Trains, parks and screwball comedies

by Leonard Heldreth
The films this month include a thriller set on a Russian express train, an account of a young man coming to terms with his own actions, a middle-aged college professor’s encounter with the world of illegal immigrants and a frothy female buddy movie that imitates the screwball comedies of the ’30s.

 

p179847_d_v7_aaTranssiberian

Trains have been associated with thriller movies in the past, e.g., Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and Murder on the Orient Express, to mention just three of many. As trains were replaced by planes as the preferred mode of travel, thrillers moved from sleeping and dining cars to sterile airports or the crowded aisles of jumbo jets.
Brad Anderson has returned to the earlier setting with Transsiberian, a contemporary adventure that plays out on the seven-day, 5,800-mile trip from Beijing to Moscow across the snowy Siberian wilderness. After the acclaim for his independent film The Machinist, starring an emaciated Christian Bale in a moody industrial setting, Anderson wanted to make a more expansive film with a broader setting and a female protagonist. He had ridden the Transsiberian Express when he was younger, and he set out to capture the mood of contemporary Russia and to use the isolation of being on a train as well as the beauty and danger of the natural setting. With a few nods to Hitchcock and other directors of this sub-genre, he has succeeded.
After opening with the discovery of a brutal drug murder, Anderson uses the first half of the film to introduce the four main characters, the train and the wintery setting. An American couple, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jesse (Emily Mortimer), have finished a service project in China for their church, and since Roy is a fanatic about trains, they decide to take the Transsiberian train as part of their journey back to the United States.
Woody is a straight-arrow, an eternally optimistic person who prides himself on keeping his eye on the doughnut, not the hole. Jesse is his wife, who has buried most of her wild past of alcoholism and sex to become a dutiful wife; she still smokes, however, to Roy’s chagrin. She also is an amateur photographer, and some of the critical information provided in the film appears on her digital viewfinder.
Sharing a compartment with them are Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), who are returning from teaching English in Japan. Carlos is carrying some carved figures he plans to smuggle out of the country and make a profit on; he also immediately starts making advances to Jesse, who finds herself drawn to his recklessness.
Abby, who wears Goth makeup, shares little information about herself except that she is from Seattle, that she has been on the road since leaving high school, and she’s saving money to buy some property that used to belong to her father. These people get to know each other and drink vodka with the other travelers in an attempt to inject some cheer into the somber surroundings.
The trouble begins when Roy, looking at some old trains on a siding, fails to get back on the express train; Jesse gets off at the next stop to wait and meet him on the train that comes through the following day. Carlos and Abby also get off to keep her company.
The next morning, Carlos takes Jesse on a bus ride to a destroyed church, and Jesse takes some pictures and then escapes his advances and returns to catch the train that is bringing Roy. On board, Roy introduces her to his new friend Grinko, a narcotics detective (Ben Kingsley). Things go rapidly downhill after that, and while some of the action may be predictable, there are enough surprises and deft handling of details to make it work.
All of the actors are fine, but it is really Mortimer’s picture, and she is excellent, managing to be up-front about matters without telling everything, even under dire circumstances. Harrelson makes Roy’s innocence believable and also makes his action sequence at the end authentic.
The photography of the train rolling through the Siberian tundra is beautiful, and the shots of the ruined church are memorable. In the background are people trying to cope with the new order in Russia, one of drugs and millionaires among the “successful” and extreme poverty among the old and unemployed. Their faces, seen through Jesse’s camera, are like living icons. As Grinko states it, “Before we were living in darkness; now we’re dying in the light. Which one is better?”
The film works because Anderson slowly builds the suspense. Events pull the characters into other events; people make slips in what they say, lose control and try to avoid the white chaos that intrudes on them.
The last scenes, as Jesse visits Abby in the hospital, add an additional twist to the story and wrap up the plot with precision. We realize that, just as the falling snow softens the outlines of the ruined church, some things are better left covered or undisturbed. Transsiberian is not a perfect thriller, but it is the best that has come chugging along in quite some time.

MV5BMTM4NjM1MTg2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjc2MDE2MQ@@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_AL_Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant’s career is unique in its arc from independent film maker (My Own Private Idaho) to Academy Award commercial success (Good Will Hunting) and back to independent films, such as the Young Death trilogy, Gerry, Elephant and Last Days.
In Paranoid Park, Van Sant has hired one of the world’s best photographers, Christopher Doyle (see In the Mood for Love), and developed a technique that goes beyond his earlier films about troubled youth to create a cinematic poem, a stunning portrait of a teenager, quietly and resolutely trying to cope with events that almost overwhelm him.
Van Sant bases his story on a young-adult novel by Blake Nelson, but he drops the linear narration and the explicit references to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment. He keeps the theme of guilt and how the young Alex (Gabe Nevins) copes with it.
At the start of the film, the camera shows Alex writing the words “Paranoid Park” with a knife-sharpened pencil into a lined notebook, and the camera comes back to this scene several times, each time after giving the viewer more information about Alex and the story he is telling as he writes it; only near the end does he reveal what started him writing the story.
Accidentally involved in a brutal situation—the death of a railroad security guard—Alex circles the incident in his mind, gradually letting himself acknowledge what has happened and his responsibility in it. Van Sant’s elliptical narrative captures Alex’s mental state as he tells his story to his only confidant, his notebook.
Alex is not a deprived teenager. He has some problems: his parents are divorcing, his girlfriend wants to sleep with him in preparation for going steady, and he’s facing the usual adolescent difficulties of being accepted by friends and dealing with his schoolwork. But he has a nice home, his parents care for him, even if not for each other, and he’s coping with other pressures as well as most boys do. That is, until the night at the railroad and the horrifying scene that results.
Police come to the school and quiz Alex and his fellow skateboarders about the night of the accident, but Alex plays it cool, and no one seems to notice anything. The film’s focus is not so much on Alex’s being found out as it is on how he comes to terms with what has happened, and it’s a fascinating process.
Early in the film, Alex’s friend Jared (Jake Miller) suggests to him that they go to Paranoid Park, where all the older skateboarders hang out. Alex says he is not sure he is ready for Paranoid Park, but Jared assures him, “No one is ever ready for Paranoid Park.”
Nevins and all of the cast, with the exception of Taylor Momsen (Alex’s girlfriend Jennifer), are non-professionals that Van Sant hired through a Facebook ad, but they work well in the context of the film. Nevins’ boyish face often is blank, but it’s a mask that covers all of the turmoil inside him and is hinted at by the music on an unusually creative soundtrack. With his sagging clothes, baseball hat on backward and hair in his eyes, he’s the quintessential skateboard kid.
The film, like much of Van Sant’s recent work, is set in Portland, and Doyle’s photography captures the rainy, soft quality of the light there, as well as the scene at the skateboard park where the boys in their baggy contemporary clothes soar into the air, turn and twist like trapeze artists and land gracefully (usually) on their boards.
The film’s plot has little action, and some reviewers (but not me) were irritated by Van Sant’s occasional idiosyncrasies—Gabe’s brother sitting on the bed and recounting at length and in great detail a movie he had seen recently, or Gabe and his friends strolling down the high school halls in a tableau straight out of The Wild Bunch.
The film is tight, a short seventy-eight minutes, even though the director lets the plot circle back on itself and takes his time with important scenes. The soundtrack combines classical music, jazz, rap and—my favorite—circus-theme music from the films of Fellini.
Paranoid Park may be Van Sant’s best recent film, and the face of Alex and the Portland settings linger on after this short film has concluded.

 

51pTvV0IDjL._SY300_The Visitor

Thomas McCarthy’s last film was The Station Agent, a film he wrote specifically for the dwarf, Peter Dinklage. It was a charming comedy about an inherited railroad station. The Visitor, although it is also about a man gradually opening up to life, is stronger stuff as it examines the way people are dehumanized by bureaucracy, in this case the U.S. Immigration Service.
Walter Vale is a man on autopilot. He has taught the same economics courses for thirty years, he no longer cares about his students and their problems, and the death of his wife, a concert pianist, has removed whatever joy remained in his life. At the emphatic insistence of his department head, he goes from Connecticut to New York City to deliver a paper at a professional meeting on the global economy (an ironic subject given his subsequent encounters).
Although he is technically the coauthor of the paper, he acknowledges that he contributed nothing to it but his name.
He plans to stay in an apartment he and his wife had kept in New York for her use and their visits there, but when he arrives, he finds the apartment already occupied by Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a young Syrian man, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), his African lover, both illegal immigrants. Someone has conned them into renting the apartment, and when they realize the situation, they immediately pack their few belongings and start down the stairs. Walter realizes they have no place to stay, and offers to let them remain there for a day or so until they can find a place to live, and they accept the offer. Thus begins the relationship that alters Walter’s life.
Although Zainab is clearly uncomfortable with Walter, Tarek jokes with him and offers to teach him how to play the djembe, an African drum. Tarek plays in a jazz combo at a local nightclub. The opening scene of the film had shown Walter informing his fifth piano teacher her services were no longer needed, and she informs him it is for the best since he has zero talent for the piano, despite his attempts to keep his wife’s music alive. But the djembe is a different instrument, and Walter responds to it so well that Tarek takes him to an afternoon drumming session in the park.
As they go home, Tarek has a misunderstanding in the subway station and is arrested, and his illegal status is revealed. He is imprisoned in a deliberately nondescript immigrant holding tank, and Walter comes to visit him, although Zainab cannot visit since she also is an illegal alien.
A few days later, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), Tarek’s mother arrives from Michigan because she has not heard from him in five days, and he normally calls her every day. She is a little surprised at the color of her son’s partner, but quickly adjusts and responds positively to Zainab. Walter hires a lawyer to try to free Tarek, but there are complications, and the rest of the film explores what happens. There is a growing relationship between Walter and Tarek’s mother, which works better than one would expect it to, primarily because of the ability of the actors.
The film was written for Jenkins, a well-known character actor (Six Feet Under and other television series as well as numerous film roles), and he makes the most of his opportunity for a leading role.
Underplayed and yet right on the money, he shows Walter’s slow return to life and emotional involvement. The other major actors also are excellent, and the New York settings contribute to the feeling of authenticity.
The subject of the title is kept deliberately ambiguous, but everything else about this small but powerful production is clear. While no one would believe that all immigrants, legal or illegal, are as attractive and productive as the ones portrayed in this film, it’s also true that most of us have no idea how the immigration branch of the government treats people.
Immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border and the treatment of Spanish aliens have been much discussed in the recent election. The Visitor broadens the discussion to include all immigrant groups. The film also is excellent entertainment.

 

p176147_p_v7_aaMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on a 1938 novel by English author Winifred Watson, is a frothy confection of a movie with a somber frame, existing between the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II.
It’s a female buddy movie that moves from soup kitchens to lingerie fashion shows and packs more complicated situations into its short running time than any three other movies. Further, it clearly is imitating the classic screwball comedy’s rapid action and dialogue.
It breaks no new ground, will win no awards and probably will not be remembered in a few years, but it does what very few films are able to accomplish: it amuses and completely entertains us while it’s on the screen.
The film opens with Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) being fired from her current position as governess without being paid for her last week’s work. She goes to the employment agency, but the woman in charge is tired of finding jobs for Pettigrew, who goes through them like a person with a cold goes through a box of Kleenex.
Desperate for a job, Pettigrew swipes an address card from the woman’s desk, determined to get to a job before anyone can be sent by the employment agency. She doesn’t realize that the person wants a social secretary, not a governess.
She arrives at the posh apartment of cabaret singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams of Junebug and Enchanted) and quickly is enlisted to help the young lady remove one young man before another arrives.
The nude man to be removed from her bed and eased out the door is the boyish Phil (Tom Payne), who’s in charge of a West End production in which she wants the lead role and which she has spent the night trying to obtain; the man arriving is Nick (Mark Strong), the man who owns the flat where she lives and the nightclub where she performs.
Working together, the women make the switch, and Delysia hires Miss Pettigrew on the spot. After they also dispose of Nick, Delysia takes Miss Pettigrew shopping for some acceptable clothes, a facial and a perm. They team up with Edythe (Shirley Henderson), who owns the salon, and Miss Pettigrew agrees to help her patch up her relationship with her fiancee, Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a middle-aged lingerie designer. Unfortunately, Miss Pettigrew finds Joe attractive, and he returns the attention.
The last major character is Michael (Lee Pace), a penniless piano player, who, of course, is the one who truly loves Delysia and wants her to go with him when he sails on the Queen Mary for America the following morning.
Anyone can see where all of this is going, but that’s all right because it’s how they get there that is entertaining. It’s amazing what writers David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) have packed into one twenty-four-hour time span.
McDormand and Adams play off each other very well, and the three men manage to make each of their roles individual, especially Hinds as Joe. The Art Deco sets are lovely, the costumes are gorgeous, the nudity is tasteful, the music is jazzy (Adams sings a touching solo), and the running jokes are clever—especially Miss Pettigrew’s attempts to grab some food, even a partially eaten apple in a railway station, as she is swirled through this insane day.
One scene between Pettigrew and Joe adds levity to the proceedings. Bombers are flying overhead and the young people in the club are cheering them on, but Pettigrew says to Joe, “They don’t remember the first one, do they?” and he replies sadly, “No, they don’t.” Miss Pettigrew lost her fianceé in World War I. Both know that the next war is coming and the madcap world they have inhabited for the last few hours will end soon. It’s a poignant moment slipped in between the parties and the jokes.
Miss Pettigrew is entertainment, pure and simple, and anyone wanting to be pleasantly diverted for ninety-two minutes could do much worse.
—Leonard G. Heldreth

 

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available on DVD or VHS from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can be found at www.marquettemonthly.org

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