The Debt

It is 1966, Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold, and David Peretz have returned from their mission in East Berlin, and have just stepped off a plane at the Tel Aviv, Israel airport. Their mission was to capture a Nazi War criminal, a Dr. Bernhardt, who had been called The Surgeon of Birkenau.

His extreme experiments came to be called torture at their mildest, and sadistic and inhuman behavior at its worst. Thousands of Jews died or were maimed at his hands.

Twenty years after WWII ended, the Israeli intelligence got wind of this ‘monster’ and sent three highly trained Mossad agents to take up a position in East Berlin, with the intent of capturing this evil doctor, and bringing him back to Israel so he could stand trial and have his crimes against humanity made known to the world.

Flash forward to 1997, Rachel’s daughter Sarah Gold has just published a book about this mission. Rachel, Stephan, and David are now 30 years older, and we will come to learn that all is not well with any of them. There are secrets about that mission that are still eating away at them. There’s your set up and basically this is how the film begins.

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The Help

I’m smart.

I’m kind.

I’m important…

While the above might be a statement of self-empowerment, we hear this said by actress Viola Davis‘ character, Aibileen Clark, very early on in the new film The Help. Davis plays a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1963. She is the daughter of a maid, and a grand-daughter of a house slave. As she tells us during an interview with ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, “Yes – I always knew I would be a maid.”

Aibileen’s words at the top of this review were said to her youngest charge, a bright 3 year blond girl who is the daughter of Clark’s employer. Aibileen has raised 17 white children for her employers. But while this career has provided her with a job, and put food on her table, and brought the rewards of child rearing to her – this career was never going to be anyone’s idea of a dream job.

The film was directed by Tate Taylor who also wrote the screenplay, adopting the best-selling novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Both Stockett and Taylor grew up in Jackson so this was a film based on their hometown, a place they both knew very well.

The girls at play while the help did the work of running the household

To set the film up – the time of the story was before President Johnson signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone is a recent graduate of Ole Miss, and more than anything else, she wants to be a writer. Her circle of friends are all bridge playing housewives who have opted to spend their days playing cards, shopping, gossiping, and turning over the raising of the their children, and the running of their households to ‘the help’.

Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark

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Screenwriter, Director, Producer, and film Auteur Luc Besson is no stranger to armed and dangerous females – we’ve seen his participation wearing those mantles in such films as Leon: The Professional, la Femme Nikita, and The Fifth Element. We know Director Olivier Megaton from his previous film Transporter 3 as a guy who can deliver high octane action. Well these two have partnered up and have brought us Colombiana which opened today.

Starring Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Colombiana has a simple premise: a 9 year girl (played by Amandla Stenberg) witnesses the drug cartel’s assassination of her mother and her father in Bogota, Colombia. In an excellent chase sequence, nearly as good as any you’ve seen in the Bourne films, young Cataleya manages to barely escape from the hired thugs. She has a passport to freedom using the info her father provided for her and by turning this over to CIA station chief in Bogota. Her father also provided her with some family connections in Chicago who will take care of her.

15 Years later, Cataleya, now played Zoe Saldana is now a kick-ass hired gun. She can shoot, rig explosives, make parkour moves, and can outthink, outsmart, and outfight any of her targets or pursuers. She’s as close to invincible as it gets. She does contract work but along with that she’s been finding and doing in, one by one, the gang that killed her parents. Her name might be Cataleya, she’s been named after a specific orchid flower, but beyond her name, she is a warrior.

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Hanamizuki [Flowering Dogwood – and tag-lined: May your love bloom for 100 years] will mostly likely not last 100 months in your memory. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch and enjoy it for what it is – a sweet drama with appealing actors and actresses in situations that we all can identify with.

The star of the film is Yui Aragaki who is affectionately known as ‘Gakki‘ by her legion of fans. In this film she’s the central character. As the film opens it is in the early 1980’s and a small Japanese girl is reaching upward to the blossoms on the tree. Flash forward to 2005, and we find ourselves tracking a bus as it drives along the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada.

It is then, on this bus, that we meet Gakki as the now adult Sae Hirisawa. An English speaking young girl ask Sae some questions and we find out that she is headed for a lighthouse where she says, “… I am meant to be…”. The camera pans down and we see a framed photo in her hands.

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The Brothers Bloom

The Brothers Bloom came recommended. Most folks like to watch films where someone deserving gets royally fleeced by skilled con-men. Immediately, The Sting, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels come to mind. You know half the fun of a con film is that in most cases, we members of the audience get tricked as well.

We start off with a pair of brothers, kids actually, and they’re already doing cons on other neighborhood kids. There’s Stephen and there’s Bloom – no last names are offered. So early on, we’re shown that this is their nature. If they are jr conmen at this age, there’s no doubt that this will be their future. In fact, they do grow up and become serious con artists – only as adults they play for far greater stakes than the local kids’ lunch money.

We fast forward what looks like 25-30 years and both are now adults – Bloom is played by Adrien Brody, and Stephen is played by Mark Ruffalo. For some reason they dress in black suits, with white shirts, and black hats. Though they don’t act in any way that defines them, nor do they wear yarmulkes, or have the curly peyes which are long, uncut sideburns, they look almost like Hasidim. I don’t think they are but it sure seems like we are supposed to think along those lines.

In due course we find out that they’re very successful conmen. But Brody’s character is tired of their life – he wants out. Stephen says – we do one more, and then we’ll be set. The mark is a single and very eccentric woman worth millions even by a conservative estimate. They’re going to con her into buying a supposed religious artifact.

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Sarah’s Key

An event no one wanted to remember ...

… was the story one woman had to tell.

The film Sarah’s Key is really a couple of interwoven stories that play out between 1942 and the present. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a journalist, Julia Jarmond, who on assignment begins to investigate a dark day in history that was all too real.

Adapted from the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, Sarah’s Key is gripping, and moving. It begins with the Round Up of Parisian Jews in the Marais district of Paris on the evenings of July 16 and 17, 1942. This really happened.

They were collected and held in the Vel’ d’Hiv which was an indoor arena for bicycle racing. The conditions were far worse than deplorable. The people were herded in like cattle – no beds, the few working toilets soon became non-working, and very little water or food. These French Jews didn’t know that they would soon be headed for the extermination camps.

Only the Nazi’s were not the perpetrators. No doubt they were behind this, but this was handled by their minions known as the French Vichy government. Sarah is just a 8 year old girl. Before they were taken from their apartment, Sarah managed to hide her 4 year old younger brother in a secret closet so he wouldn’t be taken away with them – they all thought they be back in a few hours.

Only they never came back.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I caught the early show of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes today. This is the latest iteration – the producers are calling it an origin story which might mean prequel as in source, rather than remake – of the Planet of the Apes franchise. When author Pierre Boulle first conceived of the idea nearly 50 years ago years ago, and penned the novel, it was an idea that caught everyone’s imagination. From the time that Charlton Heston, as an astronaut who crashed landed on an ‘unknown’ planet that was not only inhabited by apes, but apes were the dominant species, until now – the idea remains fascinating.

The major plus is that over the same period of time since the Boulle novel, the technology available to film makers has become marvelous to say the least. The creators of that first P.O.T.A. film back in 1968 had to resort to costumes and make-up. And that my friends is in the history books. You could look it up.

A brief description of the new film tells us: Man’s experiments with genetic engineering leads to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.

Because “Rise” is able to utilize the vastly superior technology available today, and because it has an excellent script, is easily the most advanced, but is also and easily the best of the POTA films ever. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the film just flows along so smoothly that you doesn’t notice the passage of time. There are no dead-spots at all. The action is not only fast and sometimes furious, but seems so well integrated with the intelligent script. You’re going to think that neither the violence or action was created as the basis for a film with a story written around the action, nor was the purpose just to give you a break from a so-so script.

As the film begins we are deep in a forest. We become aware of the presence of apes in the wild. Only they are being hunted. Not to be killed as in sporting game, but to be captured alive, because they’re going to be sold to a giant pharmacology company, Gen-Sys, who needs the primates for research purposes and for the testing of experimental drugs. From the rainforest, fast forward to present day San Francisco, to the campus of Gen-Sys. James Franco plays Will Rodman who heads up the research on ALZ-112 – a still under development or experimental drug that is still being tested. This drug will enable the brain to create new cells in order to cure itself. This wonder drug, if they can get it right, could be the cure for Alzheimer’s.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a brand new movie adapted from Lisa See‘s novel of the same name. Directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club), the film and the novel each tell the same story with one difference. The book concerned itself with two laotong (old sames or friends) beginning at end of the 1820’s.The film tells that story as well as the story of two laotong set in present day Shanghai.

Once I heard about this film, I went out and got a hold of the book. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get very far into the book because the foot-bindings – from the broken bones, to the infections, to the draining pus – was more than I could handle. Having said that, I also must say that over the centuries hundreds of thousands of Chinese women had to endure it physically.

The purpose seems two fold to me – keep the women’s feet small and dainty; no doubt to satisfy the thought that a dainty foot was an ideal that the men of China in those times had.  In those days of arranged marriages, a small foot was considered a plus in attracting a better match. If said marriage might turn out to be brutal – a married woman didn’t have many choices as to where she could go.

Wang chose to portray the emotional intimacy in visuals without words ...

We are women. We are born to leave our families.” But if she had a place to go – getting there on bound feet might make it an impossible task.

Fortunately, in the movie, like the book, the foot-bindings occur very early on – but unlike the book, in the film, there was a distinct brevity to what they showed.

For the most part, even though the foot-bindings occur when the laotong are but 7 year old girls, not that much time is spent on that event. Most of the story is about what happens to them as adult women.

So the film has at its core – the story of the two sworn sisters back in 19th century China. The film also includes two modern day Shanghai women who are also laotong and are the descendents of the 19th century protagonists. Evidently the film makers decided that modern audiences would not want to watch a subtitled period film with no western or English speaking characters. So they grafted on the modern laotong which were not in the book.

Bingbing Li as Lilly and Nina

I should say they wrote a whole new story (the modern girls) and used it to wrap around the inner story of the historic girls. The same actresses played both the modern and the historic characters. Bingbing Li plays modern Nina and Lily, while the Korean actress Gianna Jun portrays historic  Snow Flower and Sophia. On the other hand, Hugh Jackman has a small role. He’s onscreen for about 10 minutes in total in three different scenes. In short he was wasted in this film. I’ll call it a marketing ploy.

The husband admires his new bride's foot

The structure of the film is that Sophia is writing a novel about the laotong from nearly two centuries ago. Nina reads the novel and as she does there are the flashbacks to the olden days. Therein lies the most serious flaw of the film.

Gianna Jun as both Snowflake and Sophia

Because of the separation of the old and new the stories are run parallel. Which means we are cutting back and forth. The result is that both stories are hamstrung by this structure. Each story seems to lack depth, and each of the characters find themselves in circumstances that seemingly haven’t developed. They just happen.

I liked the work of the actresses, and the attention paid to the period details are amazing. For all the talk about the laotong being an unbreakable bond – we will be sisters for 10,000 years – each of the laotong pairs did undergo a separation – not just in a physical sense – but also in a spiritual or emotional sense.

Wang should have given us a thoughtful film, instead we are given short shrift in every sense of the word in story depth. Questions aren’t raised, and without questions there are no answers. The music is not just background. It does help in setting of the moods. As for the visuals – the strongest scenes are those in which each set of the laotong simply huddle close. Words aren’t spoken or even necessary in these moments. Are these a prelude to a sexual encounter? We can’t say for certain. But visually these alone make the film worth seeing.

My final thought is that Wang chose to add the modern girls to the film story. But as each of the stories unfold, we will come to discover that each story is the same and the differences are in the times  when each story is set. Like the fan with messages from each of the girls written on the fan’s inner panels is shown to us again and again, so too is the message across time – we will be sisters forever.

The link below is a background piece featuring the novel’s author Lisa See, who discusses the book and the film.

‘Must See Films’

I remember hearing an expression a long time ago, that to avoid conflict, avoid discussing sex, religion, racial issues, or politics with people you don’t know very well.

It is no secret that these are incendiary topics. What you might not have thought of is that all of them are just different kinds of warfare. Warfare can be physical, mental, or emotional. Wars can be fought between nations, between corporations, or even between as few as two men. Wars have been fought over territorial imperatives, natural resources, ideas, religious beliefs or ideals, or just for the right to be free. But in every situation of warfare, there are victims.

So to cut to the chase, I’m going to present you with a look at some upcoming films that I consider statements about warfare in a variety of situations. Sometimes you hear about upcoming films and that news is exciting. These four future film releases are so good, that their news is especially exciting. In that context I am calling these films Must See Movies.

Our first film is called Red Tails. This film comes to us from George Lucas. You all know him even though he’s only directed six films; he gave us the Stars Wars and Indiana Jones  franchises. Red Tails refers to the color red painted on the tail wing of some of our best fighter planes from the WWII era. The film is inspired by real life events.

To protect the heavens, we’ll fight to the last plane, the last bullet, the last man, the last minute – we fight! We fight! We fight!

The movie is about African-American fighter pilots who for the longest time were denied full entry into the war. The decision was made strictly because of racial bias. But when American heavy bombers started to get shot out of the sky in ever increasing and alarming numbers, something had to be done.

Airmen from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, not only were called in to serve, but were ultimately given orders to fly as escorts on US bombing runs. Their heroic efforts were supremely instrumental in the war’s outcome.

One bomber that’s 10 men. We count our victories by the bombers we get to their targets, by the husbands we return home to their wives, and by the fathers we give back to their children. Red Tails opens on January 20, 2012.

Moving forward historically, let’s have a look at Jackson, Mississippi in 1960’s. The film is called The Help.  The story revolves around a young white woman who wants desperately to become a writer.

Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) talks first to a black woman – Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) – who has been serving as a housekeeper in her best friend’s home for many years. Jackson was just another town in the South where black women served as maids, cooks, housekeepers, and nannies. Though they worked in the homes, helped care for the children or cooked the food that was served, their labors were governed by unwritten codes that were racist and exploitive. Plus the wages were low and the alternatives were few.

At first the maids did not want to talk to Skeeter. But one did, then a few more, then many more. Skeeter was able to write a book on the topic. In the time of the film, Skeeter’s book was a high risk for her.

The film’s tagline is: Change begins with a whisper.

Whether Skeeter’s motives for the book were for her own gain, or to help change the plight of the black maids, or to simply embarrass the people who perpetuated the status-quo of the times, is a question that each viewer will have to answer for themselves after seeing this film, or reading the source book, The Help written by Kathryn Stockett. The film opens on August 10th, 2011.

The Ides of March opens on October 7th, 2011. The film stars George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, and Marisa Tomei. The film is about a US Presidential candidate and a young and iddealistic staffer who works for the candidate’s campaign. The staffer played by Ryan Gosling is going to come face to face with the fact that politics is a dirty business, and is never more so than during the campaign.

The warfare is fought over the votes. If we go all the way back to the days of The Romans, when Senators wore togas instead of pin-striped suits, things were not much different. The main difference is that it took so much longer for the news to get around in those days, and the Roman senators did not have cell phones. These days, the supposed target is still votes, but it is really about money, and power. No matter what – it is still warfare – with winning or losing the election standing in for life or death. However, in politics – winning or losing an election is the life and death struggle over a career.

I’ve always been partial to films about politics – All The President’s Men, The Candidate, Mr. Smith Goes  to Washington, and The Contender come to mind. The Ideas of March was co-written by George Clooney and Grant  Heslove and was adapted from the play by Beau Willimon. I hope this one will join that stellar group.

Our last must see film is still nearly a year away from opening. Battleship is set in the not too distant future. Liam Neeson plays a US Naval Admiral. He commands a fleet of ships that must do battle with an armada of unknown origin.

Without being told, you can gather enough info from the trailer so that you may assume that these new invaders are from someplace other than our own planet. So this is going to be another war where humans fight alien invaders.

I can only hope that this one will be better than Battle: LA which opened and quickly sank from sight earlier this year. Still the trailer – aka global teaser – looks pretty good to some, and yet others already think the film will be a disaster, or pretty bad to others. Based on the trailer.

Based on these trailer, you may take my ‘must see’ label with a grain of salt. I know no more about this film than anyone else. I’ve seen only this trailer. I just feel that I’d like to see this film when it comes out next summer. I felt that way about BLA than decided to not see it.

Of course each of you will decide to see or not see each of these four films. Me? I saw the trailers and made a decision to give you a look at these films.  Are they any good? Will they live up to the hype? Will the box office reap the rewards? I’ve no idea.

Only time, and public opinion will tell. See you at the movies.