Sunday, January 15, 2012

Duane Hopwood

There is a certain freedom when you lose everything you ever cared about in life. It sounds insane, I know. But it simplifies the process of life. It means you can start from scratch... A clean slate if you will.
"Duane Hopwood" (David Schwimmer) first loses his sobriety, then his wife and two daughters, then his job, then his hope and comes dangerously close to losing his will to live. At the custody hearing, he tells the judge that he "needs a reason to stay".
The only thing Duane doesn't lose is the unconditional love of his daughters and the loyalty of a very quirky group of friends.
What is so skillful about this film is the way in which it balances our sympathy for Duane's tragic situation with our understanding that Duane is the cause of his own problems and the only one who can remedy them.
The pivot, around which the film's emotional power revolves, is the quite magnificent transformation of David Schwimmer from the almost unshakable familiarity of his role as Ross on NBC's 'Friends' to this ever so sad and bedraggled ex-husband and father who is desperate to stop the sand slipping through his fingers. This is absolutely a career transforming role that, surprisingly to me, certifies that he has a very promising film career as a dramatic actor in front of him. If enough people see this film, he will be reaping the rewards with great parts for years to come.
Janeane Garofalo also delivers in an atypical role. As Duane's estranged wife, she delicately balances the cold-hearted reality of wanting to move on with her life and the sympathetic understanding of someone who knows him better than anyone else. Her role could so easily have drifted into cynical and clichéd 'mean ex-wife' territory... but this film is too smart to go down that path.
There are some truly fine performances from the supporting cast members. Judah Friedlander & Susan Lynch are both very good as Duane's new support system. Friedlander plays Anthony, an aspiring comedian who becomes Duane's roommate. Lynch is Duane's first girlfriend since getting divorced. Each of them change the pace of the film nicely and add depth and nuance to an already powerful story.
I also want to point out the girls who play Duane's kids. So often I complain that bad performances from kids can ruin the believability of a film... However, Ramya Pratt & Rachel Covey are both splendid here.
This film feels like a cross between "The Family Man" and "Leaving Las Vegas"... an odd combination indeed. But it works on so many levels. I laughed during this film. I shed tears in the final act. I cared about each and every character. It is a tremendously well written screenplay, and it is acted with precision.
This is a small independent feature that really deserves a wide audience. Unfortunately, it will have trouble finding one because it doesn't have a huge publicity campaign behind it or 75 copies lining the shelves of DVD stores. I can only hope that word of mouth and positive reviews like mine will convince a few people to seek this film out. If they do, they will find a diamond in the rough and will be telling all their friends about it too.

Monday, January 09, 2012

John Rabe

 'To the Führer of the German people. Chancellor Adolf Hitler. My Führer. As a loyal party member and upstanding German. I turn to you in a time of great need. The Japanese Imperial troops conquered the city of Nanking on December 12, 1937. Since then I have witnessed atrocious crimes against civilians. Please help to end this catastrophe and make an appeal to our Japanese allies in the name of humanity. With a German salute, John Rabe ' This is an actual letter, unheeded, that along with the diaries of John Rabe provide the story for this deeply moving film about the Japanese destruction of Nanking as gathered in the book "John Rabe: Der Gute Deutsche von Nanking" edited by Erwin Wickert and adapted for the screen and directed by the immensely gifted Florian Gallenberger. Having just seen Chuan Lu's 'City of Life and Death', a brilliant black and white Chinese epic film about this same period of history, it is doubly troubling to view this shameful piece of history. JOHN RABE is after all a biography of the man the Chinese still regard as a saint for providing shelter of thousands of victims of the rape of Nanking and as such we learn much more about the German machinations in the event than in Chuan's film. Burt there is a similarity of distinction: in both films the writer/director shows that both sides of the atrocity had heroes and champions.

The film shares the writing of the diary kept by John Rabe during this time frame and follows his diary as the story line. Rabe (Ulrich Tukur in a brilliant performance) was living with his wife Dora (Dagmar Manzell) in Nanking for 27 years as the head of the Siemens Factory, a German resource for construction in China. They were loyal to Germany, were members of the Nazi party, but lived the good life in the city: Rabe was a compassionate but focused director of the Chinese employees. He is to be retired by the Germans and replaced by a rigid, seemingly evil Werner Fliess (Mathias Herrmann). On the night of his tender farewell party the Japanese attack and it soon becomes apparent that Prince Asaka Yasuhiko (Teruyuki Kagawa) plans to decimate the city. There are others from other nations who are working Nanking - in the university, Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny), in the hospital, Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), and in the German Embassy, the Jewish lawyer Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Brühl) - as well as Chinese aligned with Rabe, Langshu (Jingchu Zhang). When it becomes obvious that the Japanese will slaughter all the populace of the city, John Rabe gathers as many Chinese as he can into a Safety Zone where no soldiers or weapons are allowed, only the support with food and medical attention and beneficence Rabe is able to gather. The atrocities and bombings continue until the very existence of the Safety Zone is vulnerable. Rabe's gathering of the forces around him to protect as many citizens as he can, despite his own gradual physical failure due to his diabetes and lack of insulin, gains him the respect and admiration and love of the people of Nanking.

The film spares no images of the mass executions, the beheadings, and the sexual abuse and torture of the people of Nanking by the Japanese. Much of the film is difficult to watch. But even more tragic is the discovery of the information after the film is complete that John Rabe (as well as Dr. Georg Rosen) returned to Germany as undesirables in 1938 and died in poverty and abandonment by the Germans. The cast is exemplary: many fine cameo roles played by fine actors make this film as touching than the main story. This is a very fine cinematic achievement and deserves a global audience.