“The Fall” — A Mind-Bending Marvel

The visual splendor and breathtaking imagination of “The Fall” made me actually dream of some of the scenes, an experience I rarely have. Reality and fantasy blur into a magical realism that so dazzles the eyes, it suggests a psychedelic otherworldly, perhaps drug-induced journey. This movie is a magical, mystery tour–“The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen” meets “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”.

“The Fall” (2008) is two movies in one–and I don’t mean the story within a story that grounds the mind-blowing imagery. I mean the visual story: the sumptuous fantasy world of 1920’s Los Angeles. Filmed in Fiji, Bali, Brazil, India, South Africa, and thirteen other countries, I could have viewed this movie on “mute” and still have loved it! Captivating scenes of a butterfly-shaped island; a warrior shot so full of arrows he falls backwards on them like a bed of nails; an Escher-like staircase to nowhere; costumes with lotus-shaped headdresses and fan-shaped veils; russet-colored mountains with Crest-toothpaste aquamarine skies I thought were colorized; faces that melt into the mountainside, with faint, lingering shadows of eyes.

Genius for the understatement works its magic from the opening scene and continues through close-ups of a little girl’s hands, her vulnerability and innocence revealed by soft, seemingly boneless fingers. Footage of a massive elephant swimming in the ocean, with the cameramen shooting from underneath causes cognitive dissonance. The elephant had to be “animatronic”, not a living, breathing mastodon-sized pachyderm. But I was so wrong. Astounding, mind-boggling scenes trick both the eye and the mind.

But there is also an epic story to tell. Languishing in a hospital, stuntman Roy Walker (played by newcomer Lee Pace) is grievously injured from jumping off a bridge onto a horse far below. Not only is his body broken, but also his heart. To entertain the little girl Alexandra (the unforgettable Catinca Untaru, a six-year old with a soft whisper of a Romanian accent), Roy tells a fantastical tale of heroes, warriors, and a princess in scenes conjuring “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”. However, his ulterior motive is not to entertain a little girl in a body cast, but to coax her to steal morphine so he can “sleep”. A free-fall feast for the eyes, Roy’s drug-induced stupor is recreated by the stunning imagery of the tale-within-the-tale. Alexandra’s imagination becomes the catalyst for Roy’s story, and her purity and innocence ultimately overpower him. Roy is her perfect storyteller, she is his perfect listener, and together they imagine a new world–one of beauty and art…and heal.

Catinca Untaru is the heart and soul of this movie! She is so natural as the wide-eyed innocent child, I thought her dialogue was unscripted. Only the out-takes convinced me otherwise. Colin Watkinson, the cinematographer, in some sense shares the director role with Tarsem Singh because his portraits of art in motion are a parallel universe as addicting as the morphine that Roy craves. “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling. Without Wilkinson’s evocative visual effects, the narrative would not have flourished.

Unfortunately, due to delayed and poor distribution, “The Fall” did not reach the wider audience it deserves. With less than $4 million worldwide in gross receipts, this is a gross injustice! Treat yourself to this cinematic work of art and relish in its marvel and splendor!

View the trailer

“Blue Valentine” –Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This critically acclaimed Sundance 2010 darling features Michelle Williams (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Ryan Gosling in a Generation X’s portrait of a marriage from hell reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”.

Blue Valentine’s story is simple and straightforward. A young nurse, Cindy Heller (Williams) lives with an abusive father, an adrift mother, and cares for her ailing grandmother. She has endured a violent relationship with a high school boyfriend and has given up her dream to become a doctor. She meets Dean (Gosling) at her grandmother’s assisted living center and they end up rushing into marriage, knowing next to nothing about each other. They are both excruciatingly wounded and searching for an escape. Soon after her young daughter, Frankie, is born, they begin to lose their way.

From the opening scene in which Dean plays with spilled oatmeal, licking it off the kitchen table with his five-year old daughter, we are acutely aware that he is stunted…not quite an adult, but a playmate that his daughter adores. Tellingly, he is siding with his child at the expense of the mother who has wearily thrown together a breakfast for them. With flashbacks between the romantic years and the desperate ones, “Blue Valentine” takes us on a journey of their rapidly accelerating heartbreak.

Not altogether a misfit, Dean is a young high school dropout, working for a New York City moving company and later as a house painter. He is a kind, keen observer, especially toward the elderly and the beloved family dog. Dean’s also a drunk. He tries to make a living, but mostly enjoys being with Cindy and their daughter, his only meaningful goals in life. But he gets it so wrong!

Cindy is trying to keep their family on more firm ground financially. She’s still attractive to other men and Dean can’t contain his jealousy. In the hope of rekindling their sexual life, Dean brings Cindy to a motel with a kitschy, pseudo-sci-fi decor, but there is no intimacy. Their marriage has collapsed in on itself and the sting in their relationship is visceral.

A previous scene, in which Gosling sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and Williams dances, foreshadows the wrenching pain to come. Bravely, they both struggle to keep their relationship together in spite of their own best interests. While Dean desperately desires to hold on to his family, his only keystone, he doesn’t know how and neither does Cindy.

Marriages are difficult, precarious, and stressful, and each has its own rhythms and secrets. Not even a deep knowledge of each other can guarantee a long and happy marriage. “Blue Valentine” sometimes succeeds in taking us to this far more honest – and less comfortable – place. One partner’s “best” may simply not be “good enough”.

The wounded and defensive natures of both main characters are powerfully portrayed: Gosling, when his anger is unleashed,–the self-protecting male fighting for what is “his”,–and Williams for the abandonment of her dreams. But these performances do not save this film. Even though their relationship feels real, the story needed to be more specific.

“Blue Valentine” ultimately misses the mark for not revealing both Cindy and Dean’s background. What happened to them in their pre-adulthood years? Why does neither of them have a safety net? These are two young people, tattered and torn, lunging for love as if they were gasping for air. I wanted to know why.

“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!

“I Love You Phillip Morris”– “Catch Me If You Can” With a Gay Twist

Let me start by saying I wanted to really love this movie starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was sitting on the fence on this one but no more.

This oddball movie is loosely based upon an improbable but true story of a gay conman/grifter, Steve Russell, who continually breaks the law to impress his young lover, Phillip Morris, in a small Texas community. “I Love You Phillip Morris” opens with Russell (Jim Carrey) on a hospital gurney, near death. Up until now he has led a life of pretense –a married policeman whose wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), is a sweet, caring church-going spouse. But his near-death experience has made Russell realize he’s going to live life as an openly gay man who no longer sneaks out on Debbie at night. His newfound gay lifestyle involves lavish and luxurious habits, which he cannot afford on a policeman’s salary so he turns to a world of crime. Sent to the Texas State Penitentiary where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), Russell begins an outrageous con to free both of them.

Every time Ewan McGregor is onscreen, this viewer lit up at his performance. While Jim Carrey somehow always reminds you that he is first and foremost Jim Carrey, that does not hold true for McGregor who plays the love interest with subtle charm and none of the usual swishy, exploitative cinematic portrayals of gay men. Carrey sometimes feels to me as if he is satirizing Russell, instead of seeing his tortured nature. In one of the most moving scenes in the story, Morris confronts Russell who has implicated him in his crimes: “How does someone who doesn’t exist go on existing?” Morris doesn’t know him, because the chameleonic Russell seemingly has no core.

Even though the main character is a narcissistic sociopathic scam artist, I think he could still have been lovable as was Leonardo di Caprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” But I found the story not persuasive as fiction, let alone truth, because the larcenous self-inventing Steve Russell is so hard to understand, let alone feel compassion for. Russell seems to be stunted, but his perpetual emotional postponement, even in the face of the man he loves, is never underscored. To see a more convincing portrayal of the gay man’s situation, I would go see “A Single Man” hands down!

Good actors, some over-the-top homosexual erotic scenes but a movie that ultimately doesn’t realize its potential. Too bad–could have been concomitantly hilarious and touching in almost every way!

“Rabbit Hole”–A Parallel Universe

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Rabbit Hole” was released as a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about six months ago (December 2010). This movie takes familiar territory and creates a classic.

Astutely named, “rabbit hole” refers to a bizarre or difficult state or situation. What gut-wrenching, reality-changing universe can be more brutal and painful than the death of a loved one? A metaphor for adventure into the unknown, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is no clear set of rules for a world turned upside down by grief . In a labyrinth of guilt, self-recrimination, tightly controlled rage and estrangement from oneself, there seems to be no escape.

The storyline is every parent’s nightmare–the death of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) struggle furiously with the deepest of wounds after the death of their 4-year-old son, Danny. The once happily married couple finds themselves displaced. Their marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in a house still infused with death. Where Becca finds pain in the familiar, Howie finds comfort. Their souls are dissolving and dangerously off track.

Becca’s loving but unintentionally inept mother (Dianne Wiest) has also experienced the death of a son and unsuccessfully offers comfort and advice but Becca reflexively refuses. Weekly support group therapy only increases Becca’s inability to heal. Howie finds solace in Gaby, a fellow therapy attendee (played with compassion by Sandra Oh) while Becca stalks a teenager who has written and illustrated a comic book, entitled “Rabbit Hole”, about a parallel universe where Becca believes “somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

This cinematic character study redirects our sympathies at every turn. Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family. Anyone who has ever gone through the possessions of a deceased family member or close friend understands instantly the crispness in tone of voice, the touch of the clothing, and the memory of smell portrayed in several of this film’s most memorable scenes. Without flinching, the cast makes it clear that the wound beneath the surface never really stops hurting, but heals by degrees.

“Bridesmaids”–Maid of Dishonor, Never the Bride

This is a female version of “Hangover” but much, much better. “Bridesmaids”, the new movie produced by Judd Apatow of “40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” fame, has crisp, brilliant comic writing by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo together with superb comedic timing by Wiig, Maya Rudolph and a perfectly cast team of supporting actresses –a hilarious, knockout performance by Melissa McCarthy especially. McCarthy dominates every scene she’s in with her over-the-top sexual and verbal attacks. For women who enjoy a “girls night out” to roar with snort-laughs that make you cry, and for all men who also enjoy raunchy unexpected gross-out scenes from some of the most talented comediennes today, this movie is for you!

Wiig plays Annie, who has not had much luck –in her love life, her work, her roommates, with her mother or her friends…except for her best friend from childhood, Lillian (delectably played by the winning Maya Rudolph.) The story is a rather simple one rehashed many times before –“girl rivalry”. This time it is the “new girl in town”–Helen (played to perfection by Rose Byrne) who represents change for Annie in terms of who she is and how she identifies herself with relation to her best friend. Comedy and pathos touchingly intermingle as we cringe to see Annie, Lillian’s designated maid of honor, try to compete on unfamiliar turf with Helen: couturier dress selection, fine dining, one-upmanship in gifts, to name only a few of the most hilarious, but also fiercely moving, scenes. The sweet Irish charm of a smitten cop (an endearing role by Chris O’Dowd), only underscores how hurt and out of control Annie really is.

I thought “Bridesmaids” would be silly, maybe even stupid, but the script proved to be brilliant in the most unexpected moments. The screenwriters were astute in not playing only for laughs. The opening sex scene with Kristen Wiig and a wonderfully clueless cad (Jon Hamm) was enough to put this viewer securely on Wiig’s side of the story for the rest of the film, while simultaneously laughing so hard tears rolled down my cheeks so I consequently missed the next set of zingers. Will have to watch this movie a second time to get the full dialogue! The incredibly fast pace of slicing morsels of humor is extraordinary!

This movie is not for everyone. It has vulgar, physical comedy that doesn’t appeal to anyone who cannot channel their “inner teenage self”. However, if you want to see a comedy that heals wounds while making you laugh and watch Kristen Wiig give the performance of her lifetime, then make sure you see this movie. Her brilliant comic talent (and writing) needs to be in more challenging venues than her current long-time gig on “Saturday Night Live”. It’s time for her to move on…to more creative adventures following her debut in this comic gem!

“Midnight in Paris” – That Was Then, This is Now

Written and directed by Woody Allen, this romantic comedy is vintage Woody Allen. I love Woody Allen, but I don’t really, really, really love Woody Allen to the point that I think everything he does is brilliant and witty. He has had some real dogs. How many people have suffered through “Cassandra’s Dream”, for example, as I have? Nonetheless, there is a lot to like about “Midnight in Paris”.

The story opens with a young couple, Gil Pender (brilliantly played by Owen Wilson), and his fiancée Inez (believably played by Rachel McAdams in an unsympathetic role), traveling to Paris with her parents on a business trip. It is obvious from the outset that the couple is not suited for each other. Gil, a successful but dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, hopes to give up his Hollywood gig to write his first novel. Inez does not understand why.

At midnight Gil leaves his fiancée and her family to walk alone on a starry, rainy moonlit night saturated with golden hued tones the camera lovingly lingers onto the City of Light. Gil gets into a vintage 1920s roadster when some friendly partygoers beckon to him and is transported to the golden of cultural icons: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray to name only a few.

“Midnight in Paris” is, most of all, a comic walk down memory lane, for those viewers who can catch literary and artistic allusions to the period. A few examples: Hemingway speaks in sentence structures characteristic of his prose. Dali and Man Ray are called “not normal” surrealists. Gertrude Stein is the matriarch of a cultural elites’ salon with her lover Alice. Adriana, mistress of Picasso, played by the radiant Marion Cotillard, thrusts the pivotal lunge into the heart of this film when she asks Gil why he loves the 1920s. Gil utters the mantra embedded in all of Woody Allen’s movies–“Maybe the present is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”

Gil wakes up from his longing for a “golden age” through a series of overdone flashbacks. Like his mediocre movies over the past three decades, Woody Allen doesn’t seem to know when to stop the repetition. Unlike “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, which I loved, this movie is the old Woody Allen genre, overwrought and lecturing like some old academic who has lost his audience. But this film is much better than most in the last ten years or so, perhaps on a par with “Match Point”–that is to say, good but not great. Owen Wilson, who actually channels Woody Allen’s famously high-pitched whiny voice (if you close your eyes,) should star as Woody Allen’s alter ego in all his future work. Who knew Owen Wilson’s delightful voice in rom-coms is an echo of Allen’s?

What, for me, saves this film is that “Midnight in Paris” is a palpable love letter to Paris, not only cinematic clichés of the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine, and the Louvre, but shots filled with so much affection for narrow street cafes and even the bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. This nostalgic tour of Paris together with some of the literary scene of the 1920s is worth the price of the movie ticket!

“The Princess of Montpensier”–Where’s the There There?

Based on a 1662 novella, “The Princess of Montpensier” opens with a savage battle scene during the French civil war between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) in the year 1562. Marie de Mézières, a beautiful young princess (who looks like a combination of Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman), reluctantly submits to an arranged marriage to young Prince Philippe, Duc de Montpensier, as dictated by politics and the aristocratic exchange of women for more wealth and power.

Haunted by the handsome lover Henri (Duc de Grise) from her adolescence, the Princess of Montpensier struggles in a romantic drama of duty, passion, religion and war. Romantic love does not exist for her (or for any noblewoman of the period) and the Princess could never hope to marry her lover Henri. But marriage without love encourages love outside marriage. Nonetheless, the princess, at first, struggles to be happy with Prince Philippe.

On their wedding night the young couple have no privacy. In an unsettling scene Marie stands naked in front of her father who inspects her before her husband. Philippe soon leaves for the battlefield, assigning his former tutor and mentor, the Comte de Chabannes, the task of educating Marie in accordance with her new status as a visitor to court. Chabannes is no ordinary tutor. Considered by both Catholics and Huguenots to be a traitor, Chabannes is rescued by the young Prince Philippe and brought to court to tutor the princess. He has rejected war, disgusted with violence in the name of religion. “How can people of the same blood and faith kill each other in the name of Christ?’’ he mourns, recalling his killing of a pregnant woman.

Chabannes falls in love with the intellectually curious young princess as does the Duc d’Anjou, brother to the king and cousin to both the princess and Henri. The Duc d’Anjou is used to taking what he wants and plots a deception worthy of Shakespeare.

From a purely visual perspective, there is exquisite set designs, lighting and costumes which provides rich layers of authenticity of life in mid-16th century Europe. The setting is lush but distant with historical references most of us cannot access: the religious wars, Queen Mother Catherine (who is a Medici) or Catholic theology (references to Gregory Chrysostom, for example). This historical distance demands a story so tightly woven that it can compensate for gaps in knowledge of sixteenth century French history. “The Princess of Montpensier” is intended to be a classic commentary of manners, especially of aristocratic and masculine control over female relatives, draining their souls of love, liberty and hope. However, It’s a subject that other films and television programs have covered to greater effect. To name a few, “The Tudors”, “Rome” and “The Borgias” among historical dramatizations in television and “Elizabeth”, “Mrs. Brown”, and “The Crown Prince” in recent films.

I wanted to like this movie more: to be transfixed, pulled in by the characters, warming to the plight of the princess’s fate. But, the characters never completely develop. Just when this viewer expected the three primary male characters to follow their hearts…or their minds…they contradict their own best interests without explanation as to motive or psychology. I expected to be swept away by the conflict between duty and passion, what Pascal famously asserted less than a century after the novella was written: “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”. In “The Princess of Montpensier” the evocation of the princess’s heart and the morals of the two dukes, but most notably, Chabannes, are left disjointed and without a pattern consistent with their natures rendered earlier in the film. As the film moves onward, instead of getting better, as I hoped, it unravels, both in terms of character development and in enticing the viewer to understand the sorrows and complexities the story is attempting to unfold.

“Irina Palm”: How Desperate Can You Get?

When I saw the DVD of this movie with the opening menu, I was not quite sure what I was in for. Was this going to be soft porn or an indie film with an unexpected story to tell? As it turned out, “Irina Palm” is so idiosyncratic and original–but not for everyone–that I wasn’t sure if I should recommend it to friends next door who love movies as much as we do. But I did, and they really enjoyed it too!

I’m not quite sure how I found this obscure 2007 movie, but I think it was mentioned in an article I read about legendary rocker Marianne Faithfull (of “As Tears Go By” and Broken English fame) who stars as Maggie, a working-class fifty-or-sixty-something grandmother who is desperate to cover the cost of her critically-ill grandson’s experimental medical operation. Maggie asks for a bank loan but she has no assets to provide as collateral. When denied one loan and prospective job after another, a dejected Maggie resigns herself to exploring the underground sex trade of London and learns to provide “services”. Her no-nonsense boss Miki gives her the “professional” name, “Irina Palm,” the same name as his first girlfriend. Soon men are lining up for Irina, the number-one attraction, so much so that another proprietor offers her an even more generous offer to be his employee at another “salon”.

This movie protrays vividly, without sermonizing, what you will or must do to save the life of someone you truly love. The lack of empathy by those not in such a situation and who cannot imagine what desperation can demand is everywhere–in friends and close relatives. “Irina Palm” presents a range of reactions to Maggie’s work: from her son, his wife, the little boy who knows only that his grandma has a secret, and her close friends. Even a co-worker, who is desperate herself, cannot recognize the degree of desperation that Maggie has encased in every cell of her body.

Co-produced by production companies from five countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Germany and France), “Irina Palm” premiered, to great acclaim, at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival. In a controlled performance worthy of international recognition, Marianne Faithfull did receive a Best Actress nomination for her role by the European Film Awards commission.

“The Conspirator”–Is Anyone Listening?

“The Conspirator” opens with a gripping Civil War battle scene and treats us to incredibly imaginative camera angles, shot in sepia tones to time-travel cinematically to the late 1860’s.

This is a story that sits underneath a story we all know– the history-book narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater. What few of us know is the untold story– of Mary Surratt, (played by Robin Wright), a Southern middle-aged widow who ran the boarding house where Booth and five other conspirators plotted to either kidnap (an important distinction in the movie) or murder not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the vice president (Andrew Johnson), the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of War. Their seditious act was intended to overthrow the government and reinstate the southern states’ hegemony.

Frederick Aiken (superbly played by James McAvoy), is a Union soldier recently recovered from near-fatal wounds at the battle of Appomattox. He is given the insurmountable task of defending Mary Surratt, a civilian, in a trial before a military tribunal, instead of in a civil trial before her peers. Aiken’s revulsion at defending Surratt is palpable. His friends and fiancée’s revulsion is even stronger.

As her defense attorney, Aiken gradually realizes that a military court is trampling Surratt’s rights in order to draw out her son, John, who has fled the state. The viewer does not know whether Surratt is guilty or not, but the evidence is spuriously argued in what is undoubtedly a kangaroo court, and she is unjustly dealt with.

Mary Surratt became the first white female executed under Federal jurisdiction and was photographed in a white hood hanging from a noose alongside her three co-conspirators. This is a tour-de-force courtroom drama with lessons about the U.S. constitution in a time of national fear and war, lessons yet to be learned today. “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners, states matter-of-factly. This film is about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

I was surprised to find so many critics sitting on the fence on this one. The New York Times called it a “well-meaning, misbegotten movie”. Other critics considered the director, Robert Redford’s treatment of Surratt’s trial heavy handed, undoubtedly due to the parallels the viewer draws between the fear and vengeance of the post-Civil War days and the Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib events of our current political situation. The iconic canvas bags worn over the heads of the conspirators in the film cannot but remind the viewer of the grim photos of Abu Ghraib. The porous border between travesties of justice from the past and those of the present seems to have irked some of the critics.

Robert Redford, as director, has focused on the tragic deceptions people commit in order to save themselves. He has chosen his cast wisely. Robin Wright is the vulnerable pallid-faced prisoner, stoic and fiercely loyal to her son and daughter. The actress is virtually unrecognizable, practically silent throughout, but riveting in conveying subtle expressions weighed down by the burden of grief and bewilderment. At the heart of “The Conspirator,” is the interface between fear and injustice, the crushing of human rights. Who really is the conspirator and who is listening?

“Bliss”–A Downward Spiral

A Turkish movie made in 2007,  “Bliss” is anything but.  From the opening scene of the hillside in spectacular cinematography recalling “Woman in the Dunes”, “Bliss”  is a beautifully acted cinematic gem that pits village customs against modern urbanization, religion against secularism, the disenfranchised against a justice system that blames and punishes the victim of the crime, not the criminal.  I found “Bliss” spellbinding.

The story is about three characters.  Meryem, a seventeen-year-old shepherdess, is brutally raped and then ostracized by her community and its leaders.  She is expected to commit suicide or face an “honor killing”.  The male cousin (Cemal), son of the village leader (Meryem’s uncle) is assigned the task of murdering her. A professor they meet (Irfan) gives both Cemal and Meryem shelter.

Meryem’s father and grandmother are inconsolable and powerless in the face of village customs but resigned to accept the tradition of “honor killing”.  Cemal is unaware of the nascent love he is developing for her. Against his own best interests and fundamentalist values, Cemal decides to abandon tradition and go on the run with Meryem, first to the city to see his brother and a friend, then to a distant fishing village. Serendipitously, Cemal and Meryem meet up with Irfan, a generous, exuberant university professor who is embarking on a sailing trip, and needs a crew. Together this unlikely trio sets forth on a journey that will change their lives. In the final half of the film  Meryem, the shy girl who has been almost invisible throughout her life, controlled by others and without a voice of her own,  quietly emerges as a courageous young woman igniting no less than a revolution through her determination to discover happiness, no matter how seemingly inconsequential it may seem to others.