July 11, 2014
I suppose one way to demonstrate film artistry is to tell a predictable and somewhat saccharine story in such a way that it pleases both the audience and the critics. That’s what Marcus Markou did with the 2013 movie Papadopolos & Son which he produced, wrote, directed, and distributed. The title character in this piece is Harry Papadopoulos, who emigrated with his family from Greece to Britain and made a fortune mass producing Greek food products. Harry lives in a mansion with his three children and an outspoken but indispensable housekeeper, Mrs. Parrington, referred to almost exclusively as “Mrs. P.” The older son, James, likes horticulture and resists his father’s nudges toward a business degree. The younger son, Theo, is a prodigy — a kind of European Brick Heck — with an almost frightening understanding of the stock market. The third child is 18-year-old Katie, a benign but spoiled fashionista. This family’s life is marred by the fact that the wife and mother of the clan has died by the time we meet them.
Although his food business is highly profitable, Harry has a dream — an enormous commercial complex bearing his name. Inasmuch as he is not Rameses II, he has to leverage his holdings to raise the money for this monument. Timing is everything, and Harry’s was bad. He is in debt up to his spanakopita when the world economy collapses and the bank calls in its markers. Harry can’t pay, and he loses virtually everything. His only recourse, as he sees it, is to consult his brother Spiros, from whom he has been estranged for many years because of Spiros’ profligate lifestyle. Spiros has no resources, but he wants to help. He suggests that He and Harry re-open what was once the family business — a fish-and-chips restaurant that was doing well until Harry moved on and Spiros spun out of control. Harry is not interested in this plan, but Harry also has no other options. The family still owns the London building in which the shuttered restaurant has been mouldering away, and so Spiros and Harry and the kids move in there and start fixing up the place even while Harry tries to find investors who will help him go back to being a baklava magnate.
A complicating factor is a kebab shop, run by Turks, directly across the street from the fish-and-chips emporium. The owner resents the Greeks for returning to the neighborhood and, to add insult to injury, putting kebabs on the menu. Meanwhile, the kebab merchant’s son has eyes for Katie, and she reciprocates with eyes of her own.
Although the veteran moviegoer might be able to write the rest of this plot, the movie is more than the surface story line as Markou focuses on what motivates Harry and exposes darker aspects of the family’s history. Although the issue of Greek-Turkish tension is introduced in the ‘hood, as it were, Markou’s interest here is in what family ties mean when the chips (no pun intended) are down. The film is well photographed — I especially liked the way Markou studies Harry’s facial expressions — and the performances are, without exception, spot on. The cast includes Stephen Dillane as Harry; Georges Corraface as Spiros; James Dillane as Harry’s elder son, Frank; Georgia Groome as Katie; Selina Cadell as Mrs. P; and Thomas Underhill as Harry’s younger son, the stock wizard Theo.
This film was initially due for very limited theatrical exposure in England but word got out and public demand resulted in wider release. The movie has also been a success in terms of critical comment. My only complaint is that there are some moments, particularly at the beginning of the film, when the dialogue is hard to understand.
June 17, 2014
The potential was there; in fact, it was almost too obvious. An introverted Jewish girl attending a posh private school in Manhattan is the target of anti-Semitic harassment. Her parents seem to think of her as an inconvenience, but she can turn for solace and encouragement to her grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
These are the main ingredients in I Love You, I I Love You Not, a 1996 film based on a play by Wendy Kesselman, but the result is confusing and at times even incomprehensible.
The cast is promising enough. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, referred to only as “Nana”; Claire Danes plays Daisy, the troubled girl known for her silence, and, in flashbacks and dream sequences, the younger Nana; and Jude Law plays Ethan, the charismatic, lacrosse-captain, straight-A student whom Daisy secretly yearns for and, in fact, stalks.
The movie begins as a Holocaust survivor is making an audio-visual presentation to a class that includes Daisy and Ethan and others who exhibit varying degrees of appreciation for or indifference to what they are hearing and seeing. Daisy is the most affected by far. It shortly becomes clear that she is a misfit at the school. The anti-Semitism that presumably contributes to this condition is clearly presented in only one incident. Another factor in her isolation, one that is openly discussed, is the fact that she is bookish to a fault, a characteristic that her grandmother nourishes even if she doesn’t encourage it. We never meet Daisy’s parents, but we can infer that there is no love lost between them and their daughter. We infer from the dialogue only that they like their freedom as gadabouts and want Daisy as out-of-the-way as possible. Whenever she talks to them on the telephone, they accuse her of adopting a “tone”(she doesn’t), and they accuse Nana of the same thing on one occasion. Although we would expect Daisy’s solitude to raise some issues of intimacy, her obsession with Ethan, whom she barely knows, seems out of character for such a cerebral young woman, and so does her willingness to share this obsession with a few girlfriends, in childish terms.
Daisy’s stalking is clumsy enough that Ethan becomes fully aware of it, and eventually they are face to face, and then in a relationship. When Daisy is unwilling to let their passion progress beyond heavy kissing and caressing, Ethan — who is under pressure from his friends to drop her for one of the other girls who “want your jock” — breaks up with her. This leads to a crisis in which Daisy rages at Nana and flees Nana’s home and survives only because of Nana’s intervention, naturally, and Daisy continues to nurse a hope that she can recapture Ethan’s attention. Nana’s role in all of this is problematic. Daisy is so fixated on Nana’s wartime experience that she once uses a marker to write on her own arm the number the Nazi’s tattooed on Nana’s. And she insists that Nana repeat a macabre sort of bedtime story which represents the loss of Nana’s two siblings in the death camp. Why Daisy deals with Nana’s history in this fashion is not made clear. Ethan’s motivations are familiar enough, but Nana’s and Daisy’s are not, and inasmuch as their relationship constitutes the raison d’être for this film, that’s a problem.
June 9, 2014
I suppose when we search for movie based on the fact that Shirley MacLaine is in the cast, we should be prepared for almost anything. And I suppose that’s what we got when we found the 2003 film Carolina in which MacLaine stars with Julia Stiles and Alessandro Nivola. This was a $15-million property, but Miramax never released it to theaters. After sitting on the movie for two years the distributor abruptly released it directly to DVD in 2005.
The story, written by Katherine Fugate, uses a well-exercised premise in which a character who seems to live within the strike zone has close ties to her family who are well outside the foul lines if not beyond the left-field wall. Stiles plays Carolina Mirabeau — so called because her gadabout dad, Ted (Randy Quaid) always named his kids after the states in which he happened to launch their conception. Carolina has a job handling the contestants on a TV dating-game show. She also has an inexplicably poor track record in her own dating game, despite being smart, witty, and gorgeous. A relationship with a rich Briton named Heath Pierson (Edward Atterton) seems more promising than most of Carolina’s liaisons, and it is a critical ingredient in this film, and not only because Pierson, an unlikely contestant on the garish dating show, inadvertently costs Carolina her job. The only intimacy Carolina seems to enjoy consistently is of the platonic sort, involving her charismatic neighbor, Albert Morris, played by Nivola. Morris earns his living by writing romantic novels under a female pseudonym.
Carolina, and ultimately her sisters, Georgia and Maine, were raised by Millicent Mirabeau, Ted’s mother and their grandmother. Millicent is the kind of role a screenwriter would create for vintage ’03 MacLaine if there were only an hour to spare. Millicent lives on the outskirts of the city, figuratively and literally, consorts with whatever odd sorts she takes a shine to and says and does whatever she damn well pleases. You know: Shirley MacLaine. Carolina loves Millicent and often spends time with her, and Millicent has her own ideas about how Carolina should live and particularly whom Carolina should marry. At Millicent’s demand, an outdoor Thanksgiving dinner takes place at her house for her family and a colorful cast of extras, including the only mildly colorful Albert. When Carolina insists that the venue be moved to her apartment one year, there are both predictable and revealing results. This movie is worthwhile for the characters and the performances, but the story is implausible in many regards, the juxtaposition of the uber and under strata of LA society doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, and the conclusion relies on a turn of events that I would characterize as the easy way out — for the writer if not for the character involved.
March 2, 2014
I had a phone conversation with Sally Struthers a few years ago when she was touring with a production of Annie.The fact that she was touring with that show was a reflection of an experience that she and may other actors have had: she appeared in a hit television series and never quite matched that in her later career. It’s no disgrace; it has happened to many others through no fault of theirs. It’s just the nature of the television industry.
Sally Struthers certainly isn’t absent from television because she isn’t a good actress.We were reminded of that the other night when we watched a 1979 Hallmark movie, And Your Name is Jonah, in which she plays a woman whose deaf son has been misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped.When the mistake is discovered the boy is released from the institution he has been living in. But his dad, although he tries, cannot understand the boy’s needs, and the marriage is strained to the breaking point.
Sally Struthers gave a strong performance as a loving mother who will not be diverted from her mission to help her son live as a member of the community. Jonah was played with great effect by nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin, who was the fourth generation of his family to be born deaf. He is now an administrator at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. He and his wife have two children who, I believe, are hearing. Titos Vandis is a sympathetic figure as Jonah’s grandfather, who sells produce in an open-air market.
This movie touches on sensitive issues related to deafness, including the question of whether deaf people should rely on sign language or learn to lip read and speak. I was ignorant of that issue until I read Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, which was published in 1989 by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie also treats the overarching theme of the need and right of deaf people to be treated not as pitiable victims but as the whole human beings they are.
January 3, 2014
It’s all about Bill, an unpublished poet, whose dream is to sell vegetarian lunches in a park in Austin, Texas. He buys a hot dog cart — on monthly payments — and starts whipping up the hummus and babba gannounj. He calls his business Happy Poet, but whether he is happy or not is a matter of conjecture since the central joke of this deft little 2010 comedy is the poker face on Paul Gordon, who wrote and directed the film and plays the title role.
Bill has no business sense and his enterprise gets off to a slow start, but he gets help and moral support of sorts from two underemployed hangers-on and a young woman who not only likes the vegetarian fare but takes a shine to Bill himself.
The most helpful, seemingly, is Donny (played by Jonny Mars), a charismatic hustler who has a motorcycle and an idea: he will print and distribute flyers promoting the Happy Poet all over downtown Austin and then deliver lunch orders called in to Bill’s cell phone. This might be a workable if limited business model — if it weren’t for Donny’s sideline.
Curtis, played by Chris Doubek, shows up around four and helps Bill close up — even consuming some unsold victuals, giving what turns out to be a misleading impression of indolence. And Agnes, played by Liz Fisher, is a willing customer, because she eats healthy, who finds Bill more intriguing in a way that most people can’t perceive.
Bill’s foray into the culinary trade would have ended in failure but for an unexpected reversal of fortune. Sad to say, the resolution is giddily contrived and out of character in this film. It appears to be a clumsy attempt to create a contrasting background for Gordon’s poker face, which remains unmoved by events until everything goes black. But the movie was a game effort by Gordon, and it got some positive attention when it made the rounds of festivals. The casting and the performances and the effective use of the Austin locations add up to an engaging experience.
December 7, 2013
We saw the movie Philomena last night, and I was intrigued by the reference to Jane Russell. I think it’s well known by now that the movie deals with the practice of some convents and other institutions in Europe to force single young women to surrender their children for adoption and to require a large donation from American couples to take those children to the United States. The movie has to do with a particular instance in which a woman named Philomena Lee, whose child was taken from her in that manner, attempts decades later to find out what became of the boy.
In the more or less true account, Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena, who — in the company of a freelance writer — visits the convent where she was left by her father after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. The reporter notices among the photographs hanging in the reception room at the convent an autographed, provocative photo of Jane Russell. He asks a nun about the photo, and the clear implication is that Jane Russell was among the wealthy Americans who “bought” a child at this convent. That caught my interest because I met Jane Russell in 1971 when she was appearing here in New Jersey in a production of Catch Me If You Can. In fact, I had coffee with her in Manhattan and one of the topics of our conversation was adoption.
Jane Russell told me that during her first marriage, which was to Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Waterfield, she visited orphanages and similar institutions in five countries in Europe and was frustrated to find that it was nearly impossible for an American couple to adopt the children who were languishing there. She eventually did adopt three children, but her experience in Europe also inspired her in 1952 to found the World Adoption International Fund which eventually facilitated tens of thousands of adoptions. She became an advocate for adoptive parents and children, testifying before Congress in 1953 in favor of the Federal Orphan Adoption Bill which allowed American parents to adopt children fathered by American troops overseas. And in 1980 she lobbied for the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act which provides financial assistance based on the particular circumstances of foster and adoptive parents and adoptive children.
From what I have read so far, I deduce that Jane Russell did not adopt a child from the convent that is the focus of Philomena. I did read an account of an interview in which she told a reporter that after having failed to adopt a child in England, she was going to try her luck in Ireland. Whether any of her eventual adoptions amounted to “buying” babies, I cannot tell. I do notice that news stories that refer to her as one of the wealthy Americans alluded to in Philomena do not go on to report her work on behalf of adoptive parents and children.
November 30, 2013
Having just watched an Angelica Huston movie, we felt that logic dictated that we watch a Jack Nicholson movie; the first one we were willing to subject ourselves to was Heartburn, a 1986 film directed by Mike Nichols and based on Nora Ephron’s fictionalized account of her ill-fated marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Nicholson plays a D.C. journalist named Mark Forman and Meryl Streep plays a food writer named Rachel Samstat. These two meet at party, do the “why don’t we go somewhere else” routine, stretch “somewhere else” to mean Forman’s bed, and get married. Even if you didn’t know Ephron’s story, you’d know in the first few minutes of this film where the relationship is headed.
Mark seems to be an enthusiastic husband and, as nature takes its course, a doting father. The only stress on the marriage at first is the incompetence of the contractor the couple hired to renovate the wreck of a house they bought in D.C. But behind the scenes Mark is having friendly doings with an awkwardly tall Washington hostess, and this comes to light when Rachel is almost ready to give birth to their second child. Rachel reacts to the revelation by rushing back to her father’s home in New York, but she succumbs to Mark’s entreaty that she return to him. That turns out to be a bad decision. The messy outcome involves a key lime pie.
I don’t know how literally this story reflects what went on between Ephron and Bernstein (he had an affair with the wife of the British ambassador to the United States) but it doesn’t make clear what either of these characters really wants out of life. Rachel’s decision to marry Mark — after mutual acquaintances urge her not to, and after she holds up the ceremony for hours while she has a panic attack — is hard to absorb, and Mark’s passionate insistence on remaining in a marriage that clearly cramps his style is no more understandable. One conclusion I came to: It is possible to grow tired of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson within 108 minutes. It is.
By the way, Heartburn marked the film debut of Kevin Spacey, who plays an armed robber who relieves Rachel of her wedding ring. The cast also includes Maureen Stapleton, Richard Masur, Miloš Forman, and Stockard Channing.
November 30, 2013
I never thought of Tom Jones as a deus ex machina, but in the movies all things are possible. To wit, Agnes Browne, which was co-produced and directed by Angelica Huston, who, apparently to prove that she is no shrinking violet, also played the title role. This movie, filmed in Dublin and released in 1999, was based on the novel The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll, who appears several times in the film as a derelict townsman.
At the beginning of the film, set in 1967, we learn that Agnes Browne’s husband has been killed in a motor vehicle accident, leaving her with seven children to raise. This is quite a challenge inasmuch as, unless she can collect on her husband’s union pension, her only means of support will be selling fruits and vegetables in an open-air market. She doesn’t even have enough to cover the costs of her husband’s funeral and burial, so she borrows money from neighborhood loan shark Mr. Billy, played by Ray Winstone. When, after a few months, a stroke of luck enables Agnes to pay off the balance of the loan and avoid the usurious interest, Mr. Billy is irritated and he finds a way to get even by strong-arming one of Agnes’s young sons.
On the block where the open-air market is located, a French baker named Pierre, played by Arno Chervrier, has opened a shop, and although he is very courteous, he doesn’t hide the fact that he has eyes for Agnes. Agnes is too preoccupied to respond at first, but eventually she agrees to what turns out to be a very elegant date. But Agnes gets most of her personal support during this period from her fellow street merchant Marion Monks (Marion O’Dwyer) who is full of joie de vivre and sexual insights. Marion is so solicitous of her friend that she manages to buy tickets to a Tom Jones concert that she knows Agnes yearns to attend. Tragedy will eventually deprive Agnes of Marion’s friendship, and it’s a loss that Agnes can scarcely afford.
Because of the debt incurred by one of her sons, Agnes finds herself hours away from losing her furniture to Mr. Billy, although a viewer would hardly believe that such a blow will actually fall on this heroine.
This movie held our interest until the last few minutes despite the fact that we found the dialogue hard to follow in places because of the strong Irish accents and the tendency of some of the actors to mutter. We were absorbed mostly in the characters themselves and in the environment; the story line wasn’t very durable. It was difficult to follow Agnes’s reactions and motivations, beginning with her matter-of-fact response to her husband’s sudden death. But the real weak spot in this movie is the denouement, the resolution of the Mr. Billy crisis, which primarily involves the children, draws in Tom Jones — in person —under improbable circumstances, and is just childish in general.
This movie wasn’t received well in the United States, but it seems to have done much better in Europe.
October 23, 2013
I’m not a big fan of “faith-based movies,” although my full-time work is in religion, but we did watch a movie in that category, because the star was John Ratzenberger. Like most folks, we know Ratzenberger from his eleven-year run as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman and barfly on the television series Cheers. Ratzenberger has had an extensive career; among other things, he has made a specialty of providing voices for Pixar films — all Pixar films. He has also been active in Republican politics, and he is a published author, a business entrepreneur, an advocate for training in skilled trades, and a member of the boards of directors at two universities.
Ratzenberger plays the title role in The Woodcarver, a Canadian film that concerns Matthew Stevenson (Dakota Daulby), a teenager who is troubled because his parents, Jack and Rita (Woody Jeffreys and Nicole Oliver) are involved in an acrimonious breakup. The fallout, especially in the form of Jack’s angry outbursts, often lands on Matthew. The boy acts out his frustration by vandalizing the Baptist church that his family attends. In the process, he destroys ornamental work that was done by Ernest Otto, a local craftsman who has been reclusive since the death of his wife.
The pastor of the church reaches an accommodation with the Stevensons in which Matthew won’t be prosecuted if he helps repair the damage he did. The pastor also prevails on a reluctant Ernest to replace the hand-carved planks that had decorated the church. This job puts Ernest in direct competition with Jack’s boss and potential partner, who is in the lumber supply business.
Matthew does some repairs at the church, but he eventually takes an interest in Ernest and starts working in Ernest’s shop, learning the woodcarving trade. Although Jack objects to this arrangement, it continues and even goes a step further as Matthew leaves home and temporarily moves in with Ernest. In their conversations, Ernest teaches Matthew to judge his actions by asking himself, “WWJD – What would Jesus do?” It’s not so much a religious lesson as it is an ethical one; in fact, Ernest doesn’t discuss religion at all. The boy may not know his theology, but he knows the broad outlines of the kind of life Jesus led, so he has no trouble understanding Ernest’s meaning.
There’s much more to the plot than that and, “faith-based” or not, the movie held our interest to the end. Besides the story line, that’s attributable to good acting on the part of all the principles, including Ratzenberger in a much more understated role than his signature character.