opportunistic older men need see no particular damage done by their dalliances, and may assume that women look back on these events only fondly, the third act does take a dreary turn.

Here, Jenny discovers letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman” in David’s sports car’s glove-box at the worst possible moment, just as David is driving Jenny and her parents to a restaurant to celebrate their engagement. By now, Jenny has watched David charm her parents in a series of escalating lies about himself and their outings, and she herself has been charmed out of her initial consternation at his business dealings, because – as she says forlornly at one point – before she met him nothing had ever happened in her life. In this moment and in what follows, Jenny discerns the point to this part of her “education” in the shock – so rude when we are at a certain age – that how someone treats others is a fairly reliable prediction of how they will treat us too. Only then is Jenny able to ask Miss Stubbs for help. One might say Jenny – clearly so bright in the film’s opening scene – comes back to her right mind, with a snap of clarity that I found frankly exhilarating.

Interestingly, Danish director Lone Scherfig, perhaps best know for her 2000 film Italian for Beginners, does not take this period piece too deeply into the decade’s rock music and social rebellion. Jenny is not listening to the music broadcast from pirate radio ships anchored in the North Sea, so emblematic of her own generation’s flowering. Jenny is still listening to the steamy older French singer Juliette Greco, her notion of sophistication in a still-out-of-reach, older world. But as the film ends, she’s in Oxford at last, and the Beatles can’t be far behind.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the 12/17/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 12. Read the full roster of WFCC’s 2009 film awards at Thanks to WAER Syracuse for the use of Studio A and continued support. “An Education” continues screening at Manlius Art Cinema through December 24. On Christmas Day, Manlius opens The Young Victoria, which we’ll review in next Thursday’s issue. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Film Review #215: Precious
Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz

Several weeks ago an irate letter-writer worried in The Post-Standard that Syracuse might miss Precious altogether. Although that letter actually appeared the morning after Nat Tobin announced on his weekly e-list that he was bringing Precious to Manlius Art Cinema, there was a lag before Regal Theaters booked the film into Carousel. It took breaking all sorts of attendance records in the very limited initial theatrical release that Precious got from Lionsgate Films for the mall chains – here and in 100 markets nationwide – to get wind of its profitability. Precious – based, as its longer official title tells us, on the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire – opened last Friday at both Manlius and Carousel Mall, and it was satisfying to see some weekend showings sold out.

The first film ever to win the Audience Award at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, Precious is the second feature film directed by Lee Daniels, who has mainly worked as a producer on edgy films like Monster’s Ball. Set in 1987, the film tells the story of teen-aged Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), her sexual and physical abuse at the hands of both her father and her mother Mary (Mo’Nique), and how a teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and a social services worker, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey), intervene. Let me say early on that if Lee Daniels and Mo’Nique don’t get Oscar nominations, there is no justice.

As the film opens, Precious is pregnant with her second child and has been suspended from her public school in Harlem. She’s referred to Each One Teach One, an alternative pre-GED program (if that sounds familiar to you, yes, the film uses a program of the Syracuse-based ProLiteracy, an item way at the tail end of the credits). Despite her own nearly paralyzing fears and her mother’s vigorous encouragement to get on welfare and stay home with her instead, Precious goes to school and, little by little, she and her classmates grow and bond. She also applies for her own welfare, which in this case would open the door to independence from her mother, who’s already running a scam involving Precious’ first child. Precious has her baby and decides to keep him, which provokes a brutal explosion when she tries to take the infant home. Coatless, Precious lands on the nighttime winter streets, narrowly avoiding the television thrown down the stairwell after her. Thanks to Ms. Rain, who pulls in all the chips on her considerable Rolodex file, there’s housing out there for Precious and little Abdul, and – I’m leaving out a lot here – Precious has a chance to decisively reject ever going home again.

Like Steven Spielberg’s 1985 screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, Precious has generated emotional and defensive controversy. Both films contain fathers who rape their daughters, and Precious adds a mother who continues to sexually abuse her daughter after that father has left (besides a dizzying range of other abuses). The harshest criticism so far has come from Armond White of The New York Press weekly in Manhattan. White accuses Daniels and executive co-producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry – all three have spoken publically about their own childhood abuse – of “pandering and opportunism,” creating a “sociological horror show,” and the most racist depiction of African Americans since Birth of a Nation. On the other hand, commentators like NYU-based journalist Cindy Rodriguez (who wrote for The Post-Standard some years ago), have written astutely and persuasively about how Precious lays out the persistent legacy of slavery and racism that surfaces in the self-worth of many of these characters. Lest we imagine that the 1987 setting safely distances this story, a host of commentary has focused on the present-day plight of similar girls. In the current issue of O Magazine, Winfrey remarks, “I see this girl every day, and I never saw her.”

There’s no doubt the story’s volatile, and even The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who admires this film, calls it “florid” – which isn’t all that far from “lurid.” But while the subject matter is certainly florid, I want to distinguish that from the way the movie itself is made and talk instead about the film’s restraint. Because in fact Daniels and his cast and crew have refrained from many easy, slapdash things that ruin countless movies by shoving our emotions around. I noticed this first fairly early in the movie – steeling myself at a dramatic moment when I half-expected the music to swell manipulatively and, miraculously, it didn’t. Precious does have a lively soundtrack that’s already out on CD, but Daniels lets his actors do their work.

And what work they do! Besides the principal performances, this makes room for some fine ensemble acting – talk-show host Sherry Shepherd as Cornrows, the school’s receptionist, always on the phone over some boyfriend problem; singer Lenny Kravitz as the vegetarian male nurse whom Precious fixes up with her in one deft comical scene; singer Mariah Carey as the social services worker who anchors the final harrowing scene toward which the movie builds.

In particular, the middle section of the film comprises a series of brief, cleanly written and edited vignettes about Ms. Rain’s classroom itself. These depict time passing as these young women grow and learn and bond in a group setting that is as much therapeutic as educational. Ms. Rain’s interventions can be decisive and dramatic. She stops a fight after a girl sneers at Precious that “F is for fat” (dispensing a lesson in justice about which infraction is really more injurious, she throws the other girl out). But they’re also frequently delicate and nuanced, supremely appreciative of the smallest of victories. Girls who begin the class in stylized poses of indifference and surly defiance gradually discover their own curiosity and even affection for one another. Their participation becomes actively supportive, despite lapses and outbursts, even on the day when Ms. Rain tells them that “the oldest is in charge” and thus the Bahamian immigrant Ramona (a wonderful Chynna Laine) teaches the class.

So when Precious blurts out that she’s just learned she’s HIV+, the group has so progressed that the others can be still and listen – even the jittery girl who started out greeting every remotely serious topic with wild, derisive laughter. It’s worth noting that Daniels and his screenwriter have placed this dramatic development structurally so that it serves a purpose other than stereotyping. In a 1987 classroom, announcing an HIV+ diagnosis would be far more unsettling than today, and how the film handles that might serve as a clue to those who are so jittery about what Precious says out loud.

Perhaps the most telling restraint of all is that addiction – the usual kind anyway – is absent from this story. (The most we get is Ms. Rain having a decorous glass or two of holiday wine.) Now this is almost too good to pass up for any pandering filmmaker who’s into easy short-cuts and sensational stereotypes. Leaving out the booze and dope accomplishes several things, however. What intoxicated characters see is exaggerated, and allows audiences to view the way circumstances are portrayed as distorted. Instead, the film regards the landscape of Precious’ world – well, soberly, without any mind-altering chemical boost. Without that distraction, we see what else is really there. Paradoxically, this makes way to see the full range and force of the fantasies that both Precious and her mother engage in. These include dissociative moments common among those surviving and escaping trauma, fierce schoolgirl daydreams about fitting in and being popular and “looking right,” one intriguingly droll scene in which Precious imagines herself inside a TV screening of the Sophia Loren World War II epic Two Women (which I think precludes the quick, wry sense of humor she starts to display later), and her mother’s more extreme habit of zoning out before the TV that probably verges on the psychotic.

Her mother’s path is, after all, one that Precious could have taken. We see how this all could have happened, and where it might've wound up, most vividly in that final scene in Mrs. Weiss’ cubicle during Mary’s last bid to get Precious back. She’s lucky and so are we. And Mo’Nique has a whole lot more under her hat than “Skinny Women Are Evil.”

* * *
This review is part of the November 25, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. “Precious” is playing at both Manlius Art Cinema and Carousel Mall Regal Theaters, and Lee Daniels’ first film, “Shadowboxer” (2005) is available for Instant Viewing or regular rental at Netflix. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film review column. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Film Review #214: Pirate Radio
Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Emma Thompson

Maybe the surprise engagement softened us up, but I prefer to see it as further evidence of the enduring power of rock’n’roll. Local music fans will remember when WAER’s deejay Eric Cohen used the main stage at Jazz Fest to go down on one knee. Last Friday night another enterprising young man engineered the same thing during the closing credits at the early screening of Pirate Radio in Albany’s Spectrum Theatre. As snapshots of the couple flashed onscreen and the live Black gospel choir planted in the audience burst into the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” he popped the question. Coming up the aisle as the crowd for the next showing filtered in, their giant images still looming on the screen behind them, they looked pretty happy, and way too young to have been alive in 1966, when Pirate Radio takes place.

Pirate Radio opened nationwide last Friday with little advance notice. Except for the face of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the newspaper ads and a Friday afternoon feature on NPR about the history of 1960s-era offshore pirate radio stations that I caught on the drive to Albany, it wasn’t on my radar at all. My sister and I were thinking of Lorna’s Silence, the new one by the Belgian filmmaker Dardenne brothers, or maybe Paris, which we went back to see Saturday night. Pirate Radio was pretty much a Plan B. But – still softened up with lingering good cheer from that engagement or not – we cheered and clapped right along with everybody else when the end credits rolled.

About 20 minutes longer and titled The Boat that Rocked before its U.S. makeover, Pirate Radio hadn’t done all that well overseas. Many reviews here have been luke-warm too – grumpily calling it a “mess” and a “hodgepodge,” a poor imitation of Richard Lester’s madcap Beatles films (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, 1964 and ‘65) and – ironically, considering the movie’s own personification of upper crust British culture police, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who vows to crush the outlaw radio stations and the “sewer” they represent – nowhere near the in-depth treatment the subject or the era deserve. Excuse me, but this movie is a musical. How much “character development” does even The Sound of Music really have, folks? Pirate Radio was written and directed by Richard Curtis, from whom we’ve had Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually – affectionate entertainments, really, as this film is.

The year is 1966, when the UK’s state-owned BBC aired about two hours of rock music a week, compared to the United States’ 571 music-and-news format privately-owned commercial radio stations that provided Top 40 rock music 24 hours a day. State-owned radio monopolies actually pervaded most European broadcasting since the 1920s and, in England’s case, agreements with the musicians’ unions prevented more than minimal on-air “needle-time” as a way of tightly controlling competition with live performers. As the opening montage shows, about half of Britain’s population – 20 million people – listened to rock on U.S.-style pirate stations. That is, stations financed by advertizing (often U.S.-based) that aired commercials on shows run by popular deejays with nicknames, jingles, station ID’s and their own steadfast, infatuated fans. The first offshore pirate stations broadcast from ships in the 1950s off Denmark, Holland and Sweden. A London-based agent, Rohan O’Rahilly, launched Radio Caroline in March 1964, with another eight or nine stations following. Parliament did pass the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, as the film depicts.

Pirate Radio only loosely adheres to this history, it’s true, leaving out many nuances of that day’s culture wars – save joyous resistance to authority – or our own day’s political correctness, and cobbling together a tale of the decrepit fictional ex-tanker Radio Rock anchored in the North Sea, with an assortment of odd birds and motley crew – including Hoffman as the American, Rhys Ifans as the Brit megastar deejay Gavin Cavanaugh, Bill Nighy as the ship’s captain Quentin, and the lone woman Felicity (Katherine Parker), allowed on board to cook only because she’s a lesbian. Into this comes Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge), sent for some manning-up by his mother Charlotte (Emma Thompson), whom Quentin calls a “sexual legend.” Plot twists abound, including visits from giddy fans, games of chicken, finding Carl's long-lost father and a sudden swerve into Titanic-as-rock-opera midway through, with a box of beloved albums standing in for that sapphire necklace. And the soundtrack – close to 40 songs – well, it is glorious. No matter what age you are, you’re likely to know them all.

This review appeared in the 11/19/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Simon Frith’s fascinating and more complete history of the British pirate stations at the film’s official website. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing DVDs, special screenings and films of enduring worth. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.
Film Review #213: Tattooed Under Fire
Director: Nancy Schiesari

“The Vikings wore their shields on their backs when they went into battle, so it should be on the back,” says Josh, 22, a soft-faced boy with wide eyes and still a bit of baby fat around his middle. It’s April 2005, 1500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and Josh is deploying there in two months. In Nancy Schiesari’s documentary Tattooed Under Fire, Josh is explaining why the Viking shield tattoo he has worked to design with the artists at River City Tattoo in Killeen, Texas, incorporates the Norse “tree of life” into its design and will cover most of his back.

“I’m Norwegian on my mother’s side, so as a warrior, this is another link to my heritage,” he adds, his upper lip beaded with sweat as the needle bites into his back. I have a bit of ink, so I know this peculiar sensation. It doesn’t exactly hurt, because the needle’s never in one spot long enough, but it’s always just about to, so you can reach your limit for a session.

Diamond Glen, the senior tattoo artist in the shop, is familiar with tattoo’s rituals and lore. He elaborates that ancient warriors painted and tattooed themselves to intimidate the enemy, part and parcel with the fearsome pounding on shields and bellowing that we all know in movies from Stagecoach to Braveheart to Steve McQueen’s Hunger. “Tattoos are like permanent war-paint,” says Glen, who says he has two sons himself, that these Fort Hood soldiers are “good kids – babies, most of ‘em.”

Roxanne, who owns River City Tattoo and could easily pass for any of her soldier clientele’s mothers, says she grew up around the military and she respects their desire to do their duty.

“But I don’t like the duty this time,” she says. “These kids put their heart and soul into these designs. They’re saying, it’s my body, it’s my life, and I want to design it.”

Fort Hood, Texas, scene of last week’s horrific mass shooting and this week’s somber observances, is the largest U.S. military facility in the world. A major center for deployment of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Fort Hood also houses the Army’s Warrior Combat Stress Reset Program for the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Increasingly, many U.S. men and women in uniform – one estimate, according to the film, is that 95% of those deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan – choose tattoo and other body art to express their complex reactions to combat both survived and anticipated.

This week, Schiesari’s documentary about the use of tattoo among U.S. troops begins airing across the nation on PBS stations. Its first Central New York airing was Monday night on WCNY Channel 24. Initially scheduled in honor of Veterans’ Day, the timing takes on added urgency after the Fort Hood tragedy. Tattooed Under Fire was filmed in Killeen, Texas, just outside Fort Hood, over about a three-year period. Schiesari is a native Brit who’s made documentaries about the photographer Hansel Mieth and filmmaker Martin Scorsese for the BBC, along with work for England’s Channel 4, ABC, National Geographic and PBS, and she’s served as cinematographer on films like Alice Walker’s 1993 Warrior Marks. Now she teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas/Austin, where Tattooed Under Fire premiered in September 2008. Before the awful coincidence of last week’s Fort Hood shootings, the film had already gained increased attention on this year’s festival circuit - deservedly so, for it leans in close with a group of young soldiers, mostly men but including three women, decent, sometimes unknowing, as they talk about their hopes and fears and anger and sometimes grief, make jokes, try to get ready.

In just 56 compact minutes, Schiesari profiles nearly a dozen of them, sometimes including reprise interviews when they return. A medic has an hour glass with wings flying through a thunderstorm across his upper chest – carefully below the collar line of his dress uniform. A soft-voiced young Latina says she’ll maybe buy her mother a house if she survives; an African American woman has grown increasingly bitter about the armed services. One rookie pushes a few envelopes when he designs a fetus in a blender design for his bicep and poses “making a muscle” with it before he ships out – he says any one of them could wind up “mush” – and then Schiesari catches him when he’s back from his hitch, chastened by real war’s proximity and amazed no one shot him for the excess of such an image.

Of course it’s really the war itself that has got under all our skins, marking the rest of us indelibly as these young soldiers.

This review was part of the 11/12/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. Look for additional screenings of “Tattooed Under Fire” on your local PBS station. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Film Review #212: Nigger
Director: Thea St. Omer

“I don’t audible-ize the word,” says one of the interviewees, a middle-aged white man and presumably a teacher. He says that he will write “nigger” and he will refer to it, just never “audible-ize” it.

I suppose he really means “say out loud.” Generally I take a dim view of the practice of interchanging parts of speech – using “impact” as a verb is just lazy – and now here is a further alarming foray into adjectival contortion. “Audible-ize” may exist somewhere, probably as a technological term, but this is the first time I’ve heard it used. And perhaps it shows up here to illustrate unwittingly the lengths to which we’ll go in seeking linguistic escape from the snares of another word. Thea St. Omer takes on the many-shaded malignancy of that word in her masterful documentary, Nigger.

An instructor at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University, St. Omer screened an earlier version of Nigger there last spring and later at New York University. Now she’s finished the film – 59 minutes and shot in digital video – and she hosts a premiere screening next Wednesday at ArtRage Gallery in the Hawley-Greene neighborhood, just a short hop north from the SU campus near James and Lodi.

St. Omer distills Nigger from over 100 interviews. The majority of her interviewees are of African descent, but there are also Latinos, a number of whites including a German mother whose school-age daughter uses the term “digger” as code for the forbidden “nigger,” and several Asians including a slender young man who says he’s never been called a “nigger” and adds wistfully, “I’m not that cool.” One thing that film as a visual medium accomplishes here, without making any fuss about it at all, is the accumulation of a pool of subjects who are astonishingly varied in their range of age, style, accent, dress, station and degree of worldliness, stance and hue. This of course makes its own point given the film’s consideration of blunt-force stereotype.

St. Omer’s set-up is simple and intimate: acting as her own cameraperson and shooting in closeup, she interviews subjects against a black backdrop. In letting me watch the film for review she extracted a for-my-eyes-only promise because the dvcam master was delayed, getting its final color correction elsewhere. She needn’t have worried. The film’s look is very nice indeed.

She has taken what are evidently lengthy conversations and edited to pull short clips which she then arranges in sections. One can imagine that these categories emerged from the interviews she filmed as well as from her questions, and the sections are simply titled with white text on black: “A look at the word.” “Where did the term nigger come from?” “Is there such a thing as a nigger?” (This section is particularly intriguing, as interviewees think through aloud about the distinctions involved between a word and what it represents.) “To be called a nigger.” “The cultural nuances of nigger.” “Is there a difference between nigger and nigga?” “Should we use the words nigger and nigga today?” and “Are you a nigger?”, which evokes perhaps deeper emotion than in any of the previous sections. It is my guess that none of the white interviewees asked this question will ever claim glibbly that they "know how you feel."

While we don’t hear her voice until a good ways into the film – she softly asks a young man how he reacted when someone called him a nigger (instead of answering directly, he says, “My Jewish friend Andy beat the crap out of the guy!”) – and only infrequently after that, it’s evident she’s an excellent interviewer. Her subjects are relaxed, expressive, thoughtful, sometimes witty and frequently eloquent. I said above that she “distilled” this film; that’s descriptive but also offers the temptation to draw that metaphor out, for what’s here is a kind of bootleg knowledge. Clearly these enormously quotable people feel safe with St. Omer getting them on record about, as the film’s tagline goes, “Arguably the most loaded word in our history.”

Actually, I suppose some would argue about that assertion, and several of St. Omer’s subjects do reference parallel struggles in passing. For example, one woman says that “for some people, the world is full of niggers and kikes and homosexuals.” Another woman responds to the issue of who may appropriately use the word “nigga,” either in solidarity or as a way of claiming affection, by noting that she understands the theory of “reclaiming” and thereby transforming negative language but she can’t imagine ever actually calling her women friends by the “C” word. It seems to me another of St. Omer’s quiet accomplishments in this film is that we understand she’s not adverse to including other oppressions, but this one is what we’re talking about right now and – like the good teacher that I imagine she is in a classroom – she deftly keeps us right on point.

******* This review appeared in the October 1, 2009 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Thea St. Omer hosted the premiere screening of her finished documentary, Nigger, on Wednesday, October 7 at 7:00 PM at ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Avenue, Syracuse.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Film Review #211: The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928/DVD 1999
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Renee Maria Falconetti & others

The idea of what makes a woman hero dates back at least to female medieval mystics, among them Joan of Arc, the illiterate French peasant girl whose “divine voices” told her to unite France, assist in the crowning of the young Charles VII and expel the English invaders. For her trouble she was betrayed by French collaborators in 1431, turned over to a Church court, tried for heresy – there were 29 “examinations” combined with torture, during which she disavowed her voices but then recanted – and burned at the stake, all by the time she was 19 years old.

Every Catholic schoolgirl knows Joan’s story – as much frightening cautionary tale as feminist inspiration – though actually a number of cultures have legends or historical instances of young women who transgressed conventions of their time, dressed in men’s clothing and took up arms and leadership at moments of crisis, often to repel invaders. The Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film about Joan’s trial and execution is by no means the first cinematic treatment of "the maid of Orleans" – at least seven movies preceded his, the earliest in 1895 – though the Catholic Church did not declare Joan a saint until 1920. Ingrid Bergman played Joan twice – in Victor Fleming’s 1948 adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play and again in 1954 for Rossellini. Otto Preminger launched Jean Seberg’s career by casting her in his 1957 film based on George Bernard Shaw’s play (the screenplay by that great novelist of Catholic doubt, Graham Greene). Director Robert Bresson’s Joan film came out in 1962, and in 1997 Luc Besson cast Milla Jovovich in The Messenger, still-popular on DVD and featuring Joan in battle. The most recent effort seems to be the riveting 2003 Hungarian film Joan of Arc on the Night Bus, best described as a post-modern opera, which incidentally screened here in Syracuse several years ago courtesy of the Syracuse International Film Festival. This list is not exhaustive, but illustrates an enduring fascination with Joan.

But Dreyer’s film has a certain mystique attached, even in terms of the film’s survival in the world. Fire destroyed the original negative. Then his second version – reconstructed from outtakes – was lost to fire too; Dreyer died in 1968 believing this work was gone, though boot-legged, truncated versions survived. In 1981, a print of Dreyer's original was found intact under circumstances either bizarre or miraculous, depending on your point of view: locked in a janitor’s metal cabinet in an Oslo psychiatric hospital. Restored in 1985, this has been available since 1999 on an excellent Criterion Collection DVD, which contains more of this history as well as options to play the film in its original silent form, with commentary, or with composer Richard Einhorn’s majestic Voices of Light. Einhorn himself encountered Dreyer’s film by accident at the Museum of Modern Art while considering whether to compose something about Joan. He comments on the Criterion DVD that first watching the Dreyer film was like “walking down an ordinary street, turning a corner and without warning, you find yourself staring at the Taj Mahal.”

Dreyer stripped his story down to Joan’s trial, with no panoramic shots of battlefields or Charles’ court or the Rheims cathedral, no lush scenery, no mystical moments of Joan with her heavenly confidantes, no fabulous costumes for Joan in armor astride her white horse. His camera came in at odd angles on a stripped down set, creating disorienting, unsettling visuals, literally askew perspectives that match the sensory perception of someone exhausted and under stress, and evidence of a harsh daily existence in details like Joan's ragged, dirty fingernails.

The film is relatively short – just 82 minutes – and he strips the narrative down too. Dreyer relied on the actual ecclesiastical trial transcripts for Joan’s exchanges with her tormentors. Joan’s was a show trial, so when vain, hair-splitting judges nonsensically ask her how she knew it was Saint Michael who visited her, whether he was naked and whether his hair was cut, she is not outwitted. When they inquire in another trick question whether God hates the English, she answers that she doesn’t know about that but she does know he will drive most of them out of France, except for those who die there. You may not think about this as you watch the film, but afterward it occurs how like the scriptural Jesus she is in Dreyer’s portrayal – both the boy found holding his own with the scholars in the temple and the later, angrier Jesus who drives the money-lenders out. And it’s no coincidence Dreyer titles his film The Passion of…. For some, Gethsemane – where Jesus is perhaps most fully human, doubting his salvation, wondering if he can avoid his painful death, wondering if he can do more good alive, asking please to get out of this, agonizing – is what makes his story worth its salt. And in this portion of Joan’s story – when she allows herself to be convinced to save herself, only to draw back from that spiritual calamity as from a dizzying brink – Dreyer’s film is most unforgettable.

Dreyer found his lead in Renée Maria Falconetti, a stage actress of light comedies. She found his methods so aversive that – much like the singer Björk’s experience with another Danish director, Lars von Trier – she never made another movie. The critic Pauline Kael called Falconetti’s performance the finest ever filmed. A ways off the beaten track from the multiplex, this one’s worth the trip.

This review is from the 9/24/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find The Passion of Joan of Arc at
Betty y Pancho
Director: Juan Mora Catlett
Cast: Elizabeth Catlett, Francisco Mora

In 1998, Mexican filmmaker Juan Mora Catlett unveiled Betty y Pancho, a video portrait of his artistic family that centers on his parents’ half-century marriage and collaboration. His father, who died in 2002 at age 79, was the Mexican painter, print-maker and muralist Francisco Mora. His mother is Elizabeth Catlett, the Washington, DC-born, African American sculptor, print-maker and painter, who went to Mexico City in 1946 to study print-making at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), where she met Mora.

Their son the filmmaker will be in town Saturday afternoon for a single screening of Betty y Pancho at the Community Folk Art Center (CFAC) at 3:00 PM. This rare U.S. screening – though shown widely in Mexico including on television, the film has not been released in this country and is not commercially available on DVD – occurs in conjunction with the opening of Power and Pride: An Elizabeth Catlett Retrospective, which fills both the building’s main galleries and its hallway.

Catlett herself, now 94, travels from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for the opening reception Friday night from 6 – 8 PM. Central New Yorkers should take note that landing this show – and the artist with it – falls into the category of Genuine Major Coup for CFAC (though to tell the truth they have been making a habit of that lately). And although there exists fairly extensive other filmed interview material on Catlett, some of it readily available online, in just under an hour’s run-time Mora’s film provides an unusually accessible and close look at how two artists worked, supported one another and managed a bicultural marriage and family.

Betty y Pancho opens with a scene of gracious triumph: the sparkling opening reception in February 1998 at the Neuberger Museum of Art at State University of New York’s campus in Purchase of the fifty-year retrospective of Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture, which went on to tour the U.S and Mexico. (You may spy, as I did, some work from that show which is now on view at CFAC, although the two shows are not the same group of work.) Soon afterward, we hear Catlett recalling, “My father’s mother was a slave in Virginia and when Emancipation came, her free uncle who lived in Washington, went to bring her back. He had to pay for all the seats on one car in order to bring her on the train.”

After this section recounting Catlett’s family history – both her parents were teachers and her father taught for a time at Tuskegee – and the roots of her art, the film turns to a similar background introduction of Francisco Mora in what will be the film’s pattern of essentially alternating chapters on Catlett and Mora. An exceptionally bright, eager and talented student from a family that was at least comfortable, Mora abruptly found his circumstances sharply reduced by his parents’ divorce. He credits his recollection of hunger so severe that he could no longer think in school with a life-long identification with the poor and the dedication of much of his art to their interests.

Of the indigenous Purepecha people, Mora also found American racism – and its antidote through art and cultural awareness – readily intelligible. (The filmmaker son also made a feature film depicting one of the tribe’s major legends, entirely in the indigenous language, three years ago - Erendira Ikikunari is available at Netflix.) The section of the film devoted, for example, to the early aims and practices of the Taller de Gráfica Popular with its credo of “prints for the people” (it was just a decade old when it brought Catlett and Mora together) are as fascinating at that about Catlett’s engineering a trip to a whites-only exhibit in New Orleans of a Picasso show for her students when she taught at Dillard University; clearly moved, she recounts how her students – not a one had ever entered a museum or gallery to see art “in person” before – ran about excitedly, exclaiming and calling to one another to come and see.

Catlett settled in Mexico and eventually became a Mexican citizen (after Mora’s death she reclaimed dual citizenship in the U.S.) following harassment and arrest due to her political organizing and associations, as government forces sympathetic to the McCarthyism rampant to the north attempted to pressure her into leaving. Although the film does not address that, it does spend time on the three sons Catlett and Mora raised, all artists. Besides Juan the filmmaker, composer and jazz musician Francisco Mora Jr. did the film’s score – a pair of string quartets celebrating Harriet Tubman and indigenous Mexican women – and the youngest, David, is a painter in his own right as well as Catlett’s studio assistant.

Besides making the celebration of African American women and mothers a major theme in her art, Catlett says at one point, “I was always doing things that Mexican women just didn’t do.” While she gives enormous credit to Mora for the union’s success, what’s also obvious as the film progresses is how well matched this pair is as artists – in temperament, sympathies, aims and capacity to nourish each other’s work. You see the results of that in CFAC’s galleries “in person” – and you might feel like it’s the first time you’ve been in a gallery too.

This review is from the 9/17/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Betty y Pancho screened on Saturday, September 19 at 3:00 PM in the PRPAC Black Box Theatre at Community Folk Art Center, 805 E. Genesee St., with Juan Mora Catlett on hand for discussion afterward. Power and Pride: An Elizabeth Catlett Retrospective is on view at CFAC to December 12th; the opening artist’s reception was Friday, September 18, 6:00 – 8:00 PM. CFAC is open Tuesday – Saturday, 10 – 5, and Saturdays, 11 – 5. Also, through October 21st, in CFAC’s video alcove, two films by Carrie Mae Weems, Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment and Afro Chic, in conjunction with Light Work’s city-wide collaboration focusing on photo and video by Barry Anderson.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Film Review #209: District 9
Director: Neill Blonkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copely, Vanessa Haywood, CGI

Midway through this story set in South Africa’s Johannesburg, the ingratiating corporate gopher charged with being the public face of a massive forced removal himself takes refuge within the sprawling, sordid shanty-town. Things have gone terribly wrong. Back at the shack of one Christopher Johnson, whom he’d tried to evict earlier, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) notices his host’s young son chattering and peering at him. Already distraught, Wikus demands, “What’s he doing?”

“He likes you,” says Christopher.

“We are alike,” says the little one, fascinated. “We’re the same.”

“We are not the same!” shrieks Wikus, leaping to his feet.

Wikus is still mostly right in this horrified declaration. Christopher and his son (who are CGI-conjured instead of played by actors) are aliens, two among the growing thousands who’ve been corralled for 28 years – since their apparently disabled mothership stalled above the city where it still hangs mid-sky – in an inner-city camp, ringed by East Berlin-like guard towers, gates, warning signs, razor wire and Multi National United’s prowling, brutal, trigger-happy private security forces. The South Africans call the aliens “prawns,” an epithet descriptive of their appearance, and their language is a series of clicks, which Wikus understands but are subtitled for the audience.

Tensions and incidents of violence have risen during human and alien encounters, and the TV live-eye reports and interviews that provide much of the narrative thread and documentary-like ambiance include a pointed, bizarre parade of black South Africans voicing fearful hostility toward the aliens, resentment over the resources they consume, and vigorous support of an even greater Apartheid toward them. In their very public display of removing the aliens to a remote site with even fewer amenities than District 9 offers, MNU has carefully kept out of view their interest in accessing the aliens’ weapons, which are coded to work only via contact with alien biology, and the Mengele-like medical experiments. So smarmy to start with that you want to slap him, Wikus actually seems to believe MNU’s public relations line and is crudely racist – if that would be the term – in his officious condescension toward the aliens. Imagine his surprise when a chance encounter with a canister of alien fluid – its versatile powers will also fuel that mother-ship if Christopher can get back up there – first makes Wikus violently ill and then causes an alien hand and arm to sprout, replacing his own, just the beginning of his transformation.

To what lengths must we go to feel another’s pain and know we are alike? Only when “infected” with an alien life-form does Wikus become, well, fully human. Enduringly, we all want to go home. Each stranded in the world of the other, Wikus and Christopher share this yearning and its dilemmas and, from across a great chasm, come to be allies and even brothers. Quickly arriving at Central New York multiplexes after wide release on August 14th, District 9 is an exhilarating action film whose shooting, editing and narrative are way better crafted and more thoughtful than you’d ever expect. As executive producer, hit mogul Peter Jackson “presents” this first-time feature from South African director Neill Blomkamp. In the largely South African cast, Copely delivers a stunning, high energy performance as the MNU bureaucrat who actually does love his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) and has more gumption than anybody previously imagined. One by one, his father-in-law (MNU’s CEO), the mercenary chief and the gangster running District 9’s black market all get more than they bargained for out of this frightened, unhip little guy they were planning to swat aside.

District 9 also owes a great deal to other sci-fi movies. Part of the pleasure of watching it involves realizing that a certain vocabulary has evolved at this point that comments on more than the action at hand (satisfying as that may be). From Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), for example, we see the blue holographic computer functions that hover in mid-air (predicting your own smart phone’s finger-operated apps screen). The Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003) provided familiarity with the notion that new knowledge and abilities could be “plugged in” instead of acquired through laborious, old-fashioned step-by-step learning (see the part where Wikus, inside what we might best call an alien HumVee, finds himself understanding its operation and channeling Ellen Ripley).

In fact, District 9 especially owes a great deal to the Alien quartet (‘79, ‘86, ‘92 and ’97) – whether it’s memories of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) protecting the orphan Newt by using her space-age fork-lift to battle the alien mother in the second installment, Ripley’s chest bursting open as she dives into the flames in the third, or the cloned Ripley – now part-alien herself and discovering botched versions of earlier attempts to clone her stored in vats of formaldehyde – heading back to Earth, perhaps not with the same creature-loyalty. And whether it’s the many zombie films, New Line Cinema’s Blade trilogy with Wesley Snipes (variously directed, 1998, 2002 and 2004), or the progression of Ripley’s transformation over almost two decades and four directors, there also has emerged the idea that mixing species is at least tinged with infection. Setting District 9 specifically in South Africa, including “news clips” of vociferously anti-alien black South Africans and Wikus’ reaction to Christopher’s offspring thinking they’re “alike” makes explicit something of a trend in which mixing species frankly stands in for an old ideology that views race-mixing with horror and justifies treating those who are different as “non-human.”

Done with such seeming nonchalance that it takes you a while to realize it, District 9 actually offers an alternative history for South Africa: there is no government visible in this film, no Mandela, no end of Apartheid. Instead, "all that" is replaced by the 1981 arrival of the alien mothership which unites South African blacks and whites alike in repressing those yet lower on the food chain. (Given the parts assigned to Nigerians in this story, you have to wonder what the inside-Africa stereiotype is there.) In fact, I think surfacing this satirically is part of this film’s brilliance, though not everyone agrees; District 9 dwells in a queasy, ambiguous zone and some reviewers have found it literally, offensively racist.

Anyway, definitely don’t wait for the DVD.

This review appears in the August 20, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular film column since 2006. “District 9” is playing in wide release.
Film Review #208: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Director: Aviva Kempner

The film opens just as the first episode of the television show did on January 10, 1949. Ample-bosomed Jewish mother Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) leans out the kitchen window that faces the air shaft of a brick tenement building in the Bronx and greets her neighbors across the way – what NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg calls the urban equivalent of neighbors talking across back fences – “Hello! Such a little word for such a big feeling! I want to say hello to you in all the letters of the alphabet. That would be a hello!”

Washington, DC-based Aviva Kempner’s richly detailed film about the life of Gertrude Berg isn’t currently scheduled to screen in Central New York, but let us hope that changes. Opening on just two screens July 10th, it’s up to a dozen theaters this week and has bookings through the end of the year. Intriguing in several ways, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg also has enough Syracuse connections to make it a natural here.

Before Oprah, Ellen, Martha, Rachel Ray, or I Love Lucy (which, incidentally, replaced “The Goldbergs” in 1956) there was Gertrude Berg’s creation, Molly Goldberg. Berg, a New Yorker who grew up at her father’s Catskills resort and married the Englishman who invented instant coffee, produced, wrote the scripts – in the end, some 12,000 – and played the starring role in both radio and TV versions. Before transitioning to television in 1949, Berg’s live 15-minute radio vignettes ran five days a week from 1929 – beginning three weeks after the Stock Market crash that launched the Great Depression – until 1945. The Yiddish-accented Goldberg family comprised Molly, her husband Jake, Molly’s Uncle David, and their first-generation American kids Sammy and Rosalie. Their stories provided solidarity and identification to Jewish listeners and to other Americans a window on how Jewish immigrants assimilated, found spots in US business and neighborhoods, navigated raising their kids in American culture while preserving their own, coped with a Depression economy laboring under 25% unemployment and lived through the rise of anti-Semitism both here and abroad and World War II.

Though often folksy and comedic, the show addressed political issues through the lens of a single family. During Hitler’s rise in 1933, radio audiences listened to the real rabbi that Berg invited onto her show as he performed a real Passover Seder. After the infamous Kristallnacht rampage in Germany in November 1938, during which wandering mobs killed Jews and burned their homes, shops and synagogues, Berg aired an episode for the next Passover in which a rock is thrown through the window during the Goldbergs’ Seder and Molly calms the family so the ceremony can proceed. Kempner includes archival footage and photos that recreate the social tensions on this side of the Atlantic during those years. The late 1930s saw Nazi clubs who marched on Long Island and in Detroit the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, whose broadcasts lionized Hitler and blamed the world’s problems on Jewish conspiracies.

Berg’s post-war transition to television was hugely successful and earned her the first Emmy Award given for Best Actress in 1950. Kempner includes interviews with many of the surviving actors from that cast as well as generous clips from episodes. But Molly’s husband Jake Goldberg was played initially by actor Phillip Loeb, who committed suicide in 1955 after he was forced off the show and black-listed as a Communist during the McCarthy era. This past spring, the Syracuse-based simply new theatre’s production of Trumbo, followed by ArtRage Gallery’s screening of Johnny Got His Gun, re-acquainted Syracuse audiences with black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, plus the unlikely part played by a Syracuse grocer named Laurence Johnson in strong-arming Madison Avenue ad agencies representing radio and TV sponsors to pull their support from shows who employed suspect cast and crew, or risk national product boycotts.

Kempner’s film (which also details the lengths Berg went to defend Loeb) features the Newhouse School’s television authority Robert Thompson, who relates how Johnson convinced General Mills that he and the American Legion could brand them as Communist sympathizers unless the show fired Loeb, a founder of Actors Equity and union activist.

As it happens in this city of sometimes surprising cultural extremes, Syracuse University Press also published Glen Smith’s 2007 biography of Berg, and SU Library’s Special Collections houses Berg’s papers. Kempner was here to research her film and she uses Smith as a major source as well. Now somebody needs to bring her movie here too.

This review appeared in the August 13, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is screening in limited release. Thanks to mPRm Public Relations for providing a preview DVD screener.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Film Review #207: HBO's Grey Gardens
Diector: Michael Sucsy
Cast; Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange, Jean Tripplehorne

Beginning in the fall of 1971, reports – first in the National Enquirer – began appearing in the New York City press about a dilapidated mansion in an exclusive oceanfront section of East Hampton, the Long Island enclave some 114 miles from New York City. Grey Gardens was the Beale family’s 28-room estate, then inhabited by Edith Bouvier Beale, Sr. (“Big Edie”) and her 55-year-old daughter Edith, Jr. (“Little Edie”), plus a large number of cats and raccoons. Because Big Edie owned the property, her estranged husband had been powerless to sell it, as had her two sons, although they administered the small trust left to her after his death, which had by then run out. The media sensation – first the tabloids, then the mainstream dailies and Gail Sheehy’s article “Paradise Lost” in New York Magazine – stemmed partly from the estate’s extreme disrepair and its inhabitants’ bizarre theatricality.

Neighbors complaining of the stench had led the Suffolk County Health Department to threaten eviction. Without running water or heat, the house had many windows broken, was overgrown with vines and underbrush, filthy and trash-filled. Big Edie was John “Blackjack” Bouvier’s sister; his daughters, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, were Little Edie’s first cousins. In the summer of 1972, Mrs. Onassis (Jean Trippelhorne in the HBO version) visited Grey Gardens, where she had spent much time as a child, while she was visiting her sister, who was visiting Andy Warhol in Montauk. When Big Edie insisted she would not leave, her two nieces arranged for a massive cleaning and refurbishing. During this project, Mrs. Radziwill brought the brothers Albert and David Maysles around. The Maysles, already acclaimed for their Rolling Stones cinema vérité documentary Gimme Shelter, hoped to film Lee and Jackie. A year later they showed up again – Mrs. Onassis had “lost interest” in their movie – asking to film Big and Little Edie.

Little Edie had discovered that first National Inquirer photographer shooting from the bushes and invited him in – she hoped publicity would revive her old dream of a dancing career – and she welcomed the Maysles and insisted her contract contain a clause that she could appear in other films. Big Edie had aspired to a singing career herself; she spends a fair amount of time on-screen in the ensuing film – when not bickering and making up with Little Edie – vamping and singing 30s and 40s pop tunes from beneath enormous old hats, ensconced in her bed with her cats, newspapers, hand mirror, empty pâté tins and ice cream cartons.

The Maysles’ 1975 film has been an enduring classic in its own right. Re-released in 2006 on a two-disc Criterion set, its copious extras contain an audio clip of Little Edie telephoning Albert Maysles after the Bush-Gore election. Big Edie had died in 1977; two years later Little Edie sold Grey Gardens, had a farewell two-night sold-out cabaret engagement in Greenwich Village, traveled and settled in Bal Harbour, Florida, where she died in 2002.

The Maysles’ riveting film is now also worth seeing along with Michael Sucsy’s new dramatized version. The HBO film premiered in April and came out on DVD several weeks ago; it has a whopping 17 Emmy nominations, including one each for Best Lead Actress in a Mini-series or Film for Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. For one thing, it makes clear (as the Maysles really didn’t) to what extent, in a single intervening year, most of Jackie and Lee’s improvements vanished.

The Maysles also hadn’t tried to account for Grey Gardens’ decline over the quarter century or so the two women lived there alone. Sucsy asked himself a dozen questions about what might have occurred and then attempted to fill in those gaps. So we see Little Edie at her New Year’s Eve 1936 debutante ball at the Pierre Hotel, see her mother’s narcissism and sabotage of her confidence, her brief Manhattan period when trying to break into dancing, her affair with Truman’s former Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug, her mother’s maneuvers to get her home after her own affair with a live-in “singing teacher” fell apart. Little Edie was witty, unstable, bright, surprisingly generous, gracious, blunt, ill-equipped to strike out on her own, stricken. Sucsy alternates these vignettes with often remarkable, verbatim recreations of scenes from the Maysles film. I watched these two films together last week. Like Helen Mirren reincarnating Queen Elizabeth, Barrymore and Lange astonish.

This review appeared in the August 6, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. HBO’s Grey Gardens and Criterion’s 2006 DVD of the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary are both available at Netflix. The Emmy Awards air 9/20 on CBS.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film Review #206: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

“I probably wasn’t injured because I was way in the back of the vehicle. I was on top of all the bottled water, because I was little,” my friend had explained, recounting how the troop convoy in Afghanistan encountered on IED on the road beyond the city. My friend paused a beat, then added before going on, “Well. I still am little.”

The capacity to compress yawning gaps between the before and after of life-shaking violence to a simple, quiet change of tense is similar to the kind of detail you’ll find in Kathryn Bigelow’s film, set in the pre-Surge days of 2004 Iraq, which opens this week at Manlius Art Cinema. That is what sets it apart from most action thrillers and what drives its surprising capacity to comment on war in intimate and domestic as well as surreal and dislocating ways.

The Hurt Locker is billed as an action thriller and it certainly has both parts of that phrase in spades. Its exhausting two hours and eleven minutes fly by, but its pedigree predicts an authenticity beyond Hollywood style and pyrotechnics. Mark Boal based his script on his experience as an embedded journalist with a US military specialist bomb squad in Iraq and in fact the film opens with words from another journalist, Central New York native Chris Hedges, asserting that “war is a drug.” This is from Hedges’ 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, one of the best of a rich crop of efforts by war reporters since, say, the break-up of Yugoslavia, in which Hedges writes about why he left combat and genocide coverage. As well, the actor Jeremy Renner – there is an excellent interview with him at NPR from earlier this week – spent time training with such a team to get ready to play Staff Sgt. Will James, the audacious leader of the film’s lead trio. Bigelow shot the film in the summer of 2007, just over the Iraqi border in Jordan and at the height of the Surge. Actual Iraqi refugees played most of the Iraqi roles and we may presume informed the film’s progress. Renner says further that the conditions of the “set” were sometimes so hostile that the cast and crew had shots fired at them during filming; there’s one passage in the film, apparently unscripted, when a gang of young boys pelt James’ vehicle with stones.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Bravo Company’s year-long active duty rotation has 38 days left and our bomb squad’s staff sergeant (Guy Pearce) dies during the opening scene when an insurgent in a nearby shop detonates an IED with a cell phone. In a prelude to his own development, although he’s visibly the most gripped in stomach-twisting panic of the three-man crew, Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the first to glimpse that tell-tale cell phone. The third squad member is former intelligence officer Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). By the next day they’re out again with their new Staff Sgt. James, who alarms them right away with his risk-taking. The film then ticks down Bravo’s remaining time – Day 23, 16, and 2 – followed by an epilogue in which one of the three re-ups, returning to Iraq to begin Delta Company’s rotation at Day 364.

These episodes – acts, if you will – are structured around variations on what such a squad might typically encounter – a cluster of bombs connected by a spider-web of buried wires, an unevenly sagging car with the detonator hidden in the windshield wipers, an ambush in the countryside in which the crew is pinned down all day, a dead child’s body rigged with explosives, a man in a suicide bomber’s vest begging for help. At Day 16, time – along with some other boundaries – starts to break down as days and nights flow together. James’ attachment to an Iraqi boy selling boot-legged DVDs takes him first outside Camp Victory alone at night and then finally to lead his team into danger that almost loses one member.

The Hurt Locker was filmed with four hand-held cameras going at once, so there’s an immediacy and sense of being inside the action. But over a whole film, you see that Bigelow also takes her time and is less concerned with the bang than what it surrounds. (The only thing recently on screen to rival The Hurt Locker in this regard would be Anthony Mann’s Public Enemies, especially that admirably-shot second prison break.) Bigelow has concerned herself with what the she calls “the seductiveness of violence in cinematic form” from the start. Regardless of who has served on any given film as her editor or cinematographer, her masterful pacing of extended action sequences and provocative use of point of view have been reliable over a career dating to The Loveless (Willem Dafoe’s feature debut as Vance), a 1982 biker film after which the terms “languid” and “explosive” no longer seem contradictory. Watching her other films, readily available at Netflix, repays the effort. The jolting zombie flick set in the Southwest, Near Dark (1987), has actually more stupendously fiery explosions than Hurt Locker. The 1990 cop drama Blue Steel wrings you out with that final chase up from the subway into the street (and makes me wonder if Michael Winterbottom had it in mind when he made The Brave One). Strange Days, made in 1995, looked forward to addictive, technologically-supported vicarious violence and a racist LAPD on the eve of the Millennium; it’s considerably smarter than similarly themed movies like Total Recall, and considerably more violent than almost anything in The Hurt Locker. A year later Bigelow made Point Break, ostensibly about an FBI agent infiltrating some surfer bank robbers but inserting some nifty chuteless sky-diving too. The Weight of Water (2000) didn’t do well, with its parallel stories set centuries apart, but Bigelow does a great shipwreck and she brilliantly directed Sarah Polley as a Lizzie Borden-style colonial wife. K-19: The Widowmaker of course put Harrison Ford aboard an endangered Russian nuclear submarine in 2002. Some of these films are arguably gory and spectacular enough to make The Hurt Locker seem positively contemplative by comparison, but Bigelow’s films also have human – often redemptive – dimensions beyond the regular wild ride.

The Hurt Locker, for example, uses the relationships among its trio of bomb specialists to explore what fatherhood means to these young men in rich but spare detail. James has an infant son, with whom the film briefly reunites him near its end. By then it’s no surprise that he is an affectionate and tender father, because we’ve watched him throughout the film look out for his men. Well, that’s what staff sergeants do, yes, but Bigelow focuses much attention on the depth of this care with details like the juice box he gets for Sanborn when they’re pinned down. Or the extended tutoring in the finer points of soldiering he gives the talented but frightened Eldridge, the times he talks him through dangerous moments and refocuses him exactly as a father might. Virtually the first personal conversation the three men have concerns fatherhood, in which Sanborn says his girlfriend is always pestering him about babies; his turning point occurs on nearly the last day when he sums up his desire to leave the war with, “I want a son. I want a son.”

Although nobody in the film literally calls James a “cowboy” – I listened carefully for this word – that’s what all of us, on screen and off, know he is as an American type. This unspoken common reaction drives several powerful cameo performances – implicitly the decidedly un-cowboy staff sergeant he replaces, then Ralph Fiennes as the private British contractor in the desert, and David Morse as a colonel whose congratulations after one close call might or might not be infuriated sarcasm – as well as Eldridge’s eventual (and very son-like) rebellion against James’ “adrenalin fix.” Curiously, so far only Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor calls this film a Western. Rainer cites the cowboy’s classic unease with the homestead. Then there’s the requisite pinned-down-by-savages-in-the wilderness scene. And James’ walks into the “kill-zone” are nothing if not high-noon showdowns on dusty frontier main drags. But I think Bigelow calls up something older too with her filmmaking too, like “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes.”

This review was announced in the July 30, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. Opening on Friday at Manlius Art Cinema, “The Hurt Locker” screens daily at 7:30 PM with weekend matinees at 2:00 and 4:45 PM as well. Carousel Mall has also added some screenings. See other Kathryn Bigelow films listed in this review at

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Film Review #205: Chéri
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend

Here is that unusual film that is worth seeing as much for its flaws as for its considerable accomplishments. In order to do that around here you’ll have to be quick, because it’s playing for one week only right now at Manlius Art Cinema.

Chéri reunites its star, Michelle Pfeiffer (as the aging Parisian courtesan Lea de Lonval on the eve of World War I), with director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, 21 years after their collaboration on Dangerous Liaisons. Based on Colette’s 1920 novel Chéri and its sequel, this film is the latest of a string of adaptations – a film in 1950, television plays in 1962 and 1973, and a stage musical in 1980 – which suggest the enduring tug of its story. On the verge of deciding she’ll “retire” and live on her investments after her last patron has departed for Russia, Lea impulsively enters what she assumes will be a two or three week dalliance with Chéri (English actor Rupert Friend), the spoiled and moody 19-year-old son of her colleague, Madame Charlotte Peloux (a boisterous Kathy Bates). Some years later, Charlotte intervenes and arranges a marriage for Chéri with young Edmee (Felicity Jones), daughter of another woman in their circle. (One of the best moments between these two occurs as they voice having grown up as feeling like “orphans” amidst the entrepreneurial excess of their mothers’ households.) Initially he assumes this marriage won’t upset his arrangement with Lea. Ever worldly-wise, she sends him packing after a last shopping trip, this time for his wedding present, a pearl stick pin. But neither does well with this separation, despite parallel lavish trips to the Italian lakes district and the French Riviera and the intended consolations of other partners. There are reversals, tearful declarations of love, more reversals and in a voice-over by Frears himself – old English majors take note – a kind of “Richard Corey” ending.

Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderful and quite moving as Lea and, in enough of the moments where it really counts – especially their last scene together when each is finally able to say what their love consists in and then live up to that – Rupert Friend matches her. Just after the film opened in late July, a still luminous Pfeiffer told Washington Post reporter Dan Zak that what she really fears is winding up like Norma Desmond (the character in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, a garish and deluded former star rattling around in a dilapidated mansion). Their interview as Zak reports it got off to a rocky start when he suggested that Pfeiffer’s own “golden age” had been the years 1987 to 1993. During that time she made the films Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Love Field and The Age of Innocence, a golden age by anybody’s standard. (Zak has since said admiringly of Pfeiffer’s Chéri performance, “Everybody’s got at least one golden age. I think she may be on the verge of another.”)

If Zak’s opening gambit left an overly long pause to get past, that Pfeiffer had Norma Desmond in the back of her mind explains a deeper bite to her performance and its commentary on aging and loss of youth. In fact, Lea and Charlotte stand out among some pretty Desmond-like contemporaries – one with raccoon eyes and horribly arthritic hands, another whose ropey throat and slack lips Chéri notices because she wears a string of pearls like Lea’s own (Harriet Walter and Anita Pallenberg, both unrecognizable) – who are really not simply comic relief figures.

Zak’s “golden age” reference originates in the fact that Chéri is set in the period known in Europe as the Belle Époque, covering roughly the last couple decades of the 19th century up until World War I. This corresponded with the “Gilded Age” in the US - a time of massive colonialism globally, robber barons, new fortunes by scandalous means, wild extravagance and the shifting social classes and gaps that led to the collapses of World War I and beyond. It was also a time of massive shifts in gender roles. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte and Lea, a couple of wily operators, talk over how their investments in oil futures are doing late in a film whose major male character favors pearls and white satin pajamas and complains he’s been kept as helpless as a 12-year-old. “Leave all the arrangements to me,” soothes Lea as readily as any sugar daddy. Colette’s novel opens with the scene where Chéri teases Lea to give him her string of pearls, immediately framing the story as one of skewed relations between the genders as a lens to comprehend broader shifts. Frears and Hampton put that scene further in, framing the story instead – at least in tone – as escapist fare, a kind of light farce about harmless May-December seduction among the rich and famous.

Or at least marketing it that way. The film’s trailer uses clips from the film that create the impression this is a comedy; these moments often stick out like sore thumbs in the course of the film itself. It’s hard to tell how much this is a marketing strategy for a summer release and how much it reflects the continued ambivalence among filmmakers and audiences alike with the film’s more serious themes. Chéri opened in limited release in 80 theaters to start here in the US. Despite a decent enough box office (up to 170 screens this week) and a cascade of initial coverage heralding the come-back of Michelle Pfeiffer, there was no advance press screening for the Manlius run (hence this review getting posted late and on-line only). Distributors pull press screenings when they don’t want to risk soft ticket sales. Critics have been lukewarm to this film – it’s gotten only a 50% favorable rating at the Rotten Tomatoes site – I suspect because it can’t quite own up to its own serious intent, and if there’s one thing we expect in our summer movies it’s clear, unambiguous intent. This movie more than repays the extra effort.

This review was announced in the July 16, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Chéri plays at Manlius through this Thursday, with two matinees daily this weekend and a regular 7:30 PM showing weeknights. In a wry bit of serial scheduling, Manlius Cinema’s Nat Tobin will follow Cheri with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (also for one week) which several critics have suggested would make an intriguing double feature if paired with Chéri. On July 31st, Manlius opens Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – so far, an exclusive CNY engagement.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Review #204: The Beaches of Agnès/Les Plages d’Agnès
Director: Agnès Varda
Cast: Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy, Jacques Demy; Anne-Laure Manceau as young Agnès
A Cinema Guild release. France/French with English subtitles, 108 minutes.

Of all the ways that French filmmaker Agnès Varda, just turned 81, might frame discussion of the French New Wave in this self-portrait documentary, she mirthfully chooses a giant orange-tiger cartoon cat with a droll, mechanically filtered voice to introduce the subject for posterity. The cat is actually long-time friend and fellow filmmaker Chris Marker, bobbing along disguised in cardboard cutout as his own character Guillaume-in-Egypt, inquiring “What about...?” off-handedly during a stroll through a crowded Paris street.

Well, she recounts just as casually, after Godard had gotten Georges de Beauregard to make Breathless in 1960, that the producer asked Godard if he had “any more pals who could make the same kind of cheap black and white films.” She tells Marker that Beauregard “wanted a stable” of filmmakers. Beauregard made other Godard films, some of Jean-Pierre Melville’s and in 1961 he produced Jacques Demy’s Lola. Getting the same recruitment query, Demy suggested his lover, Varda, whom he would marry the next year. Varda had made one feature in 1954 set in a coastal fishing village, La Pointe Courte, followed by a handful of shorts, and also worked as a photographer. So in this way Beauregard, with Carlo Ponti, came to produce Varda’s acclaimed Cléo from 5 to 7.

Since this occurs well into the film, we already know Marker’s been coming around Varda’s rue Daguerre compound in Paris since the days Varda convinced Alain Resnais to edit La Point Courte. So they have clearly colluded in staging this exchange as a kind of advisement against hoping for portentous announcements at the last minute. Instead, Varda now inserts a short clip from Cléo (Corinne Marchand as a glamorous singer trying to fill time before she learns whether she has cancer). She then comments on filming a story in real time and the inspiration of medieval painter Baldung Grein’s images of voluptuous women embraced by boney death figures, then briskly moves on to her 1962 trip to Cuba to photograph Fidel’s “revolution cha cha cha.”

Varda shot The Beaches of Agnès over two- and three-week stints between August 2006 and June 2008 with six camera people in all. Half, including Varda herself, used a Sony V1, the small high definition video camera that she began using a decade ago for The Gleaners and I; the others used a larger video camera. She takes as her major connecting image the series of beaches she’s known since childhood: La Panne beach in Belgium (her family lived in Brussels until they fled the Nazis to France in 1940), the Mediterranean port of Sète (where the family spent summers on a docked boat and the site of her first film), Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach in California (she followed Demy to Hollywood, a town she says “immediately seduced me,” where both made films before she returned to France without him during a separation), La Guérnière Beach on Noirmoutier Island (she and Demy made a retreat of an old mill), as well as along the banks of the Seine in Paris. For one sequence Varda has six truckloads of sand dumped in the street outside her Paris house and sets up her office there “to justify the film’s title.”

Additionally the film has two other powerful threads. One is the omnipresence of Demy, whose post-Hollywood reunion with Varda – they reconciled with the idea of growing old together – was cruelly interrupted by his AIDS diagnosis and his death in 1990 just ten days after Varda completed shooting her first of three films about him, Jacquot de Nantes. In Beaches, when it is clear that Demy will die, the screen fills wordlessly for a moment with what looks like a profusion of deep green palm fronds barely swaying in a soft wind. It’s an effective, surprisingly moving image on its own, whether or not you happen to even know or recall – Homer’s Odyssey is a touchstone for Varda – the moment that Ulysses’ heart is first pierced with an apprehension of beauty at the sight of a young palm tree.

Secondly, flowing out of just such rich moments as this and their power to summarize and connect to other such images, the notion of puzzles structures the film as much as the beach episodes. Years ago, Varda’s first “official self-portrait” was a tile mosaic; now Beaches works by juxtaposing excerpts from her films with her on-screen appearances, re-enactments, photos and the more recent installations (including Varda in the belly of a whale/boudoir among the dunes, specially for this film). Conventional film clips of well-known scenes as well as clips of music from the film-scores are excised from their context and used both to reference past work and anew as free-standing images. For Varda, memory works in this way rather than by historical time-line. This elaborates Varda’s entertaining opening piece with the mirrors on the beach set up by a troop of young assistants; yes, obviously the conceit of mirrors for a self-portrait, but also that life’s fragments reflect one another and so do efforts in one art form resonate in another. Thus what Varda calls “my musings, pretty close to the truth, are punctuated by sketches where I put on a bit of a show. Clowning around allowed me to take a step back.”

This also means that Beaches works for those at all degrees of familiarity with Varda’s work. It’s deeply satisfying when a fragment of a film you’ve seen before triggers your own memory of the whole, but it’s also credible that an entirely new and young audience – who seem to be showing up – may need no familiarity at all with her films to take in her approach to experience.

Varda’s exchange with Marker over the New Wave may even be redundant, except as a kind of footnote. I’m thinking of the spot early on where she recounts that she was conceived in Arles and named for that city, but changed her name at age 18, all the while writing her given name – Arlette – in the sand with a stick, only to have an incoming wave sweep over the letters and recede, leaving again a virgin field of sand washed clean.

Varda held her own with New Wave theorists, mostly men and many of them ex-film critics. Whether from her other films or this one alone, it’s plain she was extraordinarily literate, capable and at ease across art forms and social classes. From Beaches one does learn some particulars, that she was educated in art history at Ecole de Louvre, was a photojournalist and official photographer of Paris’ Théatre National Populaire, was intrigued by the narrative structure and experiments of novelists like Faulkner and Natalie Sarraute, is now still running the “family business” production company Ciné-Tamaris out of her Paris house and, starting with 2003’s Venice Biennale, has embarked upon multimedia art installations, some of which show are documented in this film or were created for it. She also logged three months of working on small fishing boats in Corsica and “unambiguous cohabitation” with their owners, a privately executed walk-about that bridged her student days and her decision to take up photojournalism. But Varda came to cinema unburdened by film theory (or even much viewing at age 25), at first simply wanting to try out words with images to extend her photographic practice.

Thirty-three films later – roughly half of them fiction, the rest documentary – she remains serenely centered in her clarity that “films always originate in emotions” and that technical and intellectual prowess should serve rather than drive the enterprise. For example, in Beaches Varda recalls her involvement with feminist organizing, especially in the period she and Demy were apart. “I tried to be a joyful feminist but I was very angry,” she says, listing of horrific abuses and offering archival footage of protests. But more persuasive – and in this context generating new flashes of revelation about why she created this character as apolitical – are the quick clips from 1985’s Vagabond that punctuate this section: Sandrine Bonnaire as the increasingly desperate drifter Mona, kicking a metal keg in a field, punching metal garage doors, furiously patching a boot with a ripped sole.

And Varda’s keen interest for reunions with old friends, casts and subjects alike from earlier films stretches back years, flowering in Beaches. To describe her satisfaction with her documentary about the time-honored French practice of scavenging harvest left-overs and city garbage, The Gleaners and I (2000), which she extended with follow-up visits to as many of the same people as she could find in The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002), Varda says, “I was able to approach them, to bring them out of their anonymity. I discovered their generosity.”

Cinematic technology’s service of the human reaches a most magic moment in Beaches when Varda returns to the village of Sète, site of La Pointe Courte, resurrecting test footage she’d shot of a local couple, Pierrot and Suzou, old friends of hers, long ago. The husband had died soon after, leaving two young sons, now middle-aged men. Mounting a projector on a hand-cart and rolling it through the old town, Varda ran the test footage for the sons, who had seen their father in photos “but never in motion.” Watching Blaise and Vincent’s faces as they watch their long-passed father’s image on that very thoroughfare and you’re reminded that in some places photo – still and motion alike – inspires fear of soul-stealing. Work like Varda’s may give souls back.

Fanzine published this review on July 8, 2009 at The Beaches of Agnès won France’s Cesar Award for best documentary in February and had its official US theatrical opening on July 1 in New York City at Film Forum and in Los Angeles on the 3rd. But actually a number of screenings in North America already have prepared the ground – at Toronto’s film festival last fall right after its Venice IFF premiere, since February at film festivals in Portland (OR), Wisconsin and Seattle, and as sneak peeks in several Varda retrospectives: in Chicago and then at Harvard in March and, just winding up now, American Cinematheque’s week-long retrospective in Santa Monica. Varda has traveled to some of these to give talk-backs after screenings and in March visited New York for a number of interviews at Film Forum that are just hitting print now. The Criterion Collection’s January 2008 release of a new four-disc DVD set – her first three features (La Pointe Courte, Cléo from 5 to 7, and in 1964 Le Bonheur/Happiness) plus Vagabond (1985) – is available along with several other Varda titles at Netflix.