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 approach 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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Movie Review: “Strictly Ballroom”

“A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.”

strictly ballroom“Strictly Ballroom” is a 1992 film by Australian director Baz Luhrmann.  It begins at the conclusion of a local dance competition in which young Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) effectively dances himself out of contention by trying out his own new dance moves, a pathway to certain defeat in the hidebound world of ballroom dance.  The competition lost, his partner Liz (Liz Holt) refuses to continue to dance with him and takes up with veteran Ken Railings (John Hannan) instead, leaving Scott without a partner for the upcoming Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship.

The characters in these early scenes have a frightening, cartoonish aspect.  The men all have florid, sweaty faces and bad toupees, and the women wear their hair in impossible spikes.  Into this surreal arena enters the simple, unadorned Fran, winningly acted by Tara Morice, who reminded me of both Andie McDowell and Nia Vardalos.  Fran is a novice dancer and a textbook ugly duckling, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a space between her front teeth.  She tells a dubious Scott, “I want to dance with you, your way”, and persuades him to give her an hour to show what she can do.

That first hour together is magical.  Fran has far more talent and aptitude than Scott anticipated, and she brings out a sensitive, caring side in him that we hadn’t seen before.  They dance beautifully together, yet Scott insists that the tryouts being conducted by his mother (Pat Thompson) to find a new partner for him will go forward as planned.

“Strictly Ballroom” tells the story of how these two are forced to confront his dysfunctional family, as well as the seamy underbelly of competitive dance, and how they grow both as individuals and as a couple in the process.  While the basic storyline is unassuming, the costuming is a feast for the eye, and the soundtrack is delightful from beginning to end, and includes “Time After Time”, “Love is in the Air”, and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as sung by the inimitable Doris Day.

The sum total of all these parts is that rarest, most elusive of all cinematic achievements: romance.  Not since Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home” have I seen a more romantic movie, and I think it is significant that both of them were made outside the U.S., far removed from Hollywood’s pernicious influence.

I recommend “Strictly Ballroom” for everyone, whether you’re looking for a movie for your family, a date with your main squeeze, or a night out with friends.  Even if you feel doubtful going in, you’ll feel happy on your way out.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Bagdad Café”

Bagdad_cafeBagdad Café is a 1987 film by German director Percy Adlon.  It tells the story of the inhabitants of an isolated truck stop/motel in the southern California desert, and the German tourist who unexpectedly finds herself stranded there.

The proprietress of this cafe is Brenda (CCH Pounder), a perpetually angry African-American woman on the edge of desperation who, in addition to managing the cafe and motel, has two teenage children and a grandbaby to look after.  Brenda is the only one connected with this enterprise who is not content simply to let things go their own way.  She fights endlessly with her husband, who takes a much more relaxed view of things than she does, and who decides finally that the safest course for him is to leave.

The motel is also home to Rudi (Jack Palance), a one-time Hollywood set painter, Debby (Christine Kaufmann), a popular tattoo artist, and Cahuenga (George Aquilar), a short-order cook.  Into this diverse mix of characters wanders Jasmine Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht), a German tourist on vacation with her husband.  They have just quarreled for the last time, after which he headed one way in the rented Lincoln while she headed the other way on foot, pulling her luggage behind her.

In due time Jasmine finds herself at the Bagdad Gas and Oil Cafe, where, to Brenda’s surprise, she takes a room.  Jasmine understands immediately that she is needed there, and at this point, being needed happens to be what Jasmine needs the most.  She decides to stay awhile, and for the rest of the movie, we watch as she is integrated into this unlikely family and how, ultimately, one person’s strengths dovetail with someone else’s needs.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how much we come to care about these people and how quickly we are drawn into their world.  Credit for this must go to Marianne Sägebrecht, CCH Pounder, and Jack Palance for their first-rate performances throughout.  Even more must go to writer/director Percy Adlon and his wife and writing partner Eleonore, who understand that great cinema does not depend on spectacle and special effects, but on finding and exploring situations in which the audience can relate to their characters.

I’m tempted to recommend this movie to everyone, but in fact there are themes here that are beyond the understanding of most pre-teens.  To everyone else I say, put Bagdad Café at the top of your “must see” list.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Duplicity”

duplicityI really should have known better.

The On Demand thumbnail sketch for “Duplicity” read, “This smartly-paced thriller, written and directed by Tony Gilroy, stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as longtime lovers and corporate spies who team up to stage an elaborate con to rip off their rival companies.”  With a promo like that, how good could it be?  But Susie wanted to watch a movie, and I was happy to watch something besides HGTV, and as Pope reminds us, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Briefly, “Duplicity” is about two spies, Ray Koval (Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Roberts).  In the opening scene, which takes place five years ago in Dubai, they meet at an Independence Day celebration, and we are treated to the first of many verbal fencing matches.  They spend the night together (how did that happen?) after which Claire drugs Ray and steals secret documents, an act of duplicity that sows seeds of mistrust and suspicion that permeate the whole movie.

Eventually, Ray and Claire leave their government posts to enter the high-stakes world of corporate espionage.  They conspire to defraud their respective employers and sell corporate secrets to the highest bidder.  Along the way, there’s more verbal fencing and – it must be admitted – one truly suspenseful scene in which Claire must find a copier and transmit a document before she and the document are both discovered missing.

Sadly, this is the best scene in the movie.

“Duplicity” typifies everything I dislike about mainstream Hollywood movies today.  Like so many films that come out of Hollywood, “Duplicity” began not as an artist’s dream, but as a moneymaking scheme.  The stars were cast not according to their talent or suitability for their roles, but according to their star power.  This is not meant as a criticism of Julia Roberts; I thought she was excellent in her early movies.  But an actor of her stature needs to choose her roles carefully, if for no other reason than not to overwhelm the role – and perhaps the movie – with her mere presence.

The primary fault in “Duplicity” lies not with the acting or direction, but with the writing.  It is long on plot twists, and short on characterization.  We cannot identify with the protagonists, because as they are written, we have nothing in common with them.  Saddest of all, we are never able to enjoy the love affair between Ray and Claire because we can never escape the suspicion that one is playing the other for his or her own selfish ends.

I recommend this movie only for those die-hard Julia Roberts fans who are bound and determined to see every one of her movies.  The rest of us would do better to pop some popcorn, sit back, and watch an old favorite.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 12:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Inglourious Basterds”

Inglourious_Basterds_posterAs far as I’m concerned, until someone discovers a lost film by Alfred Hitchcock, the release of a new movie by Quentin Tarantino is just about the most important cinematic event there is.  After years of anticipation, Inglourious Basterds finally opened on August 21, and after trying for an entire week to find someone to go with me, I finally went last Sunday with my son David and daughter-in-law Natalie.

Despite all the inevitable hype, “Basterds” did not disappoint.  Tarantino receives uniformly excellent performances from his principal actors.  Brad Pitt’s performance as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine, though one-dimensional, is both credible and enjoyable.  Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark and Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna both give performances of consummate range, depth, and emotional resonance.  Finally, Christoph Waltz is outstanding as Standartenführer Hans Landa, and fully deserved the Best Actor award he received at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

This is not a great film, but it overflows with great moments.  It features all of the elements that we have come to expect from Tarantino: a compelling story, exceptional casting and acting, two (!) Mexican standoffs, and Tarantino’s uncanny ear for dialogue.  If he doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, then the Academy Awards are even more of a travesty than we thought.  In short, Inglourious Basterds is gripping from beginning to end.  Be sure to go to the bathroom before you sit down, because once seated, you won’t want to get up.

With so much going for it, why isn’t this a great movie?  There are three reasons:  First, the main protagonist, Aldo Raine, is someone we cannot, and would not want to identify with.  Despite his hillbilly charm, he is essentially an amoral sadist with no discernible capacity for thought or introspection.  Compare him and his campaign of terror with Fredrick Zoller, the German war hero haunted by his experiences, who cannot bear to watch the climax of the propaganda film made to honor his own exploits.

Second, unlike Tarantino’s other movies, in which the violence is always integral to the story, some of the violence in “Basterds” is there primarily for its shock value.  Not all, certainly, but to the extent that it is, the movie is weaker for it.

Third, a great movie depends on a great story, and in Inglourious Basterds, the one potentially great story – that of Shoshanna’s revenge – must compete for time and attention with the tale of the Basterds, a small cadre of Jewish-American soldiers whose sole reason for being is the slaughter and terrorizing of Nazis.  Hardly an auspicious premise.

These objections notwithstanding, Inglourious Basterds is a must-see for any Quentin Tarantino aficionado, and should appeal to anyone who likes action flicks, World War II movies, or Brad Pitt.  If, however, you are upset by graphic scenes of violence, you should probably pass on this one.

Derrick Robinson