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Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

This is a frankly feel-good movie, one that promises that dreams can come true. It is based on a  novel, one of a series by Paul Gallico, featuring the protagonist, Mrs. Harris, a cleaning woman  in London in the late nineteen forties. Its theme seems an odd one for the author.

I had first become aware of him while he was a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the  late nineteen thirties. Gallico was quirky then, known for gimmicks like getting in the ring with  Jack Dempsey—who knocked him out in two minutes. Gallico was also notorious for his racial  slurs, less remarkable in that era, and his mockery of tennis players, golfers and women  athletes.

But as a writer, Gallico had a keen sense of what sells, what people like to read, and he later  became famous for his novels. In his usual acerbic way he said of himself, “I’m a rotten novelist.  I’m not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories….” This movie showcases that talent.

Mrs. Harris is a war-widowed London cleaning woman, someone who has an upbeat personality and a generous soul. As the movie follows her moving from house to house in her cleaning  assignments, we watch her straightening out messes created by her customers with her perky  nature never flagging. One of her clients is an exploitative, self-centered upper class woman  who, while falling behind in her cleaning woman’s payments, has managed to purchase an  original Dior evening gown. Mrs. Harris becomes enraptured with its beauty and determines to  buy one for herself, scrimping to scrape up its cost— five hundred pounds.

She journeys to Paris and visits Dior’s haute couture establishment introducing us to its over- privileged clientele, the front of the store toadies, and the behind the scenes slavies whose  labor underpins the establishment. Mrs. Harris’ sunny persistence permits her to surmount the  social biases that characterize the establishment and make her dream of acquiring a Dior original come true. In a subplot, she meets and wins the heart, though not the hand, of a French nobleman.

Returning with her prize to London, and before she has an opportunity to wear the gown to the  local dance hall, she foolishly lends the gown to one of her clients, a thoughtless showgirl  striving to sleep her way to success. The budding starlet manages to stain and burn the dream  gown beyond any possibility of repair. The ruin of this marvel of fashion catches the attention of the sensational press and a picture of the starlet wearing the ruined garment makes the front  pages.

Mrs. Harris’ Parisian acquaintances thus learn of the unhappy event and send a replacement to  her, one even more wonderful that its predecessor.

Gallico may call himself a lousy writer, but he knows how to tell a story that people want to  ear, read and see. This movie is incontrovertible proof of that. I guarantee that. If you are wondering
what became of her French admirer, I won’t tell you. If and when you see the film, you will see  why.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

Spring break at the University of Texas at Austin has become the occasion for a conglomeration  of presentations of interactive media, music and films called South by Southwest. Five films  were featured at the 2022 festival. One, Everything Everywhere All At Once, dominated the  awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), Best Actress  (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Best Screenplay (The “Daniels” again) and Best Indie Film.

I watched the film on Amazon Prime. It’s a wild, wild ride. Over two hours of special effects whipping the viewer through multiple alternate universes of the same set of characters and a complex set of realities threatened by possible total collapse of the entire multi-verse system  being sucked into the black hole of a cosmic everything bagel.

That blend of self-mockery and high style science fiction physics is a heady blend that kept me  engaged for the two-hours plus screening.

The film has three parts. In the first part we meet  Evelyn Wong, who with her husband,  Waymond, run a laundromat struggling with an IRS audit, cultural conflicts with their teenage  daughter, Joy, who wants them to accept her lesbian attachment to a non-oriental partner,  topped off by an impending visitor from China, Evelyn’s highly traditional and very critical father, Cong Gong.

While Waymond and Evelyn are meeting with the IRS auditor,cwho is irritated and impatient  with Evelyn’s disorganized stacks of papers, Waymond’s body is taken over by a visitor, Alpha Waymond, from another universe, called the Alphaverse. He tries to explain to a bewildered  Evelyn that the people of the Alpha universe have developed techniques to jump from one  universe to another. Alpha Evelyn’s daughter, Alpha Joy, driven to excessive verse-jumping by  her mother, now has a splintered mind. She has become Jobu Tupaki and can verse jump and  manipulate physical matter at will. She has also created the everything bagel that has the  potential to destroy the entire multiverse.

Alpha Waymond believes that Evelyn, the least impressive of the many Evelyns in the  multiverse, has the potential to defeat Jobu Tupaki. Alpha Cong Gong urges Evelyn to kill Joy in  order to disable Jobu Tupaki. Evelyn, however, decides that she must verse-jump in order to  acquire the ability to confront Jobu Tupaki directly. In a series of jumps Evelyn battles minions of both Jobu Tupaki and Alpha Cong. When Alpha Waymond is killed by Jobu Tupaki, Evelyn’s mind splinters.

In part 2, Evelyn discovers a variety of strange universes. She finally defeats the minions of both  Alpha Cong Gong and Jobu Tupaki, not with a display of her mastery of martial arts. Recalling an occasion on which Waymond had called for kindness and hope, she defeats her enemies by  empathic openness to the source of their pain, thereby offering them relief.

In part three, we revisit the family in their home universe and find them, not transformed, but  more content.

In one sense, this film feels like a revved up romantic comedy. The characters are more flawed than admirable, and boy loses girl, finds girl. It adds a dollop of L. Frank Baum.  Dorothy, too, wanders into the surreal wonderland of Oz, defeating evil witches, only to learn there’s no place like home

Cyrano

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

The heroic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, has had a  remarkable impact. Coquelin starred in the original 1897 stage version at Theatre de la Port  Saint-Martin in Paris. His performance was a triumph; the audience applauded for over an hour  after the final curtain. The enthusiasm led to a yearlong run for the play, and then beginning in 1900, ten subsequent movie versions, the first of which also starred Coquelin.

Anna Freud has  been quoted as saying that, because of its focus on altruism, selfless devotion to others, the  play was her favorite drama. I don’t have any knowledge of her father’s view of Rostand’s play,  but the phenomenon of altruism got its first formal study in psychoanalytic circles in a 1912  paper by Sabina Spielrein, one of the first women psychoanalysts; her view was that love of another, because it is not self-centered, has a masochistic element. Freud acknowledged that  Spielrein’s paper led him to a major revision of his theories: the introduction of a death instinct  in balance with the life instinct of Eros.

The most recent version of Rostand’s play is the 2021  musical romantic drama film, Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright and adapted from Rostand’s play  by Erica Schmidt. Cyrano is played by Peter Drinklage and his beloved Roxanne by Haley  Bennett.

The basic plot echoes its original. The beautiful Roxanne is loved from afar by a Cyrano who is a gifted author and a swordsman to be feared but who sees himself as too ugly to be  loveable. Roxanne falls in love with Christian de Neuvillette, handsome but inarticulate, on the  eve of his joining Cyrano’s troop of musketeers. Roxanne, who has known Cyrano from childhood, begs Cyrano to be Christian’s mentor and protector.

Cyrano stage manages  Christian’s courtship, arranging a hasty marriage that frustrates the effort of the regiment’s  commander to win Roxanne. The enraged commander orders his men to the front in an  ongoing war. On the eve of a final battle, Cyrano ghost-writes a farewell to Roxanne. When  Christian dies in the battle, Cyrano leaves the letter on his compatriot’s body and it finds its way  to his widow, Roxanne. Grief stricken, she consigns herself to a convent, where for three years,  Cyrano pays her a weekly visit. Fatally injured in an assassination attempt, Cyrano makes a final  visit to Roxanne, reminding her of her promise to let him read the farewell purportedly written by Christian. When as night falls, he continues to read the letter aloud in darkness, Roxanne  realizes he, not Christian is its author, and, as Cyrano dies, she announces her love for him: “I have loved but one man in my life, and I have lost him twice.”

This latest revision of the story is  recast as a musical, complete with intricate and complex song and dance scenes. Though they  provide a gauzy, surreal element, they also blunt the intensity of the story’s tragic elements. The film also seems to be a response to the movie industry’s current concerns about lack of  inclusivenesss. The members of Cyrano’s troop are racially diverse. And two of the central characters, Christian and Le Bret, Cyrano’s boon companion, are persons of color. Drinklage,  who plays Cyrano, is a dwarf. His achondroplasia replaces the focus on the large nose sported  by Cyrano’s real life original and represented, sometimes exaggerated, in all the preceding  versions of Rostand’s play. I found myself wondering whether Anna Freud’s focus on altruism  might be blurred by a secondary focus on wokeness.

Previous versions focused on Cyrano’s  white plume. In Rostand’s original French, the word for white plume is panache. Panache has  multiple meanings in French: in addition to referring to a feathered adornment, it can mean style, referring to clothing or modes of behavior. So in his dying words in earlier versions,  Cyrano’s focus on his white plume can be a reference to the role he chose to play. Drinklage’s dying Cyrano talks about pride, not about his white plume.

Nevertheless, in those final moments, as Cyrano died and Roxanne’s loss was doubled, tears came to my eyes.

Cow

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

From Ida Tarbell’s exposé of Standard Oil, to Upton Sinclair’s critical exploration of the plight of  packing house workers, to Ralph Naders’ blistering attack on automakers, America has a rich  tradition of what has become called “muckraking.” Some will see Andrea Arnold’s documentary  debut, the 2021 movie Cow as in that genre, but I would think that a mistake. It has a visceral  punch and evokes a  strong reaction, but it is not a protest film. It is a tour de force, however,  on many levels. Just released to movie houses, I watched it on Amazon Prime.

Strikingly, there is almost no dialogue in this film. It is a biography of a cow, Luma, centered on  the birth of two of her seven calves. We hear only scraps of conversation among the employees  of the English dairy farm housing Luma. They address their bovine charges as “good girl,” and  manage their comings and goings without the electric cattle prods seen in some settings. But  Arnold gives us an unsparing, honest look at the muck and mud and blood of the setting.

We watch Luma’s strenuous birth labor, and the tug of war winching out of her calves. We see  her placenta dangling afterwards. We watch her next impregnation, the climax of which,  jarringly, is accompanied by a pictorial burst of fireworks.

Most viewers will resonate to Luma’s tender ministrations to her newborn calves, and be  harmed by the offspring’s’ tottering responses and nuzzling of her mother. They will also feel  stirred by Luma’s lowing when the calf and her mother are separated by the need for Luma to  be returned to the cycle of artificial machine milking. That highlights one of the major contrasts  of this documentary, that between living flesh and blood and the clangor and efficiency of  machines on the other: incompatibles inextricably interwoven in Luma’s story and in human  lives.

Another element of the film that seemed important was the British pop music soundtrack. It  struck me at times like an ironic comment on the action. But I came to regret my lack of  familiarity with that material.

An intriguing issue posed by this film is its documentary “fly on the wall” self-presentation. The  dairy workers give no evidence of being aware of the process of filming, of interacting in any  way with the filming crew. And yet the cameras and crew must have been making an  impression on the workers, and, indeed, of influencing in some way their behavior.

As a biography of Luma it must end with her death, the details of which I will not reveal. There  is, however, an afterword. We watch Luma’s second calf going down a path that will echo Luma’s.

Andrea Arnold’s first two feature films, Fish Tank and American Honey, earned awards at Cannes. Cow will further burnish her reputation.

I’m Your Man

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

This self-described Rom Com surprises with its wit, and its depth. The frothy wit with which it  abounds is contrasted by flashes of tragic despair.

German written and acted, with subtitles, directed by Maria Schrader, it more than merits its many awards. The female lead, Maria Egert, won Best Acting Award in the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. At the 2021 German Film Awards, Egert was named Best Actress; the  male lead, Dan Stevens, Best Male Actor; and Schrader, Best Director.

Egert plays the role of  Alma, a career-focused archeologist, seeking evidence of poetic writing in ancient relics. In  pursuit of funding for her research team, she reluctantly agrees to serve as a subject in another  study, one that explores the feasibility of using humanoid robots programed to adaptively modify their behavior, as humans’ companions. She is to cohabit with a robot, Tom, for an  extended period of time, and to evaluate the experience.

At a fanciful party where many of the attendees are holograms, Alma, while giddily brushing  through hologramed guests, literally bumps into her proposed companion, whose appearance  is that of an attractive young man. Tom invites Alma to dance, leading her in a hilariously  extravagant tango, in the midst of which he begins to malfunction and is carried off for repairs.

Once Tom is refitted, Alma drives him and his baggage to her apartment. The drive is the  occasion for an awkward conversation during which Tom assures Alma that he is programmed  to modify his behavior in the light of her preferences. Alma makes it clear that the relationship  is to be more formal than intimate. As he explores his new setting, Tom notes a painting that  Alma says was a gift from a friend. As the story unfolds, the “friend” is the father of Alma’s still- born child. Tom also notes a photo of Alma as a youngster, radiating happiness as she sits next to a male  companion, coincidentally also named Tom. Alma tells Tom that the delightful male companion  of her youth drifted away from her long ago.

Tom, in the hope of helping, speed-reads all the literature on the topic Alma and her team is  researching, and discovers that a competitor has already published proof of the thesis Alma was seeking to confirm. Crushed, in an alcoholic daze, Alma has sex with Tom.

She suffers a second blow, learning that the partner that had given her the painting and  fathered the unsuccessful pregnancy, has married another woman who is now pregnant.

Tom tries to comfort Alma and she begins to feel drawn to him, but ultimately despairs, telling  Tom, “I’m acting in a play. But there’s no audience. All the seats are empty. I’m only acting for myself. Even right now, I’m only talking to myself. It’s not a dialogue,” a rueful acknowledgement of the psychological truth that without the gap of otherness, real love cannot exist. This confession becomes the framework of a second confession that closes the film.

Alma tells Tom to return to his factory. When she learns that Tom has not returned there but has disappeared, Alma becomes concerned. Looking for him, she returns to the site where she  had last seen her childhood companion. She finds her robot companion waiting for her. The  film ends with Alma confessing anguished feelings of loss and loneliness to Tom.

The movie is available on Hulu, Amazon and Netflix.

The Tinder Swindler

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

This very recent Netflix documentary’s popularity exploded during the first week of its release,  drawing my attention to a genre that has not previously interested me: true crime accounts. The Tinder Swindler turned out to be interesting, and, to make a pun, even arresting, in  unexpected ways. It features accounts by three young women who describe their becoming  enmeshed in a web of exploitative lies woven by a con man who rivals Frank Abagnale, Jr.,  played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2002 biopic, Catch Me If You Can. The villain of the Netflix  documentary, Simon Leviev, neè Shimon Hayut, seeks out targets different from those of  Abagnale, and the documentary has an ironic element that the biopic lacked. Moreover, as  documentary, the Netflix piece, unlike a biopic, is not emplotted, with an ending that provides  narrative closure.

The documentary opens with an interview of Cecilie Fjellhoy telling of her addiction to the Tinder site in her search for love. When her swipe-right on a posting by Leviev is matched, she accepts his invitation to join him for dinner, and she is awed by lavish arrangements. He tells  her that he is the son of the “King of Diamonds,” Lev Leviev, a billionaire Israeli Hasidic Jew. Simon, styling himself “The Prince of Diamonds,” flies her around the world, wooing her with  expensive gifts and protestations of love. Soon, however, he tells her of complex business  affairs requiring elaborate security arrangements that make it necessary for him to avoid using  his credit cards requiring him to ask her to do him a favor: a loan of a few thousand dollars.  Over time, Cecilie is lured into massive debt. Terrified and ashamed, she cannot find a way out  of her predicament. In an effort to deter others from getting scammed she asks a newspaper to tell her story.

We next hear from a second victim, Pernilla Sjoholm. Leviev, using money from Cecillie, in  tandem with his relationship with her, is regaling—and courting—Pernilla, employing the same  tactics, making the same protestations, and ultimately requiring the same financial assistance.

Finally, we see an interview with Ayleen Koeleman, a long term flame of Leviev. Enraged by the  newspaper accounts of Cecilie’s predicament and Liviev’s carryings on, she relishes describing how she scammed the scammer. Employed in the fashion industry, she deals with Leviev’s on-going pleas for financial assistance by offering to sell much of his extensive high-end wardrobe.  But she keeps the proceeds for herself rather than remitting them to Liviev.

Ayleen also reaches out to the other two victims. Taking advantage of the publicity afforded by  the newspaper coverage, the three open a Kickstarter account, hoping to recover some of the  money they lost.

In a final twist, the newspaper’s ongoing efforts to track Leviev’s evasive peregrinations result in  is arrest by the Israeli police, and an all too brief incarceration. He is said to be currently  offering his services as a financial advisor.

The documentary closes with Cecilie’s telling us that  she is still looking for love on Tinder. The irony is her failure to consider that the kind of  intimacy she yearns for might require more effort and time than swiping right on potential Prince Charmings.

There is a report that Netflix may have a movie in the works. If we accept Aristotle’s definition of comedy as emplotted narratives in which the characters are such that the audience looks down  on them and can relish rather than regret their discomfitures, that film will be a comedy

Atonement

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

This 2007 film begins in pre-World War II Britain. It has two foci of action. One is Briony Tallis,  who bookends the film, appearing first as a thirteen-year-old, precociously involved in writing a  play, and again, three or four decades later, as an established writer. She is being interviewed  about her latest book, an autobiography, which she characterizes as being her last book. She  explains the characterization by confessing that her writing ability is being eroded by a series of  small, untreatable strokes.

The second focus of action is a struggle by two lovers to reunite. Briony’s older sister, Celia,  some five years older, and Robbie, the son of the Tallis’ housekeeper, are star-crossed lovers.  Their relationship is ruptured when Robbie is falsely accused of sexually molesting Lola  Quincey, a fifteen-year-old cousin visiting the Tallis sisters. The accusation is based on Briony’s  insistence that she was an eye-witness of Robbie’s attack on Lola, and her persuading Lola,  confused and uncertain, to agree with her.

Briony’s actions have complex determinants. She has misinterpreted some of her earlier  observations of Robbie and Celia at poolside as rough sex. She has read—and delivered— a  crudely sexual note from Robbie to Celia, mistakenly substituted by him for a more proper  apology for his pool-side behavior. She has caught the couple in flagrante delicto after their  relationship has become explicitly passionate. And, perhaps centrally, Briony has a crush on  Robbie that is unreciprocated. And finally, there are unsubtle reverberations of upstairs/downstairs” in the rush to judgment about Robbie.

The upshot is that Robbie is sent to prison for a term that is commuted when, abandoning his  college ambitions, he joins the army and is swept up into the battles that eventuate in the  British evacuation at Dunkirk.

We follow Robbie as he slogs through graphic battlefield horrors  and struggles to get back  home, and Celia and Briony as they pursue separate careers as army  nurses.Celia, unable to  forgive her sister for her role in Robbie’s condemnation, is waiting, hope against hope, for his  return from the war; Briony, finally coming to realize that she has wrongfully accused her  sister’s lover, is searching for a means of atonement.

The actors’ performances are compelling. The grit and drama of the battlefield gripping. The  graphic evocation of the drama of Dunkirk deeply moving. The device of following Briony and  her struggles with guilt from the frailties of youth to those of an adulthood crumbling into brain  disorder is remarkable.

There Is a surprising twist in the resolution of the swirling complexities around Briony’s quest  for atonement that I will not spoil by detailing. You can find the film on Amazon, Apple + and  other streaming sites. It is worth watching.

PIG

A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD

This is a film you should see. Don’t be put off by its eponymous title or by its starring Nicholas  Cage, with his predilection for operatic excess and personal foibles. I am not going to say much about the movie’s content, because it is a film to experience directly and to savor. You can find it on Amazon Prime.

It was directed by Michael Sarnoski, his first feature film. Along with Vanessa Block, he also co-wrote the script. The movie is organized into three sections: Rustic Mushroom Tart; Mom’s French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops; A Bird, a Bottle, a Salted Baguette.

So now you know that cuisine plays a role. Cage, in the role of Rob Feld, is a one-time celebrity  chef in Portland. After his wife’s death Feld has dropped out of the hustle, into a ten-year hiatus as a recluse deep in the forest. The hiatus is interrupted by a home invasion that includes a  beating for Feld and the kidnapping of the ex-chef’s truffle hunting pet pig. What ensues is an account of Feld’s determined attempt to recover his pig.

I recognize that my formulation is likely to evoke a snicker. Accept my assurance that the filmic experience will not evoke a shred of amusement or of snark. It is an account of loss and love, one that approaches C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. You may recall that, because of its raw and personal nature, Lewis intended his account to be published under a pseudonym, an intention that was derailed  by a proofreader’s recognizing the author’s corrections to the proof.

Pig will surprise you over and over, taking turns that avoid bathos and defy expectations. As a  work of fiction, the movie avoids Lewis’s concerns about publicity and becomes pure art. The  film has a mythic feel, with overtones of concerns about personal authenticity and a critique of “civilization.” One of its tropes is the utilization of “Euridice” as the name of an upscale   restaurant that Feld visits in his quest to recover Pig. In Greek mythology, of course, Euridice is  the beloved wife of Orpheus. When she dies, the musician goes on a quest to Hades to recover  her. Clearly Sarnoski’s cue for what we should be looking for in this opus and of its potential meaning.

Cage’s performance is one for the ages. I found myself thinking that, given some of his past  stumbles, this role, one for which he will be remembered, would be a remarkable point at which to bow out. The culinary focus of the film brought Charlie Trotter to my mind. Trotter was a celebrity chef in Chicago. He won numerous awards and brought Michelin stars to the city. In 2012, at the height of his fame, Trotter closed his restaurant, announcing his intention to study philosophy. Two years later, at the age of fifty-four, he died.

I doubt that Cage will, or, really, should, retire. And I hope we all get to see much more of that of which Sarnoski has given us a taste.