Starting Out in the Evening (2007)

Andrew Wagner’s film features Professor Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), an aging novelist with failing health who encounters Heather (Lauren Ambrose) a young, attractive and ambitious grad student who has her heart set on writing her thesis about Leonard’s work.

Set before the backdrop of the New York City world of literature and publishing, he is focused upon completing what is to be his last novel. He tells Heather that her thesis project would simply be an unnecessary distraction. She is peristant, though--eventually proves herself to be a worthy candidate for the task, as she is an excellent student of his work. He begins to be flattered by her attention and she soon convinces him that this could revive his fading career and perhaps add some much-needed sparkle to his quiet life. He agrees to grant her a few interviews.

Meanwhile, his only daughter, Ariel (lily Taylor), a former dancer who is now a pilates and yoga instructor, is approaching 40 and desperately wishes to have a child before it is too late. Leonard wonders if her upbringing has anything to do with her ongoing distress on this front. The man she loves wants no part of it and the man who loves her leaves her cold.

Leonard’s publisher tells him that the only books they are accepting these days are celebrity confessionals and self-help books. He views himself more and more as a dying breed of writer. There is a sadness about him that intrigues Heather. We learn that his wife had been a psychotherapist who had died when Ariel was quite young. He reveals…”I would not be a writer if I had been blinded by optimism.”

Heather continuously digs to find out more about the connection between the wife and several of the author’s female characters. She wonders how much is autobiographical. Leonard finds this inquiry exhausting. It shakes the safety of his small world. She claims that his early work saved her life during a troubling time several years ago. The strength of his female characters and the freedom in his relationships left an impression.”You gave me the courage to live my own life.”

Leonard tells her that “freedom is not the choice that the world encourages—you have to wear a suit of armor to defend it.”

Heather refers to Hemingway’s premise that writers have threads of gold that run through their work—it makes up a solid gold bar. She is in search of Leonard’s “gold bar."

Heather confides some of her doubts about Leonard's later work to a well-regarded editor at the Village Voice who encourages Heather to speak the truth even if people get hurt and advises “When you speak with conviction, people notice.”

The relationship between Heather and Leonard becomes complex…he seems to enjoy his role as mentor for Heather as she is formulating her perspective on his work. There is a touch of the romantic, but she completes the project and his health problems escalate.

Leonard tells his daughter that the thesis is "half-baked," but he truthfully respects what Heather has to say. Ariel arrives in a much happier place in her life. Leonard continues to struggle with comletion of his last novel.

This is a quiet and touching story about modern life, aging, love, and art—worth watching.


Miral (2010)

Julian Schnabel was a rising art star in the 1980s. His paintings often reference history, culture, and literature. In the 1990s he added films to his art repertoire. During the last fifteen years he made Basquiat, Before Night Falls, Diving Bell and Butterfly leading up to this latest journey. Each film shows a person struggling through adversity.

This time, he visits the wartorn border areas joining Palestine and Israel, a controversial film about a conflict that continues today.

The story begins in 1947 when Hind al-Husseini uses her wealth to feed and educate orphaned children. The film takes us to the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israeli military occupied areas of Palestine--the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.

We learn about a young teen named Nadia who runs away from a home where she has been repeatedly raped by a caretaker. She lands into a life as an exotic dancer and heavy drinking. She eventually lands in jail for an assault charge.  She meets a nurse named Fatima, who was serving 2 life sentences after becoming involved with terrorists. She entered a movie theater showing the Roman Polanski film, Repulsion--leaves a bag with a bomb in a bag on the floor.

Fatima arranges a marriage for Nadia with her brother upon her release from jail. He provides a good life and truly loves her. In 1973 Nadia gives birth to daughter, Miral. This is her story.

Nadia remains troubled. She goes out at night, leaving Miral under the care of her father, a kid a loving man. Nadia ends her life by walking out into the sea. Miral is taken to Hind's orphanage school to live during the week while he is at work.

In 1987 when Miral (Frieda Pinto) is a teen during the "infitada," when poor Palestinian workers were run over by a convoy. Several of Hind's girls, including Miral, are sent to teach the orphaned children in a refugee camp. She becomes politicized there when she encounters a radical group and her first boyfriend. This leads her to be captured and tortured for information at age 17.

Her father fears for her, desperate to save her from the troubled lives of his sister and her mother. He manages to have her released. Soon after this time, he reveals to Miral that she is not his biological child.

Miral befriends an Israeli girl named Lisa (Stella Scnabel) and is exposed to new ideas. She suffers the loss of her boyfriend and father. Grieving and uncertain about the future, she visits Hind once more. An old woman by this time, Hind is proud of Miral's convictions--encourages her to pursue further education. Miral wishes to become a journalist.

The film ends with mention of The Oslo Agreement in 1993, a plan for two independent states that has never been honored. Miral does go on to become a journalist and writer of her own story.

This is a complex political biopic that has been received with mixed reviews. I do not have strong views about the Israeli-Palestine conflict so I could watch it as a beautiful story. The cinematography is very good. The screenply was written by Rulla Jebreal, based her novel of true events in her life. Julian Schnabel apparently had a close relationship with her so there is an authenticity to the entire experience that is hard to deny. The soundtrack includes several pieces by composer, Laurie Anderson.

Another gorgeous art film.

DVD extras show Schnabel in his studio with the many paintings he has made of Miral, who he refers to as his muse. Schnabel speaks about how his process of doing painting and film informs what he gets in the end. I appreciate this way of working. In another extra about making the movie, he tells his camerman "follow your bliss."

He claims that Jebreal's book changed his life. When critics accused him of being anti-semetic, he nearly bought back the movie, but he explains that a shift in public opinion occurred. Still, the film  opened in just 10 markets. Schnabel adds that is important to make a movie about what is happening now. That moment in 1993 when an agreement was made offered enormous hope to many people, but the hope is now stopped due to not enough progress.


Shadows and Lies (2010)

Director Jay Anania happens to have been one of James Franko’s teachers.  This art film about a quiet and mysterious petty criminal named William (James Franko) is a compelling story that views like a book. Many questions surround events as they unfold and it demands a bit of pondering.

We learn that William, previously named Joseph, had been a young man with a love for Japan who experienced a life-changing event when he missed an airline flight to Japan. He later discovers that the flight he would have been on crashed with no survivors. 
He gets off a bus in Manhattan, changes his identity to this William character and lives his life as if he actually been lost. He attends trade school to learn film editing, takes residence in a Chinatown storefront, and lives his eccentric life as an editor of educational nature films. In his spare time, he walks the streets, frequents cafes, and picks people’s pockets.
When a hardcore gangster observes him in action on the street one day, William's life takes a turn to a much darker side.  Boss (Josh Lucas) is a dark, controlling drug runner looking for just the right delivery man. Victor (Martin Donovan) is the “muscle” guy who is ordered to get William for the job.
Victor tells him there is a woman he wants William to meet. “She’s a gift.” William turns down the offer, but Ann (Julianne Nicholson) shows up one afternoon anyway. She is quiet and respectful, but wastes no time asking “So who are you?” William offers her a glass of water. She admires the kimono hanging on his closet door. He shows her the film he is working on. They sit and watch a long segment about a jelly fish stirring in the sea. Wonderful music with organ or harmonium sounds add to a moody soundtrack.

The meeting with Ann seals the deal. William agrees to try the delivery work, but Victor warns him to stay away from Ann, as she belongs to Boss. Julianne Nicholson is an intriguing actress who appears in another film reviewed here (see Archive for April 2011). She has a removed quality that is somewhat like the quality of Tilda Swinton, one of my favorites.

William finds the delivery work a bit tougher than expected. He was told to give Victor the envelope with money, but Ann shows up for it. She notices the kimono is not hanging in the same spot. He offers her the folded silk. “Can I try it on” She slips into the bathroom and comes out with nothing on but the kimono and lies down on his monk-size futon. He lays down on the floor next to her. 
This is a film of suggestion. The connection between them is a danger to both. Boss eventually forbids them to ever see one another.

William’s behavior takes on a violent edge. Boss rewards him with $75,000 and forbids him to ever see Ann again. He leaves for a few years, but sends Ann a letter explaining things--then he returns to stalk her a bit, hoping to capture her from her prison with Boss.

This film is made for James Franco fans. I imagine many will not care for it. This is not passionate and hot film--it is disinterested, cool, and perplexing. I like it.  


Buddhafest 2011

Tricycle magazine offered online participation in Buddhafest, a film festival held near Washington DC this summer. In addition to Crazy Wisdom (mentioned in the precious post), I watched three other ispiring documentaries to watch for...

With One Voice
Interviews with spiritual leaders investigate the nature of experiencing the "reality that the mind cannot grasp--peace." Some of the speakers include Joseph Goldstein, Joan Halifax Roshi, John Daido Loori, Thomas Keating.

Cave in the Snow
English woman, Diana Perry, was the daughter of a fishmonger in London' East End until she left home for the east on a spiritual journey. She became Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the first woman to take monk vows. She spent 12 years secluded in a cave and was quite happy there, but explains that "life ha a way of serving up what you need rather than what you think you want." She now oversees a nunnery in northern India to offer other women an opportunity for spiritual development.

Colors of Compassion
Thich Nhat Hanh offered a 4-day mindfulness training retreat to heal the divisions of color (Deer Park, California). Participants were interviewed throughout the retreat and spoke openly about their experiences as non-white Americans. There seemed to be a great sense of release and exhileration to be secluded in that accepting environment among others sharing similar experiences. Much of the film is quiet and simply observes and listens to Thich Nhat Hanh.

This also includes a wonderful bonus interview with Sister Dang Nghiem called Healing: A Woman's Journey from Doctor to Nun.

Crazy Wisdom (2010)

Johanna Demetrakas' feature-length documentary film tells a long detailed story of Chogyam Trungpa, the 11th descendant of Trungpa tulkus. Often referred to as the "bad boy of buddhism," he came of age during the last generation of Tibetan monks to be assigned highly-regarded Kagyu lamas. Khenpo Ghanshar Wangpo was Trungpa's primary teacher for about five years until the monks were told to flee Tibet when the Chinese invaded during the late 1950s.

Trungpa set out with other monks for India, a journey that took 6 months. This challenge became the metaphor for his message to students going forward. "Do not be afraid. Do not be a coward." He studied at Oxford during the early 1960s to learn about how people in the west suffer and develope his approach to teaching the Dharma (teachings used to open a student's mind to reality of things as they are).

Trungpa Rinpoche and one of the monks he traveled from Tibet with, Akon Rinpoche, formed a teaching center in Scotland called Samye Ling. A pivotal moment for Trungpa was a journey to Bhutan, where he retreated in the location where Padmasambhava meditated in 800BC. There he wrote the Sadhana Mahamudra in 5 hours. This text describes a dark age when spirital values have been lost. "The river of materialism has burst its banks."

Although, Akong and Trungpa had a large following of students at Samye Ling, Akong wanted to develop the center as a place for Tibetan refugees. Trungpa had a different vision. He removed his robes and went to London to live as an ordinary man. He met a young girl named Diana. He was also involved in an accident when the car he was driving crashed through a jokeshop window. His throat was slashed and he became paralyzed on the left side.

His struggle escalated as he recovered from the accident. He became increasingly troubled by the notion of the golden buddha on the pedestal and monks in robes. "People do not see a person--they see only the robe and their pet guru." He wore a mirror on a chain around his neck as a way to professize. Many rejected him for his unconventional ways--others adored him.

The film footage includes interviews with Trungpa's wife, Diana Mukpo. She tells about this time when he told her that he was on the verge of something...either he was going crazy or becoming enlightened.  In 1968 they immigrated to North America so that that he could begin offering his teachings to Americans.

He established Karme Choling in Vermont before relocating to Colorado, where another group of students assembled. A large land center was established in the mountains of Red Feather Lakes, just northwest of Boulder. In 1974 he orchestrated the first buddhist-inspired university. Naropa Institute was a gathering place from pure vision. Spiritual leaders of all kinds were invited to converge and allow sparks to fly...Gregory Bateson, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Anne Waldren...and so many others.

The film includes footage and interviews with many who contributed to those early programs. Ram Dass spoke about the days when they worked closely together. He was the heart. Trungpa was the head. "You can survive by doing nothing."

During this time when hippie culture prevailed, Trungpa met the students exactly where they were and gradually introduced new ways of being. Many left the fold when he began asking more of them. Some could not accept the idea of dressing up--wearing a suit and tie.

He was relentless in his emphasis on dismantling the ways we cling to ego. The message over and over was about the elimination of self-deception. He knew he had to enter American mindset through language. "In order to meet majesty within, one must meet majesty outside."

His Kagyu Budhhist teachings later emphasized the Shambhala teachings, a non-secular approach to meditation practice that now includes over 200 centers worldwide.

He coined the phrase, "taming the mind" and taught how to attain equilibrium. Famous for unmasking people, some feared him for that, but he kept on presenting the idea that there is no certainty and you can have a sense of humor about that. He made everything personal and emphasized that the path is under us when we continually open to what is being encountered. The Bodhissattva way makes being a benefit to others our guiding principle in life.

He introduced the notion of Dharma Art. Instead of paint a river--be a river. Receive images without struggle--allow natural dignity to emerge. He called his group of Dharma Art helpers Explorers of the Richness of the Phenomenal World. This is a practice in appreciation of the world of senses. His frequent public drunkenness is well known, but some claim that his apparent awareness of his enviroment seemed unaffected by the intoxication.

He spoke at the funeral of his good friend, Suzuki Roshi. When he stood there and cried, the entire community were given permission to grieve more fully.

The film is full of interviews with several of his students who later became teachers, including Pema Chodron. Trungpa's son, Mipham, now Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, continues the lineage as spiritual director of Shambhala International.

3000 gathered for his cremation at Karme Choling after his early death in 1987 at age 47. A rainbow formed in the sky as the funeral pyre was burning.

The film is a moving look at an important teacher of the 20th century whose legacy and influence continue to thrive.

Le Divorce (2003)

This James Ivory film is a fun story about American sisters in Paris as a background. Roxeanne (Naomi Watts) is a pregnant young mother and poet married to frenchman, Charles-Henri. When sister, Isabel (Kate Hudson) arrives to help, she finds Roxeanne shaken by the news that her husband, Charles-Henri, has left her for another woman and wants a divorce.

Isabel alerts their parents in Santa Barbera and they travel to Paris to find out what is going on. Stockard Channing is wonderful as mother. French social customs are played out by Charles-Henri's large family, headed by matriarch, Suzanne (Leslie Caron). Isabel seduces Charles-Henri's father, Edgar. He sends her a Hermes crocodile Kelly Bag. This signals to others that an affair has begun. So French.

Matthew Modine is a distressed husband of Charles-Henri's new girlfriend who refuses to grant her a divorce. He finds his own way to resolve the conflict.

My favorite character in all of this is the American poet professor, Olivia (Glenn Close). She seems to have been a bit of a mentor to Roxeanne and hires Isabel as an assistant. Close is the epitome of the successful, confident professional...over fifty and attractive with just a few streaks of grey in her long lush hair...wonderfully sculpted face. She has lived in Paris a long time and is full of news about the customs...talks about writing a book about french mothers and their scarves. Scarves are featured on heads, around necks, as gifts. We learn that the scarf gift signals the end of an affair.

Central to the the drama between the two families is an heirloom that Roxeanne has possession of in the Paris home...a highly-valued painting of Saint Ursula has been on loan to her by her family. Charles-Henri's family believed it to be part of her "dowry." Roxeanne's family had only allowed her to "borrow" it for awhile. BeBe Neuwirth is the museum curator with interests in retrieving the valued art. Saint Ursula was the patron sait of all young girls. This metaphor becoes key to Roxeanne's future.

The Richard Robbins soundtrack has an old Paris feel an adds a light mood to the complex and funny story.


A Few Quick Movie Suggestions

Our Own Love Story (2010)...A bit odd, but still enjoyed seeing Renee Zellweger as a wheelchair-bound singer traveling with her unlikely friend (Forest Whitaker). Great Dylan soundtrack.

Singles (1992)...Bridget Fonda, Matt Dylan, Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott as 20-somethings learning to live in the world of relationships.

Snowcake (2006)...Alan Rickman is just out of prison when his life becomes crossed with Sigourney Weaver is a high-functioning autistic woman and an unusua friendship evolves. Rickman is wonderful!

Thumbsucker (2005)...Family drama/comedy with Tilda Swinton and Vincent D'Onofrio as parents of teen with oral obsession with his thumb. Great comic relief from Keanu Reeves, the boy's deep thinking orthodontist and Vince Vaughn as the well-meaning school counselor. Enjoyed this one a lot.

Shape of Things (2003)...College campus romantic comedy with Paul Rudd as a geek who is transformed into a better version of himself when he falls for a conceptual artist who is full of artiface. This is kind of silly and twisted, but entertaining.

Chelsea on the Rocks (2008)

Abel Ferrara's documentary tells about the NYC landmark hotel and all the colorful characters who resided there through the years as developers were planning to change the game. There was money to be made off the tattered building and longtime tenants faced the possibility of losing their affordable home.

Stanley Bard managed the building during the days when artists bartered paintings for rent. The film is dedicated to poet Dylan Thomas, who is one of the many writers to live and work at The Chelsea. Old and new interviews with tenants and former residents include Vito Acconti, Jerry Garcia, Janice Joplin, Donald Baechler, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many others. Ethan Hawke directed Chelsea Walls, a film of stories shot in the hotel. He tells about Stanley inviting him to move in for a few months after his marriage broke up--rentfree. He says living at The Chelsea had been a right of passage for young actors.

Good stories and reflections about another fading chapter of the art world.