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house of gamesA prominent psychiatrist is seduced by the world of con men and confidence games in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s 1987 directorial debut, House of Games.

Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) enjoys a thriving career, including the recent publication of a well-received book called Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life. One of her patients is a compulsive gambler named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein). During a therapy session, a distraught Billy confides in Margaret that he owes $25,000 to a shady gambler named Mike. He doesn’t have the money and his life is in danger if he doesn’t repay Mike by the following evening. When Margaret tries to reassure Billy that his life is not in danger, he pulls out a gun and tells her that suicide may be his only way out of the problem. She successfully calms Billy and takes the gun from him.

Later that evening while reviewing her notes on Billy’s situation, she finds a reference to Mike and the place where Billy lost the money: the House of Games. Determined to help her patient, Margaret goes to the House of Games looking for Mike (Joe Mantegna). She confronts him about Billy’s debt and learns that he only owed Mike $800, not $25,000 as originally claimed. Mike makes Margaret an offer: in exchange for helping him win a poker game, he’ll forgive Billy’s debt. Although the poker game is exposed as nothing more than a clever ruse, Mike keeps his word and forgives the debt, and Margaret finds herself intrigued by Mike and his shadowy world of deceptions and con games.

Her evening with Mike sparks an idea for another book, and several nights later she tracks him down and asks if she could watch how he operates. He agrees, and takes her along as he pulls several small cons, all the while explaining to her how confidence games work. She also finds herself falling in love with Mike, seduced by his charm and his insight into why people fall for his cons. Margaret’s whirlwind affair with Mike culminates in a complex confidence game involving a briefcase containing $80,000 borrowed from the mob. Will she risk her professional reputation and her life to protect the man she’s grown to love?

I enjoyed House of Games for the same reason I enjoyed Nine Queens, Fabián Bielinsky’s excellent 2000 film about a pair of con artists trying to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps. I know an elaborate trick lies at the heart of the story, but the pleasure of watching the film comes from seeing how the trick was constructed and executed. Mamet’s clever and fast-paced screenplay pulls the viewer along for the ride as Margaret finds herself caught up in a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control. The lead performances are particularly strong and credible. Joe Mantegna’s smooth talking Mike is charming, but unapologetic about his life as a con man. Lindsay Crouse’s character is a bit more complex. Dr. Margaret Ford is a caring psychiatrist who wants to help people; however, her experience with Mike leads to subtle changes to the way she regards herself and her profession. Without giving too much away, I suggest that viewers pay careful attention to Margaret’s clothing and demeanor in the scenes at the beginning and end of the movie where she is approached by fans of her book.

Tightly constructed and well-paced, House of Games is a fine mystery and fascinating character study.

Check the WRL catalog for House of Games

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bad sleep wellA group of reporters gather in a lavish wedding hall, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the reception. Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyōko Kagawa), the daughter of Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), has married Kôichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), her father’s trusted secretary. Despite the happy occasion, there are a few signs that this is not the typical society wedding: Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), the master of ceremony, is arrested on bribery charges; the bride’s brother delivers a curious and threatening wedding toast; and an elaborate wedding cake hints at a sinister event. In some films, this scene might be the backdrop to a big and dramatic climax; however, in The Bad Sleep Well, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Hamlet-inspired film from 1960, the wedding is the prelude to a story of obsession and tragedy.

Nishi is a promising young businessman whose quick ascent through the ranks of Public Corporation is driven by the desire to avenge the death of his father, Furuya, five years earlier. At the time, Furuya was assistant chief at Public Corporation when Vice President Iwabuchi and two of his trusted associates – administrative officer Moriyama and contract officer Shirai – were implicated in a bribery and kickback scandal. Before charges could be filed, Furuya committed suicide by jumping out of a window on the seventh floor of an office building. Furuya’s death brought the investigation to a close, but the bribery and kickbacks continued. Nishi was Furuya’s illegitimate son, and before his death Furuya attempted to reconcile with him. Nishi wants revenge for his father’s death, but he also wants to expose the culture of corruption he believes led to his father’s suicide.

After switching identities with a childhood friend, Nishi secures a job at Public Corporation and eventually marries Yoshiko. Following their marriage, Nishi’s plan for revenge seems to fall into place. Wada and Miura, the company’s accountant, are questioned by police regarding the allegations of bribery. Like Furuya, Miura commits suicide after he’s released by the police; however, Nishi prevents Wada from jumping into a volcano by convincing him to help bring his superiors to justice. Working together, Nishi and Wada then set a trap to frame contract officer Shirai for theft. As his plans come to fruition, Nishi realizes he has fallen in love with Yoshiko, setting the stage for a series of events that put Nishi and Wada’s lives in danger.

The Bad Sleep Well is not the only Shakespeare-inspired film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Throne of Blood, a retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, was released in 1957, and in 1985 he directed the King Lear-inspired Ran, which won the Academy Award for costume design. Unlike Throne of Blood and Ran, which are epic in tone and scope, The Bad Sleep Well has a more intimate setting, taking place in the well-appointed homes and boardrooms of corporate leaders.

I especially enjoyed the pacing of the film and Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Nishi. The opening wedding sequence was a brilliant way to establish the film’s tone and introduce the major characters. The film proceeds at a methodical pace as Kurosawa gradually ratchets up the tension, building to a surprising and tragic turn of events. As Nishi, the great actor Toshiro Mifune brings the right amount of intensity and compassion; his drive for revenge tempered by his growing feelings for his wife.

The Bad Sleep Well is a dramatic, emotionally dynamic film that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare and Kurosawa. It is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bad Sleep Well

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certifiedA chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.

James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.

Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.

The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.

Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.

The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.

Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Certified Copy

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salingerToday’s review is from Mandy.

Author Joanna Rakoff recounts the year she spent working as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in her new memoir, My Salinger Year.

Rakoff’s memoir opens in late 1995, when she decides that she’d rather write her own poetry and not “analyze other people’s poetry.” After making that fateful decision, she leaves her college boyfriend and drops out of her graduate program in London, England, and returns to New York, where she moves in with an aspiring writer named Don. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend at a Christmas party leads to a referral to a local placement agency. Rakoff visits the agency and soon lands an entry-level job as the assistant to a well-established and well-respected literary agent.

She is unfamiliar with the Agency, as she refers to it throughout the book, but she’s quickly enchanted by the peculiar and archaic office atmosphere. At a time when computers, email, and the World Wide Web were becoming ubiquitous, the Agency still relied on Selectric typewriters and Dictaphones, and kept submission records on pink index cards. Rakoff’s early assignments are unremarkable, consisting mainly of transcribing her boss’s letters to clients and publishers. Then comes the day when her boss tells her, “We need to talk about Jerry.” Jerry is a special client who fiercely guards his privacy. Joanna’s boss warns her that she will receive calls from students and reporters or producers trying to speak to Jerry or secure the film rights to his work. Joanna is admonished that no matter how persuasive the caller is, she must never give out Jerry’s address or phone number. At first, Joanna thinks that “Jerry” is the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, but on her way out of her boss’s office she spots a bookshelf containing The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Nine Stories and realizes that her boss represents the reclusive author J.D. Salinger.

Although Joanna was familiar with Salinger’s work, she had never actually read any of his books. Over the course of her year at the Agency, she not only falls in love with Salinger’s work, she also becomes fascinated by the letters Salinger receives from fans around the world, including a teenage boy from Winston-Salem, N.C., whose letters mimic the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield; a World War II veteran from Nebraska; and a girl whose teacher tells her she’ll raise her failing grade if she writes to J.D. Salinger and receives a response from him.

In addition to handling Salinger’s correspondence, and the occasional phone call from Salinger to her boss, Joanna also becomes involved in a curious chapter of Salinger’s publishing history. In 1996, much to the surprise of his agent, Salinger agreed to let Roger Lathbury, a professor and owner of a small publishing house called Orchises Press, publish his short story Hapworth 16, 1924 as a stand-alone book. Salinger developed an instant rapport with Lathbury, and publication of Hapworth was scheduled for January 1997; however, the deal fell apart as quickly as it came together.

Rakoff’s narrative deftly balances descriptions of the Agency and the publishing world of the late ‘90s with her own experiences as a young adult adjusting to life after college and her first real job. Her longtime friends are getting married and moving out of the city; she’s dealing with the fallout of leaving a secure relationship for one that’s a bit more tumultuous; and she’s also learning about the limits of an entry-level salary once you factor in student loan repayment and credit card bills.

Fast-paced and often poignant, My Salinger Year is an engaging look at first jobs, the publishing industry, and the powerful lure of literature.

Check the WRL catalog for My Salinger Year

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berberianA mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio

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painSylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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sweetA Cambridge graduate gets in over her head when she’s recruited by MI5 in Ian McEwan’s witty and metafictional tale of love and espionage in ‘70s Britain, Sweet Tooth.

Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England.  Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge.  Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college.  Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials.  Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine.  She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.

Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning.  Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit.  Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge.  The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.

Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading.  Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.”  Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley.  His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley.  Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick.  It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page?  I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.

Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena.  These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena.  The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.

Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Tooth

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