Monthly Archives: March 2007

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY

Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2007) is a fantastic, well-wrought drama about two brothers who join the fight for the Irish Republican Army only to come at odds with each other when the British sign a pathetic excuse for a treaty, integrating the Irish into the British Army, while making Ireland its “own republic” (under the British Empire’s rule).

Powerfully acted (especially by Cillian Murphy as the doctor/soldier protagonist Damien), this is ultimately a story of how politics and ethics can intervene in the connection between family, and how ultimately you have to do what you believe in to the very end.

Very well-made, with luscious green scenery brought out beautifully, this is a great film! The deserved winner of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or (Best Film)!

 

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THE NAMESAKE

Mira Nair’s epic is a tale of strangers in a strange land, of coming to terms with your roots, and of the changes within a family over time. Ashoke Ganguli (Irrfan Khan) is a Calcutta student whose parents arrange a marriage to Ashima (Tabu), a lovely and well-read young woman. He is a student in New York and takes his new bride to the big, cold city to start a life together. Before long, they have two children who grow up before their very eyes. Sonia (Sahira Nair, the director’s niece) is a pretty but shiftless teenage girl, and her brother Gogol (Kal Penn of “Harold & Kumar” fame) is a typical, modern American teenage boy, teased over his name (even his sister calls him “Goggles”) and seemingly embarrassed by his heritage. A family trip back to India, featuring a visit to the Taj Mahal, is a key turning point: Gogol, who has a penchant for drawing, wants to be an architect – just like his father aspired to be. Gogol changes his name to Nikhil (he’s named after the obscure Russian writer) and is off in New York, where he falls for a pretty blonde called Max (Jacinda Barrett), short for Maxine. Friends and acquaintances are made, with Gogol becoming close with Max’s family (her mother is played by Glenne Headly) and Ashima becoming a librarian (her colleague is played by Brooke Smith). Before long, Gogol’s parents are put off by his independence of spirit, but after a time, eventually will come around (“Times are changing,” Ashima muses). His father, meanwhile, tries to explain to him the importance of his name (an early scene of a train wreck and some brief flashbacks later on figure in), but he just doesn’t seem to appreciate it till it’s too late. After a family tragedy, Nikhil (Penn) runs back regretfully into the “old ways” – shaves his head, insists on being called Gogol again (once his “pet name,” now his “good name”) and shuts Max out. Will they get back together? In the interim, he falls for a Bengali girl named Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), a sexy student of all-things French who had a brief, shy and near-silent run-in with Gogol in their youth. They are married, and life takes yet another turn. ‘Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows. Mira Nair is the wondrous Indian filmmaker who came on the scene with “Salaam Bombay!” (1988), continued with “Mississippi Masala” (1991) and would go on to make the wonderfully Altman-esque native film “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) and the epic adaptation of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” (2004) with Reese Witherspoon. She is comfortable in English and Hindi with subtitles, has worked with unknowns and movie stars alike; she once directed Denzel Washington in an early role (“Mississippi Masala”) and Uma Thurman in the TV film “Hysterical Blindness” (2001). In Penn, she has found a decently known performer who can play his part well and isn’t a million miles removed from his character’s experience – an Indian twenty-something born in America. I was most moved, however, by the performances of Tabu and Khan. They manage to go from being young in an arranged marriage, to eventually an older and loving couple raising two kids in a strange country. They are warm, sweet and completely believable. The screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, doesn’t really have a plot, is episodic in nature, uses the metaphor of the name and its meaning as a theme more than a plot point, has the feel at times of a slice-of-life, yet manages to wring the contours of melodrama out of it. In its tale of generational differences among a family of immigrants in America, I was somewhat reminded of Gregory Nava’s wonderful film “My Family” (1995), as well as Nancy Savoca’s “Household Saints” (1993) for its portrayal of traditional values vs. the independence of youth (though there, it was the child who was more “traditional” and here it’s vice-versa). If the film has a flaw, it’s a technical one at the screenplay level: it seems to start from Ashoke’s point of view, before shifting first to Ashima, then to Gogol for a long time, and ending again with Ashima. Perhaps it is in fact about everyone, but to me it felt a bit muddled in that way. Nevertheless, Nair has made a moving and thoughtful tribute to a specific immigrant experience.

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ZODIAC

David Fincher’s Zodiac is the director’s first foray back into the darkly lit world of a serial killer since his 1995 breakthrough, Se7en. In its own epic, uniquely fascinating true-crime way, Zodiac is just about as great.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, upon whose true-crime expose books the film is based, a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist with a zeal and passion for unsolvable puzzles. He meets his match when he cracks a code sent to the paper by the notorious “Zodiac,” a masked murderer (never caught) who terrorized the Bay Area in the late 60s and into the 70s.

Graysmith has two detectives (Mark Ruffalo and a surprising Anthony Edwards, formerly of “ER”-fame), a fellow reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) and his own children at his disposal, and still the exact nature of who or what the Zodiac was has washed away with time.

The film has a major suspect (Graysmith and the cops’ opinion of who Zodiac was) – Arthur Lee Allan (played with chilling aplomb by John Carroll Lynch, of “Fargo”), who looms over every scene he’s in with the distinct sense that he could’ve been the Zodiac killer. With Allan now long-since dead, we’ll never know. But the Zodiac killings stopped all those years ago and the mystery remains unsolved.

Fincher’s film is stylistically brilliant, re-creating the world of that time, place, etc. better than any film of this type since Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999). It’s an astonishing film.

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BLACK SNAKE MOAN

Just about the best film in 2007 is writer-director Craig Brewer’s sophomore effort following his 2005 debut, “Hustle & Flow.” Starring Samuel L. Jackson as a blues musician who has lost his faith in the lord, as well as his marriage, Brewer’s film sets up quite the improbable connection when Jackson finds the town slut (Christina Ricci) beaten and raped on the side of the road. Nursing her back to health, Jackson tells her she’s been “put in his path” so he can cure her of her “wickedness.” What follows is one of the most bizarrely touching and beautiful romances you’re ever likely to see!

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