This commentary package contains the final installment of my (Ken Burke; Pat’s still off doing a research project trying to recreate the Mona Lisa using just the rear-view-mirror from a ’57 Chevy, some Q-tips, and model airplane paint—if that makes no sense to you, please check out the review of Tim’s Vermeer in our February 14, 2014 posting) 3-part-review-cluster of the Oscar-nominated Short Films: Live Action (Feb. 6, 2014), Animated (Feb. 14, 2014), and now Documentary. While the overall concept of documentary, along with the contents of two new(ish) feature films, The Pretty One and Like Father, Life Son, do have an overarching conceptual link about identity—which will be explored in the individual reviews—unlike in the past 2 weeks where there was just a lot of separate, available stuff to examine—but I’m still going to use the same format as I’ve done recently of treating each one as a unique entity, so we’ll get right to that just as soon as you’ve worked your way through the swamp of our regular opening comments just below Do be aware, though, that you should consult your Spoiler Alert radar because much of what I’ll be reviewing here may just now be opening or has very recently come to your area so maybe you’ll want to just consider the brief summaries and star ratings with each review for now, then come back later after you’ve lost your new-releases-viewer-virginity (a great advantage over regular virginity because you can keep sacrificing it week after week with new openings—no pun intended ... maybe). And, just in case you weren’t paying attention for the last sentence, here’s another redundant reminder, the one we offer you free of charge on a regular basis:
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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At least until the Oscars for 2013 have been awarded on Sunday, March 2, 2014 (which, in no relationship whatsoever, is also Texas Independence Day—some things you don’t forget after they’ve been drummed into you for 37 years [after which I finally escaped to California]) I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2013 films made various individual critic's Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards. You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success—which you can monitor here—and any sort of critical/statuette recognition), but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2013, along with the Oscar nominations here.
As I’ve noted in recent postings, you can consult the general website for all of the Short Film programs (Live Action, Animated, and the 2 Documentary ones), then check the Dates & Locations link for a full U.S. map to see how close you are to where at least some of this material is currently screening (as long as you’re within 500 miles of the nearest theater). I did some quick maneuvering around the map which confirmed that there may be slightly more locations for the (normally) rotating pair of the Live Action and Animated Shorts than the 2 Documentary programs (even though there are just 5 entries in each category, the Short Docs still run longer per-film in most cases so the distributor had to make these into a rotating pair as well; therefore, if you do find the opportunity to see all of these nominees be prepared to pay for 4 separate admissions in total), depending on where you live, but it does seem that most of you will have a reasonable chance to get to some of these collections if you wish unless you’re way out in the wilderness (however, when I lived in Texas people would sometimes drive 300 miles round-trip from Abilene to Ft. Worth just to raise the quality of lunch and shopping options, so some of you may be used to long road trips if you don’t want to wait for DVD/streaming availability). Still, if logistics or available time for viewing are a problem for you, you can always start with the very brief set of trailers for all 15 of the Shorts, then read my summaries below of what’s going on in the Docs (as well as see the earlier postings for the other categories); you can also get some information at the Rotten Tomatoes website for a bit more detail as well, where you’ll find a very rare 100% positive response to this Short Documentary program, but that’s based on only 7 reviews when I wrote these comments so you might check back later to see if anything has changed—which it might not, depending on the ongoing incoming reviews; for example, in the RT Live Action summary the overall percentage is now 65% based on 17 reviews whereas 2 weeks ago it was 64% based on 14 (and do remember that in RT the percentage is based on positive, mixed, or negative reviews so even if all of them are positive—thus, yielding the extremely-rare-100%-result—that doesn’t necessarily mean that the involved critics felt that all 5 of these entries were among the finest work they’d ever seen but just that the overall experience and average of the group amounted to a positive reaction, which might be anywhere from about 70% on up in the mind of an individual reviewer). Rather than offering an average for these Shorts I’ll comment on each film, although I can say my overall response also falls into the positive zone, with the Short Docs being the best of the lot for me, followed by the Live Action group, then the Animated ones.
Any of them as a group are worth your time and money, although I’d try for bargain matinees for those latter 2 while encouraging you to put your best investment toward these Short Documentaries because I think that overall they give you the best total package of inspirational cinema. As with the Animated nominees I was able to watch these through critics’ access online so I can’t speak directly about the impact the groupings may have when you see them in a theater (therefore I’m just presenting them in alphabetical order here, just like on the Oscar ballot), but I do know that the first and last ones below comprise a separate theatrical screening group, while the other 3 make up the alternating program if you need to make a viewing decision based on that choice by the distributor (in retrospect, I’d choose the latter program, as it contains 2 of the mere 4 films of the whole 15-member-package where I gave a 4-star rating—the others are Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall in the other Short Doc program and Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) [Estaban Crespo, Spain] in the Live Action Short Films).
CaveDigger Jeffery Karoff (USA, 39 min.)
Earth-mover and artist Ra Paulette digs exquisitely-sculpted caves out of Southwest U.S. sandstone for patrons, often colliding with them over aesthetic choices.
If you’ve seen or read about either of the art-oriented features that I reviewed in my last posting (February 14, 2014), The Monuments Men (George Clooney) and Tim’s Vermeer (Teller—of Penn and Teller magicians’ fame), then you know how passionate art lovers can be about the work of others, either trying to help preserve it for future generations or trying to better understand how older works came into being. In CaveDigger we see (and hear directly from the source) how equally passionate—if not more so—that the actual artists are, no matter how many visitors get to see their work or what (sometimes who) they have to sacrifice to answer their creative obsessions. In this case, the artist is Ra Paulette, with the “canvas” being sandstone formations in the U.S. desert Southwest where Ra transforms solid (but workable) mineral deposits (the shorelines of ancient seas) into caves of exquisite beauty using only a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and some sculpting tools, all guided by his hands alone, to create rooms, passageways, wall carvings, and other aspects of underground spaces that can be fitted with doors, skylights, wooden floors, etc. to provide architectural art that could be solid enough to live in (he’s got electric fans and lights in some of his work, although I don’t think that he’s yet progressed to plumbing so you’d need other options for water and refuse) or for escape to a tranquil, meditative environment. Watching him work is fascinating, listening to him talk about his Earth-transformative-inner-calling is inspirational, but realizing how dependent he is on the generosity of friends to pay him to create these beautiful chambers on their properly (until the funds run out, which has left some of the caves unfinished) and the toleration of his supportive-up-to-a-point wife, Paula (his previous paramour is now with his best friend, but they did fund one of his projects), to accept his art-for-art’s-sake-obsession, you can see why he’s yet to encourage any apprentices to follow his craft while you wonder if this mid-60s guy will remain healthy and strong enough to finish his personal magnum opus (partially seen in the photo above), which he estimates will take 10 years with only 2 done when the film was completed (further, you just have to hope that he won’t hit any more unworkable areas of solid rock such as he did in one client’s cave, which forces him to re-think his ground plan as long as the existing environment can accommodate his revised vision, just as he has to hope that his “guesstimate” engineering [he’s really just a digger with a grand vision] won’t result in an arch collapse such as the one that terminated the first attempt at his personal triumph—along with his further hope that all of the personal, unpaid time he’s investing in this grand finale will result in that patient wife still waiting for him at the end of the project). Once you get the idea of what’s happening here you may not think that you need the full running time, in which you don’t really learn anything new as you go toward the end, but I think you’ll be astounded enough at the amazing complexity that he’s carved out of the underground in his various caves to feel satisfied with the “in-depth” look you’ve been given of this most unique individual. You can visit the CaveDigger official site and/or watch the trailer if you’d like to “dig” more about Paulette’s work.
Facing Fear Jason Cohen (USA, 23 min.)
Can the gay teenage victim of a gang of neo-Nazis find reconciliation with one of those thugs when they meet later after the brutalizer has changed his ideology? Yes.
For me, it’s a tossup between this one, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (both reviewed below) as to which one is the champ of this group (although I’m leaning toward The Lady …), but certainly this film is an excellent example of why I said in my opening remarks that the concept of “identity” is one that underlies all documentaries (along with the 2 fictional features that I’ll also review later in this posting). I think that for too long many audiences have mistakenly understood docs to be informational opportunities, factual accountings of an event or specific people that the filmmaker wants you to know more about for the purposes of better understanding of issues or individuals whose stories are relevant to our self-awareness as a better-educated-society. All of that is part of why we have documentaries, but as far as I’m concerned they exist as persuasive opportunities, intended to “sell” you something, just not in the direct manner of their cousin-in-communication, advertising, which also exists to persuade you to think in a certain way but about buying a product (or a candidate or a ballot measure) as a more tangible purchase among alternative choices; conversely, the docs want to transform your consciousness, convince you of a certain standpoint supported by the filmmaker, which might in fact be part of a larger campaign to mold public opinion on a wide range of issues that at times need a longer, more-encompassing-and-involving “pitch” than can be delivered in a 30-second sound bite (thus, documentaries are an obvious passion of Michael Moore’s, whose controversial attacks on many “sacred cows” in American life have further opened up mainstream cinema for other documentarians in recent years so that the feature-length explorations of warfare ideology, medical institutions, gun ownership, wealth and corruption in big business, etc. have become more visible even in suburban theaters, although their shorter-length-relatives—the ones we’re exploring here—at best make the rounds once a year just prior to the Oscar awards or appear on a variety of cable TV channels). All of this is a long-winded (Well, what other kind of wind do I have? OK, let’s not get into that.) prelude to praising the hard-to-sell-argument that we find in Facing Fear that individuals in our society (and others, hopefully) can evolve—then sincerely change—their social conditioning to the point of not just being remorseful about past actions but also atoning in a pro-social manner that may help prevent the kind of bigotry and violence being explored in this film; essentially Facing Fear is a study in true forgiveness, which is a lot more complex than a simple confession and absolution ritual (which I rarely probed beneath the surface of in my earlier years as a practicing Catholic).
Simply, Facing Fear is the account of how in the mid-1980s Tim Zaal and his neo-Nazi/White Power buddies from LA's San Gabriel Valley—pumped up on hate from punk rock shows and other uncivil influences—felt it was their right to accost and attack anyone they didn't respect (a heinous Tuesday night ritual for them), especially gay men such as Matthew Boger (a troubled-enough guy already who moved to Hollywood from the San Francisco area after his mother disowned him at age 13—on the left in this photo) and his friends who accidently came across Tim’s thugs one night, resulting in a horrible, unprovoked beating in which Tim kicked Matt in the head hard enough to kill him before the brutes fled the scene. 25 years later, after Tim’s attitudes had changed because he no longer felt the personal-power-rush from being so angrily-violent and Matt was involved in increasing public awareness of the need for acceptance of diversity after the grisly 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard (by homicidal homophobes in Wyoming; more information at the Matthew Shepard Foundation website if you like), they accidently meet again at LA's Museum of Tolerance (a unit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center) where Matt is working, with the slow realization by Tim that he’s one of the attackers Matt tells others about. Although Tim acknowledges his unpunished crime to Matt—with its accompanying oppressive guilt—now hopeful to make amends, it’s not a quick nor easy process, but they struggle through it in public seminars intended to lay out the truth of the hate or fear that each of them were consumed with earlier in their lives. Over time they’ve become sincere friends, even to the point of Tim providing useful consolation when Matt’s partner died from brain cancer. What we see in Facing Fear is the ongoing process of healing that these 2 men are trying to instill into their constantly-evolving selves, with no grand resolution except for the help they’re now providing in trying to convince others to tear down their self-made walls of rejection and hostility that plague so many of differing viewpoints and orientations in our vast, complex society. The feelings are raw and personal—expressed in direct manners, not carefully-crafted-eloquence—but all the more effective for what they show us about how change can be possible, even among the most divided of former enemies. Facing Fear is simple to understand in concept, difficult to watch in reality, and truly compelling in keeping its intended-persuasion-purposes alive in your mind long after you’ve seen it. Please visit the film’s official site and trailer if you’d like to know more.
Karama Has No Walls Sara Ishaq (UAE/UK/Yemen, 27 min.)
In the 2011 Arab Spring there were peaceful, anti-government demonstrations in Yemen that turned to state-led violence as shown by footage from the streets.
In winter 2010 what came to be known as the famous Arab Spring began, leading to social upheavals in a good number of North African and Middle Eastern countries which have now led to changed governments In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (where the changes are still in shaky motion), and Yemen, along with a good number of uprisings and protests in other countries of the region, with the current focus on the bloodshed in Syria and its impacted neighbors. A document of this ongoing movement from March 2011 is the subject of Karama Has No Walls when peaceful assemblies, in Change Square within Yemen's capital city of Sana’a—decrying the 33-year harsh, autocratic rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh—erupted into state-supported-violence that took the lives of many of the protesting citizens. The events explored in this film note that Change Square began being occupied on February 20, 2011 after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt the previous Feb. 11; in Sana’a, though, the Yemeni government constructed a wall that largely cut off the protesters from easy passage through the rest of the public area, then on March 18 chaos broke out when the wall was set on fire followed by government-backed thugs and snipers throwing rocks and shooting at the assembled protesters, resulting in the cruel death of 53 of the anti-government demonstrators (and injuries to hundreds more), all shown in cinéma vérité footage which makes up the bulk of what we see in Karama Has No Walls, along with interviews where family members of the dead or injured express their shock and sorrow over the cruel response of their leaders to legitimate demands for a social overhaul. That finally comes on November 23, 2011 when Saleh agrees to hand over power in return for immunity for his actions (but thousands were dead by the time this turmoil was put to rest). For those of us not familiar with Islamic culture, “karama” refers to “dignity,” thus explaining the intention of the film’s title, just as the film itself intends to demonstrate with on-the-spot-footage shot by young, local cinematographers the horror of those early days of repression, both in principle and in personal loss as expressed by the interviewees, in which 1 youngster we hear testimony about is killed while another is blinded by the bullets from government troops backing up the initial thugs rather than trying to protect the unarmed protesters. It’s a horrible situation, with the images "shot" in the most dangerous of circumstances; as such, it could be seen as a simile for what has gone on in much of the Arab world for the past few years and continues where those originally demanding more democratic systems of government feel that their revolutionary ideals have been betrayed by new gangs of opportunists attempting to seize power for their own purposes. However, as much as it pains me to says this, as a film, simply on cinematic merits of content and approach, Karama Has No Walls has had the least impact on me of the 5 Short Documentary nominees because it feels like an extended—although very informative and moving—news report, 1 of a constant flow of this sort of historical verification that have been emanating from this terribly-troubled-region ever since the first uprisings began in Tunisia, December 2010. I realize that the people who made their passionate statements directly to the cameras in Karama Has No Walls have great personal investments in the future of their country as well as suffering great individual pain in some instances, but—purely as a film from 2013 in a current competition—this material seems somewhat dated, especially considering the ongoing unrest in Yemen (I further realize that the other Short Doc finalists are also presenting events not very up-to-date regarding our contemporary viewing situations, but given all that’s happened in the Arab world since the events depicted in this film, it just feels the most out-of-sync with the present of this category’s contenders). Karama Has No Walls serves as a fine time-capsule of specific situations within the overall context of unrest, changes, and counter-responses within the Islamic world at present, but it just doesn’t strike me as a documentary award finalist in 2014; however, you might easily have greater interest in it, so if you do I encourage you to visit the official site and a trailer for this heartfelt plea for freedom and social participation for the disenfranchised Yeminis (as well as vast numbers of others by extension in other countries struggling for a taste of freedom).
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Malcolm Clark, Nicholas Reed [Academy info implies co-directors here
but credits clearly note Reed as producer] (Canada/USA/UK, 38 min.)
but credits clearly note Reed as producer] (Canada/USA/UK, 38 min.)
The oldest living Holocaust survivor is also a dedicated musician who’s devoted
most of her 110 years to her love of piano classics, even playing them in a concentration camp.
most of her 110 years to her love of piano classics, even playing them in a concentration camp.
If you were secretly cynical you might think (for a moment, at least) “What do you have to do to beat a Holocaust story to win any sort of documentary Oscar?" given how successful these presentations have been in past Academy competitions. But, when you’ve got a compelling presentation featuring the actual oldest living survivor of a Nazi concentration camp—Alice Herz-Sommer, still alive and vibrant at 110 (as of November 26, 2013)—after the horrors she endured back in the 1940s you have to admit that the subject matter could easily lead to a heartbreaking triumph, which it clearly does here. I can’t predict with certainty that The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life will capture the Short Documentary Oscar for 2013 releases, but it certainly has a strong reason to do so, just because Alice herself is so fascinating, upbeat, and devoted to keeping her spirit solvent with a daily dose of classical piano. The title refers to her current north London location where her neighbors are treated to her regular recitals, just as we are treated to her reminiscences about her childhood days in Prague (at the time, part of the remains of the Austria-Hungary empire) where she was a family friend of Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. As the years went on she was celebrated as a piano prodigy, eventually married violinist Leopold Sommer in 1931, then had son Raphael in 1937, prior to the Nazi invasion in 1939 of what had become Czechoslovakia after WW I. First, she—as a Jew—was forbidden to perform in public, then in 1943 Alice, Leopold, and Raphael were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in the Czech city of Terezin, a way station on the way to Auschwitz for many, including Leopold who would not survive the war (although his death came later at Dachau, of typhus). Alice did, though, because she—like many other talented Jewish musicians—were kept at the prison to play for their Nazi captors, either in planned performances or on demand from any German officer who desired a respite from the cruelty of the war (this music also provided some uplift for the Jewish prisoners who heard these heavenly sounds from afar in the camp). After liberation, Alice and Raphael eventually moved to Israel where he became a noted cellist, but he died in 2001 at age 64. Despite her losses, though, Alice continued to invest herself in her beloved music, which she likens to “a dream” in The Lady in Number 6 …, proving herself as beyond the hateful limitations that could easily have overwhelmed her, opting instead to live by her father’s dictum that “calmness is strength.” In a way, this is just a simple story of a talented woman who was allowed by fate to escape the horrible deaths that killed so many of her countrymen and larger-heritage-family, simply because she had the good fortune to be able to help calm the souls of the savage beasts who were brutalizing Europe while they had the opportunity to be in power. Yet, to hear this aged woman still bring forth Beethoven or Schubert is a delight, just as is her enthusiasm for life despite all that was taken away from her so many years ago. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life as a film is just a memoir of a gifted, fortunate woman, but her embodied passion for life—as long as music is central in it—makes for a very engrossing film, which would be worthy of this year’s Short Doc Oscar if the voters are so inclined. If you’d like to explore the official site along with the trailer to see more of what Alice’s story is all about, please help yourself. (2/24/14 Update: Normally, I don't try to edit new information into these postings—which would be a never-ending-task—but this has current relevance. Alice Herz-Sommer died on Sunday, February 23, 2014, just days before this year's Oscar results will be announced. If you'd like to know more, among other obituaries is this one from BBC News).
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall Edgar Barens (USA, 40 min.)
As a young man, Jack Hall was a WW II hero; as an old man he’s a dying convict,
guilty of murder, living out his last days in a prison hospice program staffed by other inmates.
guilty of murder, living out his last days in a prison hospice program staffed by other inmates.
This story of a dying 82-year-old convict, George William “Jack” Hall (1923-2006)—who makes no excuses for the murder sentence that will surely outlast his rapidly-decreasing-years in the Iowa State Penitentiary at Ft. Madison—is full of complex concepts that aren’t brought to the surface too blatantly, so as not to let this story become too melodramatic nor focused on a specific issue when a good number of them are in play here. First, you can mull over the circumstances of a young man trained to go into battle as an Army Ranger (1942-45) where it’s kill or be killed during WW II’s African campaign, although Jack also encountered another alternative by being held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis for 14 months of his time in the service (duty which earned him the Key to the City of Keokuk, Iowa when he returned home), but as he tells us in this film that killer instinct doesn’t just go away when you’re back Stateside. Flash forward to our next consideration in 1977 when Jack purposely terminated the drug dealer who helped get his 14-year-old-son hooked to the point where the boy hanged himself; at age 62 Jack was finally found guilty in 1984 of first-degree-murder (a terrible crime, although some would consider his act a pubic service), receiving a life sentence. The third situation for our contemplation comes when we meet Jack 20 years later as he’s suffering through the last stages of pneumonia, although he’d been living in the infirmary after suffering a heart attack 12 years prior, so the implication—although not a question put directly to us by the filmmakers—is that we might want to reconsider keeping such old, sick people in prison, especially after they’ve served a good bit of time already, a point made simply by the opening graphics that tell us 20% of U.S. convicts are elderly while 100,000 of them will die in their cells. Jack, at least, was put in the best situation that he could be by being admitted to the emerging prison hospice program in Iowa that allows a very small number of terminal inmates to be granted more personal care than they’d receive otherwise, with the final irony being that some of the caregivers are other long-term-or-lifer-prisoners who volunteer to help as atonement for their own crimes as they look for forgiveness in this world or beyond. Jack’s story is a sobering one, told largely through his direct testimony to the camera (accompanied by interviews with his surviving son, Don Skinner, some of his inmate helpers, and others involved with this hospice alternative) along with footage of his final days and beyond (including poignant shots such as the closeup of “love is help” tattooed on Jack’s left hand, limp when fingerprinted by the law's requirement after his death; another sobering image is Jack in the emergency room with breathing problems but still handcuffed, again following required legal procedure), as Jack dies while the film is in the production process as the oldest inmate in Iowa at the time (after 14 days in hospice).
One other topic for our consideration is that Jack—despite being a decorated war veteran—was denied a military funeral because of his felony conviction (a situation brought about as a response to the acts of another veteran, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995). Nowhere in this sad tale of Jack’s suffering in his final years (with only the implications of what his life had been like in his earlier days) does Barens attempt to challenge any of the social structures that helped lead Jack to the situation of his almost-unknown-death by society at large. However, a final implication that I perceive (intended or not) is about the question of whether Jack was, in fact, better off being in prison when he expired because at least there he received attentive care and was truly missed by his old friends and caregivers, all of whom knew first-hand the sorrow of his situation. Prison Terminal … is a very effective, quiet, thought-provoking recounting of the difficult choices often offered in our lives, resulting in ends that were never considered decades earlier even as they become irreversible through larger social determinates. I’d say the Oscar voters have some serious choices to make within the Short Documentary category where they almost can’t go wrong with their final decision because there are some powerful options to choose from, with my 4-star-choices all sharing the strength of simply presenting substantial situations, then allowing the viewers to determine for themselves what they’re being persuaded to think or do. If you are in travel distance to the pair of Short Doc programs in select theatres, I’d encourage you to try to see both so that you don’t miss Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, and Facing Fear, along with their well-made companions. If you have to choose just one group, though, I repeat that the package with these latter 2 films will get you the most impact for your money, while you’ve got another chance with Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall later on HBO when its TV debut comes on March 31, 2014. In the meantime you can visit its official site and watch its trailer.
Now we’re done with all of the Short Film nominees so let’s take a look at a couple of fictional features that have some resonances of reality behind their creative stories as well.
The Pretty One
Identical twin sisters don’t have identical personalities, but when the outgoing one dies her identity is assumed by the shy one, finding momentous changes in her life.
Every Labor Day my wife, Nina, and I invite over 2 very close friends for our annual screening of Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)—a star-crossed romance set in Kansas—because a couple of members of this privileged audience have fond feelings for the film, I (not a member of the previous subgroup) find it just ludicrous enough in its accurate presentation of mid-1950’s American cultural norms to be unintentionally-entertaining (we’ve toyed with the idea of turning it into a drinking game where you have to chug a beverage every time William Holden calls Kim Novak “Baby,” but then we’d have to provide lodging for the night because no one would be sober enough to walk, let alone drive home), and the other member of our troop doesn’t care for it much either (although he has directed a stage version of the original play, which won a 1953 Pulitzer Prize for William Inge—the screen adaptation was no slouch either, as it was nominated for 6 Oscars [including Best Picture] winning for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color and Best Film Editing [neither of which seem plausible to me, but I’m not the most unbiased observer—and if I don’t wrap this up soon I foresee Nina making a detestable platter of liver, raw celery, and 3-bean-salad for dinner) but he always enjoys the food (consistently a better menu than I just mentioned) and our massage-recliner which is certainly the most comfortable way to watch this movie. In the story, young-bookish-teenager Millie Owens (Susan Strasberg) is always saying—in a combination of sarcastic, jealous, and hurt tones—that her older sister, Madge (Novak), is “the pretty one” (although Madge, with a combination of that beauty and her coronation as Queen of Neewollah [Halloween spelled backwards, as this grain community uses Labor Day to celebrate the anticipation of the next break from work—but, I now find there’s an actual October family-centered-event of this same name in Independence, Kansas, dating to 1919, along with another one, a big party, at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, celebrated for over 50 years, with yet a third, a safe early-Halloween for kids at North Carolina’s Greensboro College] throws away her chances for marriage to wealthy Alan Benson [Cliff Robertson] in order to follow social outcast Hal Carter [Holden] to Tulsa, for what promises to be a less-than-glamorous life). I can’t help thinking of all this when watching writer-director Jenée LaMarque’s feature debut, The Pretty One, in which sibling rivalry is explored again but in a very different context.
Pardon the ongoing redundancy, but I’m going to repeat my standard Spoiler Alert here because this film is opening this weekend (Feb. 21, 2014) in my San Francisco area and may be doing the same in your territory so tread lightly through the next couple of paragraphs if you don’t want to know more than what the standard summaries tell you already—that Zoe Kazan plays a pair of identical, early-20s twins, one of whom, Audrey, dies only to be kept “alive” in that her more-reclusive-sister, Laurel, assumes her name, embarking on a new version of an identity for herself. If you want to know more—or already feel convinced that you’re going to skip this one because you’ve encountered negative reviews (45% from the Rotten Tomatoes tossers [based on only 20 reviews, though], 56% from the Metacritics [based on only 11 reviews], more details on both in the suggested links far below)—then I encourage you to read on now; however, in reading, I may be able to convince you that this is a wonderfully sweet, charming film that I’d encourage you to see for yourself, so please keep that consideration in mind as well. If you’re still with me, though, the premise is that outgoing Audrey has gone away to the big city to find work as a successful real estate agent while shy Laurel (as the film opens she’s finally losing her virginity on her birthday with Hunter [Sterling Beaumon], a 17-year-old that she used to babysit, but we find out later that he’s basically doing her [and himself, in a manner of speaking] a favor as he’s much more attracted to Audrey, a revelation that really hurts Laurel), has remained at home with her Dad, Frank (John Carroll Lynch, whom you may remember as Police Chief Marge’s husband, Norm, from Fargo [Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1996]), and his girlfriend, May (Shae D’lyn; the Mom died years ago, although Laurel still pathetically wears her old clothes), where she tries to emulate his artistic ability at copying famous paintings (not for forgery purposes, just for affordable decorations), although Laurel’s not that good at it, as we witness with her smirking Mona Lisa. Through a series of well-structured devices (Audrey comes home for the siblings’ birthday party, she gives Laurel a necklace with Audrey’s name on it [“So I’ll always be with you.”], Audrey treats Laurel to a beauty makeover where the shy one trades in her longer hair for a shorter cut and bangs that truly make her the mirror image of Audrey, the sisters are the victims of a head-on car crash where Audrey dies [after they’d just switched places in what my high-school-idiot-friends and I called a “Chinese fire drill”; my apologies for any oblivious-racist-aspects of that phrase of the part of numerous teenage thrill-seekers], Laurel is thrown through the windshield so that she’s saved from the fire that consumes her sister with everyone assuming that Audrey is the one who survived), the main plot is set in motion as Laurel attempts to convince everyone that she’s Audrey (even ranting at the funeral about how no one there appreciated Laurel, even Dad who never seemed grateful that she stayed home to help take care of him when Audrey moved away), requiring her to be self-confident; deal with a lover, Charles (Ron Livingston), back in that unnamed city, only to find out that he’s married so she pushes him away with only partial success; understand why “she” was so hostile to the tenant, Basel (Jake Johnson, from the TV series New Girl), in her subdivided house; fake her way through a business she knows nothing about with her real-estate-colleagues; and deal with the ongoing guilt she has about no one who ever knew Audrey being able to deal with her loss while Laurel is trying to find something more fulfilling in her life, even while she demeans the memory of her one long-lost-loving-confident while at the same time missing her greatly (Audrey was even in the process of evicting Basel so she could get Laurel to move in with her). A lot of this is played for subdued comedy, but there’s also serious stuff simmering beneath the surface which is what makes this film work for me, that it doesn’t take the easy road of concocting absurd, grossly-comic-situations for Laurel-as-Audrey but instead allows a very talented actor to convincingly portray 2 identical-looking-but-opposite-personality characters in a manner that has you believing they’re truly separate people, even with identical DNA.
The new Audrey (who’s able to smooth over some of what should be obvious signals to the city-acquaintances of her departed sister with the excuse of partial amnesia, a reasonable reality for someone who’s suffered her physical trauma) soon enters into a mutual-attraction-romance with Basel, which helps both of them move beyond their inner-misanthrope-tendencies, but The Pretty One isn’t intended as just a simple identity-switch-leads-to-more-successful-life-story as Laurel loses her job when a clumsy confrontation reveals that Charles’ wife is her boss, then when Basel proposes she finally decides she needs to come clean with everyone, which leads to Basel feeling betrayed to the point of breaking off the relationship, “Audrey” going home to try to find stability only to have Frank withdraw in hurt anger as well, followed by another funeral just so that the family and friends can find some closure about the real Audrey, as Laurel tries to get some understanding of who she is and what she’s now going to do with herself. If there’s any flaw in this concise (90 min.) film, it’s that everything wraps up quickly in a functional way for Laurel as she reconciles with Dad; finally starts painting images of her own rather than continuing to add more to her storeroom of miserable copies; returns to the city where she’s mastered the art of successfully peddling real estate; and, most importantly, bridges the chasm with Basel, so that it all ends on the very happy note that LaMarque wisely steered away from earlier in the narrative. For anyone who’s ever experienced anything connected with losing a child, having your identity stolen (an increasing problem in technological societies where nothing seems safe in cyberspace, even if you haven’t posted it yourself for all the world to see), or trying to force yourself into a more independent frame of mind rather than remaining securely-stuck in familiar surroundings, The Pretty One may resolve its problems for Laurel in too quick and easy a manner after the plausible traumatic responses to her liberation-decisions engulf her, but unless you’re confounded by such traumatic situations I think you’ll find this film to be a delight to watch overall, a low-key-but-intriguing-exploration of how the nature-nurture-nexus contributes to what we can’t even articulate ourselves sometimes as our own defining personalities, and a marvelous performance by Kazan (who continues to be the charming on-screen-presence that she was praised for in Ruby Sparks [Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2012; review in our August 10, 2012 posting] which she also wrote). Even if you read all this in substitution for seeing The Pretty One, I’d still encourage attending a screening because although you’ll know what’s about to happen I think you’ll appreciate seeing it unfold. And now for my first musical-metaphor-for-a-feature-film of the week: While The Pretty One uses the appropriately-lovely-lyrical “It Might Be You” (Stephen Bishop, also used in the 1982 Tootsie [Sydney Pollack] soundtrack, with a live performance version available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUJOnLOQVTY), I don’t want to go all CSI on you but it seems to me that the content of this film more actively calls for The Who singing “Who Are You” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2sWjouB1YA (from the post-9/11 Concert for New York City on October 20, 2001 at Madison Square Garden, featuring some killer Pete Townsend guitar work; this song was originally on the 1978 album Who Are You, the last one to feature drummer Keith Moon, replaced after his death by Ringo Starr’s son, Zack Starkey, in many Who performances from 1996 to present, including this one above in 2001, but then Who bassist John Entwistle also died just a few months after that performance, which had a further impact on future Who appearances—although I keeping suggesting they just team up with Ringo and Paul McCartney to become The Whotles—or maybe the Beathos—but nothing’s come of it yet). Finally, while you're at YouTube, you can find about a dozen options of watching the entire film of The Pretty One if you choose to explore those offerings but I’d still recommend trying to find it in a theater if you can.
Like Father, Like Son
Two Japanese families, of different social classes, learn that their 6-year-old-sons were switched at birth so they attempt to switch them back but with difficult results.
While you’re doing that theater scouting I’ll also encourage you to look for another film that’s now been out for awhile in various markets, Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru)—winner of last year’s Jury Prize at Cannes—from Japan, a 2013 story by another writer-director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, about boys who aren’t any sort of twins but find themselves in their own identity crisis when after their first 6 years with the adults they assume are their parents a revelation comes from their birth hospital that there was a mistake which sent the wrong sons to the wrong homes. Before this traumatic twist in the story, we begin in November where we spend a bit of time with the more well-to-do of the 2 families, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori Nonomiya (Machiko Ono) and their son, Keita (Keita Nimomiya—in case you think I wasn’t paying attention while typing this, the young actor does have the same first name as his character while their surnames are surprisingly similar as well). Ryota is a hard-driven-architect who works late and on weekends, trying to establish himself securely in his younger years for the good of his family, even though his boss encourages him to spend more time at home now, while an older worker comments in an amused fashion that Ryota’s constant work essentially is enough for them both, allowing him the downtime that everyone else, especially Midori, encourages Ryota to claim for himself. Keita’s already in this groove as well, diligently practicing piano when he comes home from his pre-school lessons where his “cram teacher” has encouraged him to lie about the extent of his family activities in the upcoming interview for the prestigious elementary school that his upwardly-mobile-parents want him to attend; they go along with the lies as well, looking for every advantage in their achievement-conscious-social-class, but at least their son seems to be a happy boy, comfortable with his many accomplishment-oriented-requirements, playful with his mother, and cautiously-respectful toward his frequently-tense father. That tension soon escalates when Ryota’s contacted by the hospital where Midori delivered, with concern about the child’s proper parentage (I never did understand why this alert comes so long after her pregnancy; possibly it had something to do with a blood test as part of Keita’s school application, but if these schools routinely cross-check the children’s parental lineage then they’re even more competitive than the similar ones I hear about in the U.S.). DNA tests are administered, the parents wait in restrained tension for the results, Keita gets into the desired school, then everything comes apart when it’s clear that this boy is not their biological son, even though they’re fully bonded with him. Likewise, the Saiki family—father Yudai (Rirî Furankî), mother Yukari (Yôko Maki), 6-year-old-son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), and his 2 younger siblings—face the same difficulty, although none of the children yet know what’s going on. Neither does the Saiki family fully because Ryota intends to make them an offer for the Nonomiyas to keep both of the boys, in an attempt to maintain the family he’s established with Keita as well as finally bring their real son under their roof, a perceived improvement (from the perspective of Ryota and Midori) of the fate of Ryusei given the lower-class-standing of the shopkeeper home he’s been raised in where the parents and children all sleep and bathe together, even as Yudai lives by the philosophy of “Put off until tomorrow everything you can.”
By the following January, Yudai is focused more on what he anticipates to be a fat payout from the lawsuit they’ve all filed against the hospital, but he acknowledges that it is likely the best strategy to also find the right process to switch the children, the action promoted by the hospital administrators and Ryota’s father, Ryosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), who’s very conscious of his family bloodline and his assumed inability of these children to function properly in an environment where the natural genetics aren’t allowed to fully manifest themselves (as I’ve noted in previous reviews of films that address topics such as these, like Philomena [Stephen Frears, 2013; review in our December 5, 2013 posting], I’m not pretending to be fully objective about such stories because I’m adopted with little knowledge of my birth parents—except a second-hand-contact with my birth mother some 30 years ago, when I was in my mid-30s,where she declined to meet with me so as to protect her family from the shock of learning of my existence, so I’m annoyed with this grandparent but I’ll further note that Ryota’s not so much in harmony with him either, about the situation with the switched-boys or about how it went with his own childhood). Weekend exchanges of the sons are arranged, which go smoothly enough with the parents’ excuses that they’re all fond of each other’s children (it’s been too long since I was that young, but I guess 6-year-olds are naïve enough to believe just about anything they’re told by trusted adults), although Ryusei doesn’t have the easy freedom he’s come to expect while Keita responds well to such loosening of the reins, even as the mothers’ faces show a bit of sadness both at not having their accustomed child in the house and at realizing that these young semi-strangers are actually their flesh and blood; further, tension is now growing on several points between Ryota and Midori. As we reach April, Ryota finally makes his offer for both boys which insults Ryusei’s parents, then things get worse all around at the final legal hearing with the hospital where a nurse admits that she purposely made the switch, in some sort of irrational response to her new marriage where her stepchildren were hostile to her so she wanted others’ lives to be miserable as well. All of this results in the attempted permanent switch of the boys, but Ryusei rebels at calling Ryota and Midori “Daddy” and “Mommy” (Midori’s upset with her husband as well, based on a much earlier remark about the switched babies “explaining everything” regarding his disappointment that their son doesn’t seem to have the full range of artistic talents he’d been expecting, previously assuming that the “lack” could be traced to his wife’s own lower-class-roots). Moving forward to August (with the use of fadeouts that might easily confuse a Western-trained audience to think that the film had concluded a number of times), we find that the humiliated nurse has tried to offer Ryota some money which he returns, in the process meeting one of her stepchildren who’s now very loyal to her, then he’s faced with Ryusei running away back to his former home which requires another sorting out, only to find Keita angry at him for making the switch. Eventually everyone reconciles for the present, leaving us at the actual fadeout not knowing how the offspring distribution will be finalized but with the implication that the boys will return to their original homes and likely come to know their biological parents better through visiting when they’re old enough to understand how all of this turmoil took place (by that time we may have an American remake because Steven Spielberg was taken by this film at Cannes, then purchased the adaptation rights).
Maybe that’s just as facile a resolution as we get in The Pretty One, but given all of the genuine caring that each family has for the son that they’d previously raised and the respect they develop for each other as the situation grows more complex, it doesn’t seem like a forced end at all, just a reasonable next step in a very steep climb for all of them. In considering a musical metaphor to cap off these comments on Like Father, Like Son I’ve settled on John Lennon’s tribute to his son, Sean, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” (from the 1980 Double Fantasy album) at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=Lt3IOdDE5iA, accompanied by a simple home video of Sean, Yoko, John, and a couple of unidentified friends. (Further rationalized by me as somewhat relevant to this film also because of Sean’s half-Japanese heritage, but, then, I don’t need much to justify my choices in these musical matters at times, do I?) OK, that’s all for identity politics this week (and, I think, all of the 2013 films that I needed to catch up on despite many of them just now coming into wider theatrical release), but I’ll soon be back with newer catch-up comments on some 2014 cinematic stuff (at least where U.S. debut dates are concerned) that’s been out for awhile now, Gloria (Sebastián Lelio), Winter’s Tale (Akiva Goldsman), and The Lego Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord).
If you’d like to know more about The Pretty One here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJx-sgHIATY (4:05 interview with director Jenée LaMarque and actor Zoe Kazan)
If you’d like to know more about Like Father, Like Son here are some suggested links:
In lieu of anything I couldn't find from the director or actors about his film, here are three clips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xivASLgLwRI (Keita’s family celebrates his entrance into an elite school but then they go to the hospital for DNA tests that show no biological link of parents to son), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ymnvdw0A_7M (Keita’s presumed-father and uncle visit their parents and discuss the mix-up of the children), and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmlMXfZt Fzw (Keita’s father tells his son that he’s going to live with the other family, then they all take a group photo)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.