Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Myth America
 News & Features
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad

The Revolution Has Now Been Televised

By B.A. Nilsson

The Weather Underground
Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel

The Vietnam War footage is grainy and scarred by time, a look now imposed on videos to portray gritty reality. Combined with well-placed sound-effects and a brilliant musical score, the footage is distant, dreamlike, nauseous. Because a movie is a vehicle of dreams, we’re viscerally affected. We want to avenge the Vietnamese boy whose head is blown open, and whose blood geysers onto the ground for long moments after the executioner-soldiers stroll away. So we applaud (with a measure of guilt) the proposed mission of the most radical element of a radical student group, the kids who take over a fractious Students for a Democratic Society convention in 1969 and announce their intention to fight violence with violence.

The Weather Underground is a brilliant film that shrewdly uses documentary techniques to present an emotionally charged view of events that, 30 years later, parallel contemporary events. And that wasn’t even the intention when directors Green and Siegel began work on this film five years ago.

The heart of the movie is a series of interviews with surviving Weathermen, whose commentary is placed alongside footage of their younger selves and an account of the founding and early journey of the group (the name came from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”).

Bernardine Dohrn (law school classmate of John Ashcroft, and once one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted) and Bill Ayers live in the Chicago area, although they’re seen touring the San Francisco docks where they once lived; the affable David Gilbert is interviewed at Attica, where he’s serving a life sentence for his participation in the 1981 Brinks robbery and murders.

Columbia University radical Mark Rudd makes the most eloquent case both for what he did at the time and his pacifist views of today. “Our strategy was that we would make the war visible to the United States,” he says, and he believed in a theory of guerrilla warfare called foquismo, “which is that an armed group begins the struggle and then the masses join.”

The bombing campaign that followed is acknowledged by Brian Flanagan, “but I won’t tell you who did what.” Like the others, he doesn’t recant the philosophy but he regrets some of the results.

This is most eloquently expressed near the end of the film by Naomi Jaffe, who now lives in Albany and works as an activist. Asked if she’d do it all again, she says yes—but she’d do it differently. (Jaffe hosted a Q & A at the Spectrum last Sunday, an event that proved how passionately emotions remain about these events.)

A mark of this movie’s success is that it’s impossible to separate the movie from the political issues it presents. Like the Weathermen, those political issues seem to have gone underground for many years, exemplified by montage footage to the soundtrack of the onetime “Hanoi” Jane’s workout video—but they’re emerging more sharply defined.

The need for revolution hasn’t diminished. This documentary is vital viewing as we try to decide how to most effectively frame our actions in the future.

Many Thanks

Pieces of April
Directed by Peter Hedges

With the holidays on the horizon, moviegoers can expect the usual big-screen surge of melodramatic schmaltz and contrived cheer. Pieces of April, which centers on April Burns (Katie Holmes), a wayward punk living in New York City, is about a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving reunion. But you won’t need Pepto Bismal after viewing the film’s acerbic progression to getting the turkey on the table and the family sitting around it. Written and directed by novelist Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), Pieces of April is a bleakly funny and subtly humanistic travelogue that just happens to be set on Thanksgiving day.

April is the Burns family outcast. Pierced, tattooed, and living in a Lower East Side rattrap, she also has a black boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke). She’s the oldest child of Joy and Jim (Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt), who married young. As April puts it, she was “the first pancake,” meaning the one that wasn’t done right and should’ve been thrown out. The antagonism between mother and daughter is mutual, but because Joy has cancer, April makes a surly effort toward putting on a Thanksgiving dinner. Bobby is more is motivated than she is: On his way out to run an errand of a possibly criminal nature, he hangs a paper turkey on the door. “They don’t deserve decorations,” April chastises.

While April struggles with a broken oven, Joy, Jim and their two younger children, Beth (Alison Pill), a goody-two-shoes, and Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), an easygoing stoner, hit the road for a five-hour trip. On the way they pick up Joy’s batty mother (Alice Drummond), and stop for doughnuts because Joy is convinced that April’s cooking will be inedible. April is the butt of much of Joy’s gallows sarcasm, although her good-natured husband gets a few jabs as well. The film adroitly cuts between the Burns’ station wagon—Jim frequently has to pull over while Joy gets sick to her stomach—and April’s apartment building, where April is going door to door in search of an oven to cook her turkey in. Because she’s in need, she has to curb her bratty impulses, and by doing so, meets some people who readjust her attitude, including a feisty black couple, a pompous geek (Sean Hayes from Will and Grace), and a gracious Chinese family.

Back in the wagon, Timmy takes pictures for Joy’s final photo album, which leads to a squabble about happy memories. Neither Joy nor Jim (or Beth or Timmy, for that matter) has a single happy memory of April. Jim wants to give April a chance to change that, but Joy is too ill to tolerate any more of her daughter’s rebelliousness. Yet as dinnertime draws closer, we learn a lot about Joy and April, starting with the realization that both of them are overly headstrong rather than truly nasty.

And that’s about it. April is determined to put on a decent meal, and her family is determined to get through it. The dialogue is cannily meaningful yet utterly natural. The acting is sharply believable, and the marvelous Clarkson is once again effortlessly impressive in a difficult role. The heartwarming ending is not only well-earned, but wisely arrived at. Come New Year’s, it’s likely that this low-key family drama will be the most memorable film of the season.

—Ann Morrow

Good cheer: (l-r) Ferrell and Favreau in Elf.

That’s the Spirit

Directed by Jon Favreau

Will Ferrell is the kind of comedian who, more often than not, makes my teeth hurt. It’s probably an oil-and-water thing; his ability to plumb the depths of his characters in a way that emphasizes their lack of, er, decorum (remember the streaking scene in Old School?), is distinctly at odds with my stuffy, New England sense of decorum. I worried that Elf would be one long SNL skit with a few chuckles early on before eroding into one big grossfest.

Fortunately, Elf was written by David Berenbaum and directed by Jon Favreau, a combination that lends itself to a breezy, giddy and joyous story that—surprise! is enormously funny. Favreau has wisely allowed Ferrell to go whole hog with the elf thing, and rather than wear out his welcome within the first moments, the actor-comedian succeeds by sustaining a vision of elfness that shows, if nothing else, these guys really sat and thought about what elves might like to eat, to do in their spare time, etc.

Basically a retelling of any number of stories about people who grow up feeling like they don’t quite belong, only to discover that they were adopted at birth and then set out to find their birth families, Elf has the tricky problem of making us care enough about Buddy without thinking too hard about the fact that, in the real world, this guy is a nutcase. Moreover, with the introduction of elf-for-hire (at Gimbel’s) Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), the filmmakers want the audience to root for a romantic pairing without thinking too much about the seriously gross implications of Buddy the Elf having any kind of sexuality. Luckily, the movie, and the romance, are played with a very different kind of sweetness than is usually the case in films of this ilk, at this time of the year.

Of course, Buddy’s birth father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is a curmudgeonly children’s book editor, the direct opposite of his adoptive father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart), and the elf’s ability to win his dad’s love has as much to do with redeeming Walter from Santa’s Naughty List as it does with finding closure. The movie’s big crisis has to do with the lack of Christmas spirit, which causes Santa’s sleigh to crash in Central Park—while Favreau is a natural at directing dialogue and comedy, his action scenes are a bit sloppy—but none of this ultimately matters. This is Buddy the Elf’s movie, and it is Buddy the Elf who will make you laugh like you hadn’t thought possible and, even for this sour New Englander, smile widely and feel that, yes, the Christmas spirit is alive and well.

—Laura Leon

Rhymes With Brit

Love Actually
Directed by Richard Curtis

While I’m often among the first to poke fun at sacred cows, I have to admit I was flabbergasted and made slightly ill when, in the prologue to Richard Curtis’ Love Actually, Hugh Grant intones some pap about how the phone calls made in the last moments before the World Trade Center towers collapsed are proof positive that “love is all around.” Had the moviemakers then decided to cue the pop song of the same lyric (and from Curtis’ far superior Four Weddings and a Funeral), I couldn’t have been more surprised.

A movie like this, inflated with just about everybody in England’s screen actors guild, has about as much chance of success as the Graf Zeppelin did of avoiding disaster. Grant plays the cool, breezy prime minister as imagined by Brits who are still smarting over the Blair administration’s “sexing up” of that infamous dossier. Tellingly, there is a scene in which the PM succinctly and eloquently cuts the American president (played by an equally charming and smarmy Billy Bob Thornton) at the knees. Of course, his reasons for defending his country’s honor have nothing to do with state security, but with the fact that the prez was caught sniffing around the PM’s secretary Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Get it? Love, actually.

It might have worked out, had the movie just been about the misaffairs of a top-level bureaucrat—or if it had chosen any of the too-numerous story threads that are so inexpertly thrust into the whole. For instance, there’s interest and burgeoning danger (of an intensely emotional kind) in the dalliance of publisher Harry (Alan Rickman) and his secretary Mia (a saucy Heike Makatsh), under the knowing, weary eyes of wise wife Karen (Emma Thompson). There are layers of feeling and psychology between the nearly latent flirtation of shy Sarah (Laura Linney), the sole family caretaker to a mentally ill brother, and her coworker. One can’t help but wonder, what happens to these characters? Will they be happy? How does it end?

Too often, Love Actually diverts from these intriguing developments for forays into other lives. Novelist Jamie (Colin Firth) finds attraction with his non-English-speaking maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz); body doubles John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) become soulmates while working on a porn film, and a bridegroom’s best man hides under a scowl for fear that the bride (Keira Knightly) will discover his secret adoration of her. Meanwhile, an aging pop star, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), makes a quixotic stab at the top of the Christmas pop charts with an impossibly bad ditty that, of course, captures the ear of those wacky Brits, who not only brought us the Beatles and the Stones but also Herman’s Hermits and the Spice Girls.

By jam-packing the movie with so many characters and stories, the filmmakers have basically precluded us from investing in any of them. They try to make us weepy over the humiliation of Karen or the frustration of Sarah, and offer endless prattle posing as deep emotional truisms. Love Actually suggests not only that the world is ripe with young hotties on the make for their older bosses, but that these relationships have a chance of success. Who knows—this may be the case, but considering the fact that Karen and Sarah are two of the very few characters for whom we come to care about, this theme makes a decidedly bittersweet message in a supposedly frothy holiday romp.

—Laura Leon

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
In Association with
columbia house DVD 120X90
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 4 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.