‘Patty Hearst’ – Based on a True Story, But in a Good Way

I have always been fascinated by the story of Patty Hearst, of how she was kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) in an effort to get some of their comrades released from jail. How she later joined the SLA in their fight against what they perceived as a fascist police state fascinated me even more. When I first heard about this event, probably around the same time the movie was released, I couldn’t help but wonder, how can someone who was kidnapped by people with guns suddenly join up with her captors? Can someone be changed into a completely different person in a situation like this? Taking all this into account, I wonder if makes sense we should prosecute someone for crimes they committed after being brainwashed and sexually abused by their captors. It’s such a strange story, and one ripe to be made into a movie. Thank goodness the story of her ordeal ended up in the hands of the great Paul Schrader, famed screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Blue Collar,” Affliction” and “First Reformed.”

Yes, “Patty Hearst” is based on a true story, but this movie was made back in 1988 when that term actually meant something. Is this movie factually true to what happened to her in real life? I don’t know and, quite frankly don’t care. Movies based on a true story always have moments which are fictionalized or changed for dramatic effect. It is too easy to brand movies like these as “a lie” or “factually incorrect” to what actually happened. Movies cannot play a real story out the same way it did in real life because there has to be a structured story in place which takes you from point A to point B. In the end, the filmmakers need to be respectful of the facts, but they can’t just do it the same exact way it all happened. Besides, people will accuse the filmmakers of being too faithful to the original material, and this makes it all seem like a no-win situation. People making these kinds of movies are going to get attacked one way or the other, and there is no way around it.

“Patty Hearst” stars Natasha Richardson in her breakthrough performance as the title character, and the movie starts with her walking around the campus of UC Berkeley, giving us our first glimpse of her as a person. In a voiceover, she takes the first opportunity of many to break down preconceptions that may have of Patty Hearst who is the granddaughter of the famous publisher William Randolph Hearst. From the start, she makes it clear Patty was never spoiled and had a happy, normal childhood. These opening moments show how nothing could have prepared her for the kidnapping which would come to define her life.

What makes this movie so effective is the way Schrader manages to tell the whole movie almost entirely from Patty’s point of view. As a result, we end up experiencing what she goes through as she is thrown into the trunk of a car and driven off to a place where she is imprisoned in a tiny closet. Spending most of her time in this claustrophobic space, she becomes completely disoriented. Throughout, she is met by soldiers of the SLA who shout their beliefs at her, and she is made to believe she is the enemy. These moments are presented with the actors acting in front of a blindingly white backdrop which gives us a strong feeling of displacement as even we don’t know where we are. What keeps Patty going through this is her gnawing fear of being buried alive, and of her need to survive.

The fact Patty ends up joining the SLA in their “revolutionary” fight makes sense as it is presented here. Having been cut off from those she loves and being exposed to a whole other set of people and ideas, what choice could she have had? Seriously, it’s not like she had much of a chance to escape. In the end, the SLA is basically a cult, and like all effective cults, they broke down Patty’s spirit until there was nothing left. Everything from her life up to that point was made to seem false, and she had no way of believing otherwise. Her captors offer her a choice of joining them, or to go home. But by going home, Patty interprets this as being killed or even worse, being buried alive.

From there, the movie shows Patty going from terrified hostage to being a soldier for the SLA. The moment where her blindfold is removed and she is finally given a chance to look at her captors is actually a beautiful moment as it is made to seem Patty is now surrounded by people who are more loving than they are threatening to her. It is also a relief for the audience as we too are now out of the claustrophobic state of mind to where our eyes are wide open. From there, we are with Patty every step of the way to even after she is arrested and incarcerated for her involvement.

What really powers “Patty Hearst” is the performance of Natasha Richardson which is nothing short of remarkable. She takes Patty from being a helpless and frightened hostage to a believer, and then she takes her to being a martyr where she is broken down but given a chance to build herself back up again. In spite of all the media coverage this case was given back in the 1970’s, Richardson gives us a Patty Hearst who can be seen as a person with a heart, and not just as a blip on the popular culture landscape. She nails every emotional moment of Patty’s evolution truthfully, and she is utterly fascinating to watch throughout. In the movie’s final shot, it is just her face we see as she seems at peace with herself and of what she needs to do to show the world the truth of what she has been through, and she gives this movie the exact note it needs to end on.

In addition, Richardson is surrounded by remarkable character actors who have since become better known following this movie’s release. Among them is Ving Rhames in a pre-“Pulp Fiction” performance as Cinque, the leader of the SLA. Ving makes Cinque an intimidating force which you believe can hold all his followers at bay with even a little bit of effort. In effect, Cinque is the glue which holds the SLA together.

Also in the movie is William Forsythe, a terrific character actor who plays Teko, a most faithful follower of the SLA who tries to hold the movement together when its leadership suddenly falls apart. Frances Fisher, who would later co-star in “Unforgiven” and “Titanic,” plays Yolanda who ends up in a power struggle with Teko over the direction in which the SLA is poised to take. Through these two performances, we see how easily a group can quickly disintegrate when there is no real leader to keep them focused and together as a whole.

But of my other favorite performances comes from Dana Delany whose role as Gelina is a lovely delight. Gelina’s thinking is clearly warped beyond repair, but she presents Patty with the only real kindness she gets during her captivity. As Gelina, Delany gives us a character as giddy as she is dangerous to those around her.

There is also Jodi Long who plays Wendy Yoshimura, an SLA member who becomes disillusioned with the movement and of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing the damage done, she is now more prepared to give up rather than face a pointless fire fight with the “pigs.” I really liked Long’s take on the character, and she gives us a strong human being who does not bend easily to the threats made against her.

“Patty Hearst” also features one of the most unique film scores I have ever heard. Composed by Scott Johnson, it is a mixture of both electronic elements and woodwind instruments, and the score helps Schrader in creating a disorienting environment which we and Patty are forced to endure against our will. I cannot think of another film score I can compare this one to. It was Johnson’s first and only movie score ever, and it was out of print for years. In 2007, however, it was finally re-released through Tzadik Records.

This material is perfect ground for Schrader to cover as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. From Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” to George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and to Nick Nolte in “Affliction,” Schrader has long since been endlessly fascinated by individuals who are so alienated from the world around them to where they have long since descended into madness. Patty Hearst, as Schrader shows her here, does not become alienated from the world by choice, but by force, and her dire circumstances of joining a movement she has no business being in makes us wonder what we would do under similar circumstances. We never get to see the world outside of Patty’s point of view, so when she is brought back into reality, we are made to feel as bad as she does when she is made into a martyr in everyone’s eyes.

The movie got a mixed reaction when it was released back in 1988. From watching the movie’s trailer, I imagine moviegoers may have been expecting something more action packed when they walked into the theater. But what “Patty Hearst” really proves to be is a character study, and an endlessly fascinating one as well. While some may find this movie dull, I loved how it got into the inner workings of the SLA, and it made sense of how someone could be forced to join a group they never would have in a sane state of mind. How you view this movie may very well depend on what you are expecting from it.

I really liked what Schrader did with the story and characters. Had this story been in the hands of another director, it may have come across as more exploitive than anything else. Schrader, however, has far more on his mind than playing with all the titillating facts of this case. Throughout, he explores the evolution of a person who goes from being a victim to becoming a participant who later became a pariah, and he gets under the skin of his subject in a way others were unable or unwilling to do.

But what makes “Patty Hearst” work so effectively is the mesmerizing performance of Natasha Richardson. With her entrancing beauty and natural talent, she makes us want to follow Patty to the end of her journey. Whether we agree or disagree with what Patty did, we empathize with her and are forced to look at ourselves and wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Richardson was so great to watch here, and she makes me want to watch this movie again and again. It was so tragic that we lost her at the age of 45, and years later we are still mourning her death. She left us with a great volume of work which deserved even more chapters than it was given.

After all these years, we still miss you very much Natasha.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

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Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

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From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Joan Allen on Playing the Mother of a Kidnapped Child in ‘Room’

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Whether she has the lead in a movie or is just playing a supporting role, you can always count on Joan Allen to give a compelling performance. In ‘Room’ she plays Nancy, a mother reunited with her daughter, Joy (Brie Larson), who was kidnapped years before. She also discovers Joy is now a mother herself to five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a product of the abuse she suffered while in captivity. As thrilled as she is to have her daughter back in her life, Nancy now has to face the immense struggle of acclimating Joy back into the life she was taken away from and forging a relationship with her surprise grandson. It’s a journey full of awkwardness, but also one which comes to be filled with hope.

Allen appeared at the “Room” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California and talked about her experience making the movie which was one of the most acclaimed movies of 2015. While it deals with such dark themes as kidnapping, abuse and captivity, she also feels “Room” examines the many truths of parenthood. I asked her what kind of research she did to better understand her character and the nightmarish situation she is forced to endure.

Joan Allen: “I just did some reading about abductions and parents. I looked up in particular Terry Probyn who is Jaycee Dugard’s mother. I was hoping to speak with her but I wasn’t able to make that happen, but she had some YouTube footage of what it was like to be reunified. She said one thing that was very helpful to me, that it was a very difficult thing to reunify and you need a lot of help in order to do it. In fact, she and her daughter have created a foundation that helps people and families in this situation unify not only from abduction cases but veterans who had long periods away in the war zone where they’ve been traumatized. It’s very difficult for families to find a way when they’ve had such radically different experiences for extended periods of time and are sad and traumatized by them. And I’m a mother of a 21-year-old and have been sufficiently scared enough by various choices she’s made in life (laughs) to understand what that’s like, to feel that scared for your child and how it’s a ripple effect. It’s certainly not an ouch contest. If it were, the mom would have the biggest ouch. But everybody has huge ouches and that’s just the way it is, and what I’m so moved about by all the characters including Jack is that everybody is trying to move forward and they don’t really know how. They are just not really a throw in the towel kind of people. There is that forward movement, no matter how hard it is, to try and figure it out and to be loving and to try and understand the best way to move forward and get closer to a whole family life back because it’s a tremendous loss. It’s a tremendous devastation to not have that. But they are characters that do try and that do move forward and there’s a tremendous amount of love there, and that’s why I think that the story really reflects that.”

“Room” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

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