Tag Archives: 2011

Way late review: Footnote


When a son walks in his father’s footsteps it can be a point of pride or sadness for the father. Depending on whether the father is satisfied with his own life dictates his reaction to his son following in his footsteps. But what about the father who is proud of his accomplishments and has a son who not only follows in his footsteps but eclipses his accomplishments? And what happens to their relationship when all of a sudden the father receives an award the son covets? Enter Footnote.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) researches the Talmud. Scratch that. He picks through every version and copy he can get his hands in an obsessive compulsive manner in the name of scholarship. He dives into the minutia of ancient texts and rarely comes up for air. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is a professor at the same university in Jerusalem but his studies are more popular, well received, and recognized. Eliezer is bitter of his son’s fame and respect by the community they’re both a part of. He even goes as far as to ridicule their academic community as a way to make himself feel better about never receiving the accolades he feels he’s earned. Uriel does his best to placate his dad by giving him credit at acceptance speeches and elsewhere. This only embitters Eliezer all the more. He doesn’t like being patronized.

A bitter father and son relationship does not sound like comedy gold yet the story is told with much wit. The music sets the tone early as a classical comedic soundtrack. Even the sour faces Eliezer makes are funny as everyone around him celebrates his son’s accomplishments. His disheveled look among the well dressed awards crowd is meant for laughs, as Eliezer is denied access back into the event while numerous other more finely dressed participants stroll through the door. Not even security is buying Elizer as anything but an old man who wants to cause trouble.

The one sided bitterness changes quickly once Eliezer gets a call telling him he’s being awarded the Israel Prize, the one prize alluding Eliezer for the past twenty years. He finally obtains it and in a moment the tables are turned. The son is back at the footstool of the father. The same father who would only begrudgingly acknowledge his son’s work, let alone achievements. If this was the entire story it would be an entertaining look at how the relationship evolves between these two men whose lives revolve around a religious text neither appears to have fully grasped. However, there is a major twist which causes awkward conversations and difficult decisions. Once this twist occurs, the film shifts suddenly from light comedic fodder to a darker introspective piece. It’s as if two films were smashed together, both very good but also very different.

Great performances and an intriguing story of a father-son relationship carry Footnote through a first half which provides many laughs and a second half which expresses the deep hurt a long and painful father and son journey inevitably delivers. An original film told in an originally, if not jarring manner. Refreshing.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: We Bought a Zoo

I’ve seen about half a dozen Cameron Crowe films. One thing they all share in common is they tend to be easy watches. Even when I’m not in love with the film, there is something soothing about Crowe’s approach. We Bought a Zoo is a fairly harmless film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Perfect material for Crowe to throw his personally curated soundtrack at, assemble an all-star cast, and churn out a likable, if somewhat forgettable, film.

Benjamin (Matt Damon) lost his wife about six months ago. He has a young daughter, Rosie, who reminds him of his wife and a teenage son, Dylan, who reminds Benjamin of himself. Dylan is angry and hurt over the loss of his mom. His behavior at school results in expulsion and puts the pressure on Benjamin to find a new school for his suddenly troubled teen to attend. House hunting time. The search for a new home leads Benjamin to a perfect house out in the Southern California country side. There is one catch. The sale of the home is contingent on the new owner taking care of the zoo that sits on the home’s property. That gotcha clause doesn’t deter Rosie from falling in love with the animals as they walk the grounds. Dad is an adventurer at heart, wants to make his daughter happy, and thinks his son may enjoy the change of pace. He buys a zoo and the challenges of funding and running the venture ensue along with the on-going struggle to come to grips with life after losing a wife and mother.

The plot may seem eye rolling, but no one can blame Crowe or anyone else involved for making up the core premise. We Bought a Zoo is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee. I have my doubts that Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bob Dylan tunes accompanied the real life story. I also doubt the zoo keeper was a gorgeous blonde with a raspy voice like Scarlett Johansson. The facts have all changed right from the start with the true story set in the UK while this one is in Southern California. None of this matters. What does matter is the characters are engaging enough and the story moves along at a steady pace as to forget the trite scenes of emotional tug-of-war the premise nearly demands. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.

We Bought a Zoo is one of those films I could probably pop in and pickup at any random point. There is nothing outstanding about it. The cast is enjoyable, the pacing is good, there are some humorous scenes and not too many cringe worthy ones. The music is hand picked from the past and sometimes a little too spot on. In other words, it’s a Cameron Crowe film. And that tends to mean I like it more than I thought I would.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: A Separation

Films set in a different culture than your own can be challenging. What is familiar to those entrenched in the culture can seem odd to those looking from the outside in. The outsider views the film from one angle while those on the inside may see it quite different. Enter A Separation, an Iranian film set in modern day Iran and me set in modern day USA.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are husband and wife. How long they will be married is in question from the first scene. Shot from the view of the judges chair, Simin pleads with the judge to grant her a divorce since she claims her husband agreed to leave the country with her over a year ago. The paperwork is done and now he won’t leave. Nader says he can’t leave his father, who suffers from the later stages of Alzheimer’s. He also won’t give permission for Simin to take their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her. Simin argues that his father doesn’t even know who Nader is anymore so there is no difference in who takes care of him. Not the most sensitive argument ever made. The dialogue flies fast and furious as one might expect under such conditions. Keeping up with the sub-titles can be a challenge.

The couple stay married while Simin moves in with her parents. She says she intends to leave the country, with or without her family. Nader is then put in a tough situation. He can’t leave his father on his own during the day so he scrambles and finds someone to care for him. This leads to a long, twisted road of decisions impacting lives in unexpected ways. The viewpoints of those on each side of the issue are taken into account making it hard to take sides. Empathy is felt for all yet it’s discomforting. I was reminded of a quieter, more nuanced Changing Lanes. If there are any missteps it’s in being so procedural, the film loses some of its emotional impact in the last act.

The Iranian court system is on full display. Is it an accurate portrayal? I don’t know. But the intimate view of the court is fascinating to observe. There are times when it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional film, often due to the authentic acting which drives every moment.

An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn’t provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Margaret

I used to wonder what happened to Kenneth Lonergan, director of a film I adore, You Can Count on Me. It’s been roughly a dozen years since that near masterpiece of a film was released. Apparently Longergan was in a bit of a mess with Fox Searchlight over his next film which was shot in 2005. That film, Margaret finally found its way out in a very limited theater release in 2011. And in 2012 I finally got to see it.

The plot driving Margaret is rather simple. A high school girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), witnesses a bus accident she feels she was at least partially at fault for. Lisa then struggles to deal with the aftermath. Rather straightforward yet the layers are many. The people weaving in and out of Lisa’s life, some right through the core and others on the periphery, are numerous. Scenes from one story line cut abruptly into another.

Lisa is an unlikable character. Before the accident wrecks havoc on her, she is shown to be manipulative. In fairness, the adults in her lives aren’t exactly role models. Her math teacher (Matt Damon) proves to cross the line from caring to creepy. Her dad is on the other coast and is so passive in his moments on screen that it makes Lisa look like a competent decision maker. Lisa’s mom is a broadway actress who takes care of Lisa and her brother in New York City but most of the film shows the young grade school boy fending for himself. He seems to enter and leave the house on a whim. Lisa does the same.

Margaret attempts to examine the lives of those in and around Lisa’s life. There are powerful scenes mixed throughout, the problem becomes the thin thread that holds it all together. The film could have been five hours long and only scratched the surface of the many topics and themes hinted at throughout the theatrical cut. The editing seems frantically disjointed at times as characters flash on the screen and then sometimes don’t reappear until much later, if at all.

In between all the chaos is Lisa’s attempt at ensuring justice is served to the bus driver behind the wheel of the accident. She goes from traumatized teenager to a justice crusader. We’re never sure if she is sincere about her pursuit of justice or simply thriving off the drama. Even the best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), of the victim confronts Lisa on the motives behind Lisa’s sudden interest in making a case. The interactions between Emily and Lisa are tense. But as tense and as strong as those moments are, they never reach a resolution that is satisfying one way or the other.

A two and a half hour sprawling drama centered on a generally unlikeable character does not sound appealing. Oddly enough it’s also not a chore, thanks mostly to director and writer Kenneth Lonergan’s penchant for writing scenes that more than hold interest. Margaret is at least two very good films hiding inside one good one. A strange formula but fitting for a film with such a struggle in getting a final release.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Interrupters

Access is everything. At least it is for many documentaries, where the level of access they get to their subjects plays a large role in the success or failure of the film. Director Steve James gets unbelievable access to those he covers on the streets of Chicago in his film The Interrupters.

CaseFire is a Chicago based group determined to stop the violence that ruins their neighborhoods. Many of the staff are former gang members who have served time in prison and some earned notoriety for their antics on the streets. The goal of these interrupters is to intercede before violence erupts. They do not aim to solve all the world’s problems. Their goal is simple yet tragically complex. Stop the violence. The film closely follows a few members of CeaseFire as they go about their work and along the way a picture of who they are and who they help is developed in a sometimes painful manner. There is little rest for those who find themselves locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

There is no shortage of deeply emotional material and yet the rough edges are never avoided. The easy way out for Steve James would have been to make the CeaseFire crew saviors on the mean streets, with those they “save” serving as mere victims. Instead he allows both those who interrupt the violence and those who are creating it tell their story. They tell it in interviews as they reflect on their past and in the midst of the action. The stories told and shown are frustrating, heartbreaking, filled with anger and spite as well as love and care. No one comes out unscathed.

A film dealing with inner city violence can’t help but avoid the political implications. And while the politics are touched upon, James wisely keeps his focus on the deeply personal examination of those his camera hones in on. There are no easy answers given. Any politician given screen time comes off as rather out of touch in comparison to the reality on display.

Sad stories permeate with only glimpses of hope. Those who do their jobs as part of CeaseFire appear driven by a need for redemption. Their lives have always been mixed up in the sad stories. Instead of intervening as they do now, in the past they were causing the sadness. Now their perception of reality is different. The reaction is not to lash out in anger but rather to help as many people stuck in their old way of life as they can. The dangerous situations this desire causes are numerous. We learn that only one interrupter has ever been shot doing the work. We briefly meet that gentleman in his hospital bed when Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, visits. Up until this moment Tio comes off as a confident leader hell bent on making his organization’s goal a reality. Seeing one of his people in significant pain after being shot in the back and foot, causes this strong man to break out of his motivational speaker mode and into that of a teary eyed father who realizes the young man on the bed is around the same age of his sons.

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.