“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 The setting is lush but distant with historical references most of us cannot access: the religious wars, Queen Mother Catherine (who is a Medici) or Catholic theology (references to Gregory Chrysostom, for example).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.

“Lincoln Lawyer”–More Than an Ambulance Chase

We saw the movie “Lincoln Lawyer” a couple of days ago, and it was a highly engaging–not brilliant–courtroom thriller of a movie in the “Grisham” style. Think the best of the courtroom dramas of the recent past: “Fracture” meets “Presumed Innocent”, for example. This film noir, based on a book written by Michael Connelly, is pure entertainment–with a few twists to keep it original and not the same old courtroom drama we’ve seen done well and also done poorly. Michael “Mick” Haller (Matthew McConaughey in one of his very best performances since “North Star” and “A Time to Kill”) is a slick, charismatic Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car sedan–hence, the name “Lincoln Lawyer”.

Having spent most of his career defending down-and-out street criminals, Mick unexpectedly is recommended for the lucrative assignment of representing Louis Roulet (played chillingly by Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled Beverly Hills playboy who is accused of attempted murder. Roulet has been accused of brutally beating a young prostitute he met in a bar. Mick senses there is something incredible about this windfall. If Roulet has unlimited funds and really is innocent, why is he hiring a guy like him, who works out of the back seat of a car? The lawyer has spent all his professional life afraid that he wouldn’t recognize innocence if it stood right in front of him, a caveat from his father. He wonders if he could be staring into the face of evil, not innocence, and is terrified that he doesn’t know the difference.

Fueled by McConaughey’s and Philippe’s bravura, career-reshaping performances, the supporting cast sustains the audience’s attention: Marisa Tomei as Mick’s ex-wife and fellow attorney, Frances Fisher as Roulet’s intimidating mother, and especially William H. Macy, as Mick’s friend and loyal but offbeat private investigator.

McConaughey has brilliantly played the hard-edged law officer before, either as a sheriff or a lawyer with Southern overtones. Returning to that type of role in “Lincoln Lawyer” may indicate that he is heading for a highly acclaimed “Paul Newman”-type of second act (as exemplified by Newman’s Academy Award-nominated performance as a marginal lawyer in “The Verdict”). He effortlessly maneuvers between charm and sleaze as Mick Haller, yet retains some basic human scruples, which will allow him to save his soul. This movie is a delicious two hours’ entertainment, not just another potboiler of ambulance chasers–you won’t be disappointed!

“Swimming with Sharks”–Taking a Dive from the Corporate Ladder

Our son graduated from college about a year ago and has had several internships in the entertainment industry, mainly reality TV and independent movies, while he searches for his next career step. One of his former supervisors recommended “Swimming with Sharks”, for an insider’s view of what working as a low-level assistant for a studio exec is really like. This colleague also stated that the movie did not exaggerate!

While billed as a comedy, this film is anything but funny. Guy (played by Frank Whaley, a vastly underrated TV supporting actor) is a recent college graduate who lands a job as personal assistant–more accurately, “go-fer”–to Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), an abusive, egomaniacal movie studio exec who withers Guy’s enthusiasm, professional integrity, and most importantly, his self-esteem. Battered by a relentless siege of humiliating and vitriolic attacks, Guy only half-heartedly stands up to Buddy because of his eagerness to climb the ladder of success. This movie is an engrossing but cynical portrait of what soul-selling is required for some individuals to attain their coveted company promotion.

When I first watched “Swimming with Sharks”, the tyranny of Buddy Ackerman was so vile and so over-the-top, that I sympathized entirely with Guy, the poor nebbish trying to please his boss with every cell in his body. Perhaps the most memorable lines are the words of “advice” Buddy gives his young assistant: “I was young too, I felt just like you. Hated authority, hated all my bosses, thought they were full of shit. Look, it’s like they say, if you’re not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart, but if you haven’t turned establishment by 30, you’ve got no brains. Because there are no storybook romances, no fairy-tale endings. So before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, ‘What do you really want?'”

“Departures”–“Between Life and Death”

For a guest lecture I am preparing for a  course, “Philosophy through the Movies”, I decided to select the Academy Award® Winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009,  “Departures”,  (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”), a  look into the in-between of life and death.  What the Tibetan Buddhists would call “bardo”.

Loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician (納棺夫日記 Nōkanfu Nikki), the movie opens with the main character,  Daigo Kobayashi, preparing a young woman’s body for “sending off” or being dispatched to the next world. After the unexpected happens while tenderly and respectfully cleansing and dressing  the corpse, there is a flashback to Daigo as a cellist in a symphony orchestra in Tokyo.  The orchestra has to disband, for lack of funding, and Daigo finds himself suddenly unemployed.  With his good-natured wife Mika, he moves back to his deceased mother’s house in his hometown in the hinterlands of Yamagata.  (Daigo’s mother had been abandoned by her husband when her son was only four years old and had operated a teahouse or coffee shop in her home to support the two of them.)

Spotting a job listing featuring the word “tabi” (or “trip”) from NK Trading, Daigo applies for the position, thinking he is going to start a new career in the travel industry.  Instead, he is stunned to learn that he will be the Buddhist equivalent of a mortician as well as an embalmer who washes, dresses, and applies makeup to the corpse in front of the bereaved.

Buddhism is  the religion most closely associated with death in Japan. But death is also a taboo or “unclean” subject as it is in the majority of cultures.  This universal fear of death and coming to terms with the death of a loved one are made even more fascinating by the ritualistic preparation of the body in front of the grieving family and friends. Understandably, given the nature of the job, Daigo keeps his new profession secret.  His wife and friends think he is a travel agent.

The theme of karma, the sacred nature of all sentient life, and ritual purification are subtly interwoven.   Death, in all its ambiguity, both a sacred and a profane “departure”, is viewed through Daigo’s eyes as he slowly awakens to the necessity and normalcy of his profession.  “Death is normal”, the movie states, and “Everyone dies”, while the scenes of eating in the office reiterate that “The living eat the dead.”

The themes embedded in every scene of “Departures”–forgiveness, compassion, letting go, and sending off–are about the healing of unhealed wounds.  In the case of Daigo, it is a reconciliation through the stone-letter with his absent father; for his wife, it is the misunderstanding of what death means for the living; and for the NK Trading employer it is the full circle of succession and passing on his experience to the next generation.

“Departures” is a beautifully crafted film, which opened this viewer’s eyes to the essential services that funeral directors, morticians, autopsy doctors and all who handle the dead provide for all of us.  This movie not only demystifies the process of closure, which ritual provides, but also the skillful grace, compassion, and respect for “sending off” the deceased, in order for the living to move on. This cinematic gem is, above all, a profoundly empathetic portrayal of people trying to make peace with the finality of death.

“Restrepo” – Dangerously Close to the Action

Movie Review for Restrepo, Diana PaulThis haunting documentary, winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, chronicles very young soldiers (some younger than twenty years old) during their fourteen-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley. A visceral view of modern battle, you cannot watch this riveting, real-life “Hurt Locker” without having your heart pulsate, tears catch, and compassion lodge in your throat for these boys and for the Afghan villagers they do not understand.

Sebastian Junger (author of A Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington (cinematographer) focus on a remote outpost named in memory of a platoon medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed in action shortly after arrival in the valley. Considered one of the most dangerous assignments in the US military, the Korengal valley is a hellhole. At the end, Outpost Restrepo is shut down, after many soldiers have been killed in Korengal.

This movie is about the eloquence and courage embedded in the human face: the glowing eyes of red-bearded Afghan elders who are trying to understand—through the words of interpreters—why the US soldiers are there. Their light-colored eyes glisten so much, they seem to glow in the dark. It is an indelible and unforgettable capture of eyes like no others the American viewer has ever seen.

And the tender-skinned faces of soldiers so vulnerable and so bewildered by combat, boredom, and fear, this viewer felt the exposure was almost too much to watch. These young men—teenagers really– heartbreakingly reveal themselves in their down time—wrestling each other, displaying muscular, tattooed bodies, dancing and listening to music with the easy, comfortable physical contact of a fraternity while peril lurks down the hill. What are these guys doing there?

The cameramen (embedded journalists Junger and Hetherington), relentlessly film close-ups of soldiers and the Afghan community –in dangerous cave dwellings so narrow I wondered how the cinematography took place so smoothly and professionally. Sometimes the camera lens is no more than six inches from the jaw line of a soldier, revealing each gulp and emotion trapped in his throat.

The story of Restrepo is told completely without commentary: through photography and the soldiers’ own voices. Interspersed throughout the combat footage is a series of interviews after the tour of duty ends. Each young veteran gives his own take on what has happened–how he has to move on. One talks about how he can’t sleep, even after sleeping pills, and isn’t sure if it’s better not to sleep than to sleep with the nightmares he inevitably experiences. Another soldier, “Pemble”, perhaps the youngest, with the spare, lyrical force of a tragic hero, comments that he cannot forget what has happened to him, however much he would like to, because he doesn’t want to forget what the other men have meant to him. In defining each soldier’s life after battle, through the subtlest changes in each youth’s liquid eyes, twinges, and catches in their voices, “Restrepo” witnesses war in the 21st century through faces not words, allowing each of us to see what we want to see of how war wounds us all.

“The King’s Speech”—A Personal Idiom for All of Us

This is the third of my movie reviews so far.  The first movie review, “127 Hours”, and the  second, “Black Swan”, are two portraits of protagonists who have a daunting obstacle to overcome.  In “127 Hours” the main character has to wound himself in the most barbarous of ways to survive.  In “Black Swan”, the ballerina has to face her demons in order to truly be an artist.  And in “The King’s Speech”, King George VI has to overcome a debilitating stutter of humiliating proportions with a determination, dignity, and courage that can only be called heroic. After the Golden Globes awards I was delighted to read that the producers of “127 Hours” and “The King’s Speech” (a Golden Globe winner for best actor Colin Firth) were surprised critics were comparing their movies not only to each other but also to “Black Swan”.  To me the theme is evident: these characters all have unhealed wounds.  In two of the three their wounds are triumphantly healed and they move forward with their lives.

In “The King’s Speech,  “Bertie” (Colin Firth) who has suffered from severe stuttering since childhood, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England.  Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his gentle and compassionate wife, encourages Bertie to see an eccentric Australian expat, the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a reluctant beginning in which the class difference between the king and the therapist seems insurmountable, the two eventually form an endearing and unbreakable friendship. With the imaginative and therapeutic support of Logue, the King courageously overcomes his stutter and delivers the pivotal radio-address in 1939 announcing that Great Britain must wage war against Germany.  Colin Firth, in a truly inspired portrayal of a tortured man, renders this scene heartbreaking.  Finding his voice allows his sense of self to rise from the abyss of silence.

This superb movie is both humorous and emotionally charged.  The viewer slowly comes to the realization that, while we all have to find our voice, for some of us even the vocalization of sound is an act of courage. David Seidler, the movie’s 73-year-old screenwriter, was a childhood stutterer. Colin Firth has said that his inspiration came not only from Seidler but also from his own speech disorder that he had to overcome in order to develop his identity as a young actor.  And while the roots of stuttering are still somewhat mysterious — there’s no single accepted theory of its origins.  Adult stutterers often undergo years of sometimes discouraging therapies before they can feel comfortable with the sound of their own voice. The confluence of voice and self-identity can only be called iconic for those in the performing arts.   This movie embodies the story of a wound that was healed bravely, elegantly, and gracefully.

“Black Swan”—Dancing in the In-Between

This spellbinding movie, routinely described as a psychological thriller,  is not to everyone’s taste but I absolutely loved it:  dancing around the thin membrane between a fantasy/dream world and reality. Starring Natalie Portman as Nina, the beautiful but fragile ballerina who wishes to be the prima ballerina of Swan Lake, the movie opens with a dream sequence from this famous ballet.  Evil Rothbart envelops the White Swan in his arms, but Nina wakes up in her room, a child’s bedroom of stuffed animals with a  classic music jewelry box of a spinning mechanical ballerina twirling around.

In some ways this is not only a story about a ballerina who is striving for perfection in a severe and ruthless competition among other talented ballet dancers.  It is also a story that combines not only Hans Christian Anderson’s “Red Shoes” about a girl who cannot find balance in her life because of her obsession to dance,  but also “Glass Menagerie” which portrays the suffocating, self-destructive mother who lives through her daughter, wounding both.

Without giving away the ending, “Black Swan” is about vulnerability and strength, the virginal and the sexual, dual sides of personality and ego.  Nina’s alter ego is Lily (played very cleverly by Mila Kunis), as beautiful as she is but more daring and more sensuous.    Her back is tattooed with black wings, not exactly subtle, but visually artistic. Both young women are simultaneously attracted to and threatened by each other.  Cinematography emphasizes this point with flashes of Portman’s face substituting for Kunis’s in several pivotal scenes.

There are a few cinematic touches that are over the top and could have used more explanation.  A wall of paintings, for example, in Nina’s mother’s room are surreal, becoming animated—mouths and eyes moving.  The viewer is not sure if these paintings are of Nina or her mother, whose own lackluster ballet career she angrily ended when she became pregnant. The mother, portrayed with terrifying subtlety by Barbara Hershey, dominates and infantilizes Nina as much as the mother in   “Glass Menagerie”.  Her own wounds are deepened in her daughter, both psychologically and physically.

“Black Swan’s” tale of hallucination, obsession and sexual repression is utterly overpowering from the very first dream sequence in the film. For me, at any rate, “Black Swan” was a metamorphosis encompassing a downward trajectory of frightening innocence and loss of self.

“127 Hours”: The Instinct to Survive and the Will to Live

My husband and I just saw the movie that brings to the screen the harrowing tale of 23 year old mountain climber Aron Ralston, who literally cuts himself loose from a boulder in a slot canyon in Blue John, a remote area of the Moab desert in Utah, the state with the most slot canyons in the world. (A slot canyon is a narrow and extremely steep canyon, formed by rushing water carving through rock.) To stay alive, Ralston resorts to his keenest survival instincts honed from rescue training in outdoor’s extreme conditions.

Based on Ralston’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, “127 Hours” was written and directed by Danny Boyle, whose tour-de-force last year, “Slum Dog Millionaire”, won Best Movie of 2010. Again, Boyle has hit this one out of the ballpark. You might wonder how a film about one character (Aron Ralston) trapped in a treacherous slot canyon can hold the viewer’s interest for the five days Aron endures the imminent death he is almost certainly facing. But this movie in no way bogs down for a second. With astonishing photography that splits the screen into a triptych of extraordinary canyon scenery as well as close-up facial expressions, Boyle’s decision to film crucial points of the story in split-screen, enhances the tension in Aron’s situation.  The cinematography is brilliant, superbly effective, a masterpiece like no other movie I have seen to date.  The masterful rendering of scene is painterly and stunning.

The story is necessarily about how time is passing very slowly on the one hand, as Aron is determined not to die, with the realization that after five days, his almost incredulous will to live will triumph.  The passage of time is both painfully slow and inexorably rapid, like the sand in an hourglass, depending upon whose time is up.

About 80 percent of the film is of Aron trapped in a slot canyon so narrow that he has to concoct a sling in order to sleep in a vertical position. This challenges the cinematographer to do the best with a very limited set design, but it’s nonetheless riveting.  Camera angles are ingenious.  One example, to film Aron drinking his last drop of water, the camera zooms in on the bottom of his thermos to shoot his dehydrated mouth.  To do that, the scene requires that the bottom of the thermos is cut out so that filming can bring the viewer into Aron’s face.

By now anyone who follows movie reviews knows what is going to happen, before stepping into the  theater.  Let’s just say that this movie is not for the faint-hearted. Yet, that “arm” scene is still unbelievably intense. I am known to be squeamish and was very happy that I did not have a full stomach. The music pulsates to the beat of the “arm”. James Franco, the actor who plays Aron Ralston, has to hold the viewer’s attention by sheer force of his thespian skill, just as Aron had to survive by the sheer force of his will to live. Ralston’s survivor instincts and almost animal determination to live in the face of death are extraordinary, like that of a trapped animal.

But this film is more than a build-up of pressure and suspense, which do indeed drive the film. Through both the director and actor’s restraint, the film is about the arrogance of a young mountain climber who has not been a sensitive human being to others in his life. Canyoneering, a sport in which rock-climbing skills, ropes and gear are used to slide into narrow slot canyons, epitomizes Aron’s overconfidence and sense of immortality.  Now, he’s isolated and considers how this entrapment may be retribution for a selfish and unreflective life. James Franco, in an almost impeccable performance, elicits sympathy from the audience and also relief that he has not only survived but has triumphed from his ordeal.

“FAIR GAME”—Go see it!!

I just saw perhaps my favorite movie so far this year, the political thriller “FAIR GAME”, based on memoirs by Valerie Plame (My Life as a Spy) and her husband, Joe Wilson (The Politics of Truth). I was glued to my television set when the events were actually happening in 2004 because of the nakedness and brutality of leaking a spy’s identity. This wasn’t a John Le Carre fictional thriller. The subject matter in this reenactment of events is inherently more dramatic and spellbinding!  Go—no run—to see it!

FAIR GAME focuses on what unfairly happened to this couple, rather than preaching about the Bush Administration of 2003-2004. Plame‘s cover as a spy was blown in 2003 by the White House. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” former UN ambassador Joe Wilson (beautifully nuanced by Sean Penn) writes that the Bush administration distorted information about nuclear weapons to justify war against Iraq. In retaliation for that bold offense, the identity of his wife, Valerie Plame (superbly played by Naomi Watts) is leaked to the press. Karl Rove reportedly told Chris Mathews that Valerie Plame was “fair game.”  Hence, the title.

A suspense-filled, sometimes terrifying glimpse into the bowels of political power, FAIR GAME is riveting. Both Plame and Wilson are relatively apolitical. Valerie especially is portrayed as an unwilling, seemingly bewildered, but loyal civil servant who finds herself betrayed by her beloved CIA. Her career is destroyed, her marriage strained to its limits, and her life and those she loves are threatened when her identity is exposed. Yet still she is not as outraged as her husband becomes.  We see a few chilling clips of actual footage of Bush and Cheney giving speeches which underscore the deception they are about to play.

The acting by Watts and Penn is so sharp that, when Valerie Plame was interviewed, she said that her friends told her Naomi Watts nailed her personality and character. I guarantee Naomi Watts will be up for an Academy Award! And Director Doug Liman (“Bourne Identity”, “Mrs. And Mrs. Smith”) directs fast-paced and furious, always reminding us of the power in government, illegal abuse of that power, misinformation, manipulation, and character assassination. Watching this movie is unbalancing and disturbing: the personal drama overshadowed by the arrogance and brutality of absolute power.