THE SONG OF NAMES (2019)

January 9, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The title refers to a sacred Jewish ritual where the names of the Holocaust victims are recited in a musical style. It’s a process that (sadly) covers a few days. In this film, it takes on a personal, as well as historical, significance. British cultural affairs expert Norman Lebrecht wrote the 2001 novel on which writer-director Francois Girard (THE RED VIOLIN, 1998, plus plays, operas and 2 Cirque de Soleil shows) and co-writer Jeffrey Caine based the film.

We open in 1951 London just minutes before the scheduled performance of young violin virtuoso Dovidl “David” Rapoport. He is to play Bruch and Bach in a concert sponsored by his “adoptive” father figure Gilbert Simmonds, who has sunk his entire life savings into producing the concert. Despite the assurances of Simmonds’ son Martin, who has become like a brother to David, the featured performer is a no-show … leading Martin to search for him over the next 35 years.

The film covers the story from the time Dovidl’s Polish-Jewish father (played by Jakub Kotynski) agrees to his leave 9 year old, a violin prodigy, with the non-Jewish Simmonds in an attempt to protect the boy from the German invasion of Poland in the late 1930’s. As Dovidl and Martin grow together, their bond become stronger. Martin is present when Dovidl renounces Judaism, even as becomes more proficient with his instrument and more saddened by the Holocaust that he avoided in his home country.

Both boys are played at three different ages by three different actors. Dovidl is played by Luke Doyle at ages 9-13, Jonah Hauer-King at ages 17-23, and by Clive Owen in middle age. Martin is played by Misha Handley at ages 9-13, Gerran Howell at ages 17-23, and by Tim Roth in later life. The actors do a good job of capturing Martin’s early irritation at Dovidl’s arrogance, the shock of the no-show betrayal, and the later in life man who changed everything when he found out about his family, as well as the music teacher so desperate to find his long lost friend/brother.

The film bounces between the three timelines so that we have a full picture of the impact they have had on each other’s lives, and how Dovidl’s disappearing act was quite devastating. Much of the film centers on Martin tracking down leads and talking to folks for some idea of the path taken by Dovidl. Mr. Roth is especially effective (and surprisingly understated) in his performance as a man haunted by the unexplained actions of a loved one. His wife, played by Catherine McCormack, is simultaneously understanding, patient, and emotionally affected.

Stanley Townsend plays Martin’s father. He cares for Dovidl as if her were a son, and provides what’s necessary for the prodigy to develop and be groomed for performance. Three-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a score that follows the good times and bad, not an easy task for a family drama within the shadow of the Holocaust. One specific sequence stands out, and it is filmed on the hallowed grounds of Treblinka – now a memorial, where the extermination camp once stood.

There are many facets to the story, and most involve heavy emotions. We see children bearing more than they should. Parents protecting their children in times of crisis. The difference between religion and ethnicity is discussed. Broken trust proves especially damaging. Dovidl’s disappearing act could be compared to that of JD Salinger, in that he seemingly vanished for years. And maybe most of all, the idea of survivor’s guilt is a theme, as Dovidl explains, “You don’t have to be guilty to feel guilty.” The film may have some pacing issues, but it affords such a wealth of conversation topics, that any flaws are easily forgiven.

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

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OCTOBER GALE (2014)

March 2, 2015

october gale Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Ruba Nadda likes to explore human nature and unexpected romantic attraction. She did this in Cairo Time (2009) and does so again here in this excruciatingly slow-moving “thriller” with an interesting beginning, muddled middle, and a final act that reminds of wet fireworks … a dud. On the bright side, actress-extraordinaire Patricia Clarkson never allows us to lose interest.

I’ve often written of my enjoyment of slow-burns and slow-builds for thrillers, and the best manage to generate a sense of caring from the viewers as they move towards the climax. Unfortunately, this one offers little more than an intriguing premise that places one ridiculous development on top of the next.

Patricia Clarkson plays a doctor whose beloved husband has recently passed away and she heads to their lake cottage for some peace and quiet. Not long after, an injured Scott Speedman shows up in her living room. Being a doctor, she performs bullet-removal surgery with needle-nosed pliers, and then of course, finds herself attracted to the young gunshot victim who is being hunted by the father of a guy Speedman killed.

We know the showdown is coming, but it seems to take forever to arrive, and then is pretty anti-climactic despite the presence of Tim Roth as the revenge-seeking father. The romantic attraction is pretty far-fetched and plays like a Nicolas Sparks story, or even a 1990’s Tom Berenger or Ashley Judd thriller.

The focus on death could have gone much deeper, psychologically speaking, and there is a brief scene where Roth tells Speedman “You always think there’s going to be more time” that leads us to believe things are going to get really interesting. Instead more attention is given to the unlikely romance and the kinda hokey manhunt. Fortunately, the cinematography around beautiful Georgian Bay helps offset the story and the manipulative score, and of course watching Patricia Clarkson and Tim Roth work is always somewhat satisfying.

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SELMA (2014)

January 7, 2015

 

selma Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramatizations can be a tricky business, as delivering both truth and entertainment value is quite challenging. There is always an expert quick to point out any artistic license taken at the expense of historical accuracy. Of course, most movie lovers have come to accept that even the best-intentioned Hollywood looks at history will be at least as focused on selling tickets as educating the public. Because of this, the swirling controversies for this film are neither surprising nor overly distracting from its message.

March 7, 1965 is known as Bloody Sunday and marks one of the most despicable moments in U.S. history. It was also a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and can be viewed as shrewd strategy from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The movie makes it clear that MLK had a full understanding that Selma, Alabama and it’s racist, redneck Sheriff Jim Clark provided the perfect opportunity for a violent reaction to King’s demonstrations and protests. It also makes it very clear that there was boundless ignorance, hatred and racism on the part of many southern whites.  If the subject matter is somehow not enough to grab your attention, the startling event that occurs 5 minutes in will surely leave you shaken.

The film does an outstanding job of focusing on two pieces of this most complex puzzle: 1. the boots on the ground – the grass roots movement of the people, and 2. the ongoing political debates occurring between MLK and LBJ, between LBJ and his staff, and between MLK and his lieutenants.

The Civil Rights Act had already been passed, so the efforts were in hopes of overcoming the obstacles faced by southern blacks who wished to vote. One of the film’s best scenes has activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) trying yet again to have her voter registration processed, but being rebuffed by a county clerk through an impossible Q&A session. These intimate moments are where the film excels: Coretta questioning MLK on his love for her, MLK speaking with grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson outside the morgue, and MLK turning down the proposal of US Attorney John Doar (Alessandro Nivola).

In an odd twist of casting, four of the leading characters are played by Brits: David Oyelowo as MLK, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. All four are excellent, but it’s Mr. Roth as the racist-beyond-belief Alabama Governor Wallace that is the most slitheringly evil, while Mr. Oyelowo gives what can only be described as a towering performance of the man many of us know only from history books and news reels (and a January holiday).

The supporting cast is vast and talented, and because the story spends so much time on the individuals, many of these spend little time on screen. In addition to Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Reverend Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), and Lee C White (Giovanni Ribisi), we also see activist Diana Nash (Tessa Thompson), CT Vivian (Corey Reynolds), John Lewis (Stephen James), and Judge Johnson (Martin Sheen). The most bizarre moment has Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in a quasi-Mr Rogers depiction as he discussed his new found approach with Coretta.

The original King speeches are owned by another studio so those delivered here by Oyelowo have been re-written and revised, yet the words and Oyelowo’s powerful oratory deliver the message loud and clear. While it can be argued that the film delivers only one point of view (the FBI was no friend to the movement), it can just as easily be argued that previous films have done the same thing – only from the “other” perspective (Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi).

In what can be viewed as the first serious movie on Martin Luther King, director Ava DuVernay announces her presence with authority. She will have no need to return to her career as a movie publicist, and we will be watching to see what type of projects appeal to her after this. In a brilliant move, the story focuses on a period of just a few months in 1965, rather than tackling the MLK legacy. She presents him as a man with strengths, flaws, doubts, and determination. It’s clear why so many followed him, and it’s all the more painful to know that so many resisted.

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ARBITRAGE (2012)

September 16, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t tread in the world of corporate greed, deceit and fraud that defines the now four years ago financial crisis. Twenty five years ago Gordon Gekko in Wall Street put a face to corporate greed. Writer/Director Nicholas Jarecki now gives us Robert Miller, as portrayed by Richard Gere, for the face of Wall Street fraud … the step beyond greed that Bernie Madoff made famous. Toss in a Chappaquiddick-type tragedy and it’s abundantly clear that Robert Miller is no modern day icon to be worshipped.  He does share with Gekko an overinflated ego and sense of importance.

No matter how much we would prefer it to be otherwise, there is something to the charisma and emotional power of the few who seize control as politicians, CEO’s and cult leaders … all subjects of recent films. During this film, we never once doubt that Gere’s Miller is a scam artist with power. A slick huckster if you will.  He is not a good guy, despite his warm smile as he says all the right things to his family and close circle of advisors. We are sickened that he is able to fool so many, and at the same time hopeful that we can avoid becoming another of his victims. Yet, the reason this story is so familiar is that it rings so true.

Watching Miller’s house of cards slowly crumble is both fascinating and nerve-racking. We aren’t rooting for him, but we still get caught up in his web of subtle deceit. His demented sense of “responsibilities” guide him down the path of betrayal … a path that stomps on his all-knowing wife, his ultra-trusting daughter, his sensitive mistress, and a young guy just trying to get his life in order.  And this doesn’t even count the faceless list of investors clueless to the white collar criminal wreaking havoc on their personal finances.

The strong supporting cast is led by Susan Sarandon as the wife, Brit Marling (Another Earth) as the daughter, and Tim Roth as the crusty NY Detective trying to catch the big fish. However, this is Gere’s film and he delivers his best in years. Gere has made a habit of playing guys that always seem to have something brewing beneath the surface.  Here, he actually gets to explode in full arrogant glory.  It’s also great to see Stuart Margolin, who was so entertaining as Angel in “The Rockford Files” back in the 70’s. Another interesting casting choice has long time “Vanity Fair” editor Graydon Carter as the head of the financial institution looking to purchase Miller’s company.

Again, the individual pieces of the story are all quite familiar, but filmmaker Jarecki does a nice job of assembling the pieces in a manner that keep us engaged. It also works as an example of how the rules are different for the rich, and show how the worst of them even think they can, and should, get away with murder!

** NOTE: Richard Gere took over the lead after Al Pacino dropped out.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Richard Gere as the face of Wall Street greed OR you always enjoy a slick corporate thriller that offers up a villain to throw popcorn at (if movie popcorn wasn’t so expensive)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid any more thought concerning the financial crisis and those who stuck it to us (and still are)

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