Archive for July, 2012

Win Win

Year of Release: 2011     Directed by Thomas McCarthy.  Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Clare Foley, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, and Alex Shaffer.

A middle aged man slowly jogs out in the brisk morning air.  The camera zooms in on him, only to reveal two runners come up from behind and easily sprint by him.  The man, Mike Flaherty, (Paul Giamatti) slows up, turns towards the camera, and gives an exasperated sigh.  Just as he was outpaced by other runners, Mike’s life is slipping away as others surpass him.  He does have a loving and supportive family, who helps him, but he is deeply concerned about his ability to care for them.  His law practice can barely cover its own expenses.  He is the coach of a high school wrestling team that has not won a match or even one round of a match in recent memory.

Due to the stress at his jobs, Mike has been having breathing troubles, which alarm his good friend Terry, (Bobby Cannavale) who is in the midst of a nasty divorce, while the two of them are jogging.  Mike has also been postponing necessary tasks, such as replacing the boiler at his office and taking down a rotted tree next to his house.  He refuses to call a plumber to fix the toilet at his office, but he does it himself to save money.  Although Mike is strictly against smoking, he takes occasional furtive smokes to cope with his stress.  Finally, he has not told wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) of their looming financial troubles, because he does not want to alarm her.

Mike’s struggles are humorously reflected in his six-year-old daughter, Abby. (Clare Foley)  Directly after Mike’s jogging, the camera cuts to his sleeping daughter.  She is woken by a thud and gets up to discover her sun-catcher fell of her window and broke.   Her response: “Shit.”  That same response does earn a rebuke from her parents when she utters it at breakfast, when she draws a picture of her father’s team (finally) winning a match and then spills her orange juice all over it.

As a result of his interactions with a client, Mike meets Kyle, (Alex Shaffer) a troubled teenager who came from Ohio to New Jersey to visit his grandfather Leo. (Burt Young)  Since Kyle has no place to live and since Mike has been checking in on Leo while he is in a nursing home, Mike and Jackie allow Kyle to live in their basement.  When Kyle sees Mike coaching the wrestling team, he asks if he can join.  Mike enrolls Kyle in the high school, and it turns out Kyle is an extremely talented wrestler.

It is almost instantly clear that this is not a traditional sports film.  Win Win is much more concerned with the relationships of its characters then the results of a few wrestling matches.  The wrestling take back seat to the main issues concerning the troubled relationship Kyle has with his family and Mike’s attempt to do what is best for everyone.  The climax of the film does not occur during a wrestling match, but during a confrontation among characters concerning the motives for their earlier actions.

While not a perfect role-model, Mike is very likeable character who wants what is best for his family, his clients, and others that he meets.  He is easy to empathize with, and Giamatti plays the role with a heartfelt conviction.  When Mike makes an unethical decision, the viewer can understand his flawed rationale.  If not paying close attention, the viewer may even not realize the full extent of the mistake until later in the film, at which point the viewer will be nearly as shocked as another character.  Even after Mike’s mistake is exposed, one hopes there is still a way for everything to resolve without Mike suffering too badly for his sins.

However, actions have consequences, which are inescapable.  Swearing in front of one’s children will probably lead to children who swear.  A parent who is a drug addict will probably have a child who develops behavioral issues.  And Mike’s mistake, which some people in his situation might do without thinking, ultimately leads to much more trouble than he imagined.

Shortly after Mike meets Kyle, it seems that he has crafted a win-win scenario.  He is earning extra money to make ends meet, and he is helping a lonely teenager who helps his high school wrestling team.  Both Mike and Kyle have seemingly won.  However, this situation provides only temporary relief from more pressing problems, which emerge along with the appearance of another character whose earlier absence caused many of the problems.

In many ways, the film does not want a win-win solution, but rather a win-win-win-win solution.  The obvious wins are for Mike’s law firm and for his wrestling team.  Kyle needs a winning scenario to escape his bleak situation.  Finally, his grandfather’s situation also should be improved.  Early comments exchanged in jest foreshadow the conclusion of the film.  Depending on the character and the circumstances, Win Win may or may not deliver the results that the characters want, but more importantly the film does give the characters what they need.

Content Advisory: Frequent vulgarities, (a few of them from a child) brief profanity, an instance of rear nudity, and themes of family discord.                        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Akira Kurosawa.  Starring Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, and Kichijirô Ueda.

Two men, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest, (Minoru Chiaki) take shelter from the torrential rain in a large, ancient temple.  As they sit there in shock over recent proceedings, a third man (Kichijirô Ueda ) dashes across the courtyard to join them.  They share with this third man the details of the recent murder and trial which has caused their disbelief.  Three days ago the woodcutter discovered a gruesome corpse in the forest with a woman’s hat and cut rope laying nearby.  The priest had encountered the murdered man shortly before his death.  Both of them testified during the trial and were stunned by the contradictions in the testimonies of the plaintiffs.  While the recollection of the initial crime concurs in each story, the telling of the following crime is completely different in each version.

The woodcutter, who saw the scene of the crime, is shocked and devastated by the dishonesty and inability for those involved to tell the truth.  The barbarity of the crime and the dishonesty  of the criminal and of the victims has shaken the priest’s faith in the goodness of mankind.  The third man listens to the accounts with amazement, which increases as he hears each recollection of the crime.  By the time the woodcutter tells his version, which is supposedly authentic, the viewer, along with the third man, is not sure whom to believe.

Each version of the story is shown in a flashback.  All four stories agree that a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyô) were traveling through the forest, when a notorious bandit (Toshirô Mifune) trapped them, tied up the samurai, and raped the wife.  However, the events following the rape are notably different in each telling of the story.

The most interesting aspect of the flashbacks is to whom each storyteller assigns the primary blame – not the blame for the first crime, but the responsibility for the second crime.  The storyteller simultaneously tries to absolve himself or herself from guilt for the first crime while taking responsibility for the most heinous happening.  The narrators all reflect a sense of honor and duty in themselves but not in the other participants.  All the narrators seem to be aware of their failures, and their stories reflect that, since they all claim responsibility for the second crime as a result of their failures.  At the same time, their actions were supposedly driven by an attempt to rectify their spurned honor.  This sense of honor and duty is universal to all the characters in the film, and it foreshadows the final action in the film.

In many ways, retelling the same story from different vantage points is a foreshadowing of many future films, especially Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film, Hero.  In Hero, for each version of the events the sets were saturated with a different color.  Although shot in black and white, the lighting in Rashomon changes for the flashbacks as more light is shed on the proceedings.  The underscoring also changes drastically for each story.  The bandit’s story is underscored by a sinister, descending march.  The underscoring for the wife’s tale is melancholy and quotes Ravel’s Bolero.  The samurai’s story is underscored by eerie and dark percussive music that suits strangeness of his story.  And the woodcutter’s story uses no underscoring to highlight the bleakness of the events and to suggest that his story is the true recollection.

By the end of the film, the viewer has heard four different versions of supposedly the same story.  Is only one version true, are none of the versions true, or did everyone tell the truth recalling the events as they remembered them?  All three of these answers are possibilities.  Regardless of which one turns out to be correct, another surprising incident occurs right before the film’s end that takes precedence to the shocking crime and trial.  This new occurrence shows that even in the midst of man’s depravity and temptation to sin, goodness and virtue are possible.  As in the flashbacks, even in the midst of sin, a sense of honor and duty prevails.

Content Advisory: An off-screen rape, some violence, and fleeting gore.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A

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All the King’s Men

Year of Release: 1949     Directed by Robert Rossen.  Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, Joanne Dru, Shepperd Strudwick, and Raymond Greenleaf.

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is an idealistic politician who wants to get involved and run for office to help the people.  His honesty and desire to shake up the system attracts the attention of a local newspaper journalist, Jack Burden. (John Ireland)  Burden writes favorable articles helping Stark win public approval.  When Stark becomes too dangerous a topic, Burden’s editor informs him that the paper has endorsed a different candidate and will not publish any positive piece on Stark.  In a moment of idealistic anger, Burden quits, and a few years later he lands a comfortable job working for Stark’s campaign.

This job begins to change Burden.  Originally, he believed in Stark due to Stark’s honesty, integrity, and desire to do the will of the people.  Very shortly after being elected, Stark removes these priorities from his list.  Burden is his cleanup man, who collects incriminating data on anyone who causes trouble.  Burden knows that Stark has been corrupted, but Burden refuses to admit that he has been screwed for supporting Stark.  He also believes that the good Stark accomplishes outweighs his evil actions. Therefore, Burden continues working for Stark.  Even Stark destroying Burden’s personal life is not enough to make Burden quit.

Once Stark gets caught up into the world of politics, his idealism and honesty quickly fall by the wayside.  Or maybe, he never had them in the first place.  In an early scene, he gets very angry towards someone who questions why he is going to all this trouble.  Towards the beginning of his career, Stark also explains that good always follows evil; therefore, it is mandatory that he craft evil deals to achieve good for the people.  It is very revealing when an old cynic, who held the idealistic Stark in contempt, supports Stark when he hears him making deals and engaging in nepotism.  In this man’s mind, Stark is now an experienced politician.  Quite possibly Stark’s public performances about honesty and doing whatever the people want were only to gain strong public support.  Stark is glad for his early losses, because he became popular with the people and learned how to win.

Each step Stark takes to win becomes more shocking and more repulsive.  His addiction to power completely corrupts him.  While he gives elegant spiels about only doing the will of the people and only acting on behalf of the good of the people, his undercover actions are detrimental to society and to individuals.  As a result of his greed driven actions, people are killed, paralyzed, fired, and lose everything in various ways.

Initially Stark is very likeable.  His idealism is appealing; he is taken advantage of for his ignorance; and he is a clear underdog.  Other politicians organize riots, mobilize the police, and manipulate the press to stop him.  In order to achieve success, Stark employs all of these tactics as his first move after winning the election.  His other move is to blackmail anyone who opposes him.  Since he controls the media, he does not worry about any negative repercussions from his actions.

The people refuse to believe anything negative about Stark.  They call him a messiah whom they hope will change the way politics work.  (I’m not saying anything.)  The few people who distrust Stark and hold him in contempt are viewed as self-centered cynics who only care about themselves.  One character is reviled as an arrogant moral purist for opposing universal health care since it will be obtained by means of questionable legality and morality.  (Again.  Not.  Saying.  Anything.)

Every character in the movie fails to stand up for truth at some point.  Burden fails throughout most of the movie, as well as his friend Anne. (Joanne Dru)  Her devotion to Stark crosses into worship of a politician, and she contributes to his blackmail in an absolutely shocking way with tragic consequences.  Anne’s brother Adam (Shepperd Strudwick) initially holds Stark in utter contempt.  But even he gives into the political game in order to preserve something that he deeply values.  Ultimately, his choice completely fails.  When it does, his next choices, while morally problematic, are understandable given the direness of his situation.  Mercedes McCambridge plays a campaign manager who only cares to keep herself in power.  Even when Stark offends her, she does not care.  She outright acknowledges the offense as if it is not any major concern.

Stark’s early claim that one must do evil to produce good are clearly shown to be wrong.  Every character acts on this mentality at some point in their lives.  Even a character who seems to be a moral hero made a consequentialist choice early in his life, and it returns to haunt him.  All of Stark’s actions are guided by the principle that the ends do justify the means, and those actions are clearly depicted as repellant.  The climactic act of the film is also an evil act that is driven by good intention, that will most likely accomplish more harm than good.  Evil acts produce more evil, which significantly outweighs any good that may or may not result.

Watching All the King’s Men on July 4th, 2012 was a provocative experience with appropriate timing.  With the Fortnight for Freedom just ending, the recent SCOTUS decision, the HHS mandate, and a highly contentious election year, this movie is a riveting and interesting portrayal of similar situations.  Our media refuses to report a negative story on a politician they support.  People still support criminal politicians, because “the other guy” must not win.  Hopefully, our country is not as hopeless as the situation portrayed here.

Content Advisory: References to an affair and general corruption throughout.                  Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Midnight in Paris

Year of Release: 2011     Directed by Woody Allen.   Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Lea Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll, and Kathy Bates.

What is the best of times?  That is the question Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) grapples with as he vacations in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdmas).  For Gil, the answer to that question is Paris in the 1920’s, when Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Pablo Picasso lived there.  Even though he cannot be there, Gil tries his hardest to relate to them by taking in the beauty of Paris and appreciating every minute of the vacation.  He dreams of what the city would have been like in the twenties, with his literary and artistic heroes.  However, Inez and her no-nonsense parents have no time for Gil’s dreaming.  They cannot appreciate the beauty of walking through Paris in the rain or admiring the settings of Monet’s paintings.  Naturally, Inez and her parents balk at Gil’s idea of moving to Paris and writing as Hemingway and Fitzgerald did.

Gil is a writer who has had much success writing Hollywood screenplays, but he yearns to write a novel.  He has almost completed his only attempt so far, but he is struggling to finish it, as he tries to find inspiration, someone he trusts to critique it, and make it connect to people.  Gil has plenty of inspiration for his novel; the protagonist works in a nostalgia shop, which sells items of yesteryear.  Gil’s book clearly serves as an expansion of himself, personifying his own current conflict.

The conflict between Gil and Inez over the beauty of Paris carries over into his writing as well.  She finds the subject of his novel amusing, but nothing else.  Since Gil has been very successful at writing screenplays, Inez cannot fathom why he wants to give that up for novel writing.  Screenplay writing is financially secure; novel writing is financially risky.  Living in Paris he will be away from publishers and Hollywood, where he has guaranteed work.  In her mind, the choice is clear.  However, she begrudgingly lets Gil try writing a novel, and she offers assistance as well as she can.  She tries to get her ex-boyfriend Paul, (Michael Sheen) whom she considers an honest expert on everything, to look over Gil’s novel for him.  Needless to say, Gil does not welcome the suggestion.

Unbeknownst to Gil, he will have an opportunity every midnight in Paris to have his book critiqued, find his last bit of inspiration, and have his wish fulfilled.  He will have an opportunity to learn what is would have been like to live in Paris during its “Golden Age.”  In order to be truly happy and successful as a writer, Gil has to accept where he is and live in the present.  He can learn from the past, for which he is provided a unique opportunity.  But ultimately life will be the fullest if he chooses to live in the present.  The film shows that Gil was missing part of his life by providing an opportunity for a meaningful relationship that he will never achieve as long as he lives in the past.

Allen captures the nostalgia and beauty of Paris with his opening five minute montage composed of shots of the City of Light, and he maintains the feelings throughout the film.  The score contributes to the feeling by using Cole Porter songs and early jazz.

The entire cast is enthusiastic, really bringing their characters to life with their own unique interpretations.  The dialogue and exchanges between characters are terse, witty, and most importantly funny.  When Gil asks someone he admires to review his novel, the response is: “I’ll hate it.  If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing.  If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more.”

What Gil finally learns in the end is that in every time period of history, there is good and bad, success and failure.  A very funny scene towards the end has another character learn the same lesson.  To quote one of my favorite novels, every era is the “best of times and the worst of times.”  It all depends on the choices one makes.

Content Advisory: Many references to sexual liaisons, acceptance of non-marital sexuality, and a few instances of profanity.                                            MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Year of Release: 2000     Directed by Christopher Nolan.    Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, and Carrie-Anne Moss.

Of Nolan’s six mainstream releases, his debut film Memento was the last one that I saw.[1]  I did not have many expectations, since I had heard highest laudations, reserved praise, and outright disappointment, all from sources I respect.  Consequently, I was not predisposed to feel a certain way about the film.  The film engaged me on its own, and from the first scenes I was thoroughly engrossed with the story.  And with all due respect to those who found Memento unsatisfying, I believe that they misinterpreted the film.

One thing on which anyone should agree is that Memento foreshadowed Nolan’s entire directorial career.  As is in all his other films Nolan makes use of a specific technique to develop the story.  Whether it is the quick, intercut flashbacks in Insomnia; or the cutting between the parallel stories of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in The Prestige, there is always a unifying technique.  Here, Nolan tells the story in reverse.  Each sequence ends where the preceding sequence began.  By unfolding the film in chronological reverse, Nolan saves the most important puzzle piece, the onset of the events, for the climax of the film.  Occurring simultaneously with the color backwards story is a black-and-white story that connects to the rest of the film at that pivotal moment.  The final solving of the mystery, symbolized by the merging of the two stories, is foreshadowed by the opening scene as the viewer watches a color snapshot fade to black-and-white.

Nolan’s films generally have a brief important scene at the beginning of the film that is not fully explained until the end of the film, where everything falls into place.  This is similar to Inception’s opening with Cobb on the beach followed by his focus on the top; or the Joker’s opening line of The Dark Knight, which is defines the Joker’s actions, and is only fully realized by the film’s end; or the brief shots of blood soaking fabric that haunt Dormer at the beginning of InsomniaMemento’s opening scene has two important elements.  One is the aforementioned photo, and more importantly, the other is the man killed along with his final words.

Another opinion of mine concerning Nolan’s films would divide many people; however, I believe that all of his films have clear moral messages.  Whether or not those messages are solidly Christian is debatable, but I would argue that they all are.  Insomnia showcases the fallacy of ends-justify-the-means mentality; the Batman films unflinchingly and accurately hold a mirror up to evil, showing the difficulty and assiduousness it takes to defeat it; The Prestige shows the tragic results of devoting one’s life solely to fame and to revenge; and Inception shows the danger of living in fantasy and ignoring reality.  Memento tells the tragic story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who devotes his life to revenge after his wife’s rape and murder.  It is concerned with taking revenge after a tragic death, like The Prestige, and like Inception, it shows the danger of ignoring reality and settling for what will bring instant gratification.

Leonard’s quest for vengeance is understandable.  His wife was raped and murdered, and as he rushed to help her, the assailant smashed his head into a mirror.  When he regained consciousness, he had brain damage that prevented him from forming new memories.  He could remember everything up to the moment of the assault, but anything that he encounters after that will only stay in his mind for a few minutes.  In order to remember people, events, or facts, he makes mementos for himself.  He takes snapshots of people and writes down information about them before it leaves his mind.  Important facts, he tattoos in various places over his body, such as “John G. raped and murdered my wife” backwards across his torso so he can see it every time he looks in a mirror.

Constantly reminding oneself of one’s sufferings is detrimental to forgiveness and freedom.  Although Leonard’s sufferings are great and he should not forget his wife or how she died, nursing his wounds and harboring hatred towards her attacker worsens his condition and puts him further from the truth.

Although Leonard wants revenge, he is not concerned with justice.  “My wife deserves vengeance,” (not justice) he tells an acquaintance.  When she inquires what good is revenge if he cannot remember it, Leonard is not deterred; he will simply get another tattoo, and his wife deserves vengeance regardless of whether or not he remembers it.  Her point was accurate; revenge is all about serving oneself and showing that one can be as cruel as his persecutor.  Justice is impartial and conforms to truth, fact, and reason.

Leonard has deluded himself by confusing justice and revenge as synonyms.  He believes that everything he writes down is a true fact, and the film backtracks showing how he arrived at those facts.  Because Leonard devoted himself to revenge, he became obsessed with making himself feel good.  When the truth and the facts became unpleasant he was reluctant to write them down, and as a result he forgot them quickly.  Importantly, the filmmakers are careful never to have Leonard use the word, “justice.”

The entire story gradually becomes more apparent, like putting together a puzzle, as the final image slowly forms from the original confusion and mystery of all the pieces.  There are subtle hints that Leonard is confusing himself and trusting the wrong people, as the audience learns who tries to help him and who uses him for their advantage.  Whether or not Leonard achieves his revenge is kept a mystery until the last moment of the film.  And when Nolan finally reveals it, the answer is shocking, disturbing, and an accurate portrayal of the tragic evil of revenge.

Content Advisory: Much obscene and profane language, some intense violence, brief rear nudity, scenes of tattooing, and fleeting drug use.                            MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

[1] Although Following is Nolan’s debut feature-length film, it is an indie film.  Memento is his first mainstream film.

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