Movie Review: “Pulp Fiction”

The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield

PulpFictionThere are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it.  But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen CasablancaPsycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film.  Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese FalconPulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or.  Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.

In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of.  It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

So, what is it about?  Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene.  Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky.  “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down.  They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.”  Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.

The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase belonging to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.

Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3.  They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.

Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife.  Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town.  Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows.  But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release.  Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.

I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction.  What happens to all these people after the events of the film?  For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”?  Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have?  What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill?  If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet.  Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?

I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life.  I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Movie Review: “The Crying Game”

“A scorpion does what’s in its nature.”

crying_gameThe Crying Game was written and directed in 1992 by Neil Jordan, who had caught my attention in 1986 with his unforgettable Mona Lisa.  But why, you might ask, write about a film from 1992, and one that was so extensively reviewed at the time?

In the first place, The Crying Game is a favorite of mine.  It is one of a select group of movies that I can watch time and again with increased appreciation and new awareness of previously unnoticed subtleties.  Second, there exists a whole new generation of film-goers who may not know about The Crying Game.  If this review prompts even a few of them to watch this extraordinary film, I will be satisfied.  Note though that if I were to assign it an MPAA rating, it would be NC-17, not because I find the material objectionable, but because of the mature nature of the story.

The title The Crying Game was inspired by the song of the same name written by Geoff Stephens in 1964.  The androgynous Boy George would seem the perfect choice to sing the title track, and for those of you unfamiliar with his rendition, here is a video from French TV of Boy George performing “The Crying Game”.

The first half of the film takes place in Northern Ireland during the time of violent conflict known as the Troubles.  It opens at a carnival, where we see Jude and Jody (Miranda Richardson and Forest Whitaker) strolling hand in hand.  Jude is a local woman, and Jody, a British soldier on assignment.  The two of them have just one thing on their mind: finding someplace quiet to lie down together.  All is not what it seems, however.  No sooner do they find a secluded spot than Jody is assaulted at gunpoint by members of the Irish Republican Army who put a hood over his head, handcuff him, and lead him away.  What looked like a seduction was in fact an abduction.

Jody is taken to a remote location, where he is informed that if a high-ranking member of the IRA being held by the British is not released within three days, Jody will be shot.  During his captivity, he is guarded primarily by Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA volunteer.  Jody understands intuitively that his best chance of surviving lies in establishing a connection with Fergus.  He continually engages him in conversation, and at one point tells him the story of The Scorpion and the Frog.

These early scenes are fraught with danger and seasoned with gallows humor.  In the climax of the film’s first half, before the IRA’s sentence on Jody can be carried out, their hideout is attacked and destroyed by elements of the British army.  The second half of the film takes place “across the water” in London, where Fergus has fled to escape his IRA comrades.  He meets Dil (Jaye Davidson), with whom a romance begins to blossom, and Col (Jim Broadbent), the philosophical bartender at The Metro.  Ultimately, despite Fergus’ efforts to disappear, he is tracked down by his old friends in the IRA, who have sought him out for a new assignment.

The Crying Game makes an unforgettable first impression, and continues to grow on you with each viewing.  It unfolds much like life itself: it is full of unexpected twists and turns, and at one point after another, we find ourselves confronted by events we can’t control.  There is enough sadness here for three movies, but there is also kindness, pity, sacrifice, and redemption.  Perhaps more than anything else, The Crying Game is saying that we all act in accordance with our nature.  Jody is right about Fergus: he is essentially kind.  He’s right about Jude too: “Don’t leave me with her, man,” he tells Fergus. “She’s dangerous!”

Everyone connected with making The Crying Game should take pride in the finished product.  The highest praise must go to Neil Jordan for his screenplay and direction.  The Crying Game is an exceptionally intelligent movie, and challenges all manner of preconceptions.  Great credit must go to Stephen Rea for his nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance as Fergus, and to Forest Whitaker for his Jody.  From the very beginning, we feel like Jody is one of us, and share in his desperation.  As Jude, Miranda Richardson is scary!  As Jody mentions early on, Jude’s name suits her; we realize later that it is because of its similarity to Judas, the betrayer.  Finally, kudos to Jaye Davidson for an astonishing film debut and Oscar nomination, and for an exceptionally sympathetic performance as Dil.

What is it about The Crying Game that makes it so unforgettable?  I think it is this: At some point in our lives, we have all had our share of the crying game, whether we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or somewhere in between.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “No Country for Old Men”

“The point bein’, even in a contest between man and steer, the issue is not certain.”

No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterNo Country for Old Men was produced, directed, and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, who have been making movies since 1984’s Blood Simple, and have given us such well-known films as Fargo and The Big Lebowski, among others.  No Country for Old Men was based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, and released in 2007.

The story takes place in West Texas in 1980.  The first three scenes introduce us to the three characters around whom all of the subsequent action revolves: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, Anton Chigurh, and Llewelyn Moss.  In fact, we meet Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) even before the story begins, in a voice-over set against scenes of a West Texas sunrise, in which he recounts a little family history.  Take a look…

We’re given no such background information on Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), whom we meet in the next scene.  He remains as much of an enigma at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.  Javier Bardem’s performance as Chigurh, for whom breaking one’s word is abhorrent but taking a human life is of no particular consequence, is one of the most chilling portrayals of psychopathy ever to reach the screen.

In the third scene, we meet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin): hunter, welder, Vietnam vet.  Moss is a careful, capable man.  While out in the Texas badlands hunting pronghorn antelope, he happens upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, in which all the principals are either dead or dying.  He follows the trail of the “last man standing” and recovers a case containing two million dollars.  He is soon transformed from the hunter into the hunted, but as his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), says of him, Llewelyn “…would never ask for help.  He never thinks he needs any.” to which Sheriff Bell responds ominously, “He needs help, whether he knows it or not.”

No Country for Old Men reminds me of the stories in Close Range by Annie Proulx.  In both, we find the same hard-country settings, hard-bitten men, and mastery of dialect.  In addition, No Country for Old Men is full of dashes of dry humor like this: “You think this boy Moss has got any notion of the sorts of sons of bitches that’re huntin’ him?”  “I don’t know; he ought to.  He’s seen the same things I’ve seen, and it’s certainly made an impression on me.”

This is easily one of the most thought-provoking movies I’ve ever watched.  There is fertile ground for discussion regarding its treatment of the role of fate in our lives, symbolized by the repeated flipping of a coin.  Or about the often-referenced disappearance of traditional values, and even the effect on those values of the Vietnam War, which ended just seven years prior to the events of the film.  Finally, what are we to make of Chigurh’s cryptic question, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

It is also one of the most enjoyable movies, and certain to reward repeated viewings.  Although it contains several violent scenes and clearly warrants its R rating, the overall impression that it leaves with me is not of its violence but of its realism and its humanity.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Mrs. Doubtfire”

“All my love to you, Poppet.  You’re going to be all right.”

Like so many others, I was shocked and dismayed early this month to learn of the untimely death of actor Robin Williams.  I remember Robin from his “Mork and Mindy” days, thirty-six years ago.  By the time of his death, he had been in the public eye for so long that he had acquired an aura of permanence.

I’ve seen many of Robin’s movies over the years, and my favorite, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, is the subject of this month’s post.  For those of you who haven’t seen it – and for the many who have – I offer this review as a tribute to a great actor and uniquely gifted entertainer.

Mrs_Doubtfire“Mrs. Doubtfire” tells the story of Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams), his wife Miranda (Sally Field), and their three children, Lydie, Chris, and Nattie.  When we first meet Daniel, he is doing what he does best, voice acting in a children’s cartoon.  Rather than do a scene that appears to encourage smoking, Daniel abruptly quits his job and goes to meet his children after school.  He explains to the suspicious Lydie that he wasn’t fired, but that he quit for “reasons of conscience.”

At home, Daniel has arranged an elaborate twelfth birthday party, including a mobile petting zoo, for his son Chris.  The animals quickly get out of hand, and Miranda receives an anxious phone call at work from their neighbor Gloria.  When she arrives home early, the party is in full swing: ear-splitting rap music, animals loose in the house, and children jumping on the furniture, wilder than the animals.  This proves to be the last straw for Miranda, who is beyond furious.  When she pulls the plug on the boom box, Daniel tells a subdued Chris, “The party’s over”, which turns out to be true in more ways than one: Miranda wants a divorce.

At the custody hearing, the judge rules that Daniel will be allowed to see his children only on Saturdays.  For Daniel, who has never been away from them for more than a day at a time, this is an intolerable restriction.  When Miranda places an ad in the paper for a part-time housekeeper, Daniel decides to impersonate an English nanny, and with the help of his brother Frank, who is a make-up artist, Mrs. Doubtfire is born.

Robin Williams gives a virtuoso performance as Mrs. Doubtfire.  In my opinion, you can retire the trophy for “Best Performance by a Male Actor Playing a Woman”.  I’ve seen “Some Like It Hot”, and as much fun as it is, as played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Daphne and Josephine are little more than caricatures of women.  I’ve also seen “Tootsie”, and cannot watch Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy without being conscious that she is really a man.  With Mrs. Doubtfire, however, we – along with Daniel’s family and everyone else – are completely taken in.  Robin Williams is that good.

Sally Field has one of the most expressive faces in the movies, and as Miranda Hillard, delivers a note-perfect performance.  Pierce Brosnan gives a subtle, understated portrayal of Stuart Dunmeyer, her new love-interest.  The supporting cast is superb, as are the make-up and editing, and the choice of music is inspired.  On the whole, the film is so human and believable that we are more than willing to suspend our disbelief during the slapstick scene at Bridges Restaurant.

As my son Wescott pointed out to me, we can also retire the trophy for “Best Film about Divorce”.  “Mrs. Doubtfire” lays it all out for us: the pain and anger of the parents, the guilt and confusion of the children – it’s all there.  But the story doesn’t end there.  As Chris Columbus, the director of “Mrs. Doubtfire”, said in 1993, “I can understand the validity of showing people the ugliness of the world, but I also think there is a place for movies to leave people with a sense of hope.  If your film isn’t going to do that, I just don’t think it’s worth making.”  By the end of the film, Daniel and Miranda, who could never learn how to be married, have learned something about how to be divorced, yet remain a family.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on August 31, 2014 at 1:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Million Dollar Baby”

“I got nobody but you, Frankie.”                 “Well, you’ve got me.”

Million_Dollar_Baby“Million Dollar Baby” tells the story of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young woman who grew up in difficult circumstances whose dream is to become a professional boxer, and Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), an aging fight trainer and the owner of a rundown gym called the Hit Pit.  As the film opens, Maggie has decided that she needs professional training, and she pesters the unwilling Frankie incessantly until he agrees to take her under his wing.

Maggie turns out to be a natural – a phenomenon – and under Frankie’s guidance, compiles a record of knockouts that leads in short order to a bout for the world title.  The outcome of that fight leaves both of them facing terrible choices.  Maggie’s decision, while tragic, is understandable, and seems to come easily to her.  Frankie’s is far more difficult, and comes only after the most in-depth soul-searching.  Whatever you may think of their choices, at the film’s end, Maggie is at peace with her decision, and Frankie with his.

Hilary Swank gives an extraordinary performance as Maggie Fitzgerald, and fully deserved her 2005 Academy Award for Best Actress.  She looks like a boxer, but whether boxing or not, she is always convincing.  Morgan Freeman turns in his customary excellent performance as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, a former boxer and all-purpose maintenance man at the Hit Pit.  Clint Eastwood seems to have an infallible instinct for what roles he is suited for, and his performance as Frankie Dunn is compelling from beginning to end.  His work as director is equally assured.  The fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed, and could hardly be more realistic.  You can hear the fighters’ punches miss their target.  You can feel Maggie’s pain when Frankie realigns her broken nose.

“Million Dollar Baby” was written by Paul Haggis, whose writing credits include “Crash”, “Flags of Our Fathers”, and “Letters from Iwo Jima”.  I am tempted to say that “Million Dollar Baby” is perfect as written, but in fact it shares a weakness with another Eastwood film, “Gran Torino”: Although the film’s protagonists are all realistically and intriguingly multifaceted, the antagonists are surprisingly one-dimensional, and exhibit few if any redeeming qualities.  It’s hard to imagine a more detestable character than Maggie’s greedy, ungrateful, unloving mother.  Or consider Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman, Maggie’s opponent in the climactic bout.  Not only is she introduced to us as a former prostitute and the dirtiest fighter in boxing, she looks like the very personification of evil.

Although this movie is rated PG-13 (“Parents are urged to be cautious.  Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.”), I would state unequivocally that “Million Dollar Baby” is not appropriate for pre-teenagers.  Of course, levels of sophistication vary from one child to another, but I wouldn’t recommend “Million Dollar Baby” to someone I didn’t know unless he or she was at least sixteen.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “The Road Home”

The Road HomeThe Road Home is a 1999 film based on Bao Shi’s novel Remembrance.  It was directed by Zhang Yimou, who is better known in the U.S. for his martial arts films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).  It was released in China in 1999 as My Father and Mother, and in the U.S. in 2001.

The Road Home tells two stories, both of which take place in the remote Chinese village of Sanhetun.  The first concerns the unexpected death of the village schoolteacher, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao), and the determination of his widow, Zhao Di (Zhao Yulian), to have her husband’s body transported from the provincial hospital where he died back to Sanhetun in the traditional way – by foot – for burial.  As the mayor explains to the couple’s son, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), “Your mother doesn’t want to use a car.  She wants your father to be carried back.  She wants the coffin brought back on foot so your father won’t forget his way home.  It’s an old tradition, a superstition.”

It also tells – in flashback – the story of the courtship of Luo Changyu and Zhao Di forty years before, in 1958, a time of great political and cultural upheaval in China.  Luo was a new schoolteacher fresh from the city, and Zhao Di – played to perfection by the luminous Zhang Ziyi – was a young woman of eighteen living at home with her mother.  The story of their courtship is simple and timeless, and according to their son’s narration, has assumed legendary status in their village.

It is a story that, like much of Zhang Yimou’s work – I am thinking particularly of Not One Less – speaks directly to the heart.  Zhang understands as well as anyone that great cinema is not a matter of spectacle and special effects, but of finding and exploring situations in which the audience can identify with the characters.  Who among us doesn’t remember being young and in love, and the pain of being parted.  There is no spectacle in The Road Home, and no special effects either, just a beautiful Chinese girl with unruly pigtails and piercing black eyes, whose beauty of spirit stands out like her red jacket against a field of gold.

What Zhang Yimou routinely accomplishes with color has never been equaled by other directors.  His outdoor shots have the look and feel of landscape paintings.  A stand of birch trees in autumn, the wind blowing across a field of grain – one image after another takes my breath away.  Has any other director ever given us such a feast for the eye?  And not just in outdoor shots!  A bucket of water has never looked (or sounded!) so refreshing, nor mushroom dumplings so delectable.

In Chinese with English subtitles, The Road Home is perfectly suitable for family viewing.  It occupies a place of honor on my personal short list of favorite films.  Like a beloved fairy tale or a story told by your grandfather by the fireside on a winter’s night, it casts a spell that may never be broken.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Groundhog Day”

“What if there is no tomorrow?  There wasn’t one today.”

groundhog_day“Groundhog Day” is a 1993 movie that asks the question, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”  It was based on a story by Danny Rubin, directed by Harold Ramis and stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman for WPBH-TV in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Andie McDowell as Rita, his new producer.

It is February 1st, the day before Groundhog Day.  Immediately following the five o’clock news and weather, Phil and Rita and their cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) drive from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney to cover that town’s annual Groundhog Day celebration.  Next day, after taping their report, they head back to Pittsburgh but are halted by an unexpected blizzard and forced to return to Punxsutawney.  The following morning, for the second day in a row, Phil wakes up at six o’clock to the sound of Sonny and Cher singing, “I’ve Got You, Babe” on the radio.  (Not a bad choice, certainly, but wouldn’t “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters have been perfect?)  He soon realizes that he is reliving the previous day, as if it had never happened.

By day number three, Phil begins to understand that he is caught in a time loop of some kind, with no choice but to continue to relive Groundhog Day over and over.  In Ramis’ hands, this whimsical premise turns out to be a fruitful one.  Phil quickly grasps that there are no lasting consequences to anything he does, and that, no matter what, he will wake up the next morning and it will be Groundhog Day all over again.  Watching his repeated, futile attempts to break out of the time loop, I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”:

Here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.

In these early scenes, we see clearly that Phil is a first-class jerk, arrogant, self-centered, and rude.  When asked, “What are you doing for dinner?” he replies, “Something else.”  He refers to the people of Punxsutawney as morons and hicks, and is not above using to his advantage the knowledge he has gained from having experienced this day many times before: to seduce the locals and rob an armored car, for example.

His attempts to charm the lovely Rita, however, seem doomed to failure.  “I know you’re egocentric,” she tells him.  “It’s your defining characteristic.”  She even recites from “My Native Land” by Sir Walter Scott:

…The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

Being himself is getting Phil nowhere – literally – not with Rita and not out of the time loop either.  He finally comes to realize that Rita is worth trying to change for, and watching him make the effort, I was reminded of a quotation by George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Bill Murray and Andie McDowell are perfect in the lead roles, and the supporting cast is first-rate. With Bill Murray, there always seems to be an unspoken, ironic sub-text, some private joke, while Andie McDowell, on the other hand, is the soul of sincerity.

“Groundhog Day” is the ideal date night movie: It is romantic, yet projects a rare, mischievous kind of humor.  It deals with a question we have all asked ourselves:  “If I had my life to live over again, what would I do differently?” except that in this case, the question is, “If I had one day – today – to live over again, what would I do differently?”  Phil’s answer turns out to be the same as many of ours: I would try to be kinder.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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Movie Review: “Wit”

Wit

“Wit” was originally a one-act drama written for the stage by American playwright Margaret Edson.  It was first performed in Costa Mesa, California in 1995, opened in New York in 1998, and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, giving Ms. Edson the distinction of receiving a Pulitzer Prize for her first (and so far, only) play.  In 2001, Mike Nichols directed this scrupulously faithful adaptation starring Emma Thompson for HBO.  It was never released theatrically, but is available through Netflix and on DVD.

“Wit” tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a 48-year-old professor of 17th century English literature who has been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.  Though her prognosis is never anything but grim, Vivian is not about to give up without a fight, and agrees to undergo the most aggressive treatment available despite the attendant, pernicious side effects.

Throughout the film, Vivian shares her thoughts and observations directly with the viewing audience, and quickly engages our sympathy and affection.  As the story unfolds, we feel more and more like she is one of our own family, and that decisions that affect her affect us also.

A major theme throughout the movie is the unconscionable lack of empathy shown by the medical professionals responsible for Vivian’s care.  “Wit” is unsparingly frank in its portrayal of how grueling her treatments are, but her two doctors, Kelekian and Posner, see her as little more than a research subject upon whom they can test the most recent treatment modality.

The late Roger Ebert was a faithful blogger, and in July 2008 he touched on a related theme in a candid, heartfelt piece about this movie, which you can read in its entirety here.  He wrote, “…Since then, I have had cancer, and had all too many hours, days and weeks of hospital routine robbing me of my dignity.”

Although “Wit” is starkly realistic in its portrayal of Vivian’s struggle with her illness, there are wonderful, unexpected touches of humor throughout.  At one of the low points in her treatment, Vivian observes, “If I did actually barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline.”  There are also moments when Vivian reflects upon her career as an academic, and comes to regret those occasions when she was needlessly rigid with her students.

Emma Thompson delivers an exceptionally compelling performance as Vivian Bearing, in which we see both Vivian’s strength and vulnerability in clear relief.  Christopher Lloyd and Jonathan M. Woodward are also convincing as her less than sympathetic doctors.  Audra McDonald’s performance as Vivian’s nurse, Susie Monahan – the one medical professional in the film with a heart for her patients – provides a welcome counterpoint to their indifference.

“Wit” belongs on everyone’s list of must-see movies.  It reminds us that life is at best an uncertain proposition, and that, as Vivian discovers, “Now is the time for kindness.”

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on July 31, 2013 at 10:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Django Unchained”

Django UnchainedSet in the pre-Civil War south, “Django Unchained” tells the story of the friendship that develops between a bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and a slave, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), and their mission to find and free Django’s wife Hilde (Kerry Washington), one of the many slaves belonging to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  It was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who in 2007 noted perceptively that American films have not dealt sufficiently with slavery because Americans are ashamed of that era.

“Django Unchained” is Tarantino’s attempt to remedy that failure, and there is much to admire in it.  Foremost is Tarantino’s unsurpassed ability to bring his characters to life.  Throughout his career, Tarantino has given us unforgettable characters like Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs”, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction”, and O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill”, characters that, while larger than life, are still totally believable.  Schultz, Django, and Candie deserve to stand with the very best of his creations.

The two keys to their believability are the strength of the actors’ performances and the verisimilitude of Tarantino’s dialog.  In “Django”, we have memorable performances from just about everyone.  Jamie Foxx can convey as much with his eyes alone as other actors do with an entire paragraph of dialog.  Christoph Waltz, who was so impressive in “Inglourious Basterds”, demonstrates here an absolutely impeccable sense of timing, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the despicable Calvin Candie is completely convincing.  All three deserve Oscar nominations for Best Actor.

Similarly, Tarantino deserves great credit for both his screenplay and direction.  As a screenwriter, he is an acknowledged virtuoso; his dialog combines the realism of a documentary with uncommon literary merit.  As a director, well, when all the acting is outstanding, you have to give a lot of credit to the director.  Furthermore, Tarantino understands as well as anyone how to pace his movies to best effect.  In his best scenes, he allows the suspense to build in a seemingly leisurely way until it reaches an almost unbearable pitch.  Though the films of Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock could hardly be more different, Tarantino, in my opinion, is the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense.  If you’re not convinced, I refer you to the opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds” for proof.

In addition, “Django” features breathtaking cinematography, costuming that is a feast for the eye, and an attention to detail that is unique to Tarantino.  There is even a variation of the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino movie would be complete.

As much as there is about “Django Unchained” to admire, however, it fails to rise to the standard that Tarantino himself established in his previous movies.  To begin with, it is uncharacteristically heavy-handed.  Its excesses range from the surprisingly unsubtle – as, for example, when the camera lingers overlong on the scarred backs of the slaves during the opening credits – to the unspeakably brutal – as when two slaves wage a fight to the death for nothing more than the amusement of their owners, or when a cowed and helpless slave is torn to pieces by vicious dogs.

One has to wonder what such heavy-handedness is doing in a Tarantino film.  The judgment and taste he brought to his early movies were above reproach.  One possible answer is that he is so passionate about his subject that his good judgment deserted him at points.  He lost sight of the fact that, by continually shocking us, he risked leaving us numb to the very sensations he wanted us to feel.  How much more effective might it have been if he had left more to our imagination?  My feeling is, he would have left us with mental images that would have lasted long after repeated shocks to our system have worn off.

I expect to see bloodshed at a Tarantino movie.  One of the hallmarks of his movies has always been his stylized portrayal of violence.  In “Django Unchained”, however, he goes too far.  We have one example after another of great gouts of blood spurting from the maimed bodies of the dead and dying.  Did Tarantino imagine that repetition would heighten the cumulative effect of these scenes?  In fact, at some point they begin to lose their impact, and we simply long to get on with the story.

Another objection:  Tarantino is concerned, and rightfully so, with historic accuracy, and  I have no doubt that the horrors and atrocities of the slave era are presented faithfully.  I was surprised that his insistence upon historic accuracy didn’t extend to his characters’ language, which is often anachronistic.  I can find no evidence that the word “motherfucker” was ever used as early as 1858.  Neither did people use expressions like, “Get her ass out of there.”

With the exceptions of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom”, I was less than impressed with the music Tarantino chose for “Django”.  Considering his success in choosing music for his previous movies, this was a particular disappointment.

My biggest objection to “Django” is the extent to which Tarantino makes use of spectacle and cheap thrills.  This continues a trend in his movies that began with “Kill Bill, Volume 1”, but I want to emphasize that I loved every frame of “Kill Bill”.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills there because “Kill Bill” is a samurai movie, and makes no pretense of being anything else.  You expect cheap thrills in a samurai movie.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills in “Death Proof” either, because it was unabashedly a B-movie, and in my opinion, the best of its kind.  My first real reservations about Tarantino had to do with “Inglourious Basterds” because there, for the first time, I felt that he was using violence more for its shock value than as an integral plot device.

Although “Django” shares many things in common with “Kill Bill”, particularly the superhero stature of the two main characters, it is intrinsically different from the earlier film in that “Django” is meant to be taken seriously.  Its moments of comic relief notwithstanding, the nature of its subject, the unblinking realism of many of its parts, and the sense of horror and pity it evokes in the viewer all make this abundantly clear.  Yet time and again, Tarantino allows his need to give the viewer a visceral jolt to trump his artistic purpose.  I would like to see him return to the more balanced intimacy of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Gran Torino”

“Nothing propinks like propinquity.” – Ian Fleming

gran-torino“Gran Torino” begins with the funeral service for the late wife of retired auto-worker Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood).  We see at once that Walt is a man at odds with the world around him.  Instead of the show of affection and mutual support we might expect at a funeral, we see clear signs of his estrangement from his family.  Instead of taking some comfort from the Catholic ritual, he must work to hide his disdain for his parish’s baby-faced priest.

The reception at Walt’s home following the service reinforces this impression.  With the sole exception of his dog Daisy, Walt is at odds with everyone, especially the Hmong family that lives next door.  He is visibly angry about the influx of immigrants into his neighborhood, and his sotto voce mutterings reveal a deeply prejudiced man.  Of Polish descent himself, it never occurs to Walt that his own ancestors were once in the same position that his neighbors are in now.  A veteran of the Korean War, he still carries a full complement of wartime prejudices.

His experiences during that war are never far from Walt’s mind; in fact, they live with him constantly.  In a sense, he is still fighting the Korean War, and still seeking absolution for deeds he committed then.  Reflecting on his wartime experiences, he tells the priest, “The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.”

Despite his wish to be left alone, circumstances soon force Walt to interact with his neighbors.  He rescues the older sister Sue (Ahney Her) from the attentions of three young toughs, and works to keep the younger brother Thao (Bee Vang) out of the clutches of a neighborhood gang.  As he spends time with Sue and Thao, he develops a genuine affection for them.  He defends Thao like he would his own son, and finds in him an opportunity to make amends for having kept his own two sons at arm’s length all their lives.  Ultimately, he begins to take pride in Thao, to respect him, and at the movie’s end, tells him, “I’m proud to say that you’re my friend.”

Simply put, “Gran Torino” is about atonement.  Walt is given a chance to atone for his mistakes in raising his sons, and for the needless killing of a young Chinese soldier in Korea.  His willingness to change and to set aside the prejudices of a lifetime is a testament to his underlying decency.  Through Walt’s acceptance of his Hmong neighbors, the movie makes a strong case that you can only hate what you don’t know, and calls to mind a proverb from Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever: “Nothing propinks like propinquity.”

Special mention must be made of the sure hand shown by screenwriter Nick Schenk.  It is his dialog that gives “Gran Torino” much of its punch, not to mention its moments of comic relief, without which it would seem unrelievedly grim.

Clint Eastwood, who turned 79 last May, has lost none of the acting and directing savvy that has marked so much of his recent work, including “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004).  “Gran Torino” marks his first acting role since his Oscar-winning turn in “Million Dollar Baby”.  As Walt Kowalski, he is unforgettable, and as director, he elicits excellent performances from the entire supporting cast.  Though you should bear in mind the language and violence of the streets in which the story takes place, this is a Clint Eastwood movie with heart, and I would unhesitatingly recommend “Gran Torino” to anyone old enough to drive.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on November 10, 2009 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  
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