Tap tap tap goes the typewriter. The tapping is coming faster and hitting harder. The pace is set and the race has officially started. Joe Wright’s “Atonement” bursts out of the gate from the moment it starts, as a pan away from a modeled replica of the Tallis manor reveals a parade of toy animals and ends aptly on the purported queen of this particular animal kingdom, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). Briony is only thirteen years old but she is just about to finish her very first play. This precocious child is captivating. She is at once frightening while just as frightened. Her focus is eerily burning and her need for command of the situation and those involved motivate her every decision. On this particularly sweltering day, Briony believes her play to be her greatest accomplishment yet and sees her future more brightly boundless than even before. She has no idea that everything is about to crumble beneath her. Chance allows her to witness a few things she was not meant to and before long she makes a desperate play to regain control of her destiny. Who knew that one little girl could cause so much trouble for so many people and invite turmoil into her family for the rest of her days by telling one misguided lie?
When Briony falsely accuses Robbie (James McAvoy), her sister, Cecilia’s (Keira Knightley) lover, of a horrible crime, he is arrested and sent to prison. It isn’t clear whether Briony was aware of how serious her accusations were or how far Robbie would be taken from Cecilia and his future as a result but it is clear that she interrupted a love of immense proportion. “Atonement”’s first act goes back and forth between Briony’s breakdown and the escalating sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia. Cecilia is not your typical period drama maiden. She is provocative and sharp-tongued. For all her fierce self-awareness though, she has made a point to repress her longing for Robbie out of respect for status. Robbie too has been hiding how he feels to appease the rules that apply to status and boundaries, not so much out of respect though but rather for blind tradition. Society’s restraints cannot hold back a love of this magnitude. The passion bustling between them is palpable and exacerbated by the heat; it is no wonder that it all comes to a head on this fated day and is halted no sooner than it is just begun. As they are only given the chance to wet their lips with each other’s taste before being ripped apart, theirs is a relationship that will live in a suspended state of foreplay for a long time to come.
When Robbie is taken prisoner, “Atonement” shifts into a new and noticeably different movement. The intensity carefully crafted in the first act dissipates as the characters enter their own individual limbos, left to meander aimlessly in search of repair. The build toward Briony’s lie was punctuated by a sharp, concise score by Dario Marianelli and highlighted by Seamus McGarvey’s bright and elegantly fluid cinematography. Both artists employ entirely new approaches toward the action that unfolds in the lie’s aftermath. The score becomes dark, somber – less driven and more haunting. The visuals follow suit, feeling heavy and dense. The change halts the flow of the film and feels like a misstep momentarily. Once you catch the breath you were holding previously, the severity of the scenario sinks in and the fresh aesthetic takes on its own significance. It cannot help but feel longer or slower in comparison but how else are we or the characters expected to feel when they are living their new lives lost and haunted by a past they could not control? Beside being relevant to the tone of the story, the shift also gives birth to a four and a half minute shot depicting the 1940 evacuation at Dunkirk Beach that is mesmerizing in its grace and awesome in scope.
“Atonement” is a fresh and surprising spectacle. Wright impressed with charm and poise last time out in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” (also starring Knightley) but his latest grabs the period drama by its snotty superiority and turns it inside out, thanks in no small part to Ian McEwan’s much loved novel of the same name. The gravity of how one bad decision can ruin many lives resonates loudly and the guilt that follows gives way to the need for forgiveness from those who were hurt and from the one that caused the pain. “Atonement” does not judge Briony for what she’s done; instead it allows her the chance to heal and make things right without ever presuming that her recovery is inevitable. For breaking convention and for demonstrating sincere respect for the story, the characters and the audience, Wright has absolutely nothing to be sorry for.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
What does it say about your wedding when your estranged sister’s attendance is a bigger event than the wedding itself? I mean, it’s right there in the title of Noah Baumbach’s dysfunctional family disaster movie. It isn’t called “The Wedding” or “Malcolm and Pauline Get Married”. No, it’s called “Margot at the Wedding”. If your sister at your wedding causes that big a stir, perhaps the invitation would have been better lost in the mail. Still, despite her better judgment and in the interest of progress and healing, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does invite the sister she still refers to as her closest friend after years of not speaking, to her intimate affair. It is clear her idea was not her best from the moment Margot (Nicole Kidman) steps off the boat and on to the New England shore. Pauline sends her fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), to pick Margot and her eldest son, Claude (Zane Pais), up from the ferry. She claims to be making last minute arrangements back at the house but I suspect it was she and not the house who was not quite ready to receive. Then, when the two are finally face to face, standing in front of the house they grew up in, they smile and make pleasantries but fidget hesitatingly before actually embracing. That awkward moment grows into a whirlwind of deep-seeded pain before long and suddenly rain on the blessed day is hardly the biggest worry for the bride-to-be.
Baumbach scored last time out with his Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale”. He was lauded for his sensitive and honest tale of divorce and how it affects the entire family unit. With “Margot at the Wedding”, he solidifies his reputation for creating believable family ties based on dependence, dysfunction and subtle admiration. Watching the sisters as they sit around the house catching up is voyeuristic as we are often privy to conversations that feel as though they were not meant to be heard. As the sisters flip through old records in their even older house, Baumbach writes decades of experiences into his characters and we, like Malcolm, are latecomers to this dinner party. Director of photography, Harris Savides, draws us even closer to this inner circle by shooting mostly handheld footage in natural lighting and with older lenses. The resulting tone is dark and grainy but nostalgic and rich with history at the same time. At times, we are the quiet cousin who says nothing but stands in the corner with a camera and follows the drama from room to room. It isn’t long before we learn how to interpret the vernacular of this particular family and we find ourselves laughing along inappropriately at the expense of whomever Margot is lovingly ridiculing at the moment. As we laugh though, we care as well.
Kidman and Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) are both marvelous as they walk the very tightly wound lines of their borderline personalities. Baumbach guides their performances into textured characters that seem natural as sisters and strongly rooted as multifaceted people who struggle to be themselves when in the presence of the other. They even possess archetypal qualities without coming across as contrived. Margot is the master of deflection. She is constantly doling out psychological diagnoses to those around her to avoid any fingers pointing back her way. It never dawns on her that as a writer, she actually has no formal foundation to base her opinions on. She cannot understand why Pauline would settle for Malcolm; she picks at Claude to keep him closer; she even attacks her husband (John Turturro) for his good nature because it just makes her feel like a bad person. She is a fatalist to Pauline’s hopeful but defeated optimist. Pauline is damaged but wants to heal and has done so much more than she gives herself credit for. She teeters back and forth between making sneaky, subtle jabs at her sister, habits from her youth, and building new connections so that she can have the sister she always wanted instead of the one she has always had. Only, in the house that Baumbach built, the answer to whether people can ever truly change is not the least bit clear.
Family, even the best examples, can be tricky to negotiate. Spending any extended period of time with the people who both influenced you and hurt you the most in your life can be exhausting. That said, “Margot at the Wedding” can be no less trying. There are those who revel in watching others with deeper dysfunction then their own. It helps them to feel that their lives are not nearly as bad as they thought. There are also others who feel they have enough to juggle already with potentially damaging weddings of their own to survive coming up fast. Why then immerse yourself in a tornado of neuroses and painful memories that are not even your own? Truthfully, you don’t have to. Along those lines, Pauline never needed to invite her sister to her wedding either. Only if she hadn’t, she would have missed out on everything the experience taught her about herself and the potential for progress. This is the genuine beauty of Baumbach’s work. He shares so intensely and personally that he inevitably forces the viewer to deal with their own inner-Margot.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
First High Councilor: It’s the Golden Compass, Lyra. I feel you’re meant to have it.
Lyra: But what’s it for?
Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a world where witches wage war and giant polar bears are warriors. The people she walks amongst walk alongside their daemon spirits, which are essentially each person’s soul manifest in physical and animal form. The ruling power of this world is called the Magisterium and they seek more to control rather than govern. Everything in the world began at one time with dust but now dust and the supposed answers it holds for a better future are not to be mentioned in public settings. This is a world divided between free will, the individual powers held within the soul and a looming force that threatens to eliminate the infinite possibilities these privileges provide. Unbeknownst to her, Lyra is the central figure in the inevitable clash that lies ahead and her power can be found in her ability to read the world’s single remaining alethiometer, otherwise known as “The Golden Compass”. When held by this little girl, the alethiometer will reveal the answers to the questions that have yet to be answered. Lyra’s world is beautifully painted and richly textured but why we need to be there to see it never becomes clear in this icy, hollow attempt to become the next must-see fantasy trilogy.
Writer/Director Chris Weitz originally backed out on directing this project. He felt the grandiose special effects driven blockbuster was out of his directorial league. Having only directed a couple of smaller comedies (“About a Boy” and an uncredited second director on “American Pie”), I can understand why he would be overwhelmed by the task of adapting Philip Pullman’s first book in the “Dark Material” series. I’m not clear on why he decided to come back on though because his lack of confidence in his own capabilities as well as the competency of his audience is omnipresent throughout the film and leaves “The Golden Compass” on rather thin ice. Once the first ten minutes of narration have given us all the information we will need to understand our surroundings (see the first paragraph of this review), the subsequent scenes seem to run in a very specific order. One scene will explain what we are about to see, the next will show us what has just been described and the one that follows will clarify whatever we might have missed. If Weitz does not feel his magical world to be believable, how can we be expected to?
Urgency is also lacking in “The Golden Compass”. We know because we are told that Lyra, according to the prophecies of the witches, is the one person with the ability to read the alethiometer. We also know that, again because we are told, that a great war is coming. Lyra’s special talent will be pivotal to a positive outcome in this battle. The battle itself has something to do with free will, dust and control. What we are not told is exactly how these things tie back to Lyra. Without knowing what all this fighting is truly for (which may be missing as the novel’s religious implications and criticisms have been removed almost entirely as to not alienate any viewers that may have been offended by these subjects). Still, we know that no good can come if anything is to happen to Lyra so there is never any actual fear or concern that she is in any real danger. Young newcomer, Richards, is charismatic and fun enough to win over your sympathy and caring as Lyra, but this is not enough in Weitz’s world. No, here, escape from each perilous situation she finds herself in is certain and thus the film is devoid of suspense and often disappointingly predictable.
“The Golden Compass” is much more along the same vein as the Harry Potter movies or the Narnia franchise than a successor to the throne where the Lord of the Rings trilogy sits quite comfortably. Peter Jackson drew millions into the plight of a few hobbits by allowing their journey and its importance to speak for itself and by making correlations between that world and ours. Weitz has no control over the vast ground he has to cover. He’s got polar bears, daemons and witches to think about; he’s got to build a story when the original intended theme is not allowed to be mentioned overtly; he’s got legions of fans to please while simultaneously appeasing the demands of the Hollywood executives that sign his checks. It’s as if Hollywood is the contemporary Magisterium and Weitz is little Lyra. Hollywood wants to control everything and make sure that certain elements remain unmentioned and Weitz holds the key to a strong future. Only Weitz hasn’t learned how to read his golden compass and what he leaves us with is an obvious play for fantasy gold that will likely please very few.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Mr. Quinn: Astronaut.
In true tribute style, “I’m Not There” opens with the sounds of adoring fans waiting for their favorite folk-rock star to grace the stage. The camera maneuvers in first person point of view through the winding corridors leading from the dressing room to the stage. This build toward the reveal is one we’ve all seen before but this is perhaps the most traditional thirty seconds of the entire film. It isn’t long before the cheers are interrupted by the roar of a motorcycle and a man on a bike driving across a deserted dirt road. The shot is ultra wide and the sky is that deep grey only black and white film can provide.
Writer/Director Todd Haynes inadvertently announces, in the mere seconds it takes the shadowy biker to cross from one end of the screen to the other, that what we are about to watch will be anything but traditional, aesthetically breathtaking and an experience unlike any other. Blinking boldly on and off in the middle of the sky are the words of the title – one by one they appear out of sequence until they settle for a moment in order and all at once, before flickering away yet again. “I’m Not There” is inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan but he is somehow nowhere to be found in the two hours that follow and yet still everywhere at the same time.
“I’m Not There” is entirely and unapologetically experimental. Six different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Wishaw) play six different characters that represent human incarnations of Dylan from various periods of his existence or from inspired interpretations of where his life could have gone. No one story is told from beginning to end nor overtly connected to any of the surrounding stories. Each is told with a different visual motif, from smooth to grain, from subdued black and white to brilliantly expressive color, from cinema verité to abstract imagery that leaves you lost and puzzled. The entire undertaking can be daunting and overwhelming if you aren’t prepared. Even if you go in armed with sharpened knives ready to dissect the onslaught of non-linear imagery, it will come at you so fast, your knives will be dulled before you can make the first cut. While it certainly helps to be a fountain of Dylan knowledge, it won’t hurt if all you can do is maybe hum along to “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a good day because Haynes is not concerned with telling a direct account of Dylan’s story. Rather, he is paying homage to what his life and how he lived it inspired both passion and rage in millions.
What saves “I’m Not There” from being overbearing, pompous and pretentious is intention. Haynes had been a Dylan fan in his high school years but only recently rekindled his love for the artist. His decision to cast and shoot without boundaries was meant to embody the same spirit and freedom of the man whose life story he was telling. His unfettered approach does at times come off as film student idealism (with expert technique, mind you) but his innovative and open-minded choices ultimately win out as inspired. His decisions are not only experimental but also successful. There is never a moment that Haynes’s love for Dylan is in question. In fact, his love is so potent that, just like the real love experienced in intimate relationships, it clouds his vision. Haynes’s Dylan is put upon and criticized to the point of hiding and recluse but his attackers (members of the press or fans who have turned on him) are always portrayed as people disappointed that he is not what they want him to be or need him to be. People needed Dylan to bring them peace but all he could claim was that you couldn’t change the world with a song, that all he could sing was what was inside of him. In that regard, he never stopped singing about the truth.
The truth behind “I’m Not There” is that it is best enjoyed if you don’t try to define it. If you allow it to be what it is, to let it go where it must in order to be complete, then its secrets will inevitably reveal themselves when they are meant to be seen and understood. I don’t pretend to say I understand the film in its entirety. I have theories about what is being said and how it needs to be said in a certain fashion but I can’t claim that any of them are accurate. For me, both Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan are poets and this film is but a love poem from one man to the other.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Novice film director, Craig Gillespie, would like you to meet Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling). Lars lives in a small, northern American town where everyone knows each other. Lars works in a dreary office where the most excitement revolves around his cubicle-mate’s missing action figures. He lives next door to his brother and pregnant sister-in-law (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) in what is not so much a place of his own as it is his brother’s garage. He doesn’t like to be touched; in fact, he considers the often-casual act of embracing to be painful, like the feeling your feet get when they’re thawing after a long time in the freezing cold. He lives a solitary life in the safety of his dark, underdone home, watching curiously from his window. If you were to ask him if he was lonely or if he were OK, he would say he was fine and finish the conversation before you could probe any further. Lars is that guy that everyone always knew had problems but no one was willing to put aside their own long enough to help. In “Lars and the Real Girl”, Gillespie is more than happy to introduce you to Lars Lindstrom, if only so someone can look at him instead of away from him and see this beautiful human being that has been ignored for far too long.
There is one person in Lars’s life that doesn’t look away. Her name is Bianca. Bianca allows Lars to be himself and loves him for who he is. The only problem with Bianca is that she isn’t real. She arrived at Lars’s door one day in a large wooden box after he ordered her online six weeks earlier. She is made of plastic, has real hair and is anatomically correct. Even though she is designed for sex play, Lars brings her to life for a safe return of love. It is funny at first but it quickly becomes horribly awkward. Suddenly, those that were thought to be closest to Lars realize that they allowed for this to happen by not stepping in earlier. Upon covert psychological analysis (by Patricia Clarkson in a stoic, frank performance that is brutally honest while always sensitive), Lars is diagnosed as having a delusion. Maybe he believes that if people see him with Bianca they will stop judging him for being so pathetically lonely. Maybe it’s as simple as he just wanted someone to talk to. No matter what the reason that led to this mental snap though, Bianca’s arrival is the best thing that could have happened to Lars and to everyone who knows him. Despite the minor inconvenience of her being inanimate, her relationship with Lars brings him back to life.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is bravely independent. Gillespie has taken Nancy Oliver’s script/psychological case study and ensured that we as viewers are never allowed to look away from Lars, no matter how uncomfortable we may be. That said, the film experience itself is certainly not an easy one. Lars is not a clumsy yet endearing kind of awkward. He is a man with real problems and rich history that is unveiled piece by piece throughout the film. Fortunately for the film and the audience, Lars is played by a young actor who is not afraid to explore the dark place Lars calls home (and I’m not talking about the dank garage where he sleeps). Gosling is sincere in his suffering, in his caring and in his instability. Both he and Gillespie never allow for Lars to drift into caricature or ridicule. The earnestness of Gosling’s performance, from his difficulty getting words out to his flinching body language, inspires genuine sympathy from the audience and saves the performance from being the farce it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. It also elevates the film to a compelling study in humanity as the manner in which the townsfolk react to Lars and Bianca says novels about their decency and compassion or lack thereof.
“Lars and the Real Girl” is sure to repel some but is extremely cathartic if you allow for it to work its magic on you. Even “magic” is not the right word as there is nothing magical about this movie. Considering it’s about a relationship between a man and a blowup doll, it is shockingly real. Loneliness is real. Mental anguish is real. Bianca may not be real but the love Lars feels for her is and the experiences that led to this delusion are valid and should not be ignored. Perhaps it isn’t just that Lars needed someone to talk to or someone to have as a standing Saturday night date. Perhaps Lars created Bianca to show himself that he truly deserved love despite it never showing its face to him before. In doing so, maybe he would learn that he already had an abundance of it.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Dan: No, I’m not smooth. I’m Dan.
If you’re anything like me, smooth and single do not go together. You see someone you like, rare enough as that can be, and you want to say something but you don’t. Or maybe you do say something but it ends up being perhaps the least intelligent thing you’ve ever said in your life. More often then not though, you stare from afar and admire without having to deal with taking that which most agree is the only way to get anywhere in life – a risk. You can’t blame a guy for being a little frightened though. Maybe he’s been burned hard before or maybe he’s trying to focus all his energy on his career. There are reasons, some valid, some not, and all of them can be interpreted as excuses rather than reason. You tell yourself you don’t need it or it isn’t the right time for you but you still wish it were happening. Any way you break it down, it’s not easy. Sound familiar? If you thought yes even just a little, then “Dan in Real Life”, the new comedy from director Peter Hedges, is a must-see. It will reach inside of you and somehow manage to both break and warm your heart all at once.
The Dan from the title is Dan Burns (Steve Carell), an advice columnist who is admired for his insight into living a balanced, fulfilling and morally uplifting life. Four years or so before the film opens on Dan waking up to his day, he lost his wife and love of his life. After that tragedy, Dan was left to raise their three daughters alone. Between that and focusing on his career, finding love again was not one of Dan’s priorities. And so he became more functional than feeling. Removed from the power of intimacy, Dan no longer knows what it means to be that close to someone and has resigned himself to never knowing that again. That is, until he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a book and tackle shop in Connecticut on a quiet morning. Their interaction is casual, comfortable and it catches both of them off guard. There is only one problem really. She is already seeing someone. Unfortunately for all involved, that someone is Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). His entire family has come up to their parents’ country home for their yearly visit and Dan must now spend the weekend pining and yearning for the fleeting feeling he had with Marie that morning. It only lasted an hour or so but it only took that long to awaken Dan’s heart from its coma.
With so many family members to deal with (Jack Mahoney and Dianne Wiest are at the helm), “Dan in Real Life”, does drift away from its grander purpose from time to time. While the cyclone of kids and parents and aunts and uncles makes for trying times for Dan, Hedges also uses it unnecessarily as a means to distract, with the presumption that it would ultimately make for a more complete film. Luckily, Hedges has got Carell to carry the heavy burden. It is a pleasure to watch Steve Carell come into his own more and more with every picture he makes (despite the occasional “Evan Almighty”-sized misstep). He is charismatic, charming and obviously a sharp humorist. As Dan, he is also self-deprecating, awkward and scared. Carell is the rare comedian who pushes himself to find character in his roles rather than rely solely on his comedic instincts and established persona. Perhaps more importantly, he is entirely relatable as Dan. Whether he’s flopping down on the cot in the laundry room where he is subjected to sleep as the only single adult at this reunion or fidgeting around the kitchen, unable to stand still in his anxiety, Dan is every guy who has even been unsure of himself and felt alone in the crowd. Carell gives Dan so much heart that he becomes the heart of the film itself at the same time.
I wondered after seeing the film if I enjoyed the it as much as I did, despite its slight shortcomings (Juliette Binoche – I know you might like to lighten up every now and then but I don’t recommend it unless there is chocolate involved), because of where I am in my life. Would someone who has found that someone else derive as much meaning and comfort from this film? I can’t say. What I can say, as someone who knows what it means to be lonely, “Dan in Real Life” knows what it means to be surprised by life and love and how these moments and people need to be appreciated and cherished. It also knows that anyone who might be feeling lonely on any given day or for months at a time needs to be reminded that surprises still happen.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Before going to Iraq, a soldier would not likely even think this, let alone say it out loud in any serious manner. The times have changed though and eyes have seen more than any one pair should. Take Jo Anne’s husband for instance. He’s just returned from Iraq to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, a town built around its army base. You might think this would make Jo Anne very happy but, much to her dismay, this is just not the case. Instead, she doesn’t feel she still knows this changed man. When she goes to the police after he snaps the family dog’s neck as punishment for biting, no one listens. Instead, they snicker at her. She is enraged but her anger is not enough to rattle any one out of their apathetic trance. Despite there being a clear need for Jo Anne’s husband to get help, there just isn’t anything to be done. He’s just another returning soldier whose mental stability has been fried in combat. This is the side of America that is not often seen – a population exhausted by the weight of the war, be that by supporting it or questioning it or participating in it. And while the fighting is taking place overseas, writer/director Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” aims to show America’s eyes what’s been happening in their homes while their focus was elsewhere.
“In the Valley of Elah” is Haggis’s first time directing since his Best Picture winning “Crash”. In the time since then, he has gone on to work on the screenplays for “Casino Royale” and “Flags of Our Fathers”. The experience seems to have taught him some valuable lessons about subtlety. While “Crash” was intense and moving, it was also contrived and convenient. Concessions were made for the bigger emotional impact but the pay off was worth the trouble. “In the Valley of Elah” does not need to resort to gimmicks to make its mark. Instead, the events unfold like any good mystery, where the pieces come together to reveal that what you’ve trying to figure out all along is really just a fraction of what’s really going on. This particular mystery begins when Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a call from the Fort Deer army base, informing him that his son has gone missing after returning from active duty. Hank has no helpful information as he didn’t even know his son had come back. It becomes clear pretty quickly that something foul has happened and that Hank didn’t know his son very well at all. Yet as he gets to know his son through the clues he comes across while searching for him, Hank realizes that he knows just as little about how the army has changed as he does his son.
“In the Valley of Elah” is able to make understated commentary about the mental and emotional burden of the Iraq war thanks mostly to Haggis’ direction of his stars, Jones and Charlize Theron. Theron is a single mother and a detective who struggles daily to prove that a woman can make just as good a detective as her sloppy male counterparts. She braves the testosterone that beats down on her from all sides but it is Deerfield’s arrival that shows her how fighting against oppression is taking away from her work. Jones achieves a similar effect on Theron’s performance. He is so strong, so internally tormented and still so unfaltering despite the overwhelming evidence that is chipping away at his impression of his great American hero of a son, that Theron cannot help but step up her game as an actress to avoid looking bland in front of the veteran. As Deerfield, Jones is the silent, proud father and husband. He’s the kind of man who cannot be around a lady while simply wearing an undershirt. He is an old-fashioned army boy in a world where he can watch unscrambled video image from a digital camera his son carried with him in Iraq. All the seedy revelations he is discovering must be made proper again and resolving his two conflicting minds becomes the challenge he needs to overcome in order to find both his son and his peace of mind. Jones is not just up for this challenge; he owns it.
With its simple tone and steady pace, “In the Valley of Elah” laments the loss of America’s blanketed support and gusto for a war that was meant to protect their way of life and freedom. It is not so much a movie designed to criticize the decision to go to war in the first place. Haggis is too smart to give that tired argument. Instead, it is an expression of grief for the damage the war has weathered on the country, its citizens and the principals that it was initially meant to protect.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Staring at a blue sky for two hours is almost required viewing to settle your mind from the visually lost schizophrenia that is Julie Taymor‘s “Across the Universe”. How else can you undo the damage from being subjected to an exhaustingly lengthy collage of overblown imagery at the hands of an over inflated ego? I can only imagine the horror that must have swept over the executives’ faces after screening this film for the first time. It has been widely publicized that Taymor entered a creative war over the final cut of this film with her producers who wanted to release their own cut of the film. They said the film needed more focus, less experimenting as she hid behind the shield of artistic integrity. Ordinarily, I would never side with any form of censorship but perhaps she should have left her bias in the car and taken a few of the tips that were perhaps being given to her in the best interest of her film. Maybe then, “Across the Universe” could have told a functional story that would have captured some attention, given it some ultimate meaning and made this all-Beatles musical the magical journey it so desperately wanted to be and could have been. Or maybe it would have been worse but I can’t see how.
“Across the Universe” tells the story, and I say that lightly, of a young lad named Jude (Jim Sturgess), who travels across the ocean to find his father. Find him he does in absolutely no time and then he just bounces around from here to there in pursuit of nothing at all. He meets a girl (Evan Rachel Wood) and falls in love; he gets a room in New York City and paints when everybody else is either going to war in Vietnam or protesting it. A bevy of other characters are randomly introduced, bring nothing to the whole (which is paper thin as it is) and then disappear after accomplishing just as much nothing. It is all so aimless; I’m surprised my neck doesn’t hurt more from all the shaking my head did in bewilderment. The style, which can only be described as a refusal to commit to any one style, only makes it more difficult to get taken in. As a viewer, the suspended disbelief necessary to enjoy a musical as one should still requires a firm foundation. Taymor tries to establish a gritty reality with Jude working the docks in Liverpool but the leap to where the music happens, and the magic is supposed to, is always different and seldom seems appropriate. I never thought I would be begging for plausibility in a musical but this was just ridiculous.
While I commend Taymor for incorporating 90% on-location singing into this musical in an attempt to pump a more real quality into the practice, I want to sit her down to talk about some other basic concepts like character, meaning and purpose (concepts she so easily incorporated into her far superior “Frida”). Surely she has seen “Moulin Rouge”. Baz Luhrmann’s film employed the same musical technique to appropriate existing lyrical content (including some by the Beatles) and contextualize it within his story of forbidden lovers. The reason his film worked is because there was a solid story driving it forward and characters that were developed through that story and their songs. “Across the Universe” seems more interested in its high concept usage of the Beatles repertoire that characters seem to be included so that certain songs can be included. It is certainly lovely to see a young high school cheerleader sing a slowed down version of I Wanna Hold your Hand to herself about a fellow cheerleader, just as it is heartbreaking to watch a young boy caught in the streets of the Detroit riots singing Let It Be amidst the violence but both of these potentially powerful moments and strong performances are hollowed out by their complete lack of context. How can you be expected to care when you have no idea why this story is suddenly being told? And then to find out, there was really no significant point to begin with? Without purpose, all you have are a bunch of people singing old songs on screen.
At one point, more specifically when multiple Salma Hayeks in nurse uniforms seductively administered drugs to war patients spinning around a medical ward to Happiness Is a Warm Gun, I found myself wondering just how many Beatles songs were still left to be sung. When a film has no distinct purpose, it also has no clear ending in sight. I was beginning to fear that Taymor might actually turn me off the Beatles with this disaster but fortunately, the Beatles are timeless and genius and something so laughable as “Across the Universe” is not going to diminish their beauty. It’s like bearing witness to a bad karaoke performance of your favorite song; you cringe while it’s happening but once you hear it again for yourself, the mastery that was temporarily taken from it comes back in waves of vibrant colour and splashes of insight that touch your soul. The painful experience is easily forgotten and you ask yourself, across what universe?
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Times are hard. It’s the spring of 1967 and the tension culminated alongside the civil rights movement has not only reached its boiling point but is about to boil right over. When the movement’s most prominent leader, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, his messages of brotherly love and non-violent approaches to change are forgotten. Riots erupted nationwide in over 60 cities as an immense collection of anger was expressed through unrest and displaced ferocity. In Washington D.C., the city was calmed in part by the voice of one man, a radio DJ by the name of Petey Greene. His morning call-in show was the kind of success that unified its listeners and polarized both their spirits and convictions. Petey prided himself on staying true to himself and speaking that truth no matter what the consequence. The people responded to his frank honesty with devotion and respect. So when he went back on the air to talk the people of Washington down off their ledges on the night of Dr. King’s death, it was the trust that had already been established that soothed the fire in the souls; they healed together. After that night, Petey’s career was never the same. “Talk to Me”, the new film by Kasi Lemmons, tells Petey’s inspiring story. Only it doesn’t so much tell it as manipulate it into a conventional narrative about shared friendship and separate dreams designed for maximum emotional impact.
Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) is first discovered by Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he broadcasts in prison. The two men are instantly placed in juxtaposition to each other in the context of the film. Petey may be in a literal prison but Dewey is in a prison of his own design. The two will need each other to break out and reach the heights of their potential but they must first get past their instinctual dislike for each other. From where Dewey stands, Petey is the kind of black man what gives everyone else a bad name by playing to type and giving into violent, illegal impulses. Meanwhile, from where Petey stands, Dewey has sold his soul to the white man, walking and talking like his white colleagues in an effort to hide his black skin as best he can. The irony is that they both feel that the other is doing a great disservice to the community and that they themselves are role models for the new black identity. Both actors give strong, commanding performances. Cheadle pushes his versatility further as the raucous button-pusher with a turn that is both volatile and reckless. On the other side of the glass, Ejiofor exhibits restraint and an internalized fire that gives his intentions away no matter how hard he tries to mask them. Both could be contenders come awards season if the words coming out of their mouths weren’t so formulaic and plain.
While Lemmons may not have made “Talk to Me” into the socially telling film it could have been, she does manage moments of insight, tension and brotherhood. Most of these moments are found in the broadcast booths and offices of real life R&B music station, WOL. Prior to getting a job at the station, Petey had grown comfortable speaking his mind to whoever would listen. Whoever would, would always be limited in number. When finally faced with his first time at the mic, expectations are high. After all, Petey has the pressure of being a natural and he’s never had to perform for anyone but himself before. He’s also never had to watch his tongue before, but he, along with the station owners, soon learns that in order for Petey to be Petey, he’s got to just let the words flow. That said, he also learns that a powerful voice comes with responsibility so in order to continue having that voice in such a public and corporate forum, he can only push the line so far. After all, no matter real the station tries to keep it, the white suits who run the show and sign Petey’ checks have sponsors to answer to.
It’s a shame that a movie with such a funky soundtrack would be lacking in so much soul but “Talk to Me” still manages to keep a solid enough groove to keep it alive. I just wish Lemmons had spent more time heeding Petey Greene’s message, to keep it real because the truth is what people respond to above all else. Instead, the watered down reality of Petey’s path to fame and examination of the relationships that got him there has been mangled and crammed into a pretty picture that the masses can enjoy. The story of a man who told it like it was is told here as politely as Hollywood will allow.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
For what feels like the first time in the last five years, someone has crafted a war movie that is not concerned with drawing loose comparisons between itself and America’s War on Terror, in an effort to criticize the already heavily debated validity of the war. German director, Werner Herzog, is more interested in telling a story ripe enough with its own depth and desperation to capture the viewer’s attention without having to rely on political disparagement and moralistic preaching to give the film its ultimate significance. “Rescue Dawn” tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born aircraft pilot for the American Navy (played here by the almost always stellar, Christian Bale), who has been sent to Vietnam in 1965, at a time when America’s intentions for Vietnam were not yet clear to the general population. He expected to get some flying time in but had no concept of what was actually in store for himself (much like the American government). Shot down on his first time out over Laos, Dieter is captured by locals and imprisoned in a camp along with a handful of other men. What he and his fellow prisoners endure in their enforced seclusion nearly destroys their minds and spirits but also makes for a gripping film about the strength of the human will.
Of course, one can infer criticism of the American government and its military practices in Herzog’s text. Considering the common comparison between America’s invasion of Iraq and their previous invasion of Vietnam as similarly fruitless and devastating war efforts that were potentially unnecessary to begin with, it would be hard not to make links between the two. Herzog elevates “Rescue Dawn” though by not making all of this so obvious and allowing viewers to form their own thoughts on the subject. Still, it is hard not to condemn the American government for not disclosing the truth behind their involvement in Vietnam, when soldiers are being tortured in combat situations that don’t technically exist on paper. Dengler fights for America but has no idea what America is fighting for. Despite the injustice, if you see no comparison, then you are still left with the compelling character of Dieter Dengler. The naïve, boy-like charm of the pilot who always wanted to fly can always be seen as a distant sparkle in Bale’s eyes. And albeit terribly faint at times, his hope is still enough to inspire the same in the other prisoners when they felt they might never feel anything like that again.
Although the “Rescue Dawn” shoot was probably more like a day of spa treatments when compared with the real life experiences of Dengler and the other detainees, it is clear just from watching that it couldn’t have been easy. Alongside Bale, American actors, Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn (in his most mature performance, resulting in a complete transformation), fight their way out of suffering. While it has been reported that Zahn lost over 40 pounds for the role (and that there were no trailers on location in Thailand), Davies is seen without his shirt often in the film. His protruding rib cage and twig-like arms are sickening to the point where I had to look away. Meanwhile, Bale and Zahn must battle the elements throughout their ordeal. They are seen going over rapids, being dragged along the dirt, ingesting maggots and being carried away by mudslides. For their perseverance and fortitude alone, Bale and Zahn deserve recognition for these performances. However, it is their embodiment of men long gone and lost to the dark depths of their minds that push themselves to continue when they are running on nothing that will be most memorable in years to come.
Dieter Dengler is humbled by his experience just as I was humbled by “Rescue Dawn”. Dengler is a man of principal with a sense of entitlement that undergoes great growth. He is arrogant when he bombs Vietnam and then expects his captors to extend him the courtesy of using a bathroom. He is smartening up when he will not sign documentation that will supposedly expedite his release and get him home sooner. And he exhibits a newfound sense of responsibility when he takes all the prisoners under his guidance and inspires new faith in their souls while ensuring to equip them with the tools necessary to make their awakened dreams a reality. “Rescue Dawn” brings its characters and its viewers deep into the jungle and shows how there can be a way out for those brave enough to push on towards it.
Review by Joseph Bélanger