the-book-thief-posterAs the much-anticipated Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire opens wide this weekend, allow us to direct you to a much different story about a girl suffering through a time of revolution under the iron rule of a totalitarian regime. The Book Thief struck a particularly personal chord with this writer, as it is based on a book by an author who has a very similar perspective on the German side of World War II.

Novelist Markus Zusak grew up in Australia where his German parents did not hold back telling him stories of their experiences as children growing up in small German villages as Adolf Hitler rose to power. The film adaptation by British director Brian Percival opened this Friday in South Florida in only two theaters (the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24), after a steady role-out in limited release across the nation. The film features 13-year-old French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who I first became aware of when I reviewed Philippe Falardeau’s terrific little drama Monsieur Lazhar. (Film Review: ‘Monsieur Lazhar’ tells powerful story by staying grounded).

I met all three of these artists last Friday during a face-to-face interview in a windowless conference room of the Ritz-Carlton Miami Beach. Nélisse chucked a paper airplane across the room when I walked in. “We’re making paper airplanes,” she said exuberantly, as she proceeded to fold another airplane, standing at the edge of a table. British director Percival, most famously known for Emmy-winning work directing many episodes of Downton Abbey, sat slouched on one side of the table. He offered a bright smile and a soft laugh. They were just coming to the end of a month-long tour of U.S. cities promoting their new film, which looks at World War II through the eyes of Liesel (Nélisse), who lives in a small village not far from Munich, as Germany heads into war.

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I placed a stack of handwritten journals held together by twine on the table. “He brought books,” said Nélisse. I introduce myself as Hans and shake hands with Percival. “His name is Hans, like in the movie,” she added, referring to Geoffrey Rush‘s character in the film, Liesel’s adoptive father. I explain that these old books contain stories by my father, a former German soldier conscripted to join the Wehrmacht when he was 16 years old. He wrote them with the help of his first wife, as he lay in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis after surviving the front lines to take Stalingrad (One day, I hope to write the book based on these [Note to any serious German translators out there!]).

My fathers journals

Zusak, author of The Book Thief, walks in a minute or so later, as I share the books, so they might flip through the pages, as we talk about the film. I mention the horrors my dad saw fighting the notoriously ruthless Russians. Percival and Zusak both know about the atrocities well, though they are too graphic to address in a book and film written from a child’s perspective for younger audiences.

Percival said he has heard all kinds of stories. “One couple in a bomb shelter actually remembered being in a bomb shelter during the war. It wasn’t just on the soundtrack. And they, and a number of people, said they fled from the Eastern Front in the final months of the war because they wanted to be captured or liberated, or however you want to look at it, by the Western forces rather than the Russians because the Russians were notorious for what they did, particularly to women and children. There were alarming accounts. A lot of German women dressed as men because they were just being dragged through the streets and raped. There was actually a black market lending out babies because apparently Russian soldiers wouldn’t attack a woman if she had a small child with her, so they used that as a deterrent.”

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Zusak, who is 38 years old, said he finished the book when he was 29. It has since gone on to leave a profound mark on the “New York Times” bestseller chart and won scores of awards. He says his mother would have been 8 years old when the war ended, and the Americans drove through her village. Even though these were the much more sympathetic Western forces, the fear of the Other remain profound. “She said a truck came past her once, and a soldier leaned down and her mom saw, and she was yelling out, ‘Be careful, be careful!’ And a soldier leaned down and gave her a massive block of chocolate, and she said she ran down the street yelling out, ‘They have chocolate! They have chocolate!’ I mean, you think about what happened to so many people, and so many Jewish people in particular … She was so lucky, being that young, for a start.

“Even my dad who had the Russians come into his town after the war, he saw a soldier come up, he stopped his truck and walked up to him, put his hand on his face and said, ‘kind’ [German for child]. He had tears in his eyes and got back in his truck and drove away. That’s what happens, you start seeing things from different points of view, and that’s how I grew up, hearing those things.”

The Book Thief offers a powerfully humanistic portrayal of ordinary people surviving through a dark time in German history. DF-09584_R_CROP_rgbIt’s something that speaks profoundly to this writer, who grew up with other kids teasing that my father was a Nazi, when he hated the Nazis. He was harassed by the Hitler Youth, when he turned down membership at 12 years of age and torn away from his family as a 16-year-old, forced to fight in some of the most costly battles of the war (Africa and Russia) or face a firing squad by his own people. As a child, I lent a reluctant ear to stories of close calls and horror as my father worked out the traumas he had survived until he was blessed from returning to battle with TB, something many also did not survive back then.

As time ran out from our brief, 15-minute interview, and we said our good-byes, Zusak read from one of the last pages of one of my father’s journals: “‘Many German soldiers, including many who fought mostly in the first line knew nothing about concentration camps and the Holocaust. We, and I, fought on the Russian front mainly to fight for our lives and the lives of our loved ones because that enemy was guided by evil forces, Bolshevism, and we were guided and had to endanger our lives for the Nazis, so we were not better than they, but at the same time I must note that not one unit in which I fought committed atrocities. They were mostly men who had to face war because there was no other choice.’ Pretty amazing.”

“That was my dad,” I said, feeling a tad choked up. “That was him.”

“You should be proud,” offered Nélisse.

* * *

Thursday afternoon, The “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist” published my article about the film, where the filmmakers shared their feelings about the war that inspired the book. Percival also gave me some material on Downton Abbey. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

cultist banner

The following day, some of the flow of our conversation was captured in this article I wrote based on the interviews for fellow film critic Dan Hudak’s website, “Hudak On Hollywood.” Jump through the website’s logo below to read that:

Hudak

Finally, go see the film! Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

The Book Thief is rated PG-13 and runs 127 minutes. It opened in South Florida Friday, Nov. 22, at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 and the AMC Aventura 24. Meanwhile, in other parts of the U.S., it may already be playing at a theater near you; visit the film’s website and enter your zip code to find out here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Jon_Anderson_Yes_Interview_Miami_2013Jon Anderson is one of those early pioneers of the British progressive rock scene still working who has earned the title of living legend. He was part of many important albums of the prog scene as a co-founding member and frontman of Yes. What a breath of fresh air that he appeared game to entertain some questions that I’m sure he has heard often with warmth and some amusement.

For instance, what happened that made the band carry on without him? “I was going to get back together with the band [in 2008],” he admitted while chatting over the phone, during some grocery shopping, “and then I got really sick, and then that’s when the band decided to move on and carry on touring with another singer and I just thought, well, I gotta get better first. It took me a while. It took me about eight months, nine months. And then I said, OK, well, they’re out there doing their thing maybe I should go out and do my thing, and that’s when I started really touring as a solo artist more and more, and it has become part of my life.”

It’s probably an explanation his given many times before. The fact that he put up with such questions twice in a row after my recorder failed following a 20-minute chat stands as proof that he is far from allowing an ego to overtake his humanity. Topographic OceansI regret that I lost a nice exchange about the band’s 1973 ambitions double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans, where he not only offered insight into its themes inspired by the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda but also what exploring that philosophy meant to him personally. He said, back then, record labels and some bands, were all about maximizing profit and excess. He was more interested in keeping his ego in check and maintaining a perspective unsullied by money and fame. Exploring this Eastern philosophy has helped keep him grounded as well as inspired much of Yes’ fantastic music and lyrics. We also spoke about meditation, which he still practices, and how Yes’ albums capture the sensation of meditation and bliss in its music.

Even though he is no longer with Yes, Anderson continues to compose and record new material as a solo artist not all that different from Yes. In 2011, he self-released a 20-minute-plus digital-only single entitled “Open” (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Not long after, he teased a follow-up called “Ever” that has yet to see release. “Yeah, I started it last year,” he noted, “and it has taken longer than I expected it. We’re down to the last framework of the songs—two-and-half songs. Altogether, it’s about eight songs that are all inter-working together. It’s still not quite finished. I’m working with them now with a friend … It’s a slow process. Music never happens when you think it is going to happen. You work on something and a week later you say, ‘Nah, that really didn’t work. I gotta try again.’ And you do. You gotta keep going until it feels right.”

Let’s face it, any fan of Yes’ music is waiting to hear about his return to fronting the band that has comfortably gone on without him. Well, he did answer that question as well as reveal plans with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman in our interview, the bulk of which can be read in the “Miami New Times” music blog “Crossfade.” Jump through the blog’s logo below to read that article:

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As the quote in the headline notes, Anderson may indeed once again front Yes. In an earlier interview I did with Yes drummer Alan White, for the “Broward-Palm Beach New Times” music blog “County Grind,” his former bandmate hinted at the same possibility. You can read that interview by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

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Hans Morgenstern

Jon Anderson takes the stage Sunday, November 10, at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. Two shows: 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tickets cost $81.95. All ages. Call 800-653-8000 or visit ticketmaster.com. For more Jon Anderson tour dates, visit his official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Anyone who follows Independent Ethos knows an artist’s perceived popularity matters little to this blog. What matters is the work produced, though sometimes the circumstances under which that work is produced matters. Take Fiona Apple’s current tour. When it stopped into Miami Beach over the weekend, something felt … flat. I had last seen her perform in Washington D.C., during the heat wave of ’06 in an outdoor venue. Though sweat poured off her, she offered boundless energy (read a review by “DCist”). She also seemed happy, noting last time she was at that venue was in the womb of her mother, as her father performed in a play there.

But, my how news coverage of an arrest for hashish possession can change things. Sure, it must have been a bummer for her, but probably magnifying the clouds over the tour where several things that unfolded in the mass media afterward. First her mugshot in prison stripes was circulated by the higher-than-though gossip media machine. Later, she lashed out against the arresting cops on stage. The audience video went viral. Then, the arresting police department’s spokesperson had the tacky idea to comment publicly telling her to “Shut up and sing” and “I’m more famous than you are.” Adding more insult was one famous and longtime unethical blogger’s idea to analyze her appearance on this current tour.

In response to it all, Apple most recently felt inclined to preempt her second Florida show this past Monday night by sitting down to offer a diatribe of her experiences in this losing battle with the larger voices of the conglomerate monster of the Internet. Watch the unedited near 9-minute thing here:

What a shame that a few people abusing their big metaphoric bullhorns have affected Apple’s performance quality. If she feels inclined to start a show with a speech like the one above, it’s ignorant to think it is not affecting her. The show is a stripped down affair with minimal theatrics, which is all the more reason to skip the personal distractions and focus on the marvel that is Apple’s music. Her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, was a welcome return after seven years of recording studio silence. The vinyl record was made for such a work. Her voice is pure and raw, and the recording captured all the wonderment of beating the heck out of a piano. From the moment her fingertips touch the keys to the reverb of the strings, the entire beast of the instrument is on fine display.

But the weight of all these superficial concerns of image, fighting for hits on pop culture blogs and Apple’s silly idea to take heed to what the bullies of the Internet have to say dampened the show in Miami Beach. It felt brief, especially after she sprung off stage and did not return for an encore. The house lights went up soon after she bounded off, so this was probably planned. Still little, if anyone cared, as all the cheering stopped soon after the lights went out and people shuffled out with little a care. It was a lackluster performance, as she went through the motions. Here’s one subdued moment:

As this latent post reveals, I almost did not even bother writing about the show, I felt so underwhelmed. I was the guy nodding off a couple of times during the set. I was able to stay awake enough to capture some clips, but my wife captured this last one:

Though the first minute of the song is missing, it offers an interesting moment on stage for the singer. She and the band extend the pauses in the song, creating a playful tension as Apple waits for cues from her drummer. Though she’s laughing at the thrill of anticipation, the moment she sings, her voice carries an impressive weight. Apple is still an honest, potent musician and God bless her for it. She will probably only get better as the superficial media gets bored and stops covering her silly stumbles, and she starts to ignore the coverage, so she can focus on her fantastic music.

I’d be dreaming to think this type of high school-level-type news coverage of art will ever stop. But, by coming to this blog, you support intelligent coverage of music and film that sticks to the art and keeps irrelevant personal coverage out of the mix. We can all learn from this and be better.

Her tour continues at these following dates:

10/05 – Louisville, KY @ Palace Theatre
10/06 – Cincinnati, OH @ Aronoff Center
10/07 – Columbus, OH @ Palace Theatre
10/09 – Buffalo, NY @ Kleinhans Music Hall
10/11 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE
10/12 – Montclair, NJ @ Wellmont Theatre
10/16 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/17 – New York, NY @ Terminal 5
10/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Art is at its most vital when it is harnessed to call attention to an injustice … and maybe overthrow an oppressive government. Art has been part of revolutions in the past. Look at the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The people would end up electing one of the revolution’s leaders, playwright Václav Havel, as the country’s president. You wouldn’t know it by the popular fluff that passes for art in contemporary America (I personally believe a lot of it is responsible for numbing the masses into passive “sheeple”), but art has an amazing power that still matters to this day. Take the case of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese conceptual artist and documentary filmmaker who would so upset Chinese government officials, he would wind up jailed for 81 days without due process, cut off from even communicating with his family.

Taking her interning experience from working on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Alison Klayman went to China to film Ai at work and at an amazing turning point in his life as an artist. Shot from 2008 – 2010, the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry points out Ai did not come from the government’s Central Academy of Fine Arts , yet he designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that was the center of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. For an “unofficial” artist in that autocratic regime to have such validity makes for an amazing statement. Before that, his work would even appear in national exhibitions alongside other Chinese artists that were basically the product of a government-controlled education system. When asked by an interviewer for his party affiliation Ai replies, “None. I’m an independent artist,” which probably explains why police not only follow him and record him on video but also intimidate him. The government has even installed 15 surveillance cameras around is home/studio in Beijing.

But, as the film chronicles, Ai has found freedom in his independent way of thinking. It is his thinking that allowed him to see through the twisted control Chinese officials have over their people, a revelation that seemed to come to Ai during his role designing the Bird’s Nest. Residents were ordered to smile at visitors to the Olympics and even forced out of their homes to make way for the games. This did not sit well with Ai and he spoke out. Here is that video:

A fellow artist tells the documentarian: “Weiwei has a hooligan style, like the Chinese government. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans.”

Like a good journalist, Klayman knows to keep out of the way of her subject and never inserts herself in the film, showing this figure the best kind of respect. Klayman also spends little time with talking heads. She presents these years as a kinetic action movie that happens to feature an artist as its hero, and art as his weapon. Her camera simply observes the artist as he assimilates activism into his aesthetic.

Interspersed with her interviews and moments of Ai’s action, whether directing his next project or Tweeting his every move (more for his own protection than promotional reasons), outside Western journalists come in and ask Ai questions. Ai fans from China show up after he Tweets what restaurant he is headed to, and they dine nearby in silent solidarity as police badger him, asking when he will be done eating.

Klayman weaves in footage from Ai’s own documentary works, including one illustrating his efforts to chronicle the identities of victims who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He joined a team of volunteers seeking to document every fatality in that quake, estimated at 70,000, something the government preferred to keep secret. Of those victims, over 5,000 were children who died in schools built in such a shoddy manner activists use the term “tofu” to describe their construction. Through such horror Ai creates spare but moving pieces of art that are both grand and minimal.

Though Ai seems to taunt the limits of his “rights,” he recognizes the danger of confronting and testing the government. He thinks of it as a means of survival. “I act brave because I know the danger is really there,” he says. “If I don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” He does speak English, as he spent more than 10 years in New York City, starting in the early eighties. He immersed himself in the art scene and the place definitely seemed to have a positive influence on his creativity. Ironically, the Chinese government was partly responsible for his trip, as it sought to loosen restrictions through cultural exchange programs, allowing Ai to travel and settle in there for a spell.

As much as his “hooligan” style of expression has became a manner of survival for him personally, he also believes nothing will change if he does not do what he does. He understands his role in stirring up some of the Chinese. The film sets this up beautifully at the beginning through a metaphor of Ai’s cats. He says he has 40 running around his studio, yet only one of them knows how to open doors. He says, had he not ever met this cat who can open doors, he wouldn’t know cats could have the power to open them. But there is a human drama in the film, too. The birth of a son makes him reevaluate the risks he takes, and when he is finally released from jail, he seems shaken, and you can feel the energy of his creativity has been deflated.

Ai has no delusions of his efforts. He says he believes it will take several generations for China to see a fair change. The key is to keep the voices alive, to never be sorry. At an exhibit at the Tate Modern simply titled “Sunflower Seeds” he had 100 million had-painted porcelain sunflower seeds shipped in and spread across a gallery floor.

To him, he said, each seed represented an individual thought. He steps out to walk on them in front of a camera. The scene unravels from a distance, from another camera that seems to catch the action from the ground, highlighting other sunflower seeds that are not touched, cushioned by distance and the masses of seeds in the same space. It’s a highly conceptual work that brilliantly emphasizes his thinking of the futility of a government that thinks it can control the entire population by crushing the voices of a certain few. The piece could have easily been titled “100 million thoughts,” but that would have been too subversive.

Never Sorry is a strong documentary because Ai is such a strong figure with powerful, resonant ideas and a talent to pull off concepts vibrant with shock waves that wake up the audience. He is the activist who puts the “act” in activism with none of the ego, in effect inciting both those who also want to act and those who fear action. The film’s director clearly understands this and does the best thing she can do by putting her journalist soul to work to record and stay out of the way.

Curious where Ai is now? Check out this news piece by ABC’s “Nightline.

Hans Morgenstern

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Rated R, runs 91 min. and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Aug. 17, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL

Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year, including screenings in Canada and the UK. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It’s been almost six years since Kenneth Lonergan was supposed to complete his final cut of his follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2000 debut You Can Count On Me for Fox Searchlight Pictures. Margaret clocked in at just over three hours long. The reasons behind the studio’s delay are hearsay, but I read studio bosses ordered the director to make the film shorter or maybe Lonergan did not like the pressure of a deadline, which studios often impose even before a script is finalized. Whatever the case, a bitter battle between filmmaker and studio unfolded that had no winners (Read the “LA Times” article). And there may have just been some winners, including lead actress Anna Paquin who gives the performance of her life (forget her Supporting Actress Oscar® win for the Piano). The director himself might have received praise for his brilliant skill at harnessing the power of his entire cast via his amazing script and the manner he brings it to life via a cinematic craftiness that never seems indulgent, no matter the runtime (Fox Searchlight even tried to squeeze it in for Oscar® consideration). Finally, and most important, patient, open-minded film lovers could have been rewarded by a subtle drama with insight into the difficult nature of being human.

Shot in 2005 and finished in 2008, the year of Slumdog Millionaire, Fox Searchlight seemed to care less about this film and forced it into limbo thanks to legal wrangling with Lonergan. I won’t pretend the studio denied itself a hit bigger than Slumdog because this is one long, stark, low-key film that never compromises its gaze upon the futility of these characters’ attempts to communicate. At the end of 2011, the studio put Margaret out in limited released with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and it quietly flopped at the box office. After all the hype and legal battles, the studio finally responded to concerns over the final cut and released it on home video on DVD as an extra disc in the Blu-ray edition, released just last month.

A bit of vindication arrives for Lonergan in Miami Beach when the Miami Beach Cinematheque hosts his director’s cut version of Margaret in a rare theatrical setting. As a film of dynamic human interaction linked together with beautiful moments of operatic music, this is something you want to commit to in a dark room, away from the pause button. After some distracting moments calling attention to the film’s age during the opening credits (The deaths of producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack have become distant memories, and Paquin has since grown out of teenage roles and made a name for herself in the sex-filled “True Blood” HBO series), the film quickly finds its groove as it riffs on people clashing as they put themselves in the center of their own perceived universes. Nothing like death to shake that up.

The movie’s title comes from the short poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” written by the Victorian-era poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ultimately, the poem states, death is sad because the observer of death will die as well (read the poem here). If you are not familiar with the poem and its resonance within the film’s drama, at some point in the film, an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) at the Manhattan private school of the film’s main character, Lisa Cohen (Paquin), will read it to his class. This occurs deep into the movie, long after one of the most harrowing death sequences committed to film is experienced by Lisa. The movie is a variation of that one statement that lingers over Lisa’s motivation to try to make the bus accident “right:” “I guess it was green,” she says regarding the traffic light a bus ran before running over and killing a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Lisa seems to save the bus driver’s (Mark Ruffalo) job, not to mention clear up her own contribution to his negligence, when she says “I guess it was green” to the traffic homicide investigator at the scene. “I guess it was green” makes for one warped way of twisting her perception of reality, which the audience knows, thanks to a cutaway to the light just before the crash, runs against her statement. The biggest truth of all, however, is death. There is no correcting that finality and the petite mort Lisa suffers as a result of holding the dying woman in her arms. The experience will prove unshakable no matter how Lisa tries to spin her life for the rest of the movie. The awareness of that resonates throughout the entire film and informs the drama to operatic heights.

In order to emphasize perspective, Lonergan always positions his steady camera as if looking at people from the outside, never from the other character’s perspective. He takes it a step further by sometimes offering snippets of conversations from unseen characters, out of frame, totally off topic to the concerns of the main characters. At the police station, when Margaret tries to re-open the case and amend her statement, during a distant establishing shot of the building, you hear someone off camera, in some unseen, out-of-context conversation, say “My fucking cousin stole that shit.” During a slow pan over the high-rises of New York City, you hear a kid somewhere outside, again off camera, say, “It’s ‘Dashing through the snow,’” a meta comment on perception in the film if there ever was one. By allowing us to overhear other inconsequential conversations the main characters seem unaware of, Lonergan is reminding the audience that there are other people in this world with things to say and clarify. Even the honking of car horns in the distance as Monica Patterson lies dying in the street have a significance in showing the audience that life goes on despite one person’s death. To Lisa, a teenager on a journey toward her own fate, it becomes a revelation and an exercise in futility. “There’s people dying in the street!” she yells at her divorced actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) when the mother asks her why she is not showing much interest in the play she will star in and her new boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno).

Margaret also reveals there is something more painful than one-way conversations: none at all. There are those dead-ends in life when people fail to communicate and are left on their own, like Lisa’s schoolmate (John Gallagher Jr.) who has a crush on her but seems too shy to make the right moves. On a night he calls her up to just say hello, she tells him, “I don’t feel like talking.” He responds, “OK,” and they hang up. He breaks down crying, sitting alone on his bed. She then calls the bad boy/drug dealer in school (Kieran Culkin) and asks him to take her virginity. Lisa’s mother shares a similar moment of not breaking through to Lisa, and she too has a cry alone, in their apartment building’s elevator.

Lonergan riffs on this clash of communication, and he always keeps it interesting, as long and seemingly meandering as this movie seems. It falls into a sort of groove. Gluing it together is either applause or the soaring melodies of opera music, as there are cutaways to scenes of Lisa as a PA in drama class, her mother on stage in her play or visits to the Metropolitan opera house. The barriers in the dialogue continue, whether it’s the wall a math teacher (Matt Damon) puts up against Lisa’s sexual advances or the desperate but half-assed reaching out Joan does to her daughter. When Joan attends an opera with Ramon, she leans over to him to say, “It’s beautiful.” He hushes her. It’s a sick but funny commentary that seems to say you must listen to people when they are on stage singing in a foreign language.

Lonergan masterfully weaves the sublime with the mundane throughout Margaret. The opera on stage matters just as much, if not more sometimes, that the opera of life. That is why he often places the music of Wagner and Strauss in other scenes between conversations, when Lisa walks the street in slow motion, obviously alone in her thought. By doing this the director emphasizes the weight of this accident on Lisa without flashing back to it.

When the bus accident occurs early on, it makes for a harrowing thing to behold. Monica is fleshed out even as she lies dying in Lisa’s arms. Lisa talks to her and she learns she shares the same name as Monica’s daughter. Monica bitches about receiving help from strangers if they are not doctors. The horror comes home with Lisa in the form of her blood-splattered clothing and face. “What happened to you?” says her grossed out little brother Curtis (Cyrus Hernstadt) looking up from a video game as Lisa strides to her bedroom. Then she vomits with no sound except for the classical music piece on the film’s soundtrack. She showers in slow motion with blood still splattering off her hair. Though she visits the movies later with some friends, the extra-diegetic music continues from since she vomited. As the music hangs over successive scenes, even when she tries to sit still in the movie theater, Lonergan is preserving the horror of the event earlier in the day. Whatever gruesome quality is captured in that key scene involving Monica’s death is justified, as it only exists as a powerful memory in order to inform the rest of this long movie, and Lisa must bear the trauma and struggle to come to terms with it without seeing a psychologist. It’s a confident, powerful move for Lonergan to skip the hokey flashbacks many lesser directors would resort to.

Toward the end of the film Lisa finds some purpose when she meets Monica’s best friend and power-of-attorney holder Emily (Jeannie Berlin). They join forces to try to find some justice for Monica. A conversation with a lawyer friend of Emily’s (Michael Ealy) turns to almost black humor as the trio try to figure out how much pain Monica was in just before her death. If these people do not hear one another out, how could they pretend to even come close to concluding the pain of a dying person?

When Lisa and Emily finally get together with Monica’s next-of-kin to discuss a settlement with the bus company the conversations are tense and powerful, as discussions turn into a battle of righteousness. In the end, all that seems to matter is what these very different characters seem to deem as “right,” as opposed to the truth, which is really the horror of that accident and its banal finality. The only thing wrong was that this woman was left broken in this teenager’s arms. Lisa seems to try to make some sense of it because she only happens to share Monica’s daughter’s name. But it’s the opposite of coincidence. It is chaos. When Lisa shares this observation with Emily with only good intentions, Emily lashes out: “… this isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!” to Lisa’s shock.

In the end, the film closes on an ironic note, as Lonergan returns to the opera house for a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, a French opera by Jacques Offenbach. Lisa accompanies her mother. As the two divas on stage finally harmonize during the opera’s famous build up in “belle nuit ô nuit d’amour,” Lisa has a quiet but powerful cry. We may all be the central characters of our own private operas, but we will all also die. Someone else will have a say of what our memory is worth to them, and life will go on.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

The extended version of Margaret is rated R and has a runtime of 186 min. It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Aug. 3  at 8 p.m. and plays through Aug. 8, at the same hour each day, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Many probably don’t have a theater as bold as the MBC screening this extended version of the  film anywhere near them. You can always purchase the Blu-Ray/DVD combo, with the extended version on DVD (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Fair warning: DVD is the only format Fox Searchlight has made the extended version available. This is the format the MBC will screen via its up-converting hi-def projector.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With the arrival of daylight saving time this Saturday, here comes a special all-night out on Miami Beach: Sleepless Night Miami Beach. Every once-in-a-while Miami Beach is not about the club scene and partying at night. On Saturday night, as the populace “falls back” an hour, South Beach will host as many as 150 cultural events during the annual 13-hour night with an event that has only happened bi-annually since 2007. It follows in a tradition that first began in Paris as Nuit Blanche.

You want to see everything that will go down, maps, details and all? Go to the event’s homepage, to download this year’s 29-page program guide. The wonderful thing about keeping up with this blog is the inside scoop that seems to fall my way. Gabó hinted at what he had planned in my interview with him (Gabriel Pulido brings soundtrack craft to the early films of Luis Buñuel). Now he has revealed what movie will form the basis of his collaboration with visual artist Buzzeye. Check out  the clip below, which demonstrates the sort of visuals that will be “wall-casted” on the Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony wall as part of the night, at 1 a.m. (the hour just before the time shift, so be aware):

The music and re-mixing of dialogue is Gabo’s handiwork, while the film was “deconstructed” and “colorized” by Buzzeye. I’m sure I need not mention the Italian classic’s title to readers of this blog.

I also received a phone call from Carl Ferrari, who will perform his hybrid jazz-Flamenco style with dancer Ana Miranda, at the start of the evening, at 6 p.m., on the second floor of the Miami Beach Public Library, another nice piece of architecture in itself. I wrote about him here: Happy re-birth day to Miami-based musician Carl Ferrari.

Throughout the night, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will actually project outside its venue, on to the surrounding buildings from all seven of its giant windows. The looping film project, Sonámbula by Dinorah de Jesús Rodriguez, will start projecting at 9 p.m. As the MBC calendar event space describes: the images are culled from “classic vintage film imagery that addresses the topic of sleeplessness or insomnia and the magical phenomenon of sleepwalking. Snippets from such classics as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari will mingle with recurring images of giant eyes that blink with the electrifying movement created by hand-scratching on the imagery and the mechanical whirring of several 16mm projectors.” A few months back, the MBC’s director, Dana Keith, and I had chatted about how cool it would be to have the famous 24-hour film the Clock play inside the venue, but that was not going to happen (the night is 13 hours, after all, not 24).

Of course, that’s just a taste of the scores of events (and I am sure there will be plenty of unofficial ones) happening that night. All events are FREE and start at 6 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. with a free breakfast on the beach for those who can survive the 13-hour night.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I recently spread out my blogging to Beached Miami. I had been in awe of their brave, expansive coverage of the city I have been calling home since I was but 5 years of age. I wanted in on this. So I took some of my talents to Beached, giving them my ramblings on the visionary director Terrence Malick (they trimmed it back respectfully), as the Miami Beach Cinematheque starts a retrospective of sorts tomorrow on the philosopher turned filmmaker. Here’s a direct link to the piece:

‘Early Malick’ offers low light, high vision

Those who usually expect to see my film writing here can click the link above for this latest piece previewing MBC’s ongoing Great Directors Series, which continues with “Early Malick.” You see, before the Tree of Life’s Brad Pitt, there were other hunky actors in the gorgeous frames of Malick, like Martin Sheen in Badlands (1973) and Richard Gere in Days of Heaven (1978). Of course that’s sarcasm, as Malick is less about offering up star vehicles and more about wringing out the most art possible film has to offer. While doing so, he trusts the audience to open its mind to the possibilities of a message beyond language, embedded in an aesthetic that is pure cinema and deserves to be celebrated. MBC offers its own tribute to Malick’s work in the wake of the arrival of his newest film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

MBC will host special one-night only screenings for each of Makick’s first two films this week and next, beginning tomorrow night. Badlands screens first, Thursday, July 14, at 8 p.m. Next Thursday, July 21, also at 8 p.m, the series continues with Days of Heaven. UPDATE: Due to popular interest, Days of Heaven‘s screening (on high-def Blu-Ray, incidentally) has been extended: Friday, July 22 at 8:50 p.m., Saturday, July 23 at 5 p.m. and 8:50 p.m.

In the meantime, I plan to keep offering more exclusive Miami-oriented film and music events via Beached Miami, so check their blog out.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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