When you see The Wedding Plan, which you must, you will leave the theater with a joyful heart. Regardless of your degree of religious or spiritual attachment, your appreciation for how everything falls into place will be as ecstatic as that of a child watching a rabbit summoned from an empty hat. Rama Burshtein, writer/director, works her magic in unusual ways. Her heroine Michal, played by Noa Kooler in a bravura performance, is a 30-something religious woman who has been dropped by her fiance and is now facing the realization of how desperately she yearns for the closeness of marriage and the normalcy it signifies in her community. She wants to be the hostess at Shabbat dinners instead of the perennial guest; she wants the holy warmth of being with someone who will care for her as much as she will care for him - forever. Though this is typical of other versions of the “princess bride,” Michal is not. She reminded me of an ultra-orthodox iteration of Seinfeld’s Elaine - a curly-haired, dark-eyed hellion who can be stubborn and temperamental but always radiantly alive and unconventionally lovable. Despite the breakup of her engagement, Michal determines that if she arranges for a wedding on the 8th day of Chanukah , a holiday of miracles, God will provide the correct groom.
When we watch a documentary film, we assume that we are seeing a true story and that there will be sufficient information for us to contemplate its veracity. In this film about a former leader of Hungary’s far-right, anti-semitic, holocaust- denying Jobbik party, there are huge blocks of missing information that would have helped to put the main character in better context. Csanad Szegedi is the protagonist whose life is upended by the discovery that his grandmother is a Jewish woman who was deported to Auschwitz and bears the tattoo which she has concealed until now. Not wanting to relive the horrors that she had already experienced, she married a non-Jew and raised her daughter without any reference to Judaism. Similarly the half-Jewish daughter followed in her mother’s footsteps and never mentioned it to her son, Csanad.
We first see Sergeant Rasmussen barking orders at a line of young, dispirited German prisoners of war. The Second World War has ended and the Danes have ordered German soldiers to clear the Danish coastline of millions of land mines planted there by the Nazis. Rasmussen’s reaction to seeing one of the POW’s carrying a Danish flag is to beat him to a merciless pulp, revealing the pent-up frustration and fury at the German occupation of his country. With his mustache and shrill shrieks, we get a subliminal reference to the Fuhrer who started WW II and we quickly understand that this is a movie that will unsettle our certain feelings about winners and losers and heroes and villains.
After the opening shot establishing Denzel Washington and his buddy as garbage men making small talk while driving through Pittsburgh on the back of a truck, the movie closes in, metaphorically fencing in the audience to a small set that could be the staged version of this play. As director, Washington clearly wasn’t interested in opening up the play to be more cinematic - we are watching people whose damaged lives have been circumscribed by their race, their economic vicissitudes, their war experiences and mostly, their character flaws. Troy, the husband and father, was kicked out of his home at the age of 14, ending up in prison for a stint of 15 years, during which he discovered his talent for baseball. Ironically, prison was the only place where he had the freedom to play as he discovered when he was released in the years before Jackie Robinson integrated the sport.
Ask any knowledgeable critic for a unique American contribution to entertainment and the answer you will get is the “musical,” the art form that frees characters to incorporate song and dance as part of their activity, as opposed to standing center stage for an aria. In addition to the singularity of Broadway shows, we have a treasury of Hollywood films that have captured the semblance of spontaneity in perfectly choreographed dance routines executed by the most talented people in their respective fields. What makes these movies so magical is what Italians call sprezzatura - the illusion that creating a complex work of art is effortless. Think Fred Astaire with any partner, Gene Kelly with a tapper like Debbie Reynolds or a ballerina like Leslie Caron - they move so gracefully that they hardly seem earthbound. Think of the singers - Judy Garland, Doris Day, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby. Think of the great composers who lent their genius to this form - Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, Lerner & Lowe - these are but a handful of a most impressive list.
Perhaps it was A.O. Scott’s coronation of Isabelle Huppert as “the world’s greatest actress” that sealed my assessment of her latest film, “Things To Come” (L’Avenir in French). In it, Ms. Huppert plays the part of a middle-aged philosophy professor whose biggest problem is her aging, intensely neurotic and demanding mother, a character played more for laughs than for pity. The rest of Isabelle’s life is purring along smoothly; she is adored by her students, her husband, children, publisher and hunky former student who invites her to his home for the weekend, a tease for the audience. Within short order, all the preceding perfections fall apart and Isabelle does get one chance at a good cry. But faster than you can say Mon Dieu, she perks up and resumes her purposeful career, her terrific relationship with her students and a new role as grandmother. It led me to think that Mme Huppert’s stiff upper lip was more British than Gallic and that this part might have been more believable played by Kristin Scott-Thomas who at least is half of each.
The main reason to see “Lion,” the latest release by the Weinstein Boys, is Sunny Pawar, an 8 year old actor whose tiny teeth make him look far younger and more precocious. I dare you not to smile when Saroo (his character) pronounces the English words for salt and pepper and I double-dare you not to weep at his predicament - having jumped onto a train that took him 1,000 miles from home and Mum, the only name he knows for his mother. His native smarts enable him to escape all sorts of entrapment by unsavory predators until he is finally adopted by an honorable Australian couple who adore him and raise him with love and advantages he would never have known in his poverty-stricken village. this segment of the film is poignant and appropriately touching until Saroo becomes a young adult played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel.
If you’d like to see a movie that epitomizes salacious, exploitative misogyny, don’t miss “Nocturnal Animals,” adapted and directed by Tom Ford. Trust a former fashion designer who spent his professional life with rail-thin women to open with a slo-mo montage of aging, obese white strippers in full frontal nudity with their rolls of flesh gently rippling over each other as the women move. I mention their race because no Hollywood director would dare to use a black woman in this humiliating sequence lest he be branded racist - despite the fact the American obesity is statistically most prevalent in the black population. But this scene is a mild harbinger of much more severe nastiness against women - scenes of sadistic kidnap, rape, torture and death against a mother and daughter whose ineffectual husband/ father is unable to stop the carnage.
If you need a memory refresher or a super Moment of Zen, try watching this video, “(Super) Men of Steel.” It incorporates most of the Supermen discussed here into a Smashup of epic proportions. It’s edited by Robert Anglim and stars Edd Hall (“The Tonight Show”) as the voice of Jor-el. Plus, it’s funny…
The new season of Downton Abbey opened with a two hour segment Sunday night. In it, Julian Fellowes constructs a loving and politically incorrect portrait of the Granthams and their relatives, our favorite upstairs aristocrats, portraying them as people who are truly noble as well as members of the nobility. And continuing with currently unpopular themes, it is the downstairs people who show their petty jealousies and vindictive natures. Mayor de Blasio, intent only on punishing the wealthy in order to provide for universal kindergarten, might want to start watching Downton and expanding his mind to allow for rich, good-hearted citizens of Gotham, as well as Edwardian English Granthamites.
The conceit of HER, Spike Jonze’s highly praised film is that as humans become more and more dependent on the increasingly sophisticated programs in their tech devices, the programs become more dependent on the humans as well. It’s a clever concept and would have made an amazing shorter film with its elegiac mood set off by tinkling piano keys and a nuanced performance by Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Its problem is that the loneliness and sadness of Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, become attenuated to a repetitive series of sad-sack scenes, most of which seem more appropriate for a much younger character. I was reminded of a regular feature on Saturday Night Live years ago called “Deep Thoughts,” a parody of tendentious emotional outpourings.
Bruce Dern’s default countenance is that of a dour man. In “Nebraska,” he plays the part of an exceedingly dour man - one who is also bitter, withdrawn, resigned, stubborn, taciturn, partially demented, alcoholic and very difficult. The plot of the movie hinges on Woody Grant’s determination to get to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to cash in on a Publisher’s Weekly type flyer promising that he could be a winner of one million dollars - the last opportunity in his collapsed life to regain some pride in himself and some measure of autonomy. Though we can believe that this character might set his clouded mind to undertake this fool’s journey from Montana to Nebraska, it’s harder to believe that his younger son, David, would decide to drive him there. There has been virtually no relationship between Woody and his sons throughout their lives and we discover, as David does, that before he was born, his father was involved with another woman and contemplating divorce from his wife. Yet, despite a serious accident and other difficulties that his father gets into en route, David is determined to keep going in order to satisfy the old man’s demands.
Frank Torren is one of those rare classy cabaret performers who takes you back to the days when cruise ships were a luxury and piano bars were De Rigeur. A native of Tampa, Fla, he fuses his Italian heritage with a Latin influence. Not only charming and sexy, but he’s a delightful raconteur. His voice is smooth, and he makes the stage his home.
Members of the mainstream media have finally had a “light bulb” moment. After five years of getting the runaround or of being simply shut out from access to President Obama, it’s finally dawned on them that Obama loathes them and doesn’t give them much access at all—ever.
There’s a moment in the classic John Hughes movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” when the John Candy character (Del Griffith) asks the Steve Martin character (Neil Page) if he has ever traveled by bus before. When the answer is no Griffith says, “I don’t think your mood is going to improve any.” Republicans assessing future prospects are in the same fix. The outlook is not a mood enhancer.
Name a 21rst century movie about a famous, outstanding British woman suffering from Alzheimer’s with a devoted husband played by the noted British actor Jim Broadbent. “Iris” you say correctly, referring to the 2001 film about the author Iris Murdoch - but wait, here’s another that fits exactly the same description. “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as a demented Margaret Thatcher and Jim Broadbent as her loyal spouse has so much wrong with it that perhaps its reprisal of another scenario is the least of its sins. Nevertheless, it bears mention since the decision to cast a bio-pic about England’s first woman prime-minister in the context of her doddering senility is not only wrong-headed but derivative to boot.
Clint Eastwood’s new movie “J. Edgar” opens Wednesday, and anyone who saw its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, deliver his touching portrayal of the deeply weird Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” a few years back will be looking forward to what he does with another deeply strange figure in American history: J. Edgar Hoover.
A friend recently sent me some old videos of “Meet the Press.” Her father, a prominent Washington journalist, had been a frequent member of the panel. One of the videos was from the early sixties, the other from the early seventies.
I was surprised to read recently that not only has Archie Comics introduced a gay character into the feature, but that Archie is now married and his teacher Mrs. Grundy had died of cancer. The idea, says an Archie Comics artist, is to make comic book classics “more contemporary and relevant,” always a smart idea these hip days.