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. Movies in Brief
(Fourth quarter, 2008 releases)

Cinema Signal:

The Tree of Life
In what may be an exceedingly wonderful movie for the Volterra family and their circle of friends, Hava, the filmmaker, turns her narrow subject over to the documentary marketplace where it's likely to receive little interest from other families.

While she manages to make connections to a few ancestors of wealth and influence, aided by animated illustrations and amateurish puppet figures, her film doesn't connect to the non-Jewish, non-Italian general viewer--except the most generous and forgiving and the few who are historically disposed. The expenditure of time and money that went into the first-time learning project is aimed at a bit of self-glorification and serves little purpose beyond personal satisfaction. It presents a genealogical chart as a guide to an Italian-Jewish ancestry as it particularly pertains to the Volterras.

It does make an interesting point or two, the most interesting of which is the association of Jews with money which derives from the fact that money-lending was one of the few services that the Jews of the Italian Ghetto were allowed to perform for the gentile country. It isn't by choice or genetic inheritance that Jews and usury are synomymous--a familiar characterization promoted by antagonists.

The historical concentration being on significant Jewish figures in Italian-American history, the relevancy of the subject is aided when Fiorello LaGuardia is briefly featured as the first Jew to hold the position of New York's mayor, the pride of the community.

The family-created footage is edited with a pronounced lack of effective structure or charismatic appeal which, unfortunately, includes the narrative presence of the filmmaker herself. The project comes off as risky for exhibitors who, apparently, see potential in it that I can't quite envision.

Cinema Signal:

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
With an onslaught of footage, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne's memorial to a childhood friend is unrelenting in convincing us of the impact Doctor Andrew Bagby had on his family and circle of friends and medical colleagues. No contest. He sells us on the proposition that Bagby deserves the torrent of two second cuts idolizing the man.

Kuenne combines early stills and home movie clips of his subject with more clips of the grown up adult in contemporary (2001) settings and talking head interviews. Ex-girlfriends and a devoted support group, largely consisting of doctors who were his med school mates are brought to tears in their voluble paeons about the man they knew. For the sake of Andrew's son Zachary, for whom the film is being made, they pretty much extol Andrew as though he were a Nobel Laureate.

He was, in fact, a med student who graduated as an OBGYN doctor and whose tragedy was to get involved with one Shirley Turner, a deranged woman twelve years his senior. When the relationship ran its course the couple split up. Turner left, brooding, and the loose screw in her mental makeup turned lethal. She apparently drove back to western Pennsylvania to see Andrew one last time--a distance of 1600 miles from where she was--and lured him to a meeting in a parking lot where she pumped five rounds into him, killing him instantly. The gunwoman fled the U.S. for St. John's, Canada, where she announced she was pregnant with Andrew's child whom she named Zachary.

Which is when filmmaker Kuenne began his documentary as a way to tell Zachary a few years hence about his beloved father.

While Andrew's killer is held in a Canadian jail awaiting extradition to the U.S., Andrew's grandparents David and Kathleen Bagby negotiate to care for the baby, subject to the mother's oversight, largely by phone. Showing intense devotion, they travel extraordinary distances to provide positive nurturing for their grandchild, seeing to it that Zachary has all he needs to grow up healthy. Meanwhile, the demented mother is a constant source of pseudo-friendly hostility in a daily stream of demands and barely concealed baiting. The Bagby's were in the whirlwind of a criminally insane personality.

And then the unbelievable occurs. In a second tragedy, Turner's therapist springs her with $65,000 bail and she's granted custody of Zachary while continuing to await extradition. What she proceeds to do turns a case of criminality into a definition of twisted subhumanity.

In the end, an excessive homage turns into a justifiable condemnation of the Canadian justice system. One can hardly watch what an unimaginable breakdown of that country's law enforcement and protection of the young cost in loss and sorrow as the tale turns almost too painful to bear.

Cinema Signal:

One is hard put to associate this gloomy picture of marital problems in the Irish Midlands with this title. Even with its last ditch effort to generate hope, Eden is a bit much to reach for.

After 10 years of marriage and two kids, Billy and Breda (rhymes with Rita) Farrell (Aidan Kelly and Eileen Walsh) seem to be sharing a domicile and the reponsibilities of parenting all right, but all signs of intimacy are things of the past. The problem is his and he tries to ignore it. He makes it plain that it's off limits for conversation.

But, he's great with the guys and out almost every night, wifey excluded. An attraction to a sweet young thing--one of his mates' daughters--becomes an obsession. One infers that his sexual repression only applies under his own roof.

After an hour with this morose guy spending his idle hours in boisterous pubs with beer-swilling mates, and with the deeply unsatisfied and baffled wife who is still attractive by most standards, the picture gets into the critical phase when the couple's anniversary approaches and Billy agrees to celebrate it together--for the first time in many a year.

But, while the hope of resolving whatever psychological impediment has caused Billy's frigidity lies more in the eyes of the filmmaker than the viewer, all predictions for things to go bad do. Nothing in Billy's psychological profile suggests otherwise. By the time the final and somewhat falsely built crisis brings things to a possible resolution--requiring the exposure of locked-in emotional secrets--it seems to offer minimal interest and less veracity. The promise of an "Eden" in this couple's future is more than I can buy into.

In fact, this is a story of a psychological phenomenon that might be prevalent in lots of marriages, but as the subject of therapy is avoided and as the filmmakers try to make drama out of its gloomy and banal circumstances, the screenplay, based on writer Eugene O'Brien's "acclaimed" stage play, standard direction by Declan Recks, and the dim appeal the players are allowed, the result is more fatigue than fascination.

One suspects that Walsh has a lot more to offer. She's one to watch.

Cinema Signal:

Adam Resurrected
Another picture of gloom, this time of insanity induced by a man's personal experience of the holocaust. Based on a fictional novel by Yoram Kanium, Noah Stollman's adaptation tells of a Jewish circus entertainer who is brought under the control of Nazi Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe) at Adam's arrival at his concentration camp. Klein recognizes Adam (Jeff Goldblum) from his performing days and sees the possibilities of personal entertainment. Crazed and sociopathic, the sturmfeuhrer transfers his own insanity to Adam by making him play a dog, 24/7, which Adam is only too glad to do if it will mean the safety of his family.

Though the status of his wife and children aren't made known to him throughout his ordeal, it spares him from the gas chamber. But the cost is heavy in Adam's mental deterioration and, when we see him as a war survivor in the present time, he's being apprehended by orderlies from the asylum from which he had just escaped. They return him there in handcuffs.

Their long drive takes them into the desert where the institution is surrounded by miles of barren waste. He returns a virtual hero into the bosom of his fellow inmates, chief among them sexy chief nurse Gina Grey (Ayelet Zurer, "Vantage Point," "Munich") who is Adam's willing and slightly aggressive roll in the hay; and head man Dr. Nathan Gross (Derek Jacobi) who minds his recalcitrant house genius Adam with a velvet hand.

As Adam fits back into the routine and the not-so-routine of the institution, his prison years unfold in flashback, as well as his post-war return to Israel with his stuttering derangement intact. He now contends with the images of his debasement and his madness with his innate intellect and critical faculties. He goes postal when a dog bark alerts him to the presence of an animal he has pronounced as forbidden. But even though this new barking thing hiding under sheets bites his hand, it isn't a canine at all. It's a new inmate who could only have responded to Adam's attentiveness and particular understanding.

All of which might have been a touching story of deep irony if director Paul Schrader's approach didn't suffer from a abrupt-cut editing style, from Goldblum's erratic delivery, and from a narrative made difficult by a considerable amount of confusion in an effort to convey the disorientation at its story center.

Cinema Signal:

The Class (aka, Entre les murs)
Through a technique of exhaustive improvisation and rehearsal, director Laurent Cantet conditioned a classroom of 13-years olds of mixed ethnic and racial derivation to ignore cameras for the sake of unguarded spontaneity. It's so well done you'll find it hard to accept it's not a documentary.

As each student challenges the efforts of a dedicated English teach they reveal a spectrum of attitudes, fears and relative capability--a representative cross-section of student stock from Marseille to East L.A.

Cantet and writer Francois Begaudeau's unparalleled achievement sets a standard that make the normally controlled and scripted school drama like ""Dangerous Minds" (Michelle Pfeiffer), "Freedom Writers" (Hilary Swank), "Pay It Forward" (Kevin Spacey), "The Chorus" (Cl‚ment Mathieu) and, even, artificial against this resemblance to schoolroom reality.

Contributing mightily to that is Francois Begaudeau who, besides writing the book and the screenplay, takes the role of an indefatigable teacher for whom there must be an award or trophy for endurance. His classroom portrayal is never less than fully engaged, making his daily lessons for a roomful of combative pupils feel like 10 rounds in the boxing ring. His determination to jam some learning down the throats of the unwilling, the constantly doubting, and the rebellious is a lesson in preparation, diligence, and provocation--without ego or superiority--for each child to use the organ between their ears to think.

Though, for dramatic purposes, this role model of a teacher ultimately is brought to say something that can be interpreted with inflammatory consequences, the method depicted should be assigned to teachers everywhere to see and emulate.

But the first assignment is for audiences and filmmakers to register what can be achieved by way of vivid, naturalistic and intuitive performance by first-time actors of this age group -- under the right direction. This one gave "The Class" class.

Cinema Signal:

While She Was Out
If you didn't know it or never thought about it, an academy award doesn't guarantee an actor work. Kim Basinger, whose work since "L.A. Confidential" has been sporadic, is here to tell you. Yes, she's been in 11 films since 1997, but some years have been dry.

Which is only to suggest a reason why she may have been willing to lend her good rep and lots of physical effort to material as unsatisfying as this. As Della, a suburban housewife with a brute for a husband (Craig Sheffer) who gets waylaid by four gangbangers who shoot a mall rent-a-cop and send her running for her life through the woods, it's an unending chase-revenge melodrama with damn near no subtlety or dimension.

It does get some rocks off for an adolescent audience with the femme side especially primed to appreciate the manner in which this lone woman fends herself off from her pursuers, and manages to... well, let's not give too much away.

First-time writer-director Susan Montford's dialogue is somewhere between kindergarten and 1st grade, matching its simplistic plot based on a short story by Edward Bryant. It never is explained why Della's house is littered with the toys and dirty clothing of her twins, giving hubby good reason to shout at her but meant only to establish him as the bad guy at home. Poor woman, she loves her kids but what makes her tick?

Lukas Haas ("Alphadog") is her co-star as the chief gun-totin' baddie who has named himself Chuckie, in a role to enhance his villain creds but with little to recommend him. The only truly and intentionally funny thing, after the unending credits for executive producers, is the humor in the understatement of the title. Kudos to whoever came up with it.

For more reviews, please use these links:
Cinema Signals Master List
Cinema Signals Alphabetical List
Movies in Brief, 2007)
Movies in Brief, 2008 1st Quarter
Movies in Brief, 2008 2nd Quarter
Movies in Brief, 2008 3rd Quarter

Movies in Brief, 2009 1st Quarter

The Tree of Life
Dear Zachary
Adam Resurrected
The Class
While She Was Out

     ~~  Jules Brenner  
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