“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.

“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.