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Everybody Wants to be Us

Graduate Student at Loyola University Chicago. Check out the blog for what I'm currently obsessed with in film and culture. Michael Fassbender, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Winslet, Christian Bale, Jesse Eisenberg, David Lynch, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Daniel Radcliffe are regulars here.

#Great films

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE ✭✭✭✭✭

I love so many films, but it’s a rare and indescribable feeling to watch a film and feel as if it loves you back. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is a subtle seduction that builds into a lasting affection. The film tells the story of two neighbors, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) who form a friendship after discovering their spouses are having an affair with each other.

Their relationship begins out of wanting to know why their respective partners choose to cheat. The film necessitates multiple viewings because the two often engage in role plays, pretending they’re the duplicitous couple. They act out scenarios of an affair to discover the appeal their partners find outside of marriage. It’s difficult to decipher fantasy from reality, for us watching and the characters. The relationship slowly grows into a friendship, where the two collaborate on a writing project or call simply to hear the other person’s voice.

Abandoned by their partners, you feel the yearning and rare joy between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. We want them to be together, yet their morals and commitment not to do what has been done to them keep them apart. Cheung and Leung have a beautiful and sensual chemistry, making every scene a delicious torture of loving their delicate dance, while suffering from all the unresolved sexual tension. The ending, a three part act of bad timing and regret, is so wonderfully constructed.  It creates hope alongside despair knowing our lovers may never find happiness.

In the Mood for Love is a brave and passionate film. It wears its emotions with humility and dignity. The film explores the greater, and perhaps revolutionary, idea that the most powerful love is the one we hold and give to another without expecting or demanding anything in return. That love that defines our life, makes us noble, and gives shape to our greatest deeds. Most films treat love as a commodity, to be won after obstacles are swept away. Wong Kar-wai shows us in order to be our best self, we sometimes have to deny our desires.

The film is also a visual masterpiece. Maggie Cheung’s costumes are fantastic, showing the passionate, yet constricted nature of her character. Cheung’s Mrs. Chan may be one of the best dressed women in cinema history along with Grace Kelly in Rear Window and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tony Leung is gorgeous as Mr. Chow, burning the screen with his quiet intensity. His character, an affable and shy guy, is impossible not to fall in love with.

Wong Kar-wai creates layer upon layer of intrigue, beauty, and passion through music, vivid camera shots, and bold choices. For instance, we never see the faces of the adulterous spouses, adding to the mystery around their choices. Wong uses montages to great effect, showing the slow evolution of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s doomed courtship. This is almost a silent film, however in those dialogue free scenes, Cheung and Leung convey the depth of their longing, making this one of the most powerful love stories in cinema.

Best of CIFF: Kongen av Bastøy (King of Devil’s Island) 2011

My favorite film at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival.  I was not prepared for this emotional, daring, and powerful film.  Thankfully, it is on DVD and streaming on Netflix.  I love this score, which you cannot get here in the US.  One day I’ll go to Norway, buy this soundtrack, and be the happiest person in the world.

 heykmart:

Based on the true story of an uprising at a Norwegian juvenile reform prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a subtle, yet potent film about the irrepressible hunger for freedom against the abuses of power. Directed by Marius Hoist this film had me completely engaged; a few times I was perched on the edge of my seat with anxiety for the characters.  After the film closed, I let the beautiful score by Johan Söderqvist wash over me and found myself weeping in the darkness.  If there is any justice in the world, Norway will put this film up for Oscar contention and it will get the larger audience it deserves.  Until then, I’ll sing it’s praises as loud and lovingly as I can.

The film takes place on Bastøy island holding a juvenile boys prison and manual labor camp. Under the strict and sanctimonious Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) the boys do manual labor in the forests to pay for their crimes which range from skiving from church donation boxes to manslaughter.  Bestyreren imposes a rigid structure over the island.  Once new young men arrive, they are stripped literally and figuratively of their identities.  Order, or at least the appearance of it, is shaken with the arrival of Erling or C-19 as he’s named by Governor Bestyreren.  Guilty of manslaughter, Erling’s stubborn streak bucks against the Governor’s rules, earning harsh physical punishments and humiliations.  

Bestyreren enlists the help of Olav, C-1, to keep watch over Erling.  Looking forward to release after 6 years, Olav sees himself as captain and protector of his section.  At first, Erling mocks Olav for his straight-laced ways, but the two become friends through an unexpected discovery.  Erling has a letter from a loved one, but can not read it. Olav reads the letter and agrees to help Erling compose a response.  However, their friendship grows tense as Erling plots to escape.  Having tried and failed getting off the island himself, Olav cautions against it. When Erling manages to steal a boat and leave the island, the Governor tries to restore his hold on them by decreasing the rations of the entire camp.  Hope for escape is cut short when Erling is brought back, beaten and dragged barefoot across the snow, Governor makes Olav deliver the punishment: lashes to the back until he draws blood. 

Bastøy seems back under the Governor’s control, but something more sinister is about to be revealed. Olav and Erling begin to suspect Bråthen, one of the guards, is molesting Ivar, a meek and feeble inmate.  We never know what really motivates Olav to report on his house-father, but with urging from Erling, Olav goes to Governor Bestyreren with his suspicions. Until now, we have seen the worst in Bestyreren: his tyranny over the boys, his demands for respect, and his petty spats with Erling to maintain control. Disgusted with Bråthen and intending to fire him, Bestyreren confronts the guard.  When Bråthen threatens to blackmail him for skimming money from Bastøy, the Governor’s righteous anger dissipates. Ivar drowns himself for fear of more abuse from Bråthen and the Governor sends Bråthen away. The entire camp resounds in cheers, a short-lived relief from daily abuse.

Even with Bråthen gone, Ivar’s death weighs on Olav. Hoping to cover up the institution’s sins, Bestyreren publicly chastises Olav during his release hearing, blaming him for not being a more vigilant house capitan. Olav barely holds back his rage and disappointment, glowering at the Governor. As Olav, finally free, walks to the ferry with the other freed boys, a smug Bråthen waltzes back in. I pleaded inwardly for Olav to keep walking, grab his freedom and leave Bastøy.  Yet, knowing Olav- his dignity, fierce protectiveness, and anger at Bråthen, his decision to turn around and attack the housemaster was what I truly desired.  Olav starts a brawl with Bråthen and other guards with Erling quickly joining him.  For this Bestyreren delivers his cruelest punishment yet, locking the boys in cages in the deserted, frigid cellar of the prison. For days, maybe weeks, Olav and Erling are imprisoned with little food and scarce blankets. Things look incredibly bleak and I was preparing myself for a devastating end.

With help of a sympathetic guard, Erling and Olav break out and attempt to escape Bastøy.  When they run into guards, instead of running, hiding, or being captured; Olav and Erling fight back under the gaze of the entire institution. That spark explodes into a fire of resistance.  All the young inmates turn on the adults, beating, chasing, and giving back everything they’ve gotten under their rule. The boys, led by Olav and Erling, take over Bastøy and force Governor Bestyreren to leave by ferry. Olav, sitting among the ruins of the Governor’s trashed office, looks relieved, but weary about what awaits the boys of Bastøy.  

The Bastøy uprising is quickly met with armed force from the Norwegian Military.  The sight of soldiers firing and chasing these children is frightening.  Erling and Olav-limping with an injured leg- are trying to make their escape over the frozen fjord. Alone, Erling could have made the escape easily, but he carries Olav on his back over the ice and snow.  When the boys reach a crack in the ice, Olav barely makes it over the frosty river that impedes their path to freedom.  Erling falls in, encouraging his friend in his last breathes to go on.  

My description of these events doesn’t do justice to the storytelling, cinematography and performances that make this rather grim and simple story so emotionally riveting. Director Marius Hoist brilliantly paces the film, peppering the film with several points of tension, that slowly build to the final confrontations. Young actors Benjamin Helstad and Trond Nilssen as Erling and Olav pack these smaller scenes with so much energy, anger, and compassion that you really come to know their characters.  Nilssen in particular gives a beautiful performance.  He is able, many times without words, to convey his sympathy for Ivar, disgust at Bestyreren and Bråthen, and then some wholly mysterious aspect to his character’s history that left me wondering about Olav after the film ended.  I also like Helstad’s defiant Erling.  Together, the actors carry us through the story.

Even though “King of Devil’s Island” is based on true events, it feels more like a fable than a history lesson.  Hoist explores themes of evil, power, friendship, and bravery. He refrains from drawing easy heroes and villains.  Instead he challenges us to see ourselves and our society in the day to day conflicts and glimpses of hope at Bastøy. Hoist reminds us that the punishment for some outweighs their crime, while the people who prey on the weak and hide their own sins by dominating over others almost never get what they deserve. “King of Devil’s Island” reminds us to look beyond the obvious crimes in our society to the more insidious instances of abusive power. Those crimes, while not always overt, steal the liberty and happiness of so many.  The backlash, like at Bastøy, will always seem more violent, yet what precipitated it- tyranny and daily abuse- is the true injustice. 

CIFF Favorites: FISH TANK (2009)

Remembering past years of the Chicago International Film Festival.

'Fish Tank' played at the 2009 festival and I saw it twice because it knocked me out. It won the Silver Hugo award for Best Film and Michael Fassbender won for best supporting actor.

 heykmart:

Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK follows Mia Williams, a volatile adolescent living with her hard drinking mother and equally foul mouthed little sister Tyler.  Early on we see Mia having this verbal exchange with her friend’s father,

Mia: Can you give Keeley a message for me?

Keeley’s Dad: What?

Mia: Tell her I think her old man’s a cunt!. 

Mia’s exploits have convinced her mother to send her away to a school for troubled youth, which she is determined to avoid.  Obsessed with hip-hop and dance, Mia hopes to find something on her own terms.  In comes her mother’s new boyfriend Connor, who sometimes fills the father role these women want and other times stokes the bad influences flying around the tiny apartment.  

Mia and Connor are drawn to each other.  Connor sees Mia’s outbursts as cries for the care and attention she rarely gets from her mom.  Mia is intrigued by him and frequently goes to him for help or advice, but her moods turn on a dime.  Mia seems to be growing a different part of herself when Connor’s around; a part that can trust, a part that can be calm and imaginative.  

Arnold’s film is a rare experience of discovery on many levels.  She filmed it in Academy ratio using the full height of the screen canvas and while narrowing the edges to almost feel like a cage. Young Katie Jarvis makes full use of the tighter space, trashing at every corner of the frame. Unconventional directing tactics like filming the movie chronologically and withholding the full script from the actors until the scene was to be filmed give the film a pulsing energy throughout.  Arnold never tipping her hand or releases the tension around the nature of Connor and Mia’s relationship. Each time I watch the film, which must be a dozen by now, I find myself considering the characters’ in different ways.  Their words and actions take new meanings and spark different questions after each viewing.

Katie Jarvis gives a gnarling first time (hopefully not the last) performance, bringing a spontaneity and vulnerability needed for this teenage powder keg. Michael Fassbender imbues Connor with a magnetism that draws us and Mia in (it doesn’t hurt that he’s shirtless A LOT).  He keeps Connor’s mood pretty even and light, a great contrast to Mia.  Fassbender neutralizes and softens Jarvis with his humor and care, until she fires back with vitriol.

Arnold keeps our suspicions sharp, but stretches hope for these characters until the last possible moment. The climax is extremely problematic and at times feels outside of the film.  Yet, the narrative recovers quickly with a fitting conclusion of a small reconciliation between Mia and her mother and the escape she may be looking for.  

FISH TANK is available on Netflix Instant View. 

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

After seeing it several times, I believe The Dark Knight Rises is the greatest superhero film ever made and the best film of the year.  Christopher Nolan unifies the three films and builds to an electrifying and satisfying conclusion in Rises. Rises excels over every other superhero film because we see the most dramatic changes in Bruce Wayne/ Batman’s character since the origin story.  Everything is rooted in Bruce’s relationships and quest to save Gotham from its most lethal enemy: The League of Shadows.  Christian Bale gives his best performance as Batman in Rises and the surrounding cast is top notch.  Anne Hathaway is the standout, successfully re-imagining Catwoman/ Selina Kyle and fitting flawlessly into Nolan’s gritty Gotham city.

Spoilers Ahead

"Welcome to Facebook"

Speaking of Facebook, here’s my review of “The Social Network”

You can tell immediately this part of campus is completely foreign to him. Bare walls, florescent lighting, none of the wall hangings and plaques of the other hallowed, historical halls of Harvard University. In this place, it only matters what you see on screens and what you cannot see. Sure, Eduardo Savurin knew how people connected online- sending emails, moving money, sharing music- all in short bursts, interruptions in normative social life. His friend, Mark Zuckerburg is about to change all that.

Now a familiar sight, a binge drinking party in the CS lab designed by Mark to test the mettle of potential interns. Mockingly, Eduardo says, “Which part of the interns job will they have to do drunk?.” Mark snaps back, “I guess a more accurate test is whether they can keep a chicken alive for a week.” Eduardo’s membership in the Phoenix stopped mattering after he forked over their emails to launch the site.

The commotion stops and Mark walks purposefully over to the monitors. Everyone sits poised for Mark to make a move. Without letting on, he turns to one programmer, thrusts his hand saying, “Welcome to Facebook.” The crowd erupts. Mark just became 12 ft tall and as Eduardo stands in the shadows, cheering with the rest for the creator and president of the biggest final club in the world, it’s clear these two friends are on completely different planets.

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin will have the last laugh. They made a film about how we live and tricked us into thinking it was all about social media. Except for hacking scenes and montages of Zuckerberg creating the initial site, the film takes place off-line, face-to-face, and person-to-person. With Sorkin’s writing, the film makes talking into a contact sport. Take the scene with the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) in Larry Summers’ office. Summers, played by Douglas Urbanski, in a few words cuts through to their core beliefs of entitlement and tramples them to our viewing delight. 

The most transfixing element of THE SOCIAL NETWORK remains for me Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg. He is in nearly every scene or the specter of Zuckerberg hangs over the other characters in his absence. Eisenberg, I feel, uses his fictional Zuckerberg to characterize our cultural obsession with greatness. In the film, Zuckerberg’s ambitions reach beyond impressing girls or even making money. The scene I described above is probably his happiest moment in the film- surrounded by people celebrating his creation. He’s grown beyond the student who wanted recognition among his peers through a final club, he has soared above his peers to be an arbiter of their talent and creator of their enjoyment.  

Mark’s focus on and commitment to Facebook has been read as destructive and malicious, but I never totally agreed.  I didn’t know how to describe his performance until the Jesuit at America podcasted on the film.  Fr. James Martin, a writer I respect on all things religious and cultural, described the Zuckerberg of the film as amoral.  I think Mark is so myopic and so young that he cannot fathom other people would be hurt by his actions.  In the first meeting with the Winklevoss Twins, I could see how little he esteems Harvard Connection. The one kernel of value resides in exclusivity, the dating aspect means nothing to him. With Eduardo, played by Andrew Garfield, you never see Mark relate to him as a business partner or equal in this enterprise. Mark envisages something greater for Facebook and can never communicate that to his friend. Facebook eclipses Eduardo and the betrayal is harsh, yet Mark’s blinders are on full blast and keep him from seeing what is happening. Lastly, with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) Mark seems to have found someone who understands the potential scale of his idea.  Yet, Sean’s recklessness and flash never rubs off on Mark, who remains rigiously focused on the tasks at hand.  

Eisenberg conveys this with such power, that I was incredibly drawn to his level of concentration and steadfastness.  For someone whose emotions rarely get beyond him, Eisenberg brings a lot of nuance to this character.  Sly smirks while hacking and cold glances under interrogation have this magnetism behind them that kept me invested in his character.  When he does explode, it’s completely earned because of the character’s belief in his goal and obsession with it.

 

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall they have a right to give it a try. But there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention—you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

Here, he’s agitated by people both questioning the work he’s done to create the site and hindering him from taking it even further.  Eisenberg couples this speech with a strong physical performance.  His posture before this scene is detached, but as he drops this hammer, he takes an almost predatory stance, staring right through his challengers. Sometimes, his eyes obfuscate his true thoughts.  For instance at the close of the film, he refreshes a friend request to Erica (Rooney Mara) who sparked Mark to create Face Mash. Does Mark want reconciliation with her, or recognition from her for what he’s created, or to simply test how she views him years later.  Eisenberg never lets on and gives us something to ponder after the film ends.  

THE SOCIAL NETWORK serves as a great film portrait of what we believe about greatness.  We regard individual effort, singular inspiration, and solitary wealth as the ideal of success.  The film takes that idea, translates it through this creation story of Facebook, injects it with incredibly fierce characters played by talented and nimble actors and dares us to deny our own beliefs.  In the person of Mark Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg we find the extreme version of this idea and see it’s not so outrageous to what we would want to find in an entrepreneur of today, even if we don’t like it.  Eisenberg’s performance should force us to rethink this cultural obsession and seek to celebrate teamwork, collaboration, and sharing credit even if his character shuns it.  THE SOCIAL NETWORK will remain, I proffer, one of the greatest films of its time.  My hope is in the future it will serve as a recollection of this time and not a predictor of a future that could use a little less Zuckerberg at the top.

A City So Real: “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY AL PACINO.  My favorite film of his is Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.”  Here’s my review from last year. 

“C’Mon you’ve seen DOG DAY AFTERNOON! You’re stalling”- Det. Keith Frazier, INSIDE MAN.

From this line in Spike Lee’s New York bank heist film INSIDE MAN, I thought DOG DAY AFTERNOON would be some sort of primer for enterprising bank robbers.  So wrong.  Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik puts on a brave face for the cops and cameras outside of the bank, but makes an affable, almost lovable captor.  Still, Lee’s INSIDE MAN is the progeny of the great Sidney Lumet film in its depiction of a city as an organism with its own unique properties, life force, and peculiarities. In this matrix of  political and personal agendas Sonny must find a way out, hopefully alive if not closer to his goal.

In the course of the film, Sonny Wortzik emerges as an unexpected everyman.  At first I suspected he was a bumbling genius, anticipating all the angles and silent alarms in the bank.  Yet, he comes a day late to an empty vault, an asthmatic security guard, and a gaggle of high spirited bank tellers.  By his side is the nerve-racked Sal (John Cazale) clucking his gun.  As crowds and TV cameras gather outside, Sonny tries to elicit support and protection by referencing various political agendas.  To protect himself from trigger happy cops (who probably just want to end this standoff) Pacino as Sonny boisterously shouts “Attica, Attica! Remember Attica” to cheering crowds sick of NYPD brutality.  One the phone with a TV reporter, he channels the labor movement in this exchange:

Sonny: I’m robbing a bank because they got money here. That’s why I’m robbing it. 
TV Anchorman: No, what I mean is why do you feel you have to steal for money? Couldn’t you get a job? 
Sonny: Uh, no. Doing what? You know if you want a job you’ve got to be a member of a union. See, and if you got no union card you don’t get a job. 
TV Anchorman: What about non-union occupations? 
Sonny: What’s wrong with this guy? What do you mean non-union, like what? A bank teller? You know how much a bank teller makes a week? Not much. A hundred and fifteen to start, right? Now are you going to live on that? A got a wife and a couple of kids, how am I going to live on that? What do you make a week? 
TV Anchorman: Well I’m here to talk to you Sonny… 
Sonny: Well I’m talking to you. We’re entertainment, right? What do you got for us?

Sonny’s true motivation for robbing the bank- a sex change operation for his new wife Leon- adds another layer of advocacy to the character.  Yet, I still wondered what Sonny really believes in and want wants.  His motivations are uncovered beautifully by Pacino in conversations with his three loves Leon, Heidi, and his mother.  These exchanges show us his desire to be the hero of their lives without having the resources to do so.  His frustration of not being able to give Leon his operation or be the son and husband he’d like to be has driven him to this act. 

As Sonny’s plan evolves, the crazed force of the city quickly adapts and transforms this little bank robbery into street theater.  Underneath the chaos a new standoff forms between Sonny and Sheldon- a creepy bureaucrat from the FBI.  Playing the part of cold-blooded bank robber, Sonny promises the cops that if his demands are unmet he and Sal will start shooting people.  Sal, who seems more inept at crime than Sonny, asks if he was telling the truth.  Sonny reassures him he has no intention of killing anyone.  Shaking, Sal delivers the most shocking line of the piece:

Sal: Were you serious about what you said?
Sonny: About what?
Sal: About throwing.. about throwing those bodies out the door?
Sonny: That’s what I want him to think
Sal: I wanna know what you think
Sonny:[pauses]
Sal: Cause I’ll tell you right now… I’m ready to do it.

Now, Sonny has to be the wall- keeping Sal from killing the hostages and shielding Sal from  the police.  Sonny, not a bank robber, not a bread winner, not an activist, cannot meet this challenge.  Lumet lets the tension overwhelm Sonny and us as the imminent final confrontation plays out. 

In DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Lumet cleverly subverts the bank robbery plot to show us what diversity really looks like.  From Sonny’s political schizophrenia, the morphing jeering crowds, over eager cops, and silently lethal Sal; Lumet’s New York is a place of real danger and love by those we least suspect.  DOG DAY AFTERNOON nails how cities behave and how it feels to love, hate, and live in them.

Rest in peace, Sidney Lumet.  New York was lucky to have you.

Kongen av Bastøy (King of Devil’s Island) 2011

Based on the true story of an uprising at a Norwegian juvenile reform prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a subtle, yet potent film about the irrepressible hunger for freedom against the abuses of power. Directed by Marius Hoist this film had me completely engaged; a few times I was perched on the edge of my seat with anxiety for the characters.  After the film closed, I let the beautiful score by Johan Söderqvist wash over me and found myself weeping in the darkness.  If there is any justice in the world, Norway will put this film up for Oscar contention and it will get the larger audience it deserves.  Until then, I’ll sing it’s praises as loud and lovingly as I can.

The film takes place on Bastøy island holding a juvenile boys prison and manual labor camp. Under the strict and sanctimonious Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) the boys do manual labor in the forests to pay for their crimes which range from skiving from church donation boxes to manslaughter.  Bestyreren imposes a rigid structure over the island.  Once new young men arrive, they are stripped literally and figuratively of their identities.  Order, or at least the appearance of it, is shaken with the arrival of Erling or C-19 as he’s named by Governor Bestyreren.  Guilty of manslaughter, Erling’s stubborn streak bucks against the Governor’s rules, earning harsh physical punishments and humiliations.  

Bestyreren enlists the help of Olav, C-1, to keep watch over Erling.  Looking forward to release after 6 years, Olav sees himself as captain and protector of his section.  At first, Erling mocks Olav for his straight-laced ways, but the two become friends through an unexpected discovery.  Erling has a letter from a loved one, but can not read it. Olav reads the letter and agrees to help Erling compose a response.  However, their friendship grows tense as Erling plots to escape.  Having tried and failed getting off the island himself, Olav cautions against it. When Erling manages to steal a boat and leave the island, the Governor tries to restore his hold on them by decreasing the rations of the entire camp.  Hope for escape is cut short when Erling is brought back, beaten and dragged barefoot across the snow, Governor makes Olav deliver the punishment: lashes to the back until he draws blood. 

Bastøy seems back under the Governor’s control, but something more sinister is about to be revealed. Olav and Erling begin to suspect Bråthen, one of the guards, is molesting Ivar, a meek and feeble inmate.  We never know what really motivates Olav to report on his house-father, but with urging from Erling, Olav goes to Governor Bestyreren with his suspicions. Until now, we have seen the worst in Bestyreren: his tyranny over the boys, his demands for respect, and his petty spats with Erling to maintain control. Disgusted with Bråthen and intending to fire him, Bestyreren confronts the guard.  When Bråthen threatens to blackmail him for skimming money from Bastøy, the Governor’s righteous anger dissipates. Ivar drowns himself for fear of more abuse from Bråthen and the Governor sends Bråthen away. The entire camp resounds in cheers, a short-lived relief from daily abuse.

Even with Bråthen gone, Ivar’s death weighs on Olav. Hoping to cover up the institution’s sins, Bestyreren publicly chastises Olav during his release hearing, blaming him for not being a more vigilant house capitan. Olav barely holds back his rage and disappointment, glowering at the Governor. As Olav, finally free, walks to the ferry with the other freed boys, a smug Bråthen waltzes back in. I pleaded inwardly for Olav to keep walking, grab his freedom and leave Bastøy.  Yet, knowing Olav- his dignity, fierce protectiveness, and anger at Bråthen, his decision to turn around and attack the housemaster was what I truly desired.  Olav starts a brawl with Bråthen and other guards with Erling quickly joining him.  For this Bestyreren delivers his cruelest punishment yet, locking the boys in cages in the deserted, frigid cellar of the prison. For days, maybe weeks, Olav and Erling are imprisoned with little food and scarce blankets. Things look incredibly bleak and I was preparing myself for a devastating end.

With help of a sympathetic guard, Erling and Olav break out and attempt to escape Bastøy.  When they run into guards, instead of running, hiding, or being captured; Olav and Erling fight back under the gaze of the entire institution. That spark explodes into a fire of resistance.  All the young inmates turn on the adults, beating, chasing, and giving back everything they’ve gotten under their rule. The boys, led by Olav and Erling, take over Bastøy and force Governor Bestyreren to leave by ferry. Olav, sitting among the ruins of the Governor’s trashed office, looks relieved, but weary about what awaits the boys of Bastøy.  

The Bastøy uprising is quickly met with armed force from the Norwegian Military.  The sight of soldiers firing and chasing these children is frightening.  Erling and Olav-limping with an injured leg- are trying to make their escape over the frozen fjord. Alone, Erling could have made the escape easily, but he carries Olav on his back over the ice and snow.  When the boys reach a crack in the ice, Olav barely makes it over the frosty river that impedes their path to freedom.  Erling falls in, encouraging his friend in his last breathes to go on.  

My description of these events doesn’t do justice to the storytelling, cinematography and performances that make this rather grim and simple story so emotionally riveting. Director Marius Hoist brilliantly paces the film, peppering the film with several points of tension, that slowly build to the final confrontations. Young actors Benjamin Helstad and Trond Nilssen as Erling and Olav pack these smaller scenes with so much energy, anger, and compassion that you really come to know their characters.  Nilssen in particular gives a beautiful performance.  He is able, many times without words, to convey his sympathy for Ivar, disgust at Bestyreren and Bråthen, and then some wholly mysterious aspect to his character’s history that left me wondering about Olav after the film ended.  I also like Helstad’s defiant Erling.  Together, the actors carry us through the story.

Even though “King of Devil’s Island” is based on true events, it feels more like a fable than a history lesson.  Hoist explores themes of evil, power, friendship, and bravery. He refrains from drawing easy heroes and villains.  Instead he challenges us to see ourselves and our society in the day to day conflicts and glimpses of hope at Bastøy. Hoist reminds us that the punishment for some outweighs their crime, while the people who prey on the weak and hide their own sins by dominating over others almost never get what they deserve. “King of Devil’s Island” reminds us to look beyond the obvious crimes in our society to the more insidious instances of abusive power. Those crimes, while not always overt, steal the liberty and happiness of so many.  The backlash, like at Bastøy, will always seem more violent, yet what precipitated it- tyranny and daily abuse- is the true injustice. 

Love Letter to BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

A LOVE LETTER TO BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

I adore BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S completely and see it as a story of quirky and flawed characters finding a love that transforms their outlook on life.  TIFFANY’S brings us into the gilded world of New York party girl Holly Golightly and her neighbor Paul Varjak, a kept man.  They must deffer their dreams and use their charms and looks as currency.  The parties, the fashions, and humor make this film a pleasure to re-watch.  Yet my love and admiration for the film comes from Audrey Hepburn’s beautiful performance as Holly, a “real phony” piecing together an identity that will hopefully give her access to a stable and comfortable world. The film remains clever, compelling, and enjoyable over time because of the gradual and character driven tension weaved through Holly and Paul’s relationship.   Everything in the love story comes back to and relies on character, choice, and finding the something real over selling out for something fake. 

In one of my favorite opening shots, we meet Holly Golightly having a coffee and danish in front of Tiffany & Co., not really admiring the jewelry or observing shoppers, but recovering and regrouping from the night.  Tiffany’s is a kind of totem for Holly standing for admired, but distant qualities from her own life  She explains this more to Paul in their frenzied first meeting.

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
Paul Varjak: Sure.
Holly Golightly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then… then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

Holly’s explanation of “mean reds,” the rudderless feeling of being alone and unsure of your footing make us instantly relate and root for her character.  We later hear OJ Berman describe Holly as a “real phony”, but considering who she is and what she’s striving for, it may not be such a slight. 

Holly Golightly has taken her situation- poor beginnings, no family, and lack of legitimate opportunities- and found a way to get along.  You could imagine being a perhaps unsuspecting courier for a mob boss and getting “$50 for the powder room” from a parade of endless johns and “super-rats” would grind down a her spirit and dreams. Holly keeps herself going with Tiffany’s to remind her she’s better than her worst actions.  She’s a bold figure in films, particularly of a time that demanded villains and morally bent characters get their wicked end. Making Holly more real than phony is all due to Audrey Hepburn.  In her performance, we see beyond what Holly does to who she really is.  Hepburn’s elegance, wit, and energy makes Paul and the audience want to spend time with her.  Hepburn nails both sides of Holly - the fun loving gold-digger at her party and then transforms into a simple dreamer strumming a guitar and singing “Moon River” on her fire escape. 

Many romantic comedies today pump on the story of two opposites repelling and attacking against the background of ridiculous antics.  Yet BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, pairs two similar types who form a friendship of unique understanding that holds judgment.  Their first meeting sets up an explicitly sexual encounter and then subverts it.  Holly sneaks into Paul’s apartment late at night when both characters are partially undressed, but too tired to do anything but talk.   Holly agitates Paul when he says he’s a writer since his typewriter has no ribbon in it.  Paul inquires about Holly’s “$50 for the powder room” comment and listens to her real goal of making a home for her brother one day.  Their common occupations mollify the encounter and help the audience to see the unvarnished versions of their characters.  We come away from the scene viewing Holly and Paul mainly as friends.  

As the romantic plot kicks in, I think the story remains fresh because the barrier keeping Holly and Paul a part directly relates to their choices and moving from a cynical outlook to a more hopeful, but risky one.   Holly’s visions of marrying rich get turned into a strategy once she discovers her brother’s life and future are in danger.  Holly’s ex Doc Golightly returns and says she will need to either support her brother herself or have him sign up for another tour in the army.  She decides to make herself the “Next Mrs. Rusty Trawler” to get the money she needs to help her brother. Instead of finding support from Paul, he chastises her saying, “If I were you, I’d be more careful with my money.  Rusty Trawler’s too hard a way of earning it.”  She returns it insisting he take her money because he “should used to taking money from ladies by now.”  Their comfortable friendship existed on a plane of no judgment.  I think Paul disapproves of Holly because he wants to be with her, but more than that, he knows she would be crossing a line from getting $50 from guys to get by to selling herself for money. Holly turns on him implying he has already sold himself out. 

They reconcile in a fun and lovely escapade around New York.  We return to Tiffany & Co. for Holly to show Paul her adopted church.  Instead of looking from the outside and dreaming, Paul and Holly decide to make the place their own and buy something for their price: $10.  They meet the most patient sales associate in cinema who agrees to engrave a Cracker Jack ring. 

Paul returns the experience by bringing Holly to the library to try and check out the book he wrote. He cannot help but enjoy her loud antics in the quiet library and agree Tiffany’s is a much nicer place.  Their day of fun ends in the vestibule of their apartment with a kiss.  I still get chills watching that scene, seeing how different their characters seem in that one moment.  Holly, a vivacious siren, looks diminutive and innocent.  Paul too who cowers to his “decorator” and even Holly, conveys a new strength and determination of a leading man.

The previous day has shifted something in Paul.  With new found confidence he decides to cut ties with 2E, played by the sassy Patricia Neal.  Paul proposes they end things “stylishly” and neatly.  2E tries to maintain power in the situation, first accusing Paul of finding another female patron with money who can take care of him, then writing him a check for “vacation with pay.”  Paul rejects her offer saying:

Paul: No Thanks.  I’ve got a check of my own.  When you get yourself a new writer to help, try and find one my size.  That way you won’t have to even shorten the sleeves.

He’s done selling out and wants to live by his writing and be with Holly. 

Paul sets out to find Holly with her ring from Tiffany’s in hand.  To his surprise he finds her in the library researching South America.  Like Paul, Holly displays a new sense of focus and determination to change her life, but with disastrous implications.  She plans to marry the Brazilian, rich, and politically connected Jose who has his eye on her.  Instead of glowering in disapproval, Paul insists they should be together.  Holly reacts coldly treating him like one of her many disposable “rats.”

Holly: Do you think you own me?

Paul: That’s exactly what I think.

Holly: That’s what everybody always thinks, but everybody happens to be wrong.

Paul: Look, I am not everybody! Or am I?  Is that what you really think? That I’m no different from all your other rats and super-rats?  If that’s it… if that’s what you really think… there’s something I want to give you.

Holly: What’s that?

Paul: $50 for the powder room.

Holly and Paul who reserved judgment and respected each other as friends and similar souls degrade their relationship beyond repair.  We want them to be together, but more than that, we want Holly to make better choices and break out of her stubborn pursuit of rich men.

The ending of the film beautifully recalls beginning scenes between Holly and Paul to show how Paul and Holly have grown beyond that first meeting and set the stage for the final confrontation.  Paul comes into Holly’s apartment, transformed from a barren room with a halved out tub and empty bookcase to a garish, cramped place with oddities hanging from every wall. All that remains the same is Holly’s nameless Cat.  Instead of being half dressed when Paul first met her or in one of her stylish black dresses, Holly is casual in a sweater, slacks, and flats (still fabulous).  Holly, like her apartment, has gone overboard with the delusions Paul warned her against: selling yourself to marry rich and powerful.  Holly holds on to her fantasy, but Paul, retaining his leading man presence and working as a writer, pokes holes into it while referencing his feelings for her.

Paul Varjak: [about Holly and Jose] So you’re getting married, then?
Holly Golightly: Well, he hasn’t really asked me, not in so many words.
Paul Varjak: Four you mean?
Holly Golightly: Huh?
Paul Varjak: Well that’s how many it takes: Will. You. Marry. Me.

Paul’s warnings come true once Holly is arrested and Jose dumps her to avert public scandal.  Instead of admitting Paul was right and turning around, Holly rebounds with anger, wanting him to give her a list of the 50 richest men in Brazil and committing herself to finding a rich sap.  Audrey Hepburn expertly shows us the ugliest side of Holly’s ambition and convinces us she is a lost cause. 

Paul returns with equal anger at Holly’s stubbornness and George Peppard nails one of my favorite movie recriminations.

Paul: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-You-Are?

You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other,” because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.

You call yourself a free spirit, a wild thing, and you’re terrified somebody’s going to stick you in a cage. Well, baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somaliland. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

I’ve been carrying this thing around for months.  I don’t want it anymore.

Holly seems unmoved by Paul’s speech, staring straight ahead, until he tosses a ring into her lap, the ring from Tiffany’s. 

In that moment, Tiffany’s and all it stands for becomes real in the person of Paul and her abandoned Cat.  We see Holly make the right choice in running after Paul and searching for Cat.  The final kiss is a bonus to the happiness you see in Hepburn’s eyes at the sight of Cat.  We rejoice more in Holly changing her mind and rejecting her cynical scheme.  Paul too, is worthy of Holly now and we can leave that rainy New York alley with faith in them and perhaps in ourselves to be brave, hopeful, and lovely.

FIN

"Welcome to Facebook" : THE SOCIAL NETWORK *Day 100*

You can tell immediately this part of campus is completely foreign to him. Bare walls, florescent lighting, none of the wall hangings and plaques of the other hallowed, historical halls of Harvard University. In this place, it only matters what you see on screens and what you cannot see. Sure, Eduardo Savurin knew how people connected online- sending emails, moving money, sharing music- all in short bursts, interruptions in normative social life. His friend, Mark Zuckerburg is about to change all that.

Now a familiar sight, a binge drinking party in the CS lab designed by Mark to test the mettle of potential interns. Mockingly, Eduardo says, “Which part of the interns job will they have to do drunk?.” Mark snaps back, “I guess a more accurate test is whether they can keep a chicken alive for a week.” Eduardo’s membership in the Phoenix stopped mattering after he forked over their emails to launch the site.

The commotion stops and Mark walks purposefully over to the monitors. Everyone sits poised for Mark to make a move. Without letting on, he turns to one programmer, thrusts his hand saying, “Welcome to Facebook.” The crowd erupts. Mark just became 12 ft tall and as Eduardo stands in the shadows, cheering with the rest for the creator and president of the biggest final club in the world, it’s clear these two friends are on completely different planets.

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin will have the last laugh. They made a film about how we live and tricked us into thinking it was all about social media. Except for hacking scenes and montages of Zuckerberg creating the initial site, the film takes place off-line, face-to-face, and person-to-person. With Sorkin’s writing, the film makes talking into a contact sport. Take the scene with the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) in Larry Summers’ office. Summers, played by Douglas Urbanski, in a few words cuts through to their core beliefs of entitlement and tramples them to our viewing delight. 

The most transfixing element of THE SOCIAL NETWORK remains for me Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg. He is in nearly every scene or the specter of Zuckerberg hangs over the other characters in his absence. Eisenberg, I feel, uses his fictional Zuckerberg to characterize our cultural obsession with greatness. In the film, Zuckerberg’s ambitions reach beyond impressing girls or even making money. The scene I described above is probably his happiest moment in the film- surrounded by people celebrating his creation. He’s grown beyond the student who wanted recognition among his peers through a final club, he has soared above his peers to be an arbiter of their talent and creator of their enjoyment.  

Mark’s focus on and commitment to Facebook has been read as destructive and malicious, but I never totally agreed.  I didn’t know how to describe his performance until the Jesuit at America podcasted on the film.  Fr. James Martin, a writer I respect on all things religious and cultural, described the Zuckerberg of the film as amoral.  I think Mark is so myopic and so young that he cannot fathom other people would be hurt by his actions.  In the first meeting with the Winklevoss Twins, I could see how little he esteems Harvard Connection. The one kernel of value resides in exclusivity, the dating aspect means nothing to him. With Eduardo, played by Andrew Garfield, you never see Mark relate to him as a business partner or equal in this enterprise. Mark envisages something greater for Facebook and can never communicate that to his friend. Facebook eclipses Eduardo and the betrayal is harsh, yet Mark’s blinders are on full blast and keep him from seeing what is happening. Lastly, with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) Mark seems to have found someone who understands the potential scale of his idea.  Yet, Sean’s recklessness and flash never rubs off on Mark, who remains rigiously focused on the tasks at hand.  

Eisenberg conveys this with such power, that I was incredibly drawn to his level of concentration and steadfastness.  For someone whose emotions rarely get beyond him, Eisenberg brings a lot of nuance to this character.  Sly smirks while hacking and cold glances under interrogation have this magnetism behind them that kept me invested in his character.  When he does explode, it’s completely earned because of the character’s belief in his goal and obsession with it.

 

I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall they have a right to give it a try. But there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention—you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

Here, he’s agitated by people both questioning the work he’s done to create the site and hindering him from taking it even further.  Eisenberg couples this speech with a strong physical performance.  His posture before this scene is detached, but as he drops this hammer, he takes an almost predatory stance, staring right through his challengers. Sometimes, his eyes obfuscate his true thoughts.  For instance at the close of the film, he refreshes a friend request to Erica (Rooney Mara) who sparked Mark to create Face Mash. Does Mark want reconciliation with her, or recognition from her for what he’s created, or to simply test how she views him years later.  Eisenberg never lets on and gives us something to ponder after the film ends.  

THE SOCIAL NETWORK serves as a great film portrait of what we believe about greatness.  We regard individual effort, singular inspiration, and solitary wealth as the ideal of success.  The film takes that idea, translates it through this creation story of Facebook, injects it with incredibly fierce characters played by talented and nimble actors and dares us to deny our own beliefs.  In the person of Mark Zuckerberg played by Jesse Eisenberg we find the extreme version of this idea and see it’s not so outrageous to what we would want to find in an entrepreneur of today, even if we don’t like it.  Eisenberg’s performance should force us to rethink this cultural obsession and seek to celebrate teamwork, collaboration, and sharing credit even if his character shuns it.  THE SOCIAL NETWORK will remain, I proffer, one of the greatest films of its time.  My hope is in the future it will serve as a recollection of this time and not a predictor of a future that could use a little less Zuckerberg at the top.

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HUNGER (2008) *Day 97*

He was a poet and a soldier, he died courageously
And we gave him 30,000 votes while in captivity.

-“The People’s Own MP”

Directed by renowned British visual artist Steve McQueen, HUNGER puts you in the Maze prison with Bobby Sands and Irish Republican prisoners during the height of their protests.  Not a biopic or history lesson, McQueen and Michael Fassbender playing Sands agitate, horrify, and captivate.  HUNGER is full of strong, sometimes revolting images that linger on screen combined with jolts of violence. A 22 minute conversation between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham as Fr. Dominic Moran, a sounding board for Sands, anchors and prepares you for the devastating end: Bobby Sands’ slow, painful, yet defiant death on hunger strike.  

McQueen sets a subdued tone early in the piece, taking us into the prison with a guard played by Stuart Graham.  The little details of the guard’s day- him checking under his car, soaking his hands in water, taking his smoke break with bloody knuckles- are displayed unceremoniously and force us to get involved with both sides.  McQueen traces the protest progression through small wordless scenes, focusing on the acts of preparation and execution.  You really feel the unity and ingenuity of the prisoners. Out of silence and stillness comes violent beatings and forced washing where McQueen’s camera get dangerously close. You cannot look away.

Michael Fassbender gives a magnificent performance that is unvarnished, bloody, and heartbreaking to watch.  He commits to the part physically, dropping to skin and bones in later scenes of Sands’ hunger strike.  He also draws you in, through his fixed, burning stare and commanding expression.  In every room, he’s the most fascinating thing to watch.  

In one scene, the guards form a line with SWAT team shields and clubs, striking each prisoner down for a prolonged brutal beating. Sands gets thrown into his room, bruised, bleeding from the head, and spitting blood as he turns to face the camera.  Fassbender’s eyes are something out of another world, beaming with a combination of glee, victory, and strength.  He looks unstoppable.  Even as Fassbender undergoes a drastic physical deterioration, his eyes retain that vigor.  HUNGER is a must see film for McQueen’s stirring visuals and Fassbender’s fierce performance.  After seeing it, the images stayed with me flashing across my mind’s eye.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

FISH TANK (2009) *Day 95*

Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK follows Mia Williams, a volatile adolescent living with her hard drinking mother and equally foul mouthed little sister Tyler.  Early on we see Mia having this verbal exchange with her friend’s father,

Mia: Can you give Keeley a message for me?

Keeley’s Dad: What?

Mia: Tell her I think her old man’s a cunt!. 

Mia’s exploits have convinced her mother to send her away to a school for troubled youth, which she is determined to avoid.  Obsessed with hip-hop and dance, Mia hopes to find something on her own terms.  In comes her mother’s new boyfriend Connor, who sometimes fills the father role these women want and other times stokes the bad influences flying around the tiny apartment.  

Mia and Connor are drawn to each other.  Connor sees Mia’s outbursts as cries for the care and attention she rarely gets from her mom.  Mia is intrigued by him and frequently goes to him for help or advice, but her moods turn on a dime.  Mia seems to be growing a different part of herself when Connor’s around; a part that can trust, a part that can be calm and imaginative.  

Arnold’s film is a rare experience of discovery on many levels.  She filmed it in Academy ratio using the full height of the screen canvas and while narrowing the edges to almost feel like a cage. Young Katie Jarvis makes full use of the tighter space, trashing at every corner of the frame. Unconventional directing tactics like filming the movie chronologically and withholding the full script from the actors until the scene was to be filmed give the film a pulsing energy throughout.  Arnold never tipping her hand or releases the tension around the nature of Connor and Mia’s relationship. Each time I watch the film, which must be a dozen by now, I find myself considering the characters’ in different ways.  Their words and actions take new meanings and spark different questions after each viewing.

Katie Jarvis gives a gnarling first time (hopefully not the last) performance, bringing a spontaneity and vulnerability needed for this teenage powder keg. Michael Fassbender imbues Connor with a magnetism that draws us and Mia in (it doesn’t hurt that he’s shirtless A LOT).  He keeps Connor’s mood pretty even and light, a great contrast to Mia.  Fassbender neutralizes and softens Jarvis with his humor and care, until she fires back with vitriol.

Arnold keeps our suspicions sharp, but stretches hope for these characters until the last possible moment. The climax is extremely problematic and at times feels outside of the film.  Yet, the narrative recovers quickly with a fitting conclusion of a small reconciliation between Mia and her mother and the escape she may be looking for.  

FISH TANK is available on Netflix Instant View. 

A City So Real: DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) *Day 81*

"C’Mon you’ve seen DOG DAY AFTERNOON! You’re stalling”- Det. Keith Frazier, INSIDE MAN.

From this line in Spike Lee’s New York bank heist film INSIDE MAN, I thought DOG DAY AFTERNOON would be some sort of primer for enterprising bank robbers.  So wrong.  Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik puts on a brave face for the cops and cameras outside of the bank, but makes an affable, almost lovable captor.  Still, Lee’s INSIDE MAN is the progeny of the great Sidney Lumet film in its depiction of a city as an organism with its own unique properties, life force, and peculiarities. In this matrix of  political and personal agendas Sonny must find a way out, hopefully alive if not closer to his goal.

In the course of the film, Sonny Wortzik emerges as an unexpected everyman.  At first I suspected he was a bumbling genius, anticipating all the angles and silent alarms in the bank.  Yet, he comes a day late to an empty vault, an asthmatic security guard, and a gaggle of high spirited bank tellers.  By his side is the nerve-racked Sal (John Cazale) clucking his gun.  As crowds and TV cameras gather outside, Sonny tries to elicit support and protection by referencing various political agendas.  To protect himself from trigger happy cops (who probably just want to end this standoff) Pacino as Sonny boisterously shouts “Attica, Attica! Remember Attica” to cheering crowds sick of NYPD brutality.  One the phone with a TV reporter, he channels the labor movement in this exchange:

Sonny: I’m robbing a bank because they got money here. That’s why I’m robbing it.
TV Anchorman: No, what I mean is why do you feel you have to steal for money? Couldn’t you get a job?
Sonny: Uh, no. Doing what? You know if you want a job you’ve got to be a member of a union. See, and if you got no union card you don’t get a job.
TV Anchorman: What about non-union occupations?
Sonny: What’s wrong with this guy? What do you mean non-union, like what? A bank teller? You know how much a bank teller makes a week? Not much. A hundred and fifteen to start, right? Now are you going to live on that? A got a wife and a couple of kids, how am I going to live on that? What do you make a week?
TV Anchorman: Well I’m here to talk to you Sonny…
Sonny: Well I’m talking to you. We’re entertainment, right? What do you got for us?

Sonny’s true motivation for robbing the bank- a sex change operation for his new wife Leon- adds another layer of advocacy to the character.  Yet, I still wondered what Sonny really believes in and want wants.  His motivations are uncovered beautifully by Pacino in conversations with his three loves Leon, Heidi, and his mother.  These exchanges show us his desire to be the hero of their lives without having the resources to do so.  His frustration of not being able to give Leon his operation or be the son and husband he’d like to be has driven him to this act. 

As Sonny’s plan evolves, the crazed force of the city quickly adapts and transforms this little bank robbery into street theater.  Underneath the chaos a new standoff forms between Sonny and Sheldon- a creepy bureaucrat from the FBI.  Playing the part of cold-blooded bank robber, Sonny promises the cops that if his demands are unmet he and Sal will start shooting people.  Sal, who seems more inept at crime than Sonny, asks if he was telling the truth.  Sonny reassures him he has no intention of killing anyone.  Shaking, Sal delivers the most shocking line of the piece:

Sal: Were you serious about what you said?
Sonny: About what?
Sal: About throwing.. about throwing those bodies out the door?
Sonny: That’s what I want him to think
Sal: I wanna know what you think
Sonny: [pauses]
Sal: Cause I’ll tell you right now… I’m ready to do it.

Now, Sonny has to be the wall- keeping Sal from killing the hostages and shielding Sal from  the police.  Sonny, not a bank robber, not a bread winner, not an activist, cannot meet this challenge.  Lumet lets the tension overwhelm Sonny and us as the imminent final confrontation plays out. 

In DOG DAY AFTERNOON, Lumet cleverly subverts the bank robbery plot to show us what diversity really looks like.  From Sonny’s political schizophrenia, the morphing jeering crowds, over eager cops, and silently lethal Sal; Lumet’s New York is a place of real danger and love by those we least suspect.  DOG DAY AFTERNOON nails how cities behave and how it feels to love, hate, and live in them.

Rest in peace, Sidney Lumet.  New York was lucky to have you.

Hush, Hush: L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) *Day 70*

Three LA cops investigate a mass shooting and uncover a world of corruption, greed, and lust in the 1950’s.  L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is my touchstone for film noir with the character of the hard-boiled detective split between Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, and Guy Pierce.  Kim Basinger won the Academy Award for her femme fatale Lynn Bracken.  The film also took best adapted screenplay.

Plot Summary: What draws me back to the film are the compelling and complex characters that I want to cheer for.  Each character teams up or against each other in a series of tight scenes with brilliant dialogue.  I also applaud the film for creating clear sense of place.  From the opening narration from the salacious gossip columnist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) we are drawn into the world of cheap glamour, shattered dreams, and fake justice that is Los Angeles. 

From there we meet our three headed “hard boiled detective”: the morally bent Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) who makes arrests to fuel the gossip rags; the laconic, hot blooded Bud White (Russell Crowe), and the isolated do-gooder Ed Exley (Guy Pierce).  Each man’s style clashes initially, yet they start complimenting each other investigating the converging cases of a diner massacre, high class prostitution ring, and a political blackmailing scheme. 

Bud and Ed are taken in by the duplicitous sex pot Lynn Bracken who falls in love with Bud, but is made to turn the cops against each other by her pimp Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn).  Over our cops is hard-nosed Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) who plays the strict public custodian of justice and the secret gang wrangler beating criminals straight.

I love the clever twists, changing motives, fast-faced dialogue, and suspenseful action scenes. Hanson’s camera compliments the different moods on the page so perfectly. I’ve probably seen L.A. CONFIDENTIAL two dozen times, yet each time I watch the film, I find myself re-discovering the ins and outs of the plot.  I come back to it for the distinct and complex characters.  Each actor preforms with a rigor that enlivens the genre and tropes mixed in the piece.  

Until next time dear reader keep it "Off the record, on the QT and very HUSH, HUSH."

Day 65: Southern Discomfort: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958)

Intro: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF  is well crafted whirlwind of sexual frustration, guilt, betrayal, jealousy, and disappointments.  Over the course of an afternoon and evening, long held injuries explode into desperate tirades and recriminations between every member of a wealthy southern family. 

Plot Summary: The Pollitt clan gathers at the Mississippi Delta estate for Big Daddy’s (Burt Ives) birthday.  Above the forced merriment lies the tug of war between Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband Brick (Paul Newman) to face their unspoken tension and reignite their romance in the bedroom.  Brick, fallen football hero and his father’s favorite, rejects Maggie’s advances, refuses to join the party.  Instead he broods and drowns himself in whiskey.  Maggie uses every possible trick to tempt Brick into bed until she stumbles on the tip of his anger: the death of his friend Skipper. 

Big Daddy barges in, wanting to get to the root of Brick’s drinking and disgust of Maggie.  While Big Daddy mines Brick’s regret of letting Skipper down, Brick in turn shatters Big Daddy’s hopes by revealing he will die soon.  Lies that held the family together are stripped down as Brick and Big Daddy battle out their issues in the basement. 

Brick forces his father realize he failed his sons by not teaching them that true masculinity lies in love, respect, and lasting memories, not possessions, empires, and money.  Upstairs Maggie dukes it out with Gooper and Mae who intend to claim Big Daddy’s fortune for themselves.  Big Daddy and Brick return to the family upstairs with a better sense of themselves and the family that is beautifully sealed with a lie from Maggie. 


Verdict: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is a brilliant ensemble piece with each actor owning the eloquent, but direct Tennessee Williams dialogue.  Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie is a exploding sex pot gone feral without a partner and scheming wife without a cooperative husband.  Taylor wonderfully files from loving and hating Brick, defending and accusing him.  Through Taylor’s brave openness we can feel her longing as Maggie says, “Living with someone you love can be lonelier than living entirely alone when the one you love doesn’t love you.” 

Paul Newman is incredibly swoon-worthy as the stoic and caustic Brick.  His cruelty only tempts Maggie and us more.  Even when he rejects her screaming “How in the hell do you imagine you’ll have a child by a man who cannot stand you,” we’re rooting for Maggie to wear him down.  He simmers and glowers at Maggie until he is pushed into hysterics by her and Big Daddy.  Newman is fascinating to watch in his confrontation with Big Daddy, mercilessly laying his father’s materialism and disregard for his family on the dying man.  We can see the man Maggie desires so desperately and cheer as he straightens up to return her desire. 

The script is whip tight and full of wonderful lines even from minor characters.  The family doctor sighs as he exits the piece, “Sometimes I wish I had a pill to make people disappear.”  Amen Doc! 

Rest in Peace Liz Taylor. 

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