Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review #241: True Grit
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I confess I was skeptical about the Coen Brothers’ re-make of True Grit. Based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne as crusty old marshal Rooster Cogburn, and made a decidedly comedic and reassuring swerve away from Portis’ darker story-line. The Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, as it turns out, bought the screen rights to Portis’ novel from Simon & Schuster even before the novel’s publication, and apparently helped the novel’s success along by sending employees to buy up cartons of the book at bookstores known to be part of The New York Times’ best-seller list calculations. In retrospect, the 1969 film that he and Paramount released, directed by Henry Hathaway, is a little like the Wild West show that a grown-up Mattie Ross visits in 1903 at the end of the Coens’ re-make – a side-show version of wilder events served up for popular entertainment without real menace.

Now, setting the record straight, we have Mattie’s memory-inside-a-memory – that is, from the windswept, lonely hillside of her family’s private burial plot in the early years of the 20th century, the 40-year-old “cranky old maid” recalls her 1903 trip to that Wild West show to see Rooster and, as she alights from the train on her way there, she remembers the trip they made together deep into the “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1873 in pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer, when she was just 14. As it turns out, older Mattie is three days’ too late – Rooster has just died – a span of time the Coens wisely do not make much of but leave to percolate along with their other Biblical references.

As Cogburn the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, with Matt Damon as the preening bounty hunter/ex-Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, new-comer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, Barry Pepper as the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. There is not a mediocre performance among them, and the bloom is off the rose so far as any romantic notion of frontier life goes. A world of exposition is supplied by attending to the right placement of filthy fingernails, from Dreyer’s long-ago suggestion of how bleak was Joan of Arc’s confinement right down to Mattie’s first encounter with Lucky Ned, into hands and care she falls. That young Mattie, inside the first ten minutes, attends a triple hanging and briskly agrees to share a night’s lodging with the remains – her father’s undertaker has depleted her funds by overcharging her and this is the best hospitality he offers – does prepare us for what she’ll have to take in stride later.

Despite pronouncements every few years that Westerns are dead, the genre has endured and even enjoyed resurrection, often in times of war and political conflict. Westerns, after all, are the template for our national tale – or for how we re-cast that to fit the moment’s challenges – and in the decade since 9/11 they’re back again. Portis’ novel recognizably came out of the Vietnam era. And while its first screen version rode that era’s resurgence of Westerns – the Hathaway film closely followed the release of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and preceded Robert Altman’s even darker 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (belatedly named this past week to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Films) – not for nothing do we find John Wayne reassuring the audience that all is well.

And though we’ve waited for the Coens’ re-make longer than Mattie waited to see Rooster again, they give us two boys who torture a tied pack-mule with sharpened sticks, echoing Peckinpah’s opening scene of The Wild Bunch where some laughing kids famously set ants and a scorpion afire just to amuse themselves.

This True Grit is more Deadwood than it is Andy Devine (if you’re old enough to remember that actor’s Aw-shucks Western persona). Like David Milch’s late lamented HBO parable about how the country civilized itself with all its fissures showing, this film takes its central action out of the settled United States proper, reminding us that any sea-to-shining-sea manifest destiny was a lengthy, bloody struggle that still resurfaces. Just as Deadwood depicted an historic renegade town, the lawless “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith is much like the tribal areas– the “ungoverned spaces” – of today’s conflicts. The same filmmakers who gave us No Country for Old Men three years ago really revisit the genre with this story of a gutsy, whip-smart girl who “earns her spurs” alright in the pursuit of justice and the payment of accounts – the be-spurred LaBoeuf himself bestows that tribute – but did she, or we as a nation, grow up to be happy?

One trait of the so-called “revisionist” Westerns released in times of turmoil has been an overt mention of the Civil War. Traumatized by the national conflict and the immense, often gruesome loss of life it entailed, the country in one sense used settling the Western frontier as a way to simply change the subject. Classic depictions of settling the West on-screen have, depending on the decade and the degree of national consensus, followed suit. Westerns since 9/11 tend, as I have written elsewhere, like the Westerns of the late 60s and 70s, to reject the timelessness of classic Westerns in several ways. They often specifically give us characters with back-stories in the Civil War and who carry that conflict into the frontier. Very early, Cogburn and LaBoeuf clash over this history, though both are former Confederates. The Texas Ranger, after establishing his own credentials as an officer of a Virginia company – implying he was once a gentleman too – accuses Cogburn, who rode with the guerilla force Quantrill’s Raiders, of being a barbaric “marauder” who murdered women and children. Cogburn hotly denies such behavior, but to the end of his life maintains and takes refuge in those ties. Mattie’s visit to the Wild West show leads her to two of Cogburn’s cohorts there: Cole Younger (one of the Younger Brothers who rode with outlaw Jesse James) and Frank James (Jesse’s surviving brother), all of whose associations date from Quantrill’s Raiders. Mattie’s parting remark to Frank James – “You can keep your seat, trash!” – on the surface answers his discourtesy in not standing to speak with a lady. But it’s also about her judgment of his crass betrayal of Jesse, whose grave, history buffs will know, Frank charged money for tourists to visit.

Finally, one of the joys here is the cadenced, vivid and sometimes witty language, with much of the dialogue coming verbatim from Portis’ novel. That bracing speech itself comments on how the frontier was settled. It’s not just that the King James Bible and Shakespeare were the two most familiar books on that frontier – and both available by performance from the pulpit or the traveling stage to those who couldn’t read. Listen to the back and forth between Mattie and the stable owner when she comes to settle her father’s accounts over his string of ponies, his missing gray saddle horse and the saddle itself. Or to Mattie’s explanation in the crude mountain lean-to to Cogburn and LaBoeuf of the difference between natural law and man’s law – she pauses to translate the Latin term for them – or indeed to any of the rapid-fire exchanges in the film. What anchors these exchanges is the language’s precision and rhythmic delivery. It’s not exactly iambic pentameter, of course, but it reminds you of what Shakespeare sounds like on stage; at times you glimpse how the language itself is a civilizing, ordering force in both thought and behavior. And Mattie actually does know her place and its precariousness (“That is a silly question,” she chastises Cogburn at one point, reminding him, “I am fourteen years old.”). In a moment when Orwellian double-speak has returned to much public conversation, the Coens give us a film whose language is anything but vague or accidental.

After True Grit, I quickly took myself to see The King’s Speech too, a moving and gorgeously acted film, also about the role of language in a nation’s survival during crisis. And I highly recommend it. But I think True Grit is a better, and for us yanks, more important film. It just might be the best this year.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 30, 2010 print edition of “The Eagle” weekly and the full review at
Film Review #240: Black Swan
Director: Daron Aronofsky
Cast: Nathalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell

Somewhere in the vaults of my family’s old home movies, there’s a reel – yes, that long ago – of the ballet recital that climaxed the after-school classes my mother and grandmother made me go to for a single year. I remember the recital, with myself togged up as one of the white swans – white fluff, white satin, silver trim – running in and out of the circles of other girls. I looked as miserable as I surely was. After that, they let me stop.

Quite a few of the audience at Manlius Art Cinema’s opening night screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan looked like they were young dancers themselves. They had the same slenderness and carriage that Natalie Portman (as Nina Sayers) and Mila Kunis (as her rival, Lilly), even though both already had years of formal dance training, spent months of full-time training and dieting to achieve before shooting began. Two of them sat just behind me and throughout the film one or the other would periodically gasp or exclaim at the proceedings on-screen. As we left after the credits, we shared that universally understood combination of sound and gesture – part eye-roll, part shrug and part dramatic exhalation – that made adding the words “I’m exhausted!” unnecessary. Out in the lobby, somebody did say that.

Absorbing, by turn hallucinatory, appalling, gorgeous and deeply sad, and billed somewhat bizarrely as a “dance thriller” in the shorthand of ad-speak, Black Swan contains few lulls and several very fine performances. Besides the principal leads, Vincent Cassell is the controlling, Balanchine-like dance master, Barbara Hershey is Nina’s creepy mother and, somewhere beneath raccoon eyes and a fright wig, an unrecognizable Winona Ryder– who is that? I kept wondering every time this woman appeared – is the waning prima ballerina abruptly and publicly “retired” to make room for younger Nina Sayers to dance the double lead in Swan Lake, who goes round the bend.

Well, she is not the only one. Set in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center – as is New York City Ballet in real life – Black Swan concerns the long-held dream of company dancer Nina Sayers to dance the lead in Swan Lake, a double role of the good Swan Queen and her rival/double/shadow self, the Black Swan. The daughter of a former dancer whose unplanned pregnancy abruptly ended her career, Nina lives with her mother in a maze-like apartment on the upper West Side. Her mother ostensibly lives only for Nina’s success, but of course – we are dealing with archetypes here – jealously and cruelly undermines her at every turn. When Thomas casts Nina as the lead, her anxiety sky-rockets even as she struggles to emerge as her own person, upsetting the delicate see-saw between mother and daughter. In a single scene shows us how vulnerable Nina really is – and signals the rising arc in Portman’s astonishing performance – she races to the privacy of a dressing room to telephone her mother and announce, in the tones a child might to her Mommy, that she got the part.

Lily’s arrival in the company complicates matters further. Between Lily’s own ambitions, Nina’s insecurity and utter lack of experience in discerning what a real adult friendship might look like, and Thomas’ manipulations of both, very quickly it’s hard to tell what really happens and what Nina imagines. As physically demanding as top-flight professional dancing may actually be, Black Swan extends this considerably here, adding physical abuse and humiliation from Nina’s mother, hallucinated self-mutilation, sexual violation real and otherwise, and murderous attacks with shattered pieces of mirror on the triumphant opening night.

On Monday, Black Swan was cited for “Worst Female Images” in a film released theatrically in 2010 by the national Women Film Critics Circle during WFCC’s year-end awards announcements – beating out Burlesque, The Killer Inside Me, and The Social Network. With the sole exception of the unnamed older woman, quiet, focused, dignified, clearly accomplished, who runs the warm-ups and classes for the company dancers during rehearsals – in a film that contains some cinematically brilliant sequences, the comparatively understated moment in which the camera simply watches her back and shoulder muscles for a moment as she shows a dancer a sequence of moves is one of the best – there’s no female character here that we’d want any of our daughters or nieces or godchildren or sisters to take as a role model. And from opening night’s audience, I’d say they pretty much get that.

But Aronofsky wasn’t making a movie about role models. Instead of agit-prop, as he’s said extensively and about which there’s no great mystery, he’s exploring ideas of identity and doubles, how we contain our opposites, how performers use their bodies as their medium and the dangerous nature of images (Plato warned us, after all, to ban the artists), a variation and extension of previous films such as last year’s The Wrestler. For those harrowing, edgy achievements, see this dazzling film.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 23, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse and at “Black Swan” continues at Manlius Art Cinema and has also opened at Carousel Mall.
Film Review #239: Fair Game
Director: Doug Limon
Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews

Now I want you to drive to Ithaca, in this weather, to see a movie? Right.

So, the plan this week was to present you with that box of Christmas candy otherwise known as The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Then Friday afternoon a couple movie buddies – one an intrepid driver with four new tires – said, "Let’s go to Ithaca and see Fair Game.” Directed by Doug Limon (who did his own cinematography too), starring Sean Penn as former diplomat Joe Wilson, Naomi Watts as outed CIA operative Valerie Plame and a wickedly good David Andrews as Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, this film combines the individual memoirs written by Wilson and Plame to recount how the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq with doctored intelligence evidence about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and then retaliated when Joe Wilson went public in a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece about what he didn’t find in the African nation of Niger.

Well before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA was already investigating the regime of Saddam Hussein, in particular whether he was developing nuclear weapons (or “WMD,” in the parlance of newspaper shorthand of the day). In 2001, also before 9/11, Valerie Plame was made head of operations for the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq. Plame’s husband had been ambassador to Niger during the Clinton administration and therefore knew the country well, so he was in a position to be asked to informally re-check a persistent story that Iraq was buying “yellowcake” uranium from Niger (a form of uranium necessary for the fabrication of nuclear weapons). He determined this could not have happened and so reported back. In one riveting scene, Wilson watches a TV news broadcast of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell telling the United Nations that the CIA had determined that Niger had indeed sold “yellowcake” to Iraq.

9/11 of course changed everything, and some of the most effective scenes in this film involve the fall-out among intelligence agents and organizations once it became apparent that there had been missed clues that, followed up on, might have prevented those attacks. With regard to Iraq and Saddam’s WMDs, agents of the vice-president’s office returned repeatedly to the CIA to press them about the likelihood of various surmises and conclusions, really to change those conclusions to concoct another case. In one such scene a heretofore competent and committed agent is reduced to a stuttering mess by the relentless Libby’s interrogation.

It was Scooter Libby who leaked information to the press that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative – leaked multiple times, as it turned out, for good measure, in case any reporter given this tidbit might have qualms about printing it. Columnist Robert Novak broke the story, which of course cost Plame her career, but – as both her memoir and the film make plain – also cost the lives of many, perhaps hundreds, of civilian “assets” she had developed who were in vulnerable positions and mid-stream operations. The film dramatizes this in the form of the abrupt abandonment of Iraqi scientists whom she had recruited to defect and promised to get safely out of that country along with their families, who were rounded up subsequently and disappeared. And the pressure of Plame’s outing almost cost her and Wilson their marriage, as they each struggled with how to respond publicly, each feeling abandoned and betrayed by the other. In a cameo as Plame’s father, Sam Shepherd burnishes a single scene in which he listens to her anguish and, with all the compact but deeply felt reticence of a career military officer – read, unassailable patriot – answers softly, “What they did [to Wilson and her] was just wrong.”

This is a very, very good movie. Naomi Watts gives her best performance in ages and Sean Penn is now mature enough to deliver the performance he clearly aimed for with All the King’s Men. To some extent, that includes his emerging capacity for restraint at the right moments.

The same applies to Doug Limon, who as a filmmaker has visited espionage cinema before in two very different films – The Bourne Identity (2002), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, his 2005 re-make of Hitchcock’s 1941 comedy about married spies and notable as the occasion igniting Brad Pitt’s off-stage romance Angelina Jolie. There has been some criticism of Fair Game as imperfectly blending Plame’s memoir with its “personal” bent and Wilson’s, which is more political in focus. I find that not such an issue; instead, I’m pleased that Limon seems to know, first, that this is not another movie fantasy and, second, that he’s stuck to a fairly straightforward time-line that makes some sense of complex events, when his temptation might have been to tart things up. And did I mention that the sound track is superb?

Fair Game, which has just picked up several nominations for year-end awards from the national Women Film Critics Circle, ought to be playing in major multiplexes across the land – and certainly here in Syracuse. If you’ve been wondering, as I have, how come we just don’t seem to be getting some movies very quickly this winter, this one takes the cake. Last Saturday morning I asked on my Face Book page, “Why isn’t this movie playing in Syracuse?” Nat Tobin answered that he had tried to book Fair Game for Manlius Art Cinema but there were simply very few available prints and he couldn’t get one.

Even so, it’s still playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis the rest of this week and next – that is, held over twice and available until Christmas Eve, with two evening screenings during the week and two matinees added on the weekends.

The Tourist is a tasty little bon-bon of a movie. But Fair Game sticks to your ribs.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 16, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly. “Fair Game” continues until 12/24 (held over two weeks) at Cinemapolis, 120 East Green St., Ithaca, behind the Commons,, with two evening screenings weekdays (7:25 and 9:25) and two matinees added on the weekend (2:25 and 4:25).
Film Review #238: Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend
Director: Courtney Rile
Cast: Arlene Abend et al.

Arlene Abend in her studio. Photo: Courtney Rile, Daylight Blue Media.

If you haven’t seen the Arlene ABEND retrospective, Resin-ating Metal, which opened at Edgewood Gallery at 216 Tecumsah Road on November 5th, you’ve still got all of December to see it, because it’ll be on view through New Year’s Eve. A survey of more than three decades worth of Abend’s sculpture – in cut, cast and incised steel, bronze and other metals plus the later, ground-breaking cast resin pieces – is a lot to shoehorn into such a small gallery, but this exhibition of 33 pieces has been managed pretty successfully. Well, make that 36 pieces – because the three large, circular wall pieces sold almost immediately. Gallery owner and curator Cheryl Chappell asked Abend to make replacements, which she delivered last Saturday – by mid-afternoon two of those sold too.

On Tuesday morning, Abend said, “These were some of the most difficult pieces to do, because they are deceptively simple – every element has such an impact. And it’s a kind of silent conversation between myself and the materials – I pick a hanging point, but they really find their own balance as I make them. And it was a total surprise that people would enjoy them so much! I had thrown these pieces on the floor a couple years ago – they were scrap metal and I wasn’t really doing wall sculptures much anymore. But at Cheryl’s gentle urging I made these.”

Although as curator Chappell picked most of the pieces and decided upon the exhibition’s floor-plan, Abend insisted on including one piece depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (the snake is there too), an almost-life size upright piece made of a single sheet of steel that, bent and folded, presents front, side profile and back views of the couple.

Abend calls it a “big plasma cut,” referencing the torch conventionally used to cut steel, which she has adapted for the intricate, lacey cut-outs of garden vegetation and surface incisions that depict the couple and so resemble drawing with a brush. Years ago, before the need to work in three dimensions overtook her, Abend primarily made drawings and paintings, and this piece reminds us of her facility as a graphic artist.

“Well, I make very good rear ends,” she laughed. “But you do need to be able to draw when you work as much on commission as I have. Your client needs to see what you’re only describing, so I make drawings or maquettes. Then I have to become my own fabricator and make the piece and sometimes that is more mechanical. Although I would say that commissions push me in a way that has led me into new areas – when I have to design in terms of the context where a piece will be and consider things I wouldn’t if I were just doing something for myself.”

Abend also wanted to point out the arresting three-part wall sculpture Remnants, made in 2005, three oblong pieces of cast bronze with parts of her face emerging in pieces from each surface. I remembered seeing this in her studio when I had first visited and found it retains its hold now.

“This started out as wax remnants from something else,” she commented, “and it just wanted to be made. It’s so different from the original piece – really very dark and distorted and emotional. I had an idea of the patina I wanted but I rushed it and it turned green on me.”

Even more emotional for Abend, she says, are the series of cast resins she had made, which may include tiny cast metal figures or clear casts of her own face and hands. They are technically difficult – when she began working on them there was some question of whether the material could even do what she aimed for – and demanding in other ways.

“The resins ask of a lot of you!” she said. “They are mechanically difficult, they are physically hard to do, they are dangerous because the material takes planning and safety measures and time, and the final grinding and polishing is quite a commitment. And I did these alone. I wanted to work with refractions so I gave them many surfaces – that’s why all these pieces are on turntables so you can see through them from every angle – and I worked with the cracks and bubbles that have been part of the process. And they have been the most emotional for me of any of the work. I started with that one, Breaking Out, which has to do with my need thirty years ago to have more than a life as wife and mother, and this last one, from this year, Fascinating Failure, seems like the opposite – my hands are covering my eyes – like the need to keep from seeing what’s ahead. But will I do more? Well, never say never.”

See the movie this Saturday at 2:00 PM

The Edgewood’s opening reception in November also featured a TV monitor looping what documentary-maker Courtney Rile called a “teaser” – you can see that below, at the end of this story – of the documentary Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend. The film has its premiere this Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM in the Everson Museum’s Hosmer Auditorium at Harrison and State Streets downtown.

Rile and Mike Barletta together comprise Daylight Blue Media. They made last spring’s popular documentary, The 15th Ward and Beyond on commission by Syracuse University’s South Side Initiative. That film had a red-carpet premiere last spring at Syracuse Stage that sold out two weeks in advance and has had several other public screenings since – each of them packed – the most recent on Tuesday night at McKinley-Brighton Magnet School on West Newell St. The 15th Ward and Beyond is eventually destined to wind up on the South Side Initiative’s Syracuse Black History Project’s online “virtual museum,” and there hasn’t been a decision yet among all the parties on whether to make it available separately on DVD.

Last Sunday Rile and Barletta let me watch a rough cut of the new film abut Abend, then a tad over an hour long. Rile said they were aiming for 50 minutes or so in length – they had material to edit out, some to add, decisions about music and transitions – but there was enough there to see that this is an even better film than The 15th Ward and Beyond. It’s an excellent film about how an artist works, and an excellent portrait of an artist in our midst who’s now taking stock on what such a lifetime means.

Around 50 minutes is a good length for television broadcast, though Rile and Barletta haven’t gotten to discussions about whether that will ever happen. But they have gotten to discussions with Abend about making the film available on DVD and one of the pleasures of Tuesday’s gallery walk-through was learning that they’ll take orders after Saturday’s screening for DVDs and also that they plan to make copies available at the Edgewood through the holiday season too.

“Stretching boundaries” is a phrase Abend suggested for the title because she says her entire career as an artist has been about that stretch. She notes for example that when she first turned from drawing and painting to sculpture – she began with ceramics, wedging clay in her bathtub and making constructions rather than throwing pots on a wheel – her adult-ed instructor kept telling her to downsize, that her work was too large for the kiln. In New York City, Abend went on to study at Cooper Union, where she says the entire approach was based on the question, “What if?” After moving to Syracuse and taking up metal sculpture, Abend completed a fine arts degree at Syracuse University with the legendary Roger Mack as her mentor – but she also spent five years in night classes for vocational welding at Central Tech, at a time when one of the instructors thought teaching women to weld was “just wrong.” Abend says that “Pfft!” of a welding torch lighting still excites her after all these years.

“She’s only five feet tall,” notes The Post-Standard columnist Dick Case in an interview in the film. “I have said before that she’s a small woman who works on a grand scale.”

Abend, whose sculpture Earth’s Energy in the World Trade Center was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, also had the commission to turn a salvaged, slightly bowed World Trade Center steel girder into a sculpture for the memorial outside DeWitt Town Hall – she says as a welder she understands the degree of heat that was necessary to bend that girder – and the film has footage of that towering piece, far larger than anything in Edgewood, with Abend dwarfed beside it. She’d like to go that large again, she says.

Case has been following Abend for years and he relates to Rile and Barletta the fate of Abend’s Carousel Mall commission – 17-feet-high polished aluminum horses for the entrances of the mall: a race horse, a zebra, a Pegasus, a unicorn and two smaller horses – now all taken down and stored, except for the race horse and the unicorn.

There are also interviews with Jim Hueber, president of the local steel fabricating company, Mack Brothers, who’s known Abend three decades and speaks about respecting her for her craftsmanship and work ethic. Gallery director/artist Anne Novarro Capucilli of Limestone Gallery in Fayetteville speaks about first meeting Abend in Rochester. Teacher Mary Cunningham relates how Abend tackled the project of teaching welding to public school students. Delavan Center owner Bill Delavan relates how the Labor Day storm of 1998, which destroyed Abend’s studio there, couldn’t destroy her enthusiasm for celebrating her quarter century in his building with a bottle of champagne. Linda Bigness – who pitched in to make the retrospective a success – relates how Abend’s story and example inspired her own leap into becoming a working artist.

The film remains ever cognizant that Abend turns 80 next spring and that the Edgewood exhibition is a career retrospective – as she says on screen, “like a period on a sentence” that she is grateful she’s able to have the time to make. There is footage from Abend’s father’s home movies – amazingly, that toddler is clearly Abend herself, playing in the sand at Brighton Beach and even then, she comments now, making sculpture. And there’s a clip from a television interview that must date to the 70’s, when the knock-out lady welder briskly shows how it’s done.

Yes, I’m going to the annual Plowshares Crafts Fair too, among Saturday’s many travels – but I wouldn’t miss this. This is what “local treasure” is all about.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse, and in entirety at
FILM REVIEW #237: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Director: Daniel Alfredsson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyquist, Georgi Staykov

Last April Nat Tobin brought us the first of the Swedish films adapted from Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and in August the second installment duly arrived, The Girl Who Played with Fire. There was a comfortable year's gap in the narrative between the end of the first and the beginning of the second, a feeling that life went on for crusading journalist and magazine publisher Michael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquist), even as the mysterious Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) herself had repaired to some exclusive tropical isle to gather her own forces too.

No such breather this time. Played with Fire ends as a medical helicopter carries Salander, with multiple gunshot wounds including one in the head, grimy from her father's effort to bury her alive, off to a hospital. A second helicopter bears that father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), almost dead thanks to the axe she planted in his head. So exhausting and chaotic is the final harrowing sequence that I found myself needing to sort out exactly who was dead and who was still, though barely, alive.

As the third installment begins, those medical helicopters are just arriving at the hospital, and it's a tribute to the power of this story and these characters that the audience's intervening three months – as we have gone back to our lives between films – seem to vanish as we settle into our seats. Like the previous two installments, Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a long movie, almost two and a half hours, and again the time flies past. I even found myself sitting forward in my seat a good deal of the time. Now be honest: how often in a movie theatre are you really on the edge of your seat?

As with any good procedural-action thriller hybrid, trying to summarize the plot's various twists and turns in a paragraph or so is folly. Again Salander is framed for murder; again Blomkvist sets out to prove her innocence; again the forces of evil employ a frightening array of subterfuge, blackmail, intimidation and brute force, and a truly chill mastery of apparently passive public institutions. What's satisfying, especially if you've watched this film's two predecessors, is that the seemingly slow arousal of brave and decent people finally pays off here. In the way this films ties up strands from the previous two films it may be most satisfying. The single lone cop with integrity in Played with Fire, Inspector Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylén) returns with a whole shadowy task force this time, empowered directly by the prime minister and capable of lightening speed when needed (will they race across town in time to thwart Blomkvist's would-be killers?)

There are also moments of mind-blinding terror that repeat like a musical theme from film to film. In an early scene here, Salander – rescued from the grave, on the mend, seemingly well-protected in her hospital bed with a sympathetic doctor who smuggles in both pizza and a wireless device – hears that Zalachenko is down the hall, also still alive. This news triggers a flurry of reflex effort to free herself from her IV lines and flee: this panic is pure brain stem reaction in a universe where survival depends on mastering such impulse. You too may savor the expression that flickers across her face when she learns he's been killed.

Also like musical themes the violations of Salander's life re-play – moments we have seen in each film again – the moment of setting her abusive father afire as a child, her confinement to a psychiatric facility where she is held in restraints (now we learn that the officious Dr. Peter Telorbian kept her in full restraints for 381 days because she would not agree to his sexual advances at age 12), the rape she secretly filmed by her guardian after no official office would take her complaints seriously – though this time expanded upon in a courtroom trial.

Salander's attorney is Blomkvist's sister Annika (Annika Hallin), initially there entirely as a favor to her brother. As someone new to the saga, Annika acts as a reality check for us too – those of us returning a second or third time are perhaps used to Salander's strange ways of relating, already rooting for her – and she has her own posse of fanatically loyal misfits onscreen too – but Annika's reactions are a splash of cold water. How well can this young woman survive in the world, really? And Blomkvist's editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre), whose character has been restrained in the previous films, unfolds here as well.

Trilogy cinema – after all, these three movies were all filmed together – may be the movies' answer to HBO series story-telling, and this film proves the worth of taking the time to let a story mature and ripen through installments. We call it the "final" Steig Larsson because he died suddenly of a heart attack, actually before these three novels were published, though reportedly he left most of a fourth novel on his laptop of the projected ten-book series; his estate is still disputed by his long-time companion and his family. This film suggests that interruption amounts to a greater loss than we might have imagined.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the 11/18/10 print edition of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse, and the full review at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Review #237: Never Let Me Go
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Carrie Mulligan, Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield

Having enthusiastically lent my own copy of Kasuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go to a friend after finishing it, I don’t have it here to check the exact page where the Japanese-born British writer actually uses the word “clones” for the first time. I did circle the word when I came upon it, and I’m betting it’s within the last 25 pages out of just over 300. As novels go, this is something of a triumph, because of course you “know” well before that moment, but not having seen the word itself for so much of the story creates a kind of tension.

The last time I recall reading a novel that I so could not put down, it was Caleb Carr’s historical murder and detective mystery The Alienist. That was in 1994. I read The Alienist all the way to Vancouver on a plane and was, I’m afraid, fairly anti-social for the first day or so between sessions of the conference I was attending until I finished it. As NPR and Washington Post book reviewer Maureen Corrigan reminds us, such novels are really about thinking – about how we know what we think we know – and The Alienist combines a cracking good serial murder yarn, set vividly in New York City at one of its most fascinating moments, with the very roots and early invention of detective work.

But Ishiguro’s novel, which has a huge following of fierce partisans – among them the remarkable English actress Carrie Mulligan, who plays Kathy H., the narrator, and has said she “could not bear” to think of anyone else getting the part – is not really about thinking, except on the surface as something to occupy us and the characters alike, even though there are a number if plot lines that seem to be about finding something out. In fact the 28-year-old Kathy H. is clearly not honest and searching with herself much of the time.

Instead, it’s really a story about being. As such, given its meditative style, it’s extremely hard to consider adapting this novel for the screen. Though it’s been called “sci-fi” that label seems odd somehow, because it completely lacks the action-blockbuster arc of its cousins in most contemporary re-tellings of the Pinocchio tale. Such close relatives would be films with characters like Wesley Snipes in the Blade movies, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley who takes that ontologically tantalizing swerve in the last installment of the Alien films, for example. But even on a grand scale, movies about being that are not made in the action-blockbuster mold have a hard time connecting – witness Spielberg’s criminally under-rated A.I., Artificial Intelligence.

Mark Romanek’s screen version, which released in mid-September, has been eagerly anticipated because the novel itself is so well-regarded, but also because this film has some of the best casting in memory. If you’re old enough to remember the 1982 screen version of John Irving’s 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, you’ll recall it was inconceivable that anyone but Robin Williams could play Garp. Just so here: no one but Mulligan could play Kathy H., Keira Knightly is brilliant as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield – plastered all over American multiplexes in The Social Connection, but first coming to my attention last year in Red Riding Trilogy – embodies Tommy. Moreover, I’ve never seen such good casting of younger versions of movie characters. Isabel Meikle-Small as young Kathy looks like Mulligan – and has her facial expressions and movements down cold. Ella Purnell is immediately recognizable as the child who becomes Keira Knightly’s Ruth. And Charlie Rowe makes Tommy actually clearer than he is in the novel – just as Sally Hawkins does for Miss Lucy, the teacher who abruptly fired for explaining to the students at Hailsham what their lives will be and what they are for.

Hailsham is a secluded boarding school in the British countryside where, in the 1970s, we meet Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in what I presume to be the fifth or sixth grade. Charlotte Rampling is headmistress Miss Emily, presiding over the school’s regimen of keeping the children in serene isolation and optimally healthy while engaging them in an education that emphasizes the arts and sports. The arts, as they figure out years later, somehow comprise “verifiable proof” of their true natures. Kathy and Tommy decide that artistic production might be evidence they can truly love – they track down Miss Emily to seek deferrals of their own “donations” of body parts – whereas Miss Emily refines that stab in the dark to mean more precisely that they have souls. A teacher of mine once talked as hauntingly about the ancient cave paintings at Lescaux in this way: that at the moment those prehistoric cave dwellers picked up their charcoal and made images, they became human.

Word of mouth and a great deal of buzz have surely informed you that this is a love triangle of sorts: first it’s Tommy and the not-very-admirable Ruth, and then Kathy and Tommy, with the soon-deceased Ruth’s blessing. This occurs over three chapters roughly each a decade apart, in school, leaving the school to be stashed in some backwater cottages and imagine finding their “originals,” separate and some years later reunite briefly as one by one they “complete.” It is Kathy who’s left in the end, gazing into a field on a scrubby back road, her last voice-over an additional piece of dialogue not in the novel, in which she wonders – somewhat jarringly and redundantly, the very opposite of what Ishiguro accomplishes by withholding the word “clone” for so long – if she and the rest of us are not so different after all.

These performances are just superb and I will likely see this movie again. But the film has some flaws that explain complaints that it “fails to connect” and arise, ironically, from some effort to make this more “cinematic.” First, there is Rachel Portman’s overbearing and melodramatic score, so intrusive that it becomes distracting. We do not need a note of it, much less the Douglas Sirk-like deluge we get, to feel anguish in the presence of this story and these performances. Second, so much is pared away from the novel in order to emerge with a lean and action-laden, a less “interior,” plot, that I’m left wondering – as I wondered after “Garp” – whether I would like the movie if I had not read the book. That is, perfect casting or not, would the film be as rich, as emotionally intelligible, without already knowing the novel?

That is too late for me to answer. Ishiguro himself doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s long met regularly with his neighbor, Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay, to talk over their work, and besides serving as the film’s executive producer, pronounced himself pleased with the script.

So Never Let Me Go is, I suppose, a murder mystery after all.

A shorter version of this review appears in the October 21, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Never Let Me Go” screens for the second week at Manlius Art Cinema.
SYRFILM Round-up: 7th Annual Syracuse International Film Festival

First, the Winners!

Last week I told you in my column "Make it Snappy" that Marek Najbrt's film Protektor (also the Czech official Oscar entry) was the best film in the festival. And on Sunday night, the SYRFILM judges agreed. Protektor took Best Fiction Feature Film, Best Actress (Jana Plodkova), Best Editor, Best Music, Best Screenplay. Syracuse native Mary Angiolillo, who now lives in Prague and teaches at the national film school there, FAMU, sent Protektor to SYRFILM.

Other award recipients were:
Best Experimental Film: Homewrecka by Joey Huertas (USA). Huertas has had a film entered in SYRFILM each of the festival’s seven years, and this documentary about domestic violence was the third win for him in this category.
Best Animation: Ariadne’s Thread by Bertóti Attila (Romania).
Special Judges Citation in Animation: Chameleon by Anna Rettberg (USA).
Best Central New York Film: Thicker Than Water by Bradley Rappa (USA), documentary.
Best Short Documentary: One Day Will be Once by Anca Miruna Lazarescu (Germany).
Director’s Special Citation for Short Documentary: Kayatsum by Grigor Harutyunyan (Armenia).
Best Short Fiction: Rosenhill by Johan Lundborg and Johan Storm (Sweden).
Special Judges’ Citation for Short Fiction: Pile-Up/Koccanás by Ferenc Török (Hungary).
Director’s Special Citation for Short Fiction: Requiem for Kosovo by Dhimiter Ismailaj (Albania).
Best Feature Documentary was awarded to two films: Long Distance by Amikam Goldberg (Israel) and The Two Escobars by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist (Colombia/USA).
Judges’ Special Citation for Artistic Achievement in Feature Documentary: Queen of the Sun by Taggart Siegel (USA).
Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature: Larry Smith for Bronson (UK) Best Actor: Tom Hardy in Bronson
Best Director: Nicholas Wending Refn for Bronson
Judges’ Special Citations: Sand by Rob Nilsson (USA) and To Catch a Billionaire by Tomas Vorel (Czech Republic).
Director’s Special Citations: Pizza with Bullets by Robert Rothbard (USA) and Touching Home by Logan and Noah Miller (USA).

SYRFILM occupied a new spot on the calendar this year, moving from late April to mid-October. Students, who have usually been scarce at a festival that ran during final exam week, were much more in evidence this year. SYRFILM also shortened its run to four and a half days, down from the previous gargantuan nine, and reduced local screening venues to four (The Palace in Eastwood, Redhouse Arts Center in Armory Square, Watson Theater on Syracuse University’s campus and Grewen Auditorium at LeMoyne College). But the festival also added four “satellite” venues in the out-lying communities of Hamilton, Rome, Geneva and Oswego. By Friday evening it was apparent that festival-goers liked this more relaxed schedule with fewer films, less rushing around the city and more chance to interact with one another. This year festival judges also escaped spending their days locked in a room watching one film after another until they were hollow-eyed; provided with screeners of the films in competition two months before the festival, they also relaxed, networked, and caught other films they usually wouldn’t have time for.

As one of those local arts organizations that saw its county budget totally cut the same week it opened for the seventh year, SYRFILM is used to reinventing itself and remains determined to make a go of it. Christine Fawcett Shapiro remains an integral part of the festival, but she’s retired as managing director and now focuses on outreach and development. Until the fate of managing director is determined – Syracuse University funds that position – KC Duggan has been interim managing director for this year’s fest. Duggan, a filmmaker herself who returned to Syracuse to do this job of nuts and bolts madness, is worth at least her weight in gold. If SYRFILM can’t find a way to keep her, she’ll be somebody else’s Genuine Find.

Both SYRFILM’s opening night (the screening of Pizza with Bullets and the presence of its star, Vincent Pastore, and director, Richard Rothbart) and closing night (besides the awards ceremony, the screening of two Ed Harris films, Touching Home and the still-lustrous Pollack, plus Harris himself) have had attention. Some of what happened in between – and whom – well, not so much. Here are just several thumbnails.

Javon Jackson Channels Alfred Hitchcock for The Lodger

Every year since its inception, SYRFILM has shown a classic silent film accompanied by a live jazz performance. While this has become increasingly popular nationwide in the last several years, it’s been a SYRFILM signature event that usually sells out. This year’s event was packed too, despite a freezing downpour and whipping, icy wind. But after all, such weather was appropriate to the 1927 tale of a serial murderer who preyed on young blondes in London’s foggy night streets. Lemoyne College and the Society for New Music co-sponsored this event, the latter finding some local musicians to fill in some of the seats for Los Angeles-based saxophonist Javon Jackson, who brought just the rhythm section – the drum, the bass and the piano players – of his octet.

Society for New Music also located local singer Bridget Moriarty, who got Jackson’s score a month before the screening and made do with a marathon rehearsal of four or five hours the day before. Jackson said after the performance that Moriarty “came in so meek and got behind the mic and turned into a maniac.”

That was Christine Fawcett Shapiro’s idea, the singing. As far as they know, the current crop of live jazz-silent classic screenings hasn’t included any choral component until now. Jackson, who calls her “my surrogate sister,” met Christine Fawcett Shapiro at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester during an event where he was a presenter. Both say they “immediately clicked.”

SYRFILM chose Hitchcock’s early thriller - the English master director director was in his 20s when he made it - as part of a focus on Hitchcock in collaboration with Syracuse Stage, which opens The 39 Steps this week, a comedy based on the Hitchcock film of the same name. The Lodger is available for instant streaming at Netflix, and that’s how Javon Jackson first watched it himself. He says it was a difficult commission.

“There are a lot of abrupt tempo changes in the score,” he said last Friday night after the screening and performance. “Unlike live performance, if we were recording, we’d just splice the pieces.”

Jackson said he started the score last February with a goal of finishing the score by July 15th and he made his deadline. “I’d go through and watch about ten minutes at a time and work on that. I went on two European tours while I was writing the score. The themes would just come as I watched and I actually saw a lot of humor in some parts. We’ve had a lot more diabolical characters since that time – Jason, for example. I wanted a balance between the music of Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s and 40s and jazz now. That great stride piano stuff at the end, that’s from the period of Tatum and Fats Waller.”

Jackson, who also talked with two Lemoyne classes during his visit here, will be back in Central New York on Tuesday, December 7th at SUNY Oswego, where he’ll do a musician’s clinic and a concert. His next tour takes him to New York City, Pittsburgh, points in California and Kansas City, and sometime in there a date in Albany at “the Egg” in the State Capital.

Haim Bouzaglou’s Session Premieres; Hotel Syracuse in the Works

On Friday eve the fest buzzed with more than Javon Jackson’s sizzling jazz performance. This year’s weird election doings even penetrated the fest; that day a State Assembly candidate’s mailer accused his opponent of enormous payoffs to the “special interests” of “Hollywood” while at the same time excessively taxing New Yorkers. This refers to tax incentives to attract film production to New York State, which has the second largest film and television industry in the nation. Most often such productions have very little to do with “Hollywood” studios but everything to do with indie productions and in the case of SYRFILM, a particular focus on attracting foreign filmmakers who wish to make their first American feature. SYRFILM has been at the forefront of efforts to attract such film productions upstate, where local talent and facilities and permit fees are all less expensive than those in New York City. Jerry Stoeffhaas of the Governor’s Office on Motion Picture and Television attended the entire conference. According to one recent study, in 2008 such productions paid $3.3 billion in wages directly to New Yorkers, before even mentioning other revenues generated by rents, purchases and use of New York-owned facilities. While such film production has long been centered in New York City, in recent years upstate cities and regions have actively developed packages to attract filmmakers. Visit to learn more about upstate’s regional film offices.

Israeli filmmaker Haim Bouzaglou’s feature film Session, which premiered on Thursday night at the Palace Theatre, is one result of such efforts. With a score by Oscar-winning composer Jeff Beale – a result of the two meeting at last year’s festival – Bouzaglou’s film is now set to screen in Los Angeles, with a number of European festivals in the offing. Bouzaglou has been here before, both as a festival entrant and as a visiting professor at Syracuse University. Session, which he developed with SYRFILM’s Owen Shapiro, is part of a two-film project. The second film, Hotel Syracuse, has signed John Malkovich as the lead actor.

“We are aiming to shoot next summer at this point,” Bouzaglou told me Friday night. “While John’s schedule is hard to work around, he has also invested in this film and led me to others who support it.”

This includes the lead actress whom Bouzaglou said they would not reveal publicly until she had actually signed. Bouzaglou shoots his next film in France, which he says he’ll enjoy because, “I have a baby – well, four – and another child, and I can take them all with me to France.”

From Israeli Consulate to SYRFILM Judge

Herself from an Israeli family of filmmakers, Shani Hashnaviah‘s relationship with SYRFILM dates back several years. From early 2006 until late 2008 she worked with the Israeli Consulate in New York City as director of film promotion and outreach for the US and Canada. In this capacity she managed distribution of Israeli films in North America, Oscar campaigns, and interactions with film festivals and touring filmmakers. A documentary filmmaker herself, Hashnaviah left the Consulate to work full-time in her own new company, Phantasia Films, in film production, filmmaker event production, and lectures on Israeli cinema. Her talks include the history of Israeli cinema from the 1950s and teaching peace through Israeli documentaries. She returned to the festival this year as a judge in the categories of short fiction and feature documentary.

“Now I can see Syracuse!” she exclaimed, chatting on Saturday morning in her hotel lobby. “It was a great change - this year we got the competition films two months in advance. I could go back and watch one again and take my time. It’s a huge responsibility – I’m a filmmaker myself and the way a film is received early in your career can really affect you.”

The night before, Owen Shapiro had noted, “This festival is really a family. We have filmmakers and judges who come back a second and third time. Each year it expands a little and they bring someone else in. Our lifetime achievement winner from last year, Rob Nilsson, sent us another film this year called Sand, which I know you've seen. It's briiant, and he would be here himself except that he’s being honored this weekend at what’s really his home festival in Mill Valley, California. Last year Tom Bower and Robert Knott were here with the film Appaloosa and now each of them is back here – Tom’s chair of the honorary board, he had a role in Haim’s film Session, and he’s brought us Robert Young, this year’s lifetime achievement winner. Rob Edwards is one of the rising young Black screenwriters. He did Disney’s The Princess and the Frog . His son is at Cornell and he says he’s good to come back the next three years too. The three of them have done a three-day screen-writing seminar with SU film students – one of the students emailed us that those three days have been more useful to him than all his years of study. And filmmakers meet each other here – they create projects, they network, they stay in touch with each other and with us.”

Hashnaviah echoed that sentiment, saying that she considers many of the filmmkaers she worked with friends now. And as the festival wound to a close, she’d signed on with the West Coast folks to bring Robert M. Young’s film Human Error back to the screen. A FaceBook page has already followed and the “gang,” as Tom Bower calls them, is off and running.

Robert M. Young Awarded SYRFILM’s First Sophia for Lifetime Achievement

He’ll be 86 next month and he hadn’t eaten since lunchtime, but at twenty past midnight in the Palace lobby, with a reception still expecting him, director Robert M. Young was patiently gracious with one festival-goer who wanted to register his opinion about whether the ending of Caught was the best one. Young had just received the first Sophia that SYRFILM awarded that evening. The new inscribed crystal sculpture uses the festival logo designed several years ago by the Italian master poster-maker Compaggi from his own painting of Sophia Loren, masked with a strip of celluloid. (Actually Young gets the second one; earlier Owen Shapiro had surprised his wife with her own Sophia for her service to the festival, though he’s still claiming that Christine “hoodwinked” him into starting SYRFILM in the first place).

Young’s debut feature was the 1964 Nothing But a Man with Ivan Dixon and Abby Lincoln. Netflix has a handful of his films and there are more online if you look. The festival screened four of Young’s films: the noirish 1996 Caught, based on Edward Pomerantz’ novel, a key episode of Battlestar Gallactica (both starring Edward James Olmos, often a lead in Young’s films and here to present the award to him as well as spend an afternoon with Latino youth on the West Side), the 2004 Human Error with Tom Bower and Robert Knott and – for the screenwriting seminar students – a 43-minute documentary made in Italy that is otherwise unavailable.

Said Olmos in presenting the award, “In one hundred years, people will be watching Robert Young’s films for their psychological truth, which is his trademark. In one hundred years people will still be watching Dominick and Eugene – they will not still be watching another film released the same year, also about two brothers, one of them autistic, Rain Man. And this is one of the most important film festivals that we have. I’ve been trying to get here for two or three years now. This is one of the few places you can see this kind of film.”

“I think Eddie loves me and that is why he’s so generous,” said Young in accepting the award. “I also want to mention my wife Lily and my brother Irwin, who are in teh audience, because both of them have lost a lot of money on me. And Tom Bower and Ursula, and Bobby Knott. How can you fail if you are surrounded with people who love you and are very talented and also very honest? I have tried to follow my heart.”

Young said the last time he’d seen Caught was several ago at another festival screening. “I never see a film I’ve made unless it’s at a screening like this,” he said. “I go back to the place I was when I made it and it can be very emotional for me if it doesn’t ring true now.”

Human Error, the story of a futuristic (or perhaps not so much) industrial plant producing toxic materials deep in a jungle and the toxic relationships that develop among the three white supervisors at the plant, premiered at Sundance in 2004 and had a short theatrical release in New York at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in the fall of 2005. But the film was quickly tied up in probate after that and just turned loose in time to screen it here. Tom Bower and Robert Knott and Xander Berkeley – the three stars – have in mind touring it again, to college campuses and galleries and museums.

“Distributors told us young people wouldn’t like this film,” said Bower. “But the students who came to the campus screening the other night got it! They were very receptive, and they understood it just fine. So we want it to get out there again.”

And as a post-script, my annual plea to the festival’s tee-shirt designers: please put the logo on the chest.

A shorter version of this article appears in the October 21, 2010 print edition of The Eagle, a Syracuse weekly, where Make it Snappy is a regular column.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Film Review #236: Mao’s Last Dancer
Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Cao Chi, Joan Chen, Bruce Greenwood

In his weekly email bulletin to patrons of Manlius Art Cinema on the eastern outskirts of Syracuse, Nat Tobin announced on Monday that Get Low had done so well he was holding it over for a third week. Since Nat has stuck to a firm opening date of Friday the 15th for Never Let Me Go, that meant that the single week’s run he had scheduled for Australian director Bruce Berseford’s Mao’s Last Dancer just got squeezed out of the queue. Good news if you haven’t got around to Get Low yet – not so much if you put off a drive to see Mao’s Last Dancer so you could catch it here. That film ends today at Rochester’s Little Theatre, but it’s being held over again in Ithaca at Cinemapolis.

Furthermore, this Sunday the theatre hosts Cornell University Law School’s own nationally recognized immigration attorney, Steve Yale-Loehr, who leads a discussion after the 4:25 PM screening. As it happens, Yale-Loehr is old friends with Houston attorney Charles Foster, who won asylum for Li Cunxin in 1981 after the 19-year-old Chinese dancer, on a summer exchange program with the Houston Ballet from the Beijing Dance Academy, decided to defect so he could remain in the US.

Filmed in China, Australia and Houston, Bruce Beresford’s film is based on Li Cunxin’s best-selling 2003 autobiography of the same title. Portraying Li is Chi Cao, principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the north of England, who was himself trained first at Beijing Dance Academy and whose parents, both dorm directors there when Li was a student, remember the 11-year-old poor farm boy plucked from a remote Chinese peasant village’s freezing one-room school for dance training.

In 1981 Li Cunxin went to Houston as one of the first two visiting Chinese students finagled by the British dancer, choreographer and ballet director Ben Stevenson. Formerly a dancer with the British Royal Ballet, Stevenson directed the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2004 (he now directs the Texas Ballet Theatre in Forth Worth). Also in 1976, China’s Mao Zedong died and his wife, the eccentric, doctrinairely literal and brutal Jiang Qing – aka “Madame Mao” – was denounced and imprisoned, creating an opening for some change. In 1978 Stevenson first went to China as part of a cultural exchange program and long returned almost annually to teach at the Beijing Dance Academy. Stevenson brought teachers of modern dance and jazz to China – for example, Gwen Verdon, and in the film Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood) brings Gershwin’s music – and in 1985 helped create the Beijing Academy’s Choreography Department. Stevenson is the only foreigner to be named “honorary faculty” at that school.

We see only the tip of this lengthy and deeply significant relationship with the infrastructure of Chinese dance in Mao’s Last Dancer, though perhaps enough to account for Stevenson’s fury when Li Cunxin first admits he’s secretly married the young American dancer Elizabeth Mackey (played by the San Francisco Ballet’s Amanda Schull) and plans to defect, aided by several defiantly sympathetic Houston Ballet board members. “How could you be so selfish!” Stevenson demands at first of the young man whose name means “keep my innocent heart,” perhaps stung that all Li’s evenings at Kung Fu movies must’ve been something else, and adding that Li’s defection would “ruin all I have worked for.”

That moment occurs on-screen inside China’s Houston consulate, which briefly held Li Cunxin prisoner after the young man agreed to go inside to state his case, and quickly catches the attention of the international press, not to mention the drawling judge awakened from his night’s sleep by attorney Charles Foster (Kyle MacLachlan), the FBI and one Texan vice-president who negotiated Li’s release from Washington. In fact Stevenson got over his angst at Li’s defection, forged ahead and that relationship with Beijing dance endured, his long-range plans only briefly deflected. In July 1995 – in the film this is compressed to a short text scroll before the final credits that highlights Li Cunxin alone – Stevenson took the Houston Ballet on a two-week tour of China with performances in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The Houston Ballet was the first full American ballet company invited by the Chinese government to tour the country. The opening night performance of Stevenson’s production of Romeo and Juliet – Li Cunxin danced the lead – was broadcast live on television to over 500 million Chinese.

Li Cunxin danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years. Elizabeth Mackey left him to pursue her own dancing – though the credits thank her especially for her cooperation on the film – and in 1987 Li married Australian ballerina Mary McKendry (Australian Camilla Vergotis, who dances with the Hong Kong Ballet). Later in 1995 – after the China trip – they moved to Melbourne, where Li became principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Now 49, Li makes his living as a stockbroker. The 2003 autobiography this film is based on stayed on that country’s best-seller list for a year and a half. So Li is a much appreciated figure is his adopted land. And despite the international cast and location shooting, this is very much an Australian film – director Beresford, screenwriter Jan Sardi and principal producer Jane Scott are all Australian, as are many in the production company and the film’s choreographers Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Hence perhaps the unusually detailed sequences about how dancers learn their profession – I found myself so wanting to watch this film with a dance teacher to check out my intuitions there – and the undercurrent, since Australia has had its own racial tensions, of quiet pride in both this adopted son’s odyssey and success and Australia’s own growth. Hence also the patient affection with which Beresford draws Li’s village and family and his Chinese teachers. The great Chinese-born Joan Chen plays Li’s mother – coincidentally she too landed in the US in 1981 to begin an American career. Zhang Su is the gentle, non-doctrinaire teacher Chan, who reveres Russian ballet and, spotting young Li’s talent, gives the boy a VHS tape of Baryshnikov soaring across a stage after his defection. Thus when the performance scenes occur – Li’s sudden elevation in Houston, when the lead dancer strains a muscle, in Strauss’ Don Quixote, then later Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s fiery Rite of Spring – they are both magnificent and coherent because they come out of a discernible process. And I defy you to come away from Li’s surprise reunion with his parents dry-eyed. For such moments was the word “unabashed” devised.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Octber 7, 2010 issue of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse. “Mao’s Last Dancer” is held over another week at Cinemapolis, 120 Green St., Ithaca, 607.277.6115. Following this Sunday’s 4:25 PM screening, a discussion with Cornell University Law School professor Steve Yale-Loehr. Go to their website at for directions and screening schedule. Cinemapolis is located at the edge of Ithaca Commons, with tickets and popcorn both cheap enough to offset your gas from Syracuse.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Film Review #235: The Town
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Pete Postlethwaite

Quick: how many movies can you name that depict the crook’s decision to go straight after this one last job, one last run, one last fight or race? Sometimes he’s not the bad guy, but what he does is usually really dangerous and makes him a loner. Usually there is somebody in the story who’s not letting him go gently. Often some new connection that will be outside his grasp unless he does change has inspired this. Sometimes, he is even a she. Anyway, faulting Ben Affleck’s The Town for being “formulaic” is short-sighted and misses the point. Of course we know what’s coming. But we’re interested, again and again, in how it arrives, and in this titillating notion that one might, as Affleck’s Doug MacRay says gutturally, groping for words for this new idea, “make a change.” The Town opened in wide release last Friday and went right to first place at the box office, so apparently quite a few of us still wonder enough about this to pay the ever steeper ticket price.

The Town opens shortly after another similar film, Dutch director Anton Corbijn’s The American with George Clooney in the title role as the assassin Jack. Affleck began his later-in-life debut as director with Gone Baby Gone and The American is also Corbijn’s second feature film, following his formidable 2007 debut, Control, about the band Joy Division and their lead singer, Ian Curtis, who hung himself on the eve of the band’s big American break.

The American and The Town are radically different in some ways on the surface. Jack lives anonymously, traveling where he’s told by his Rome-based handler, his few incipient attachments a dangerous weakness. When attacked, he erupts with icy, unhesitating ferocity, chasing down and killing his enemies. Previously a photographer, Corbijn places Jack against vast landscapes – first a frozen Swedish lake beside a brooding forest and then the sparse Italian hill country – and proceeds to disrupt American expectations of this genre by long, patient, often largely quiet blocks of story. Granting Jack a lovely young woman who agrees to go away with him, Corbijn has Jack give her an instruction utterly out of character for its sheer logistical improbability – Jack’s nothing if not coolly strategic – when Jack tells her to meet him “by the river,” all for the sake of returning Jack to their private Eden for his last breath.

Clooney’s an absurd figure in a fragmented world where the center does not hold, but Affleck’s bank-robber Dougie MacRay is so rooted in his working-class Irish enclave that he can’t get free to turn around. Lifelong resident of Charlestown, just across the bridge from Boston proper, MacRay’s never been out of this metro area except for one ill-fated trip to hockey camp – he blew that picking fights – and trips to visit his father (Chris Cooper) in prison. No quiet, lingering pans of vast hillside in The Town – ough there are some sweeping pans of metro Boston - it’s fast and tight, fully urbanth, and fully orchestrated. Doug lives with fellow robber Jem (Jeremy Renner), whose family took him in as a kid after his mother disappeared, and Jem’s sister Krista (Blake Lively). Unlike Jack, Doug prefers not to kill, his reluctance framed against the constant menace of Jem’s jittery, tightly coiled violence. (Intriguingly, Jon Hamm’s special FBI agent is not far from Jem in his own edge of menace.) Both Jem and Krista expect Doug to stay – according to “the rules we grew up with,” says Jem – as does local boss Fergie (Irish actor Pete Postlethwaite).

Here is a point of overlap: Jack’s handler and Doug MacRay’s handler are equally business-minded and merciless. Another: Doug and his girl – the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), who’s kidnapped in the first robbery and stalked by Doug to the local laundromat, where romance ensues – also have a sort of Eden, though this time it’s a community garden. And then there’s the scene in each movie of the star doing his calisthenics – derided as vanity – but that comes right out of Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), and surely before: the body as weapon, not temple.

You can make these lists all day – what we expect of any genre and how somebody making a movie goes against it. Even if The American does go off the rails, I still want to see what Corbijn does next and it’s nice to see Clooney try this stretch as an actor. But Affleck has a winner, populated with one terrific performance after another, all of them wrestling with whether we could change – and get away with it.

This review appears in the September 23, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is playing in wide release and so is Anton Corbijn’s “The American” with George Clooney.
Film Review #234: Winter's Bone
Director: Debra Granik
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

“Oh, lord!” mutters the girl under her breath. She climbs out of the pick-up with a suddenly impatient sigh, using the same inflection as innumerable, usually much older women before her who have followed their men, their fathers, their sons – this one is her uncle – into some dive to haul them out. Once inside, 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is already practiced at the right balance between deference – she locates him across the crowded, smokey room and stays far enough away that she’s not interrupting – and no-nonsense demand – one jerk of her head toward the door. Pausing a single beat to show he’s the one deciding, Teardrop (John Hawkes) follows her outside.

One of our best character actors, John Hawkes is easily matched in every scene they share by Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence, about whom you’ll be hearing a lot and, if there’s any justice, part of that will include an Oscar nomination. Ree and Teardrop were supposed to be looking for her father, Jessup Dolly, who’s vanished, missing his court date. Teardrop doesn’t get much farther than she does. We never see Jessup, except in an old photo album snap with Ree’s mother, taken when they were kids themselves and Ree’s mother is almost unrecognizable as the vacant-eyed woman Ree now gently tends.

Jessup is a meth cooker, “known for,” as Ree tells a neighbor who tries to convince her Jessup burned up in a meth lab explosion, “knowing what he’s doing and not making any bad batches.” His disappearance has put his place – a rickety log cabin accessorized with a great deal of plastic and what must have been an expensive trampoline in the yard for the kids – along with his 100-year-old timberlands, at risk for bail forfeiture. At this point in the story where she retrieves Teardrop from the tavern, Ree is pretty sure her father’s dead, but she has to prove that in order to stave off the bail bondsman. Eventually she retrieves the proof from a fetid pond, with the help of a chainsaw and two crones right out of MacBeth.

Women grow old fast in the raggedy backwoods of southwestern Missouri, the region we know as the Ozarks. Ree has a little sister named Ashley Dawn, 6, and a 12-year-old brother named Sonny – like many of the cast, drawn from the local people during the on-location shoot – to whom she’s teaching survival skills equally. So they both learn how to shoot a gun, hunt squirrels and skin and gut them and make a stew. (This scene, in which Ree tells Sonny there are things he’ll have to get over when he balks at gutting the squirrel, nicely foreshadows what the two crones’ insist she must get over too.) But Ree’s friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), who’s already got a baby and doesn’t ask her husband why when he won’t let her take the truck, tells Ree, “It’s different when you’re married.” Writer-director Debra Granik, who adopted this film from Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same title, avoids adding melodrama about how it is that Gail shows up with Baby Ned and the truck one day at Ree’s cabin, having left the husband and his head-banger music, but it’s easy to imagine there was some. Ree’s own single attempt to get away is demolished by a patient, practical Army recruiter who explains, in unusually knowing terms, that it will actually be braver for Ree to remain at home.

Lest we start thinking about the people in Winter’s Bone in terms overly mythic or picturesque, I should say that this film is as good a study as you’re likely to find of how come most kids into drugs most anyplace and right here in Syracuse too aren’t about to snitch, and how come whole communities remain implacably against the law’s perceived intrusion. When Teardrop tells Thump, a distantly-related patriarch – played by another non-actor who goes by the nickname “Stray Dog” and evidently got to wear his own biker vest for the part – that Jessup “went against our ways,” he’s not talking about Jessup’s illegal activities. And when Teardrop, in one of the final scenes, suddenly says he knows who killed his little brother, about the only people you don’t suspect – outside Jessup’s own household – are the musicians at a house-party Ree visits, who provide much of the film’s marvelous Ozark music.

Marideth Sisco, whose own busy summer festival schedule probably has rivaled the director’s, is the singer at this house-party with her band, the Davis Creek Rounders. Sisco also sings many of the songs in the film – “High on a Mountain,” “Farther Along,” “Fair and Tender Maidens,” “Missouri Waltz,” and “Teardrop’s Ballad: Bred and Buttered.” Twice Ree reminds the sheriff that she’s “a Dolly, bred and buttered,” indicating a depth of loyalty and identity that we learn as the tale unfolds can go either way.

This review appears in the September 9, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “Winter’s Bone” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Friday, September 10. Both the DVD and the soundtrack come out on October 26.
Film Review #233: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Per Oscrasson

“I used to live in that city!” exclaimed one of my companions as Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) arrives in Göteborg on Sweden’s southwest coast, having driven the 250 miles or so from one side of the country – the capital city of Stockholm in the east – to the other through the night, in search of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who’s made the same journey a few hours ahead of him. “And I made that same drive every week I was there,” she added.

Most US audiences watching The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second of the Swedish screen versions of the late Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy novels, won’t have that advantage, or even know that the filmmakers actually shot the Göteborg scenes on location (even IMDB gets that wrong). But Swedish audiences will know that, especially those who actually live in and around Göteborg, where the film had a special screening at that city’s international film festival in January.

I mention this because there’s been some grumbling about this film and you should not let it keep you away. This installment retains key cast members – the remarkable Rapace as fugitive computer-hacker Salander and Nyqvist as Millennium magazine publisher Blomkvist; also Lena Endre as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s editor-with-benefits, and Peter Andersson as Salander’s slimy legal guardian, Nils Bjurman – and also wisely kept on Jacob Groth to provide the understated but hugely effective, disturbing score. (A word about US-tailored promotion: the image on the movie poster appears nowhere in this film and the trailer’s generic thriller music may come from some movie but not this one.) But this film has switched directors (from the virtuoso Niels Arden Oplev to the more workman-like Daniel Alfredson) and cinematographers (from Jens Fischer and Erik Kress to Peter Mokrosinski, whose look is considerably more workmanlike and sometimes out of focus for no discernibly good reason). And you might spend some time objecting to both. But – proof of the pudding – this film is over two hours long, and I didn’t wonder once how soon we’d get there, especially during the rising dread of the second half.

In Played with Fire, crusading publisher Blomkvist hasn’t seen Salander for a year. (The first film ended with hints – a glimpse of her exiting an expensive car, dressed with uncharacteristic elegance, at some clearly exclusive tropical resort – though this new film neglects her sojourn there, which occupies a significant section of the novel, cutting to the chase of her Stockholm return.) Instead a breaking story about a sex-trafficking ring occupies Blomkvist, until the young couple who’ve researched that turn up executed and the police blame Salander. Sure that she’ll contact him, he sets about solving the murders and her connection, as his Millennium editorial staff set about finishing and publishing the story. Along the way – the reason for that cross-country dash – Salander finds her long-lost father (Georgi Staykov), determined to finish with an axe what she started as a child with a match and a gas can.

What carries this film is the intriguing, increasingly layered and unconventional relationship between Blomkvist and Salander (those in turn carried by wonderful lead performances – I particularly recommend Rapace’s extended scene of reunion with her father). In a story about how we know the truth about anyone else, it’s worth thinking about how they have come to utterly trust one another. They don’t physically share a single scene until the end, but the film extends their virtual relationship with convincing immediacy; in one scene Salander turns off a door alarm with three seconds to go – watching Blomkvist remotely on a security camera – from the other side of Sweden. And amidst much deeply sordid behavior, Blomkvist isn’t the only good man here; there’s the young free-lancer Dag, Salander’s old advocate Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson, from the 1966 classic Hunger), and a promising cop named Bublanski. I’m more than ready to see where #3 goes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo packed Manlius Cinema in April. Nat Tobin is pretty sure he’ll keep Played with Fire around a couple weeks anyway, and reminded Friday night’s crowd that the finale – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – has a mid-October US release. He’s also arranged for a one-time screening at 6:30 p.m. next Tuesday, the 31st, of the documentary Millennium, about the book-to-movie project with Larsson’s novels. That screens at Manlius Library (in the Village Center plaza, past Little Cesar’s Pizza).

This review appears in the August 26, 2010 print edition of The Eagle weekly. “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is screening locally at Manlius Art Cinema. Next Tuesday, August 31st, at 6:30 p.m. you can also see the documentary “Millennium,” about Steig Larson and the Millennium Trilogy novels, at Manlius Library.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Film Review #232: The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Annette Bening, Julainne Moore, Mark Ruffalo

At long last her good manners have snapped, but her dignity has never been more intact. Striding to the front door from the supper table in a way that makes you breathe, “Uh-oh!” – I remember my grandmother was able to do this too – Nic (Annette Bening) comes up behind her 15-year-old son Laser (Josh Hutcheson) to have a word with his father. Actually Paul (Mark Ruffalo) was the sperm donor of Laser and his older sister Joni (Mia Wasikowska), and has come belatedly into their lives during that transitional summer between Joni’s high school graduation and departure to college. Just as Joni needs to pull away a bit from her family, Laser has convinced her to seek out their common dad, who runs a local eatery supplied by his own garden and seems to have his pick of the women staffing both.

“…Well, this is not your family,” concludes Nic, just before slamming that door in Paul’s face. “This is my family. If you want a family, go make your own.”

Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko has said of Nic – older partner of Jules (Julianne Moore), family breadwinner, OB-GYN physician, guardian of shaping the children’s social graces, who has endured much from the genial, shambling Paul as has everyone in her household – that “she’s a bit of a mama bear.” This is not clear earlier in the film or even for quite some way into the story, not before the quite remarkable dinner scene in which Nic first wills herself to see what about this man her partner and kids find so appealing, reveals her own tender side – they both love the vintage album Blue by Joni Mitchell, Nic’s daughter’s namesake – and then discerns from Paul’s bathroom the betrayal a lover would grasp in a flash.

Cholodenko has been nursing this film project since 2005, when Julianne Moore, for whom she wrote the part of Jules, was already on board. Cholodenko was delayed in making the film and meanwhile she and her partner had a sperm-donor child of their own, an experience she attests sharpened the final script as well as her direction of its singular performances. It may also sharpen your experience of this film to realize that since the film’s wide release on July 23rd, a California court has struck down that state’s ban on gay marriage – put in place by voter referendum in 2008 as Proposition 8.

The film takes it name, of course, from “The Kids Are All Right,” the Pete Townshend song that first appeared on The Who’s 1965 album My Generation and has become an enduring, often-recorded anthem of successive decades asserting that the young folks are turning out just fine, thank you. Cholodenko has the same answer for those worrying about children growing up in gay unions, and in doing so avoids the legalistic “balanced argument” pitfall that is so deadly when it shows up in fiction. Cholodenko does this with a terrific script, terrific performances – there is not a slouch among them, even in very minor characters – and the strategy to frame the “issue” initially as a comedy of manners.

Instead of creating characters as mouthpieces for opposing positions, The Kids presents real and memorable people doing the best they can, which often falls short of what any of us would hope. Cholodenko systematically explores each character’s experience and point of view for a few scenes and then quietly shifts to the next. This is risky; to see why Jules and the kids and Paul find Nic overbearing and fussy and a little comical, we have to see her as – well, overbearing and fussy and a little comical. The reversal has to be, as in the dinner scene, pitch perfect – or Nic becomes merely lugubrious and we feel jerked around by a filmmaker who can’t decide on or manage her tone.

Reversals and misunderstandings among the earnest are the stuff of farce too, and this is a very funny movie, often at the expense of people behaving in the ways they think are proper and expected. But it’s not just a device that, for example, Nic insists the kids learn to write timely thank-you notes – of such details one builds the social freedom to navigate far and wide, to engage in respectful relationships, to be courteous when you don’t feel like it but know you must, to build a life one chooses. Marriage is hard, as Jules says late in the day, and I join those who find this the best and most knowing movie about that in a long time.

This review appears in the August 12, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse "Eagle" weekly and also in the A&E section of Eagle Newspapers' online site, “The Kids Are All Right” is screening locally at Manlius Art Cinema and Carousel Regal Cinemas.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Film Review #231: Salt
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor

It’s true that Angelina Jolie’s fugitive spy Evelyn Salt will remind you of Jason Bourne’s sheer full-tilt physical courage and propensity to throw himself off high places. And if you caught the third installment, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), you’ll be able to see Salt’s nighttime leap from the helicopter into an icy Potomac coming – though Salt director Phillip Noyce doesn’t repeat that mesmerizing shot from below Bourne’s still body when, stunned and drifting, back-lit by some light far above, he suddenly jerks to life, making of New York’s freezing East River a place of re-birth for this man with no identity. What Salt won’t remind you of is Tom Cruise, originally destined for the part.

Many readers know – as I write this, Salt battles Inception for box-office first place – that Evelyn Salt is a CIA operative whom a “walk-in” Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) accuses, as she interrogates him, of being a Russian infiltrator set to assassinate Russia’s current president when he gives the eulogy at the funeral of the US vice-president in Manhattan. The two men had engineered a major thaw between their nations. Orlov’s claim turns on a decades-old, Cold War-era plot to train a vast, fanatic, unbreakable team of Russians from birth to pass as ordinary folk until “Day X.” To leap ahead, the plan also involves hi-jacking the US nuclear codes to launch strikes on Tehran and Mecca so that Muslims will be provoked to finish destroying the US.

Well, Salt is a double agent, though what she’ll do with that, and why, and what the set-up really is, provide the pull here. Jolie has said that re-writing the part for a woman was tricky. For example, this character wouldn’t have a child because a mother wouldn’t so endanger her child. But Salt has a husband, Mike (August Diehl), a spider researcher, a gentler, more retiring type than we expect for Jolie’s partner, so her fear is for his safety. All of Salt’s relationships are with men – except for the little girl who agrees to look after Salt’s Toto-like dog when she first goes on the run – and none of them is quite Atticus Finch, so next time I’d like another woman in the mix. The excellent actors Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor play, respectively, her laid-back superior Ted Winter and the more aggressive, suspicious counter-intelligence agent Peabody, who see-saw over how to contain her. Only once, as a last resort, does Salt use her feminine wiles and for a minute you’re not sure she doesn’t mean it.

Go back further than Bourne to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and you grasp better what Jolie has done here. Of course, it’s scarcely possible to imagine a host of women’s film roles without that Ripley ancestor, especially in that quartet’s second film, Aliens, directed by James Cameron in 1986. Believe me, some fans can recite much of the dialogue from repeated watchings of Aliens. There’s the time when the gutsy soldier Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) plunges down a tunnel to certain death with the line, “Let’s rock and roll!” Or the exhilarating moment when Ripley, clad in her giant forklift – a.k.a. the “exo-suit cargo loader” – faces down the mother monster to protect the orphan Newt. Right before you see this, Ripley utters the line, “Leave her alone, you bitch!” Cameron brought unmistakable echoes of Vasquez and Ripley to last year’s Avatar, casting Weaver as his chain-smoking ecologist and finding a Vasquez look-alike in Michelle Rodriguez as his rebel helicopter pilot.

All of these stories of action heroes involving clandestine loyalties, espionage and empire riff on images of death of self, resurrection, birthrights and lost identities that shuttle between the rootless orphan and the disguised, unknowing lost heir. By adding the mind-bending factor of a woman hero, the Alien films took these images to sci-fi extremes, first with the acid-dripping mother monster and her brood of offspring implanted in the chests of human hosts, then further with the cloning rebirth of Ripley and her own discovery of her various trans-species selves.

Political spy yarns like Salt really run on a parallel track, especially in the past decade. It’s unsurprising that such films aren’t concerned with literal plot credibility, and unsurprising that the subject of a Russian menace returns when it provides that resonant image of “Mother Russia.” You can enjoy Salt for its accomplished brute spectacle alone. Salt also offers performances and ideas about the ways we have gotten lost that will linger.

“Salt” opened nationwide last Friday and is now on multiple local screens. This review appears in the July 29, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse "Eagle" weekly.