The Kindergarten Teacher

November 4, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I still haven’t figured out a consistent rule for when I include a Netflix release on this blog. In theory, it would be any movie that is eligible for the Oscars, but I am not sure how to figure out which ones are. So, I debated on this one. In the end, I included it because it’s a fantastic film, and I want people to know about it. Maggie Gyllenhaal is absolutely amazing as Lisa, a loving kindergarten teacher in need of some boundaries. She is not particularly happy at home. She feels unappreciated by her kids, who are not the sensitive intellectuals she wanted them to be, and her marriage has lost all spark. She is ghost walking through her life, until one morning when 5-year-old Jimmy suddenly waxes poetic. Lisa cannot believe her ears and is even more shocked to discover that he spouts poetry on a regular basis. And, from there, everything slowly unravels, as she becomes more obsessed with protecting/exploiting his gifts. Jimmy is played with remarkable sensitivity by Parker Sevak; one could almost believe this shy, lonely boy was actually a poetic savant. Nobody understands the importance of his gift, except for Lisa, who clearly has to nurture it. On occasion, I talk with people who can’t stand horror movies. They make them so uncomfortable they feel like they have to run out of the room. I have never felt that way about horror, but I felt that way here. It was painful to sit through parts of this movie because they made me so uncomfortable. I actually left the room for a while and listened while doing dishes. Gyllenhaal’s Lisa was so needy and making such bad decisions that it made me squirm to watch her. Fortunately, I returned for the final scenes. The movie’s ending is perfect. Really. It was a tour de force of writing, acting and directing. That final scene will stay with me and will likely be on the short list of favorite film endings. It leaves us with no easy answer; Lisa was completely right, and she was completely wrong. When the credits roll, there is so much to discuss, debate, and shake your head about. How can you not love a film like that?

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Coco

November 24, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Future generations will look back at the Pixar era as a sort of golden age in animation. Better even than classics like “Snow White,” the films coming out of Emeryville are simply some of the best animated movies ever. This year’s “Coco” is no exception and, in fact, is one of the best of the best. Young Miguel wants nothing more than to be a singer but his family has a particular and hard earned antipathy for them. So, Miguel does what any music loving boy would do; he travels to the realm of the dead in search of a blessing from his great-great-grandfather. Pixar has done what Disney never mastered: they have created a film about a non-white culture that truly celebrates that culture from the perspective of its members. This is not “Pocahontas” or “Mulan.” We are treated to a rich and beautiful story that really celebrates the people in it. With an entirely Hispanic cast, “Coco” sinks deep into the cultural experience that has only ever existed on the surface of other Disney films. The result is a beautiful and touching story. As always with Pixar, the animation is truly stunning. This feels like their most accomplished film yet, with gorgeous scenery and beautifully emotive characters. With amazing visual details (like the way a tv screen was reflected in a person’s eyes), this film was a real joy to watch. This story is not quite as complex as the truly remarkable “Inside Out.” That one explored the complex idea that sadness can be a good and healing emotion. This film doesn’t go anywhere nearly as deep. The sentiments here are far more focused on the obvious, value-of-family, variety. That said, everything about it was a joy. Pixar has long left behind the idea that they are making children’s movies. These remarkable films have something to say to all of us.

Rosewater

November 25, 2014 at 9:19 am | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

One could be forgiven for worrying that Jon Stewart might direct his first movie with the same sense of intellectual superiority and moral indignation that infuses the Daily Show. That’s not to say his sensibilities are not all over “Rosewater;” they just show up in less expected ways. Never so much so as in the deft way he brings absurdity into dark places, making us laugh in scenes where other directors would try and make us squirm. Stewart’s world view tends more toward John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig & the Angry Inch”) than Todd Solondz (“Happiness”). Mitchell, who has a deep faith in the basic goodness of humanity, is not really so angry and Solondz is far from happy. Stewart shares Mitchell’s faith that everything will work out and that, to quote King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This sense infuses “Rosewater” and gives it a sweet optimism, even in its most bitter moments. This is both praise and criticism. Steward is no cynic and this film is the furthest thing from torture porn, however, it also lacks bite. Perhaps, I am jaded by modern cinema but I never felt the sense of urgency or danger I expected to. I don’t need graphic torture scenes and I was grateful not to have them but I wanted to feel more of Maziar Bahari’s suffering. Bahari was played well enough by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mamá También,” “Bad Education”).  I give Bernal immense credit for managing to bury his Mexican accent and speak English with an Iranian accent; I have no idea how difficult that must be. However, while his performance was solid here, it didn’t resonate the way I wanted it to. I always felt on the surface, observing rather than feeling and, in a movie like this, that feels like a loss. Kim Bodnia, who played his interrogator Javadi, is another matter. Bodnia, a Dutch actor I am unfamiliar with, was the core of the film. He managed to appear cruel and frightened, powerful and panicked, all in the same moment. Without it ever being said, he was so clearly an inadequate and unhappy person stuck in a giant political machine. The revelation of the film was the humane way it dealt with his character. Perhaps there is more intention there than one might initially think. The film begins with a quote about the smell of sweat and rosewater being associated with religious piety. That is the only overt reference to the film’s title. Yet, I know from my reading, that Bahari’s only real sense of his interrogator was that he smelled of rosewater. So, the title would suggest that the focal point of the film may actually be Javadi (and what he represents) and not Bahari (and what he represents). In that sense, the film may be clever on a whole other level. The imprisonment of dissidents on trumped up charges is always more commentary on the state than on the citizen.  Likewise, Bahari’s arrest (and this film) ultimately tell us more about his interrogator and Iran than they ever do about him. Raising the question, who is the one, in the end, really being interrogated?

No

March 10, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This film about the ad campaign to vote General Pinochet from office in Chilé was an Academy Award nominee this year.  Honestly, I could not begin to guess why.  I am fairly sure the film was meant to be a comedy but I wasn’t the only one in the audience who didn’t laugh once.  There were a few polite, awkward chuckles in places that were probably meant to be funny but the nicest thing I can say is that the humor must be cultural.  I do not typically mind rough production values but (at least at my cinema) there were distracting ghost images in parts of the movie and the subtitles often went by too fast to finish reading them.  Gael Garcia Bernal ( “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Bad Education”) is a fine actor whose acting here was so subtle as to be almost flat, which is the word I would use to describe the film overall: flat.  Dull, even.  So little happens and it happens so slowly that I started nodding off in the middle.  By focusing on Bernal’s muted reaction, the climactic scene is almost deliberately anti-climactic and the finally scene is just odd.  Overall, this was a real disappointment.

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