Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world.  This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.

From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.

These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.

And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.

Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.

After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.

Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.

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But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.

Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a  countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.

Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.

One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.

The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

A Few Good Men (1992)

A_Few_Good_Men_posterUpon watching A Few Good Men for the first time, it was hard not to draw parallels with An Officer and a Gentlemen for some reason and it went beyond some cursory elements such as both films involving branches of the military. Perhaps more so than that is the intensity that manages to surge through the plot despite the potentially stagnant battleground like Cadet Schools, Courtrooms, and the like. And that can in both cases is a testament to the stellar performances in front of the camera.

Instead of a seething Richard Gere, we get the smart aleck wunderkind Tom Cruise as Daniel Kaffee. The full-throttle turn by Lou Gossett Jr. is matched in this film by another sneering tour de force from none other than Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup. Most refreshingly of all we trade out the heartfelt yet admittedly schmaltzy romance of Gere and Debra Winger for the professional tension that underlies Kaffee’s relationship with his colleague Joanne Galloway. Demi Moore, surprise, surprise, is more than a love interest even if Cruise is in the driver’s seat and that is a commendable creative decision by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Because their characters have two feet to stand on without having to dive headlong into a full-fledged romance. There’s already enough at stake without having to enter any further into melodramatic territory.

The men involved are two young U.S. Marines stationed in Guatamano Bay who are charged with the murder of one of their compatriots, one William Santiago. Galloway is eager to play point on the case, only to get passed over for Daniel Kaffee a plea bargain king who nevertheless has little courtroom experience or passion for his work. His stint in the navy seems only to be in respect to his late father, who was one of the preeminent judges of his day. Daniel will forever live in his shadow and instead of taking his work seriously, he devotes his efforts to the company baseball team.

Still, joined by Joanne and the veteran support of Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), he begins to realize that there is more at stake in this case even if he doesn’t want to deal with it. As the young marines constantly beat into his skull this isn’t about getting the cushiest deal, it’s about their very honor, the code that they live by as united states Marines.

While hesitant Kaffee agrees to bring the case into the courts realizing what is at stake but it’s also in these precise moments that he realizes the need to man up instead of taken the path of least resistance as has always been his M.O. But of course, doing such a brazen thing has consequences for the young Lieutenant bringing him up against people much bigger than he is, namely the aforementioned Colonel Jessup. Because there is something running down the line of command that simply does not add up going from Jessup, to his Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh), one Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), down to one of the accused Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee takes a chance on the truth and that’s where the film blows up.

In our sound byte culture “You can’t handle the truth” has been perfect fodder for parody and the like. But doing so we take it out of context and as a culture we seem to be very adept at doing that. Misconstruing information and ultimately succeeding in draining words of all their impact. But when Colonel Jessup lets the words fly under tense interrogation from Lt. Daniel Kaffee there’s so much rooted in those words.

The film probably does not dig into this issue enough but it does imply something. As Americans who take pride in our freedoms, in our very Americanism, are we so naïve as to believe that it does not come without a cost? Not simply of human life but of perhaps darker realities that are kept under wraps for the good of the people, for the betterment of society. It’s a cliché saying, but the old adage goes that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and I know that’s a rather callous statement, how far from the truth is that actually?

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Winston Churchill something to the affect that Truth is so precious she should be protected with a bodyguard of lies. And if this film is any indication, not only truth but our very freedoms or the things we use to define freedoms like honor and codes are indubitably hidden away and swept under the rug.

So A Few Good Men ends on a poignant note because at the very basic, ground level it is an underdog story played out in a courtroom. It has Tom Cruise playing the young Tom Cruise character we know (and maybe love). And that brings me to the final general parallel I found with Officer and a Gentlemen. Both films are invariably predictable and they play to our sensibilities as an audience, yet despite those very things, they manage to be moving and strangely compelling human dramas.

Rob Reiner might not be called an auteur and we unfortunately, are still waiting for his next great picture but his string of modern classics during the 80s and 90s are a joy for the very qualities mentioned above. Everyone can enjoy them and A Few Good Men is yet another example of that.

4/5 Stars

 

Thelma & Louise (1991)

thelma__louiseposterThemla & Louise hardly feels like typical Ridley Scott fare but then again, neither is this a typical movie. It pulls from numerous genres that have been depicted countless times before from buddy movies to caper comedies, road films, and the like. But perhaps the intrigue begins with the two leads.

It’s not simply the fact that they are two women sharing conversations together although that is often not a common enough occurrence in a world where the Beschel Test is often a stumbling block, but it is the fact that the two women are played so exquisitely by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

They start out as two people stuck in a deadend world and they feel like the heirs to some of Altman’s heroines in films like Nashville and 3 Women. In fact, it’s a rather ironic development that screenwriter Callie Khouri went onto another project called Nashville. Still, when we look at their lives one is a small town waitress with a gruff boyfriend (Michael Madsen) the other a bit of a bubble-headed subservient housewife married to a grade A jerk. It’s easy to pity them and to want something better for them–at least some kind of escape from their everyday monotony. In one sense, that’s what the entire length of the film gives them and much more.

A single weekend away in a single irrevocable moment of decision evolves into not simply a gripping film but a rather astonishing adventure where they get to step out in ways that they never knew possible. True, there is murder and armed robbery involved but what makes the movie work at all is the very fact that we still care a great deal for these individuals. They tiptoe across boundaries but it never feels brazen. It’s accidental, brought on by necessity, fear, and the like. Even to the end,  it’s as if Thelma & Louise naively believe that they are a notorious pair of outlaws but they don’t quite know how dark a place the world can actually be. It’s neither Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. For good reason, they are simply Thelma & Louise.

One of the most memorable sequences involves Davis robbing a gas station register just as nice as you please using the pithy monologue she learned from the charismatic charmer J.D. (Brad Pitt in a key role early in his career) who always sports a cowboy hat and also ran off with all their dough. She feels completely out of place committing such an act, waving her gun around as the attendant empties the cash register into her waiting bag. But still, she does it and it epitomizes the inhibitions the two women begin to cast off.

But it’s also the same rascal J.D. who rats on them as they look to make their way to Mexico away from the authorities they believe are hot on their tail. Louise is paranoid of such things and Thelma is still just looking for fun but they’re together and that’s the important thing. Except the authorities on the other end of the line, digging around for answers, are actually led by a cop with integrity (Harvey Keitel) who seems generally worried about their well-being. He sees so clearly that their situation is atypical. They are not criminals even if they want to be.

Importantly Thelma & Louise remain friends to the end, even going so far as to visit the grand canyon together one final time. And that brings us to the film’s conclusion. While not wanting to sound too cryptic and simultaneously not wanting to spoil the experience for others, I can only say I wish Ridley Scott would have chosen a more brazen denouement or otherwise done away with his conclusion altogether. What he comes to is a compromise of an ending that lacks any satisfaction. But then again, maybe it reflects Thelma & Louise. They thought they had so much–that they were such big, bad people–except what did they end up with? Nothing at all aside from a polaroid picture to forever immortalize the craziest of road trips.

4/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars

Close-Up (1990)

close up 1I’ve heard people like director Jean-Pierre Gorin say that there is little to no distinction between documentary and fiction. At first, it strikes us as a curiously false statement. But after giving it a moment of thought it actually makes sense, because no matter the intention behind it, the medium of film is always subjective. It’s always a created reality that’s inherently false and even in its attempts at realism — that realism is still constructed.

So you see, this is the start of an interesting idea. Film is about what you decide to put within the frame and what you keep out. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors among others all play a part in this process. They all formulate what we see on the screen — the reality that we perceive.

It occurs to me that Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up stands at the crossroads of the documentary and classical fiction filmmaking with the two lineages blurring together like very few undertakings have ever been able to do, at least to my knowledge.

The story feels simple. It follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the confidence of a family of film enthusiasts. He wanted to make a movie and they were to be his actors. Abbas obviously took interest in the story that he read of in a magazine because of its relation to film. Here was a seemingly ordinary man who loved movies so much, that he was willing to masquerade as a film director. The irony is that this cinephile Hossain Sabzian also became an actor in the process, donning this role for the family. The family who accused him consider him a confidence man, even a burglar but that’s not how he sees himself. In fact, in a way, this film reminds us that we’re all actors. It all depends on your definition and the circumstances at hand. In some way, shape or form at a given point in time, we’re playing someone who is supposed to be us.

close up 2The beauty of Close-Up that not only does it feature the real individuals involved in this whole ordeal: There’s Sabzian playing himself, the Ahankhah family who brought the case to court, and Kiarostami appearing as well. But it blends the actual footage from the trial with reenacted scenes set up by the director as if they are happening for the first time.

One of the few things to tip us off that some of these moments are reenactments is that we see the same sequence twice, just from different perspectives. Thus, the whole docudrama becomes this blend of reality and falsity. Documentary paired with purposeful re-creation, utilizing a kind of cinema verite filmmaking. I almost don’t want to know what is real and what is fake and in some respects, I don’t care. And that’s what’s fascinating about Close-Up. The story is not altogether extraordinary but, again it’s this dichotomy between reality and fiction. The dividing line proves to be paper thin.

Since much of the film is made of a close-up on Sabzian’s face, it does bring up some questions about the defining factors of identity. Is this man in front of us really what he says he is? Is how he is acting genuine and real. Is it all a facade? Was this whole sequence contrived by a director for the benefit of the viewer? You could go on and on with such assertions and with such questions I think you start getting at the profound aspects of Kiarostami’s film and film as an artistic, expressive construction.

If you’re ready to actually consider what you are being fed, what you are viewing and how you can react to it, this is a film worth your time. I have never known a film to be more engrossed in the dilemma of reality versus fiction.  It took me long enough to see a film by this late great of Iranian film, but now that I have been opened up to his oeuvre, I look forward to more on my horizon from Abbas Kiarostami.

4/5 Stars

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10_things_i_hate_about_you_filmThe opening notes of Joan Jett hollering “Bad Reputation” made me grow wistfully nostalgic for Freaks & Geeks reruns. The hope budded that maybe 10 Things I Hate About You would be the same tour de force narrative brimming with the same type of candor. It is not. Not at all. But that’s okay. It has its own amount of charms that forgive the obvious chinks in the armor of this very loose adaptation.

True, its story reads exactly like a book or rather a play, William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew to be exact, but 10 Things I Hate About You succeeds due to the chemistry and charisma of its players. There is a genuine concern on the part of the audience as we watch them go through the interludes and rhythms that we already foresee beforehand. This is not the reinvention of the wheel in terms of high school romance films — not by a long shot — but the script coauthored by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith is equal parts lithe and witty. There’s actually some life to it, even if the plot is an age-old rehash of the Bard. It makes knowing what will happen next of lesser importance and more crucial how the resulting events will affect our protagonists — how they will deal with the inevitable teen drama.

Because the set-up is simple. There are two sisters. For arbitrary reasons, one of the said sisters cannot go to a party unless her older sister is also present. That’s at the behest of their resident oddball father who’s also a bit of a worrywart. Important for this tale is that everyone in school seems to know the set-up too. The smart aleck cool kid Joey Donner is looking to bed the perky Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) for the very reason that she is untouchable. Meanwhile, the starry-eyed new kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls instantly in love with this blonde vision. He doesn’t realize he has competition.

However, it all seems for naught due to Bianca’s “shrewish” sister Katherine (Julie Stiles) whose acerbic outlook on life seems destined to lead to dismal isolation. It’s no wonder she curls up in her living room with Sylvia Plath. Still, not to be outdone Joey enlists the help of resident bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win Kat over and get her on a date. So right there you have the basis for the entire film with our two sisters and two parallel love stories (or loathe stories) with the cool kid running interference while also putting Patrick on his payroll.

At this point, it’s not necessary to get into all the gory details because we’ve probably seen them all before. But for some strange unknowable reasons I accept its cliches and sappiness and that, once again, I credit to the cast. Ledger and Stiles work well together churning up the sparks, he by exemplifying an equal dose of good-natured charm and roguishness.  She is simultaneously able to balance the necessary contempt with genuine care. She cares for her sister, her father, and ultimately Patrick as well. Larisa Oleynik is a capable counterpoint to Stiles and although his role feels relatively minor, Levitt wins the sympathies of any person ever on the outside earnestly looking in.

A major highlight involves Ledger lip syncing to Frankie Valli with synchronized band accompaniment as he tries to win back Kat while concurrently evading campus security. It’s in such a devilishly charming (or dorky) moment where he seems to have won Kat over for good. Although that’s not quite the case, he has the audience on his side for a great deal of the time after that. It only takes the final act for Kat to get there too. It takes a literature assignment of gushy poetry about how much she hates him, for her to realize that she hates being without him even more. Is this destructive? Maybe, but this is a movie about teenagers and teenagers aren’t supposed to have everything figured out. That’s part of the reason why we still readily watch movies about them.

3.5/5 Stars

Pleasantville (1998)

pleasantville 1This was not the film I expected from the outset, and oftentimes that’s a far more gratifying experience. Nostalgia was expected and this film certainly has it,  even to the point of casting the legendary funny man and cultural icon Don Knotts in the integral role as the television repairman.

However, with this there was a degree of apprehension, because while paying homage to the past, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith and so on, there seemed to be a certain amount of denigrating of such classics– a tongue and cheek way of approaching the quaint television past of the 1950s. There was little reverence for these admittedly quaint but still respected programs.

My fears were seemingly confirmed minutes later with black and white imagery being equated to repression as the beautiful colors of the town became unfurled with greater enlightenment and personal expression. But that’s not quite right. The story goes both ways. And to understand that we have to take a closer look at our two diverging main characters.

When Garry Ross’s film begins in the present day, David (Tobey Maguire) leads the life of a bookish TV nerd, watching old reruns and cataloging trivial factoids in the cavernous crevices of his mind. At this point he’s relationally stagnant and based on this social life, he looks to be going nowhere fast. His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is on the complete opposite spectrum, infatuated with boys, imbued with sexual freedom, and dare we say a tad superficial.

But to make a long story short, these two siblings get thrown into the life and times of David’s favorite TV show Pleasantville, complete with black and white cinematography and vintage ’50s lifestyles. The interesting part is watching them learn how to find another part of themselves contrary to what they initially found their identity in. It means freedom of not only body but mind too and that extends to all the other people who they influence.

In a pinch, it also makes for a handy allegory on race, with literal color being of such a high concern among the paranoid townsfolk. Because as more people become “colored” it creates a degree of unrest in the community. They hold to the belief that “different” is not good — to be “other” is to be frowned upon. It’s Jennifer first and then David who begin to change the status quo, including their mother (Joan Allen), the local diner owner (Jeff Daniels) and many of the other teenagers.

So on second glance, Pleasantville is a film that says television reruns and nostalgia are quite alright, but then again, there’s so much to be lived and experienced in the present moment too. There will be bad just as there was bad before and there will be good things that will manifest themselves still more abundantly like previous generations. Those are the universal rhythms of life, and they should free us up to live with supreme confidence in who we are, breaking out of the tedium that is our comfort zone. And that’s a lesson that not only revels in the glories of previous generations but still gives us hope for the future millennium, now well underway over 15 years after Pleasantville was originally released.

It’s not a story without flaws, but it’s the fact that it has flaws that actually make it worth watching. We need a little bit of rain in our lives — the inconsistencies and the idiosyncrasies to add greater depth, not only to our character but in turn to our relationships. It then becomes absolutely necessary to come up with a clear definition of pleasant or even to concede that not everything can or should be pleasant. Because you need the darkness to bring out the full spectrum of colors — all those colors commonly referred to as human emotions.

4/5 Stars

The Truman Show (1998)

trumanshow1Yogi Berra famously once said, If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be. And to go even further still, in As You Like It Shakespeare wrote, the world is a stage and all the men and women are merely players. They have their exits and entrances.” So it goes with this film — The Truman Show. In fact, in some ways, it feels reminiscent of the likes Groundhog Day and even Jim Carrey’s later project Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s meta qualities and storytelling structure truly pushes the boundaries of what we know to be true. And in each case the results are gripping.

Directed by Peter Weir an Australian craftsman of other fine works like Witness and Dead Poets Society, the film takes this fascinating concept and truly runs with it even from its initial title credits. Truman played so delightfully by Jim Carrey, is the perfect schmuck next door. He has a white picket fence, a beautiful wife, a stable desk job. What more could you ask for? It’s not the least bit weird that we get an uneasy feeling we’re in Stepford, in this case, his town named Sea Haven.

As an audience, all of this seems suspect, but Truman goes through his life strangely ignorant. Still, he has this unquenchable desire to go to Fiji, but the memories of his father’s tragic death and his wife’s (Laura Linney) reluctance to skip out on their mortgage is holding him back.

trumanshow2However, as things progress there begin to be even more warning signs and indications to Truman that all is not right in his world. In truth, his life is a TV show, where everyone is privy to a television program including the audience, but that program ends up being his life. Truman Burbank is at the center of this orchestrated universe and he has been for 30 years. But over time he gets wise to the game and he’s looking to push the limit of the rules as far as they will go so he can get to the bottom of it all. But as he begins to push the boundaries of this world, goofs and mess-ups become more obvious. Truman begins to notice loops and inconsistencies in the story being told around him. Some people, namely the former extra Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), want Truman released from this prison–this life under a microscope.

However, when we meet the show’s creator, director, and mastermind Christoph (Ed Harris) he sees what he has given Truman as a gift ( I have given Truman the chance to live a normal life. Sea Haven is the way things should be). But when Truman goes off the grid, there’s a media frenzy and he forces the hand of his creator. Thus, this “creator” and “created” paradigm is developed and they have their first interaction, which consequently will also be their last.

trumanshow3If there is a Creator of the Universe, our universe, The Truman Show puts it in a clearer light. Christoph seems like a somewhat selfish individual who allows his creation to walk off set rather reluctantly, but he finally does let go. Thus, his actions seem to make it clear that the most loving Creator possible would let his creation do what they pleased. He would be in control, but he would willingly give his created ones free will to do what they want. That makes sense to me. I would want to be a living, breathing, mistake-doing individual rather than a mechanized robot. That’s the beauty of this life.

Going back to the eminent Yogi Berra. Our lives are not perfect, they are full of hurt and pain and mistakes. A lot of which is brought on by ourselves or other people. But would we have life any other way? I think not. Because if life were perfect in every step, perfectly controlled and accounted for, what would that be? Hardly life at all. The Truman Show is a fascinating film, but let’s not have the conversation stop there. It is simply a film, but allow it to point you to the deeper, harder questions. Questions of free will and a creator, an imperfect world versus a utopia and so on. What if someday the joke’s on us and we find out that someone has been watching our every movement? That’ll be the day.

4.5/5 Stars

In the Name of the Father (1993)

inthenameofthe1We are met with a deluge of drums, explosions, and the unmistakable voice of Bono murmuring over the credits. The year is 1974 in Guilford England, the Irish Republic Army is as belligerent as ever, and right from the beginning director Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father grabs hold of our attention.

But we actually become introduced to our story by backtracking. We meet our main hero and championing Gerry Conlon as a punk kid stuck in the thick of the IRA’s madness. His father, fearing for his son’s well-being after a close call, sends his boy off on a slow boat to England away from trouble, or so he thinks.

In England, Gerry and his bud Paul call on an old friend from back home and they soon become enamored by the world of free love, drugs, and communal living. Their soundtrack is the tunes of Dylan, the Kinks, and Hendrix. It’s a good gig sans bombs going off down the street.

inthenameofthe33But what follows is something out of some perverse nightmare. Upon a return trip back to Belfast Gerry finds his home raided and he ends up in the interrogation block being grilled by a group of less than sympathetic police attacking him with a barrage of insults and threats. This doesn’t just seem like an Irish-English problem. There’s so much hatred present and Conlon and three of his buddies get roped into signing confessions under duress.

It’s at this juncture that the film develops into a full-blown courtroom drama, but the nightmare is hardly over. Not only Gerry but his friends as well as his father, are all sent off to prison. Pleading innocence does no good. Being innocent is no good.

By the time he’s in prison, Gerry is all but fed up with the world. He’s hardened because as he sees it nothing in life is fair and so he will grin and bear it. He looks almost derisively at his father, a man still living as he always has, completely opposed to any rebellious or militant action. They have their share of familial conflict, but as Mr. Conlon becomes ill things begin to change, specifically in Gerry.

He resolves to take up the cause once again if only for the sake of his father, and an audacious solicitor thinks she might just be the one to do it for him. So he ends up in court once more for another round, but this time, proceedings are invariably different. Still, utterly chaotic but a lot has changed for the better in 15 years.

Regrettably, this is a rather disjointed narrative that feels more like shoddy storytelling than a complex plotting device. The most glaring example involves Emma Thompson who is shown multiple times in the first half of the film but does not actually become deeply involved in the storyline until well after an hour in. After a promising beginning, the film does seem to succumb to a bit of melodrama as well that gets remedied by a happy ending.

inthenameofthe3However, as he has the habit of doing Daniel Day-Lewis falls so seamlessly into his role as the Irish lad from Belfast who was wrongly accused. His Irish brogue is second-nature and he jumps between rebelliousness and fear with tremendous skill due to the emotional range demanded by the role.

Just like Conlon’s own struggles, this film is a long hard grind. It’s not always pleasant, not always gripping, but it does have staying power. In the end, the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite are worthy of our attention alone. The truth of the matter is that they are a truly dysfunctional father and son combination, but that makes them a gold mine for emotional depth. Their relationship becomes the major point of contention as they grapple with topics of justice and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Three Colors: White (1994)

threecolorswhite1The Three Colors Trilogy is made up of the three colors of the French flag. Thus, the second installment, between Blue and Red is of course White. It is considered by some to be the weakest of the three films, but that is rather unfair because it is still wonderful in its own right.

The other films are pensive, thoughtful pieces of drama, but White is actually quite funny in a dismal sort of way. You see, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) is a Polish hairdresser, who is going through divorce proceedings because his beautiful French wife says she doesn’t love him anymore. He has to sit through the court hearing being delivered in a foreign tongue, and he has to go through public embarrassment in front of everyone. It’s a humiliating situation and the worst of it is that he still loves Dominique (Julie Delpy). He loses all his money, his credit is invalidated, and she takes about everything else. At least Karol has his giant suitcase, but that’s about it.

threecolorswhite2That’s where a fellow named Pole Mikolaj finds him slumped up against a wall in the subway station. He’s pitiful, but they strike up a conversation in their native language, and he agrees to help Karol stowaway to get back to Poland. There’s nothing left for him in France after all, so he hides in his suitcase and his new friend takes it through customs. It’s utterly ridiculous, but they play it straight. Then picture this. You’re stowing away inside a suitcase and then some thieves steal it to get the payoff inside. Imagine their surprise when they find not valuables, but a human being. And the jokes on them because that human has absolutely nothing to steal. All that’s left to do is give him a firm kick in the rear and leave him for dead. If it wasn’t so depressing, this would be absolutely hilarious, and it still is pretty funny.

Next Karol tries to make some quick money, because hairdressing may be in demand, but it’s not a great moneymaking proposition. He ends up being hired as a bodyguard, and he’s a very awkward sort to be packing a firearm. His next scheme is to double-cross his boss by buying up plots of land before his bosses can. They looked to sell if for profit to big corporations, but Karol beats them and they cannot touch him. They’ve no way to get the money from him, and all of the sudden, it seems like he’s doing very well.

threecolorswhite3The time has come for one last vengeful trick and the joke’s on Dominque this time. He still loves her, but Karol enlists the help of Mikolaj and a few others, to help him get back at his wife. It works better than he was expecting, in fact, maybe too well. Dominque still has feelings for him, but now he may never be able to see her again.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films usually have a sensuous and mysterious woman in the lead, whether it’s Irene Jacob or Juliette Binoche. Julie Delpy is a similar type of beauty, and yet she is less the focal point compared to Karol Karol. In a sense, you give up some of that enigmatic aura of the aloof goddess, but Karol is an extremely funny character, even visually. Thus, White is not quite like Blue or Red, but they are interconnected and it’s still thoroughly worthwhile. Different is often a strength, not a weakness, and in this case, it is a good thing.

4/5 Stars