by February 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

moviefanLast year when I made my predictions about the 2012 Academy Award winners, I was very cranky about the prospect that some really mediocre films would walk away with gold statuettes. I’m in a much better mood now because I think that most of the films I’ve seen in the past several months have been wonderful.

But I will be cranky about “the past several months” part of that statement.

I hate the fact that Hollywood holds back its Oscar contenders until the season after Thanksgiving in order to — what? Keep them fresh in voters’ memories? Cash in on holiday movie-going? Get publicity enough to make people pay the outrageous prices to see them? Thus, we have to wait all year for the really good films, and then consume such a surfeit of them that we can’t sort them out fairly.

Is it Jennifer Lawrence who’s in Zero Dark Thirty or Jessica Chastain? Or Amy Adams? I wish the movers and shakers out there would let us see a few good films before November.

Best Picture

This year, though, my Oscar choices are almost as difficult as my predictions are iffy. I am clear that the Best Picture award should go to The Life of Pi. My second, sentimental choice would be Beasts of the Southern Wild. The award will probably go to Lincoln, and that wouldn’t be a terrible choice, whereas Django Unchained might make me think about jumping off the 14th Street Bridge.

I wouldn’t be tempted to jump, by the way, if any of the others got the prize. They are all exceptionally fine films, though for very different reasons.

Best Actor

For Best Actor, I must go with the front-runner, Daniel Day-Lewis, for his portrayal of Lincoln. Nevertheless, I get a sense of real genius working in Joachim Phoenix in The Master. Day-Lewis does everything right, but Phoenix seems to cast all calculation aside in acting the role of the drifter Freddie Quell. He gives off the aura of a strange, unsettled and unsettling personality. Again, the other nominees in this category would be sure winners in a weaker season.

Best Actress

For Best Actress, the Academy will probably go for Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, though more serious connaisseuses would give the Award to Emannuel Riva, who plays the dying piano teacher in Amour. I think I’ll have to side with the connaisseuses: The dignity that Riva gives to the agony of dying in that film is unforgettable. For the sheer joy of living, though, I’d vote for Quvenzhané Wallis’ Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Best Supporting Actress

My absolute top choice for Best Actress would have been Helen Hunt for her portrayal of a sex therapist in The Sessions. But then Hunt never got nominated in that category and was relegated, instead, to the Supporting Actress category — a real mistake in my estimation.

I don’t resent the fact that the Oscar will go to Ann Hathaway. She showed her acting chops in Rachel Getting Married (2010) and, besides, I wept buckets during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Mis. Sally Field does a fine, controlled piece of acting in Lincoln, and she could possibly win because musicals are not as respected as historical epics.

Best Supporting Actor

As for the Supporting Actor race, I have to make one pick and confess confusion and indifference for the rest. My choice would be Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln. He manages to create passion from underneath a preposterous wig, though one that seems true to the photographed appearance of the historical Thaddeus Stevens.

Best Director

And finally, there is the prestigious Oscar for Best Director. It’s clear that I favor Ang Lee, especially if The Life of Pi does not win the nod for Best Picture. The award will probably go to Spielberg for Lincoln, though; I think he’s the favorite this year. I would give the Directing award to Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild and let a new kid win one of the big ones for a change!

But I am content. There are too many good choices to quibble about the winners in 2013. (Except Quentin Tarantino, of course.)

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by February 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

"films"Two films among the Oscar contenders have arrived on local movie screens very late. Both have gained a great deal of respect and talk since their release, so I went to see them with great expectation and some hesitation. Both had a reputation for grimness. The first is the American film Zero Dark Thirty, and the second is the Austrian Amour.

Do you know what “zero dark thirty” means? It’s a  a great name for a movie but the director, Kathryn Bigelow, won’t tell you. She either believes that everybody knows military language of its title, or she likes the mystery of it.” (You can Google “zero dark thirty” and find some arguments about its exact meaning in military lore.)

The illegibility of the title phrase, like the inaudibility of some of the back-and-forth of the spy lingo and the confusion of incident in the film are parts of its allure. And they are also parts of its problems, especially at the beginning. The narrative careens from one relatively complicated dead-end to the next. But finally Zero Dark Thirty settles down to the tracking of the courier who led to Osama bin Laden, to alerting the team of SEALS, and to executing the operation in the dead of night.

And when we get to that “zero” point, I think we have an excellently made film that refuses to give in to censorship of the events–or to political posturing about their effect. There is the breathless relief of the female agent, played without fanfare by Jessica Chastain, who doggedly traced the clues to the compound where the Al-Qaida leader lived.But the dark, dark image of a bullet hitting the chest of an already dead man speaks the volume that we need to read.

Amour is directed by the respected Austrian film-maker, Michael Haneke, and its grimness is not surprising to those who’ve seen earlier of his films. He gazes closely at everything — the smallest gestures of daily life, the merest details of kitchens and bedrooms, and the faintest signals of human character.

As the film progresses in its slow pace, it depicts the gradual dissolution of an elderly woman, once a distinguished music teacher, and her husband’s steady care for her. The roles of the couple, Georges and Anne, are played brilliantly by two distinguished French actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emannuelle Riva.

But there is very little light, or life, in the Paris apartment in which the couple complete their lives together. Twice, when a window is left open, pigeons intrude, carefully shooed out by Georges. And there is one brief strain of Schubert, but mostly silence, except when Anne reaches her agonizing end.

I won’t spoil the ending, partly because I’m not sure of its details myself. But I agree that the title to this dark film should be the French word for “love.” It is a striking story of undeviating devotion.

I will tell you, though, that if you are an aged, or aging, person, you might want to stay home and watch an American film, like, say, You Can’t Take It With You. Actually, you might need to check out the light and life of such a comedy if you do go to see Amour. You’ll need to dissipate the darkness, for in Michael Haneke’s film, the end of life is “zero at the bone.”

Next:  Oscar Picks

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by January 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

moviefanAnyone who read The Life of Pi back when it was a best-seller in 2001 was apt to wonder whether the tale could ever be adapted to film.  Well, all praise to Ang Lee, the director of the current film; he has done the near impossible by bringing the novel to the screen.

In making The Life of Pi Lee has not only done the impossible, he has done it stunningly.  When you go, take the 3-D option; it’s really worth it for this film, where the third dimension really does occur! The images are beautiful and exciting.  They serve the fable far better than any animation could (though there is a lot of CGI* in the film).

Why Not More Awards?

There is also wonderful acting by everyone, especially Suraj Sharma, playing Pi as a boy, and Irfan Khan, playing Pi as an adult, and the beautiful Tabu playing Pi’s mother.  I was so taken by the film and these actors that I wondered why The Life of Pi has not received more awards.  Perhaps it’s the provinciality of Hollywood?  The film community out there can give a nod to Ang Lee because he has done some fine film-making, and his name is easy to pronounce.  But Suraj and Irfan and Tabu are more strange and so remain unknown?

But the movie that Ang Lee puts them in is far, far better than its publicity has been.  I put off viewing it till late because I didn’t see how the novel could be filmed.  And because there was so little splash around its launching.  But I finally went out of a sense of duty as an amateur film critic, and I am glad I did.  For me The Life of Pi is probably the best, most beautiful, most exciting movie of the year.

Why the Allure of Django Unchained?

As for Django Unchained I am at a loss to explain its allure.  It seems to be the favorite film of many critics and film-goers, despite its punishing length.  And it swept two major Golden Globe awards the other night.  I hated it, myself, but I wonder what I’ve missed in a film that seems to me to be a huge, steaming pile of self-indulgent sadism.

Why do I respond so fiercely to this, and other, Tarantino films?  Have I been too affected by the Sandy Hook school massacre, not to mention gun violence in our own fair city?  Am I too much a literalist, and too ignorant of the memes of Spaghetti Westerns to miss the rollicking satire of Tarantino’s carnage? (Am I using the word meme correctly, even?)

Or. . .am I just too old?  These are sincere questions, Dear Readers, so if you have an answer to them, would you let me know?  Just write a comment, and I’ll read it carefully.  And try to take it to heart.

*CGI means “Computer Generated Imagery.”  So there.

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by January 11, 2013 at 11:00 am 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

moviefanI went to see Les Misérables at a Cineplex in the Bronx, having purchased tickets ahead as a gift for my sister. She rarely goes out to the movies… never in a theater so crowded as this one was on Christmas day–packed with an expectant and sassy Bronx crowd.

The excitement was high, and although my  sister insisted on voicing aloud, in Bronx style, her objections to the sentimentality of the redemption of Jean Valjean and the relative  (to her ear) of the music, I became totally involved.

Many in the audience were expecting spectacular effects, and we got them. And  we did not balk at the operatic conventions in the film; all the dialogue was sung. There was a bit of titter when the young lovers expressed themselves in rhyming riffs towards the end of the show, but that died down and we dissolved in tears at the final scenes.

The show stoppers of Les Misérables are well-known, and the film delivered them. Ann Hathaway did a fabulous job with her “dreamed a dream” song, which turned on the tear faucets for me. It was as if I were at the La Scala opera house in Milan, latching onto an aria. After a moment or two, the audience joined in to sing along. From Fantine’s demise on out, I was either in tears or close to them.

Opera lovers don’t judge opera by usual standards of verisimilitude or suspense. They know the story already, and they come to savor it. They expect the same old same old, but they love seeing some outstanding player give it new life.

Anna Karenina is like Les Misérables in that its story has also been told time and again. My Netflix queue counts at least seven film versions of each story. A new one seems to come out every twenty or so years. The wronged man learning to forgive over and over again despite being hunted by an obsessive jailer. But so noble in his compassion. The beautiful woman, arriving in St. Petersburg on a foreboding train, and falling so hopelessly in love as to throw her entire life at risk. But so tragic in her despair.

The current movie version doesn’t do justice to Tolstoy’s masterpiece, but neither does it fail to serve the enduring image of the tragic heroine. Kiera Knightley is wonderfully appealing (and dressed) in the title role. And although the insistence of the director Joe Wright and the screen-writer  Tom Stoppard in presenting the story as an ongoing play is distracting, the story remains as involving as ever. Knightley enacts the image of gradual personal destruction in the film, and Jude Law is heart-breaking as the deserted husband. In short, the new film evokes Tolstoy’s astonishing empathy with everyone in his novel.

My highly critical sister has informed me that she is now reading and savoring “the book” — Victor  Hugo’s huge history of Jean Valjean. And as I viewed the new version of Anna, I kept referring back to the book by Tolstoy, which I once taught in college classes. I think of older versions of the two stories on film as well. Somewhere in my childhood, I saw Frederick March as Jean Valjean and Charles Lawton as Javert, and I couldn’t rest until that book was in my hands. And my mother kept telling me that Greta Garbo was an unforgettable Anna. When I finally saw the black and white movie on TV, I had to agree with my mother’s judgment–a rare occurrence for me.

There is something archetypal in each work that invites repetition and eludes criticism. Their essential appeal transcends adaptation. So see the latest versions in the theaters, rent one or another of the old versions to watch at home, but READ THE BOOKs! They are the best versions of all.

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by December 25, 2012 at 12:00 pm 1,781 0

"arts and entertainment"

A profile of artist Miguel Perez Lem by Eliza French made the Top in A&E in 2012. (Luis Gomez Photos)

It’s that time again… a look back before we start 2013. Like last December, we’re listing the most-read stories on Borderstan by category. Today are the Top 10 from the Arts and Entertainment section.

Remember that the web is forever, so they say. Posted stories continue to get hits long after originally going up on the site. As a result, some of the most-read stories for the year were sometimes published the year before — especially if they were published late the year before.

Top 10 Borderstan A&E Stories of 2012

These Arts and Entertainment stories were Top 10 most read in 2012 on Assistant Editor Rachel Nania and Editor Luis Gomez each had three of the Top 10 stories while Bordertan Movie Fan Mary Burgan had two, and arts writer Eliza French rounded out the list.

  1. Margin Call a Great Explanation of Financial Crisis, Great Recession  (Mary Burgan)
  2. Tropicalia: A Psychedelic Buena Vista Social Club at 14th and U Luis Gomez)
  3. Illuminate Connecticut Avenue: DCCAH Calls For Public Art Entries (Rachel Nania)
  4. A Bastille Day Salute: 10 French Films to See (Mary Burgan)
  5. Ibero-America Film Showcase 2012 Starts Jan. 19 (Luis Gomez)
  6. Adams Morgan Picked as One of “Prettiest Painted Places” in U.S. (Rachel Nania)
  7. Pics from 17th Street Festival: Did We See You There? (Luis Gomez)
  8. Tuesday at Stead Park Field: Watch “Grease” Under the Stars (Borderstan)
  9. Tonight! It’s the Annual 17th Street High Heel Race (Rachel Nania)
  10. Miguel Perez Lem: An International Artist with an Eclectic Approach (Eliza French)

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by December 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm 1,523 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

"Skyfall"The season of new movies is upon us — many in the form of old movies repeating themselves. Hitchcock seems to be back in a bad HBO series and in what looks to be an acceptable film starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren.

If originality is what you’re looking for in a movie, you might decide to skip Skyfall, thinking that it’s all the old James Bond movies you’ve ever seen. But most Bond movies – involving at least three familiar, earlier actors — show a much more suave Bond than Skyfall does, and they feature of lot of sex with various bimbos.

The main bedroom scene from the current flick shows how exhausted and un-refreshed Bond is when it’s over, while the woman leaving the bed looks like a tired professional herself.

So although Skyfall promises more sequels, it is unlike many of its predecessors. Its hero seems to show that even being 007 gets stressful and unglamorous in middle age. And as a villain, Javier Bardem is unusually brilliant, and the inevitable Judy Dench finally gets to act a lot, though not for long.

Skyfall is not only different from the other Bond movies, but it provides  a bigger and more nuanced  version of the Bond formula. The fact that it’s been atop the box office lists for the past several weeks, shows that it has pleased many people searching for escape through the inventive use of character as well as special effects.

I don’t usually like the blow-ups in adventure movies, but I have to say that the opening sequences in Skyfall are wonderful.  Nevertheless,  the deadpan of Daniel Craig’s Bond can get tiresome. In contrast, Argo tells a real spy story with complex human beings, such as the one Ben Affleck plays.

Argo reenacts the tale of how a member of the CIA managed to take a half-dozen members of the American embassy staff out of Tehran by pretending that they are the crew for a movie company searching for a desert setting in Iran to make a Sci-Fi movie.

The film spends opening minutes laying out the situation in Iran in the late 1970s. The anger and methods of the young revolutionaries in that period is essential to understanding the dangerous situation of the six Argo hostages who managed to get out of the embassy and take refuge elsewhere. The direction of the mob scenes is so adroit that it should warrant  an Oscar nomination of Affleck for best direction in 2012

Of course, Affleck doctors the facts to make the story imply that  the whole rescue escapade was engineered and carried out by Americans alone, when a number of entities from other nations were actually involved. But despite the heightening of the facts by Affleck, the movie, like his own acting in it, is low-keyed with none of the Bond movie pizzazz.

I like spy movies that have enough intrigue to satisfy my puzzle-working instincts, but also a touch of romance, a bit of glamour, and a sense of the tragedy of always pending betrayals. There are two kinds of film that always tend to satisfy my requirements–movies by Alfred Hitchcock and movies based on the novels of John Le Carré.  If your tastes are like mine, you could order up one of these on-line — Notorious (1946) or the dark  Spy Who  Came In From the Cold (1965). No explosions or outlandish heroics, but characters that involve and plots that keep you guessing.

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by September 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm 1,449 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]


My grandchildren were visiting last week — a blast with the grandparents before school started. So I took them — two children — to the movies  at $13.00 each. We saw ParaNorman, the film their hearts, full of ad lore, were longing for. And I took the parents — two adults at $16.00 each. And myself — a senior at 13.25. There was extra for RealD 3-D. The  total bill was $71.25

But then, we had to have snacks. I was looking for popcorn and M&Ms. The popcorn was OK, but there were no traditional M&M’s for sale — only peanut or pretzel M&Ms.

I was so outraged that I bought a box of SnoCaps to pass around. The grandchildren were mystified and only ate a few of these;  they didn’t blend with the popcorn to give that special chocolate/popcorn taste that’s familiar to every American movie-going kid. The total bill was upwards of $30.

In one of the many commercials before the movie started, the camera pans over the Alps, the sea, and other sites of majestic nature before going into a familiar explosion as the screen image becomes smaller and smaller, finally shrinking to the size of an i-phone screen. A voice intones something about the loss when  such gigantic images are forced onto small screens. It’s clear that movie makers are worried that home movies will steal away their customers.

3-D seemed an answer until the TV industry introduced home 3-D television. And so now the only response seems producing blockbuster films that seem, by their size and special effects, to be inappropriate for the home  screen.

If ParaNorman is any example, though, Hollywood needs a better response. It needs to produce smaller, more intelligent, films, and charge less for them. ParaNorman could have been that kind of film if the demands of 3-D hadn’t  forced it to feature lunging ghosts in every second scene. The requirements of 3-D violated a simple little ghost story based on the Salem witch trials so as to fill every episode with close encounters of a too familiar kind where Puritan ghosts, all of whom needed the attention of a dentist, jump out of the screen. Confusing and Boring!

Hollywood seems infected by this too-much-or-a-good-thing strategy. I found it in The Dark Knight Rises and even in Hope Rises where there is a challenge at every turn, even when the plot lags. Meanwhile, little films like Celeste and Jesse Forever and Beasts of the Southern Wild keep people buying tickets rather than waiting till it comes out on Netflicks or Infinity. Those are terrific independent films that don’t require popcorn to add to their entertainment  value.

I like to go to movies at theaters, with real audiences, who laugh and cry along with me. I like needing to get dressed to go “out” rather than flopping on the couch to stare at my small TV screen for a random hour. But I would rather do that than pay another $100 to treat my grandkids. Hollywood, are you listening?

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by August 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm 2,347 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

"rom-com"The main alternative to this summer’s loud and often obnoxious blockbuster movies is a “Rom-Com,” also known as a film with pleasant characters that fall in love and end a plot happily.

Contemporary rom-coms follow this definition loosely, but with differences that identify them as current productions. The main characters are apt to be “youngish,” but not really  young. They’ve had several “relationships” already, and the issue for them is to sort out a bunch of relationships in the hope of finding one that will last, rather than to search for the “one and only.” And the one main complication seems to be the male figure’s lack of a real job.

The plot usually has some anti-hero, like Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan or Jason Segal trying to get his act together or to make a commitment to a much more together female like Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston. And it’s important that the characters are really, really hip — sassy and knowingly witty.

But contemporary rom-coms are like all the old-fashioned romances, in that they feature happy endings. Despite everything, the couple gets together in the end. For example, Ruby Sparks features an imaginary heroine with a wonderful Rom-Com ending.

Many viewers have found Celeste and Jesse Forever too depressing to rank as a true rom-com. The question is whether the couple in the film are sufficiently happy in the end. What if the expected marriage of the leading couples doesn’t come off? What if the resolution leaves them sad but wise? Are our desires for happy endings so strong that we demand the expected in our rom-coms?

I like Jesse and Celeste Forever because it takes the risk of bucking our desires and giving us an ending that only struggles to be happy. In the process, Rashida Jones shows herself as a wonderful actress, able to accommodate the film’s comic pathos with loveable humanity. Jones delivers a perfect rom-com revelation, even though it hurts. Throughout the film, you’ll laugh, but you’ll also cry.

Go see Jesse and Celeste Forever and tell us what you think.

FinallyWashington’s Film Festival –“DC Shorts”– is arriving in Washington on September 6, and lasting through the 16th. Check DCSHORTS.COM out for tickets, passes and film descriptions. Unless you’re a genuine film freak, you’ll have to choose only a few from among many clusters of offerings. They can be really short — ranging from 2 to 20 minutes–but they’re all going to be interesting, so take a chance!

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by August 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm 1,235 0

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

"Movie"The Movie Fan (me) has been on sick leave since May. She’s back now, thanking whatever Gods there be that she has had a good excuse to skip most of this summer’s blockbuster movies.

Not for her the repulsive roar of a new comic book transition to the screen at Gallery Place. She would rather call up a great movie like Despicable Me on stream or on Netflix  and enjoy its clever sentimentality one more time.

The Dark Night Rises. I tested The Dark Knight Rises at a  Cineplex for this review, and I actually fell asleep. I woke up mainly for Catwoman, played with classy verve by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway seems the best thing in the movie, aside from the elaborate machines. The opening set-up is clever, but it goes on too long, as does almost everything else–like Michel Caine’s sobbing admission  that he has failed the somber Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). I say “Good” for Michael Caine, but shame from prostituting his talent in this drivel.

Ruby Sparks. I saw two other films that will keep me going back to movie houses  (and trying to avoid the ridiculously expensive popcorn there.) The first was Ruby Sparks, a romantic comedy, introducing Zoe Kazan as  the new America’s Sweetheart. She’s unpredictable but loveable, with a cute little nose that always looks vulnerable, on the verge of a cold. That vulnerability plays into this slight fantasy about how you can’t just create a perfect girlfriend on your own.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Another film to keep us going out to the movies is Beasts of the Southern Wild. Its opening imagery is so rich and its people are so phantasmagoric, that you may feel  lost at first.  But there is the clear, hard voice of the heroine, Hushpuppy, to explain everything in her own way and by her own cosmology.  She makes life after a storm in the “bathtub,”  her marginal town that lies outside the Louisiana levee, seem almost normal.

I don’t enjoy confusion in a movie. But in Beasts of the Southern Wild, confusion is the very language of Hushpuppy’s experience of childhood and Nature and the love of a parent. Experience in Beasts of the Southern Wild can be poetic, savagely real about how we are all “meat,” comic, and refusing to  be sad. “No crying” is the demand of Hushpuppy’s father even in death.

So there are still good movies out there. I’ll continue to tell you about one or two of them every other week. Meanwhile you may decide to test your wakefulness by seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Some people thought it was a pretty good flick.

But don’t miss Ruby Sparks or Hushpuppy.

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by May 25, 2012 at 1:00 pm 1,353 0

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie FanFrom Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

You can lose your hearing, not to mention your sanity, by just sitting through the previews in one of the big movie theaters in the District these days. The noise of trains, planes, and automobiles  crashing into each other is designed to cause you to shed those modest ear buds and get back to pure, spine-shattering SOUND.

And then there are the characters:  There may be a human or two among them, but most are inhuman monsters who have huge, gaping mouths with dripping, rotten teeth–the better to devour you with. And their skin is always some unflattering shade of green that identifies them as members of the lizard species — expanding their necks, eyes, tongues, etc., in terrifyingly ingenious ways. Don’t worry. You’re so used to them that you won’t have nightmares.

But in small theaters like the one at E Street or the one at the West End, you can still see some quiet movies–movies like The Kid with a Bike or Monsieur Lazhar. They don’t scare you silly. They leave you feeling glad that you are a human being in a world where imperfect people try to be kind to one another.

The Kid with a Bike, (a Belgian movie in French) is now in its second showing at the West End, and its quiet tonality matches the easy familiarity of the small screening rooms of that theater. Its sound is limited to the small puffings and clanks of Cyril’s bike or his quiet exchanges with Samantha, the woman who tries to help him. There is some conflict among members of a teen-age gang, but otherwise only the punctuation of small, tender scenes with Alfred Brendel playing the sublime adagio from Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto.

The story is a simple one about a boy determined to connect with a father who is equally determined to cut him off. (The mother is nowhere in sight). By chance the kid links up with a young woman, whom he has clung to when he is chased by the authorities into a doctor’s office waiting room. The woman, played without pretense by Cècile De France, takes him in without question, though not without testing.

And that’s it for plot. Nevertheless though the film’s simple story of a stranger taking care of a boy is deeply moving.

The same is true for Monsieur Lazhar (French Canadian, in French). In its simple narrative, a courtly immigrant from Tunisia takes over a class of students in a Montréal primary school after its teacher has committed suicide in their own classroom. Teaching them in traditional ways, he also works patiently with the students, and with the other teachers in the school.

They have buried the anxiety about the suicide so deep that its guilt threatens to overcome them and especially the one child who discovered the body. But finally Monsieur Lazhar’s own situation as a refugee in French Canada forces him to leave, though his students now seem able to struggle back to life.

That’s it. But once again the simple tale carries an emotional weight that might not survive the noise and frenetic action in any one of the current cinema blockbusters.

Give yourself permission to see one of these quiet movies this holiday weekend. Neither The Kid with a Bike  nor Monsieur Lazhar  will scare you, but each will make you feel both sad and hopeful. They assure you that it is good to be a human being, that others of your kind are not lying in wait to gobble you up. These are the right feelings to have now, at the end of the spring and the beginning of a long, hot summer.

But go!  The rest of this summer promises even more vampires and monsters from outer space and the sounds of ignorant armies, clashing by night.

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by May 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm 1,735 0

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie Fan

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

You can get lists of movies about mothers on line, but that’s no fun. The fun comes from thinking back over all the films you’ve actually seen to consider the mothers in them. You’ll probably remember a character who embrace the role of mother eagerly.

Or reluctantly, as Shirley MacLaine observes in Terms of Endearment, “Why should I be happy about being a grandmother?” Of course, MacLaine is on my list as one of the unforgettable mothers and grandmothers in the movies I’ve seen.

So start your own list now. You might buy one of those films for your ma. Or you might look at one of the movies on your list once again,  then call to thank Mom for being the kind of mother, or not, that you’ve seen.

Almodovar sums it up at the end of his movie: “To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.”

Let me get you started with a good half dozen movies for Mother’s Day, and then you can add your own. Do that in the comments section, and give a sentence or two about your choice.

  1. My all-time top movie for Mother’s Day is Two Women (1960), starring a Sofia Loren who bears no resemblance to the fashion plate associated with the European highlife of the 1970’s and 80’s. She is no fashion model in this classic Vittorio de Sica film, but a tough survivor intent on preserving her daughter in a brutal world at war. I have never forgotten the climactic scene in this film — one that brought Loren the first Academy Award for best acting of an actress in a foreign language (Italian) film.
  2. Shirley MacLaine Is an equally fierce as the mother of Debra Winger (and the grandmother of her children) in David Brooks’ Terms of Endearment (1983). Otherwise, she is a flighty woman, bound by the rigid mores of her southern culture. And Debra Winger is terrific too as a mother who forces her oldest son to tell her he loves her to safeguard him from regrets when he gets older. Both women were nominated for Oscars for this movie. MacLaine won.
  3.  Cicely Tyson is fierce but silent in Sounder (1972). She compensates for her husband’s absence,  though she never seeks to replace him within her share-cropping family. She merely dominates the film with the stillness of her resolve to keep the family together. I’ll never forget the look of dawning happiness on her suffering face when she hears that her husband has come home at last.
  4.  Anywhere but Here (1999) is a Susan Sarandon movie that also introduces the teen-age Natalie Portman as a fine actress. Sarandon’s enactment of feckless but insistently caring motherhood lingers. And so does Portman’s rejection of her — a reaction against the mother that just barely, in the last moment, relents.
  5.  All About My Mother (1999) is one of the great foreign films on my list. The somewhat confusing narration in Almodovar’s  kaleidoscopic Spanish film is  tragic, or is it comic?  It introduces Penelope Cruz as a pregnant nun after all and it follows a number of other characters from the stage and from the borderland between male and female. Finally, I realized that it was primarily a celebration of the many roles a truly mothering woman may take with children other than her own.
  6.  I’ve just seen Mother (Madeo, 2009) a recent film from South Korea, because I wanted to observe motherhood from another culture, one far removed from my own. The film is about a poor mother in a provincial Korean town who turns to extremes in defending her mentally slow son from a murder charge. The plot of this film shows the influence of American CSI television, but the portrayal of the determined, though confused mother by Kim Hye-ja is unforgettable. By the end of this long and demanding film, I concluded that mamas are the same all over the world. And each one is unique.

Almodovar sums it up at the end of his movie: “To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother.”

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by April 25, 2012 at 8:00 am 2,253 0

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie Fan

From Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

First there were the Harry Potter movies. Then the Twilight series. Now, The Hunger Games. And to my mind the greatest of these is The Hunger Games. I was instructed by my granddaughter to read the book and then see the movie. She thought the book was better, but I prefer the movie so far. There is more to come, for the film is based upon only the first volume of a trilogy.

A great strength of the movie is that it captures the intensity of its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen — a self-sufficient hunter and unerring archer who protects her widowed family by shooting game for them to eat and to barter for other necessities.

The family lives in a world that has grown hungry because of a government that keeps the populations of its 12 North American districts under control — by want, surveillance, and the demand for sacrifice of a young girl and a young boy in an annual contest of hunter and hunted, until the last one stands alone. The Hunger Games thus paints a resolutely dark image of a future in which the welfare of the State is kept in equilibrium through the sacrifice of  24 of its children in an annual televised contest among them.

The action of The Hunger Games is mainly quiet — silent runs through trees and underbrush, long periods of watching and waiting, hard breathing. The film may try too hard to enliven that action with camera movement, but the minimal hide-and-seek of the film is gripping enough on its own. It’s the outlandish action in the Capitol that may wear the viewer down. Everything there is loud and artificial. Its inhabitants are garishly made up, over-fed, and hypnotically involved in watching the bloodiest incidents of the Games.

The contrasts between the quiet desperation of the members of the districts and the hysteria of the privileged citizens of the Capitol (in the fictional nation of Panem) are rich. And that richness is another virtue of the film where the performances of several “adult” figures played by actors such as Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and Donald  Sutherland flesh out portraits of the state’s enablers.

But the film’s essential human drama comes from close-ups of Jennifer Lawrence, the young actress who plays the role of Everdeen to subdued perfection. Her unadorned face registers few emotions — resolve, determination, and an occasional smile. But her alertness suggests that she will be a sharp-witted survivor, saving as many of the combatants as she can along the way.

One of the subjects of Everdeen’s protection turns out to be Peeta Mellark, the boy contestant from her village. Mellark is never as aggressive as Everdeen, nor as resourceful. But, he harbors a long-hidden love for her and that joins the two together, despite the girl’s reluctance to join in a romance plot. Their salvation, however, turns on Katniss’s discovery that they can save each other by offering to die together. Their partnership grows from this act, and it will become more important and complicated as the series develops.

It is notable that of all the Young Adult block-busters, The Hunger Games is the only one to feature an active and self-reliant heroine, attractive to girls and boys alike. Unlike the swooning Bella Swan of the Twilight series, Everdeen is not motivated by love, and she has no suitor as fabulously handsome as Bella’s heroically restrained vampire lover. And although Hermione Granger shows some independence in the Potter series, Harry overshadows her.

The Hunger Games features a dark vision of the future, with release imagined only through the exercise of such human resources as wit, will and generosity. Those other young-adult stories with their magic wands, shape-changing villains, and fabulous settings can barely compete with the severe allegory of The Hunger Games. Young adults like the challenge of such a tale, it seems.

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by February 25, 2012 at 8:00 am 1,484 2 Comments

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie FanFrom Mary Burgan. Email her at mary[AT]

Seeing the nominated films seems not to matter so much this year. A handful of films seem to have caught the eye, or fancy, or whatever, of the Academy members, and gotten the nominations and hype.

The Artist proves my point. It was a pleasant experiment in retro film-making. It plot was hackneyed, its actors attractive but hardly called upon to engage the audience in deep emotion, and its musical numbers brief and never breath-taking. Nevertheless, it has gained nominees for best picture, actor, supporting actress, director and screenplay.  It’s as if the Academy is trying to prove that it loves the French when they pretend to be American?

The Help–a weak rendition of a weak novel–will compete with The Artist. It did command extraordinary acting performances by its almost unknown black actresses, but it added one for a rising white actress as if to balance the racial mix. The film also got a nod for best picture, of course.

And then there are nominations for other films that I found deeply flawed last year:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was so reserved that its plot was almost unintelligible, making the whole, long film boring.

Hugo was interesting but boring–a self-contradiction that often fits experimental films. This one is made by Martin Scorsese, and so pulls in nominations for best film and best director.

Rooney Mara (Rooney?) got a nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seems a nomination, really, to fill out the Best Actress category and to show that the Americans can do a better job on a Swedish thriller novel than the Swedish can. Take that,  Noomi Rapace.

Mary’s Choices

Well, enough kvetching. Here are my grudging choices in a year when I was never swept away by any movie.

Best Actor: George Clooney in The Descendants is the sentimental favorite, and my own as well. I think he acted even better in Syriana (2005), but his body of work (and very intelligent contributions in a number of spheres) make strong claims on an award this year. The same might be said of Brad Pitt. His work in Moneyball showed his capacity, though I would have nominated him for his acting in The Tree of Life. Actually, I really liked his work in Burn After Reading (2008).

Best Actress:  This is a tough one, even though Hollywood is reported as already giving the Oscar to Viola Davis for The Help. My choice is Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, an astonishing feat of impersonation — though Margaret Thatcher was probably never as human as Streep’s performance makes her. It is a very strong category this year, and I wouldn’t be outraged if any of the other nominees got the award. Except Rooney Mara.

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer will probably win for her fine work in The Help, though I would give the Oscar to Janet McTeer of Albert Nobbs. She made a remarkable contribution to the remarkable ensemble work of the whole cast, led by Glenn Close.

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer’s turn in Beginners as the octogenarian father who finally comes out after his wife’s death, wins hands down. Plummer fully deserves a statuette, and I say this despite my prejudice against the man who rejected his own success portraying a repressed father in the beloved Sound of Music (1965). I haven’t seen Nolte in Warrior Or von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Still, my second choice would be Jonah Hill of Moneyball.

Best Picture: I haven’t seen enough of the leading contenders to have an opinion. I liked the ambition of A Tree of Life. Midnight in Paris will perhaps win for Woody Allen’s life’s work. Other nominees belong to “we had tos, because we nominated one of its actors for a best.”  Or a sense that the category belongs to big, sweeping, weeping, films. That’s why I kept putting off War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

by February 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm 1,304 0

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie FanFrom Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].

Take my advice and go over to Georgetown to see Pina as soon as you can. It is one of the most original films of this year — or any year, for that  matter!

Pina is a biographical study by Wim Wenders of the work of Pina Bausch, a German dancer and choreographer. I should note, though, that Pina’s art cannot be classified under one nationality. Hers is a world of many nationalities, and none is favored over another.

Don’t expect a straightforward story. Pina’s life and achievement — the two are one and the same–unfold almost wordlessly through motion, music, and abstract, stripped-down settings. As Wenders shows in his brilliant shots of the dancers in various of their collaborations,  the movements they call forth from their well-trained bodies are expressive of the deepest desires and fears in human experience.

I was eager to see Pina because I became enchanted with the bits of Bausch’s choreography that were integrated into Pedro Almodovar’s wonderful film, Talk to Her, several years ago (2002 from ). Pina has less story than Talk to Her, or, rather, its story is less a narrative than the enactment of a range of feelings.

The film is really indescribable, so I won’t try to describe it any more, except to say that it’s important to watch Pina with all the openness you can muster. Be patient. Don’t force interpretation. Let the passion, sorrow, grace, wit, beauty, and wisdom of Pina’s choreography enrich your own sense of being in the world.

Pina has been nominated for an Oscar as best documentary film of 2011. Because it’s in 3-D, the film is only being shown in theaters that have the appropriate screening sites. AMC Loews Georgetown, is the only 3-D site  in our area that has booked the film. Pina was sold out on its first weekend there, but it will only run at Georgetown for the next several weeks — until the audience runs out.

by August 9, 2011 at 3:00 pm 1,802 0

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie FanFrom Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email Mary at [email protected]

This summer has been a bad one for movies. That is true most summers, but in this long, hot one, movies seem worse, dominated by super-hero, 3-D blockbuster sequels (or prequels) for children.

Those blockbusters seem too big, too noisy, and too in love with special effects to be interesting. I’ve avoided them, but I finally did go to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I knew that the fuss came mainly from the adolescents who had grown up with Harry. I saw my first, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, back in the summer of 2007 on vacation at Rehoboth with my two oldest grandchildren — now in college.



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