A Couple of Guys

I spent much of Breathe In in suspense–holding my breath, as it were. Keith and Megan Reynolds (Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan) live, happily, with their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) in a comfortable town an hour or two outside of New York. Keith teaches piano at the high school and dreams of playing cello with the symphony in the city; Megan sells hand-crafted candy jars. Into their home comes a British foreign-exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones).

Sophie is in Keith’s piano class, and when she sits down to play a Chopin piece (sigh: pianists in the movies are always playing Chopin; what I’d give for a bit of Grieg), she turns out to be a prodigy. The two of them, Sophie and Keith, turn out to be kindred spirits. She feels oppressed by the demands of her piano skill; he feels trapped as a teacher, a reliable profession he reached for when he became a father at a young age.

Keith signs up to audition for a cellist position with the symphony that becomes available; Sophie teaches him a breathing technique to help him relax. The two begin to bond, and the question becomes, where will their relationship take them? Now the dread begins to build; this being a movie, something’s gonna happen, probably unpleasant.

There’s a bit of melodrama, but those expecting an operatic smash-up will be disappointed (or perhaps relieved). The main charm of this film is Pearce’s performance–warm but not showy, conflicted but not agonized.

After seeing the film I learned that most of the dialogue was improvised. This underlines Pearce’s craft: For an Australian to speak well in an American accent is commendable; to improvise, remarkable.

Pearce is the second lead in Hateship Loveship, which centers on a quiet live-in caretaker named Johanna (Kristen Wiig). I wanted to call Johanna mousy, but that isn’t exactly right; she is quite capable of making decisions and taking action, as we see in the opening minutes of the film when she calmly handles the death of an elderly woman in her charge.

Johanna’s next assignment is to care for a high-schooler, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), and her grandfather (Nick Nolte). She also meets Sabitha’s father Ken (Pearce), a not-quite-recovered drug addict who is estranged from the grandfather and lives in another city, where he is half-heartedly trying to refurbish a motel.

Sabitha and her mean-girl classmate Edith (Sami Gayle) play a nasty trick, creating a phony email account from Ken and building a fictional relationship with Johanna. He is momentarily baffled when she leaves her job and shows up at his door. They figure out the deception quickly enough, but he invites her to stay when he sees her aptitude for housekeeping and redecorating. The two bond; he needs a steady, responsible dream girl, and she needs someone to care for.

Wiig’s performance is restrained. A few times I wanted her to give rein to her comic muse, but probably that would have weakened the film. As it is, most of the comic relief is provided by Christine Lahti as a busybody bank teller and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ken’s worldly, drug-addicted girlfriend.

A solid, intelligent film.

Breathe In (reviews)
Directed by Drake Doremus
Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: August 12, 2014

Hateship Loveship (reviews)
Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Mark Poirier, based on a story by Alice Munro
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: August 12, 2014

War from the Inside

In 1982, 20-year-old Samuel Maoz was a rookie tank gunner with the Israel Defense Forces when war with Lebanon broke out. Twenty years later he wrote a screenplay based on his experiences. A few years later he directed the film, called Lebanon.

Almost the entire film takes place inside a tank, and a miserable place it is: noisy, oil and grime coating the instrument panels, dirty water pooled on the floor. The four-man crew are green and insubordinate. Their mission is to check out a Lebanese town bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Starting at dawn, they should be able to complete their mission in time for a relaxed breakfast.

The mission does not go as planned.

At times the story is heavy-handed. For instance, after one traumatic event a crewman finds himself covered with blood. He looks at his hands in horror. (At least he doesn’t say “I have blood on my hands!” out loud.)

But all in all, Lebanon is effective as either a war film or a horror movie. (Four men, trapped in a tight, dangerous space, sometimes making foolish decisions that get them into more trouble….) Take your pick.

Lebanon (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Samuel Maoz
Languages: Hebrew, Arabic
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: January 18, 2011

Special Educator

Best Kept Secret follows a year of classes at John F. Kennedy School in Newark. (The documentary’s title is the school’s standard phone greeting.) This is an inner-city school for high school-age children with autism or other special education needs. These students are difficult to teach, but the school must do its best to prepare them for the outside world.

The film follows one teacher in particular, a young outgoing woman named Janet Mino. There is a reason the filmmakers focus on her: Janet Mino is a saint. She is eternally upbeat and patient with her students, even those who seem to be regressing.

A major part of the film is Mino’s attempt to find placement in the community for her future graduates. Sometimes this is a job, but often it’s a matter of matching the person with a suitable adult care facility. Some jobs are repetitive and soul-sucking; some facilities lack the stimulus the young adults will need, while others are in an inconvenient location.

Spoiler alert: This is not a story of 100% success. But that means every little victory makes you feel ten feet tall. And grateful for heroes like Janet Mino.

Best Kept Secret (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Samantha Buck
Written by Francisco Bello, Samantha Buck, and Zeke Farrow
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: April 24, 2014

Crucifixion in Flanders

If you are in the mood for plot, you should delay seeing The Mill & the Cross until your mood changes. To be sure, a few things happen in this film, but mainly this is a multi-course feast for the eyes and ears.

The subject is Bruegel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary, painted in 1564. At the start of the film, Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) briefly discusses his painting with his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Following this is a tableau vivant of the scene depicted by the painting: in the center, Christ dragging the Cross and following the two thieves in a wagon, traveling up a road to Golgotha on the upper right; the Holy Family on the lower right; a great crowd of people all about, indifferent to the procession passing through them; and a mill atop a great crag at the upper left. Except for Christ and the Holy Family, all the characters are from the sixteenth century.

The rest of the film depicts a few of the characters from earlier in the day, and then it carries the action of the story past the moment depicted, through the Crucifixion and entombment. From time to time we rejoin Bruegel as he describes the design of the painting.

The charm of the film is in the vividness of details recreated in appearance and sound. The windmill in particular is sharply drawn, with creaking gears and echoing footfalls on solid wood. We also see a houseful of children starting their day–and the brutal treatment handed out to heretics under Spanish religious rule. (Some scenes are not for the squeamish.)

See this film for the production design. It won a few minor awards in that category; it deserved more.

The Mill & the Cross (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Lech Majewski
Written by Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski, based on a book by Gibson
Running time: 95 minutes
DVD release date: March 13, 2012

The Sweltering Sky

The reissued Australian drama Wake in Fright tells the story of an Australian outback schoolteacher who starts toward Sydney for summer (Christmas) break … and never makes it there. John Grant (Gary Bond) teaches in a small schoolhouse baking in the desert in the middle of nowhere. He takes the train to a larger town, Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney; but the hospitable locals in “the Yabba” quickly draw him into their routine of drinking, gambling, and other rough activity. Within a few days Grant is stripped of his self-regard as an educated man, not to mention his money, his clothes, and his sobriety. He is in hell.

And yet most of his fellow damned seem content, even pleased, with their dissolute lives; the Yabba is an oasis of lotus-eaters. The closest Grant has to a sympathizer is the puckish Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a medico whose alcoholism unsuits him for more civilized places.

This film is a masterful portrait of a civilized man’s degradation in the heat and madness of the Australian desert. A warning: It includes a disturbing sequence involving kangaroos; at the end of the movie is a disclaimer radically different than, “No animals were harmed.”

Wake in Fright (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Written by Evan Jones, based on a novel by Kenneth Cook
Running time: 109 minutes
DVD release date: January 15, 2013

The Good

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court provided an ounce of balm to those accused of crime in state courts. Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, under the Sixth Amendment, and those who cannot afford one must have counsel provided; and the Court ruled 9–0 that under the Fourteenth Amendment this provision applies to the states as well as the federal government.

Gideon’s Army follows the efforts of three public defenders in the South as they try to make good on Gideon‘s promise. They are young, smart, overworked (over 100 open cases for one defender counts as overworked, doesn’t it?), burdened with student loan debt, and poorly paid. Many of their clients are terrible people. And they work in a system designed to coerce needy defendants into guilty pleas. But these attorneys continue to care; they try to give the defendants the best legal representation possible.

The film follows the defenders at their jobs and provides a glimpse at their private lives (which naturally suffer because of the demands of work). We even see a few court appearances (which appear to be real and not reconstructions), and the film concludes with a tense jury trial.

Needless to say, not all public defenders are as noble as the subjects of this documentary. (One defendant is distrustful because of a previous bad experience with her counsel.) But these three inspire.

Gideon’s Army (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Dawn Porter
Running time: 96 minutes
Not yet released on DVD, but currently streaming on Netflix and elsewhere

Worthwhile Cambodian Initiative

Bad news first: In the English-language version of The Missing Picture, the voice of the narrator (Jean-Baptiste Phou) is soft and steady, and most of the time the soundtrack is layered with a low drone. If you aren’t fully engaged with the movie, you will be off to dreamland.

The good news is, the film will probably hold your attention. Filmmaker Rithy Panh is sharing his childhood memories of Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, in particular the emptying of Phnom Penh and the ruralization, indoctrination, and massacre of the populace. He uses two methods, on occasion combining them: narration over archival footage, and narration over dioramas of painted clay figurines. Since this is a memoir, the main characters are family, acquaintances, and others caught up in the machinery of ideological madness.

The story of Pol Pot and his lieutenants has already been told. This is a story of the victims.

The Missing Picture (reviews)
Directed and written by Rithy Panh
Language: English (the French-narrated version was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar this year)
Running time: 96 minutes
DVD release date: June 10, 2014