Exhiles within The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). US & DE. Directed by Wes Anderson. With Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and F. Murray Abraham.

On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) plays with the absurd madcap tale against a dark, unforgiving political backdrop.  Yet, further research revealed that Wes Anderson‘s masterful film held an acute commentary about the world that the writer Stefan Zweig left abruptly.  Moreover, Zweig as a man echoed in the illustrious and scrupulous (when it comes to decorum) concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

Wes Anderson’s auteur hand is immediately apparent in the color palette which is a varying set that he adheres to in each cinematic creation.  The film opens with the camera framing centrally a cemetery with a young, unformed, nerdy girl perched beneath the open arch entryway.  She has come to pay homage to the “Author” at his memorial sculpture.  “Author” (Tom Wilkinson) comes into view to act a narrator recounting a special encounter at The Grand Budapest Hotel in the republic of Zubrowka.  Young “Author/Writer” (Jude Law) expresses curiosity about a particular guest Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) supposed to be the owner of the dilapidated establishment.  Mr. Moustafa proceeds to enrich the worn hotel with his first affiliation and a harried series of events during his time as a lobby boy named Zero.

Worthy of an Academy nomination, Ralph Fiennes as the concierge M. Gustave exudes the precision and refinement his guests represent and seek to maintain.  When not performing, his strict standards of excellence also lead him to impatience to anything vile or rude.  M. Gustave entertains the aging doyens of the bourgeoisie in delights beyond the sugary confections from Mendel’s.  These women return his attention with handsome gifts and access.  Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is the audience’s introduction to one such benefactor.  Nervous and macabre, Madame D. convinced of her imminent demise should she return to her manor, implores to stay.  True to form, Madame D. pallid face and splayed body grace the front paper days later announcing her murder.  Out of loyalty and concern that she be tended to in refinement, M. Gustavo and his newly vetted lobby boy and sidekick Zero (Tony Revolori) rush to her estate.

Last-will-and-testament open questions draw a cast of characters to learn if the wealthy Madame D. proved generous to their pockets.  Feuding interests propel the film forward to determine rightful recipients.  M. Gustave becomes embroiled into these affairs, and Zero supports his mentor in the quest.

Both M. Gustave and Zero are without family.  Zero more blatantly is a refugee and viewed as a outsider in this mostly Caucasian republic.  Yet, M. Gustave is a man tied to rules of society and etiquette which may be assumed by any orphaned person.  It defines a culture to those that may not have a sense of community.  It is here that Stefan Zweig’s shadow is evident.  Austrian writer Zweig (b. 1881 – d. 1942) had achieved a foothold as German-language writer.  His writing gifts granted him distinction even though he did not have the lineage of someone like Thomas Mann‘s ancestry.  Yet with each whisper of violence and foreshadowing as it pertained to the growing Nazism in Germany, he fled farther and farther away from the events.  From Austria to England to the US and finally committing suicide in Petrópolis, Brasil, Zweig leveraged his literary network to continue his retreat from annihilation.  M. Gustave has the same sense of a specialized network to call upon in dire straits.   Both Zweig and M. Gustave have little in the way of weighty possessions to slow their frenetic movements and journeys.  Both had an expectation that proprietary would supersede negative forces from taking root and spreading.  Zweig firmly held hope that the German people would thwart the Nazi ideology.  It turned out that violence begat violence to subdue Hitler’s master plans.  M. Gustave also supposed that reason and appeal for rationalism would keep the wrong machinations at bay.

The decay and emptiness of Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s highlights that times swept away those older institutions even if undeserved.  The space itself contains the memories for as long as people remember.

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Depth in Simplicity: Enough Said

Enough Said (2013). USA. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, and Toni Collette.

My escapism via rewatching all of fast-talking and esoteric reference laden Gilmore Girls had me admiring creator Amy Sherman-Palladino‘s repertoire.  True to fashion, I carefully watched opening credits to each Gilmore Girls episode in my revival, and Nicole Holofcener’s name appeared as Season 2 episode 11 director (“Secrets and Loans“).  Sure enough, I recalled the understated and touching Lovely and Amazing (2001), so my interest was piqued doubly when an article praising Nicole Holofcener’s first feature Walking and Talking (1996) starring mostly fresh faces of Anne Heche, Catherine KeenerLiev Schreiber, and Todd Field plus the charming rental video geek Kevin Corrigan established the necessity of watching Walking and Talking (1996) before Enough Said (2013).  In a way, I wanted to establish a familiarity with her sensibility prior to engaging with the latest release that had an unavoidable emotional valve with the late James Gandolfini on screen and vulnerable.

Complicated, traditional plots are not the core to Enough Said nor any of her films.  More effective and poignantly, Holofcener relies on emotional truths and perceived truths to punctuate and layer the narrative.  The story pivots on middle-aged, divorced massage therapist Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who lugs equipment from client to client as she dreads the departure of her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) to Julliard.  Ellen and Eva have a harmony to their relationship that magnifies the sense of separation to be felt on both sides.  They acknowledge in small moments this turning point in their bond and dynamic.  Change is inevitable.

While Eva endures the solipsism of her clients babbling as she goes about her practice, she conveniently has a close friend in therapist Sarah (Toni Collette), which widens her daily grind.  Sarah and her husband Will (Ben Falcone) act as proverbial Charons to LA intellectual parties.  It is here that Eva’s predictable life gets rattled.  In quick succession, Eva meets poetess Marianne (Catherine Keener) and TV archivist Albert (James Gandolfini).  The former becomes a new client windfall as the latter endeavors to pursue Eva romantically.  Unbeknownst to Eva for a few weeks, Albert and Marianne’s comments about their respective exes become doubly confounding and no longer distant sketches upon the realization that Albert and Marianne had been married long enough to produce a daughter named Maddy (Ivy Strohmaier) also about to embark on the college chapter.  Having befriended lonely Marianne and smitten with Albert, Eva decides to keep both people in her life with neither of them aware of her common thread.  Naturally, such a charade cannot be maintained for long, but this is not the focus explored by Nicole Holofcener.  Rather the camera lingers on Eva’s sense of guilt and admitted conflation of how she views and speaks to Albert.  Marianne’s complaints when viewed anew by Eva carry some of her irritation yet mutes the complete scold.  Passive aggressive digs occur which injure Albert.  The honest foundation laid about shared woes in watching their children leave the nest and in how humor has masked displaying their true natures starts to loose footing.

Holofcener peeks into the marital problems that plagued Eva and her ex just as veteran married couple Sarah and Will bicker or critique each other.  Thematically, Holofcener elevates the everyday exodus of kids to college into how this impacts both sides and strangeness for those dating in the later years.  She also seems to suggest how much more principled these people become in the second Act as it relates to dating.  Essentially, adults have a better sense of what they want to tolerate in character and a forgiveness in the physical attributes is customary.

This mini review cannot omit the import of James Gandolfini as Albert.  Majority of audiences associated him with Tony Soprano or spoofs on that tough guy mobster; notwithstanding this, the late Mr. Gandolfini possessed a gracefulness of emotions and openness that breathed a new vantage upon which to appreciate him.  Observing comedically gifted Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini stripping away their familiar modes of acting to facing one another as wounded, kind souls warmed my heart.

Drawing from these actors’ strengths, Holofcener championed the interaction of people as centerpieces for a film and asks the audience to value the same in their lives.

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Soucriants By Circumstance

Byzantium (2012). UK/USA/IE. Directed by Neil Jordan. With Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, and Caleb Landry Jones.

Vampire overload was my first thought when I read about primary aspects to this film Byantium (2012) , but in being selected by NYTimes  Critics’ Picks, I reformed initial impressions.

Author Jean Rhys born in the Commonwealth of Dominica of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Quartet (1928) constructed the term soucriant using the witch vampire Caribbean folklore nomenclature of soucouyant.  According to legend,  a soucouyant “lives by day as an old woman at the end of the village. By night, however, she strips off her wrinkled skin, puts it in a mortar, and flies in the shape of a fireball through the darkness, looking for a victim. Still in the shape of a fireball, the soucouyant enters the home of her victim through the keyhole or any crack or crevice.”  Playwright and screenwriter to Byzantium, Moira Buffini seemed to hark upon Rhys uncanny ability to trace the inner despair and entrapment particularly of the female variety.  In doing so, Byzantium intermixed Gothic sensibilities found in Jane Austen‘s (b. 1775- d. 1817) Northanger Abbey and novels by Charles Dickens (b. 1812- d. 1870).  These women’s plight drearily echoes the atmosphere in the referenced literary selection.

Storytelling weaves the vampire thread into the cinematic production, but the manner in which reliable sources retrace the timeline stirred emotional connections to these outcasts.

Opening the film, buxom and gorgeous Clara (Gemma Arterton) shimmies and dips into a hungry man’s eager lap in a strip-club.  In reaction to the lustful patron’s unauthorized grabbing, she manages to bloody his nose in her escape.  Fiery and without scruples in thieving the bar’s till, her intended trek home is interrupted by a pale, blond man whose accelerated pursuit of Clara demonstrates a physical strength unexpected and beyond human limits.  On the surface momentarily, he has Clara captured and inquires about her keep Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan).  Clara is protecting someone unknown to audiences still.  She beheads the oppressor, informs Eleanor about leaving the area, and without much hesitation torches the flat.  Eleanor’s response echoes and laments at another change of venue.  Memory and mirage foretell a biography unspoken and hidden in Eleanor.  Even while existing in modern times, she labors in 19th century cursive manuscript Clara’s history and casts them into the wind in crumbled pages fearing what this information can unsettle.

Eleanor strolls the night in solitude while Clara uses her overt sexuality for money and lodgings.  Her interaction with these clients shows an expertise that solidifies knowledge that years of experience had been garnered.  Clara reports that Eleanor is her sister and recounts for sympathy Eleanor’s orphanage background to the latest mark.  Eleanor rebels against fabrications whose truth communicates absurdity to the listeners thus validating the easier tale by Clara.  Eleanor’s words are viewed within a psychological framework whose acceptance for the most part rely on men.  The personality juxtaposition between Clara and Eleanor enrich the film.  Their fights belie love and kinship.  Being hunted in every neighborhood in the simple sense of special detectives, but also prey for men’s sexual appetites marginalizes and strengthens their bond.

The past remains afoul on Clara and Eleanor.  The missing pieces begin to align in how and why present day Clara and Eleanor behave in a skillful manner that shall remain absent from disclosure here.  Do keep in mind that humor is not absent from this work, and it is a testament to Moira Buffini and director Neil Jordan at the marvelous masterpiece they have sired.

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The Barnes Foundation Re-imagined in Philadelphia

Walter and Leonore Annenberg Court. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Probably close to 15 years ago, my mother and I wandered into remote Merion, PA to experience The Barnes Foundation.  Bookings had to be confirmed two months prior due to the strict number of daily visitors.  This advance seemed to hold also true for the transplanted Barnes collection on the Ben Franklin Parkway in attempts to recreate the Museum Mile of NYC with PMA, PAFA, The Rodin Museum, and now the Barnes.

Regrettably overdue, I shall explain the visit and comment about a deplorable decision physically realized on May 4, 2013.

The looming ceilings and airy space thwart the dwarfed Barnes quarters replica devoted to his idiosyncratically arranged collection.  A wide hall separates a modestly sized gallery room outlining the genesis of UPenn alum Alfred C. Barnes‘s [b. 1972- – d. 1951] wealth via Argyrol (used to protect newborn babies against gonorrhea), which allowed a robust 35 year man to become a millionaire after selling his successful enterprise.  Following that financial ascension, his relative youth permitted spirited pursuit of art that intrigued him.  The cultural and artistic status quo did not mirror his aesthetic sensibilities, and as a result, he cornered an untapped market and capitalized on rash investors who needed to unload material goods to cover worthless stocks post the Great Depression.  During his formative years in 1921 prior to the crash, he commingled with Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein who introduced Barnes to Matisse and Picasso.  The former would adorn his physical home walls in special commissions.  His life was incredibly learned and determined.  Married from 1901 to Laura Leggett, they shared an ability to focus in areas that removed the marking of hobby to their endeavors.  She developed the Arboretum and horticultural program that linked the original landscape in nature’s assemblage in harmony with his housed collection.

This side gallery served as a necessary penance for dissolving Barnes’s will after ‘legally’ eroding the written words for many years.  My post about the documentary Art of the Steal details this process.  Then this seemingly permanent gallery has been re-purposed for temporary exhibits.  Case in point, Ellsworth Kelly (darling of former PMA director Anne d’Harnoncourt) works shall occupy the walls supposed to be celebrating the collector.  Where is the justified uproar?

Walking to the main section that is inch by inch duplicated from the Merion dwelling, one is transported to the collector’s sentiments and painting play.  In that moment, one can almost forget the transgressions and imagine exploring the original.  Visiting this collection for a second time allowed me to ration my attention to the second floor that can be breezed through out of first floor art fatigue (Renoirs aplenty), but I planned accordingly.  This is an entree to be savored  twice.  Delights and rewards could be found in George Rouault‘s paintings [image below] and noticing smaller works from distinguished artists.  Sketches are the best windows in the artists’ freedom in line and expression.

Bonus points: There is a smartly designed free App offered in 4 languages that invites visitors to key-in selected works for extended audio information without the burden of renting gear if you have your iPhone or iPad.  iPad users can snap a flash-less image to retrieve the curated notes.  Maps and basic museum information are also contained within the App.

Safe to say that for seasoned art purveyors, the treasures at the Barnes Foundation do not disappoint or wane.  Under the mission statement of art being available for all, I find no fault until precedents are established against the clearly defined wishes of the individual from which public joy springs.  Removing this issue from consideration, The Barnes Foundation is a must destination for Philadelphia locals and tourists.

Clown in a Top Hat (1907). Watercolor on paper. Georges Rouault. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA.

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Spaces Around People’s Empty Core

Every Love Store is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012). Written by D. T. Max

Few instances elicit a vocal response on the CNN news ticker, but on September 13, 2008 which fell on a Saturday, I murmured an audible, “No.”  David Foster Wallace had died by his own hand the previous night.  Amidst the inane celebrity dribble that inundates the masses, I quietly mourned the loss of a great mind whose writing talent I had encountered through a Book Club selection of Infinite Jest.  Coincidentally during the prior evening, I had championed his prose to several family members.  Pausing my reading due to the near impossibility of completing by the Book Club meeting in August 2008, I returned with a vigor following his passing as if on a respectful quest.

David Foster Wallace predicted many technological wastelands that critics bemoan with fractured attentions and social ticks resulting from the internet.  Other than his accidental foresight that wanted to address the lack of interior fulfillment, his syntax and renderings of the misused and truthful examples of sharp irony catapulted him from his peers.  He revealed to readers, before it became vogue, the inner lives of addicts and recovering addicts in programs.   In particular, the overlap between the emptied young tennis players striving for rankings to the former addicts contending with minute by minute sobriety demonstrated acutely the pervasive voids acquiring more members partly due to modern life.

From there, I read his non fiction pieces and fiction short stories alike in Oblivion, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (adapted to film by US The Office’s John Krasinski in 2009), and his debut novel The Broom of the System.  In 2010, Santa or my mother gifted me his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College bound in a friendly hardback book.  Naturally, D. T. Max’s biography provided an appropriate compendium to DFW material consumed.

Reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (2012) where character Leonard Bankhead is Eugenide’s ode to the deceased literary giant then months later this biography submerged the private made public persona of DFW.  The unshakable phantom of depression hounded him from high school years that made deadlines a daunting prospect and any limits on words or pages something to be exceeded as almost a defiant position that restrictions beyond his mind and body were to be disregarded.  Effortless, DFW could excel in any subject area even if extra hours where required in the quantitative domain.  This stance to outpace others at Amherst and elsewhere was also the same mechanism that induced tailspins.

His inventive writing style shifted to sincerity that he followed in his own recovery program.  At the same time, his initial approach of ignoring the reader transformed into a moral mission once Infinite Jest (1996) reached the masses.  The reason why DFW could craft the spaces outside of people so well and be mostly remembered for this was tied to his own insistence to find strength outside of himself to carry on.  His roundabout preaching that decried the “entertain us” plea highlighted a major fear in himself once the distractions and productivity ceased.  Lauded and referenced repeatedly in later years, Infinite Jest‘s specter placed an insurmountable onus for his next novel The Pale King.  Incomplete, it was published posthumously in 2011 and would have been a remarkable feat to impose dry subject matter of IRS protagonist and story as a way for readers to push through the boredom to a spiritual nirvana.  He would not have the opportunity to finish however.

Relationship entanglements with females consisted of motherly types (when not flights of passion) to substitute for his own mother and could act as a caregiver in his depressive states.   His wife had a son from her first marriage and being a visual artist did not compete in his literary landscape.  DFW rushed courtship, but in Karen L. Green, toxicity and 13th stepping did not apply.  Ostensibly, he had managed a stable setting until doctors recommended trying another drug in place of the 21 year use of “dirty drug” Nardil.  Finding a replacement drug treatment is a treacherous course that requires patience as it undermines the patient’s resilience and sanity.  After years of struggle and being hallowed out in this painstaking process, DFW decided to remove himself from this world.

Biographer D. T. Max researched extensively and followed as closely as he could manage the circuitous route to DFW’s publications and frequent changes of location along with mindsets.  Any fan of DFW will be adequately pleased with this account.

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What Is and Cannot Be

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). USA. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger. With Rashida Jones, Adam Samberg, and Elijah Wood.

Two poorly suited dating partners Rashida Jones and Will McCormack (not to be mistaken with the actor from Will & Grace) opted for friendship and collaborated on devising a screenplay about an unhappily-ever-after duo.  Hollywood views this approach as deadly as the Black Plague.  Unkind tremors of real life pulsate through the film laced with humorous moments.  There is no resounding joy, but a whiff of surviving day by day to whatever may come especially for Celeste (Rashida Jones).

There is a distinction between a best friend and an intimate partner emotionally speaking.  Celeste and Jesse had cruised along based upon synced humor and deep caring, yet diverged in ambitions and maturity.  Marrying your best pal is not discouraged, but when individuals do not grow together, then strife ensues.  Only in situations where there is no room for flexibility do people opt to catapult out of the rut.

Separated for 6 months, Celeste and Jesse continue living on the same property with Jesse occupying the separated bungalow studio as Celeste maintains a near seamless morning routine.  Part of this involves a matched heart with arms gesture that trumps a simple wave to each other and points to a hesitation and uncertainty about how to move forward.  Professional and capable, Celeste navigates her career with aplomb.  She relies upon coworker Scott (Elijah Wood) to pinpoint how Celeste ignores her deep feelings and falsely plays the agnostic participant.

Unbeknownst to Celeste is Jesse’s encounter with a different woman during the separation.  Jesse is actively dating while Celeste feigns indifference and scoffs at men’s advances.  During one night of disastrous IKEA assembly where Jesse reinterprets the construction, they fall into one another’s embrace.  Their reading about what occurs is sharply divergent and plunges a wider wedge between them.  Aftermath of which causes Celeste great anxiety now that she no longer has access to her best friend.  This denial and deprivation unravels Celeste’s emotional distance, and she appears to want to rekindle the relationship.  However, Jesse’s one night romp complicates this.

Celeste scrambles to combat her pain with dates too soon after Jesse’s revelation.  She falls into depressive episodes that most people can commiserate although Krieger establishes the camera lens to maximize the awkward humor.   Scenes of Celeste running blocked from the world with her music is particularly reminiscent of a presumed healthy reaction, yet this showcases how we merely run from the fear of dealing with implications and unsettling states.  The walls that Celeste possess shield vulnerable emotions that once unleashed turn her world topsy-turvy.  To be fair, Jesse also expresses skepticism about his new path and misses Celeste immensely.  Both sides are hurting.

What is beautiful about this film is how Celeste is cemented by her close female friends and colleagues.  Her whole life is not contingent on Jesse; however, Celeste’s emotional reconciliation with herself and the events are not resolved.  You can love someone deeply and vice-viscera.  Sometimes, the missing compatible parts override those truths, and the loss rings even more incisively.

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Puppeteering Self-Relationships

Ruby Sparks (2012). USA. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. With Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and Chris Messina.

Greek mythology first documented the trope about an artist’s creation becoming alive.  Sculptor Pygmalion’s statue transformed from ivory into flesh.  This curiosity and psychology complex concept re-surged in the Victorian era especially in conceits by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (b. 1856, d. 1950).  Published in 1912, Pygmalion recast the narrative where an elite parvenu placates his boredom in participating in a wager.  Can he train an uneducated flower girl with a horrid Cockney accent to be refined and presented as a lady to high British society?  Variations on this motif appeared in musical theater and cinema culminating in George Cukor‘s My Fair Lady (1964) starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.  The 80s entertained audiences with popular movies like Weird Science (1985) and Mannequin (1987), which toyed with this same idea.  Fast-forwarding to 2012, screenwriter and actress playing eponymous title character Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan) provided the heft for Ruby Sparks (2012).  Dayton and Faris allow the characters and plot to supercede fanciful settings.  Kazan taps into a touching and truthful conflict people have about relationships, idolatry, and co-dependence.

A breezy young woman is silhouetted by a blinding sun.  She calls to someone not known to the audiences yet.  Awakened, an awkward young adult Calvin scampers out of bed.  In keeping with J. D.  Salinger lore, Calvin published a seminal work that establishes an impossible precedent to follow.  Unlike Salinger, obscurity alludes Calvin in slick LA.   Most of Calvin Weir-Fields’s interiors are starkly white and austere.  His self-congratulating publisher and promoter Langdon Tharp, portrayed by the impeccable robust and scene-stealing Steve Coogan, harps for another novel.  Short stories have filled the interim years and Calvin faces the blank, white page on his electronic typewriter with crippling trepidation.

Filling his otherwise lonely days, Calvin subjects himself to uncomfortable bonding with his older brother Harry (Chris Messina) and introspective prodding by therapist Dr. Rosenthal (timeless Elliott Gould).  As if to force commingling, Kazan establishes a forced companion in the pairing of Calvin and dog Scottie (F. Scott Fitzgerald ode) that requires external attention and excursions outdoors.  This mysterious woman reappears nightly in his dreams and acts as a muse for his writing.  He decides to write about her.  His mind dictates her back-story and endearing qualities.  However, she transcends his imagination and inhabits his condo to the utter dismay of Calvin.  He believes he has finally lost grasp of reality.  Panicked he searches for witnesses to verify her existence.  Upon a humorous confirmation, he presumably has his heart’s desire and there should be no space for pain or loneliness anymore.  Only Harry knows the creative authority Calvin possesses over Ruby.

Kazan renders the complications that arise with this agency and how good intentions belie the sinister need to control.  Calvin can wield his pen and reshape Ruby to fit what he supposes to be what he wants versus what is best.  Having initially abated his development of Ruby, he unlocks his drawer and adds lines that immediately change the composition of her personality or skill set.  This abused power resembles in some form the issues Dr. Frankenstein had about whether this monster could have a soul.  Beyond Shelley, there is another Greek parallel in how goddess Minerva had been sired from the head of Jupiter.  Ruby removed from his dream parameters fights against his constriction.  She is not allowed to be her own person, and it depresses her.  Since Calvin continues editing her to how he envisions, this points to his selfish behavior affirmed by an ex that audiences encounter near the film’s end.  He had never been curious about her.  His ideal had been a relationship with himself, but as proven in this Ruby experiment/aberration, this does not create a full self.

Calvin has to confront this nauseating truth; yet, not with as much grace as one would hope.  To be fair, how he tumbles into self-actualization is human and thus powerful.

This great film makes one pause and reflect back upon what one may have considered ideal versus beauty in not being able to define and control situations, people, and the future.  Only in that state of acceptance can the magic happen.

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Returning to Austen’s Refined Spoken Word

Damsels in Distress (2011). Directed by Wilt Stillman. With Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody and Megalyn Echikunwoke.

Without great effort, viewers can sample all of Wilt Stillman’s repertoire.  Only four feature films have become available to audiences in his career.  Not as infrequent as Halley’s Comet, Stillman’s films are coveted and sought to a fervor reminiscent of a J. D. Salinger interview years ago.  Since 1998 with The Last Days of Disco, Stillman had been rumored to be producing and developing a film based on a lost Jane Austen novel.  This idea is not without merit because his films are often described as cinematic Austen.

Logophiles will delight in this film even though the reflection of college life is hardly recognizable.  Preppy attire is a signature of Stillman’s penchant for good grooming.  Three young ladies approach readily the wide-eyed presumed freshman wandering about club tables.  Lily (Analeigh Tipton) explains her not fully naive yet vulnerable status as a sophomore transfer student to Seven Oaks.  Ringleader and indie darling Greta Gerwig as Violet proffers the friendship and lodgings shared by herself, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore).  Violet conveys her male courting philosophy to accept sub-par handsome and simpleminded men in the maneuver to prevent heartache.  Surely, these male sheep won’t be led astray by temptation due to gratefulness to the superior partner compared to themselves.  How the gods laugh at these strategies.

Hapless Frank (Ryan Metcalf) succumbs to a recently single young lady Priss keen on blue-eyed men.  Violet happens upon the duo with her entourage, and how rapidly does she mimic Marianne’s distraught actions from Austen‘s Sense and Sensibility.  The scene contains unrelenting rain, green open fields, and her trampling without destination in the evening.  Her friends and Suicide Prevention Center affiliates search just as Emma vainly scouted for Marianne.  Stillman opts for an alternative resolution.  Whereas noble and generous Colonel Brandon retrieves Marianne, Violet returns to the dorms of her own volition.

Violet’s murky selflessness in running the Suicide Prevention Center employing techniques not found in the manuals is an important mention.  Tap dancing among other forms of dance are encouraged as a conduit to escape their clinical depression.  Faced with her own male triggered despair, Violet is perceived as part of the same group she sought to help.  Sensory displeasure and delight due to smell rescues Violet via a soap bar when she absconds from her inner circle again.

What proves kind is how Stillman connects identity duplicity of Fred/Charlie (Adam Brody) with Violet/Emily (her childhood name was Emily Tweeter) as a romantic pair as opposed to the doe eyed, lithe Lily that entertains numerable male potential suitors.  An edginess to Lily in how she debates with Violet and her sexual experimentation with a graduate student Xavier demonstrate character uniqueness.  While humor abounds intellectually and satirically, the narrative is not strong in anticipation.  It meanders in a way that is apart from finesse; however, this does not detract from the literary attraction of Stillman’s craft.

The final scene brought a sustained smile to its lovely ode to musical theater, and if film or art’s impact can be measured on degree of mood lifts or suppression, Damsels in Distress occupies the positive side of the spectrum.

I hope Stillman dares to undertake another cinematic production sooner rather than later.

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Human messes

A Separation (2011). Iran. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. With Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, and Sareh Bayat.

Glimpses into the real day-to-day struggles of Arabic families and individuals are sparse.  This elegant and thought-provoking cinema contains characters that refuse to be defined by “good” and “bad” descriptors.  Audience members faced with the challenge to move with all players without allegiance signifies that a masterpiece has unfolded.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi connects universal situations that echo beyond the religious and societal differences in Iran versus practice in most Western civilizations.  A Separation introduces two seated people, one female and the other male.  A man speaking off camera has the lens point of view.  Expectations about a domestic quarrel seems inline except Farhadi introduces a twist with the husband expressing no rage or desire to end the marriage, but the tension resides in the fate of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).  His wife Simon (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate to America with her for access to opportunities and entry to an environment more beneficial for women’s agency than permitted in the current state of Iran.  Nader (Peyman Moadi) counters that Termeh’s life is full here with her family.  He pointedly mentions her Alzheimer’s stricken grandfather.  Since Nader will not consent to Termeh’s departure, the arbiter sided with Nader’s preference because male authority is unquestionable.

Unspoken pain and arguments stifle the rather large apartment.  Nader’s father is a human shell due to the degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s.  Suffering spills out to all those in the family, and those moments of care and confusion imprison the family.  Aging parents affect and afflict itself on everyone no matter the culture or country.  Cinema has addressed this situation delicately and fairly in films such as Away from Her (2006) and more sentimentality mainstream with The Notebook (2004).  Farhadi places this aging matter with additional issues that mimic how life often pummels in unison.  A couple’s separation does not occur in isolation.  Mired in difficulties, the family unit’s sense of stability unravels when an underpaid maid/accidental caretaker Razieh (Sareh Bayat) incurs a horrible medical injury.  Class disparity bubbles through with accusations levied against each party in court.  No matter the wealth, daughters from each family are the by-standing victims and forced to challenge their own loyalty and entrenched moral codes.  As voyeurs to their fates, the children are exposed to scenes that will have undoubtedly imprinted and altered innocence their respective parents tried to sustain.  No one is a hero.  Audiences float among the characters unsure not anchored by any one which evinces the profundity Farhadi imparted to his narrative and players.

Farhadi’s graceful insight and gradual revelation to reality unfolds marvelously.  To avoid explicating the plot, I identify one specific moment that signifies the depths Farhadi created.  How the filmmaker decides to close the film communicates an agreement of what the director envisions and how it translated to the audience.  Farhadi timed his concluding visual just as I hoped with Simon and Nader separated by a half-opened glass, cloudy partition outside a courtroom.  Interestingly, his ending juxtaposed with another Film Forum pick of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate was curatorially savvy.  The camera keeps rolling in both as credits unwind.  Earning top honors with the Best Foreign language film at the 2012 Oscars, this film needs little help in demonstrating merit and excellence.

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Howls of the Damned

Shame (2011). UK. Directed by Steve McQueen. With Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale.

The Super Bowl of filmgoers belongs to the Annual Academy Awards.  Approaching this time drain in another manner, I sought a screening of director Steve McQueen’s Shame to pay tribute to the non nominee Michael Fassbender.  Knowing the context and having read countless reviews about this controversial film, I embarked into McQueen’s visual landscape with a sense of impending impact.

Select viewers will shy away from this sexual material and despairing ethos, but witnessing Brandon’s entrapment proved to be cathartic.  Unlike Mary Harron‘s directed American Psycho (2000) starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, Shame avoids satire and gleeful mockery of the central character’s proclivities.  Tormented Brandon has no realization moment.  He struggles and affixes his disease to one method of release – sex.  His sexual escapades have a violent, self-annihilating aspect that obliterates his anguish briefly before self-hate has him searching again for oblivion.

Laughably not nominated for Best Actor in his role as Brandon Sullivan, Michael Fassbender ruled 2011 in number of films released: Shame, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, Haywire, X-Men: First Class, and a short Pitch Black Heist.  While it helps to be friends with the director, Fassbender fills the scenes in his silent gazes and exasperated movements with excellence.  Calling to mind Clockwork Orange‘s reliance on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Canadian Glenn Herbert Gould (b. 1932- d.1982, known for reinterpreting Bach) provides the musical texture and British composer Harry Escott creates 3 classical pieces for whenever Brandon’s character does not play an album in his Spartan apartment and elsewhere.

Film opens with Fassbender awake with a deadening stare in the morning light.  His alarm sounds.  He remains motionless.  Clips of the evening inter-cut Brandon’s eventual rise to prepare for work.  Money exchange.  Coitus. Absence.  Showering involves an almost sorrowful masturbation component.  Prisoner no matter where he situates himself, Brandon also has a nondescript job like Patrick Bateman in the financial realm.  The specific occupation is irrelevant, but the acceptance of sexual drives or foibles and aggression are celebrated as indicators of power.  Bateman and Sullivan are permitted their pornographic and lustful antics in this hormone charged New York City enclave.

Why is Brandon a sexual addict?  How did this develop?  Clue crumbs whimper out of his sister Sissy (gifted Carey Mulligan) and during his strained conversational date with a beautiful coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie).  Parents are never discussed.  We learn his geographical notes of Irish birth then relocating in this teen years to New Jersey.  Sissy’s dependency, suicidal nature, and desire for belonging via love mirrors Brandon’s noncommittal, relentless self-obliterating sexual disease.  Between the two, hints of incest surface as a method of protection in presumption of sexual abuse from their parent(s).  Together, they merely hurt one another and seemingly cannot function as fully formed individuals in the company of others.  Charades outside the apartment walls.

McQueen frames New York City in the grittiness and flash of glistening night.  Several commentators criticized his rendition of NYC in this sallow form.  However, New Yorkers recognize that once the night is cast and tourists return to their buffeted hotel rooms, the grim permeates.  Personally, walking along the Lower East Side and through Chinatown, garbage bags tower the sidewalks mixed with dead fish odors stained into the pavement from the open markets.  There is no 5-second rule if you drop some food.  Layered streets of filth echo Brandon’s self-hate which is never reconciled.

Sissy and Brandon cycle their self-inflicted wounds metaphorically and physically.  Little changes just as life would suppose.  Torture persists.  Very good film.

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