Movies

Perdóname

“How’s your Spanish?” Alan Rickman’s Jamie asks Juliet Stevenson’s Nina in Truly, Madly, Deeply. What follows (clip below) is one of the most poignant scenes ever captured on film, in which Rickman recites a section of the Pablo Neruda poem, “La Muerta.”

When I first saw the movie in 1990, I was alone in the theater (it was a weekday matinée and I was playing hooky from somewhere). It was a good thing I was on my own, though, since I wept so openly and so unashamedly throughout the entire movie that I am sure I would have alarmed anyone sitting nearby. Since then, I have seen the film many times, and each time I have cried until my eyes were nearly swollen shut.

It is the finest film I know about grieving, and, while the screenplay is superb, it is the acting that sets it apart. Stevenson’s work is sublime, but here I wish to say something about Alan Rickman, who died yesterday at 69 of cancer. An extraordinarily gifted actor, he had the capacity to find in himself, and share, a very deep humanity.

In his role as Jamie, he plays a ghost who returns to his beloved so he can somehow lessen her outsized grief. It is no easy task to persuade an audience that you have come back from the dead to comfort your stricken lover, but Rickman manages to infuse his character with such deep feeling that I could not help but believe absolutely that he was as real, as vulnerable, and as flawed as I was.

If only he could return to us one more time with a few words of comfort while we mourn his very great loss.

(For a Spanish/English version of Neruda’s “La Muerta,” click here.)

A boatload of ★ s for the film A Hijacking

Hijacking

The 2012 Danish film A Hijacking (Kapringen), which I watched recently on Netflix, is, hands down, one of the best movies I remember seeing. Filmed in the Indian Ocean aboard an actual ship, the movie centers around the hijacking of a Danish cargo vessel by Somali pirates; yet, it is more a movie about how we come to measure the worth of a human life than it is about a particular hijacking and ransom demand, and it is more a movie about “us” than it is about “them” as we are compelled from the opening scene on to examine our preconceived ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral.

Søren Malling is mesmerizing in his nuanced performance as Peter, CEO of the company that owns the commandeered ship. A crisp, lean businessman and a master negotiator with a steeliness that might have rendered him a one-dimensional boor were he to have been played by a less-accomplished actor, Malling’s Peter is instead a man of compassionate, albeit conflicted, feeling who is forced by impossible circumstances to make impossible choices.

These painful choices, which include dragging out the negotiations for four months with the pirates’ negotiator Omar, never seem to be motivated by self-interest or greed though. Even when he behaves badly, as he does when he screams at his devoted wife to leave the office, we understand that his outburst comes from utter fatigue and can imagine that afterwards he will likely suffer immeasurably for this lapse into cruelty.

Similarly, Omar—played deftly by Abdihakin Asgar—defies pigeonholing. One moment, he is a menacing and sadistic terrorist; the next he is a shrewd businessman who is embroiled in the dirty affair because he needs to feed his family. The same is true for Peter’s negotiator, Connor, who, dressed in a disorienting Berkeley sweatshirt, never becomes the cold manipulator we would not be wrong to expect. Instead, Gary Skjoldmose-Porter, a real-life hostage negotiator without much, if any, acting experience, brings to the role an understated nobility and pathos.

To reflect the enormous strain the characters feel over the course of months, director Tobias Lindholm has created a movie that is ice-floe slow, claustrophobic, grimly realistic, and edge-of-the-seat suspenseful. Not once does he kowtow to an audience’s baser appetite for bloody violence, slick action, or glib answers to unanswerable questions.

Watch this interesting YouTube interview with Lindholm and Malling.

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“Hideously beautiful”

Scarlett Johansson Under the SkinJonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin is not for everyone, but, once seen, it seeps and settles.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the alien femme fatale who is somehow birthed onto the west coast of Scotland for the apparent sole purpose of hunting down lonely men in her white Ford Transit and luring them back to her dark, oozy flat. What she does with them once there we cannot know for sure, but evisceration seems to be a part of it.

Yet trying to understand its precise meaning is a fool’s errand because the power of the movie is in the evocative: in the dark, rainy streetscapes; in the dialogue that sounds sieved through gauze; in the menacing soundtrack that is like “a locust plague of dry tremolos, the strings pressing down until the sound has reached a roar.”

Or in a startling erection, a hand pierced by a rose thorn, a vacant stare above blood-red lips, a rapist gone silent and scared.

What is most potent about Under the Skin, though, is its insistence on showing us at every turn the terrible and terrifying power of sex — a power we little understand, and one that awakens in us that which is at once alien and deeply human.

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It’s a matter of chemistry

Reel TalkI’ve been to three of the four Reel Talk events hosted so far by ReCreative Spaces, a dynamic organization dedicated to building community by offering “short-term, arts-oriented programming in unused, under-used, and unlikely spaces” throughout the DC Metro Area.

Each time I’ve come away with the sense that something very important had taken place for all who attended, something to do with building a better world a handful of people at a time.

The series offers participants a unique opportunity to watch a feature-length film on a topic of social importance—such as the impact of global warming on the planet or the effects of poverty on children—and then to engage in thoughtful, free-ranging conversation about it with the goal of articulating some concrete steps they might take to bring about positive change in their communities. At the heart of each event is a delicious meal prepared lovingly by a local chef—a meal that helps those attending forge new or deeper friendships with the others.

Something very special happened at last week’s Reel Talk, though, that made it stand out for me, something to do with a subtle chemistry at work. First, there was the dynamic Emily Arden—co-founder with John Kagia of ReCreative Spaces—and her capacity to make magic wherever she goes. Next, there was the exquisite, and exquisitely simple, meal prepared by Chef Tim Meadows of Nurish Food & Drink, which is located in the Anacostia Arts Center and which is where the event was held. Then, there was the movie itself, A Place at the Table, which offers an unflinching look at hunger in the US and sheds light on the fact that one in four children doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. Last, there was just the right mix of thoughtful, creative, articulate, socially conscious people with the heart and will to foster change.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on any of us that we were eating such a special, nutritious meal while children not far from where we sat were going without supper. But, this fact seemed to bring us closer to one another and to open up the possibility that we might find a way to reach out and to help the hungry children in our very own neighborhoods.

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Life is a frolic

The dancing satyr

For the past few weeks I have been visited occasionally by what I can only describe as a half-heavenly image of a flying-haired, bushy-eyebrowed satyr — were he to be crossed with Nigel Hawthorne’s mad King George in a diaphanous nightdress.

Sensual in substance and form, the apparition involves a meadow romp in which he and I are holding hands and dancing round and round in a clockwise circle. Knees high. Laughter spilling. So ineffably a thing of the spirit, I dare not write too much about it for fear it will not wish to return. Still, I can see that it is a signpost pointing me in the direction of my earthly future, one in which I throw off the notion that life is a vale of tears and I am its wailing wall.

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Yo is me

note on windshield

Some weeks back, I discovered a note on the windshield. “Yo dipshit,” it began. “Next time leave me some room to get into my car!” As if I had purposefully parked to annoy. I was only for a moment incensed at having been  misunderstood and wrongly accused. Then, I found I wanted to plead my case: “but…but…but.” Then, I thought about mortality and eternity. And how we humans, the very smallest of dipshits all, get so much so wrong so often. I, myself, have been known to leave angry, judgmental epistles on others’ windshields—always certain that, whatever the trespass, it had come about through intentional inconsideration. I am very hard on others—but no harder than I am on myself.

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On body odor and forrest surpassed

karl pilkington

I wasn’t sure what to make of Karl Pilkington when I first encountered him on the Ricky Gervais Show. As sidekick to the giggly, unapologetically mean Gervais, Pilkington (or his persona) seemed too much of a whiny ruminator—even for me. But, having watched him evolve through his travel documentary An Idiot Abroad, which aired last year on Science, and now through his The Moaning of Life, which aired this month on the same channel, I’ve warmed to his deadpan crankiness.

In his new series, Pilkington globe-trots once again, this time to see how different cultures approach what he calls “life’s major events.” In the first episode, he attempts to understand why people have children; in the second, he sets out to determine how people achieve happiness; in the third, he tries to discover more about how—and why—people marry.

In this most recent episode on marriage, Pilkington travels to Los Angeles, among other places, where he attends a “Pheromone Party” and meets up with young singles intent on finding partners who pass the sniff test. The idea for the gathering is goofy-seeming: sleep in the same t-shirt for three nights; place it in a plastic bag and freeze it; bring it to the get-together, where it will be numbered as well as coded for the wearer’s sex (pink or blue); and let prospective mates stick their noses in the baggies, inhaling deeply as they do. When they hit on an odor they like, participants stand in front of a projector and hold up the marked baggie in the hope its owner will claim it.

Then I thought that perhaps it wasn’t so wacky after all since, to survive, humans, like other animals, live by their wits and follow their noses. I thought, too, about how my own sense of smell drives my life—and always has done. How many times have I run from a public place, for example, because I was overwhelmed by smoke or perfume or smells of rancid food? And, how many men have I welcomed into my life, or turned out, because of a sweat or a cologne that made me swoon, or gag.

And, just a few words about the movie Captain Phillips, which has received several Academy Award nominations this year, including one for best picture and one for best supporting actor. I didn’t have very high expectations, thinking wrongly that it would be a Hollywood blockbuster bent on exploiting the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates. But, in fact, it was an extraordinary film. Barkhad Adbi’s nuanced performance as the pirates’ leader managed to inspire in me both terror and compassion. And, though he wasn’t nominated for the best actor award (but should have been), Tom Hanks, as the captain, gives a performance that transcends anything he has done to date. You won’t want to miss it.

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