American Girl

Raw emotion fills American Girl, a film set in Taiwan. When she’s 13, Fen must return to her homeland Taiwan because her mother got cancer. Understandably, Fen wants to stay with her friends, to go to summer camp, to have a normal, safe life.

It’s a rocky transition for Fen and her younger sister. Getting used to living with her father again, going to a new, strict school, and coping with her mother’s illness and possible death, Fen is pushed to her limit. The entire family is on the verge of collapse.

While it’s a sad and emotionally exhausting film, I was drawn to Fen and her struggle with reverse culture shock and her mother’s illness. This is on top of the usual American conflicts many mothers and daughters experience.

I understand why this film garnered three Taiwanese film awards.

CODA

CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults and the film takes us into the home or Ruby Rossi, a high school senior, whose parents and older brother are deaf. Ruby is the only hearing person in the family, which is tough. She’s been bullied at school since kindergarten because she talked funny and her family was different.

The movie begins with Ruby belting out an Eta James song on her family’s commercial fishing boat with her dad and brother. Ruby’s needed to pitch in on the boat, monitor the radio and haggle with the fish buyers. She’s integral to her family’s success. Then she races off to school where she’s mocked because she smells like fish. As a bit of a lark, against her best friend’s wishes, she signs up for the school choir, which is taught by the demanding, often perturbed, Mr. Villalobos.

As her father points out, Ruby’s always been an adult. She translates for her parents when they visit the doctor, when the fish dealers are cheating them, when the local news interviews them.

Once Mr. Villalobos sees that Ruby has talent, he taps her to do a duet with a boy she has a little crush on. He pushes her to do her best and to apply to Berklee School of Music. He offers to work with her nights and weekends. Her parents know nothing of this or of her talent. Music isn’t something they appreciate. The plot revolves around the choice of helping her family when their fishing business is threatened or pursue her dream to study music.

Ruby’s down to earth and likable as a girl who’s the third adult in the family. Her singing is beautiful.

The film suffers a bit from the usual Hollywood contrivances: the either/or choice of living your dream or living a dreary working class life, the high school stereotypes with the boring classes, mean girls pecking order and the contest (here an audition for a scholarship). Mr. Villalobos has an acerbic wit, but it’s rather sad since he’s the only one who enjoys his sarcasm. No one ever criticizes him for that. It bothered me that though he states that he is a rags to riches story, he showed little interest till the end in Ruby’s family’s real struggle and the reason they needed her more than most families need a child to help with the family business. In a non-Hollywood film, I think he’d have more dimension as would her best friend.

2020 Best Picture, CODA is definitely worth seeing. Marlee Matlin should have gotten an Oscar for her role as Ruby’s mom just as Troy Kotsur did as her father.

The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.

Force Majeure

On a family ski vacation in the Swiss Alps, Ebbe, Tomas and their two children Harry and Vera. They’re a young, attractive family with what people’d expect is a wonderful family. As they’re eating lunch after a morning of skiing. As they take in the view, an avalanche, a controlled avalanche moves down the mountain. Soon the avalanche doesn’t look so controlled and viewers panic. While Harry and Vera scream for their parents, Ebbe protects them while Tomas grabs his phone and seeks to save his own skin. All this is captured on video.

The avalanche doesn’t hit the deck. No one’s really hurt — except Ebbe’s trust in Tomas and their marriage.

The rest of the film explores Ebbe’s new distrust of Tomas and his coping with crumbling self-esteem. Every time they share a meal with another couple Ebbe must retell the story and each time Tomas comes out looking like a horrible man.

The film looks at what it means to be a real husband and father and how distrust cuts to the quick. It’s a fascinating exploration of marriage and masculinity. Can this marriage be saved?

I found the film absorbing and didn’t know what to expect. I’m not sure what I think of the end, though I would call it a satisfying conclusion. My only criticism of this quiet, intense film is that the children were so on the sidelines. Perhaps they just are in Swedish families, but while Harry did have moments of realism, Both children’s characters could be more developed.

2020 Oscars

The only way to survive watching the Oscars in my opinion is to watch the end (as opposed to the whole thing) with Steven Crowder & Co.

Cuties

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I don’t know the director’s intent, but Cuties, a French coming-of-age film, was sad and disturbing. The heroine, 11 year old Amy has come to Paris with her mom and two younger siblings. Her mother is devastated to learn that her husband, who’s still back in Senegal, has chosen a second wife. It hits Amy hard, but her reaction is far more self-destructive than she knows.

At her new school, Amy becomes obsessed with joining a mean girls clique, who’re preparing to dance in an upcoming competition. That sounds a bit harmless, though sacrificing your self-respect to befriend people who mock, humiliate and hit you, is not a good choice. I cringed when the girls kick out their lowest status member and Amy strives to get accepted by a group of misguided, powerful jerks.

Amy and her new “friends” get way over their heads in social media and sexy dancing.

SPOILER ALERT

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My Sundance Film Festival Highlights

My favorite parts of the Sundance Film Festival were:

  • The food and atmosphere at the Sapphire Chase Lounge on Main Street
  • The film Minari
  • The film Truffle Hunters
  • The Sundance TV Lounge
  • The Q&A’s with directors and film casts
  • The daily recap videos
  • The orange volunteer jackets
  • The appreciative festival patrons
  • Getting to see Robert Redford, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Lee Isaac Chung (director of Minari)
  • The cinematography of The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me
  • The esprit de corps of my fellow volunteers
  • Getting to bump into relatives around town
  • The panels on Downhill and Charm City Kings
  • The luck of the draw of the eWaitingList
  • The ease of getting around town

 

On Maggie Smith’s Zingers

Three of the Downton Abbey cast members, Michele Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Allen Leech, review Maggie Smith’s best lines from the TV series.

Burning

I hoped the award-winning Burning would be an absorbing, compelling film. It might be for some viewers, but I gave up on this nihilistic story about three lost young people. The main character is a young man in his 20s who tries to keep his family farm going as his parents are gone.

While in Seoul he bumps into an old classmate, a pretty girl who reminds him that before she had plastic surgery, this gawky hero had told her she was ugly. She soon lures him into her world and has him watching her cat as she gallivants around Africa where she meets a destructive Korean jet setter.

Most of what I saw was a series of awkward scenes of this odd trio. The hero hopes to win the girl’s love, who’s smitten with the rich guy, who doesn’t care an iota for the girl and even indicates this to the weak, lovesick boy.

The rich kid shares that his big hobby is setting old green houses on fire. Soon after that I turned off the DVD. The slick film’s characters were too empty and soulless for me.

Blow Up

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About as exciting as it gets, i.e. not very

Michelangelo Antonoini’s Blow Up has an intriguing end, but the almost two hours leading up to it were painfully boring. It’s the story of a jaded, nihilistic, rich photographer who happens to photograph what appears to be a couple of lovers in a park. After blowing up the photos he sees what looks like a shooter lurking in the bushes. What’s really going on? The photographer returns to the spot and finds the man’s dead body.

So far that sounds like an intriguing plot. My concise description leaves out the scenes of vapid, sexy girls whose characters are no more developed than a mannequin’s and the occasional dull conversations the photographer has with his agent or the woman in the photos who tries to get them back once and then never follows up when she doesn’t get them.

Everyone in the film is tired. The young people, whether they’re at a concert or having sex appear dead bored with life. A couple of girls practically stalk the photographer hoping to do a shoot and get famous. None of that pans out.

Don’t waste your time. There’s a clip on YouTube of the film’s end which includes a bunch of mimes who play tennis and it’s a clever mini-film on our perceptions. That’s worth a couple minutes. Otherwise, the film is too esoteric for me. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a bored, passive lost generation.

SPOILER
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