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Everything is Illuminated (2005 - PG13)

A young Jewish American man endeavors to find the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II in a Ukrainian village that was ultimately razed by the Nazis, with the help of a local who speaks weirdly funny broken English.

The cast includes: Eugene Hutz, Elijah Wood, Ljubomir Dezera, and Eugene Hutz.

Written by: Jonathan Safran Foer (novel) and Live Schreiber (screenplay).

Directed by: Liev Schreiber.

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Genre: Drama, Comedy, Adventure.

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Rated: PG-13 for disturbing images/violence, sexual content and language.

Tagline: Everything is illuminated in the past…

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Welcome to Ukraine.  In Odessa its East meets West in a third-world city where Starbucks mochaccinos abide and everyone dons the latest in Kangol fashion.  Of course break-dancing is all the rage, and is “explicated” to us via the film’s narrator, Ukrainian ‘stud’ Alex (Eugene Hutz). 

For the past several years Alex’ Grandfather (Boris Leskin) and father have been running a family-owned tour guide business that takes rich American Jews all over the country to find dead relatives.  As Alex notes, this seems odd considering his Grandfather hates nothing more than a Jew, or so it seems.  His Grandfather also seems to think, however, that he is blind, and as such has recently “acquired” his seeing-eye dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Mikki) to help be his eyes while he drives tourists throughout the rural sights of Ukraine.

Alex and Grandfather’s next tourist is the eccentric Jewish American, Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood).  Jonathan is a vegetarian, an oddity in itself for Eastern European culture.  He is also a collector.  He collects everything “filial” from dirt to dentures- placing them in zip-lock bags and pinning them to his gigantic memo board in his bedroom.  Recently Jonathan discovered that his Grandfather was indebted to a young Ukrainian girl named Augustine, who saved his life during WWII.  As Jonathan pays one of his final visits to his dying grandmother he learns of his grandfather’s “secret past” and is given yet another memento for his collection: a picture of his grandfather Safran Foer and Augustine in Ukraine prior to WWII.

Inspired, Jonathan has decided to travel to Ukraine in search of Augustine to pay his thanks.  Employing the help of Alex and his Grandfather, the three, along with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. of course, set out traversing the plains of Ukraine in search of the mystical “Trachimbrod”, a town coincidentally no-one seems to know exists.

Along the way this collision of East meets West results in more than a few hilarious “culture clashes”, from the hilarious “potato scene” to Jonathan’s incessant bagging everything he finds, to Alex’s odd fetishization of American pop culture.  Still, the most compelling character in the trio is the Grandfather who, as Alex notes, “seems always to be dreaming even when he is not in repose”.  In deed it seems as if the mystery behind Jonathan’s Grandfather’s past seems somehow to compel Grandfather, and he seems to be living vicariously through the travels in search of Trachimbrod.

From one place to the next there are endless “Jewish jokes” which are for a moment suspended by the more serious contemplation of the Ukraine as an anti-Semitic country prior to the war.  This tends to be the structure of the film, and it very compelling as such- comic to drama and back again.  The film frequently oscillates between light-hearted satire, parodying the eccentricities of post-modern Western culture, only to take a turn for the serious occasionally.  This has the effect of imploring the audience to take a more psychological, more compelling look at the film. It is extremely persuasive and effective.

In lieu of this radical “up-and-down” rollercoaster ride through Ukraine is an endless array of panoramas of Ukrainian landscape.  All things rural, civilized even historical are documented as mosques, wheat fields, and even toxicity signs (implicit of Chernobyl) are acutely captured along the humble unmarked roads of Ukraine.  The effect is similar to that of “Motorcycle Dairies”, capturing intensely realistic and breathtaking footage of a much oppressed culture. 

This film, if nothing else, lends a voice and a lens through which to view contemporary Ukraine.  Not as something entirely dependent on American culture, but as a country with a deeply profound history, an intense sense of pride, and inevitably influenced by the likes of Western imperial forces.  Through “Everything is Illuminated” the little guy gets a voice of his own.  There is a pride and tangibility, a historicity, an authenticity that is Ukraine all to itself.  ‘Everything is Illuminated” is an attempt to capture the nuance of this voice, this identity, this independent third-world country with a culture and a past all its own.

As the film marches on the trio finally make their way through the desolate plains to more sunny landscapes.  Arriving at “sunflower haven” the Grandfather instinctively stops the car and implores Jonathan and Alex to inquire as to Trachimbrod here, of all palaces.  Marching through a landscape that looks more like heaven than a third world country, Alex approaches a gentle lady and inquires as to Trachimbrod.  Silence.  Still, Alex desists and eventually the gentle woman raises her friendly eyes to Jonathan’s picture.  In that moment, the past and present conflate.  Trachimbrod is found.

Arguably the “deepest” part of the film is in the company of this gentle lady, Lista (Laryssa Lauret), Augustine’s sister and sole-survivor of the antiquated village Trachimbrod.  It is through the eyes and confessionals of Lista and her journey to the Brogh, the Trachimbrod riverbank, that Alex, Grandfather, and Jonathan learn of the troubled past of the town that is no more.  It is also in this experience that much of the ambiguity surrounding the Grandfather’s “anti-Semitic” jokes and his own troubled past are “illuminated”. 

What was a light-hearted comedy has suddenly turned into a profoundly introspective recapitulation of the horrors of WW II and the Jewish genocide- its effects not stopping with the German regime.  In deed “Everything is Illuminated” does exactly that- it illuminates far more than the personal revelations of each character.  The entire film is a revelation to society about a hidden truth, a dark past that needs to be reconciled.  The troubled lives of its main characters seem a sign of atonement for the horror of such truths, and yet, as one learns, the very character’s themselves were somehow always a victim of that horror, always Jewish, always the “Other”, always the enemy.

After the poignant scene at the riverbank comes yet another startling surprise.  Grandfather, having spent much of the film in his “dream-like” state, is suddenly content.  But content with what?  Alex and Jonathan find themselves faced with a complex reality that forces them to head back to Odessa sans Grandfather.  As it were, it seems perhaps some things can never be truly forgotten.  Those things, coincidentally, don’t require bags and collections to hold their memories.  They are the things that stay hard and fast to the heart and never let go until one perishes.  It is through Grandfather that the audience learns this “hard reality”, this tangible truth that ‘illuminates” so much about the alleged oddities and eccentricities of older generations.  It is through Grandfather that the beauty of the past, the complexity of history is made a potent construction, forever shaping and affecting one’s life.  It is through Grandfather that everything is in deed illuminated…

“Everything is Illuminated” is breathtaking.  Its quirky, fun, serious, it’s all play, and it is quite effective at what it does.  The film’s title could not be more appropriate- illumination is everywhere and in everyone.  From the amazing landscape and topographical scenes to the intricacy of the lens and the nuance of the characterization, “Everything is Illuminated” becomes a gem, an oddity that is valued for its rareness, its uniqueness, its eccentricity, its truth.  This film requires far more from the viewer than a detached viewing.  It is, on the surface, light-hearted pop-culture satire, specifically that of Western America.  It is also however, deeply reflective and the film addresses several “heavy” topics pertaining to WWII and the history and culture of the newly independent Ukraine.  “Everything is Illuminated” exploits the tyrannies and oppression of a third-world country and its effects on its people.  The effects are of course double-edged.  In one sense there is acquiescence to all things new and modern, all things “American”.  But also there is a deep sense of pride underlying this film.  Ukrainian independence is the lynchpin of the emotion of the Grandfather, and it is transposed onto Alex and even Jonathan throughout the film.  This film is as much a national celebration as it is a Western farce.  It is, in short, brilliant and nothing short of completely original.

Additionally the cinematography and direction were second to none.  This film continuously integrated complicated shots and interesting camera angles into the wide-screen landscape panoramas to give the effect of continual oscillation between a close-up (a Ukrainian lens) and a distanced (American lens) perspective of Ukraine. The audience is at once both Ukrainian and American as they view the film via the manipulated camera angles, lighting, and West meets East stage sets.  It’s brilliant. Likewise the music is a unique gift unto itself.  The remarkably dead-on ringing of the Russian polka tunes, the waltzes and other traditionally Russian repertoire linger and lull audiences from one scene to the next.  One can’t help but feel the tingle of the cultural music, its novel structural simplicity and “naturalness” that seems deftly appropriate in contrast to the rural scenery that soaks up so much of the lens of this film.  If there is a soundtrack for this film, one can’t help but feel compelled to buy it.

Liev Schreiber simply astounds audiences with his quirky vision- the sunflowers, the WWII trenches, the wheat fields, the American dance club, and of course, the dog!    This film is off-beat “indie” at its best and a big name like Schreiber should be proud to know that he’s still got the spirit of the “little man” inside him.  Likewise the cast is simply adroit.  Elijah Wood is dead-on, the nuance to his character make him as compelling and tragic as he is parodic.  Eugene Hutz as Alex is perfectly cast for the conflicting role of comic-relief and tender filial affection.  He is the Ukrainian Jonathan and the parallels and yet divergences between the two make for a great multi-layered characterization in the film.  Of course the Grandfather, Boris Leskin, is by far the most intriguing of all the characters and Leskin gives a performance that deserves a standing ovation.  His performance is a brief look into the complexity and nuance of Ukrainian culture and history- for a moment he literally is a little piece of Ukraine. 

Main Characters:

Eugene Hutz plays Alex, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Ukrainian tour guide.

Elijah Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer, the eccentric Jewish-American collector.

Ljubomir Dezera plays Young Jonathan - where the eccentricity all started.

Boris Leskin plays Grandfather, Jonathan’s “blind” tour guide.

Mikki plays Sammy Davis Jr., Grandfather’s “seeing-eye dog”.

Laryssa Lauret plays Lista, the last remaining soul of Trachimbrod.

Memorable Quotes:

Jonathan:  I just hope they have something I can eat.

Alex:  Why?

Jonathan:  Because I don’t eat any meat.

Alex:  Don’t eat meat?  How can you not eat meat?

Jonathan:  I don’t know.  I just don’t.

Alex:  Steak?

Jonathan: No.

Alex: Chicken?

Jonathan: No.

Alex: Fish?

Jonathan:  No.  No meat.

Alex:  What is wrong with you?

Alex:  Risky Business is a thing of perfection.  I also dig Negroes, most of all Michael

Jackson.  And of course the number 33 from Los Angeles, the ‘Shaqueel’ O’Neil.

Alex:  As there are not many Negroes in habitation of Ukraine I feel it is a cultural obligation to raise the roof from the mother f*!@er as much as possible.

Alex:  In Ukrainian- (No cappuccino?)

Hotel Concierge:  (No.)

Jonathan: What did she say?

Alex:  She said mochaccinos are special today because they are coffee. (to the girl in Ukrainian)- One coffee.

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