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Column Fri Sep 07 2012

The Words, Samsara & California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown

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The Words

The directing debut from sometime-actor Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (both of whom wrote this film as well and got a story credit for Tron: Legacy) is called The Words, and it's three fairly simple stories thrown into a blender and made so much more complicated than they need to be. Somewhere in the twisted wreckage is an interesting tale of struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who is having trouble making ends meet and is forced to continually borrow money from his father (J.K. Simmons... I can see the resemblance) and can barely afford to support himself and his wife (Zoe Saldana).

But on a trip to Europe (their honeymoon, I believe), Rory stumbles upon a vintage leather briefcase that he buys. Once home, he discovers the manuscript for a short novel about two lovers during wartime Europe who are separated and heartbroken. The story is so moving, Rory types it into his computer and submits it to a publisher he works for (in the mailroom) who falls in love with it. Before long, the book is a massive bestseller and Jansen is famous... until the story's actual writer (an unnamed old man played by Jeremy Irons) approaches Jansen wondering aloud if there is a price to pay for stealing another man's story so boldly.

Sounds like a simple enough tale, right? The things is, the story I just told you is actually a work of fiction being read by an older writer named Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) at a public appearance. Is this his story from his younger days? Does the old man want to expose the young writer for his fraud? And what will happen when a young literature groupie (Olivia Wilde) lures Hammond to her apartment? I said that this was three stories; the third is the story of the found manuscript, which we find out is the true story of the old man as a young soldier (played by Ben Barnes) and his lady love (Nora Arnezeder). My head hurts just recapping it.

For such a mediocre film, The Words certain managed to attract a stellar cast, probably because no one but Cooper had to work more than a few days on it. The faces of Ron Rifkin, Michael McKean, John Hannah and Zeljko Ivanek pop up in tiny parts somewhere in one of the three stories, but they aren't on screen long enough to improve the proceedings in any measurable way. The film has a placid, uninspired tone, especially when it comes to its visual style, which is only matched by the glassy look in many of the actors' performances, save Cooper, who absolutely thinks he's in a better movie. Irons has a few choice hammy moments that will probably result in unintentional laughter, but there's something inherently, undeniably watchable about the man. Aside from that, The Words will not move or inspire you, and good luck trying to remember what happened to whom about an hour after you're done watching it. It's not that it's difficult to follow; the problem is it's tough to care enough to remember.

Samsara

There's something soothing and hypnotic about the films of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson (Baraka, Chronos) as they parade a series of beautifully shot (in 70mm, although projected in 35mm in digital formats approved by the filmmakers) images and swelling music by the likes of Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance), Michael Stearns and Marcello de Francisci (as well as the filmed musicians) before us like so many elegant snapshots of the earth's great natural and man-made wonders. The filmmakers don't explicitly draw the connections between hordes of people in crowded cities and massive factories making household appliances (somewhere in Asia), since they are smart enough to leave that to the viewer.

While I'm certainly not beyond appreciating the stunning imagery shot across 25 countries over the course of five years, that's pretty much all there is to recommend about Samsara. I will admit, the filmmakers found a new way to show the toll of Hurricane Katrina's destructive force that I have not seen, and some of the more exotic temples, statues and art are extraordinary, and this is probably the closest I'll ever get to seeing these wonders up close. But I can't imagine returning to any of these films for repeat viewings (except perhaps Chronos, the best of the bunch).

Samsara is certainly a lovely exercise in brilliant cinematography, time-lapse photography, and reminding us there there are people and places outside of our corner of this silly little planet. More a moving encyclopedia than a proper documentary, I can't imagine this film appealing to anyone beyond visual purists and people contemplating an exotic vacation in the near future. The rest of you might declare it boring; it depends on how long your attention span is, I suppose. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown

One of the many reasons I love documentaries is for the historical perspective they offer to our present-day life. Case in point, the highly informative work from director Sascha Rice on her grandfather, the late California governor, Pat Brown, whose policies and direction are still guiding a great deal of what California has to offer today in terms of water availability, highway infrastructure, immigration, integration, and the state university system.

Since Rice is related to the subject, as well as many of those interviewed — including current governor Jerry Brown and one-time gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown, both of whom are Pat's children — I can't exactly say the film is unbiased. But Rice does an admirable job of giving voice to Brown's critics and showing the governor (who eventually lost to Ronald Reagan, who used the position as a stepping stone to the presidency) at moments in his career where he may have been on the wrong side of an issue, or worse, when he may have appeared uncertain of his positions. A wavering moment on California's stance on capital punishment almost cost him his job.

And while the film spends a great deal of time on Brown's worthy efforts to bring water from northern California down to the south and building around 1,000 miles of new highways, some other interesting areas like his stance on the unionization of migrant workers are blown through a little too quickly. He also seemed torn when his sacred cow university at Berkeley was nearly shut down due to protestors exercising their free speech rights. Still, it's a fascinating personal profile, which includes great interviews from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Brokaw, Nancy Pelosi and Gray Davis, among others. And it's a more-than-surface look at a liberal Democrat who still knew how to play old-school politics with big business. It comes across as something you might see on PBS, but that's not at all a bad thing. The personal touches make it unique among many docs on other statesmen.

The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Sept. 8 at 7:30pm. Director/writer Sascha Rice, executive producer Hilary Armstrong, and Kathleen Brown (1994 gubernatorial candidate and daughter of Pat Brown) will be present for an audience discussion.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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