Monday, April 20, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

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Sitting through a movie about sibling rivalry at a wedding, especially one starring the doe-eyed and normally facile Anne Hathaway, sounds like a potentially painful way to spend an evening. However, as directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter), this 2008 drama is not a lightweight star vehicle à la Julia Roberts circa 1997 but a darkly realistic look at the dysfunction within a family thrown into disarray. Using an almost cinéma vérité style, Demme explores how a wedding reopens old wounds within a family in a naturalistic way made all the more palpable by the emotional acuity in Lumet's screenplay.

The focus is on Kym, a chain-smoking former model who has spent the last several months in rehab. As a substance abuser whose only armor is cutting sarcasm, she is absurdly hopeful that her sister Rachel's wedding will be a harbinger for unconditional love from her upscale Connecticut family. Therein lies the problem as her narcissism provides the catalyst for long-simmering tensions that uncork during the preparations for a lavish, Indian-themed wedding weekend (the movie's working title was "Dancing with Shiva"). It soon becomes clear that Kym's link to a past tragedy is at the core of the unpredictable dynamics that force confrontations and regrettable actions among the four principal family members. Rachel appears to be Kym's sensible opposite, but their alternately close and contentious relationship shows how they have not full recovered from past resentments. Their remarried father Paul is a bundle of loving support to the point of unctuous for both his girls, while their absentee mother Abby is the exact opposite - guarded and emotionally isolated until she is forced to face both her accountability and anger in one shocking moment.

Anne Hathaway is nothing short of a revelation as Kym. Instead of playing the role against the grain of her screen persona, she really shows what would happen if one of her previous characters – say, Andy Sachs in "The Devil Wears Prada" - went another route entirely. The actress' studiousness and persistence are still very much in evidence, but the story allows her to use these traits under the guise of a self-destructive, often unlikable addict who gains attention through her outrageous self-absorption. As the put-upon title character, Rosemarie DeWitt realistically shows Rachel's sense of pain and resentment as the attention veers to Kym during plans for the most important day of her life. Bill Irwin is winning as the unapologetically grateful Paul, but it's really Debra Winger who steals her all-too-brief scenes by bringing the remote character of Abby to life. Now in her early fifties, the famously tempestuous actress seems to rein in her innate fieriness to play a woman who consciously disconnects herself from the family she raised. What remains is a crumbling façade of propriety masking this obvious gap. It's similar to Mary Tyler Moore's turn as the cold mother in "Ordinary People", but casting the normally vibrant Winger (who probably would have played Kym a quarter century ago) is a masterstroke.

The film is not perfect. Demme's home-video approach, while novel at first, proves wearing over the 114-minute running time. Pacing is also a problem, especially when the focus turns to the minutiae of the wedding ceremony and reception. I wish Demme could have cut this part of the film, so we could get to the icy, unfinished resolution sooner. As a filmmaker who obviously enjoys making music concert films ("Stop Making Sense", "Neil Young: Heart of Gold"), there are quite a few musical performances presented in total. However, for non-aficionados, it may prove too much over time. While it's refreshing to see interracial marriages treated so casually (Lumet's grandmother is legend Lena Horne), Demme makes almost too big a point in presenting a global community though the diverse music and the wedding's multi-cultural themes. The movie starts to feel like a Putumayo collection of third-world performances. Still, Demme's intentions can't be faulted, and neither can the piercing work of Hathaway and Winger.

Ed Uyeshima from San Francisco, CA, USA

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (I've Loved you So Long)

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Forgiveness happens in increments - a few strands at a time are worn away through the process of feeling and acknowledging until, as author Wendy Strgar put it, "you can see that the injury holding you has less to offer you than the freedom of carrying your brokenness tenderly on and away". The process also happens slowly for Juliette, an ex-doctor who has just been released from prison after serving a fifteen-year sentence for a heinous crime in I've Loved You So Long, recipient of two Golden Globe Nominations. It is an emotionally powerful drama, beautifully written and directed by novelist Philippe Claudel and containing superb, highly nuanced performances by both Kristin Scott-Thomas as Juliette and Elsa Zylberstein as her sister Lea.

The film is a multi-leveled story that is about estrangement and reconciliation among siblings, a family dealing with dark secrets, resistance from narrow minded members of the community, and self-acceptance and forgiveness. Unaware of the circumstances surrounding her crime, Juliette is taken in by her sister, Lea (Zylberstein), a married literature professor whom she hasn't seen in many years, her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), his father Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud), who spends most of his time reading since a stroke deprived him of his ability to speak, and two adopted Vietnamese daughters (Lise Segur and Liliy-Rose).

The road to redemption, however, is difficult and is not made easier by Juliette's aloofness, periods of silence, and unwillingness to talk about her crime. Although Lea rarely visited Juliette in prison, she now offers her unconditional love but acceptance by her husband and other members of the community are less forthcoming. Lea's eight-year-old daughter Lys (Segur) asks where Juliette has been all her life and is told that she's been away in England. Luc does not trust his wife's sister at first, and is fearful of having her baby sit the kids. A guest at a dinner party threatens to expose Juliette's crime by baiting her about her silence.

Like an extended novel, Claudel takes his time in revealing key points in the plot which keeps the tension high and we do not discover the circumstances behind Juliette's incarceration until late in the film. Juliette has found support, however, from Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Lea at the university and her probation officer, Capitaine Faure (Frederic Pierrot). The camera follows Juliette as she tries to reintegrate into society, her face often revealing a coldness that hides her humanity as she applies for jobs, makes a connection with a fellow lonesome traveler at a bar, teaches P'tit Lys to play "A La Claire Fontaine" on the piano, and reaches out to Michel. As Juliette begins to come out of her shell, she reconciles with her mother (Claire Johnston), stricken with Alzheimer's and allows those close to her to begin feeling trust.

Surrounded by love and understanding, Juliette makes baby steps toward becoming whole again, climaxing in a cathartic scene with Lea that breaks through her emotional armor and heads warily toward an unknown emotional future. Far from being simplistic, I've Loved You So Long has enough complexity to allow for different interpretations. Though some of the plot points strain credulity and a scene in which Lea shouts at her class about how little Dostoevsky understood about murder is strained, I've Loved You So Long should be judged on other levels. It is not about plot but about character - about a human being discovering her capacity to grow, to open up to others and give them the chance to help her. It is about the continuing struggle for connection, to live in each moment and to allow our full capacity to give and receive love to blossom. On this level, I've Loved You So Long more than succeeds.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Visitor

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Much of the art of the writer-director and cast of 'The Visitor' resides in the fact that nobody gets in the way of the important story the film tells, which is essentially a parable. What might happen, it seems to ask, if average white middle-class Americans became truly sensitive to the horrific plight of many foreigners in this county? The strength of The Visitor' is that the strong feelings it awakens lead to some serious thoughts.

Our average guy is an intelligent professional who's tellingly cut off from the rest of the world, even what's immediately around him. Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a widowed professor like Dennis Quaid's character in the much inferior 'Smart People'--not an egocentric bore like the latter, however, but an essentially decent person. Walter is impeccably dressed, polite to everyone, but reserved and distant. Walter, as he admits later, is just "pretending." He's dried up; has ceased to be fully alive. He lives alone in Connecticut where he teaches, and is detached toward students and colleagues alike. Remarkably, since he still seems to have a reputation, he has not revised his course on global economics for fifteen years. He's published books and claims he's finishing another but isn't really working on anything. He dabbles with piano lessons, in honor of his late wife, a celebrated pianist, but that isn't going anywhere; he keeps firing teachers.

Walter has recently agreed to be listed as co-author of a paper another teacher wrote. When the real author can't read the paper at an NYU conference, he has to go. That takes him back to a New York apartment he's left unoccupied for some time--and when he enters it and discovers its been illegally rented to a young Syrian man and his Senegalese girlfriend, his life is changed.

The uninvited occupants are Tarik Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a drummer who's in a small jazz band and also likes to jam in the park, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who makes original jewelry she sells on the street. They immediately gather their possessions to move out, but Walter takes pity on them and lets them stay provisionally. Obviously Walter could use some excitement. The couple are focused, energetic, alive, radiant with hope--all Walter has ceased to be. Tarik is extremely outgoing, warm, friendly to Walter. His drumming immediately engages Walter and before long the uptight professor is trying his hand at it. Zainab however is cautious and fearful. For good reason, as it turns out, since neither she nor Tarik is in this country legally.

What happens later is heart-wrenching not only for the young couple but for Walter, and perhaps for viewers, some of whom may identify with the American professor, others with the two outsiders, who have so much to offer yet aren't wanted here. Walter becomes deeply involved, to the extent of a burgeoning relationship with Tarik's widowed mother Mouna (my favourite actress from Israel, Hiam Abbas), and he does the best he can, but he ends up angry and helpless.

The US has only 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners and the highest incarceration rate of any country. This is part of the story told here, because many would-be immigrants in the US are in long-term open-ended detention, another scandal and horror perpetrated in America of which 'The Visitor' provides a haunting, vivid glimpse. The film conveys a clear sense of the insensitivity and blind arbitrariness of a US immigration system that grinds up lives rapidly and heedlessly behind unmarked walls.

Todd McCarthy's first film, 'The Station Agent,' was an accomplished and well-received indie artifact, quirky and cute. It was pitch-perfect in its way, but a little fey. This time he's done something completely different: 'The Visitor' by clear implication takes a pretty strong, if generalized, stand on immigration issues; speaks out not for an oddball few but for multitudes of ordinary people, and does so forcefully. Yet it's not preachy. Its narrative follows a course that's seemingly obvious but keeps grabbing you just the same.

There are many immigration stories, often lengthy, intricate, and epic. This one has the simplicity and occasional sketchiness of a short story. There is admirable restraint in that. What's also significantly different from many citizenship sagas is the way 'The Visitor' draws an American of privilege into the picture as more than a mere observer. This has a kind of Brechtian effect for the American viewer. This isn't "us." But suppose it were "us"? It was"us"--was our ancestors, our parents or grandparents. How many degrees of separation are we hiding behind?

One main way the film avoids interfering with its story is that the experienced Richard Jenkins and the three other principal actors, Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbas, and Danai Jekesai Gurira never overdo or underplay. They just seem like they're being themselves, which is an actor's triumph but also a director's. And McCarthy is also the writer. The whole film is an admirable illustration of the maxim Less is more. McCarthy and his cast make it all look easy--and that's not easy.

Chris Knipp from Berkeley, California