4th 06 - 2015 | 6 comments »

I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Brett Haley

This photo provided by Bleecker Street shows, Blythe Danner, as Carol, in a scene from the film,  "I’ll See You In My Dreams." The movie releases in U.S. theaters on May 15, 2015. (Bleecker Street via AP)

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Media are very big on groups. Every generation has to have a name—the newest one is Generation Z (posing the question of what to do about alphabet names now that the end has been reached, and quickly). My generation, the Baby Boomers, has been moving into retirement for the past several years, and even though moviemakers have never gotten along that well with elderly subjects, because we are just about the last large group that attended movie theatres regularly, it makes sense that exhibitors would be interested in programming new films about our time of life. We’ve had everything from Alzheimer’s movies like Away from Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). You’ll forgive me if I don’t jump for joy at these choices—vital women vanishing into a vast blankness and quirky Brits doddering about being cranky and precious. The few films of substance about old age, such as Time to Die (2007), A Simple Life (2011), and Amour (2012)—all foreign films—also seem to care more about our deaths (with dignity!) than our lives.

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I’ll See You in My Dreams is that rare film that takes an interest in the lives of retired Baby Boomers, a new breed of youthful elderly, with a particular emphasis on one woman, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), and the fabric of her life lived outside the mainstream. Carol received a large life insurance payout when her lawyer husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. Not enjoying her career teaching reading and “subjects no one else wanted,” she decided to opt out of the rat race. Now 70, she lives in comfort with her dog Hazel in an attractive, but relatively modest Southern California house with a pool, waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, taking her morning pills, reading the paper edition of The New York Times with her coffee, and playing cards and golf with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place), and Georgina (June Squibb), who live in a retirement community. Throughout, she drinks a lot of very good chardonnay and never has more than a couple of items on the “to do” whiteboard in her kitchen.

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Although Carol’s husband died long ago, the film reminds us that death is part of the soundtrack of even comfortable, active people after they have entered the red zone of the life cycle. Before we have a chance to get to know Hazel, Carol must have him euthanized. Only a small comment to him at the very beginning of the film—“Did you have a good night?”—lets on that he has been unwell, and then only in retrospect. The film spares us nothing of this sad duty, as Carol sits next to her companion while the vet (Aarti Mann) administers a sedative and then the drug that will “stop his heart.” Director Haley moves his camera outside the procedure room, observing Carol’s grief from a discreet distance through a window.

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In the wake of this fresh loss, Carol’s life is primed for a change. A new employee of her pool service, Lloyd (Martin Starr), shows up to clean her pool, and after an awkward beginning, the two begin a tentative friendship. Lloyd tells Carol he lives with his mother after finding that the only use he has been able to find for his degree in poetry is writing lyrics for songs he likely will never record. He notices a photo of Carol singing in a group. She says she gave it up long ago when she got married and had a daughter. He wonders how she could give up something that has the ability to make everything fall away—having a peak experience, living in the moment, these are the things Lloyd hopes to achieve. Carol knows better—such moments are elusive, even illusory, and not worth throwing a life away to experience. It’s hard to know if Carol is truly bitter about giving up performing or whether she’s trying to slap some sense into a young man whose life could pass him by if he keeps running after something so insubstantial. In turn, his very interest in her—and it truly is exceptional that a 30-year-old would choose to spend time with a retiree, even one as attractive as Blythe Danner—awakens her to possibilities for her own life, including a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a handsome new resident of the retirement community.

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In other hands, the above scenario would make for a light, possibly distasteful romcom about a cougar who finds happiness with an age-appropriate man and passes her younger man off to her daughter. Fortunately, this is not that movie. Blythe Danner is the glowing core of this expectation-defying film, and the mere casting of her in this knockout role comments on the fact that she had a career before she became “Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom.” Her every instinct seems sharper than ever—a tearful, but dignified farewell to her beloved pet, stammering incredulousness at the spectacle of speed dating, the sparkle at seeing Bill having lunch at a table across from hers and her matter-of-fact acquiescence to his very forward invitation to dinner. She’s a no-nonsense person, a bit cold for having put herself on autopilot for so many years, but clearly engaged with her friends and open to offering up details of her life if asked. When she accompanies Lloyd to a karaoke night and sings “Cry Me a River,” the audience on screen and off are astonished by her lovely voice and able interpretation. Who knew? Who indeed. Carol’s like a lot of older folks—we’re eager to share our lives and talents with others, but have a hard time finding people who are interested.

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In this regard, Lloyd is a very refreshing creation played with open sincerity by Starr. He isn’t practical or driven. He knows he’s a little too old to believe in the endless possibilities most young people think will be open to them forever, but he can’t quite let go of his romantic ideals and so avoids getting a job with a future. He may be self-deprecating and a bit of a slacker, but he has a genuine humanity. In Carol, he recognizes what he thinks is a kindred spirit and someone who needs rescuing just as much as he does. She drinks, after all, and invites a pool boy into her house, though not into her bed—another cliché that never happens in this movie; indeed, the movie upends that cliché by having Lloyd appear at Carol’s door one morning, only to find Bill there having breakfast after a night of lovemaking. Lloyd appears disappointed, perhaps romantically, but more likely because he realizes Carol won’t have time for him.

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Beyond the basics, we don’t really learn very much about anyone in this film other than Carol. This is a bit of a weakness considering the incredible cast at Haley’s disposal, but Place, Perlman, Squibb, and Elliott offer perfect sketches of their characters’ personalities and how they all fit together. The scenes in which the women are together playing cards, having lunch, getting high on medical marijuana, and deciding to go to Iceland because they can are very true to how long-term friends accept each other’s differences and hold each other up in the face of life’s travails. Sexy Bill is a character that would be dodgy if he and Carol were 20 or 30 years younger. I’d say Bill was giving her the bum’s rush, but they aren’t young, and time won’t wait for them to get to know each other properly before they decide that they are compatible and could be happy together. The conditioning of a lifetime kicks in very quickly, and they start thinking about a future together after only a couple of dates.

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The final act of the film becomes a reckoning for Carol. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and it is then that Carol acknowledges freely what was most important to her in her life. It wasn’t what Lloyd wanted for her or what her friends and Bill tried to push on her. It was her daughter and the love she had for her husband. Old age involves many diminishments, but it’s a time when we can finally be honest with others and ourselves. Danner, whose husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died in 2002 (family photos on the mantel of Carol’s home are shots of Danner and Paltrow), brings her understanding of love and loss in its many facets to this film. Her bravery and commitment provide an unforgettable portrait of a woman both older and wiser who surprises herself and us with the largeness of her heart.


8th 11 - 2009 | 6 comments »

PFFAmerica 2009: The Forest (Las, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Piotr Dumała

2009 Polish Film Festival in America

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is not Kieślowski, Wajda, or Pasikowski who are the most sought-after, loved, and welcome of Polish filmmakers at almost all of the world’s festivals. It is Piotr Dumała.

The renown of premier animator Piotr Dumała may not have reached many English-speaking countries, but it should. My first film of the PFFAmerica, and my first Dumała film, was a deep—very deep—experience. Prefaced by an impressionistic, almost experimental animation of snatched moments and the ever-grinding gears of time that, for want of knowing its real title, I’ll call When Father Is Six Feet Under, Dumała has created a disorienting, mournful prologue for this, his first live-action feature film.

The first of the many, many gorgeous images in this black-and-white film is of a tree lizard clinging vertically to a tree, just barely distinguishable from the bark on which it hides. A closer look shows the lizard scrambling higher, away from prying eyes. We are directed to the ground, as a scruffly-looking old man (Stanisław Brudny) and his equally scruffy companion (Mariusz Bonaszewski) stalk through the mist-draped forest, the old man confidently leading the way, the younger man crouching, looking warily around, intemittently clinging to the large leather bag slung over the old man’s shoulder.

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We next see the two men, clean-shaven this time, in a small room. The younger man is holding and sponge-bathing the older man’s back. We can see when the younger man has to secure the older man to the chair with a leather belt so that he can wash the front that the older man is either paralyzed or too weak to sit up himself. This protracted scene of a very thorough scrubbing ends when the younger man asked the older man to try to hold onto him as the younger man lifts him onto the bed he has meticulously prepared. Clearly, from the loving care the younger man shows, he is tending to his father.

We are given no background on these two men—why they live in rather primitive circumstances we assume must be in the forest, whether they have neighbors, what they do to get by. All of our attention is focused on the project that preoccupies them both—the father’s impending death. The film shifts back and forth between the pair’s journey through the forest and the son tending to his father—the former occurring in the old man’s thoughts and dreams, the latter the attempts by the son to keep his father with him. In one scene, the son tries to feed his father. After two mouthfuls of gruel, the old man falls asleep. The son fusses with the food, putting the pot over the wood-burning stove several times, thinking that it is not warm enough, and returning to his father’s bedside to try to feed someone who has clearly gone past the desire to eat and lays asleep, truly suspended between life and death.

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The forest scenes have subtle references to the Torah, or to some other mythic symbology. The father stalks, kills, and filets a snake, much to his son’s disgust. They make camp for the evening, and the father unwraps the snake meat and fits it on a fork to cook in the blazing campfire—looking a bit like a burning bush—he has built. The son reluctantly takes two pieces, but pushes away the third. It lands in the fire; the father fishes it out and devours it. This seems an allusion to the tree of knowledge—the son does not wish to fully awaken to his father’s impending death, but the father is ready. In the next scene, the father shaves himself with a knife, views his image in the river, and goes back to slay his son. He builds a huge pyre for his dead son and sets it ablaze; we awaken from this scene to find that the father has died.

I thought of the sacrifice of Isaac in this scene. The forest scenes leading up to this final rejection of his son show him hitting and talking harshly to the younger man, as though he were impeding the old man’s journey. When the father completes the sacrifice, so to speak, he has truly let go of what was dear to him in life and given himself over to God.

There is a harshness to this film that I know from experience accurately replicates the feelings loving children have when a dying parent turns inward, indifferent to them and their feelings. I commend Dumała for not giving us the candy-coated deaths mainstream films traffick in and thereby preparing us realistically for death the way it really happens for most of us. The lush black-and-white photography—something I’m starting to expect from Polish films after seeing Time to Die—is evocative and absolutely perfect for this film. The spare score and dialogue almost seem unnecessary, but lend some details about the relationship of father and son that help flesh out the picture somewhat. I’ve seen other rich evocations of the passage to death—the aforementioned Time to Die and a psychedelic film from Mexico called Vera. For my money, however, it will be a long time before any filmmaker tops this auspicious feature debut from Piotr Dumała. l

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20th 06 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Vera (2003)

Director: Francisco Athié


By Marilyn Ferdinand

A few years ago, I attended the now-defunct Taos Talking Picture Festival where the Mexican film Vera was getting a rare showing. While the film did well in 2004 Ariel Awards in Mexico, it had not attracted a distributor and was doomed to a short run in a handful of festivals such as TTPF. Nonetheless, Vera was a surprise hit in Taos, perhaps due in part to the presence of the very personable Francisco Athié. His preface before the showing I attended was that we should treat Vera like an LSD trip. If you relax and go with it, he said, you will have a good trip. If not, you will have a bad trip.

Indeed, Vera is a strange, hallucinatory film that reveals itself in a slow, ritualistic way. An idyllic, rural scene gives way to a miner named Juan (Marco Antonio Arzate) lowering himself into a cave with his crude tools to go about his work. A cave-in appears to bury him. But no, he is swept through the cave in a torrent of water. An electric swarm, like a cloud of locusts, sweeps around him, pushing and bending him. A Mayan cauldron appears. He makes a deep cut in his penis and lets the blood run into the cauldron, from which a metal icon emerges. He makes his way through the cave until he reaches an egglike object that expands. A creature pushes its way through the birth canal of the object and emerges. It is young, blue, alien-like, with a visible and glowing heart. Eventually, it becomes larger and more substantial. The creature is Vera (Urara Kusanagi), and she appears to have been born to be Juan’s guide through the cave. Vera and Juan encounter a skeleton. Vera dances with it gleefully. Juan flashes on images of his home, his grandchildren, and a couple making love.

It should be clear by now that Juan is dying. Vera is his guide to the edge of death, a kind but singular creature that is both fearsome because it is unknown and a welcome presence in a dark and frightening place. Athié chose a Japanese butoh dancer to play Vera, and this is a high symbolic choice for the film. According to the Flesh & Blood Mystery Theater, butoh is “an enigma, an ever-evolving mystery. Violent or peaceful, slow or manic, painfully intimate or grandly spectacular, freely improvised or choreographed in stylized gestures, butoh seems to fly away from itself, resisting definition or explanation, yet profoundly transforming those who encounter it.” When it comes to death, there are no national boundaries, no set rules—only the need to transform life to death and whatever comes after that.

Transformation occurs for the butoh dancer, too. We watch as Kusanagi grows thinner and thinner, the burden of her task in carrying the character of Juan across the river Styx (or some version of it) taking all her substance. Eventually, a Garden of Eden appears to Juan, as Vera holds the refreshment of fruits and light before him. We in the audience are returned to the rural idyll once again.

The story took hold in Athié’s imagination as he was in the midst of and recovering from a life-threatening illness. It took him several years to make. He created the film’s rudimentary computer graphics (newborn Vera and skeleton, for example) during classes he was taking to learn the art. Vera, I think, was an exorcism for him. He didn’t seem to care about its commercial fate.

Vera holds a special place in my life. After I saw it, I was convinced that it was a perfect film for Facets, the nonprofit cinematheque and videotheque well-known throughout the United States and located in my town. I brought a tape of Vera to Charles Coleman, the programming director, and reminded him at least once a month that he really should look at it and consider the film for Facets. Eventually he did. Vera opened for one week at the very end of 2004—its only commercial run–and garnered a 3-star review in the Chicago Tribune from John Petrakis. I was a very proud film buff indeed.

Now I’m overjoyed to say that Facets will be releasing the DVD of Vera June 26 on its own publishing label. Francisco Athié has not made a film since Vera, though last I heard he was working on one. He has a small, but impressive output of films and certainly stands among the fine Mexican film makers who have emerged in recent years. I hope you will give the little film that could a viewing. It’s got a lot of heart in it, especially mine.

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