Synecdoche, New York (2008) Film . Director : Charlie Kaufman

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Theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is mounting a new play. Fresh off of a successful production of Death of a Salesman, he has traded in the suburban blue-hairs and regional theater of Schenectady for the cultured audiences and bright footlights of Broadway. Armed with a MacArthur grant and determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, something into which he can put his whole self, he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan’s theater district. He directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing each to live out their constructed lives in a small mockup of the city outside. As the city inside the warehouse grows, Caden’s own life veers wildly off the tracks. The shadow of his ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), a celebrated painter who left him years ago for Germany’s art scene, sneers at him from every corner. Somewhere in Berlin, his daughter Olive is growing up under the questionable guidance of Adele’s friend, Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He’s helplessly driving his marriage to actress Claire (Michelle Williams) into the ground. Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan), the actor Caden has hired to play himself within the play, is a bit too perfect for the part, and is making it difficult for Caden to revive his relationship with the alluringly candid Hazel (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), is better at plugging her best-seller than she is at counseling him. His is second daughter, Ariel, is retarded. And a mysterious condition is systematically shutting down each of his autonomic functions, one by one. As the years rapidly pass, Caden buries himself deeper into his masterpiece. Populating the cast and crew with doppelgangers, he steadily blurs the line between the world of the play and that of his own deteriorating reality. As he pushes the limits of his relationships, both personally and professionally, a change in creative direction arrives in Millicent Weems, a celebrated theater actress who may offer Caden the break he needs. By seamlessly blending together subjective point-of-views with traditional narrative structures, writer/director Charlie Kaufman has created a world of superbly unsteady footing. His richly developed cast of characters flutter between moments of warm intimacy and frightful insecurity, creating a script that brings to life all the complex and beautiful nuances of shared life and artistic creation. Synecdoche, New York is as its definition states: a part of the whole or the whole used for the part, the general for the specific, the specific for the general.(Imdb)

The Guardian, Friday 15 May 2009

For his directorial debut, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has outdone himself, for good or ill, with the strangest, saddest movie imaginable, a work suffused with almost evangelical zeal in the service of disillusion. It’s a film of mad Beckettian grandeur about the terrible twin truths of existence: life is disappointing and death inescapable. And it supplies a third insight: art is part of life and so doomed to failure in the same way.

The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration. It has brilliance, either way: surreal, utterly distinctive, witty, gloomy in the manner that his fans will recognise and adore, but with a new epic confidence, absorbing the influences of Fellini and Lynch. As with his previous films, Adaptation and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I had the uneasy feeling that one single idea was being extruded to an excessive length, but this movie’s crazy emotional intensity and ambition really punched my lights out on a second viewing. And that protracted final sequence is quite extraordinary, in which the dying hero is instructed what to think and do, via a voice through an earpiece, while he stumbles through the wrecked stage-set of his self-created existence.

The early comedies and short stories of Woody Allen are a perennial source of inspiration for Kaufman, and he may well have found particular impetus from a scene at the end of Annie Hall in which Allen anxiously watches two actors playing out an autobiographical scene he’s written: he’s anxious, dissatisfied. The scene is a disappointment: it doesn’t nail his experience, but as life itself is disappointing, perhaps this failure has an ironic integrity.

Kaufman proposes a theatrum mundi of his own. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a miserable and hypochondriac theatre director living in Schenectady, New York, a place-name that whimsically mutates in the title, though nowhere in the script, to that obscure literary-critical term “synecdoche”, meaning an image in which the part stands for the whole – for example, “head of cattle” meaning cow, or “crown” meaning king. The significance of this emerges later.

Caden is unhappily married to Adele, played by Catherine Keener, an artist who clearly wants out of the relationship, and Caden is deeply dissatisfied with the middlebrow saminess of the work he’s doing: an unadventurous revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is also terrified by the possibility of sexual adventures with women who are very available: Hazel, who works in the box office, played by Samantha Morton, and his callow, sexy leading lady Claire, played by Michelle Williams.

Yet just when things are at their darkest, Caden improbably receives a letter to say he has won a “genius” grant to create a challenging, powerful, and above all truthful artwork. Thrilled by this opportunity to transcend the mendacity and mediocrity of the culture industry, Caden has a wild new plan. He will purchase a rundown city-block, construct apartment buildings and fill them with actors who will improvise entire created “lives” of unflinching reality and pain on a 24/7 basis. Years and decades pass while his company rehearse and improvise with no audience. Caden hires actors to play himself and his lovers. Head-spinningly, the gulf between theatrical make-believe and reality collapses.

Of course, the action of the film can’t be taken literally: no “genius grant foundation” would have enough money to sustain such a crazy scheme. Yet neither is it supposed to be a fantasy: this is not merely what Caden is imagining he might do. It is Kaufman-reality, unreality, irreality, and the film won’t have the same impact if you are not prepared to grant it some kind of “reality” status. It adjoins reality – and this, I think, is where “synecdoche” comes in, the part for the whole. Caden’s huge, mad, pasteboard world stands for the real world, is part of it, is superimposed on to it, and finally melts into it.

The movie double-takes and hallucinates about itself, in ways that are captivating, exasperating. Its procedure is, in a way, recessive: disappearing down, down, down into an Alice-rabbit hole of a modified future reality. The narrative leapfrogs ahead in sudden fast-forward leaps. Caden’s kid is four – no, wait, she’s 11, living in Berlin with her mother and dissolute lover – no, hang on, she’s in her 30s, tattooed, messed up, working in some pornbooth. Before you know it, she’s on her deathbed, angrily accusing a decrepit Caden of abuse.

The insane theatrical fabrication of all this does not lessen its impact. On the contrary, it gives it a hyperreal intensity. Time itself jump-cuts and makes Caden suddenly older in spurts, until, through a bizarre twist, his own identity as the “director” of his life is taken over by someone more competent, and his individuality is annulled.

At the end of it all, you will feel as if you have lived through some crazy tragedy, swum a chlorinated Hellespont of tears. It is not for everyone, but is utterly extraordinary in its way. If Charlie Kaufman never does anything again, this will stand as his cracked monument.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/may/15/synecdoche-new-york

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Defiance (2008) Film. Director : Edward Zwick

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On the run and hiding in the deep forests of the then German occupied Poland and Belorussia (World War II), the four Bielski brothers find the impossible task of foraging for food and weapons for their survival. They live, not only with the fear of discovery, contending with neighboring Soviet partisans and knowing whom to trust but also take the responsibility of looking after a large mass of fleeing Polish Jews from the German war machine. Women, men, children, the elderly and the young alike are all hiding in makeshift homes in the dark, cold and unforgiving forests in the darkest times of German occupied Eastern Europe.(Imdb)

 Xan Brooks

The Guardian, Friday 9 January 2009

 

What would have happened if the Nazis stormed the Nowogrodek ghetto and found James Bond lying in wait? What if they had then ploughed into the neighbouring forests of Belarus only to be confronted by a band of armed-to-the-teeth Rambo

Defiance tackles the true-life tale of the Bielski partisans, a group of rural Jews who waged war against the Germans from their stronghold in the woods. It stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia, the resolute elder brother, Liev Schreiber as Zus, the bull-necked middle sibling, and Jamie Bell as sensitive little Asael, who is destined to either come of age or die a tragic death (or possibly both). At one stage, the Bielskis are brought before a Russian colonel who looks them scornfully up and down. “Jews don’t fight,” he scoffs. “These Jews do,” growls Tuvia.

The Bielskis are an appealing subject because they provide such a steroid antidote to the other films of their genre. They allow director Ed Zwick to take the soulful, passive victims of a hundred Holocaust dramas and replace them with action heroes. It is a very Hollywood riposte to a very Hollywood stereotype; a film that sends one set of cliches to eat another.

So the Bielskis set up their “Jerusalem in the woods” and people it with the huddled masses from the ghetto. We meet the tubercular rabbi and the nebbish intellectual; the sloe-eyed maiden and the inevitable bad apple. Zus squabbles with Tuvia and defects to join the Russian forces. Tuvia proves his heroic credentials by parading through camp on a white horse, and then proves his humanistic ones by promptly shooting it when the rations run dry. Eventually the Nazis wade in and the partisans are flushed from the forest and cornered on the edge of the wetlands. “God will not part these waters,” declares little Asael, who has come of age at last. “We shall have to do it ourselves.”

Is this what Defiance wants to be: a second world war Exodus with Moses recast as a guerilla leader? If so, it is only partly successful. The story of the Bielski partisans is undeniably fascinating. Perhaps it even lends itself to this self-consciously mythic retelling. For all that, I’m not sure that Zwick’s brawny fraternal epic – ringing with mortar shells, stuffed with cardboard archetypes – quite does it justice. Defiance makes a noise but leaves no echo. It feels progressively more bogus and less significant the further it recedes from view, and myths are meant to wax in the memory, not wane.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/09/defiance-review-daniel-craig

 

Okuribito (Departures) (2008) Film. Director : Yojiro Takita

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With the breakup of his Tokyo orchestra, Daigo, a young cellist, decides to return with his adoring wife Mika to his hometown in Japan’s far north. Searching for work, he responds to a cryptic classified ad for work in “Departures” only to find out that the position is in the field of “encoffining,” the ritual preparation of a corpse before it is placed in a casket for cremation. Daigo gradually takes to the work and finds he has a real talent, but he is too ashamed to tell Mika, leaving him torn between his true calling and his marriage.

Winner of the Academy Award® for best foreign language film this year, Departures achieves a pleasingly droll blend of screwball-like humor with a moving story about reconciliation, acceptance, and finding one’s place in the world, enhanced by a richly orchestrated score. By taking us into the uniquely Japanese tradition of the “Nokanshi”-who washes, dresses, and grooms the dead body in front of the deceased’s family, helping the living to bid farewell and the dead to move on to the next world-director Yojiro Takita also offers a refreshingly light and life-affirming vision of how we can reconcile ourselves with death and dying. (mubi)

The movie starts with Sasaki (Yamazaki) and his apprentice Daigo (Motoki) engaging in a traditional ritual to clean and dress a dead body for her final ‘departure’… the story then flashes back to how it all begins…

Daigo was a cellist in Tokyo, but was jobless after the disbandment of his orchestra, which prompted him to give up his musician dream.

After selling his cello to clear his debts, Daigo moved back to his hometown in Sakata with his wife Mika (Hirosue) to begin a new life.

He went for an interview which he thought was a job in a travel agency, but turned out to be a vacancy for a funeral ceremonial company. But he took the job anyway; probably tempted by the decent salary, and that he didn’t have much option anyway.

Daigo’s early assignments didn’t start off well, but he gradually learned about the joy and job fulfilment in helping the family in grievances by preparing the death for their final journey in a respectful and elegant manner.

Just as Daigo began to enjoy his new life, Mika found out about his work and demanded him to quit his job which is seen by many as taboo in Japan. After Daigo’s silent refusal, Mika decided to leave him… and Daigo continued his journey as a nokanshi (including the funeral at the beginning of the movie).

A couple of weeks (or month) later, Mika was back and told Daigo that she’s pregnant; and while the couple was in an awkward moment about him quitting his job, Daigo received a call that he’s needed for the encoffinment of a close family friend.

Mika, who followed Daigo to the funeral, began to understand the real purpose of Daigo’s job, and showed respect to what he was doing.

The story ends with Daigo performing the ritual for his deceased father who left his family when Daigo was just a kid to run off with another woman. And through the ceremony, Daigo rediscovered his love for his father, and learned to forgive and looked forward to the future.

The story is themed on death and funerals, which are always emotional; but the director didn’t overemphasis on the tear-bombs and tried to send other hidden messages instead… about love, forgiveness, hope and peace of mind.

It’s not a highly entertaining film, but certainly an enlightening one. There’s no climax in the movie, but simple story telling in a beautiful and artistic manner, with Joe Hisashi’s music adding icing on the cake… and a lovely ending that’ll put a smile on everyone’s face.

http://yeinjee.com/departures-movie-review

Cyrus (2010) Film. Directors : Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

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The Duplass brothers are back with their singular knack: treating us to a tingling, irresistible experience of utter discomfort—suffused with pathos, romance, irony, and a little dollop of horror. This time they intrepidly mine Oedipal terrain to wrestle with stirring, profound questions about the obstacles to human intimacy.

Alone and acutely depressed, having just learned of his ex-wife’s wedding plans, John can’t believe his luck when he encounters beautiful, charming Molly at a party. The two get along famously and launch a passionate affair, until Molly’s 21-year-old son, Cyrus, enters the scene. Will Molly and Cyrus’s deep and idiosyncratic bond leave room for John?

Cyrus becomes a dark, poignant, sometimes hilarious war dance as Molly, Cyrus, and John walk the line between creepy and sympathetic. Each member of this awkward triangle teeters somewhere between bare honesty and furtive manipulation as he or she lets loose all manner of dysfunctionality. The excruciating, delightful fun is seeing where the boundaries ultimately land. (Mubi)

Philip French

The Observer, Sunday 12 September 2010

 

Above (l-r): Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, John C Reilly and Catherine Keener in Cyrus. Photograph: FoxSearch/ Everett / Rex Features

The Duplass brothers made a certain impression a few years back with a rambling road movie, The Puffy Chair, an exercise in the genre of talkative, semi-improvised, ultra-low-budget American independent pictures that was wittily dubbed “mumblecore” by Eric Masunaga, a sound engineer who’d worked on several of them.

Now the Duplasses have come to Hollywood with a reasonable budget and a strong cast provided by two brothers who work at the opposite end of the industrial spectrum, Ridley and Tony Scott.

The result is the oddly touching Cyrus, starring plug-ugly character actor John C Reilly as a sad, long-divorced, freelance book editor. His considerate ex-wife (Catherine Keener) takes him to a party, hoping he’ll find a girl and he hooks up with the attractive, sweet-naturedMarisa Tomei. But it transpires she has an overweight 21-year-old son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill, hitherto the star of gross Judd Apatow comedies), a possessive, childlike musician who sets out to provide impediments to the true love between his mother and this intruder.

The Duplasses’ technical clumsiness is clearly a badge of authenticity and their well-acted movie is affecting and truthful.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/sep/12/cyrus-review

With John’s social life at a standstill and his ex-wife about to get remarried, a down on his luck divorcé finally meets the woman of his dreams, only to discover she has another man in her life – her son. Still single seven years after the breakup of his marriage, John has all but given up on romance. But at the urging of his ex-wife and best friend Jamie, John grudgingly agrees to join her and her fiancé Tim at a party. To his and everyone else’s surprise, he actually manages to meet someone: the gorgeous and spirited Molly. Their chemistry is immediate. The relationship takes off quickly but Molly is oddly reluctant to take the relationship beyond John’s house. Perplexed, he follows her home and discovers the other man in Molly’s life: her son, Cyrus. A 21-year-old new age musician, Cyrus is his mom’s best friend and shares an unconventional relationship with her. Cyrus will go to any lengths to protect Molly and is definitely not ready to share her with anyone, especially John. …(Imdb)

Wonderful Town (2007) Film. Director : Aditya Assarat

Ton, a young architect from Bangkok, is assigned to oversee the reconstruction of a holiday resort in southern Thailand that had been destroyed by the tsunami. Instead of a staying in one of the big tourist hotels in Takua Pa, he takes lodgings in an inconspicuous small town hotel, where he seems to be the only guest. Ton’s flirtation with Na, the young woman who works at the hotel, develops into a passionate relationship, which doesn’t escape the suspicious eyes of her sinister brother Wit. Even the soft waves of the sea, which are underscored in the film’s first shot by a subtly threatening electronic sound, suggests that there’s more to Wonderful Town than the ordinary conflict between the city and the country. The beauty of the landscape gets in the way of Ton noticing both the social dynamic of the largely depopulated area, and the degree to which the collective psyche is still burdened with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Na embodies both: beauty and injury. Sensitively, delicately, and seductively, Aditya Assarat’s elegant feature film debut stages the guileless appropriation of the afflicted province by the naive big city dweller, and skillfully lures the spectator into the same trap. Although the film irresistibly develops into a veritable thriller, you’re still left in disbelief at the gaping wounds in paradise.(Mubi.com)

The Artist (2011) Film. Director : Michel Hazanavicius

Outside a movie premiere, enthusiastic fan Peppy Miller literally bumps into the swashbuckling hero of the silent film, George Valentin. The star reacts graciously and Peppy plants a kiss on his cheek as they are surrounded by photographers. The headlines demand: “Who’s That Girl?” and Peppy is inspired to audition for a dancing bit-part at the studio. However as Peppy slowly rises through the industry, the introduction of talking-pictures turns Valentin’s world upside-down.(Imdb)

Never Let Me Go (2010) Film. Director : Mark Romanek

Kathy, a young woman in her early thirties, recalls her childhood years growing up with her friends Ruth and Tommy at Hailsham, an idyllic-seeming English boarding school. The Hailsham regime taught its pupils to believe they were special, encouraging creativity, sporting activity and a healthy lifestyle, reinforced by regular medical checks. The children were sheltered from the outside world, and afraid of what lay beyond the school gates, though this had little impact on their day-to-day happiness. But as they grew older, they learned that a dark secret hung over their future. And for Kathy, Ruth and Tommy came the discovery of deep feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that threatened to pull them apart.

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed best-selling novel, Never Let Me Go is a haunting story of love and loss. Adapted for the screen by Alex Garland and directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), it is beautifully filmed, using a palette of subtle tones that reinforces the sense of strangeness that permeates the character’s lives. We’re watching a place and time that seem familiar, yet somehow off-kilter. The children look like normal children, but they don’t quite act like them, and their relationships have a slightly unworldly air, even if in Kathy’s case her feelings are all too real.

The impeccable casting of Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield as the older Kathy, Ruth and Tommy is rewarded by outstanding performances from all three, matched by those of Izzy Meikle-Small, Ella Purnell and Charlie Rowe as their younger selves. Strong support comes from a cast that also includes Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins and Andrea Riseborough.

Mark Romanek’s direction is as assured as it is discreet, never overpowering the delicate, eerie qualities of the original material. There are sensitively handled sci-fi elements, but Garland and Romanek hold the focus firmly on the friends and their relationship, to intriguing and emotionally devastating effect. –BFI