Category Archives: Movies

Where Ya From, Again?

Exactly where did this woman grow up?


Warning: This is peeve post. There, now, full steam ahead.

There’s a new contender for Worst British Accent in Film, the award previously held over decades by Dick Van Dyke, that lovable pseudo-Cockney of Mary Poppins. Considering that everyone else in that film was actually British (including Julie Andrews, its star), and the book it was based on was set in London and written by an author living in that city (though she grew up in Australia), why the producers decided on an American chimney sweep is unfathomable. I’m not suggesting that they ought to have sought out Lawrence Olivier, but at least Sir Larry would have done justice to the Bow Bells accent.

The new mangler? Anne Hathaway.

Now, I like Anne Hathaway as much as any woman whose daughter adored The Princess Diaries. She’s a very good actress with much natural grace, and she’s made amazing choices in her films. She was wonderful opposite Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada – an intimidating turn, after all. Playing a much-rehabbed sister of the bride in Rachel Getting Married was a risky choice that paid off fabulously. I look forward to seeing her as Catwoman in The Dark Night Rises.

But as an English student? In One Day? When everyone – and I don’t use that word loosely – everyone surrounding her is some kind of Brit?

It’s not like the UK is devoid of female actors of the appropriate age. Emily Blunt, Keira Knightley, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, any one of them could have done a great job with One Day’s Emma. But no, the producers needed greater wattage, so the job went to Hathaway. Who does terrific stuff with it, she really does, only . . . where the hell is the woman supposed to be from?

The accent doesn’t have multiple layers. Instead, it lurches from one set of sounds to another. At times she’s perfectly American, this supposedly English rose Emma. At times she does a decent, upperclass RP accent. Then there’s the sudden left turn to Scots or Northumberland, as when she says “oot” for “out”.

(I happen to live in a part of the country where oldtimers do this, too, only in a southern US accent. It’s a hoot.)

Her R’s are similarly wobbly, and at times she sound positively West Country. No sooner do you get used to one set of sounds than, oops, there it goes again, the amazing Technicolor accent.

I am all for Anne Hathaway or another actor, or any person, for all that, going after a role as a challenge. They should stretch. Try something completely different.

But if the producers are too cash-strapped to afford accent lessons before the shoot, actors need to reserve some funds for to invest in their own accent. They’ll pay off, they really will.

In some future post, British actors assuming – and that word is used very loosely – American accents. With a reminder that Jimmy Cagney’s been off the screen for a long, long time.

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Filed under Accent, Anne Hathaway, England, Film, Movies

Eat Drink Man Woman

One of the film's last scenes, with yet another set of stellar dishes


“It’s Sunday torture.”

Going to church? No, it’s the weekly dinner prepared by semi-retired master chef Chu for his three daughters in this lovely 1994 Taiwanese film by Ang Lee (perhaps better known in the West for directing Sense and Sensibility, written by and starring Emma Thompson). Although the daughters still live at home, their presence is mandated each Sunday at the table, which groans with gorgeous, delicious food made by their dad.

It is through his food that the widowed Chu communicates with his daughters and expresses his love. But it’s an act of increasing desperation: Chu is losing his sense of taste, a tragedy for such a master. It’s the physical manifestation of the emotional, for his taste for life is slipping, as well. His daughters are drifting away. He knows they must, but the pull is harsh. The eldest, Jia-Jen, teaches high school and has converted to Christianity. Chu’s best friend comments that Jia-Jen has found the right man for her in Jesus, but she yearns for a physical relationship and finally meets that in a fellow teacher.

The middle sister, Jia-Chien (of the three, she most resembles her dead mother), has a high-powered job as an airline executive, and is offered a transfer to work in Amsterdam. Her ex-beau has become a friend with benefits, yet Jia-Chien knows she’s stuck. She wants to take the Amsterdam job, but hesitates to leave her father . . . and then there’s the handsome troubleshooter who’s just sauntered into the office.

The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, is still in school. She works part-time at a Wendy’s, where she meets a co-worker’s discarded boyfriend. Jia-Ning offers sympathy. The young man responds. They discover they share many interests. But how can she, as a youngest daughter, leave her father?

Then there’s the neighbor’s mother newly returned from America, who’s got her eye on Chu as a prospective second husband. Of all the characters in this film, she’s the least sympathetic. We laugh at her, though, and wonder: is she what Chu needs to put savor into his life?

This is a family film in the best sense. Much is unsaid, much misunderstood. Connections are made, lost, and remade. The three sisters discover (as the two sisters did in Sense and Sensibility) what each lacks in her life. As one sister says (the same line was used in S&S), “What do you know of my heart?” – an excellent question, as she finds no one can know her heart if she will not reveal it. Chu rediscovers his taste and his zest for life through a remarkable and unforeseen transformation.

For foodies, this wonderful, warm film carries an added bonus: the visuals of dumpling-making, fish-steaming, the construction of layered dishes and the deconstruction of chickens that later attain divinity by being smoked. The first long segment of food preparation took a week to film and involved Chu as well as the hands of professional chefs. You will never again look at Chinese food without recalling this film’s beauty.

If you haven’t yet seen Eat Drink Man Woman, do. Those two hours will become cherished memories.

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Filed under Ang Lee, China, Cooking, Family, Film, Love, Movies, Relationships

“Beautiful Boy”

Michael Sheen as Bill, Maria Bello as Kate


Yesterday, I watched this 2010 movie, a film so quietly brutal and ferociously tender in its portrayal of a couple launched into turmoil that it still stuns me, twenty-four hours later.

If you have no children, no link to children, this movie may not make sense. It may call from you dismissive, even arrogant, reactions. But if you’re a parent, especially if your children are adolescents or grown (and you remember their adolescence), you’ll feel all the pulls and punches this film slaps at you.

All the more because the two leads are powerful. Maria Bello, an actress I’ll watch in almost anything. Michael Sheen, an exceptional actor even when he’s not playing Tony Blair, and here using an American accent that by my count slipped only once.

When tragedy strikes a family, not only does it not move on little cat feet, it also takes no notice of the emotional temperature of parents. The parents may be together and happy, apart and happy, apart and sad, or, as here, losing the orbit of each other a little more every day. There’s a slippage. With that slippage comes a determined focus on it, then off it, then on it again, like a blinking light in the shadows. People lose focus on other things, inconsequential things like paying the power bill on time. They also lose focus on things of great moment, like the sound of a son’s voice and the words he’s not saying.

What did we miss? What could we have heard? Why didn’t he tell us? How could I have acted differently? Why did he do what he did?

And: how are we going to make it? Together or apart?

The research on grief in the past twenty years has been vast and welcome. Everyone grieves differently, we’re told. Give each other space. Be kind. Try not to add to the thousands of parents who break up after the death of a child. But when a child has brought the gift of pain to others, when you each feel responsible and want to run from accountability, when there’s enough blame and guilt floating in the air around you to fill a medieval dungeon, how can two parents make any progress at all?

Foundering, gasping to stay on top of the floodwaters, the couple here (Kate and Bill – their son is Sam) leave their house to paparazzi and stay first at the home of her brother and sister-in-law and their young son.  A detail person (she’s a freelance copyeditor), Kate subsumes her breaking heart in an orgy of cooking, cleaning, and looking after the boy, even singing him to sleep. The song she chooses is her own son’s favorite, and the wonder is that she manages to even whisper it. Bill paces, drinks, and pounds tennis balls into a wall. Soon, they move on to a motel, and it’s here that the rubber-banding, the back-and-forth dance of a long-married couple begins to show its bones.

We understand the pain, the terror, the guilt. It could have been our child. At the same time, we wonder at their obtuseness, at the ignored clues, the sense of disconnectedness that infected every relationship: Bill and Kate, Sam and Bill, Sam and Kate. Could that happen to us? Maybe it’s only fate or God’s grace that has kept us from similar tragedy, from a “just checking in” casualness too sheer to catch hold of meaning. The line between “normal” and “mentally ill” seems more blurred and fuzzy than ever.

“Beautiful Boy” isn’t an easy movie, but it is, finally, about understanding. It’s about finding and making peace. It’s about nurture. Repairing what has shattered.

In classic Japanese decorative arts, when a plate shatters and is glued together, the repair is highlighted by a thin strip of gold paint. Nothing in life is perfect, says the shiny paint, not this plate, not your life nor mine. Accept it, celebrate it, and trudge on. Sorrow stretches out space in the heart, for joy.

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Filed under Family, Movies, Teenage boys, Violence

The Hidden Wealth of Vampires

The Cullen Family

When vampires meet great wealth through the stock market, what do they do with it? Apparently, they hoard. Sound like any one-percenters you know?

To my readers: I haven’t blogged for a while – sorry! I’ve been readying one novel for publication, and finishing another.

But I’m back, and ready to discuss something that’s annoyed me about the Twilight series ever since I finished reading Breaking Dawn, about to be released as two separate movies, which in my opinion the book neither needs nor deserves. And it’s practically Halloween, the perfect time to talk about vampires, treats, and tricks. Oh, those tricks.

A number of people regard Breaking Dawn as the best book of the series. Fine. Opinions differ. To me, it was diffuse and fulsome and too neat, too happy-ending, and contained a lot of white space and egregious errors – such as snowflakes possessing eight points (page 535). Where were its editors?

But one aspect of the saintly Cullen family (the “vegetarian” vampires who go after animals rather than humans, thus earning PETA’s undying enmity – if the Cullens haven’t dazzled PETA, too) that absolutely stuck in my craw was the fact that, as described, they are so much like the 1% we’re hearing about now.

When Bella goes searching for cash to spend on false IDs for her daughter and Jacob – she fears that she and Edward may not survive a coming encounter with the vampire powers-that-be – where does she go? To a bank? Please. She searches places in the Cullen house where money is hidden. Big money. “I had it all paper-clipped into five-thousand-dollar increments,” she notes. Her sister-in-law Alice, who possesses foresight and an apparently amazing online stocks portfolio, has enabled the Cullens to own multiple heavyweight accounts. Bella refers to these on page 647: “. . . the bloated accounts that existed all over the world with the Cullens’ various names on them, there was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade . . ..”

Wait a minute. Yes, the Cullens may need some sneak-away money to convey them elsewhere, should the jig be up in rainy Forks, Washington. Collectively, they have hundreds of years of experience in the art of the scram. But Alice would still be able to access online trading. Even on the run, she could do that from any public library in the US. Setting up a new checking account – even if she were unable to access the “bloated accounts” – would be equally easy. With a new place for cash and the ability to spot when to sell high, bam! The Cullens would be sitting pretty within days. Chances are, too, that those stuffed accounts are in places (Switzerland comes to mind) where the Cullens can be anonymous and avoid paying taxes on their interest gains. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the vampires are gaming the system.

If even the money kept in the house is enough to keep a small country afloat for a decade, it’s billions of dollars. Why keep this excess, which the Cullens clearly don’t need? More to the point, why not do something useful with it? Why not, in fact, benefit Forks, or the county, or Washington State? Or some of the thousands of nonprofits that get things done in the US and overseas? Since they themselves can never die (unless attacked and burned by other vampires), why are the Cullens stockpiling assets instead of using them to help their neighbors?

Where is the Cullens’ sense of social justice?

I’m referring especially to the elder Cullens, Carlisle and Esme, who act as foster parents to the rest. Carlisle has centuries of experience under his belt. As drawn, he and Esme fit the image of ideal Mormon parents. They set the tone for the rest, their “children”. Yet they apparently don’t give much to their community (except in Carlisle’s practice as an emergency room physician) and there’s ample evidence that Alice, at least, is obsessed with costly designer clothes, and that Esme spends a great deal of money on home improvement and decorating. The young men buy expensive cars. Bella’s new vehicle, after she becomes a vampire, is a high-tech imported sports car, a gift from Edward.

Is this vampire trickle-down economics? Didn’t the Cullens get the message, that trickle-down is voodoo, that it just doesn’t work?

Whatever. The Twilight phenomenon began with the publication of the first book in 2005. For six years, the Cullens have been adored by numerous fans who have made author Stephenie Meyer wealthy in her own right.

What we need, at this point – bearing in mind that the first film of Breaking Dawn is due in American theaters on November 18, only three weeks from now – is to make it clear that the Cullens inhabit the 1% of the US wealthy. They are the super-wealthy.

Placards, signs, bullhorns. The protests of Occupy Wall Street and its progeny should have been made for the past ten years. After six years, it’s time to pull the disguising curtain from the Cullens, who – even ignoring their vampirism and immortality – in no way represent the average American family.

Occupy Breaking Dawn. There’s a certain justice there.

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October 31, 2011 · 12:54 am

Beautiful Girls

Character, character -- and super dialogue

I just watched a movie I’d missed fifteen years ago when it came out – Beautiful Girls, starring a fleet of then-young actors (Timothy Hutton was the eldest at 35, Natalie Portman the youngest – 15 – playing a delightfully prescient thirteen-year-old). Filmed during a Massachusetts winter (Minnesota stands in for the Bay State), the film explores the ins-and-outs of relationships among reuniting friends in a small town. It’s about character. Wow, is it about character – its presence, absence, and fluctuation.

Only one of the male friends has developed a family. The rest are non-committal . . . or not quite ready to commit . . . or sleeping with their now-married high school girlfriend. They’re in limbo, unsure what they want yet not ready to toss in the towel on perfection. Says one, of the models whose photos plaster his bedroom walls, “Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you’ve been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high, full of the single greatest commodity known to man — promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it’s going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy? That’s all they are. Bottled promise. Scenes from a brand-new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.”

Doesn’t sound much like small-town America talking, does it? That’s one of the attractions of Beautiful Girls – beyond its fine acting and direction, the dialogue is smooth and light-filled, and most of the characters get their soliloquy, their chance to shine. Even the beautiful young women (call it as it is) to whom the guys are moths batting themselves against the warmth of a smile.

At the end, as we expect, some characters have been shaped and changed by events. Some have not – they’re stuck, watching with a slight tinge of wistfulness as their buddies head into adventure. Because avoiding commitment, failing to make a choice, is a self-created prison. You can’t get anywhere if you’re stuck in jail playing hide-and-seek with one heart after another.

Working as I am so much on issues of gendercide in Asia, I was struck by how this movie will be almost unintelligible there, in very few years. The essentially American lives may be tough to understand (few Chinese would drive a snowplow into a car full of angry men), but feelings of love and lust are not. Unless, that is, you have few women to lust after. Unless women have basically disappeared from view. Until your neighbor has an unannounced, unheralded birth at home and then dies from a post-birth infection – something that will become more common as women are hidden from view and given little recourse to education and health care – eliminating one more woman from your society.

In a few short decades, Beautiful Girls may look as alien east of Moscow as Avatar.

It’s a small movie. There are no special effects, no explosions . . . well, no pyrotechnics. As an examination of character, of development, though, Beautiful Girls is so worth a look-see. If you’re still with Netflix despite its recent corporate meltdown, put Beautiful Girls on your queue.

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Filed under Gendercide, Movies, Relationships

“The Limey”

The Limey

I came upon this movie by accident, through a route I don’t even recall. It was the usual “look up one, find another mentioned, follow that to yet a third” kind of thing. It’s terrific when that haphazard route delivers you somewhere wonderful. Like The Limey.

Terence Stamp stars in this 1999 film directed by Steven Soderbergh (who, the following year, would do Erin Brockovich, followed by the glitzy, intricate and enormously successful Ocean’s Eleven). Set mostly in Los Angeles, The Limey uses back-and-forth to explain the revenge journey of an ex-con Englishman with no first name, Wilson, trying to discover what happened to his grown daughter before she died. We see the daughter, Jenny, in bits and pieces of her youth, and also, with no sound, hours before her death. Otherwise she’s just a photo on the table. Wilson has just spent years as a guest of Her Majesty’s prison system. Jenny’s been a photo to him for a long time.

Wilson picks up a pair of assistants in his search, Elaine and Ed (Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán), both of whom knew Jenny from acting class. He picks up several guns. Wilson doesn’t collect attitude – he’s already got plenty. Following small clues and using his own intuition, he trails the path of Jenny’s LA life to a high-rolling music producer, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a master of smarm with much to hide and his own enforcer, Jim Avery (Barry Newman), to make sure what’s under the rock doesn’t crawl out.

Unfortunately for Valentine, Avery hires amateur hitmen and a collection of bodyguards who misplace their first directive: stay with the target.

Throughout his hunt, the aloof Wilson explains his history by tidbits. They’re illustrated by fascinating slices of film of Wilson in his youth (Terence Stamp from the 1967 movie Poor Cow – I’d never before seen Stamp so young, when he was the George Clooney of his day) hanging with mates, playing the guitar, talking with Jenny’s mum. Soderbergh often uses shots of Wilson alone and silent, voiced-over by his explanations, which then cross-cut to the scene where he’s speaking the same words, but to someone else. Flashbacks are brief but numerous. Although The Limey has its share of action – at one point, Wilson is beaten by four men running a shady trucking business; there’s also a short car chase scene down Mulholland Drive – the movie bulks up on inner drama.

The part of Wilson was written for Michael Caine (in their 20s, Caine and Stamp shared a flat), but Stamp brings a cold detachment to the role, much as Daniel Craig conveys in his James Bond. Both Bond and Wilson are killers, but they neither hide from nor revel in it. It’s a skill, something they do well and easily, when necessary. They’re quick, too. During a scene at Valentine’s magnificent house cantilevered over the Hollywood hills, you might miss one murder, it’s that fast.

Minutes before the movie’s end, Wilson realizes while confronting an injured Valentine that Jenny’s death was in part his, Wilson’s, responsibility — even though eight time zones separated them. The recognition nearly crushes him as a father. As an ex-con, he comprehends how fate links time and events. The vigilante in him is satisfied to leave Valentine to his own destiny.

You don’t get more astute than that.

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“Hors De Prix” is Priceless

Just another day in the life . . .

I didn’t realize until halfway through this 2006 French film (starring Audrey Tautou and Gad Elmaleh) that it was based on the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s of 1961. Audrey Hepburn made an indelible impression in that film directed by Blake Edwards as the whimsical, easy-to-like Holly Golightly whose vague, posh lifestyle is underwritten by older men in return for her favors.

Tautou improves on Hepburn’s performance, giving her character of Irène more life, street smarts, and even irritating us with her constant need for couture and gems. Hepburn was invariably amiable. We like Hepburn, but feel helpless – even if we could shake her, would she understand? Tautou understands, all right, but she’s amoral. She’s got savvy and flair, yet is still capable of making embarrassingly stupid mistakes in her search for wealth and influence. She’s far more human than Hepburn, even if more calculating.

Gad Elmaleh plays Jean, the part that in the 1961 film was taken by George Peppard. As a helpless romantic, he has a quiet innocence that evokes Mr. Bean, but unlike him, Jean can be educated. He’s working at a Cannes hotel when he runs into Irène, who believes him to be wealthy. Her current sugar daddy is elderly, generous, but no fun at all. So she goes after Jean with as little soul-searching as she’d choose an apple. When daylight enters (literally) and she discovers she’s hooked up with the bellman, she’s outraged – and in trouble.

Gold-digger Irène – in French, she’s known as a carte bleue for the credit card – spends a morose scene running through her little black book in search of the next man. But the next man turns out to be Jean. He has no money, no influence, no property. She’s a fool for even talking to him. Yet they recognize the familiar in each other.

Under Irène’s tutelage, and because he’s been fired, Jean soon finds a wealthy older woman to bankroll him. Yet he’s drawn to Irène – in fact, loves her – for reasons he can’t fathom. Maybe it’s her courage and persistent good spirits. Perhaps it’s her willingness to teach him the art of being a carte bleue. Maybe it’s the great sex. Whatever the motives, he and Irène keep returning to each other despite the revolving door of others, and in the end, it’s just the two of them heading down the road – on a motorcycle.

Tautou and Elmaleh are brilliantly matched as the striving Irène and the devoted Jean. Their acting is lovely to watch, so beautifully paced against each other, and comic highs are pitch-perfect. The film is set against the natural beauty of the French Riviera – what’s not to like? – accompanied by sumptuous rooms, haute couture and expensive cars. For a romantic comedy that morphs into morality play, Hors de Prix (Priceless) is darn near perfect.

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Here Be Monsters

Just when you thought it was safe . . .

Looking for a short, great movie to frighten the hell out of you? Do you prefer your sci-fi fear flicks to contain human love stories, as well? And how about a road movie, where two people escaping aliens/boredom/their own bad decisions band together and force their way through jungles?

Do I have the film for you: Monsters, a 2010 sleeper hit from the UK made on the tightest of budgets. Filmed in the US and Latin America by a two-person crew using off-the-shelf cameras, it stars two fairly unknown American actors and a host of Central American and Mexican film extras. The non-professionals – who do a uniformly wonderful job – lived in the areas the director wanted to use as locations, often without permission, and simply followed the cues they were given. The two main actors were also winging it with bare suggestions from the director, Gareth Edwards. As a result, the movie has a wonderful “you are there” feel. Especially when the action takes you places you don’t want to be.

The plot’s simple: alien animal protoplasm has arrived on Earth on the wings of a returning space probe from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The flight crash-landed in Mexico, where over the past six years the animals have grown and bred. The adults resemble ten-story-tall, wavery cephalopods (think squid rather than octopuses) that somehow manage to ride currents of air. Suspension of disbelief is a must, as the physics of this feat is never detailed.

The monsters kill people. A lot of people. The “infected zone” in Mexico grows larger every year and now abuts the US, where a giant wall has been built along the Rio Grande.

Into this mess jumps news photographer Andrew Kaulder, assigned to chivvy his boss’s daughter, Sam Wynden, back to the US. If he fails, he loses his job.

They start north.

Battling everything except poisonous spiders, using an array of buses, jeeps, riverboats and footpaths, and relying on the help of mercenaries, the two finally reach Texas. But the game’s not over yet.

At times, I admit, I covered my eyes, the tension was that great. Other times, the clearly dodo protagonists deserved to be caught. I was wrong, though. Through quick thinking and plain dumb luck, they manage to outlive their guides and become witness to the appalling grace of the monsters. Awestruck, the two look like they’re watching whales. Except that whales don’t wreak such havoc.

Their journey toward physical safety mirrors Sam and Kaulder’s interior walkabouts. He’s the father of a six-year-old son he never gets to see. She’s engaged to the appropriate man picked by Daddy. Once they reach the US, will they follow the script? Or go off-piste?

Maybe Monsters isn’t for you. Perhaps you’ll recommend it to your children (it’s rated R for language, of which there isn’t much – very little of the Spanish used by extras is subtitled). But if you feel like curling up for 90 minutes with popcorn and curiosity, Monsters will deliver.

Complete with tentacles.

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Filed under Movies, Musings

First They Co-Opted . . .

How far would you go to keep your life pleasant?

Movies about WWII are easy to find. Pick your focus: D-Day (Saving Private Ryan), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), the battlefront in Europe (A Bridge Too Far) or Asia (Bataan).

But what about the lead-up to war, the “dirty 30s” and Hitler’s seduction of and imposition on Germany? Is there a movie that shows, step by clever step, the co-opting of a German who initially thinks Nazism is both silly and temporary?

Good (2008) is that film.

It’s 1934. Books are burnt, threats are made, but few anticipate the horror to come. Certainly not Berlin academic John Halder (Viggo Mortensen), a decent man who lectures on English literature and has written his own novel, an obscure story about a man who kills his slowly dying wife out of compassion. With his own family – musician wife, two children, and disabled mother – John leads a relatively banal existence threatened only by a student, Anne, who comes on to him.

That existence is wholly altered when John is summoned to the offices of a Nazi official who asks him to prepare a paper based on Halder’s book, arguing for the moral, empathic response that mercy killing really is.

Rather, that the Nazis want it to seem, so they can rationalize the killing of “the unfit”.

John writes the paper, which is well received by the elite. Joining the Nazi Party becomes obligatory, so he does – it’s just an honorary thing. Until it’s not, until the night he’s called on to don his uniform and patrol the Kristallnacht streets. Later, he receives promotion, a new apartment (stripped from a Jewish former colleague), honors, privileges.

This is a quiet movie. It shows just how subtle change can be, and how small actions lead to hard choices between right and expediency. Choosing expediency leads to darker choices. Each time, John opts for the easier path, the path his handlers indicate. Initially a faithful husband, as he enters farther into the Nazi trap he feels he has the right to an adoring mistress in Anne. Then an apartment “for writing”. Then a divorce. Yet even his ex-wife is proud of him, impressed by his rise.

This gradual rise contrasts with the step-by-step fall of John’s best friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a man he fought beside twenty years ago in the trenches of WWI. We don’t learn Maurice’s surname until halfway through the film, but he is a joking, sardonic, confident man who over time – despite being a decorated veteran – is stripped of his privileges, rights and dignity. He becomes a non-human in part because of John’s actions, yet he’s still capable of outrage, which he unleashes to John and toward him.

Maurice becomes the filter through which John could, if he wished, see his life as a sell-out. He refuses. His friend is in pain, but what can John do? It’s the system. Things will be all right. Early in the film, he advises Maurice to cut and run, spend a year or two outside Germany until things calm down. Maurice protests: “This is my country!”

It’s only 1937.

In a later scene, John finally uses his status to demand the rail ticket to Paris that Maurice has begged. He races through the streets and arrives too late. Maurice has disappeared.

Isaacs is wonderfully acerbic and pragmatic, terrific contrast to Mortensen’s understated, subtle portrayal. At each level they play off each other with expertise and panache. Good was originally a stage play – its transposition to film is brilliant, losing none of its verbal power and gaining a visual vocabulary of pre-war Berlin.

Good is not an easy film, but it’s an excellent one.

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Filed under Movies, Politics

Characters As Friends


I’m in the midst of editing a novel – my own, Shakespeare Loves Monsoon, the sequel to an earlier book – whose most recent draft was several months ago. I gave it to three people (one friend, two grown children) to review and note anything at all – from typos to character flaws to where they started yawning – absolutely free rein to help me improve it.

So I’ve been toiling at my original, noting every typo and “?”, and reaching the point where the suggestions are more general. With regard to the protagonist, “perhaps more tension in interviews similar to tension with men” is a really helpful piece of advice. So I’m working it. Oh, yes.

Here’s the fascinating thing: I’ve been away from SLM for months. In that time I’ve begun another novel, totally different, wholly distinct characters. This new book is first-person; the one I’m editing, third. The new one has a late 20-something protagonist; SLM’s is in her 40s.

When you write, it’s a given that you empathize with your characters. Some authors profess to love theirs. All of theirs. I’m guessing they mean in the Quaker sense of recognizing the light (the God-ness) in every character – although Diana Gabaldon, prolific author of the Outlander series, has written total sadists for whom she alarmingly professes some understanding, saying that her characters are part and parcel of who she is.

To me, that goes too far. It’s like empathizing with the men who currently traffic in human beings. Making money off others’ enslavement, pain and despair? Sorry, no empathy there. A quick guilty verdict and execution would be more apt.

Nor am I talking about writing one’s own hero. Perhaps the best-known example of that is Lord Peter Wimsey, the creation of Dorothy L. Sayers beginning in 1923. Sayers’s character is clearly her ideal – she invests him with more virtues and skills than Austen’s Mr. Knightley, and even creates a mystery writer, Harriet Vane, for him to fall in love with. Similar, much?

But for other characters, the ones who are mildly flawed? That’s a grayer area, and a richer one.

My two protagonists (Rachel and Annie) both express some of my traits, positive and negative, and to the extent I accept myself, yes, I like them. They can also be ornery (“No, I want to do that instead!”) and therefore people to wrestle with. Or – more often – they come up with words or behaviors that are not yet me, but which I admire and wish to grow . . . so they’re people to imitate.

Life imitating art? Or life finding a way (shades of Jurassic Park!) to express itself as possibility?

In the widely-read Eat Pray Love, author Liz Gilbert ponders a similar puzzle toward the end of her book. Recalling the misery of years past, and the power of her own response to pain (in a notebook, she’d blurt her own agony, confusion and despair, and then – in a sense – reply to herself, writing out a calm and loving answer), she wondered if that mature, serene self was pulling her younger self forward to a better place.

Perhaps our characters are us in disguise, or they’re our literary children. Maybe, though, they’re imaginary people assigned by our unconscious to challenge us, urge us to grow, and comfort us with their presence when we’re lonely or distracted.

Maybe they’re our friends.

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