Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Duchess

Frankly, I went with some reservations ...

I had heard, "The Duke is everything in this film."

"It's all about hair and wigs."

I was wonderfully surprised.

The film drags a bit at times, but it's a giant performance by everyone ... with a lot of character development - we get to know these people, what makes them tick, and their inner reflections.

A powerful drama about loyalty and commitment - what it means to be a family, a parent, a lover ... and "judge not."

The Duke is terrific ... played by accomplished actor Ralph Fiennes, his Duke is a study in both debauchery and hope. That a man as powerful as this, who never negotiates, who never makes a deal, should find some remorse, and something beyond his Captain-Ahab like obsession with a male heir, is a study in redemption ... if not complete, at least in part.

The Duchess, Keira Knightley, is a remarkable portrait of a mother's love - and what one might do in order to provide and protect her children. She exudes fire and intellect - a great passion, a great sense of self. She's a young lady thrust into prominence as the Duke's wife; after three girls, now what? She falls in love with another young man, a rising politician, but what about the family. The Duke treats her ruthlessly; her heart aches for love. In the end, we see that her love, her maturity, sparks an admiration, if not love, in the Duke as well.

I expected a lighter-weight performance from Ms. Knightley (don't ask me why), but she delivered a forceful, nuanced, dramatic performance - her character, with very much the feel of Princess Diana, is caught, as women were in that time, and to some extent, still are - in a male-dominated world. What can one do to survive with integrity, and with any regard for the future?

As much as any of us would like to cast care to the wind and follow our fortune, life isn't that easy - not then, not now. Responsibility creeps in, and ultimately wins the day. As it should. In order to be mature, whole human beings, it's not about every whim and need that arises, but a larger picture of commitment and hope, and sometimes, the greatest of all sacrifices are needed to sustain the greater love.

Hayley Atwell portrays Bess, a lover of the Duke, a woman who sacrifices herself to see her children. A threat to the Duchess, they ultimately work out an arrangement, and ultimately, the Duchess finds herself in a situation for which she roundly judged and condemned Bess. A reminder that what goes around comes around.

Charlotte Rampling portrays the mother of the Duchess - a woman ever-so wise about survival. In a world utterly dominated by the whims of men, how does a woman of character make it? She brings plenty of strength to this role, a study in power when there is no power at all.

If you're looking for a fine film, a period-piece for sure, what with plenty of wigs and big dresses, this is for you. Don't let the big dresses deter you.

This is a fine film with plenty of fine acting, and a great soul-searching story to boot.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


If ya' like Westerns, pardner, you'll like Appaloosa.

Written, produced and starring Ed Harris, it felt like a vanity film. I've got a story to tell, and I've got the money to make it. Sort of life self-publishing these days.

Up front, the sheriff who's gunned down in cold blood by the bad guy (Jeremy Irons) speaks his lines so poorly, I might have shot him, too, had I been the director.

Every Western cliche is used here, but I enjoyed it - a pleasant afternoon diversion.

But then I love Westerns. Two of my all-time favorites stand tall in the saddle: Silverado and Red River - both, in my judgment, flawless, and by such standards I judge all other efforts. By comparison, Appaloosa has the feel of a "B" western. But, hey, I love Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, too. Just glad Harris and Mortensen didn't pick up a Gee-tar and start pickin'.

Renee Zelweger is delightful as a woman who can't make up her mind - she loves the nearest top dog, whoever the dog may be. Getting to the top, so to speak, is her mission in life, and like women then, and still too often today, a woman has to pay the piper - somewhere I read, a man loves in order to get sex; a woman gives sex in order to be loved. Zelweger's face is utterly unique - sincere, innocent and selfishly dangerous, all at the same.

The side-kick deputy (Viggo Mortensen) does exceedingly well, as does Harris, although even here, there was a certain dark passion missing. Hard to put my finger on it, but it's like a loaf of home-baked bread that didn't have enough salt in it.

Mortensen's character is the most complex - a man of unceasing loyalty to the Sheriff (Harris) - he wants Allison French (Zelweger) who makes a play for him, but walks away for the sake of his friend. There's a quiet passion in the character, and Mortensen conveys it, mostly.

Sometimes the feel of good actors saying mediocre lines telling a formulaic story.

Other pieces fit well - the costuming, the music, the cinematography.

Worth seeing?

Sure, why not? Bang, bang!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


A parable of sorts ... the story of a perpetually happy young teacher, Poppy (irritatingly and winsomely portrayed by Sally Hawkins) who makes the best of everything, trying with all her might to walk on the sunny side of the street and put a smile on everyone's face.

The move drags a bit, suffers from some editing issues ... but Mike Leigh's purpose makes it happen: via a snapshot of life, a moment in time - Poppy comes off, at first, as an irritating bit of sunshine creeping in past the curtain on the only morning one has to sleep in.

As the story begins, her bike is stolen. Okay. I'll take driving lessons, offered by Scott (Eddie Marsan - brilliant role), a sad, angry, paranoid, low-self esteem sort of guy who tries desperately to believe that he's a great driving instructor. In an explosive rant, every bit of social hatred and bigotry pours out of Scott's mouth - spit literally running down his beard (a powerful moment powerfully acted) - not unlike what we're seeing at some of the McCain/Palin rallies.

Here's a relationship that could go south a dozen ways. In a twist I didn't expect, after Scott is caught lurking around Poppy's house, he returns for one more driving lesson. It doesn't go well, and as he's about to leave, he says, "Same time next week?"

I expected Poppy to say yes, but she's wiser in the midst of her good cheer then one might think; though an optimist, and a risk-taker (her encounter with a homeless man), she says no to Scott. Though perpetually happy and seeking to bring happiness to others, this unexpected response reveals more than just a clown, but someone wise and thoughtful.

In the end (there were times when I wondering when it would end), she and her roommate are side-by-side rowing together in a small boat on a placid city park lake, each pulling an oar ... Poppy says, "You keep on rowing, and I'll keep on trying to put a smile on peoples' faces."

That's the parable, that's the image: are we not all in a rowboat? Sitting beside someone who's pulling their oar as best they can? Some are realistic and practical, some are bright and cheery, but together we have to sit, and pulling together, we can reach our destination.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Guy Ritchie's new film - terrific.

The opening scenes begin with a musical score that grabbed me right by the throat and got me into the film.

A marvelous ensemble of characters - essentially all buffoons, but not a hint here of slapstick. As seen in the poster, and from the opening moment, a "gun" plays a significant visual role - but it isn't what it looks like, and I won't give it away. But it's a reminder that things are not what they appear, and it's always worthwhile taking a second look.

Gritty and entertaining, with plenty of laughs ... revealing, I suppose, the banality of evil (Tom Wilkinson in his mobster sunglasses is brilliant as Lenny Cole), how folks on the underside of things get caught up in the flow of life (Gerard Butler as One Two) and can only make the best of it. Some are really scoundrels, dirtbags ... others are just there because that's where they showed up.

Mark Strong as Archie (Lenny Cole's right hand man) is the most drama-like character here - funny and ironic, taking Lenny's crap with philosophical distance. He sees how silly it all it, but here he is, and it's the only gig he's got going.

The most chilling portrayals (is this a political statement?) are the Russians - cold and calculating, and more money than you can shake a bribe at.

Visually, I was reminded of "Sin City" - and even some of the feel of it for story.

Be prepared to listen carefully ... lines delivered with a heavy cockney accent.

Definitely worth seeing.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Bill Maher has done everyone a favor.

As only a comedian can, with his acerbic humor, he cuts through the fog of religion to reveal it's heart ... and, frankly, as one who has been a believer for 64 years, and a Presbyterian pastor as well, of the liberal sort, Maher uncovers the elephant in the room, the dirty little secret harbored in the back rooms of thought - that much of what passes for religion is invented and dysfunctional.

That Maher doesn't talk with folks like Desmond Tutu or Bishop Tom Wright leaves the impression that religion is pretty much the domain of kooks and imbeciles harboring the worst kinds of prejudice.

Well, if the shoe fits wear it.

Folks like Wright and Tutu are a voice in the wilderness, and though their voice is important, it's the wilderness that prevails.

Even in the sweetest folks I've known over the years, an unthinking acceptance of ideas, few of which are grounded in Jesus, but mostly in unexamined traditions that have more to do with culture and prejudice than faith, hope and love.

Maher sounds a warning that many within the folds of religion are wont to ignore, but only at great risk. From the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, NC to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY, there is apparently no end to the incalculable depths of ignorance, blind belief and prejudice.

Yes, there are a lot of great and good minds at work, and women and men of vision and courage, who believe, and do so with great integrity, compassion, wisdom and wit.

But the Palins and Huckabees stand stage center - Palin is actually a believer; Huckabee a huckster - like glove and hand, a dangerous but an oh-so-comfortable fit.

I suspect that some who listened to Jeremiah and Jesus would say, "But it's not that bad!"

But it is, and only by going to the heart of the craziness can we ever hope to send the demons packing.

Anyway, as a documentary - excellent.

Editing is terrific ... and the whole thing, greatly entertaining. The title itself, amusing and important: a combination of "religion" and "ridiculous."

Maher's comments in the car after an interview, the sub-title comments during the interviews, the interspersed film and news clips, are hilarious, but don't let the humor fool you - Maher is a thoughtful man who's done his homework. The questions he raises and his sense of "doubt" are a needed ingredients for anyone who wants to a person of faith.

Doubt, the source of humility, was recognized by Paul Tillich in his book, The Dynamics of Faith and by St. John of the Cross in his Dark Night of the Soul.

Sometimes the best prayer is simply, "I don't know."

But I have question: not for Maher, but for the reader: What's the alternative? Smoke a joint and pursue whatever the instinct might be? Become our own little, very little, god? Retreat into some ultimate hedonism of self-interest? Pleasure?

Though religion is "shamelessly invented," there remains for me something good and important strong enough and good enough to counterbalance the centripetal energy of the ego. Hence, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Shane Claiborne.

Check out Toby Jones, an emergent church thinker for some further reflection on the future of faith and the church. Or David Crumm's "Explore the Spirit."

Is the film worth seeing?

You bet.

If you believe without thought, if you need others to be wrong in order for you to be right, you'll find this offensive and disturbing.

But if you want to see religion in the mirror of critical examination, and you're willing to see how bizarre your "fag-hating, bible-thumping" cousin down the block is, then "fasten your seat belt" and get ready for bumpy ride with lots of laughs and a serious message: "Grow up, or die" - "because we figured out nuclear weapons before we figured out how to be rational and peaceful."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist

I wouldn't have gone to see this film were it not for a family member in "the industry" here in LA who knows the director.

Am I glad I went?

Sort of ... a cute story, in a loosey goosey fashion - mostly formulaic - slob-guy and bitch-girl finally get what's coming to them ... and nice-girl, nice-guy find true love.

Michael Cera (Nick) is terrific. Linking this with his role in "Juno," he's carving out a great personna - a gentle-souled young man who's a real catch, but otherwise easily overlooked, if not ridiculed by "the cool people."

Kat Dennings (Nora) does a fine job - a bright, talented, young lady who stands above the crap of her crowd, secretely in love with Nick because she's listened to his CD compilations intended for Tris (Alexis Dziena) who promptly throws them away, and cheats on Nick when they're going together.

Nick's friends are the band with whom he plays, three gay guys who see to it that Nick and Nora finally get together - they're cute and bring it off well. Does a film like this help or hinder the gay community? I don't know. I thought it was well-done, but featured, I suppose, what some would consider "typical" images of the gay guy. If there are any gays or lesbians reading this review, please leave a comment about this.

Music plays a minor role here - the band, and much of the story revolves around trying to find "Fluffy," an alternative rock group who leaves clues around town where they'll be playing. The club scenes were shot on location in East Village, lower east side - had a good and realistic feel.

As I write this review, I find myself recalling the excellent teen documentary: "American Teen" from Paramount Vantage.

Clearly a teen-film, "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist," but I wonder if it'll have legs. Is it the kind of movie kids will tell their friends about? Will anyone see it twice?

The film moved along slowly for the first half - audience reaction was tepid, but everything picked up in the second half, and when Nick turns on the windshield wiper and spritzer to remove bitch-girl's lipstick, the audience really laughs - one of the few good-laugh parts.

At the end, a good many in the audience clapped.

I tried to put myself back in time - late high school, early college ... how that young mind thinks and what it's seeking. Did a film like this capture where kids are today? Perhaps so.

Perpetual questions associated with a film like this: 1) is irresponsible sexuality encouraged? 2) And what about under-age drinking?

The "drunk" (played creatively by Ari Graynor) makes a complete idiot of herself - with one incredibly gross scene involving puke, a cell phone and her gum. The overly-sexualized Tris is just that - empty and gross.

Again, if someone reading this review can post a comment, I'd like to hear.

Directed by Peter Sollett, a young director building a fine career.

Is it worth seeing? For someone who seriously sees movies, who appreciates the effort, the craft, young actors, directors, yes.

Otherwise, wait for it on Netflix.