Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Labor Day Weekend including minimal labor

Three days off and I wrote nothing. I printed out snippets of stories and chapters with notes on the infamous, neglected mystery novel. I put up a mailbox to preclude the cat urinating on the mail coming through the slot. He may yet urinate on the floor, but he won’t get my mail.

But really, it was Labor Day Weekend and I could at least have watched movies about unions, or breaking unions, movies like “On the Waterfront,” “The Molly Maguires,” or even “Norma Rae.”

Instead I watched the radiant Kristin Scott Thomas try to be less lovely. In the French film, “I Have Loved You So Long,” she’s wondrous as Juliette Fontaine, subtly drawing us in to her sheltered psyche, effortlessly making us care and wonder how could she and why and will she ever have a chance at a life, a second chance after her 15 years of imprisonment. Premise: Juliette was imprisoned 15 years before the start of the film for murder. Her sentence by the state complete, she is released to serve her sentence by society. Her family cut her dead all those years before, but now her younger sister, Lea, wants to take her in with her own family: husband, two adopted daughters, and father-in-law, in a university town.

The film opens making us wait with Juliette for someone to pick her up at the airport. (One flaw here – Juliette's haircut on leaving prison is awfully good.) Ms. Scott Thomas’ Juliette grows slowly, day by day, back into life outside. It will never be her life resumed. We know that is not a possibility. Her life ended 15 years ago. We watch her uncomfortable meetings with the sad policeman assigned to her case, her meetings with her sister’s colleagues at university, social engagements, family moments, tentatively increasing friendship. Large courageous risks. A huge setback to her re-integration is shown in the tense scene with a potential employer. Of necessity, he knows that she was in prison – her first interviewer, upon learning her crime, tells her in no uncertain terms to get out. I couldn’t blame him. When she admitted her crime, I gasped aloud.

Day by day we watch her, wishing desperately to understand how she could have committed such a crime. We await further revelation in a film that politely demands our patience. As we come to know Juliette, we know there must have been special circumstances that forced her to such a choice. Ms. Scott Thomas grows increasingly lovely and lively as the film goes on to a surprisingly hopeful end once all is revealed, and her all important relationship with her sister is mending.

This is a beautiful film, inconspicuously filmed. Not a moment or actor is out of tune for a moment of our time. Because this is France, we can assume there are unions everywhere, so it may be appropriate for Labor Day. But we never hear from them. We only see and hear what writer/director Philippe Claudel wants us to. His other work requires investigation.

Michael Clayton.” Definitely no unions. No matter, I love Tom Wilkinson in everything. I’d always meant to see this on the big screen, but the story works on the small one. There are some sweeping shots, yet this is really a film of close-ups. Close ups on Wilkinson, on George Clooney, on Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Ken Howard….Given the state of film adverts and trailers (that is, dreadful: Why should we go to the movies if we see the whole story in commercials?), Ms. Swinton surprised me in the second half of the film. Good on her. Clooney was as expected (which is not unpleasant, just fairly predictable), although his final speech to Ms. Swinton was more effective than I would have thought –made more so by the reaction of Sean Cullen as Clooney’s usually angry brother (or cousin, I was never clear on that) Gene Clayton in the moments following the big scene.

What I found interesting was that most of the characters are addicted to something. And I suppose we as an audience are addicted to this quite predictable story. Clooney’s character (eponymous) is addicted to gambling. His partner in a secondary business venture (a bar, what else) is addicted to drugs and/or booze. Swinton, Howard, Pollack, all are addicted to power and/or money (not money as you and I think of it -- serious money). Even Artie, Mr. Wilkinson’s character, is addicted to the highs of his manic depression – but then who wants those lows anyway.

As ever, Shakespeare was right: “First, kill the lawyers.” I’ve known a lawyer or half a dozen, and really, they’re not all evil or amoral. In this film, they are – until Wilkinson goes off his meds.

All in all, it’s a tight, well-acted film, quite engaging throughout. And I’ll still see Tom Wilkinson in anything at all.

The Reader.” Earlier this year, my very much younger colleagues at the office were talking about people they didn’t know as if they were intimately acquainted. Our present era, in which seemingly sane responsible people reading “Page Six” or watching “Entertainment Tonight” believe they can walk up to strangers who happen to be celebrities and chat as if they're old friends, sometimes frightens, sometimes annoys, and oftentimes bores me. The ringleader of the office gossips asked whose life any of us would like to live. Generally I put on my headphones and let Sinatra block them out. That day, I answered: Kate Winslet. Fine career, gets to work with extremely talented husband Sam Mendes, has children, lives in Brooklyn, and continues fine film career. Hot damn. And the woman has guts.

Winslet and Mendes work well together in “The Reader.” The intensity of her listening, her appetites, her responses, her silences, do not reveal a lovable or even likeable character. Hannah Schmitz is a monster, in some ways as amoral (there’s that word again) as the lawyers in “Michael Clayton” and the character Winslet played (another Juliet) when I first saw her in Peter Jackson’s 1996 film “Heavenly Creatures.”

Trivia Break: Who was the other girl in “Heavenly Creatures?” Melanie Lynskey, familiar to CBS sitcom viewers as the delightful Rose in “Two and a Half Men.” Who knew.

Back to “The Reader,” in which Winslet is fearless. I not only want her life and career, I want to get into her brain and watch her figure and work through her choices. This regrettably means I’ll have to rent a film in which I have no other interest, “Revolutionary Road,” just to see her work with her husband again.

As the woman and, in the 1990s, her daughter who survived one of the many horrors of WW2, Lena Olin is frightening. Again, the honesty of this portrayal is courageous. Is it Sam Mendes we have to thank for this? Not that either actress is generally shy, but such bold statements don’t arrive often, and rarely in tandem.

The boy Michael, as played by David Kross, is delightful, totally committed to life, and to falling in love, and staying in love, and heartbreak. Much as I like him, Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of the adult Michael in the ‘present’ just didn’t do it for me as much as Kross’ personification in the past.

The Reader” is a very interesting film, leaving many unanswered questions. Just the way I like ’em.

So, three DVDs over Labor Day Weekend, but no films at the movie house (which also means no popcorn and Coke during nor beer afterward, so that’s good; but also no miles of walking to get to and from said movie houses either).

Meanwhile, the to do list grows: check out other jobs at the firm. At the firm or elsewhere, find an ‘ideal’ job, one that’s

-- 40 hours a week instead of 50+
-- an easier commute in a company that doesn’t do anything awfully offensive to the planet or the species, and
-- provides standard health care, vac time, and
-- an actual policy for volunteerism (that is, not one day a year, but potential leaves for Red Cross volunteer work, even if it’s just sandbagging. That’s the wrong word, isn’t it.), time enough to actually help, which takes more than a day within a comfortable commute.

This evening, when I walked out of my office building, the act of walking galvanized the organizing facility in my brain so that I could finally accomplish what I’d been trying to accomplish all afternoon at my desk. I took out my pad and wrote notes as I walked and figured out what to do tomorrow to get the job done. What’s that about? Do I have walk to think?

Next thought – should I create a rating system for films/plays I review? Not stars or apples or anything. I’m not into math, although I do like #2 pencils. A broad rating system like: Unendurable – Endurable – Enjoyable. Hmmm. Is “enjoyable” an appropriate word for “The Reader?”

Sometimes I think too much.

Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light − I have reading, not to mention writing, to do.
8 September 2009

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