Celebrated photographer Neal Slavin makes his directing debut with Focus, creating a retro, eerie feel that captures the viewer and allows a look into the mind of Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy).
Based on a novel written in 1945 by Arthur Miller, Focus could not be more timely. It is a thought-provoking fable about intolerance in World War II-era Brooklyn and what it is to have your view of the world and the way others see you shifted.
Newman works in an insurance company, handling personnel matters, which include enforcing the policy of not hiring Jews. When he starts wearing a new pair of glasses, the gentile Newman is taken for a Jew, demoted and eventually forced to seek employment elsewhere.
He goes to work with Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern), who he previously turned down for a position in his old firm because he thought she was Jewish.
Newman is no classic hero. He is as anti-Semitic in his own meek way as his blustery neighbors are. The character does grow a spine: first, as a matter of self-interest but then in a more selfless manner as both his situation and the reckless assumptions dissipate.
Macy and Dern’s characters marry after a whirlwind courtship, only to encounter anti-Semitism at every turn – including being refused accommodation at a “restricted” hotel.
“Nobody makes a Jew out of me and gets away with it,” Hart snarls, and Newman initially shares her attitude.
But the characters begin to rethink their positions when a band of America-first union crusaders – including Newman’s previously friendly next-door neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) – start including the couple in attacks on the Jewish news dealer Finkelstein (David Paymer) down the block. Although Newman was friendly with Finkelstein, he has a difficult time standing up to Fred, just as he did his boss.
Finkelstein serves as the witness, conscience and hero of the piece. He is the only character with genuine courage and a clear moral stance.
Slavin shot this film in Toronto, but its neighborhood accessories look authentic and add to the period’s feel. There are too many obvious dramatic shots and close-ups.
But the acting is compelling, especially by Paymer (Bait), who is stirring in a part with very little dialogue. His looks speak to the viewer in a role that could easily have turned into a condescending stereotype.
Focus is in theaters Friday.
Amelie is the story of a lonely young woman enveloped in her own imagination until the day she finds a box filled with a boy’s childhood treasures. She vows to find the now grown-up owner of this box and return to him the once cherished belongings.
This decision is the catalyst for future acts of kindness, as Amelie (Audrey Tautou) entangles herself in the lives of those around her through both good deeds and mischievous acts. During her journey, Amelie encounters a suicidal fish, a traveling gnome and a man who collects torn photos from a minute-photo booth. These are only some of the varied characters in this fascinating movie.
Amelie has an immensely childlike quality to it. The fairytale narrative adds to the experience, and the simplicity of minor characters stresses the innocence of the film. The only complex person is Amelie herself.
Amelie (Miramax) highlights the beauty in everyday things, from skipping stones to dipping one’s hand in a barrel of dried beans at the market. Introducing each character with a brief account of their likes and dislikes, Amelie stresses the intrigue of people’s small quirks.
Amelie is fascinated by what is regarded as distasteful by others, and, by extension, the audience is as well. From the slow grocer who Amelie decides is doing his job well to the odd painter across the building from her to a local hypochondriac, Amelie shows compassion and companionship for goodhearted qualities she finds within.
Small mysteries and adventures keep the movie going, but the main intrigue remains in its style. Brilliant reds shine out against a slightly askew color scheme tainted with greens and yellows.
Director Jean Pierre Jeunet’s most notable previous works include City of Lost Children and Delicatessen. Although they are obscure films, they are incredibly popular in a niche market for their notably imaginative oddities and well-planned presentations. Amelie resembles the surreal quality of Jeunet’s other films while being different enough not to disappoint.
Amazing in its presentation, this movie stresses the interconnectivity of people and the beauty of everyday things and ordinary folk.
Amelie is in theaters Friday.
Our Lady of the Assassins
After 16 years, Barbet Schroeder, director of such films as Single White Female and Desperate Measures, has decided to take another crack at shooting a foreign language film. In his latest work, Our Lady of the Assassins, he heads back to his home city in Medellin, Colombia to unravel a tale of love, murder, hope and hopelessness.
At first the mixture seems to be one huge paradox, incapable of existing. But through Schroeder’s sharp yet subtle touch, the story leaves a powerfully indelible mark.
The story follows a gay middle-aged writer named Fernando (German Jaramillo) returning to his home in Colombia after a long hiatus writing around the world. Fernando visits a friend’s house where conversation quickly unveils that Fernando has returned to Medellin in search of love, a love which he finds when introduced to Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros), a young man who earns his living as a contract killer for Colombian gangsters.
The tone is aggressive yet poetic as the two lovers affection for each other grows, but as Fernando gets more involved with Alexis he realizes what horrendous realities surround him. In the backdrop of this struggle for love, one is presented with a society saturated with murder, famine, blasphemy and disease as a the norm of everyday life.
As Fernando finds it unbelievable how self-destructive Columbia has become, he discovers Alexis’ grisly way of dealing with those who annoy him. Alexis’ indiscriminate killings begin to intrigue Fernando as they stimulate his own destructive urges throughout the film.
But murder is not the only dark reality that displays itself, for the general immorality of the time period is presented in Cathedrals being used for drug deals and prostitution, children wandering the street starving, begging for money as they take deep breaths from ether bottles. Vandalism, looting and disrespect for all things and people are seen as commonplace within a society that has grown callous to its own savageness. And yet, even with such a hopeless and horrendous scenario, the two lovers move forward as they laugh, love and live through day-to-day life, killing anyone who appears a threat to them.
In order to find happiness in a world of hell, they must learn to assimilate, and it is here that the magic of Schroeder’s directing takes place. Even amid such gruesome scenes of murder, crime and blasphemy the film actually is able to present a good portion of scenes where both the true nature of affection and humor prevail.
Our Lady of the Assassins (Paramount Classics) is an extremely well-directed film about the search for impossible love in an impossible place, where hope can only be found in the assimilation to the hopeless.
Our Lady of the Assassins is in theaters now.