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© By John Arkelian

“La Ritournelle” [“Paris Follies’] (France, 2014) (B+):  “It’s great to live your dream,” says a mother about her son.  He’s at acrobatics school – not the most practical of pursuits, perhaps, but one that brings him fulfillment.  For her part, Brigitte (one of the leading ladies of French cinema, Isabelle Huppert) lives with her husband Xavier (Jean-Pierre Darrousin) in Normandy, where they run a cattle farm.  They seem to be content together; but are they really?  There are little signs of incipient discontent, subtle murmurs that something is wanting:  Brigitte playfully proposes crowning their prize steer with a tiara, but her too-serious husband doesn’t see the humor in the suggestion.  When she presents some novel cuisine, with the exhortation that “It’s good to try new things,” he turns up his nose.  And, Brigitte thinks he isn’t being forceful enough in the face of harassment by a disgruntled livestock customer.

It’s the age-old clash between what’s comfortable and familiar and what’s new and exciting.  How like life that is:  We may yearn for excitement, for novelty, for the risqué, for adventure, even as we go about the mundane business of leading our quotidian lives.  But, is the grass really greener on the other side of the tracks?  Brigitte is tempted to think so when she makes the acquaintance of a dashing visitor next door.  The handsome (and quite a bit younger) Stan (Pio Marmai) is attractive and attentive; while the middle-aged Xavier has become set in his ways and, well, a bit stodgy.  Brigitte is restless and attracted to the possibility of excitement – and the reminder of youth – that Stan represents.  So she goes off to Paris to find him, telling Xavier that she’s going there to see a specialist about the eczema rash on her chest.  When she finds Stan, she realizes, upon closer examination, that he’s not quite what she imagined him to be.  Then, fate puts her in the path of a man who is her own age:  Jesper (Michael Nyqvist) is a sweet and genuinely charming visitor from Denmark.  They are immediately drawn to each other; but, like Brigitte, Jesper is already married.

But maybe Xavier isn’t as stuffy and dull as he seems.  He still has some romance in him, as he makes breakfast to surprise Brigitte and later tells friends how he fell in love with her when she declared her major at agricultural college to be that of “shepherdess:”  “Even back then,” explains Xavier, “nobody considered that a career anymore.  Shepherdesses were only in fairytales.  But I liked that.  And I think that’s when I fell in love with her:  Because she was one of a kind, different – and incredibly stubborn.”  When Xavier sets out to find his errant wife, he visits his son, whose acrobatic routine has him repeatedly falling and then bouncing back (literally) each time onto his feet.  Xavier seems mesmerized by the scene, perhaps drawing metaphorical significance from it about the importance of ‘bouncing back’ from life’s missteps?  Symbolism also infuses his later assessment of what ails a prize steer, who has been separated from his longtime companion:  “When they romped around together, he was fine.  When he didn’t see her, he thought she was gone.  So he’s gone to pot….”  Brigitte replies, “But she’s back.  He can see that she’s back.”  But, Xavier goes on, “I think he’s panicking.  He’s afraid it won’t be like before.  Or, if he’ll be good enough?”

“La Ritournelle” is a real charmer of a film:  Old-fashioned, in a very good sense, its lighthearted romance has many moments of gentle humor, but also some serious moments.  A playful variation on Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” its relationships feel very authentic.  And, Isabelle Huppert has never been better:  She often plays harder-edged characters, but she’s softer, and well, irresistible, here.  Frequently adorned in a fur hat, one might quibble about how credible she is (in appearance or manner) as a cattle farmer; but, we are more than happy to suspend disbelief.  And she is very ably supported by all three leading men – her husband and her two potential paramours.  Romance is alive and well here – and there’s a very nicely acted scene late in the film in which Brigitte finds a postcard (of a painting of a shepherdess from a Paris museum) that alerts her to the fact that her husband must have pursued her there during her illicit trip:  The camera lingers on her face as a subtle play of changing emotions flicker across it.  And the final scene, a short time later, is an artful ode to romance.

This reviewer’s linguistic consultant informs him that “a ‘ritournelle’ is a light, easy to sing, happy, popular tune,” of the kind popularized by Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, and Mistinguett.  The word doesn’t seem to have an obvious equivalent in English – hence the film’s unrelated English title Paris Follies.”  The significance of the original French title may lay simply in the film’s upbeat, heartwarming, sweet-natured tone, though the lyrics of a particular song (made popular made Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett) get prominent play in the movie:  “It’s the good life to be free and explore the unknown / Like the heartaches when you learn you must face them alone / Please remember I still want you.”  Don’t miss this charmer!  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

“Agnes Browne” (USA/Ireland, 1999) (B):  “We’re here for a good time, not a long time.  And having a friend like you is as good as it gets.”  And the friendship being referenced, between two working class women in 1967 Dublin, is the central pillar of this heartwarming story.  Agnes (played by Anjelica Huston, who also directed the movie) and Marion (Marion O’Dwyer) are very appealing as the ‘never say die’ best friends, women who face tough times and adversity head-on and with an ebullience that nothing can extinguish.  The story opens with Agnes queuing up at a government agency for a “pension” (or death benefit) payable upon the death of her husband.  When did he die?  Just hours earlier; but, ever practical, Agnes, is doing what needs to be done to support her seven young children.  That includes reluctantly borrowing from a loan-shark (Ray Winstone) with grossly usurious interest rates.  She procures matching jumpers for her flock from a local charity; she rounds them up for weekly mass; and she works hard selling produce at the market.  Her oldest son chips in too, delivering bottles of milk and selling sawdust procured from a carpentry shop to the local butcher.  But there’s time for some fun, too, as Agnes and Marion sing along to a naughty ditty at their local pub, look forward to a Tom Jones concert (fans of Jones will be pleased to hear several of his songs on the movie’s soundtrack), and enroll Marion for a driving lesson.  Meanwhile, a new man in the neighborhood, a baker from France (played by Arno Chevrier), is intent on wooing Agnes, taking her on a date that is straight out of a fairy tale.

“Agnes Browne” is full of colorful characters.  Its tone is lightly comedic, but there are bits of romance and drama in the mix, too.  Its two leads are winningly played by Huston and O’Dwyer:  Indeed, their close friendship is the great strength of the story – two plucky women, who face life’s ups and downs (including, no pun intended, a humorous discussion of the sexual phenomenon they misname “the organism”) with pluck, courage, good grace, and good humor (when the bingo gods do not smile on them, one of them remarks that, “I reckon those priests are fixing [the game]”).  Huston often plays hard or brassy dames; here, she looks softer and more feminine:  It’s an entirely new (and very appealing) side to her.

The movie was based on the novel “The Mammy” by the Irish writer, comedian, and actor Brendan O’Carrroll, who also co-wrote the screenplay.  The novelist later donned (female) actor’s clothes to play his eponymous leading lady in a humorous series based on his characters – mounted first as five touring plays, and currently as a television series on the BBC.  For ages 18+: Coarse language.

Innocence” (France, 2005) (A):  Imagine a kind of boarding school set in the midst of a verdant park and surrounded by a high stone wall.  It is home to young girls, who arrive mysteriously and are forbidden to leave.  There are very few adults (all of whom are female), and they appear only for classes in dance and biology, leaving the girls to play outdoors – swimming, skipping, and swinging – in a seemingly idyllic setting.  Disorienting, intoxicating, and vaguely unsettling, the days here unfold like a dream.  Is this place real?  Is it some sort of limbo between life and death, a waiting place after death (or before birth), or a halfway house for souls?  Or, is it a metaphor for childhood’s end and the loss of innocence?  There’s imagery here that may be sexual, perhaps representing the onset of puberty.  It’s like inhabiting a dream – and it’s spellbinding.  Striking, and startlingly original, it’s a remarkable feature film debut by writer/director Lucile Hadzihilovic.  Not for those who favor the conventional.  For everyone else, it’s one of the best films of 2005.

“The Babadook” (Australia, 2013) (B+):  It starts with a hypnotically strange opening:  We see a woman’s face and shoulders as she is buffeted about in slow motion.  Is it the dream of a car crash?  Then the woman’s body falls backward (still in slow motion) onto her bed.  She awakes to a plaintive announcement from a child, “Mom, I had the dream again.”  Amelia (an award-caliber performance by Essie Davis) lives alone with her young (six turning on seven) son Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Samuel’s arrival in the world was occasioned by an awful trauma, one that has indelibly marked both mother and son with its emotional scars.  Amelia is troubled by recurrent insomnia (and ensuing severe sleep deprivation), and Samuel is off-puttingly whiny, clingy, and, well, rather odd.  There’s something ‘off’ about him, we suppose, at first.  For one thing, he is preoccupied by notions of imaginary ‘monsters’ threatening their tranquility.  The child is clearly troubled.  For a time, we wonder if Samuel may be becoming dangerous, like the psychopathic child in “The Bad Seed.”  But, no, the story goes in a very different direction.

There are little vaguely unsettling moments – from the way the hand of a sleeping person dangles over the edge of the bed, suspended in mid-air and seen from below (the vantage-point of all imaginary things that lurk under beds) to the abrupt jarring sounds of indeterminate activity off-screen and the child’s scurrying movements as his mother lies sleeping.  (We discover that Samuel is preparing weapons, including an improvised crossbow, as a defense against the monsters he is sure are approaching.)  For her part, Amelia is increasingly taut and impatient with her son’s strange fixation with imagined threats:  “This monster thing has got to stop, all right?”  There are odd bric-a-brac in the child’s room, like the poster of a magician with a lurid headline (“Do the dead come back?”) and large insects encased in glass as though it were amber.  And the subtle intimations of oddness don’t stop there.  In one scene, his leg is sprawled across his mother in bed, and there’s an overly tight hug, things that may (or may not) suggest an inappropriate, vaguely incestuous, familiarity.

Then, one day, a hitherto unseen children’s pop-up book appears on Samuel’s shelf, featuring a darkly creepy bogey who eponymously gives this film its title:  “See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink,” says the book.  Amelia tears the book up; but it reappears, patched back together:  “The Babadook [is] growing right under your skin,” says its text.  Gradually, Amelia comes to share her son’s belief that something malevolent (and paranormal) is stalking them.  The stress grows, and so does Amelia’s impatience with her son:  “Why can’t you just be normal?,” she cries out in an unguarded moment – a question that propels Samuel into some kind of seizure or convulsion.  But the film takes us in unexpected directions, softening our perceptions of Samuel, even as we grow increasingly concerned about Amelia’s state of mind.  It is strongly instructive when the child says, “I know you don’t love me.  The Babadook won’t let you.  But I love you Mom.  And I always will.”  With those words, a somewhat unlikable character grows in our affection.

Horror stories – stories of supernatural predators and demonic possession – are commonplace.  But this story seems to be something very different, something closer, perhaps, to “Repulsion” – a story about the disintegration of a personality under the unremitting strain of alienation, isolation, unbearable loss, grief, and unhappiness.  What is the Babadook?  It might be a supernatural bogey.  But it is far more likely to be an externalization of ‘the Id’ (the classic “Forbidden Planet” comes to mind), the broiling angst of the psyche that takes on manifest form – the tangible expression of our own ‘inner demons.’  What if what haunts us most dangerously of all is merely ourselves – our inner monster that takes on shadowy form and lays in wait to pounce on us.  As Samuel says, in a child’s terms, “You let it in.  You have to get it out.”

Essie Davis (who has had key roles in such diverse films as “The Girl with a Pearl Earring” and the 2006 live-action version of Charlotte’s Web”) deserves to be better known outside of Australia.  She is glorious to look at, and she’s a darned fine actress.  She describes this film as being about “facing your trauma and facing your own grief,” things, which, if not faced, can fester away in the repressed corners of our psyche:  “You have to live with it; it’s not something that goes away.”  “The Babadook” has gotten rave reviews, five-star ratings, and critical acclaim as a modern classic.  Its writer/director Jennifer Kent wanted to create a world that was unique to itself:  Eschewing both strict realism and ‘naturalism,’ she aimed instead for expressionism – a mode of storytelling in which the story and setting express the emotions of the characters.  The working model was German Expressionism, where all emotion is externalized.  Within each of us brews a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.  If the darker, repressed, ones could take on tangible form, perhaps this is what they would look like?  The result is a classy (and smart) story in which the nerve-wracking stuff comes directly from the psychology of characters who may break under the immense strain of their own emotional trauma.

“The Babadook” has earned a great many awards and nominations.  For example, it won Best Film, Director, and Screenplay at the Australian Film Institute, where it was also nominated for Best Actress, Editing, and Production Design.  It was nominated as Best International Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards.  It won five awards at the Toronto After-Dark Film Festival, among them, Best Actress and Director. At the U.S. Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, it was nominated as Best Film, Actress, and Performance by a Younger Actor.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language; brief sexual content;  and frightening scenes.

Editor’s Note:   The writer/director (Jennifer Kent) of “The Babadook” did an earlier treatment of the same story in the form of a short film, “Monster” (Australia, 2005).  It has the same characters and situation, but with a different cast and somewhat different tone.  The ten-minute short film, which is well worth a look, is on view at:  https://vimeo.com/39042148

“Deux jours, une nuit” [“Two Days, One Night”] (Belgium/France/Italy, 2014) (B/B+):  It’s a simple premise: Sandra is ready to return to work after a period of sick leave.  The trouble is that her employer has put the matter of her return to her co-workers:  They can vote for or against her return.  If they vote against, she will lose her job, but the rest of them will each get a bonus of 1,000 euros.  If they vote for her return, there’ll be no bonuses.  It’s one or the other:  Her job or their bonuses.  In her absence, Sandra’s co-workers chose the bonus in a vote of 14 to 2.  But her best friend has procured a do-over, this time to be held by secret ballot, and Sandra has the weekend to talk individually to her co-workers to ask if they will reconsider.

Despite the encouragement of her supportive husband and her loyal friend at work, Sandra is full of doubts.  For one thing, her co-workers are working class people, for whom one thousand euros is a great deal of money:  “They need their bonus.  It’s normal,” she says, without bitterness.  Her natural reticence and her admirable empathy for others make Sandra feel painfully awkward about approaching her co-workers:  “Every time, I feel like a beggar, a thief coming to take their money.”  And, there’s another impediment that threatens to take the wind out of Sandra’s sails.  It seems that her absence on sick leave was occasioned by a debilitating bout of clinical depression, and she is still very much susceptible to its destructive vortex.  Sandra is a hair’s breath away from succumbing to despair, and knowing that to be so fills her with self-doubt:  “I don’t exist.  I’m nothing.  Nothing at all.”

Sandra is so conflicted about her mission to approach each of her co-workers in person that she’s constantly on the verge of balking.  As it is, her approach is surprisingly low-key:  She doesn’t seek to cajole, scold, or shame them.  Quite the contrary:  Sandra is humble and gentle as she speaks to her colleagues.  Their reactions range from sympathy to shame to open hostility.  Sympathetic or not, many hew to the refrain that, “I didn’t vote against you, I voted for my bonus.”  But that rationalization conveniently ignores the fact that their gain is utterly dependant upon her loss.  At its heart, it’s a moral question: Are we our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?  Can moral people accept benefiting at the expense of others?  When should we think of ourselves as opposed to thinking of others?  How much do charity, brotherhood, solidarity, and basic humanity really count in our lives?  Of course, it’s easier to do ‘the right thing’ when there’s no obvious cost to us.  The dichotomy between moral rightness and material need is put very well by a co-worker who is torn between those competing demands:  “You’re right to fight to stay.  I should help you.  It’ll be a disaster for me if the majority backs you, but I hope for your sake they do.  Sorry.”

Many of Sandra’s co-workers may struggle with the choice between material benefit and moral rightness; but, in an interesting twist, when Sandra herself is presented with such a choice, she has no hesitation at all in choosing to do the right thing.  The great strength of “Deux jours, une nuit” is Marion Cotillard’s award-caliber performance as Sandra.  She combines fragility with strength, as an ordinary woman who shows herself capable of extraordinary decency and perseverance.  It is, as we said, a simple story; but it is grounded in a quietly powerful performance.  Cotillard is ably supported by Fabrizio Rongione (as her gently supportive husband) and the other players.

The film was an Oscar nominee for Best Actress and a BAFTA nominee as Best Foreign Language Film.  It was nominated for Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes. At France’s César Awards, it nominated as Best Actress and Best Foreign Film.  At the European Film Awards, it won Best Actress, and it was nominated for Screenplay and the Audience Award.  It won Best Film, Director, and Actor at Belgium’s Magritte Awards, where it also got two separate nominations for Supporting Actress and nominations for Production Design, Editing, and Sound (but no nomination for lead actress, oddly enough).  The U.S. National Board of Review named it as one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of the year.

“Love Me” [“Sev Beni”] (Ukraine/Turkey, 2013) (B+):  Cemal (Ushan Çakir) is an all-around nice guy living in Turkey.  When the story opens, he is a decidedly unenthusiastic guest at his own engagement party.  His fiancée was hand-picked by his family, so romance, let alone love, are conspicuous by their absence – hence Cemal’s lack of enthusiasm.  His brother and uncle think they have just the cure for what ails him – a boys’ weekend away (though Cemal is the only bachelor among their ranks) in Ukraine’s capital city.  Cemal isn’t interested:  He’s too decent a guy to be titillated by tales of willing young women or assurances that ‘what happens in Kiev stays in Kiev.’  By contrast, Cemal’s uncle has a coarser view of the world:  “The golden rule here is to show that you are a very rich man. If you’re a bit better looking than a monkey, then life [i.e. success with the opposite sex] is better for you here.”  Reluctant to take part, Cemal has to dragged along by his randy relations.  Once there, however, his paths cross with the beautiful Sasha (Viktoria Spesyvtseva).  With her svelte figure, raven tresses, big blue eyes, and natural pout, she looks like a model – and she dresses the part, too, wrapped in white fur against Kiev’s winter chill.  It happens that she’s been stood-up by her boyfriend on a special occasion; so she finds herself in the same nightclub as Cemal – a place where, curiously, the only indigenous inhabitants seem to be young women, being ogled by mostly middle-aged foreign visitors.  (Oddly, it’s supposed to be a nightclub, but the foreign visitors deport themselves practically as if it were a whorehouse.)

Impulsively (and unceremoniously), Sasha picks up Cemal – and she does it without the benefit of conversation, since they don’t speak each other’s languages.  Sasha seems to be acting out of anger at the boyfriend who left her in the lurch; and she seems intent on casual sex as a way to become pregnant (she punctures the condoms, evidently looking for a sperm donor) and thereby, it is implied, ‘trap’ her neglectful boyfriend.  For it is clear early on that Sasha is the mistress of an older, married man.  Her expensive clothes, car, and apartment may be the signifiers of a “kept-woman.”  But Sasha is chaffing at the bit when she encounters Cemal.  She’s intent on anonymous, completely casual sex, as the means to an ulterior end.  But before it is consummated, Sasha’s mother appears at the door to inform her that her beloved grandmother has gone on walkabout from the care center where she lives.  Sasha has to drop everything to look for her grandmother (how nice to see an older woman depicted as still being beautiful, in the striking person of Margaryta Kosheleva).  A barely comprehending Cemal tags along, as they search subways and stations for the confused runaway.  Although Cemal was initially wowed by the beauty of the woman he mistakenly assumed to be either just promiscuous or a sex-for-hire professional, he soon becomes smitten by more than mere appearances.  Their only lingua franca is a meager smattering of shared words in English; but they communicate in other ways, through their behavior.

It’s an endearing pairing:  She’s a sad-eyed siren; he’s a sweet-faced near-innocent.  She’s worldly; he’s practically a naïf.  But his decency, kindness, and instinctive gallantry make an impression on Sasha.  And her icy sultriness gives way to more human gentleness in her bond with her grandmother and awkwardness in her strained relationship with her mother (played, we think, by Olga Stefanska).  As Cemal and Sasha spend time together, initially by chance, and then by mutual choice, it is clear that they’re falling in love.  But he’s already engaged (albeit through the machinations of his family rather than his own choice), and she has allowed herself to become the property of another man.  The result is sweet and charming, predominantly of a tone with a romantic comedy.  There’s a cultural and linguistic gap on top of the intrinsic differences between the sexes.  But, the tone changes, with the fanciful supplanted by the more harshly realistic, yielding an ending that this reviewer found unsatisfying.  Is the seeming change an inconsistency of tone – and thus a misstep?  Or, is it a very deliberate reminder from the co-writers/co-directors (Maryna Gorbach and Mehmet Bahadir Er, who also made “Black Dogs Barking” together) that all too often our wonderful dreams give way to starker realities?  For ages 18+:  Some coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “La Reina” [“The Queen”] (Argentina, 2013) (B):  Filmmaker Manuel Abramovich follows a few days in the life of life of a young beauty pageant champion named Maria Emilia (or ‘Memi,” for short) in this 19-minute documentary short film.  We often see Memi in extreme close-up – her face expressionless as her unseen mother and other grown-ups laboriously affix a heavy, elaborate headdress, all aglitter with rhinestones, to her head.  Memi looks to be about ten years old.  She also looks to be absent from the proceedings, lost in the shuffle of adults decking her out in glittering regalia as she is objectified and reduced to a compliant clotheshorse. “The love of the carnival is more important than anything else,” we hear her mother say. And what revealing words they are.  But Memi looks like a bewildered lost child.  Others chatter about fan mail, hairspray, glitter, and chafing, but Memi is not a participant, until she tearfully complains of the weight and pressure of the towering crown that’s attached to her head:  “I can’t take it anymore! Let me go! Let me go!” is her futile cry for freedom.  And, at a symbolic level, those words refer to far more than just the crushing burden of the headdress, as do the words, “It gets heavier and heavier by the minute” – words that refer to her pharaoh’s wife’s crown and to her servitude and the unendurable weight of others’ expectations.  To her objection, “I can’t feel my head anymore,” she gets only the reply, “You look lovely!  See how you shine.”  And her dehumanization goes on.  The film ably makes its points (about the not so pretty truth behind ostensible glamor) by implication – by the simple, but effective, expedient of juxtaposing close-ups of the girl’s face with the oblivious chatter of her attendants, the same attendants who manage and control her every moment.

“Nora’s Will” [“Cinco días sin Nora”] [“Five Days without Nora”] (Mexico, 2008) (B):  Over the opening titles we see a woman’s hands painstakingly laying an elegant table.  It’s one of the last things she does; not long after afterwards, Nora is discovered dead on her bed by her ex-husband José (a wry Fernando Luján).  He also discovers a refrigerator full of lovingly prepared foodstuffs – all the ingredients for the impending Passover supper, each of them in its own plastic container, each of them affixed with a post-it note bearing serving, seasoning, and/or cooking instructions.  Nora’s final preparations have all the hallmarks of a labor of love.  But José sees it all as evidence of manipulation, even (and especially) the timing of Nora’s self-inflicted exit from this world.  It’s the beginning of Passover (when the family is due to gather), with a Sabbath only two days away.  For observant Jews, the timing necessitates a delay in burying Nora.  At the instigation of her rabbi, she is put on ice and left in her bedroom until a burial can properly proceed five days hence.  But José is impatient with the dictates of ceremonial rules and artificial (and, to him, purely arbitrary) notions of propriety.  José is an atheist, and he’s none too circumspect about others’ rigid dictates, ordering a pizza loaded with bacon, sausage, and ham, and offering it to the rabbi.  The rabbi is duly offended, further complicating arrangements for Nora’s funeral, despite José’s nonchalant attempt to inter her at the ‘Cemetery of Jesus,’ when Jewish venues are unavailable.

“Nora’s Will” is a gentle, gently-paced movie.  It is sweet-natured, with a dry sense of humor.  It finds its sweetness and its humor in its growing cast of characters, and in the situations they encounter.  José is joined by Moises, a “shomer,” or rabbi in training, who is dispatched to stay with the departed and pray over her; he is an earnest young convert from Catholicism who is perplexed by the arrival of floral crosses and other paraphernalia sent by the aforementioned Cemetery of Jesus.  But the young man discovers a kindred spirit in the family’s cook and nanny – the two of them share a love for cooking.  And there’s José son, with his wife and their two charmingly precocious young girls, a family friend (who is also Nora’s psychiatrist), the troublesome rabbi, Nora’s extremely near-sighted cousin, who arrives not knowing of her favorite relation’s demise, and (briefly) Nora’s mournful cat.

José was married to Nora for many years; but they’ve been divorced for many years, too.  So, José takes her loss in his stride and matter-of-factly.  Anyway, he’s not prone to sentimentality. When handed a questionnaire by the rabbi, in aid of “a more personal and touching service,” he’s asked to list “five virtues of the deceased [and] to describe an important act of charity performed by the deceased during her life.”  José looks at the family friend and says, “I can’t think of anything, can you?”  But a brief flashback or two tell us that José and Nora once loved each other dearly.  And when he learns a secret about Nora, José is not immune to jealousy, for all his airs of being above all the pomp and circumstance attendant upon Nora’s passing.  The result is a winning, character-driven movie – a cute, small film with a slow build of humor.  “Nora’s Will” received numerous awards and nominations in Mexico and elsewhere.  For ages 16+:  Brief mild references to sexuality.

“Leviathan” (Russia, 2014) (B):  In the Old Testament, the leviathan is a sea monster of irresistible power – a force that devours all in its path, a destructive element that no man can hope to withstand.  In this Academy Award nominee from Russia, it gives its name to the relentless, unstoppable powers (from without and within) that leave a man helpless in their wake.  Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives on Russia’s Arctic coast (on the Kola Peninsula, abutting Norway on the Barents Sea) with his lovely wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) from his first marriage.  He has a house that he built himself – but the waterfront land that it (and his automobile repair garage) sits upon is coveted by the corrupt town mayor (played by Roman Madyanov).  Kolya is fighting both the expropriation order itself, and the inadequate compensation on offer, through the arcane legal system. In this he is assisted by an ex-army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) from Moscow.  Dmitri, who is a lawyer, has confidence in the legal system; but it is misplaced:  The first time we see it in action, a court functionary drones off an unjust ruling in a-mile-a-minute monotone.  It’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy come to life, as it is later, when another bureaucrat declares that she doesn’t have the authority to say that she’s not authorized to intervene in an urgent matter.

Kolya et al. are thwarted at every turn – by bureaucracy, by official indifference, by incompetent systems of governance and so-called “justice,” and by organized corruption and lawlessness.  Dimitri’s back-up plan – to use dirt he’s uncovered about the corrupt mayor to turn that villain from his course – does not live up to his confident expectation of success either.  It’s hard to succeed when you’re up against the ruthless and the powerful, and when fate itself seemingly has it in for you as well.  But the coup de grace comes not from external threats as much as from self-imposed ones – betrayal, infidelity, and despair that rise up in the very bosom of Kolya’s inner circle of family and friends.

The film opens and closes with the world that God created – waves crashing against rugged cliffs, still lakes, and silent mountains, as dramatic music from Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten” plays.  Then we see the (mostly) unsightly artifacts of man – a ship graveyard and decrepit apartment buildings that look like relics from the Stalinist days.  This is a world where might is the only right; a world where there is no justice for the individual, a world drenched in what another critic called “existential Russian angst.”  And that angst, or some native penchant for self-destruction, ensures that many of these characters (it is one thing the protagonists and villains have in common) practically drown themselves in vodka.  There is something Bergmanesque about this character-driven story of people hounded by fate; something Shakespearian about its reflection upon the inexorable nature of doom.  Based in character more than plot, it moves at a leisurely pace, illuminated by some striking images (and metaphors), like the immense bleached bones of a whale curled upon the beach and a teenagers’ hangout in a ruined church – where they drink round a blazing fire, as if the heathens had truly supplanted the sacred.  There’s satire here, as well as gallows humor, as with the unholy alliance between church and state personified by the friendship between the corrupt mayor and a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church.  And, when Koyla and his friends do target practice at a picnic, their choice of targets is, first, vodka bottles, and, then, framed official portrait photographs of the Soviet Union’s rogues’ gallery of strongmen.

At one startling juncture, a priest earnestly exhorts his devout-looking flock to remember that, “Truth reflects the world as it really is, without distortion.”  But his congregation seems to disproportionately comprise the well-heeled (and perhaps self-satisfied?), among them, the mayor.  The hypocrisy and utter emptiness of the praises sung to truth echo loudly.  This is the same mayor who is the living antithesis of the truth, a man, who delights in the tragic travails of Kolya, by saying, “Thank God.  That’ll teach him to know his place.”  Knowing one’s place:  Such is Russia, it seems, under Putin, and under the recurring despots who preceded him:  “You’ve never had any [effing] rights, and you never will,” exclaims the mayor (as the film’s spokesman for ‘the Powers That Be’).  But, truth be told, the triumph of might over right, of the insidious advantage wealth, power, influence, and sheer ruthlessness have over justice is hardly unique to Russia.  We are subject to the same failings in the West, despite our vaunted systems of justice and accountability.  It’s just more nakedly blatant in a place like Russia, where the powerful can express indignant outage that anyone would even dare to oppose them: “ When did anything like this happen?  I crush some louse and he turns the tables on me!  Brings in a lawyer from Moscow!  And that bastard starts blackmailing me.  And drops big names!”

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev marshals a first-rate cast in this quiet character study about people on a collision course with a pitiless fate.  But despite the cast’s undeniable strength, something about these characters fails to wholly engage us on a visceral, emotional level.  Maybe it’s because we want a Robin Hood story and instead get the ruthless nihilism of “Game of Thrones.”  Maybe it’s because too much feels inchoate:  An infidelity springs up from seemingly nowhere.  A vital ally is abruptly lost.  Someone who seems worldly-wise is suddenly, inexplicably, too easily intimidated by mere brute force.  And the villain who is worried that his foes know his secrets suddenly acts with impunity against them, inexplicably no longer fearing the secrets they can reveal.  Why do those things occur?  The film never tells us.  And too many of these characters drink too much, too often – their constant inebriation is off-putting.  But it all leads to a strong antagonist’s decline and fall.  The years have taken their toll, he says; but more than that, it is the unremitting succession of defeats and reverses and egregious injustices that sap his strength and leave him hapless in the maw of the leviathan.

“Leviathan” was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, BAFTA, and the Independent Spirit Awards; it won a Golden Globe in that category.  It won Best Screenplay at Cannes, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film).  It was nominated for Best Film, Director, Actor, and Screenplay at the European Film Awards.  It got eight nominations from the Russian Guild of Film Critics, winning six of them, namely Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language; brief nudity; and very brief sexual content.

“Wild” (USA, 2014) (B+):  Very early in this true story of a woman on a journey of self discovery and personal redemption, she screams in frustration.  As she does so, a succession of images flash across the screen; almost subliminal in their effect, they are nearly too quick for conscious perception.  Those images are a précis of the entire story in a few moments:  We see a male fist menacing a little girl’s face; an adult woman’s bruised face; naked sex; a frightened horse averting its head; a fox; a woman’s dead face; and crumpled pages from a guidebook burning in a fire.  Then the screen goes to the flickering title: “Wild.”  One of the other images speaks volumes about the theme of this story: It’s an entry from a dictionary – the meaning of the word ‘strayed:’  “To wander from the proper path, to be lost, to be without a mother and father; one who strays… [one who is] isolated; to become wild.”  It’s significant because this is the true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), a woman whose life goes off the rails after the death of her beloved mother Bobbi (Laura Dern):  Drugs, alcohol, and self-destructive promiscuity bring her to rack and ruin.

In the wreck of her marriage (to Thomas Sadoski’s Paul), Cheryl makes up a new surname for herself: “Strayed.”  And its meaning (as a verb) defines the path she’s on.  To find herself, to reclaim herself, to find her “best self,” as her mother put it, Cheryl embarks on a solitary three-month hike through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail – a thousand-mile trek through deserts, mountains, forests, and snow that stretches from the Mexican border to Canada.  In that solitude, with only the beauty and hardships of nature as her companions, Cheryl aims “find my own way out of the woods… after I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief.”  This is a story about confronting grief as much as it is about grappling with our inner demons and frailties.  And it’s about learning to overcome obstacles and loss.  The story makes recurring use of flashbacks: Memories are triggered by small things – like a song on a radio, or a book, or a phrase.  Sometimes one thing (like a hiker’s alarm whistle) brings to mind something unexpected (like a sexual encounter).  Some of the flashbacks are just fragmentary moments, brief impressionistic flashes from the past.  The screenplay makes frequent use of songs and poems, like Emily Dickinson’s “If your nerve denies you, go above your nerve” and the song lyrics, “If I could, I surely would.”

Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Café de Flore,” and “The Young Victoria”) has fashioned an engrossing character study with a hopeful redemptive arc and an award-caliber performance by Reese Witherspoon.  Cheryl says, “I don’t know when I became such a piece of shit.  I was strong.  Responsible.  I wanted things in life.  I was good, you know.  I ruined my marriage and now I’m ruining the rest of my life….  I’m gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.  I’m going to put myself in the way of beauty.”  The result, written by Nick Hornby from the memoir of the real Cheryl Strayed, is often impressionistic in the way it breaks down the wall between past and present.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

“Wild’s” many nominations include Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Supporting Actress; Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actress; and a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  For ages 18+: Coarse language, nudity, and sexual content.

“Mr. Turner” (U.K./France/Germany, 2014) (B+):  Director Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies”) is known for gritty, character-driven stories about working-class people.  And truth is truly stranger than fiction when it comes to the subject of this film:  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is regarded as one of Britain’s foremost landscape painters.  But he came from humble, working class origins; and he was as eccentric as can be, what Leigh calls, an “extraordinarily complex, curmudgeonly, convoluted character.”  As depicted by the accomplished character actor Timothy Spall, Turner is a gruff bear of a man, who frequently grunts, mutters, harrumphs, and growls to himself in place of conventional speech. As Spall points out, “That’s an element of the film: that genius often comes in the strangest of packages.”  Working in both oils and watercolors, Turner is regarded as a painter of “the sublime,” drawn always to “the conflict of the beauty and the horror of nature.”  As a visiting woman of science (Lesley Manville’s Mary Somerville, of whom we wish we’d seen more) puts it, “The universe is chaotic, and you make us see it.”

Turner is brutally honest in his art – depicting what he sees as filtered by how it makes him feel – but he is less forthright in his personal life.  He is cool, brusque, and seemingly disinterested in his former mistress and the two grown daughters he has had with her, publicly denying that he has ever had any children.  He occasionally turns to his handicapped housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), for physical comfort.  She is partially hobbled by a physical affliction, shuffling about Turner’s London home like a drudge.  Ever loyal (in real life, she spent 40 years with him), she clearly cares for the man; but he keeps her at an emotional distance, despite his occasional sexual advances, which are base and primal rather than tender.  Yet, the man is capable of a loving relationship, as he settles into quiet domesticity with Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the widowed landlady at a guest house in Margate (situated on the coast of Kent in southeast England), where Turner goes to sketch and paint.  He can be himself with Mrs. Booth, who shares his working class ways.

What else?  There’s Turner’s touching closeness to his father, a former barber and wigmaker who has become his son’s factotum. (William Turner is genially played by Paul Jesson.)  There’s some satirical skewering of intellectual pomposity – in the form of a lisping John Ruskin, who presides over an overly-elevated, pretentious conversation about gooseberries, before declaring, “I find myself marveling at my own depth of perception.”  There’s a remarkable recreation of the 1832 Royal Academy exhibition, complete with replicas of up to 300 paintings, displayed frame-to-frame, and the rivalry between the competing artists whose work is on display there.  There’s a dismissive remark by a royal, who snubs one of Turner’s paintings as “a dirty yellow mess,” which, overheard, creates reflexive echoes of dismissal in the mouths of others (“It is a truly frightful piece,” “It is indicative of mental disease,” “It is wretched and abortive”).  Turner finds his embrace of an almost impressionistic formlessness lampooned on the popular stage – and these barbs clearly hurt a man who is so deeply committed to his art.

Turner is dubious about the new-fangled technology of daguerreotype photography; when he hears that it is still limited to black and white images, his relief is palpable.  “And long may it remain so,” he says to himself.  For the limitation of cameras leaves to the painter the sole mastery of color.  Still, he insists that Mrs. Booth sit for a portrait photograph with him, one that will depict, “The two of us together, forever.”  “Mr. Turner” deals with the last 26 years of Turner’s life.  The result is a fascinating study of a man who is at once gifted, eccentric, gruff, and, on occasion, gentle.  Brief scenes of his perambulations through nature have a heightened reality:  They are breathtaking beautiful – looking more real than real, with a dreamy, painterly quality, as though we are seeing real things through an artist’s senses.  There’s strangeness to the musical score (by Gary Yershon), too:  It has a haunting, other-worldly quality.  The story’s pacing throughout is languid, the sparse dialogue mannered – attributes which sometimes give these proceedings a theatrical quality.  At first, those characteristics serve to keep the viewer somewhat detached, as though we are watching a play from a distance.  But the film seeps into our senses, relentlessly, until the distance between us and its characters disappears.  All that remains is a bravura recreation of a time, a place, and a truly one of a kind character.

“Mr. Turner” earned Academy Award nominations for its Cinematography, Production Design, Music, and Costumes.  At Cannes, it won Best Actor, and a Technical Artist Award, and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film).  It won Best Actor at European Film Awards.  It was named among the year’s Top Ten Independent Films by the National Board of Review.  At the U.S. National Society of Film Critics Awards, it won Best Actor and Cinematography and Third Place as both Best Film and Director.  It had five nominations at British Independent Film Awards and four at BAFTA.  DVD extras include a director’s commentary and a 32-minute backgrounder about the making of the movie (in which we learn, for instance, that the Tate Gallery alone has 20,000 pieces of work by this prolific artist).  “Mr. Turner” is one of the best films of 2014.  For ages 18+:  Some sexual content.

“Traitors” (Morocco/USA, 2013) (B+/A-):  A young woman caught up in a seemingly hopeless situation says, “My mother always said, ‘If you are a nail, endure the knocking.’”  To which our heroine replies, “That’s only half of the proverb.  The other half says, ‘If you are a hammer, strike!’”  And, there’s no doubt about it:  Malika is a hammer.  She is the leader of an all-girl punk-rock band (they call themselves the ‘Traitors’) in Morocco.  Their songs may sound discordant, but there’s sharply barbed satire in the lyrics, as they defiantly skewer corruption, inequity, and two-faced laws that give carte blanche to the rich and powerful and oppress everyone else:  “What a country: Sun, sea, and sand, and all of us burning to get out… Morocco’s rich now; let’s go spend two billion euros on a high speed train; meanwhile, in the ghetto, people have nothing to eat.”   The band shoots its own music video in a van while cruising the streets of Tangier at night:  A recurring image in their video is a self-confident young woman with sparks flying out of her mouth – sparks of independence, self-assertiveness, and empowerment, mayhap.  There’s no ideologically-imposed dress code here:  These attractive young women wear tight jeans, short skirts, and no head covering.  And their music has attracted the interest of a promoter, who wants to cut a demo recording with them.  But it’s up to the band to finance the studio rental.  They need money – and they need it quickly.  The same goes for the home front:  Malika’s father is gambling away the family’s income, and they’re in danger of being evicted from their apartment.

Malika is a bit of a tomboy.  Sporting a hoodie, she’s a “girl in the hood’ in more ways than one (and something of a Robin Hood figure into the bargain).  She flaunts her disdain for cultural and parental expectations:  Her father says, “Who wants to marry a girl who wears jeans, with dirty fingernails.  Not even a butcher wants to marry you!”  One day, while her father is absent from his small auto-repair business, Malika agrees to do a repair on her own for a rough-looking customer.  That chance encounter later gives Malika a way to make bigger money – by driving a car packed with drugs from the mountains into the city.  It’s against her principles (Malika shuns drugs), but desperate times call for desperate measures:  “This is our chance, and I won’t miss it.  Everybody is waiting in this country, and I’m tired of waiting.”  Along the way, Malika meets Amal, a veteran drug-mule who despairs of freeing herself from the clutches of the smugglers.  But none of them have counted on the hammer that is Malika.  She’s tough, street-smart, cool-headed, brave, and boundlessly resourceful.  She’s like a kinder, gentler version of Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’  In her element as a nocturnal creature, Malika can handle herself on the mean streets, as an encounter with a foreigner who mistakes her for a prostitute proves.  But she’s kind and protective with her younger sister Fatima; and, she has a gentle relationship with her mother.  And, she can’t stand injustice, resolving to risk her own life to help Amal.  Malika is a force to be reckoned with, a dauntless heroine whom we can’t help but root for.

How refreshing to see a strong, assertive female character in a cultural seeing where we normally expect to see subservience among females.  Tangier (and the Rif Mountains) make for an exotic setting; these young women are both Arabs and Muslims, but they are also Westernized enough for us to instantly connect with their ambitions and travails.  It’s a stand-out, even award-caliber, performance by Chaimae Ben Acha, who originated the role (and made her screen debut) in a 2011 short film of the same name from the same writer/director, Sean Gullette.  Gullette says that certain adolescents (and young adults) “have the power to change their destiny and their environment.  They act strongly, confident that their intentions are pure, and their power can be transcendental…  It’s no coincidence that music, politics, and the edges of crime are central to the experience of youth on fire.”

Here, the heroine, Malika, positively radiates energy, intelligence, and charisma, and you can’t take your eyes off her.  Suoffia Issami (as Amal), Nadia Niazi (as Malika’s mother), the actress who plays her sister Fatima, Murade Zeguindi (as a potentially sympathetic gangster named Samir), and the rest, all do good work.  “Traitors” won a special mention at the Venice Film Festival.  It’s a welcome treat.  We can’t wait to see more from Chaimae Ben Acha and from the film’s writer/director.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Traitors” (Morocco/USA, 2011) (B/B+):  “That’s our country.  I’m not leaving.  And I won’t shut up!”  Those words epitomize the fearlessly anti-establishment credo of an all-girl punk band in Tangier, Morocco in this 31-minute short film from writer/director Sean Gullette.  The same words would be just as apt coming from their real-life counterparts in Russia, Pussy Riot, who dared to protest, oppose, and musically mock the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin.  The band shoots a music video at night, from the open panel of a van, projecting images of youthful defiance on a passing police van, in a nice moment of irony.  The band’s leader is Malika (Chaimae Ben Acha in her debut performance), and she’s a natural born leader – confident and resourceful on the streets at night, yet supportive to her family on the home front.  This short film is the basis for the 2013 feature film of the same name. (Gullette reunited his lead actress and many of the supporting players for the feature-length version.)  Like the feature, this short version moves between Malika’s life with her band, and her life at home.  Some of the former scenes unfold almost identically in both films; but the two versions differ markedly as to what is happening at home.  In the short film, Malika seems to be closer to her father than she is in the longer film.  This version spends longer on the band’s nocturnal music video shoot (with its theme song “I’m So Bored with Morocco” inspired by “I’m So Bored with the USA” by The Clash).  And the short film ends with an enigmatic laugh that impels us to see more of its very engaging heroine.  There’s one flaw: The English subtitles on the short film are tiny!  For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.

“Salvo” (Italy/France, 2013) (B):  It opens with a black screen and percussive sounds, to vaguely ominous effect.  The view gradually lightens to royal blue opaque material moving in a breeze. Is it a curtain?  Is it the point of view of a blind person?  There’s a dark room, the sound of a clock, and maybe a dead man on a bed.  Then, there’s the sound of a door closing as someone leaves.  The result is an impressionistic prologue.  Two men in a car drive near Palermo, Sicily; but all we see (in another interesting point of view) are the watchful eyes of the younger man (the driver) in the rearview mirror.  Suddenly there’s an ambush by armed men, but it goes awry for the attackers, and the driver chases after one of them on foot.  He kills the would-be assassin, and then goes to the house of the man behind the failed hit.  There are recurring close-ups of the upper third of the face – the home of the eyes (and sight).  He finds only a blind young woman in the basement.  He’s about to leave, but she turns off the radio and approaches.  Does she sense his presence?  Perhaps not, yet.

The woman is very beautiful but also very vulnerable.  Her head is tilted at an angle, as if straining to divine her surroundings through other senses, and her eyes wander with a will all of their own.  The man continues to prowl though the house, which is mostly in darkness, shut off from the harsh light outdoors.  In a very effective scene, still in semi-darkness, the woman does, indisputably, now sense the presence of this intruder.  She tries to mask her fear as she gathers laundry without letting on that she’s aware of the man’s presence, quivering in fear all the while.  These are long scenes, scenes that take their time, scenes that are worth spending time on.  They are the engrossing heart of the film.  A confrontation comes when the man’s quarry (the woman’s brother) comes home.  The blind woman bravely advances towards the danger to try to help her brother.  The interplay of light and shadow makes up her point of view, and it’s pierced by a high pitched sound.  She’s seeing a vague shadowy form, perhaps for the first time.  The proverbial scales fall away from her eyes just as the man decides not to kill her.

Sparing her life, the man takes the woman with him, confining her to an abandoned warehouse in the countryside.  It’s unclear why he takes her with him.  We infer that he abducts her not to molest her (indeed, he is always gentle and respectful with her) but rather to protect her from his murderously inclined fellow mobsters.  Nor is it clear why the man’s boss insists that this blind ‘witness’ must die.  A strange, tentative relationship gradually develops between the man and the woman:  It is curiously tender and chaste.  Things drag a bit when he’s away from her.  Back in the city, he meets with his boss, and he sleeps at a stifling apartment, where he takes pity on a chained-up dog, and where is he tended to by a pair of grudgingly subservient landlords.  But they’re also spying on him, on orders from his boss – and a confrontation seems inevitable.  Pity, empathy, and a feeling of connection are integral to the unconventional love that develops between the man and the woman.  His boss dismisses such things, and the possibility of redemption, with the words, “This is our life.  The only one we’ve got.”  Even the woman says, at one point,  “Go back to them.  You can’t change what you are.”  But can we change what we are?  This offbeat romantic fable suggests that perhaps we can, even if there are no guarantees that change will bring happiness.

Crisis comes and sides are chosen and it ends with the gentle sound of the waves lapping on the shore.  “Salvo” is an unexpectedly tender film.  A chance meeting leads to a life-changing relationship in what starts as a crime/action story and quickly pivots, transforming into an unexpected love story.  It’s the feature film directorial debut by co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza.  The man (Salvo) is played by the Arab-Israeli actor Saleh Bakri; while the woman (Rita) is played by Sara Serraiocco, who prepared for the role by spending two months blindfolded.  “Salvo” premiered at Cannes, where it won two awards and was nominated for Best Director.  At Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, it was nominated for Best New Director, Producer, Cinematography, and Production Design.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and brief violence.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Rita” (Italy, 2009) (B-/B):  A prepubescent girl (of perhaps ten years) is blind and lives under the thumb of her unseen mother.  She loses every skirmish in their battle of words.  When the mother goes out, young Rita hears the sounds of a break-in, then the sound of weeping.  A bloodied hand reaches up and touches her face.  Men are searching frantically for the intruder, but the girl covers for their quarry.  There’s a strange, high-pitched sound when she touches his face.  He responds by touching hers.  The significance of the gesture is ambiguous.  Is it merely a way of thanking her, or does it prefigure something untoward?  The girl asks the boy (whose age is hard to discern) to take her to the seashore, the very place where she’d told her mother she’d like to go.  Once there, he offers to take her swimming:  “But you trust me, right?”  She strips, to her underpants, and goes into the sea with him.  It ends ambiguously.  Was her trust warranted?  Did they form a genuine connection of some kind?  This 20-minute short film from co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was the inspiration for their subsequent 2013 feature length film, “Salvo,” which changed the characters to adults.  Aside from the basic premise of a blind girl and a criminal intruder, they differ in plot and characterization.  But both end enigmatically, with the sound of the gentle surf.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” (Nigeria/U.K., 2013) (B):  The lives and loves of two Nigerian sisters plays out against the broader canvas of their country’s independence (in 1960) and its subsequent descent into civil war.  Recently returned from abroad, twins Olanna (Thandie Newton, from “RocknRolla” and “W.”) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose, from “Dreamgirls”) are beautiful, well-educated (one of them at Oxford and Yale), and independent-minded.  They are the daughters of a wealthy businessman and tribal chief:  Kainene is a business-woman, who falls for an expatriate English writer (Joseph Mawle); while Olanna finds a place in academia, with her lover, Odenigbo, an activist professor played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  (Ejiofor, an Academy Award nominee for “12 Years a Slave,” first impressed this reviewer in 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things” and likewise made an impression in 2005’s “Serenity.”)  Both relationships encounter turbulence, born of infidelity, just as ethnic tensions in the newly independent nation degenerate into open conflict.  Attacks against ethnic Igbo people culminate in eastern Nigeria announcing its secession, as the separate country of Biafra.  But the central government won’t let them go, especially because of the oil situated there.  Civil war results, with the family on the run in a desperate effort to escape the violence.  The focus is on the sisters, especially Olanna, against the background of national strife.  But the relationship troubles seem a bit trite and a bit melodramatic at times, treading too near the stuff of ‘soap opera’ with an illegitimate child, an overbearing mother-in-law (who dismisses Olanna with the words, “I hear you did not suck your mother’s breasts”), domestic break-ups and make-ups, and a sibling betrayal of the amorous kind.  But, it’s a very good cast, supported by John Bayega (as Odenigbo’s loyal servant) and the actresses playing Olanna’s aunt (who wisely advises her that, “You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man”) and her disapproving mother-in-law.  And it’s an intriguing, refreshingly original setting.  Based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the film was written and directed by the Nigerian novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele, in his directorial debut. It’s a character-driven story, with five main players; though full justice is done to only two of them (we see nothing of one’s fate during a long absence).  It is diminished a tad by the melodramatic nature of some of the domestic trials.  The result is a good film that doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.  DVD extras consist of a mini-feature (only 5 minutes) and a more substantive 43 minutes’ worth of interviews.  For ages 18+:  Very brief nudity, brief sexual content, and brief war-related violence.

“The Homesman” (USA/France, 2014) (B/B+):  Life is hard in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s. But Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is more than up to the challenge.  Running a small farm on her own, she’s competent, self-assured, and independent.  “You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts,” says a friend.  And her marriage proposal to a single male neighbor is likewise plain-spoken and practical.  But she is rejected as being “too bossy” and too plain.”  She’s pious and proper and always serious-minded, very much like a grown-up version of Mattie Ross, the young heroine from “True Grit.”  She bravely steps up when a volunteer is needed is transport three women back to the fringes of civilization across the Missouri River, whence they can be repatriated to their kin further east.  All three women have succumbed to the hardships of frontier life and lost their minds – a plot device which seems a tad contrived since it covers not one but three characters.  It’s a five week long journey over dangerous territory, but Mary Bee calmly musters the resolve to do what must be done.  To start, she saves a claim-jumping ne’er do well from impending death (vigilantes have left him at the end of a noose) to press him into service as her help-meet for the trip.  George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) is gruff, uncouth, and not at all concerned about doing the noble or selfless thing:  “I ain’t attached to nothin’.  Just me.”  His grudging promise to help, in exchange for his life, and for the promise of payment when the job is done, holds him in check, against his natural inclination to be untrustworthy.  It’s a strange partnership – the very proper and unswervingly determined young woman and the very rough older man who is reluctantly along for the trip.  Their specially enclosed wagon is a locked paddy-wagon, bearing three mad women (played by Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter), whose plight may be pitiable but who are nonetheless dangerous – to themselves and others.  (At first, one of them growls and screams like someone possessed.)

There are other dangers along the way – from unscrupulous and violent men, from hunger, and from the sheer expanse of wilderness itself.  But, in facing those challenges, this oddest of couples, and even their three charges, start to form attachments, where they had had none before – coming to rely upon, and perhaps even to care for, each other.  Mary Bee is kind to her charges from the get-go, and some of that kindness proves to be contagious.  However, there’s a jarring development late in the film, which is hard to fathom:  A key character does something drastic (and seemingly out of character), and it is impossible to understand why.  And a subsequent instance of very ‘rough justice’ (meted out to those who turn the travelers away in their hour of dire need) also seems at odds with the gentler thrust of the story.  For gentle much of it is, despite its vision of the Midwest frontier as a harsh place that’s full of neglect, abuse, despair, and hardship.  And there’s an enigmatic remark made by George to a female stranger very late in the film, about her significance, that would have benefited from greater explication.

John Lithgow makes an impression, as usual; and other supporting players include Hailee Steinfeld and (briefly) Meryl Streep.  Tommy Lee Jones directed and co-wrote this quirky tale of homesteaders.  The filmmakers see it as a “female-centric story” and an “honest look at human suffering.”  It combines authenticity and grittiness with a subdued romanticism.  Its journey gives purpose to a self-interested man who had none before.  Along the way, there is bonding, mutual reliance, sacrifice, and the possibility of redemption – but always with reminders of the countervailing possibility that all is futile and for naught.

“The Homesman” was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes.  The Women Film Critics Circle named it Best Women’s Ensemble and nominated it in five other categories.  The DVD has three features; but, it’s a shame there’s no commentary with the leads.  For ages 18+:  Very brief nudity, brief sexual content, and brief violence.

“Altina” (USA, 2014) (B):  Here’s an 80-minute documentary that celebrates the richly eclectic life of a woman born (in 1907) into wealth.  The daughter of a rich tobacco tycoon, Altina Schinasi was intent on making something of herself.  Her childhood consisted of marble mansions, governesses, entire floor rentals at the Park Plaza, penthouse apartments, and cruises to Europe.  That segued into a bohemian (if moneyed) lifestyle that intersected with artists, architects, and filmmakers.  Altina hosted nude sketch classes in her living room.  And she made her own artistic mark with eyeglasses for women that were inspired by Venetian harlequin masks, attracting coverage by the likes of Vanity Fair and Town & Country, as well as a national design award.  She later exchanged New York for California, where she was involved with an Oscar-nominated film, “Interregnum” (about Germany between the world wars) that used drawings to dramatic effect; taught art therapy at a drug rehabilitation clinic; and supported Martin Luther King Jr. in his early days of activism.  Later still, she entertained generals and congressman in the nation’s capital, before settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her fourth husband, a refugee from Cuba.  The result is an interesting look at a Renaissance woman, whose views on sexuality were ahead of their time, and who embraced creativity in all its forms.  The film, made by her grandson, Peter Sanders, is part talking heads (her extended family), and part period film footage and stills.  One half-expected a vanity project about a one-percenter; but what one gets instead is an always interesting journey through the life and times of a woman who threw herself headlong into life.

“The November Man” (C+):  It opens with a mission going wrong, prompting a secret agent Pierce Brosnan) to retire.  A few years later his old boss (Bill Smitrovich) comes calling to enlist him in extricating a female agent (Mediha Musliovic) from Russia.  That sets him up against a conflicted former protégé (Luke Bracey), an up-and-coming Russian politician (Lazar Ristovski) with a background in war crimes perpetrated in Chechnya, and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who may know something that will incriminate the villains.  Double-crosses, duplicity, and hidden agendas ensue in a nice spy yarn that’s elevated by Brosnan’s suave charisma:  He has been missed as 007.  (Too bad they don’t bring him back as an older version of Bond.)  The action sequences are at a believably human scale, though they may overdo the use of a relentless female assassin.  And it takes a moment or two for introspection:  “You can be a human, or a killer of humans, but not both.  Eventually, one of those people will extinguish the other.”   Filmed in Serbia.  For ages 18+: Coarse language.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” (C+):  A mishap-prone boy wishes his success-laden family (led by Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner) would share in his bad luck for a day.  They do – and the ensuing slapstick, pratfalls, and situational gags get some laughs, however silly they may be.  There are rogue kangaroos, a driving test from hell, inadvertent intoxication by cough syrup, and misadventures galore.  It doesn’t aim high, but it is amusing.

“Elsa & Fred” (USA, 2014) (B-/B):  A curmudgeon meets a free spirit and is transformed by her in this romantic comedy starring Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer.  Fred is 80 and recently widowed. He’s in good health, and he has all his wits about him.  But all the life, the spirit, the joie de vivre, is missing.  Why, is not altogether clear.  His marriage wasn’t a happy one, so he isn’t pining for his late wife.  He has a bossy daughter (Marcia Gay Hardin), who insists on moving him into an apartment closer to where she lives.  She also imposes a caregiver on Fred – for shopping and housecleaning.  Fred’s reaction is to grumpily take to his bed, lacking the psychological get-up-and-go to do much of anything.  But that changes with the introduction of the force of nature next door.  At 74, Elsa is a ‘younger’ woman, and she’s most decidedly not one to let age slow her down.  Her first impression of Fred is that he’s “a callous, mean old man.”  But it doesn’t take her long to revise that judgement, deciding that, in fact, he’s “a bear with angel wings.”  Fred resists her plan to reintroduce him to life:  “I am that rare case of the dead living.  I seem alive, but I am already dead.”  But Elsa is having none of that:  “You’re not afraid of death, Fred; you’re afraid of life.”

The result is a cute romantic comedy, buoyed by its appealing leads, a story that says that it’s never too late to fall in love.  It’s based on “Elsa y Fred” a 2005 movie from Argentina.  Watch for Chris Noth, George Segal, and James Brolin in supporting roles.  If “Elsa & Fred” has a weakness, it is the suddenness of Elsa’s transformative effect on Fred:  The transition is a bit too abrupt.  There’s inadequate foundation for the edifice of their burgeoning relationship and Fred’s reawakening.  It feels like some content is missing, as though some important transitional scenes were left on the cutting-room floor (though no deleted scenes are on offer on the DVD).  As a consequence, it feels a tad inauthentic, contrived, and predictable.  But we can suspend disbelief more readily in a romantic comedy than we could if this were played as a drama.  Oddly, for a story set in New Orleans, it’s never clear that that is the setting until late in the film.  For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.

Calvary” (Ireland/U.K., 2014) (B+):  It opens with a priest hearing a confession:  From the other side of the screened partition, he hears a male voice reveal that he had been repeatedly sexually abused by another priest when he was a child.  The account of that abuse leaves Father James at a loss.  What can any of us say in the face of such awful wrongdoing?  “I don’t know what to say to you.  I have no answer for you.  I’m sorry.”  But the unseen man to whom he is talking isn’t looking for comfort.  Instead, he coolly confides that in one week he is going to murder Father James:  “There’s no point in killing a bad priest.  But killing a good one?  That’d be a shock, now.  They wouldn’t know what to make of that.  I’m going to kill you, Father.  I’m going to kill you ‘cos you’ve done nothing wrong.  I’m going to kill you ‘cos you’re innocent.  Not right now, though.  On Sunday next.”  It’s a chilling expression of evil – an unambiguous statement of malice deliberately aimed at an innocent.  And yet, it is usually innocents who suffer at the hands of those who are intent on violence, aggression, and destruction.

The word ‘Calvary’ refers to the hilltop where Christ was crucified (also known as Golgotha, or ‘the Place of the Skull’).  It also denotes the Crucifixion itself.  Taken more broadly, it can also refer to an analogous moment in anyone’s life – an impending appointment with doom, in the form of approaching death or great anguish, torment, or suffering.  Father James is given a deadline for his very own Calvary.  How will he respond?  He says he knows who uttered the threat, but he does not reveal the man’s identity to anyone else, including us.  Instead, he goes about his calling, ministering to the parishioners in this small Irish town, as the countdown of days inexorably continues.  James became a priest in middle age, after he lost his beloved wife to illness.  It’s a loss that took a great toll on him and on his troubled adult daughter.  But the man is a paragon:  Outwardly gruff in appearance, with a mane of shaggy hair and grizzled beard, he is gentle, loving, and down-to-earth.  He is a genuinely good man.  And it’s a knock-out, award-caliber performance by Brendan Gleeson.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the strangely off-kilter tone of everyone else in the story.  The parishioners are a pretty sordid lot of sinners.  Not only are they involved in such transgressions as adultery, drug use, and, in one case, attempted suicide, they are oddly unapologetic about their behavior.  There’s no shame here, let alone contrition.  Indeed, some are openly gleeful about their misdeeds, taking perverse relish in throwing their sins in the face of the priest.  The attitude of many of the villagers seems to be deliberately malicious, offensive, and nihilistic.  They are often ‘mean and provocative,’ as one member of the cast puts it.  The sheer perversity of those characters gnaws away at the story’s credibility.  Their behavior and their brazen shamelessness seem too far out, too exaggerated, too much akin to outlandish David Lynchian characters.  In one instance, the priest innocently chats with a young girl.  Her father drives by, slamming on the brakes, and verbally accosts the priest in accusatory tones, seeing evil where none exists – in a good man.  Maybe all that exaggeration is deliberate, to set up an allegory of a good man in an evil world, juxtaposing unapologetic sin against purity.  What is a good man (or woman) to do in a world that’s overflowing with greed, lust, wrath, deceit, violence, self-hatred, the idolatry of self, and a brazen hostility toward basic moral standards?  If an innocent is forewarned of his own murder, what will he do?  Flee?  Enlist the aid of the authorities?  Defend himself?  Or calmly accept his impending moment of Calvary, as the Lord did?

It’s a good ensemble cast, but the other characters are diminished by the sense that they are more allegorical placeholders in a morality play than realistic people.  By contrast, Gleeson is firmly three-dimensional.  He delivers one the best performances of the year as a good man who is also in the everyday world of the here and now.  He was not always a priest:  He has lost a wife whom he loved, and he has a daughter who still needs him.  He is surrounded by those who not only sin but do so shamelessly, openly shunning the very notion of repentance and redemption – and, in the process, the priest’s mission and example.  But, as Gleeson says, his character ‘stands unreservedly for the good side of humanity, challenging the nature of cynicism.’

Gleeson won Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards, where Calvary was also nominated as Best British Film, Director, and Screenplay.  The film won Best Film, Actor, and Screenplay at the Irish Film and Television Awards, where it was also nominated for Director, Actress, and Score.  And it was nominated for Best Actor at the European Film Awards.  Calvarywas written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.  DVD extras consist of interviews with 17 (yes, seventeen) members of the cast.  For ages 18+:  A lot of coarse language, some very crude sexual talk, and brief violence.

“Pride” (U.K, 2014) (B):  Strange bedfellows find common cause in this inspiring true story about the unexpected alliance between early gay activists and coalminers embroiled in a bitter protracted strike.  The year is 1984, and Great Britain’s mining communities, ‘the last bulwark of the country’s industrial working class,’ are in conflict with the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.  For the miners, it’s do or die:  The so-called Iron Lady’s plan to close 20 coal pits will cost 20,000 jobs and obliterate entire communities.  In London, a young gay activist notices similarities between the miners’ plight and that of the gay community:  “Who hates the miners?  Thatcher.  Who else?  The police, the public, and the tabloid press.  That sound familiar?”  So Mark (Ben Schnetzer) organizes some his friends, along with a young naif from the suburbs, to raise money on their own initiative, to support the miners.

But getting the money to the miners is easier said than done.  The union office keeps hanging up in their ear, when they ring up in the name of “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.”  What to do? Well, why not pick a mining community on the map (they choose Dulais in south Wales) and propose going there in person to present their collected money and express their solidarity.  What ensues is a head-on culture clash.  Clash?  Well, maybe crash!  One miner, Dai Donovan (played by the always engaging Paddy Considine) is gracious and non-judgmental from the get-go.  His words are the most moving in the story:  “To find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well, that’s the best feeling in the world.”  Other Welsh villagers are played by such well-known British thespians as Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton.  When a delegation of gays (and lesbians) arrives in their brightly painted van, most of the villagers are stand-offish.  But the delegation starts winning people over:  Bridges are built, barriers gradually come down.  The village women are thrilled to discover that one of their male visitors (the flamboyantly charismatic Jonathan, very engagingly played by Dominic West) is a dynamo on the dance floor, putting their own wallflower men to shame in the movie’s most entertaining scene.  The ‘dancing queen’ (a pun, but no offense, is intended!) also gets the best line:  “God, I miss disco.”

The result is an inspirational story of underdogs – and of people who seemingly have nothing in common discovering their common humanity.  It’s about acceptance, solidarity, and friendship. It’s heart-warming, and it’s also very funny.  It does not contain same-gender sexual content (save for some brief kissing).  “Pride” was nominated as Best Film (Comedy/Musical) at the Golden Globes.  It won Outstanding Debut at BAFTA, where it was nominated as Best British Film and Best Supporting Actress.  It won Best Film, Supporting Actress (Imelda Staunton), and Supporting Actor (Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty in the BBC series “Sherlock”) at the British Independent Film Awards, where it was nominated for Best Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Ben Schnetzer), and Most Promising Newcomer (Schnetzer again).  For ages 18+: Coarse language.

“Whiplash” (USA, 2014) (B+):  An ambitious student at a prestigious music school in New York City is driven by the all-consuming desire to succeed – to be the very best at what he does (he is a jazz percussionist).  Being noticed by the school’s dynamic star teacher, and being invited to join the senior band, seems like a dream come true.  It soon proves to be a nightmare. Young Andrew (Miles Teller) plays the jazz drums till his fingers bleed, literally.  And, at first, he welcomes the take-no-prisoners attitude of Terence Fisher (J.K. Simmons), a Type Triple-A personality who stalks the classroom like a panther.  But, like a panther, the forceful new teacher is apt to ferociously sink his claws into whoever attracts his ire, mercilessly tearing his prey to shreds. He is wrathful, he is ruthless, and he is emotionally abusive on a scale that will shock.  He has no patience, or pity, for those who fail to deliver to his impossibly idiosyncratic standards.  For him, they are weak; they are failures; and they deserve to be savaged:  It almost sounds reasonable when he says it, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”  But there’s a savage, predatory-like reality behind the sanitized words.  He’s a hateful, brutal bully, but he is utterly mesmerizing.

“Whiplash” has not one but two stellar performances – acting of such high-throttle intensity that it will knock you right off your seat. Simmons and Teller (who was so good in “The Spectacular Now”) each do astonishing, award-caliber work here.  Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” was based on his earlier (2013) short film of the same name.  Therein lies the feature film’s Achilles’ heel:  It is so good, but it slips into excess.  There are too many scenes of Andrew’s hands bleeding; and a car crash born of emotional meltdown feels like an over-the-top distraction.  The sense of excess may spring from the fact that there isn’t enough material here to support a feature length film.  What’s so good about the film is the intense emotional warfare in the classroom; everything else feels extraneous, as if it’s only there to pad the running time.  The core of the film (its excruciating collision between a young musician who yearns for excellence and the bullying tyrant who seeks to extract it from him by inflicting savage emotional abuse) is utterly riveting.  On its own, that core of the film deserves an “A” rating; but, it is diluted (and diminished) by every minute that does not involve its spellbinding face-to-face conflict.

“Whiplash” has earned critical acclaim; and, it is one of the most heavily nominated films of the year.  At the Academy Awards, it is nominated for Best Film, Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Mixing.  It has already won Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, National Society of Film Critics Awards (USA), and the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards.  It won Movie of the Year at the American Film Institute.  It won the Audience and Grand Jury Awards at Sundance.  It is nominated for Best Film, Director, Supporting Actor, and Editing at the Independent Spirit Awards.  And, it has four nominations, including Supporting Actor, at BAFTA.  For ages 18+: Very coarse language.

“Tales from Earthsea” (Japan, 2006) (B-):  Japan’s Studio Ghibli is home to the great Hiyao Miyazaki, whose gorgeous animated movies are truly the stuff that dreams are made of.  The union of that studio with the fantasy novels of Ursula K. Le Guin held out such great promise.  Miyazaki & Co make animated movies that are visual and imaginative wonders to behold.  Le Guin created the High Fantasy world of Earthsea, a place with magic, wizards, and dragons, and yet a place that feels viscerally real.  Le Guin is a first-rate writer, not simply a first-rate fantasist:  Her novels and stories are literate, philosophical, and poetical:  “Only in silence, the word; only in light, the dark; only in dying, life….”  Evidently, Miyazaki long ago wanted to make a movie based on Le Guin’s fiction.  Instead, the task fell to his son, Goro, in his directorial debut, 20 years later.  What results is a good try.  There are moments of beauty here, especially (as per his pater’s work) in its graceful depictions of the natural world – clouds scudding across the azure sky, a hawk gliding on air currents, grasses blowing in the wind – as well as exotic tiered cities and hulking galleons beached upon dry land.  The places and people are nicely rendered. But the film loses its way near the end, when it abandons its gentle pace and subdued, introspective tone in favor of utterly pedestrian ‘sword-and-sorcery’ tropes, spoiling what’s gone before with special effects-type monsters and overblown action sequences.

The villain, a wicked sorcerer named Cob (Willem Dafoe), is much more sinister as a creepily androgynous figure who speaks softly than he is as the oily gelatinous monster (who shouts) which he becomes.  The film becomes disappointingly conventional when it throws open its gates to such exaggerated menaces, crashing battlements, death-defying feats, and the like.  Also, we see far too much of Cob’s minion Hare (Cheech Marin), who seems to be there for quasi-comical effect.  (After all, every Disney villain has his/her boisterously slapstick sidekick.)  Trouble is: this minion is neither funny, nor interesting; and he’s not worth so much screen time.  By contrast, the story makes far too little use of Sparrowhawk (Timothy Dalton), the wandering Archmage who is the protagonist of the books.  Those not in the know from the books will have a puzzle of a time trying to glean the back-story, significance, and hidden nature of the two female characters (Tenar and Therru, voiced by Mariska Hargitay and Blaine Restaneo, respectively); they remain one-dimensional characters here.

The story is mostly invented for the film, taking some bits and pieces from different Earthsea books, throwing them in the air, and then reassembling them in a misshapen form that bears little or no resemblance to Le Guin’s beloved stories.  Here, for instance, young Prince Arren (Matt Levin) murders his father – and for no apparent reason!  Cob’s story in The Farthest Shore was far more significant than his invented (and contrived) return appearance in this screenplay.  And there are weaknesses in the scripting that may reveal the filmmakers’ lack of experience:  For instance, there is a lot of repetitive going to and fro (e.g. the minions scour the countryside, then go back and do it again).  So, it is a merely a good try.  There are moments of beauty and passages of subtlety, and “Tales from Earthsea” is worth seeing because of them.  But it deviates too much from, and falls too far short of, its estimable source material to do justice to either Le Guin’s world of Earthsea or the Miyazaki legacy.  Where this animated fantasy has been since 2006 is anybody’s guess.  This reviewer only became aware of it in January 2015, when Disney gave it a combined Blu-ray/DVD release.

“The Dark Valley” [“Das Finstere Tal”] (Austria/Germany, 2014) (B/B+):  A western set in Austria!  The very premise intrigues, and the result does not disappoint.  It hews closely to the genre’s conventions – there are men on horses, guns (though those are not actually used till fairly late on), and oppressed townsfolk; and then a mysterious stranger comes to town.  Why is he there?  What changes does his arrival herald?  In this case, the town is a small isolated community in the Austrian Alps (sometime in the 19th century), that’s ruled through fear and force by Old Man Brenner and his six aggressive sons.  Only they are permitted to carry guns – and what they say, consequently, goes.  The stranger, a man of few words, is close cinematic kin to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, except that he does have a name: Greider.  Ever observant, and oddly unintimidated by the bullying ways of the Brenners, he says he’s there to photograph the glorious mountainscapes.  He uses a Daguerreotype camera to do just that – a kind of ‘magic mirror’ that, as the filmmakers point out, makes him almost an alchemist in the eyes of this backward community.  But his real purpose is darker (and deadlier):  He is there to avenge a past wrong.  As the narrator says,   “Some things may not be spoken of… things from the past, from long ago.  But this does not mean you can ever forget them.  There are things that can never be forgotten.”

The film is based on the novel, “Das Finstere Tal” by Thomas Willmann.  Its leading man is Sam Riley (who made an impression as Angelina Jolie’s half-avian servant, and unexpected friend, in “Maleficent”).  He’s English, the dialogue is in German; but he’s not given to a lot of talking, so he pulls it off nicely.  The rest of the cast – among them, Paula Beer (as a seemingly doomed young woman named Luzi) and the actress who plays her mother – also do very good work.  The cinematography is lovely, making fine use of its snowy mountain locations (filming was done in the South Tyrol).  The song over the opening credits is sung in English, describing a “sinner-man,” who “runs to the rocks saying ‘Please rocks, hide me,’” works well, contributing to the somber, foreboding tone.  (A reprise by a different singer at the end is less effective, however.)  As the lone rider traverses this desolate place, we get a tangible sense of the cold, the wind, and the silent mountains.  Those mountains may, in figurative terms, be regarded as the walls that box in the stage for the morality tale that’s about to unfold.  And what is the western but a morality tale?  On its stage are arrayed the good, the bad, and the ugly bits of the human condition.  There are predators, victims, and the silent majority, who are cowed into their silence by fear, or worse.  And there’s the man with implacable, deadly resolve who’s determined to look evil in the eye and overcome it.  In this case, as in the Eastwood westerns, that antihero is a lethal avenging angel.  There’s plenty to avenge here, with something resembling the ugly medieval ‘droit du seigneur.’  And it has solid (if occasionally bleak) insights into human psychology:  “Freedom is a gift that not everyone likes to receive.”  For ages 16+: Some violence.

“The Dark Valley was nominated for nine awards at the German Film Awards, winning eight of them:  It won gold (1st place) for Best Supporting Actor (Tobias Moretti, as the oldest Brunner son), Cinematography, and Production Design; and it won silver (2nd place) as Best Film.  It was nominated as Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, and Score at the Austrian Film Awards.  It won Best Actor (Moretti) and Director at the Bavarian Film Awards.  And it won Best Production Design and Costume Design at the European Film Awards.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “The Gunfighter” (USA, 2014) (B/B+):  This 9-minute short film directed by Eric Kissack, gets laughs from its head-on collision between the standard conventions of the western genre and its own kind of theater of the absurd.  It opens with typical western music.  A solitary stranger, whom we instantly recognize as a gunfighter, enters a saloon.  But as soon as he does so, he hears the same narrator we hear.  “Who’s saying that…” he demands, looking up into the air in a vain attempt to locate the disembodied voice.  Everyone else in the saloon – the cowpokes, back-shooters, feisty wench, and the rest – hear the narrator, too.  And none of them like what each of his deadpan intonations reveals about them or foretells for what’s to happen next:  “I think this voice wants us to kill each other,” protests one character, when the voice foretells, “It was a true ballet of death.”  Indeed, the voice goads trouble by reading minds and revealing secrets.  It’s an omniscient author getting in the way of his own characters.  The result is quite amusing, if sometimes vulgar. “The Gunfighter” won Best Short Film at the L.A. Film Festival and was nominated for the same category in Calgary.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language and some crude sexual humor.

“I am Yours” [“Jeg er din”] (Norway, 2013) (B):  Mina is a young single-mother in Oslo, Norway. An actress, struggling to find paid roles, she is thoroughly Westernized (and modern) in her attire, lifestyle, and sensibilities.  The same cannot be said for her traditionally-minded Pakistani parents and extended family.  Her loud, bossy, and savagely critical mother dotes on Mina’s ex-husband and blames Mina for ruining the marriage. “When will you start living like a human being?” she says to Mina.  It is more condemnation than question.  Visiting her family is like entering the lions’ den – Mina can expect to be ignored in the moments that she’s not being berated as a source of shame.  She’s a good mother to her six-year-old son Felix (who seems to have already started to absorb the retrograde mentality that perceives women as inferior and subject to male diktat); but her attentions can be divided at times.

For, like any young adult (she is 27), Mina yearns for the company of the opposite sex:  Loneliness and unhappiness induce her to need love and go looking for it in all the wrong places and ways.  A chance meeting with a visiting Swedish film director named Jesper seems promising.  There’s an immediate, seemingly reciprocal interest; but Mina judges it to be serious and lasting too quickly and on too little evidence.  And, before long, Jesper blows hot and cold.  He invites Mina to bring her son along on a visit to Stockholm, but he soon tires of the child’s presence.  And Mina is torn between catering to the wishes of her son and those of her boyfriend:  Both males are inclined to petulance and selfishness.  Where Mina goes wrong, though, is in continuing to indulge or excuse such bad behavior.  Those who treat her badly – her on-again, off-again boyfriend and her evil-minded family alike – as well as her own bad choices – put Mina on a downward spiral that has echoes of “Anna Karenina.”

Here’s a beautiful, sexy, vibrant woman, who wants a career, wants to be a good mother, and wants to be loved.  And what’s wrong with that?  Perhaps she ‘wants it all,’ as the expression goes, but her aspirations seem innocuous enough.  If she is headed for a fall, it isn’t so much her dreams as her lapses in judgment that trip her up.  Instead of separating herself from those who mistreat her, she exposes herself to more mistreatment.  Might it be because it has been drilled into her that she deserves no better?  Or is it simply because she deeply desires love – and those from whom she hopes to get it keep letting her down?

The plotlines (and secondary characterizations) of “I am Yours” prompted some impatience in this reviewer.  Mina’s mother, for instances, delivers a barrage of verbal harassment, nastily condemning her daughter while simultaneously expecting her sympathy.  Believable?  Yes, in the abstract.  But, the film doesn’t quite pull it off:  It feels heavy-handed, verging on caricature at moments.  The same goes for the unexpectedly whiny Swedish boyfriend:  His endless self-pity (and self-absorption) is so blatant as to propel itself over the proverbial top.  But what does feel right and honest and true here is the character of Mina herself.  The lead performance by Norwegian actress Amrita Acharia (she is of Nepalese and Ukrainian decent and appeared in a couple of seasons of “Game of Thrones”) is a revelation – she is what makes this film worth seeing. The film was written and directed by Iram Haq, a female director who has a good feel for the point of view of her female leading character.  “I am Yours” was nominated for Best Actress and Screenplay at Norway’s Amanda Awards.  For ages 18+:  Brief nudity and brief sexual content.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “The Amber Amulet” (Australia, 2013) (B/B+):  An engagingly precocious 10-year-old boy narrates his own adventure in this sweetly offbeat 23-minute short film.  Intrigued by minerals and gems, this eccentric child collects them for the energy fields he believes they contain: “Copper for empathy and mercy, silver and bronze for bravery and valor, quartz for balance and reason, tiger’s eye for speed and agility, one dollar eighty worth of nickel [in the form of coins] gives me strength and endurance, most importantly amethyst for truth and honesty.  I am the Masked Avenger.”  Believing that the substances he has collected convey the attributes he wants to emulate, Liam dons a handmade superhero outfit (cape and all) for his nocturnal neighborhood patrols.  Most of his good deeds are of the humble variety – stowing a misplaced bicycle on someone’s porch or (unbidden) taking out the trash for another neighbor.  But a more ambitious mission arises when he hears angry conflict coming from a house and sees a man storm out, leaving a distraught woman behind.  He takes on the job of rescuing that grown-up from her unhappiness.  There’s a very nice subtle touch at one moment, when he stands back, satisfied by his intervention, with his hands on his hips – in a pose that wouldn’t be amiss for Kal-El himself.  The result is sweet and whimsical, with a keen ear for childhood sensibilities and for the unique way a child sees the world.  “The Amber Amulet” is directed by Matthew Moore, who co-wrote the film with Genevieve Hegney (who also portrays the woman in distress), from a novel by Craig Silvey.  Ed Ovenbould plays the diminutive hero.  “The Amber Amulet” won Best Short Film at Australian Writers’ Guild; Best Short Film (Generation K-Plus) at the Berlin International Film Festival; Best Director at the Hamburg International Short Film Festival; et al.

“Marnie” (USA, 1964) (A): An indignant woman says, “You don’t love me.  I’m just something you’ve caught!  You think I’m some kind of animal you’ve trapped.”  The self-assured man sitting next to her candidly replies, “That’s right, you are.  And I’ve caught something really wild this time, haven’t I?  I’ve tracked you and caught you, and, by God, I’m gonna keep you.”  Coming from anyone other than Sean Connery, those words might be creepy; but, in the context of this most unconventional of love stories, they are, in fact, a declaration of love and a unilateral shouldering of an obligation: “Somebody’s got to take on the responsibility for you, Marnie.”  For Marnie is a compulsive thief and a pathological liar.  When we first glimpse her (shot only from the rear), she changes suitcases, wardrobe, hair color, and identity:  Washing the black dye from her hair, she raises her head to reveal her face for the first time.  She is the proverbial ice-blonde – cool, efficient, methodical, with hints of hauteur and a remote disdain for others, especially men.  With immaculate make-up and hair, she is regal, beautiful, and seemingly cold.  But, there is vulnerability behind that façade – a damaged psyche that’s been battered and bruised by a childhood trauma she cannot consciously remember.  It manifests in her visceral aversion to the color red, her fright at thunder and lightning, and recurring nightmares that involve the sound of tapping and a sensation of intense cold.

We quickly glean that Marnie has made a practiced routine of changing her identity, finding an office job in a new city, and robbing her latest employer’s safe.  One victim bemoans his financial loss with words that have a misogynistic undertone: “The little witch… I knew she was too good to be true… always pulling her skirt down over her knees, as if they were a national treasure.”  The words are vaguely predatory; and the film makes recurring use of references (whether spoken or in the form of visual imagery) to the capture, control, or taming of wild things.  Sean Connery’s character, Mark, has a photograph of a South American wildcat on his office credenza:  “I trained her,” he says.  “What did you train her to do?” asks Marnie.  “To trust me,” replies Mark.  And, it is clear that Marnie’s “wildness” (in the form of her criminal ways) is as intriguing (and titillating) to Mark as her stunning beauty and intelligence.  Wry, curious, and slightly ‘superior’ in manner, Mark is the scientist observing his chosen subject – the enigma that is Marnie – but, despite himself, he falls for her.  When he confronts her with her criminality, he offers her a choice – the police or marriage.  Again, it might sound creepy and manipulative in another context.  But, the fact is that he loves her, and he has her best interests in heart:  “I can’t let you go, Marnie.  Somebody’s got to take care of you and help you.  I can’t just turn you loose.”  (Is there a subtext to the story which could be taken to suggest that men need to control, subdue, or tame women who are independent and somehow ‘uncontrollable?’)  Marnie sees things differently, of course, indignantly protesting that, “All this time, you were just trying to trip me up, to trap me.”

In an effort to elude Mark, Marnie brilliantly extemporizes, spinning an intricate back story about her past in an all-out effort at damage-control, then amending it on the fly as needed.  Like the wild thing she is, Marnie is only truly free and happy when galloping on her beloved horse Forio:  “Oh Forio, if you want to bite someone, bite me.”  Marnie’s independence and strength desert her on visits to her emotionally distant mother in a working-class neighborhood of Baltimore.  Bernice (Louise Latham) is cold and cruel, pulling away from the daughter who desperately craves her love and approval.  Their dysfunctional relationship is fraught with pain, anger, and defensiveness, leaving Marnie jealous of the attention and praise her mother lavishes on a spoiled (and bratty) child whom Bernice babysits.  The wounded inner child peeks through Marnie’s sophisticated exterior, as it does in moments of crisis, when Marnie’s voice and facial expressions mirror those of a child.  One such moment comes in the movie’s disturbing sexual encounter between Marnie and Mark – a scene (it also appears in the novel by Winston Graham) that caused the film’s screenwriter to leave the film, in opposition to director Alfred Hitchcock’s insistence that what amounts to a rape remain in the film.  (The female screenwriter who took his place had no compunction about the scene in question, regarding it as “a trying marital situation,” rather than an assault.)  For some, it is a moment that is at odds with Mark’s kindness and understanding nature.  And how would the character ever be redeemed after such a transgression?  Yet, somehow, he is.

Tippi Hedren is riveting in a role originally intended for Grace Kelly (who planned to return from regal retirement to play it).  Hedren had just made “The Birds” for Hitchcock, and she does outstanding, award-caliber work here.  The charismatic Sean Connery, likewise, is note-perfect as her male foil.  Their chemistry – attraction with moments of repulsion (it turns out that Marnie “cannot bear to be handled”) – makes their story irresistible.  Diane Baker (who is delightful) and Louise Latham contribute immeasurably in their roles as Mark’s well-meaning, but interferingly protective, sister-in-law Lil, and Marnie’s dysfunctional mother.  The supporting players include familiar faces like Mariette Hartley and Bruce Dern, as well as Alan Napier as the patriarch of Mark’s American patrician family.  Taking Marnie to meet his father, Mark tells her, “Dad goes by scent. If you smell anything like a horse, you’re in.”  And, fresh from “Dr. No,” Connery has every bit of the charm and charisma he exhibited as James Bond.  Here’s an actor with a persona that’s as compelling to men as it is to women.

Hitchcock was meticulous about every element of every shot.  A key robbery scene derives delicious suspense (as we root for the lead, even though she is also the malefactor) from the unexpected elements of a cleaning lady and an object that threatens to fall to the ground and give away Marnie’s presence.  Much later, a crane shot takes us gliding across a party scene toward… something significant that’s about to appear at a door.  Hitchcock’s early influences from German expressionism are in evidence in several of the devices he employs in “Marnie.”  And there are psychological gems aplenty to mine here.  Mark plays amateur psychologist in an effort to get at what’s wrong with Marnie.  In a serious game of word association, Mark suggests “Death,” and Marnie replies “Me.”  Meanwhile, the great composer Bernard Herrmann delivers one of his trademark emotional scores.  (It was the last time one of his scores appeared in a Hitchcock film, after collaborations that included such great film scores as “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “North by Northwest.”)  Oddly advertised at the time as a “Suspenseful Sex Mystery,” “Marnie” is really a love story.  Unique, unconventional, and utterly engrossing, it has for its heroine, a woman who is both femme fatale and damsel in distress, desirable woman and frightened child, one possessed of icy self-control and wracked by suppressed inner turmoil – all rolled into one complex, magnetic character.  She is at once strong and weak; self-sufficient, yet achingly vulnerable.  Badly damaged by she knows not what; Marnie is enigmatic – and irresistible.  And her story is one of the greats. For ages 16+.

“Love is Strange” (USA, 2014) (B/B+):  Two men have been in a committed same-sex relationship for 39 years; but, when they make it official, by entering into a same-sex marriage, one of them loses his job at a Catholic school.  The consequent loss of income causes them to lose their New York apartment and reluctantly take up protracted stays (separately) in the homes of friends and relatives.  Not only are they obliged to live apart, they find themselves bereft of their own home, and dependant upon the kindness of others.  One shares a bunk bed with a taciturn teen; the other calls the sofa in a friend’s apartment his new home.  The result is a gentle, often wry, story about an unconventional love.  Those of us who might be discomfited by too much attention to the sexual side of such a relationship need not worry:  That side of things (other than a couple of fairly chaste kisses) is not shown in the film. Its subject is not sex but close relationships, and its component elements – aging, forced separation, sudden ejection from comfortable, well-worn routines to the unfamiliar status of being a fish out of water (as a kind of displaced person) – all have universal applicability.

It’s also about devotion to a creative life (in the form of art and music for these two men).  And it’s about accumulating life-wisdom, if only there were someone willing to receive it.  There’s a nice sense of the discomfort that comes with being a dependent and which can also accompany being forced to live at close quarters with others out of necessity rather than choice:  “I’ve never been bored with my own company.  It’s other people who drive me crazy sometimes.”  It’s not a preachy film, but it makes a point or two in its own gentle way:  “Life has its obstacles, but I learned early on that they will always be lessened if faced with honesty.  I believe the world is a better place if people aren’t lying.”  John Lithgow and Alfred Molina deliver fine performances as Ben and George; while Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan are prominent among the supporting cast.

There’s humor here, as when Ben complains to his harried host about being unable to concentrate on his work, when his own presence (and proclivity for non-stop chatter) is ironically driving her to sheer distraction.  There’s a nice symbolic moment as a character turns and descends from view down a subway stairway, prefiguring subsequent events.  And there’s a lingering subtle scene with a grief-stricken teenage boy on another staircase.  Directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, “Love is Strange” was nominated as Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards (devoted to independent films).  And the Women Film Critics Circle Awards awarded it a prize as “Best Male Images in a Movie.”  For ages 18+: Some coarse language.

“A Patch of Blue” (USA, 1965) (A): “Dark’s nothing to me.  I’m always in the dark.”  So says, Selina D’Arcy, a young woman who has known nothing but abuse and neglect all her life.  Blind, and deprived of friends, education, freedom, and even basic kindness, she leads a bleak, unfulfilling existence, until a chance encounter changes everything. Selina (memorably played by Elizabeth Hartman in her film debut) is a gentle soul, who has retained her sweetness and inner innocence despite growing up in a harsh, ugly environment.  She is a fragile, vulnerable blossom that has somehow appeared in a dung-heap.  Her mother, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) is a harpy and a bully – coarse, loud, abusive, and utterly loathsome.  Her grandfather, Ole Pa (Wallace Ford), is intermittently protective but also ineffectual on account of his recurring drunkenness.  Selina has been much wronged; but, remarkably, she has not been tainted by bitterness, self-pity, or proximity to the debased lives with which she is surrounded.  Accidentally blinded in her childhood as a helpless bystander to a violent altercation caused by her prostitute mother, Selina spends her days doing housework and stringing beads into simple necklaces to earn some money.

She has been exiled from life, let alone any chance of fulfillment.  But a thrill of liberation comes with her new experience of trips to the park, though she is dependent on others to get her there and back – modes of conveyance that are maddeningly unreliable.  Once there, a stranger, Gordon (Sidney Poitier), shows her kindness. Their encounter grows to friendship, and Gordon starts to acquaint Selina with life’s simple experiences:  Selina tastes pineapple juice for the first time, eats at a deli, hears classical music, is given a gift, and learns what it is to have a friend.  And it is a friendship worthy of the name love.

The result is a stellar character drama, with award-caliber performances and the all too rare power to move its viewers.  And it’s beautifully played out to the bittersweet strains of the great Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score.  As noted, it was the film debut by Elizabeth Hartman, who died in 1987 at the prematurely early age of only 43.  “A Patch of Blue” was written and directed by Guy Green, based on the novel “Be Ready with Bells and Drums” by Elizabeth Kata.  Green sees the film as being about, ‘just tolerance, loving one another.’  The film won Best Supporting Actress (Shelley Winters) at the Academy Awards, and it was nominated for Best Actress, Cinematography, Art Decoration, and Original Score.  It won Most Promising Newcomer (Elizabeth Hartman) at the Golden Globe Awards, and it was nominated for Best Film, Director, Actress, Actor, and Screenplay.  It was also nominated for Best Foreign Actor at BAFTA and Best Written American Drama at the Writers Guild of America.   Available on DVD as part of Warner’s “TCM – Greatest Classic Legends: Sidney Poitier” four-film collection.

“The Good Lie” (B-/B):  Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (2011’s “Monsieur Lazhar”) helms this story about four young Sudanese refugees in America.  In 1983, civil war raged in Sudan over religion and resources.  By 1987, thousands of orphaned children had fled on foot across sub-Saharan Africa, walking as much as 1,000 miles to Eithiopia and Kenya.  The movie opens with a Sudanese village being attacked by soldiers, pitting men armed with only spears against helicopters and machine guns.  It is the first of the film’s recurring culture clashes.  The only survivors are children, and they flee across an inhospitable land:  “I want to live; I do not want to die,” they recite to bolster their resolve when they are forced by thirst to drink their own urine in the desert.  When they reach a refugee camp in Kenya, the story jumps ahead by 13 years.  Now young adults, the three men and one woman who are the story’s protagonists, are among the 3,600 refugee children approved for immigration to the United States.  Three of them are destined for Kansas City, where the story shifts from one of survival to one of adaptation.  For, they are truly strangers in a strange land.  They have never seen a telephone, and they forgo their beds for mattresses on the floor.  Being coached on how to be interviewed for jobs, they are told, “Potential employers want to see you smile.”  One of the Africans replies, “To smile without meaning it, is that not insincere?”  The reply?  “Oh yeah, it’s total bullshit.  But Americans like it, and that’s where you live now, so it’s what you’ve gotta do.”    A woman played by Reese Witherspoon is assigned the task of guiding them through the job-hunting process, and she’s none too enthusiastic about the assignment.  But her charges begin to grow on her, and she soon coaches them in far more than just job-hunting.  But the newcomers have something to teach her (and us), too.  They come from a poor, undeveloped country, but they have deep reserves of decency and empathy, and they bear physical marks of courage.  Inspired by a true story, the result is mildly heartwarming, though it is initially hard to tell who’s who.  It ends with words that are at its heart: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”  For ages 16+: Very brief crude content.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” (A-): Who’d have thought a sci-fi adventure movie based on a comic book would be the most entertaining film of the year?  But Marvel’s hit 2014 film, directed and co-written by James Gunn, is precisely that – marvelously entertaining.  What makes it special is the writing, the characterizations, and the offbeat sense of humor.  The writing is full of wise-cracking banter not seen since the days of television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  And, hallelujah, here’s a rare mainstream movie that puts character-development front and center: It brings together a quintet of misfits – a smart-alecky human space-going buccaneer (Chris Pratt); a green-skinned (and ever so sexy) female assassin (Zoe Saldana); a sentient, talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); a likewise sentient walking tree (voiced by Vin Diesel), whose vocabulary is limited to just three words: “I am Groot!,” but who nevertheless steals every scene he’s in; and a rage-filled fighter (real-life wrestler Dave Batista) who lives for revenge.  Individually, they are selfish, self-interested, and unconcerned about the commonweal.  But when they come together, they gradually bond, in a quirky kind of surrogate family (another commonality with “Buffy…”) and put self-interest aside in acts of selflessness and even heroism.  We care about these characters, we like them, and we root for them.  Humor is the third major ingredient here.  It’s not a comedy, but there are inspired moments of humor.  Here’s one: A solitary, masked figure makes his way through a ruined, haunted landscape, a place wracked by storms and stalked by predatory animals.  All of a sudden, that serious tone turns on a dime as the man removes his mask, switches on a Walkman, and boogies his way through the forbidding ruins to the wildly, wonderfully anachronistic strains of “Come and Get Your Love Now!”  And that hooks us – right off the bat!  Quirky irreverent humor recurs at regular intervals, as do seventies pop songs (like “Hooked on a Feeling”).  The result is a treat:  Fun, funny, even occasionally poignant, it’s a great time at the movies – and it holds up to repeated viewings.  And don’t miss the irresistible denouement as the end credits start rolling.  This is the best Marvel movie extant – by a parsec.  We can’t wait for the next installment!  The Blu-ray from Disney has a commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, and a gag reel, with an extended “dance-off” confrontation between our heroes and the uber-villain.  Bravo!

“Coherence” (USA/U.K., 2014) (B):  A science fiction film that doesn’t feel like science fiction, “Coherence” puts eight adult friends in a house for a dinner party.  The free-ranging conversation touches briefly on a comet that is making a transit past the Earth – and then the lights go out, till they activate a generator.  But the cars won’t start and all the phones are dead.  Tension mounts with an expedition to a house down the street, the only other house with the lights on.  Is something ‘wrong?’  If so, what, exactly?  Is it real, or is it imagined, the result of some group-induced hysteria?  Writer/director James Ward Byrkit has a filming style that suits the subject and sets the mood, with a series of scenes separated by the picture going to black.  Those recurring jumps to black are vaguely disconcerting.  The science element comes in with speculation about the thought experiment dubbed “Schrödinger’s cat,” which involves quantum mechanics and our perceptions of reality – and with references to cosmological theories about “multiple universe” (or a potential infinite number of alternate realities).  But, never fear, the film doesn’t get lost in jargon or gobbledygook.  Instead, it’s a tightly claustrophobic look at eight people that slowly and subtly ratchets up the tension as the ground shifts beneath the feet of characters and viewers alike.  Rather like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it is niftily suspenseful, without any need for effects, aliens, or pyrotechnics.  And its depiction of group conversation is dead-on, as its participants change subjects and sometimes all talk at once.  The very able cast includes Nicholas Brendon (who played Xander in the late, lamented “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).  Some have used the term “cerebral” for the film.  It certainly is smart, attracting attention at festivals; and, just as importantly, it is refreshingly subtle and understated.  For ages 18+: Occasional coarse language.

“Deliver Us from Evil” (C): Supposedly inspired by an allegedly ‘true’ story, this blend of gritty, realistic police procedural and horror genres opens in the desert of Iraq in 2010, where a squad of American soldiers encounters some unseen thing in an underground lair that causes them to scream in terror.  The story jumps to New York City in 2013.  After some gratuitous and intrusive aerial shots of the city at night, we find ourselves in the pitch dark in the Bronx Zoo.  The power is off and there’s a mad woman on the loose.  Two police officers decide, “We should spilt up” (never a good idea in a horror movie), and one finds himself, literally, in the lion’s den.  And they’re both in for a trip down the figurative rabbit’s hole, investigating crimes that seem to have a supernatural dimension.  The banter between the two officers (lead Eric Bana and the memorably wise-cracking Joel McHale) is believable:  “I think it’s ridiculous to blame invisible fairies for the bad shit people do!”  It’s a shame more of the movie wasn’t devoted to the police stuff.  Bana’s character, with his self-described “radar for trouble,” teams up with an “undercover priest” (Edgar Ramirez).  The filmmakers’ stated goal was “Serpico meets the Exorcist.”  It’s not an altogether satisfying genre partnership:  There’s interesting mystery, suspense, and some dark humor to begin with, but it degenerates into gruesome ugliness.  Had the film hewed to a lower-key tone with the supernatural stuff (omitting, for example, a crucified cat), and left that element of the story implied or symbolic, the result would have been better.  As it is, the film offers a good cast and an unusual concept, but it is undermined by the gore, ugliness, and violence in its final reel.  For ages 18+: Coarse language, disturbing content, some brutal violence (ick!), and gore.

“Maleficent” (B+/A-):  Can a fairy tale be made into a compelling fantasy drama?  Yes, it can.  And Disney’s visually rich, live-action “Maleficent” is proof-positive.  Trust, betrayal, the thirst for vengeance, and gradual redemption are the cornerstones of this revisionistic telling of the fairy’s journey to the (moderately) dark side and back.  It may cheat a bit, insofar as the title character is never really evil.  But she is injured and wronged, and she does turn to bitterness and anger, seeking to wield power over others and dominate them.  Angelina Jolie brings regal iciness to the role.  But there is also regret here, and repressed elements of a more humane nature.  The result, especially in her relationships with her part-avian amanuensis Diaval (Sam Riley) and the pure of heart Aurora (Elle Fanning), is surprisingly poignant.  Only the man who did her wrong (played by Sharlto Copley) feels one-dimensional; all the rest are pleasingly nuanced.  The result is a very nice retelling – for grown-ups and teens (this is not kiddie-fare) – of a classic story.  One of year’s most memorable movies, it is strongly recommended!

“For A Woman” [“Pour une femme”] (France, 2013) (B):  The competing draws of loyalty and passion form the lines of this romantic triangle set in post-war Lyon, France in 1947.  Michel (Benoit Magimel, who won Best Actor at Cannes for 2001’s “The Piano Teacher”) is married to Lena (Melanie Thierry), a bond born more of expediency and gratitude than it is of romantic love.  He may love her more than the other way round, but she seems to accept things as they are.  At least, she does until a man arrives who says he’s Michel’s long-lost brother Jean, who was believed to have died, with the rest of Michel’s family in the German concentration camps.  Their parting was so long ago, Michel isn’t sure he recognizes the brother he last saw years ago.  Jean (Nicholas Duvauchelle) is a dashing and mysterious figure.  He claims he’s on a mission for the Red Army, looking for deserters.  But he may have an altogether different agenda. Somehow, he conjures a rail-car full of fabrics, which he gifts to Michel, enabling Michel, who has a tailor shop, to do a booming business in prêt-à-porter fashions for men.

There are incremental, nicely subdued, hints of an incipient attraction developing between Lena and Jean; but, against our expectations, it is Jean to tries to discourage Lena’s growing interest.  Despite her insisting to a friend that, “I could never cheat on Michel,” it is Lena who takes the initiative, by impulsively kissing Jean.  Michel is a decent and good man; he’s not flamboyant, but he is constant and true:  “Before I met Lena, I was sure I’d end up all alone.  Then I saw her… She says I saved her, but I know I’m nothing without her.”    Will that be enough?  Will passion push loyalty and duty aside?  That is the understated conflict at the heart of this relationship drama – that, and the moral issues that arise from Jean’s real reason for being there in the first place.  For all of Michel’s conventional ‘goodness,’ he’s also naive about the world, in ways that Jean is not.  For one thing, Michel still holds a misplaced idealism about communism.  But Michel tells him that Stalin puts political prisoners in the same camps where the Jews were gassed: “One mustache replaced the other!”

The 1947 story is book-ended, rather needlessly, by one that opens in the 1980’s, concerning Michel’s now grown daughters learning about their parents’ past.  The modern story doesn’t really add anything essential to the mix.  “For a Women” was written and directed by Diane Kurys, who started her career as an actress.  This is her twelfth feature as a director.  The result is a restrained drama about a love triangle, and the competing demands of love versus loyalty, revenge versus justice, and the needs of ourselves versus the needs of others.  For ages 18+: Very brief nudity.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Le Ballon de Rouge” (France, 2012) (B+):  In Paris in 1963, a man and a woman sit at a booth in a café.  The man is browbeating and intimidating the woman.  When he gets up to watch a telecast (about JFK’s assassination) at the nearby bar, a young man at an adjoining booth offers to help the woman:  “Run away and never come back again.  Never.”  He proceeds to describe their flight in words; as he does so, she visualizes (and we see) the entirety of their lives together, from getting to know each other (“We’ll tell each other our life stories, the whole night long”) to the sanctuary they find with his aunt, who’ll become their patron: “Come on darling, let’s see what we can do with a penniless, pregnant, fugitive orphan with no I.D.”  And it ends with them still together in old age, contentedly reflecting that, “All of this came so close to never happening.”  It’s a whimsical, bittersweet fable about forks in the road, paths not taken, and how the whole arc of our lives can turn on a single choice, or a single turn of fate.  Will a wine glass fall to the floor and create a distraction, or won’t it?  The pair is never named: ‘Elle’ is played by Lou de Laâge; ‘Lui’ is played by Thomas Drelon.  The 20-minute short film, written and directed by Sylvain Bressollette (who served as a trainee assistant director on the likewise whimsical “Amélie” in 2001), has a very romantic world-view, positing a moment of recognition, a moment pregnant with possibility, then lost forever.  The result is a treat to watch – with implications that will linger in the viewer’s thoughts.  We look forward to the writer/director’s first full-length feature.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language and brief violence.

“Snow Cake” (Canada/U.K., 2006) (A):  Here’s a thoroughly engaging character-study, with a note-perfect cast, set in the unexpected locale of small-town Wawa, Ontario (on the shores of Lake Superior).  Alan Rickman is wonderful as Alex, a wry, damaged man who has closed himself off from life as the result of past tragedy.  An unpredictable stroke of fate brings him to the door (and into the life) of Linda, an autistic (and wildly eccentric) Sigourney Weaver, who says whatever is on her mind:  (L) “Do people like you Alex?”  (A) “Not much, no.”  (L) “I’m not surprised.  It’s because those glasses don’t look right on your face; you have a long face and those glasses make you look shifty.”  (A) “Really?”  (L) “Yes.”  Their ensuing friendship turns all of his perceptions and expectations upside down:  (A) “I think we work quite well together, don’t you?”  (L) “Yes, I do.  Can you please take the dog out now?  I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”  In the process, he learns to live again:  “You are the only person I ever met who I didn’t have to explain or justify myself to.”  The result is an irresistible character study, with a quartet of extremely fine performances.  The two leads do award-caliber work, creating unforgettable characters in a story that blends wistful poignancy and dry humor.  It’s about the things that separate us and the things that connect us to others.  It’s one of the best films of 2006, with strong supporting work by Canadian actors Carrie-Anne Moss, who won a Genie Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Maggie, Wawa’s resident siren; and Emily Hampshire, who plays Vivienne, a garrulous young hitchhiker, whose persistent contact with Alex draws him, reluctantly but relentlessly, back into the lives of others, reacquainting him with the lost arts of caring for and relying upon others.  “Snow Cake” got Genie nominations for Cinematography, Actress (Weaver), and a second entry as Supporting Actress (Hampshire).  It’s a small, unpretentious story in an unassuming setting, but it’s remarkably endearing.  The DVD has over 18 minutes of substantive deleted scenes which are well worth watching, and interviews.  Don’t miss this film:  It is highly recommended!  For ages 18+:  Some coarse language.

“Vitus” (Switzerland, 2006) (B+/A-):  A child with the IQ of a genius and a prodigy’s skill with the piano is set apart by those very gifts and denied the normalcy he longs for:  “What other way is there for a child to escape from a world for which he is too intelligent?”  There’s a child-like innocence to this charming film. It’s told from the child’s point of view.  The young actors playing him at age 6 (Fabrizio Borsani) and age 12 (Teo Gheorghiu) both invest the character with a combination of precociousness and vulnerability.  His parents (Julika Jenkins & Urs Jucker) love him (“Now the world knows we have a wunderkind, and a cheeky little monkey”), and he is very close to his free-spirited grandfather (standout Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in “Downfall”), but there’s a sadness and loneliness that come with being so gifted and set apart.  The film is thoroughly charming, though it becomes more fanciful (and less strictly realistic) in its second half.  A gentle character study, it’s accented with charm and a dash of humor:  “Bat scientist, architect, chemist…  Don’t you fancy any of these?” asks the boy’s teasing grandfather.  “What about banker?  Taxi diver?  I got it.  Pilot!  Maybe butcher?  Vet?  Surgeon?  You are a hopeless case.”  Directed (and co-written) by Fredi M. Murer, with Eleni Haupt, Kristina Lykowa, and Tamara Scarpellini, the film is highly recommended for all ages.  “Vitus” won Best Film at the Swiss Film Prize as well as Audiences Awards at the American Film Institute Film Festival and the Rome Film Festival.

“In Bloom” [“Grzeli nateli dgeebi”] (Georgia/Germany/France, 2013) (B-):  Two 14-year girls, Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria) are fast-friends. They live in Tbilisi, the capital city of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a small county which is situated at the southeastern end of the Black Sea, backing onto the Caucasus Mountains.  It is 1992, just one year after the splintering of the Soviet Union, which gave independence to its fifteen constituent republics.  The secessionist troubles in small sections of Georgia, like Abkhazia, which continue to divide Georgia to this day, have already reared their ugly heads at the time in which this story is set.  These are irredentist conflicts, created, or at least encouraged, by a Russia that even then hoped to use the presence of Russian minorities in some of its newly independent neighbors as a handy pretext to lay claim (either directly or through the expedient of indigenous separatist pawns) to sections of their territory.  Starting in the period in which this movie is set, some quarter million Georgians were displaced (and some of them killed) by secessionist conflict.  Then, in 2008, Russian forces intervened directly (in a scenario that presaged more recent events in Ukraine), in a lopsided war which Georgia lost.

This movie is not directly about any of those things, but they loom furtively in the background (as ‘wars and rumors of war’) of its tale about two girls in their early teens.  What is good about the film are its lead performers (they feel very authentic and natural) and its exotic setting.  Here’s a place most of us know nothing about.  Less appealing, to this reviewer, is the fact that the film is more character-driven, than plot-driven.  We see the girls at school and at home – one has a drunken father and a tough-as-nails (but good-hearted) grandmother who is fond of saying, “I’ll tear you in half,” when her grandkids misbehave.  There’s a juvenile bully, who is more annoying than truly threatening.  There are boys who are starting to notice (and press their attentions upon) these girls who are blossoming into early adolescence.  There are shared confidences, early intimations of romantic attraction to the opposite sex, sibling rivalries, modest challenging of authority, sensitivity over absent or bad parents, and introduction to cigarettes.  There’s a languid, matter-of-fact quality to all of this:  It’s just the quotidian stuff of these girls’ daily lives, what someone called “a slice of life.” Until it isn’t.

Suddenly, there’s an intrusion of cultural ugliness, with an older boy pressing his suit in a fashion that is thoroughly repugnant:  He and his friends abduct one of the girls, declare that she is his and put her to work peeling potatoes.  It’s a mock “Rape of the Sabine Women” scenario (without any actual rape, we presume), and it’s hard to know what is more off-putting – that this patriarchal society countenances such brutish “courtship” rituals, or that the victim seems, at least initially, to acquiesce.  After all, Natia is the more forceful one of the pair.  So what are we to make of her sudden transition to docility? It feels contrived and inauthentic.  Eka, meantime, clearly, if silently, disapproves of these uncivilized proceedings; so, why then does she proceed to seemingly give them her tacit approval by initiating a solo ritual dance at the wedding?  Likewise jarring and unnecessary is the rivalry between two young men – one decent, the other overbearing – both of whom are attracted to Natia, a rivalry that flares into violence.  All that drama feels artificial – and it’s a distraction from the heart of this small film, which is a quiet look into the everyday lives of two 14-year-old girls, close friends in a country that few of us ever get to see.  It’s ironic, really:  Just when we are wishing for a bit more plot, the filmmakers helpfully deliver some, but the ‘abduction leads to matrimony’ and the ‘jealousy-motivated assault’ elements are not the sort of plot we were looking for.

Co-directed by Nana Ekvtimshvili (who also wrote the screenplay) and Simon Gross, “In Bloom” has won 30 awards at festivals (often smaller ones) around the world, including the American Film Institute Fest, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Montreal Festival of New Cinema.   For ages 18+: Occasional coarse language.

“Meetings with a Young Poet” (Canada, 2013) (B/B+):  To explore the inner realm of creativity is to enter an altered state in which the line between reality and artifice melts away like dew on a summer’s morn.  The creative pole around which this film revolves is the work of the acclaimed 20th century playwright Samuel Beckett.  His meetings (and ensuing friendship) with a young poet, Paul, who is at the beginning of his own creative endeavors, overwhelm that younger man – as surely as if he had rashly touched a live electrical current while being irresistibly drawn to its illumination.  The third player in this creative menage à trois is Lucia, a young actress.  She has never met Beckett, but she has a consuming passion for his work.  Their intertwined stories yield a full-body immersion in the arts of acting, writing, and poetry.  There’s a whiff of brilliance here:  The film is about artistic genius, after all, and it has some of the attributes of that rare quality itself.  Take, for instance, Lucia’s imploring words, “Let me in,” uttered to a resolutely indifferent Paul.  Those three simple words are repeated, and elaborated upon, in their ensuing interaction, as Lucia narrates, in real-time, what’s happening between them.  What is real?  What is artifice?  What is intended to be a tribute to art?  Watch for a chess board motif repeating itself from a scene in a sidewalk cafe to Paul’s apartment, emblemizing, perhaps, the figurative chess match in progress between him and Lucia.  Elsewhere, we encounter groups of words, mere sentence fragments, which are uttered in conjunction with visual close-ups of various speakers’ mouths, which seem to represent the voices of characters inside the writer’s imagination.  For this is a film that’s concerned with men and women who are concerned with the power of words: “What is the word?” asks Beckett.  For that playwright, words may not always summon meaning, but they are sign-posts on his journey “to seek the sacred in human beings.”  Rudy Barichello, who directed and co-wrote the film, says of Beckett that, “He is one of the fundamental artists of the 20th century, if only for the way he saw the world as absurd and meaningless in the end.  We are all hurtling toward a common end, so it is absurd by definition.  But he was able to find joy in this absurd world, as well as a source of entertainment, beauty, and love, not in spite of the absurdity, but because of it.”

In the film, Beckett recalls his first meeting with Paul, repeating their dialogue verbatim, complete with stage directions, with Beckett the man disappearing into Beckett the playwright, and people in the real world being recalled by him as though they are players in a story.  In a flashback, directing one of his own plays, Beckett exhorts his actors, “You must act blank, like white noise.  Do not worry about your character’s psychology or motivations.  Trust the sound of your voice, the rhythm of your speech.”  It’s an approach that echoes the words spoken earlier by Lucia and Paul:  “Where darkness meets light lies the unexplainable.”  What does that mean?  It has something to do with the creative collision of opposing forces, with the mysteries of creativity, and with the drive in some of us to achieve what Lucia terms “the impossible.”  She aims to do that by embodying Beckett and his exclusively male characters in her one-woman staging of the play “Krapp’s Last Tape.”  In a riveting scene late in the film, she uses make-up to incrementally transform herself into an eerie simulacrum of Beckett himself.

And riveting is the word for at least two of the film’s three leading performances.  Maria de Medeiros has a body of first rate work, including her performances in such recent fare as 2009’s “The Storyteller” (“O Contador de Historias”) and “David’s Birthday” (“Il Compleanno”), and 2011’s “Poulet aux Prunes” (“Chicken with Plums”), not to mention her star-making turn as Anäis Nin in “Henry & June.”  But her award-caliber performance in “Meetings with a Young Poet” is one of her finest performances to date.  She is simply luminous.  There’s a bright, irrepressible smile, and it’s quick to light-up her face.  But behind that elfin charm resides a quiet, serious, watchful intelligence.  Medeiros embodies a memorable combination of fragility and strength.  About her character, one of Lucia’s actor friends (Jerome, nicely played by Arthur Holden) says, “I’ve known you forever.  I know how pitiless you can be with the objects of your passion.”  That same Jerome sees himself, in a nice turn of phrase, as “the Queen’s fool, condemned to tell the truth.”  And, the truth is that mayhap we are all condemned to play our appointed roles.  There is certainly enough fierceness of determination and purposefulness about Lucia to qualify as regal.

The film’s other award-caliber performance comes from Canada’s own Stephen McHattie, who is transformed, body and soul, into a wry, introspective, and haunted portrait of the artist as an aging man.  A journeyman actor, McHattie has not received the popular accolades he deserves, though he came closest to date in the 2009 Canadian film Pontypool,” (which, alas, this reviewer has not yet had an opportunity to see).  Here, he delivers what surely must be a career-best performance, in a career chock-full of solid work.  There’s a nice scene in which he hitches a ride on the back of a horse-drawn cart, legs dangling as the cart passes a cemetery.  Then, visiting the grave of a lost friend (the Polish painter Henri Hayden), he sadly confides that, “The voices have grown more muted and more desperate also… and greyer.”  All those of us who pursue an art know that lament:  The muse withdraws; inspiration fades; the fragmented shards of inchoate expression locked within become fainter, and harder to hear.  And McHattie’s Beckett gets a very funny line, with his rhetorical question (in a senior citizens’ home!): “Why are the old so loud?”

The third leading character, Vincent Hoss-Desmarais’s Paul, is the least interesting of the trio.  Paul is an artist of words whose own nascent talent has been unintentionally eclipsed and perhaps emasculated by his proximity to the brilliant Beckett.  But, the character is too affected, too much the angst-ridden poet, too much a mere sounding board for the presence of the creative master.  Is Paul more poseur than poet?  He certainly looks the part – wearing sunglasses indoors.  (Presumably, it has some connection to recurring references in Beckett’s work to the light.  But, for the uninitiated, it is hopelessly obscure.)   It’s doubtless intended – by the character and by the filmmaker – as a deliberate stylized device, a satirical affectation.  But it makes it difficult to accept the character as a real person.

Its thoughtfulness, artfulness, and audacity of both purpose and execution make “Meetings with a Young Poet” something intriguingly out of the ordinary.  It is bold enough to depict creativity and creative people and a creative life – never shrinking from that challenge.  Infused with a poetical (and refreshingly intellectual) sensibility, some of its ingredients work better than others.  But a viewer with a yen for originality and two sterling performances will find ample rewards here.  There is a very evocative original score by Gaëtan Gravel and Patrice Dubuc, with a little help from Franz Schubert.   And among the players, Linda Smith (from 2011’s excellent “Café de Flore”) also makes an impression as the café waitress Billie.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language; brief sexual content; and brief nudity.

“A Life in Dirty Movies” (Sweden, 2013) (A-):  It opens with a happily married couple going about their lives in their New York apartment:  Joe and Peggy Sarno are 88 and 70 years old, respectively.  She’s chatting on the telephone about the age-related stuff of ordinary life.  He’s first seen tapping away on an electronic typewriter (rather than a computer, which is an unspoken sign-post to his vintage). He’s working on an erotic screenplay.  And it wouldn’t be the first.  In his younger days, Joe wrote the scripts for 75 feature films, all of which he directed – in the long-dead genre of ‘sexploitation’ films. Joe was an ‘auteur’ of that genre, that is, a director who exercised creative control over his work and imbued it with a distinctive personal stamp.  For, unlike others working in sexploitation, Joe was a real filmmaker, more concerned with story, characters, and artistic cinematography, than he was in mere titillation.  Mind you, titillation was the raison d’être of the genre, which flourished in the late 50’s and 60’s, before it was roughly pushed aside by hard-core pornography.  Joe wrote the scripts and directed all his of the films, while Peggy acted (Joe wouldn’t let her do the sexual roles), designed costumes, and served as assistant director and collaborator.  After nearly 50 years together, they are still very much in love (and it shows!), spending every summer in Sweden, where they first fell in love.  And a more engaging real-life couple you haven’t met since 2012’s “The Queen of Versailles.”  Husky-voiced Peggy is still lovely, slender, and glamorous.  The once dashing Joe is older and less well-preserved, but he still has a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a life-long rebel’s determination to pursue his cinematic muse.  He’s determined to make another film, after the long hiatus forced upon him by the public’s abrupt turn from artfully erotic tease to explicit depiction of anatomical moving parts in action.  “All I care about with orgasms is the face,” says Joe.  “The most important thing is the breathing.  Not because of the sound of the breathing, but because of the expression that it gives the face.  If you think sexually and you breathe sexually, you don’t need to see what’s going on ‘down there.’”   A former fighter jet pilot, Joe fell into making pilot training films until the day when someone asked him to make a sex film.  The rest was history – and a career was born!  His films were about women.  He was fascinated by the idea of female sexual pleasure, which marked him as unique in the genre.  In Joe’s films, it’s the men who are the instruments to pleasure, which is the diametric opposite to the prevailing norms in hard-core pornography.  And he was determined to create real characters with real emotions:  In his films, sex has consequences; it’s never simply ‘recreational:’  “He wanted to know about the human emotions… and how people felt, and the grist of life.  And sex was part of that.”  Film curator Giuliua D’Agnolo Vallam says, “Joe Sarno was a great American filmmaker.  He’s a great New York filmmaker.  And Joe’s films were not about sex; they were about people; they were about characters.”    No matter that they were low-budget.  They used real actors, and there was artful intention behind the camera angles, the lighting, and the stories.  But art and storytelling were pushed aside by the public in favor of ever-increasing sexual explicitness and a concern for nothing but sexual plumbing.  For a time, Joe and Peggy only made ends meet with the financial backing of Peggy’s well-to-do father – who had earlier offered to pay for a divorce if only his beloved daughter would leave the older man who made sex movies! Peggy’s father disapproved of Joe’s work, but he nevertheless financed some of his films – out of loyal love for his daughter.  Peggy’s mother was adamant in her disapproval of Joe:  Now that she’s 100, and Peggy’s 70, it seems like the daughter still quietly yearns for her mother’s approval.  “I thought everyone had forgotten me,” says Joe about the disappearance of ‘sexploitation’ in favor of something coarser, cruder, and artless.  But recognition for his talent as a filmmaker does come, late in life.  He is honored by the British Film Institute:  “He’s not just one of true auteurs of the sexploitation genre but [also] a notable and distinctive American filmmaker of any type.”   And now he’s keen to return to work.  Peggy explains, “All summer, he worked on that script.  And I think that’s his lifeline.  Otherwise, he can just sit and die.”  And she’s still his creative collaborator, pointing out that a reference to a pay-phone in his new screenplay is an anachronism: No one uses them anymore, she observes.  “A Life in Dirty Movies’” Swedish director, Wiktor Ericsson, incorporates brief clips from Joe’s films.  Most of those clips are in black & white, which somehow renders them less provocative and more artful.  Anyway, as someone points out, “The whole basis to these films was that they were suggestive.  The most important part of the film was the title.”  (Examples include such suggestive titles as “Flesh and Lace,” “Vibrations,” and “The Swap.”)  Decades later, they are still sexy and even risqué, but they are also gentler than the harshly explicit content of pornography.  Ericsson says his documentary “gradually became a story about a kind of Don Quixote character, a dreamer who refuses to believe that his time has passed.”  And, the result is a treat – an unexpected pleasure of a film about two utterly engaging people, whose life’s work is very unconventional.  DVD extras include additional interviews and additional discussion about two of Sarno’s movies.  But, it’s a shame the documentary couldn’t have been accompanied by a full-length re-release of one of Sarno’s movies.  For ages 18+: Sexual content, nudity, and coarse language (including explicit sexual talk).

“Taking Chance” (USA, 2009) (B/B+):  As nations, we send our sons and daughters to war, knowing that some of them will not return alive.  Based on a true story, this gentle film depicts the journey home of a fallen Marine, named Chance Phelps, after his death in Iraq in 2004.  When the film opens, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon) has not seen combat duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.  That distance from the wars troubles him and prompts him to volunteer to escort the remains of a fallen soldier back to Wyoming.  And the film tastefully covers the entire procedure of repatriating the fallen. The bodies of the deceased have to be x-rayed to ensure that they do not contain unexploded ordnance.  Then they are fast-frozen and given a bar-code.  Teams of white-clad staff painstakingly clean the bodies and personal effects – all in a carefully regimented procedure that aims to preserve the dignity of the dead.  Finally, an officer accompanies the casket on its journey to the soldier’s home town.  In the journey depicted in this film, there are unexpected, often spontaneous, little gestures along the way: A young musician drives a hearse to show respect for injured or slain classmates; a stewardess gives Strobl a cross; passing motorists turn their headlights on in respect.  Strobl’s paths cross with a young soldier who is escorting his dead brother home.  And Chance’s family tells Strobl that, “You brought Chance home.  You’re his witness now.  Without a witness, they just disappear.”  And, at in the end, the journey creates a bond between the two men – one fallen, the other alive:  “I didn’t know Chance Phelps before he died; but today I miss him.” Made for HBO, “Taking Chance” makes the loss of one man, who is a stranger to us, viscerally real.  It’s about the self-sacrifice of those we send to war, and it’s about those of us back home bearing witness to their lives and sacrifice.  The result is quietly moving. DVD extras include a brief featurette about the real Chance Phelps, and a longer one on the subject of “bearing witness” to the loss of fallen soldiers.  “Taking Chance” won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a made for television movie.  It was nominated for ten Emmy Awards, winning in these six categories:  Best Made for Television Film, Actor, Director, Score, Single-Camera Editing, and Title Design.

“Land Ho!” (USA/Iceland, 2014) (B-/B):   “Silver lining. Gotta look for the silver lining in everything…”   So says Mitch, a retired southern doctor of a certain age, who surprises his soft-spoken brother-in-law with an all-expenses paid trip to exotic Iceland.  Both men are bereft of employment and spouses (their former wives were sisters).  But Mitch, in particular, is not ready ‘to go gently into that good night.’  As a matter of fact, he’s quite a character – garrulous, sassy, and hell-bent on having a good time.  He’s very earthy and a bit vulgar.  His loud bass voice and overbearing (though always good-natured) manner and his southern drawl bring to mind the 1946-63 cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, who was fond of saying, “That’s a joke, ah say, that’s a joke, son,” and who was in turn inspired by the character of a fictitious southern Senator on radio’s Fred Allen show.  Mitch invites his Australian brother-in-law for a visit Stateside, then surprises him with the aforementioned northern adventure.  They make an odd couple:  Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is all bluster; while Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) is shy and mild-mannered.  They talk about women and about life; they try exotic foods; and they drive around the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Iceland in a rented Hummer.  For a time, they keep company with a pair of young women (played by Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McNee), one of whom is a cousin (once-removed) of Mitch’s.  When asked why they’re in Iceland, Mitch replies, “Getting our groove back,” without missing a beat.  The film’s co-writers/directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, say the film is about “two guys being isolated together.”  And, it’s about “opposites” – in particular, the contrasts between the film’s earthy humor and the ethereal beauty of the setting and between the traveling companions who have very different temperaments:  (C) “Why are you always on the move?  Why don’t you just stop?  Stay still….  And look out the window?”  (M) “Life is too short to sit still.”  (C) Yeah, well, I want the rest of my life to be a little more relaxed than this experience, all right?”  (M) “I’ll get you a rocking chair.”   The performances in this good-natured character study are so relaxed and naturalistic you’ll swear you’re watching a documentary.  The result is a likeable, humorous take on coping with aging with all the vim and vigor we can muster.  The DVD has a Q&A with the directors and cast, as well as a full-length commentary.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and some crude sexual talk.

“Tracks” (Australia, 2013) (B):  “Some nomads are at home everywhere.  Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.”  So says protagonist of this true story about a young woman’s solo trek across the great Australian desert in 1977, accompanied only by four camels and her inseparable dog.  Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) is determined to make the 2,000 mile journey, despite the naysayers who decry it as reckless and all but impossible.  Exactly what motivates her remains elusive:  “I’d always been drawn to the purity of the desert, its hot wind and wide open spaces…  But mainly I was bored of life in the city with its repetitions, my half-finished, half-hearted attempts at jobs and various studies.  And I was sick of carrying around the self-indulgent negativity that was so much the malaise of my generation, my sex, and my class.”   Robyn seems to be a born adventurer, restlessly yearning to go where few men (and even fewer women) have gone before.  But, her need to push the limits also seems to be motivated, in part, by a need to flee from the childhood loss of both her mother and her boon canine companion.  Fragmentary flashbacks suggest that she is still haunted by those traumatic events.  And, just as importantly, Robyn seems to need to be away from other people.  When her friend arrives from the city for an unexpected visit before Robyn’s trek is due to begin, bringing a car-load of boisterous others with her, Robyn is viscerally strained by the unaccustomed company, bustle, and noise.  She seems to positively crave solitude, preferring the company of her own thoughts to the disruptive presence of others.  That latter attribute always keeps Robyn at a bit of a distance from the viewer.  She’s a self-contained, solitary soul who treks to the beat of her own drummer.  She isn’t prone to emoting, and that makes her hard to warm up to.  Even her brief intimacy with the National Geographic photographer (eccentrically played by Adam Driver) assigned to document her journey at intervals, seems a momentary lapse from her psyche’s default setting of solitude and disentanglement from human relationships – a lapse she seems to instantly regret.  But there’s something about Robyn’s matter of fact certitude that her life’s path leads through an endless wasteland that compels us to watch.  And the cinematography makes the barren desert a harshly striking, even sometimes beautiful, environment.  Perhaps it’s as much a parable about the restlessness of the human spirit (“The decision to act was in itself the beginning of the journey”) as it is the story of one woman’s solo trek.  Quietly elegiac in tone, “Tracks” is the gently paced story of a woman testing herself against the hardships posed by a harsh, unforgiving environment and also against the pain of past tragedy and loss.  “Tracks” was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival.  For ages 18+: Some coarse language.

“The Auction” [“Le Démantèlement”] (Canada, 2013) (B+):  It opens with a solitary farmer going about his business amidst the gently rolling lakeside hills of Québec’s beautiful Saguenay region – just a man, a dog, and a flock of sheep in the tranquil countryside.  Gaby (Gabriel Arcand) lives alone, but he seems at peace with his own company.  He’s long-parted from the women in his life – losing his wife to divorce and his daughters to the distant city.  About his youngest daughter, Frédérique (Sophie Desmarais), who works as a stage actress in Montréal, he says, “With her, who knows?  I don’t hear from her much.  Maybe she’ll show up and surprise me.  But I doubt it.”  His eldest daughter, Marie (Lucie Laurier) seems to be the more responsible of the two:  She comes for a visit with her two young children. When she asks Gaby what’s new, he laconically replies, “Nothing’s new. It’s all old. I’m getting lazy.”  “Lazy?” asks Marie, “Three days off in 40 years;” to which Gaby wryly replies, “I was lucky.  It could’ve been two.”  Those few words give us the measure the man:  Hardworking but humble, he’s a quiet, dignified man of the land.  But Marie’s marriage is collapsing, and she needs money to buy out her departing husband’s share of the matrimonial home, so she can remain there with her children.  (Selfishly, she wouldn’t think of moving back to the farm with her father.)  She asks Gaby for financial help. But where’s it to come from?  He has no savings and the bank won’t consider a loan.  All he has is his farm, and the land upon which it sits.  Gaby matter-of-factly shrugs off the heartbreak (and financial damage to himself) of giving up everything he has and resolves to sell his farm (and everything on it) in order to help his daughter.  His concerned friend (Gilles Renault) urges him not to take that drastic step.  How will Gaby live, if he gives up everything for his daughters?  “You never see them.  The girls don’t need you anymore.  Your little princesses are all grown up.  They have you wrapped around their little fingers….  You’ve done everything for them.  You paid for their education…and every little whim.  And you always went without…  I admire what you’ve done for them.  But you can’t go overboard.  Be reasonable.”  But Gaby has the conviction that he can and must ‘go overboard,’ by sacrificing everything, for the sake of his daughters.  It’s not that he is insensible to the pain and loss this course of action will exact from him.  But, he is quietly content to bear it – out of profound love for his children.  It’s a simple equation for this decent man:  “Everyone always said that my life was my farm, my land.  But they were all wrong.  My life is my children.  It’s you two.  Fathers need to give to be happy.  We’re like that.”  Writer/director Sébastien Pilotte was born in the Saguenay region, and he still lives there.  It provides a tranquil haven of a setting – a place of peace, natural beauty, and contentment.  But Pilotte’s work often seems to deal with transformation, and “The Auction” follows that same theme, as it chronicles the quiet decision of a good man to put all he has known behind him (along with what little personal security he has for his own welfare) for the sake of those he loves.  It’s a quiet, simple story, full of understated dignity and strength of character, and enriched by an award-caliber performance by its leading man and admirable contributions by all of its supporting players.  The character of Gaby is francophone kin to James Cromwell’s farmer in the other recent Canadian gem about aging farmers, 2012’s “Still Mine.”  Indeed, if “The Auction” were remade in the U.S., its lead would be tailor-made for the likes of Cromwell, Robert Duvall, or the late James Garner.  “The Auction” won Best Actor at the Canadian Screen Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Director, Screenplay, and Production Design.  It won a screenwriting award at Cannes.  It won Best Cinematography at Québec’s Jutra Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Actor, Director, Supporting Actress (Demarais), and Supporting Actor (Renaud).

The DVD’s accompanying short film is:  “Giant” [“O Xigante”] (Spain/Portugal, 2012) (B):  In this 11-minute animated short film from co-directors Luis da Matta Almeida and Julio Vonzeler, we encounter a young girl whose drawings spring to life.  She lives inside the heart of a giant, peering at the wide world through a heart-shaped opening in his chest.  Is she a captive, a guest, or the personification of his own heart?  He, too, is fond of drawing.  A fox leaves the natural world and bounds onto the girl’s drawing.  A miniature tree under a glass dome sprouts green leaves that turn into orange butterflies.  Is it a fable, a dream, or an homage to the power of imagination?  One thing imitates, or animates, or becomes another – as the little girl astride the giant’s outstretched hand enacts in pantomime the turning figure atop a music box.  There’s something here of the relationship between artist and art, creator and creation.  At one moment, the giant seems to place his hand to block the girl’s view of the outside world from inside her heart-shaped vantage-point, but, in the next, he gently places her on the ground, freeing her to go where she will, while he himself slumbers and becomes a hill as the seasons change around him.  Then, we see the girl again – only this time, she harbors a diminutive passenger.  The result is whimsical, sweet, and intriguing, and it unfolds like a dream, without any spoken dialogue at all.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” (U.K./Germany/Greece, 2013) (B+):  Here’s a truly offbeat love story and character study about a pair of soul-mates unlike any you’ve seen before.  The ironically named Adam and Eve have been in love for a very long time – centuries, in fact.  Played by Tilda Swinton, she’s an unconventional beauty, with dark eyes, an impassive face, and white-blonde hair that looks like a lion’s mane.  At moments almost androgynous, she’s regal but remote.  The “he” in the equation is played by Tom Hiddleston (who has made an impression as the gleefully amoral Loki in the “Thor” movies).  His Adam is a languid, long-haired anonymous rock musician who lives as a recluse in an abandoned section of Detroit (of all places) – a hollowed-out city where the howls of coyotes now echo in the night – writing music and collecting antique guitars procured for him by his amanuensis Ian (a sweetly eager-to-please Anton Yelchin).  Adam seems constitutionally prone to melancholia; and he’s got a centuries-old case of ennui on his hands, to boot:  “I just feel like all the sand’s at the bottom of the hourglass or something.”    For her part, Eve lives an ocean away, in Tangiers, Morocco, where her best friend is Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (yes, that Marlowe!), played by John Hurt. Eve implores Kit to give her the dirt on Shakespeare:  Did the Bard really write all the plays attributed to him?  If he did not, “it would cause such thrilling chaos,” says Eve; to which Kit wryly replies, “I think the world has enough chaos.”   Though separated by distance, Adam and Eve mean the world to each other.  Concerned about Adam’s mood, Eve journeys to Detroit for a visit.  They are truly two of a kind:  Interested (and very well versed) in art, literature, and science (Eve refers to the flora and fauna she encounters by their Latin names), they are highly cultivated, even slightly effete.  There’s also a hedonistic aspect to the characters.  Eve can read a page with a mere glance, and read she does.  Both of them live with stacks of books on every imaginable subject.  And in reply to Adam’s sense of pointlessness, she says,  “How can you have lived for so long and still not get it?  This self-obsession… it’s a waste of living… that could be spent on surviving things… appreciating nature… nurturing kindness and friendship.  And dancing.”  There’s a wry sense of humor in the film.  Adam and a doctor (played by Jeffrey Wright) with whom he uneasily does clandestine business exchange quips using names of famous ‘doctors’ from fiction – like Watson, Faust, Strangelove, and Caligari.  And Kit says of Adam, “How I wish I’d met him before I wrote ‘Hamlet.’  He would have provided the most perfect role model imaginable.”  The couple’s reunion is rudely interrupted by the unannounced arrival of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), a wild child who thrives on chaos.  Her impulsive ways put the couple in jeopardy.  For they have a long-guarded secret to keep:  They are vampires! But, never fear, this is the vampire film for people who don’t like vampire films.  (The word ‘vampire’ is never even uttered in the film, though it does take place entirely at night.)  There’s next to no violence (or bloodshed) in the film.  Adam, Eve, and Kit no longer stalk their prey. Instead, they take their crimson sustenance from bottles – and there’s scarcely a fang in sight.  They do have a snobbish habit of referring to humans as “zombies” (it’s their idea of an in-joke), while decrying (in moments of social criticism) “the way they [i.e. mortal humans] treat this world.” Yet their ostensible contempt for human foibles and human destructiveness is gainsaid by their obvious admiration for the fruit of the better angels of man’s nature – in art, architecture, science, music, and literature.  Eve packs books by authors as diverse as Cervantes and Samuel Beckett for her nocturnal journey to America; while Adam has a wall of admiration, featuring photographs of such figures as Mark Twain, Buster Keaton, and Billie Holiday.  The film toys with social commentary at times; but it could have fully immersed itself in the business of looking at the human condition from the slightly detached viewpoint of its isolated outsiders.  Some regard “Only Lovers Left Alive” as a dry comedy.  For this reviewer, however, the film is best positioned as a hybrid of character study and highly unconventional romance.  Its writer/director, Jim Jarmusch has made the quirky and eccentric his cinematic speciality, in such films as 2005’s “Broken Flowers” and 1999’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes.  As a point of interest, the names Adam and Eve were not intended by the filmmaker to directly reference our Biblical forebears, but rather their satiric incarnations in Mark Twain’s “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.”  (For instance, Twain has his Adam say this about his newly-created better-half:  “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way.  It is always hanging around and following me about.  I don’t like this:  I am not used to company.  I wish it would stay with the other animals.”)  What Twain’s work has in common with the film is its satirical tone.  For ages 18+: Some coarse language and brief nudity.

“Under the Skin” (U.K., 2013) (B):  It opens in silence and utter blackness.  A tiny point of light appears, as do throbbing, buzzing, discordant sounds.  Concentric circles appear, as we hear a female voice pronouncing letters and words, as if learning how to speak.  It’s an abstract, minimalist representation of the assembling and integration of a simulacrum of a human being.  It ultimately takes the alluring form of Scarlett Johansson, and its purpose is to prowl the urban streets and rural byways of Scotland looking for lone males who can be lured to their doom.  For our unnamed serial predator is something cold, remorseless, and ruthless, an alien predator wearing the guise of a human female to entice and entrance its prey.  Of unknown origins and nature, she stalks, seduces, and devours her victims – baiting them with counterfeit sexuality to follow her into derelict buildings, where she walks atop an unearthly opaque black pool while they slowly descend becalmed (and without struggling or panic, which only makes their fate more disturbing) below its viscous surface:  There, they are suspended, alive but helpless; submerged in heavy liquid, but somehow not drowned, awaiting their doom.  It’s a re-imagining of ‘la belle dame sans merci,’ a lethal siren who lures men to their death.  Whether the heavy liquid itself is an alien life form, or a gateway to another dimension or world, or simply an alien instrumentality for holding and then feeding-on human flesh, is unknown.  It is clear that the huntress is not the only one of her kind – she has a male motorcyclist associate who shadows her and removes whatever her victims leave behind (like a hiker’s tent and contents) – anything, in short, that would alert others to the victims’ sudden absence or raise alarums of serial foul-play.  And the huntress takes pains to collect only men who live alone, or who are solitary travelers – people who will not be readily missed, people whose disappearance may go unmarked for a long time.  In only one instance does she use overt violence to capture her prey; typically it is managed solely by seduction.  One victim says, “You’re gorgeous… It’s your eyes. Something about your eyes.”   Two scenes are particularly disturbing.  In the first, when a man and a woman are accidentally lost in the rough surf at a rugged and isolated section of shore; the huntress makes off with their would-be rescuer, leaving behind the drowned couple’s infant, alone and terrified on the desolate beach:  The abandonment of a babe in such a place and in such circumstances is more horrific than any science fiction tropes the movie can dream up.  Presumably, it is also meant to harshly signify the utter absence of empathy on the part of the huntress.  She is, literally and figuratively, utterly inhuman.  The second particularly disturbing scene involves her enticement of a lonely, terribly disfigured young man.  To victimize him seems immensely cruel – to us; but, she’s without humanity – until she isn’t.  She gradually begins to begins to change, to take pity on a victim, to show curiosity about her own naked body, to awkwardly essay a connection with a human man, to sit bemused in front of a television comedy, to know bodily fear, and finally to become the prey of a human monster herself.  Does wearing a human body mean that some humanity is slowly awakened within her?  It would seem so.  All along, we see things more or less through her impassive, impenetrable, emotionless eyes, and, in the process, the human world – our world – comes to look strange and alien, too.  All of this is accomplished with very little dialogue and only the bare bones (no pun intended) of a story.  And its aural heartbeat is the strange, discordant score, which mixes music with percussive sound effects, to create something ominous and unnatural.  This wildly unconventional film is palpably strange and unsettling:  Its sense of mystery, foreboding, and otherworldliness washes over the viewer like a dream, and, like a dream, it has the power to at once captivate and repel.  Its central figure is not a ‘vampire’ in the conventional sense, but her predatory behaviors are certainly ‘vampiric’ in their nature; and like that fictional being, she embodies and exudes an unsettling combination of attraction and repulsion.  Based on the novel by Michel Faber, “Under the Skin” was directed and co-written by Jonathan Glazer (2000’s “Sexy Beast” and 2004’s “Birth”).  It is decidedly not for all tastes, and its ending is very unsatisfying; but it’s a remarkable transference of an ever-so-troubling dream to celluloid – it manages, simultaneously, to be very unpleasant and very hard to turn away from.  In a word, its effect is haunting.  It was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at Venice and for Best Director, Actress, Sound Design, and Music at the British Independent Film Awards.  The cinematography by Daniel Landin is very good, with a standout being mist curling, like a liquid wave, above the waters of a loch.  The nicely packaged DVD from Mongrel Media has ten informative brief featurettes; but if ever a film called out for a full-length commentary, this is that film!  Alas, however, there is none: Its absence is sorely missed.  For ages 18+ only:  Nudity; brief sexual content; one scene involving sexual violence; brief coarse language; and disturbing content.

“Ilo Ilo” (Singapore, 2013) (B-/B):  A middle class couple in the southeast Asian city-state of Singapore hire a live-in Filipino maid to clean the house, prepare the meals, and baby-sit their misbehaving 10-year-old son.  It’s a common scenario in that part of the world, by no means confined to the well-to-do.  Indeed, with both parents working outside the home, it’s more necessity than luxury.  When Teresa (Angeli Bayani) arrives on the scene, Teck (Chen Tianwenn) and Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) tell her that young Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is “sometimes very naughty.”  It’s a major understatement:  The child has been acting-out badly at school and at home; and he perceives his new roommate at ripe for torment.  But, Teresa is no push-over, despite her relative youth (she’s in her late twenties).  After being framed by her young charge for shoplifting, she lays down the law to the boy:  “Why do you do that to me?  Listen, I don’t care if you like me or not…  But your mom employed me.  I’m here to do my job properly.  I am your maid; but I didn’t come here to be bullied.”   The story takes place in the midst of the 1997 financial crisis in Asia.  Teck has lost the family’s savings on the stock market; and he has secretly lost his job, too.  Hwee Leng is typing termination letters for laid-off employees at her office, wondering all along if her turn will be next.  In the face of those worries, they lose touch with their badly behaved son.  He’s a bit of a brat when the story opens, and his antics get worse before they get better.  But, Teresa gradually wins him over.  They bond, and she becomes, in some ways, a surrogate mother figure for the boy, a change that Jiale’s real mother can’t help but resent.  There are a couple of odd choices by the filmmaker:  One is having the 10-year-old boy be bathed by the maid.  Although nothing untoward is implied; he does seem old enough to bathe himself – and too old to stand naked before the maid. And, the school principal’s assertion (at a disciplinary assembly) that, “Knowledge without discipline is of no value to society,” seems a curious thing for an educator to say.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of the reputedly authoritarian society in which the story is set.  “Ilo Ilo” won the Caméra d’Or (Best Director) at Cannes. Its writer/director Anthony Chen (this is his feature film debut) was also recognized as an emerging filmmaker by the British Film Institute; and his film has earned critical praise and numerous awards and nominations at film festivals.  It’s a quiet, low-key, gently-paced look at the lives of four people who share not only same abode but also the stresses and strains with which all of us have to contend in daily life.  The dialogue is in Mandarin, Tagalog (a language of The Philippines), and English (which is the lingua franca of the four characters).  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Blik” (The Netherlands, 2010) (B+):  A young boy moves to a new neighborhood and falls hard for the much older girl next-door (a mechanical toy provides the catalyst for their meeting) in an animated 8-minute short film that tells its story without any spoken dialogue.  Indeed, its characters would have a hard time talking if they wanted to, because there are blank ovals where their faces would be. It’s an interesting stylistic choice since the animation style is otherwise realistic.  The facelessness of the characters gives them a mannequin-like quality; the surprising thing is that it doesn’t distance us from them or from the bittersweet story of childhood love.  On the contrary, there’s a gentle poignancy to this universal story, a story that’s as familiar as our own childhood.  The film uses sound design to good effect; and it presents a very nice evocation of the sun’s transit across the heavens, with changing light and shadows on the buildings and pavement, punctuated by the patter of falling rain.  It’s a sweet-natured, poignant little story.  “Blik” is the filmmaking debut by its writer/director Bastiaan Schravendeel.

“Belle” (U.K., 2013) (A-):  “What’s right can never be impossible.”  Those inspiring words are spoken early in the film by an aristocratic young naval captain (Matthew Goode) who has claimed his mixed race daughter as his own and who asks his high-ranking kin to care for her in his absence.  And the words permeate a story that’s very much concerned with questions of right and wrong.  Based on a remarkable true story, “Belle” opens in England in 1769; then it jumps ahead a few years when its protagonist reaches young adulthood.  Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has been raised like a sister to her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gordon).  (Lauren Julien-Box and Cara Jenkins are also very good as young Dido and young Elizabeth, respectively.)  Dido is half-black (or mulatto, as it was termed at the time); but she is cherished and loved by her adoptive family, who are the uncle and aunts of her seagoing father.  The head of the household, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) happens to be the nation’s Lord Chief Justice.  He lives at a sprawling country estate with his wife (Emily Watson) and Aunt Mary (“Downton Abbey’s” Penelope Wilton), who is the spinster sibling either of himself or of his wife.  It’s a close-knit, loving family, and both girls are raised as though they are daughters of the house, rather than grand-nieces.  But prevailing notions of propriety do set Dido apart in some ways.  When guests are present, she does not dine with the family, prompting her to ask, “How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low to dine with the family?”  And her adoptive parents cannot foresee her marrying:  Her family name and rank rule out a match with those of lower rank in society; but her color is likely to dissuade proposals from social equals.  But, Oliver (James Norton), the younger son of a lord does show an interest – attracted in part by her great beauty, and in part by the inheritance that makes her a woman of independent means.  In the latter motivation, he is encouraged by his encouraged by his mercenary mother Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), who is prepared to “forgive” the mocha hue of Dido’s skin in the face of her Ł 2,000 per year.  Meanwhile, Oliver’s cruel elder brother, James (Sam Reid), makes a pretense of interest in Elizabeth, even as he barely hides his bigotry and loathing for Dido.  All the while, Lord Mansfield is seized of a legal appellate case of great import, involving a British slave-ship, the Zong.  The crew of that vessel threw its cargo of slaves overboard while at sea, claiming that a shortage of water and provisions prompted them to sacrifice the ‘cargo’ in order to save the crew.  Now, they are seeking reimbursement for their human cargo from maritime insurers.  If that hard calculus weren’t awful enough, there’s more than a whiff of fraud in the air, with suspicions that they actually killed their captives because the slaves were ill from inhumane overcrowding, and therefore worth more dead than alive.  Quite beyond its narrow issues of insurance liability (can humans, even slaves, be insured as cargo?) and of fraud, the Zong case raised momentous implications for the future of the slave trade in Britain.  And it was as important morally as it was legally.  As Dido learns about the case (she has been hitherto largely shielded from the harsh realities of the wider world), she takes a keen interest in its outcome – and so does a young man, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who was briefly tutored by her uncle.  Davinier is the son of their country vicar, but he aspires to become a lawyer – in London, where he can fight for what is right, as a lawyer and a social activist.  Dido’s first contacts with John are somewhat contentious, but they see eye-to-eye on what’s most important to each other, and there’s a hint of smoldering attraction.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth, who is white, and of high rank, but without independent means or inheritance, envies her adoptive sister’s material freedom, noting sadly that women without money (whatever their social rank may be) are no more than the ‘property’ of men.  It’s an interesting, even sly, way for the filmmakers to approach the issue of human beings as property from a second angle.  But Dido doesn’t feel all that free – and there is a touching early scene where she literally beats her chest in anguish and confusion over not fitting-in.  “Belle” is a success on several levels at once – as a character drama (with a note-perfect cast), as fact-based historical drama, as a romance (there are two lovely declarations of ardor, with the words, “I love her!  I love her with every breath I breathe!” and “I love you for all that you are and with all that I am!”); and as social commentary.  The oil painting of Dido and Elizabeth that figures in the story is a real one, a fact that’s explored in one of the Blu-ray’s several interesting featurettes.  But the film deserves a commentary by its director (Amma Asante), writer (Misan Sagay), and cast.  Thus far, “Belle” hasn’t had the award recognition it deserves (though it has won a couple of festival awards) as one of the best films of the year.  It is strongly recommended.  For ages 16+: Brief mature content.

Note: Rumor has it that Fox Searchlight, the studio behind this very fine film, has perversely elected not to release “Belle” on DVD, inexplicably relying instead exclusively on a Blu-ray release.  If that is indeed so, it constitutes a major misstep, because it will exclude all those many people who have stuck by DVD as their preferred format from purchasing and seeing a movie that demands (and deserves) to be seen!

“The Other Woman” (USA, 2014) (C-):  A wife discovers that her husband has not one but two mistresses.  The three women form an unlikely alliance to give the philanderer his come-uppance; in the process, they bond in a sisterhood of revenge.  The ever-engaging Leslie Mann plays Kate, the wife.  She’s zany, with a capital “Z,” chattering on about bacon, exploding brains, and ‘camps for lazy brains’ in a stream of consciousness monologue of the absurd.  Cameron Diaz plays Carly, a successful career woman; but it takes a big stretch of the imagination to accept her as a big-city lawyer.  She thinks Mark (“Game of Thrones’” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) may be ‘the one,’ but she’s blithely unaware that he’s married.  When she says, “Something feels off” to her dad (Don Johnson in a small role), something sure is!  She’s appalled when she discovers Mark’s secret, but the wife, Kate, won’t let it go at that:  She’s in need of a soul-sister, boon companion, confidante, and co-conspirator, and she drafts ‘the other woman’ for those roles.  In the real world, of course, there’s no way a deceived wife would attach herself to the very woman with whom her husband has been having an affair, not even if the other woman was herself deceived by the unfaithful spouse.  The screenplay is aware of this deviation from reality (it has Carly exclaim, “What’s your deal? Do you not get how weird this is?”); but it runs with it anyway.  Thus, a central conceit of the story is impossible to accept as anything other than silly farce.  The duo becomes a trio when they enlist Amber, a second mistress played by model Kate Upton (she’s the buxom one), into their schemes.  It’s all pretty silly and pretty feeble as comedy (which, alas, is par for the course with most North American forays into comedic film); but it’s mildly amusing.  Cute use is made of the “Mission Impossible” theme in a scene involving covert surveillance; while the song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is put to apt use elsewhere.  It’s pretty basic stuff (“When you put the Lawyer, the Wife, and the Boobs together, you have the perfect killing machine.”); but it’s marginally passable as a time-waster.  For ages 18+.

“Cloud Atlas” (Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012) (B):  “All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.”  So says a character about a society that’s bound up in rigid conventions.  But the same thing applies to those who create art, filmmakers among them.  And “Cloud Atlas” is the proof of that proposition, artfully intertwining six different stories and three writer/directors in an epic that spans many centuries.  The stories use a repertory company of players – among them, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James Darcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant.  Most of them play multiple roles.  A cast member may be male in one story, female in another; young in one, old in another; a hero in one, a villain in another.  The stories themselves are as wildly disparate as can be.  One concerns a journalist investigating wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant in the present day.  Another concerns a young amanuensis to an aging composer at an isolated manse in Scotland.  The third (the only one of the sextet that’s played for laughs) involves a kooky publisher who is tricked into an asylum by an unscrupulous sibling.  The fourth is set aboard a 19th century British sailing ship in the Pacific, with an upright young man, a Maori castaway, and a treacherous ship’s doctor.  The fifth is set in the future – in 2144 “New Seoul,” to be precise – in a Big Brotherish society in which in which an underclass of cloned replicants is bred to serve others.  That story is the most arresting, involving tropes from sources like Orwell’s “1984,” “Blade Runner,” “Soylent Green,” and the Wachowskis’ own masterwork “V for Vendetta.”  It has an Orwellian interrogator who gets to the gist of things thusly:  “There’s a natural order to this world; and the truth is this order must be protected.”  The ‘powers that be’ in 2144 are no more or less ruthless in preserving the status quo than their counterparts in the real-world of the here and now.  The sixth story is set even further in the future, at an unnamed time in which man’s overreach (or “hunger for more,” as one character puts it), has damaged left the world a dying place.  A technologically advanced “Prescient” visits a rainforest-covered island to live among the primitive, but peaceable, “Valleyman” as she searches for clues to the past and hopes for the future, while she and her hosts are menaced by savage cannibals.   What’s the through-line for the six stories?  In part, it’s about themes – about unresolved conflicts and injustices that unfold and play out again and again in different times and places, as if in search of resolution.  In part, it’s about characters, positing the possibility that perhaps we, too, play out the dramas of our lives afresh, reborn in different eras, genders, and circumstances to strive for our own destinies – “an individual’s life rippling through eternity” (through something like reincarnation, it is implied), as the film puts it.  And the objective of all that striving may be the unbreakable nature of love.  Those who are meant to be together cannot, the story suggests, be sundered, either by time or by death:  “I can feel your heart beating as closely as I feel my own; and I know that separation is an illusion.  My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”  And there’s much here to of the unquenchable human striving for justice, of our collective need to understand, and of the notion that nothing we do (or strive for) is futile:  (A) “No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”  (B) “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”   Based on the novel by David Mitchell, and co-directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, “Cloud Atlas” is ambitious, audacious, and commendably original.  You won’t recognize the cast in some of their unexpected guises.  Their epic, intertwined stories may baffle you at times, perhaps even frustrating you with their initially obscure connections and meaning.  But patience, in this 172-minute movie, is rewarded – with fascination, moments of humor, and engrossing things to say about justice, meaning, and love. “Cloud Atlas” was nominated for ten wards at the German Film Awards, winning in five of those categories, including Cinematography.  For ages 18+: Coarse language; nudity; violence; and sexual content.

“Saving Mr. Banks” (USA/U.K./Australia) (B):  Disney’s look behind the curtain of the making of the movie “Mary Poppins” is actually two stories in one:  There’s the story of a young girl in 1906 Australia who adores her dreamer-father; and there’s the story set in London and Los Angeles in 1961 of the joyless middle-age woman who’s not at all keen on her beloved fictional nanny making the leap to the silver screen.  As the author P.L. Travers, Emma Thomson plays the author as prim and proper and a wee bit brusque.  “No one likes a show-off,” says dismissively.  She’s very ‘correct’ in her attitudes and behavior; and she’s very adamant that “Mary Poppins does not sing.”  But financial necessity (and the prodding of her agent) induces her to journey to America to meet with Walt Disney (a jovial Tom Hanks) and explore the possibility of granting Disney the right to turn her characters into a movie.  There’s more than a bit of the disdainful bias against the upstart former colonials in her attitude.  But, her surface hauteur hides a much deeper motivation:  “Mary Poppins and the Banks, they are family to me.”  We learn from the 1906 flashbacks that P.L. Travers’ fiction imitated (and was inspired by) real life, in ways that matter a great deal to the writer.  She lost her innocence in the teeth of tragedy, and was marked by the sadness and loss that squeezed the joy from her.  She’s certainly not about to be charmed into bending by Walt & Co.  She’s prone to arbitrariness and imperiousness, and she lets the would-be filmmakers have it with both barrels blazing, decreeing, for example, that the color red is to be banned from the movie.  Why?  Why, simply because she’s “gone off the color.”  Walt has to at least seem to humor her, since he doesn’t yet have the film rights.  Their contest of wills is played partly for gentle comedic effect, but real-world writers will perceive an intrinsically bittersweet quality to the notion of handing over creative control of your own creation to others.  (Indeed, Mary Poppins’ creator sees the nanny as “the enemy of whimsy and sentiment,” yet it is precisely those things that dominate the movie adaptation.)  Thomson and Hanks make good foils:  He’s all easy-going charm, eager to butter-up the stubborn author; she’s as tightly controlled as her permed hair.  The 1961 sections of the film differ dramatically in tone and even in look from the 1906 sections:  There, amidst sunshine and meadows, a young girl, Ginty (Anne Rose Buckley), is indulged by her father (Colin Farrell):  “We share a Celtic soul, you and I.  This world is just an illusion.”  It’s as sweet a depiction of a close bond between a father and daughter as ever there was.  But the adoring father, Travers Goff, is a dreamer and a poet, trapped in a career (banking) he loathes and on a path to destruction courtesy of alcohol.  There’s a sun-dappled idylls of youth aspect to these sections of the movie that gradually acquires the darker hues of tragedy.  The film jumps back and forth in time between its two disparate parts, until the past starts to bleed into the present.  It’s surprising that the whole thing coheres, given the startling contrast in tone between its two halves.  But each half works very well, thanks in good part to a talented cast. In addition to those named above, Paul Giamatti appears as a kindly chauffeur who befriends Emma Thomson’s character; Ruth Wilson makes an impression as the tragic wife of a man ruined by drink; while Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Kathy Baker are members of Disney’s filmmaking team who strain to get the irritable writer to share their vision of her work.  The result is a lovely story (or two stories in one) about regrets and the way the past remains forever part of us.  Among its numerous awards and nominations, “Saving Mr. Banks” was nominated for Best Original Score (by Thomas Newman) at the Academy Awards, and Best Actress (Emma Thomson) at the Golden Globes.

“Dom Hemingway” (U.K. 2013) (B):  This tale of a loud, coarse, arrogant – yet somehow inexplicably endearing – jackass opens with a soliloquy to his private parts:  “Sonnets should be written [about it].  Poems.  Plays.  Wars should be won over it. Kingdoms fallen because of it.”  That sets the tone for all that follows in an offbeat dark comedy that most assuredly will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Its eponymous antihero (played by Jude Law) is vain, profane, angry, swaggering, volatile, and, did we mention, very loud; but his madcap misadventures are a quirkily funny hoot.  As soon as he gets out of prison, Dom beats up the man who’s been sleeping with his ex-wife: “I should effing kill you; but I fancy a pint instead.”  Dom and his only friend (to whom he confides: “I got anger issues… I just do.”) are soon off to France to collect the king’s ransom Dom’s got coming to him from a crime-boss for not ratting-out the gang.  Dom’s ‘done the time;’ now it’s time for his reward, and he’s eager to make up for 12 years’ lost time with (to put it politely) an orgy of wine, women, and song.  But things never go according to plan in Dom’s world – and mayhem ensues.  Although the heavy barrage of ugly language and general vulgarity (including drug-snorting and drunkenness) grates, the film’s brash outrageousness – and the sheer bravado colorfulness of Dom won us over.  You’ve never seen Jude Law like this; he utterly inhabits the role. Richard E. Grant plays Dickie, Dom’s long-suffering only friend and straight-man; Demian Bichir is the crime-boss, who shows immense forbearance in overlooking Dom’s reflexive obnoxiousness; and Kerry Condon makes an impression as a sweet young woman whose path intersects Dom’s.  “Game of Thrones’” Emilia Clarke is also on hand, late in the film, as Dom’s estranged daughter:  Trying to reconnect with her reveals a softer, gentler side to the man.  As Richard Grant says, you root for Dom (despite yourself) “because he’s a loser.”   Blu-ray extras include a commentary by from writer/director Richard Shepard.  For ages 18+ only:  A great deal of extremely coarse language; sexual content; nudity; violence; and drug use.

“Grigris” (Chad/France, 2013) (B-/B):  The eponymous protagonist of this story just wants to dance.  And Grigris (Souleymane Démé) is a sight to behold on the dance floor of the nightclub in the West African city (presumably N’Djamena, the capital of Chad) where the story takes place – a whirling dervish of dance moves that seem to be his very own fusion of disco, acrobatics, and modern dance.   It’s all the more astonishing when you realize that he performs these demanding routines despite a severe handicap:  Off the dance floor, he walks laboriously, as if one leg is permanently dislocated – or made of rubber.   He wows his nightly audience, whose numbers include Mimi (Anaïs Monory), a beautiful young woman who works as an escort to support herself, and Moussa (Cyril Guei), an underworld boss who is protective of Grigris.   Grigris gradually becomes involved with Mimi; but financial pressures, in the form of sky-high hospital bills for the care of his ailing step-father Ayoub (Marius Yelolo), mean that Grigris needs cash – and lots of it.  He goes to Moussa, looking for work as a smuggler.  At first, Moussa is reluctant.  He says it’s not the life for Grigris (“You’re a good guy:  Sell fruit!”); but it may be that he’s simply not sure Grigris is physically up to the job.  One thing’s certain: Grigris’ new venture puts him in danger.  The low-key result, from writer/director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, is an immersive experience, with its very different place and culture.  But its surprisingly accessible characters feel instantly down-to-earth and authentic.  The director discovered Souleymane Démé dancing in the small West African country of Burkina Faso:  Thus, the real-life Démé (this is his first screen appearance) provided the basis for this fictional story.  The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes, and its director of photography, Antoine Héberlé, won an award there for the film’s cinematography.  For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language and some brief mild violence.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Feral” (USA, 2012) (A): Shot mostly in black & white, this 12-minute short film is highly impressionistic, and it is a thing of beauty to behold.  It’s no surprise, then, that it was an Academy Award nominee as Best Animated Short.  It opens with a blizzard, as wolves hunt a deer; there are splashes of red when they bring down their prey.  Then we see a young boy who howls like a wolf, his mouth a black oval with menacing-looking teeth.  He is found by a rider on horseback.  Embracing arms envelop the child.   The sun returns, and with it, leaves on the trees, a windmill, and human dwellings – they all fall together piece-by-piece, along with the buttons on the boat’s new coat, as if in tandem with an effort to reconstruct all that’s civilized and ‘tame’ within the wild child’s psyche.  The result is visually beautiful – it is a work of art in celluloid.  The use of light and shadow is highly evocative.  And there are splashes of color, like the chalk drawings on a playground.  Shadows close in like a box or a trap, with other children reduced to dark, threatening silhouettes.  The feral child reacts with a bestial and ominous baring of his teeth, even as a smaller and smaller square of light segues into a literal cage.  Then comes escape – and flight.  As he runs, his civilized garments fall away; then, so too, does his human form, as he transforms, in turn, into a bird, a deer, and a leaf, spinning with the blades of the windmill until he disintegrates utterly, becoming part of a new blizzard.  “Feral” is an impressionist treat, directed and animated by Daniel Sousa, with music and sound design by Dan Golden.  Incidentally, “Feral” would make a lovely companion to the gorgeous and haunting animated short film “Syrinx” (1965) from the late Canadian filmmaker Ryan Larkin and the National Film Board of Canada.

“The Cider House Rules” (USA, 1999) (A):  “Whether or not I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, I do not know.”  The words are from Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield,” but they are read aloud by the film’s protagonist to a dormitory full of younger boys at a sprawling orphanage in the Maine countryside in 1943.  And they encapsulate the young man’s longing for new experiences.  Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has been groomed by St. Cloud’s kindly director and chief physician, Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), to be his successor.  Even though he’s never even been to high school, Homer is already a skilled physician and surgeon, having learned at the side of Dr. Larch, who delivers babies and performs illegal abortions, according to the wishes of pregnant women who don’t want to keep their babies.  Besides simple kindness (he leaves his charges each night with the words, “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England), Dr. Larch’s guiding philosophy is that, “In any life, you have to be of use.”  And his bond with Homer is as close as a father’s:  “You are my work of art, Homer.  Everything else has been just a job.  I don’t know if you’ve got a work of art in you; but I know what your job is:  You’re a doctor.”  But Homer is restless; he yearns to see some of the world away from the orphanage and to experience life.  His surrogate father (and mentor) is disappointed and impatient with Homer’s desire to leave:  “Are you so stupid to imagine that you’re going to find a more gratifying life?”   But, it is in the nature of Man to quest for what lies beyond.  So, Homer hitches a ride with Wally (Paud Rudd) and Candy (Charlize Theron), and gets a job as an orchardman at Wally’s mother’s (Kate Nelligan) apple orchards.  In the process, he sees the ocean for the first time, eats his first lobster, visits his first drive-in theater, sees his first movie (that isn’t “King Kong”), and has his first kiss, his first sexual intimacy, and his first love – all three of the latter with Candy (who confesses that, “I’m not good at being alone”), while her boyfriend Wally is off at war.  Homer lives with the black migrant apple-pickers, whose number include the stern Arthur Rose (Delroy Lindo) and his daughter Rose (Erykah Bado).  The film’s titular rules pertain, on one level, to a list of rules tacked to the bunkhouse wall, about which Mr. Rose says:  “Those ain’t our rules.  We didn’t write ‘em.  I see no reason to read ‘em.”   But, on a deeper level, they seem to be a metaphor for deciding what rules will guide and govern our own lives:  “We the ones supposed to make our own rules.  And we do.   Every single day.”  There are transgressions of broadly accepted rules in the story, and those transgressions come at a sharp cost – in sadness and loss.   As Homer comes of age, the story keeps us in touch with the orphanage, where Dr. Larch and Nurses Angela (Kathy Baker) and Edna (Jane Alexander) read his letters and follow the accounts of his experiences with baited breath.   Homer comes to life’s Rubicon, in both his romantic relationship and his resolve to eschew being the doctor he was trained to be.   It’s a moving coming of age story about a gentle and sensitive young man, who ventures into the world, in which “everything is new to me.”  John Irving wrote the screenplay from his own novel, and the film was directed by Lasse Hallström.  The autumnal locations (it was shot in Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont) are beautiful, the casting is note-perfect, and Rachel Portman delivers a heart-achingly poignant and bittersweet score.  The score is the audible soul of this movie, and it packs an emotional wallop.   Arguably, the scenes of cute-as-a-button orphans may veer toward the cloyingly saccharine; but this film otherwise places nary a foot wrong.   It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director, winning as Best Supporting Actor (Caine, in what might be a career best from a career chock-full of memorable performances) and Adapted Screenplay.  Caine also won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and was nominated at the Golden Globes and BAFTA.  The wonderful score was nominated for a Grammy.  And the film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.  The DVD has a director’s commentary, deleted scenes, multiple trailers, and a “making of” feature.  Highly recommended, “The Cider House Rules” is a keeper – one that merits repeat viewings.  It is one of the very best films of 1999.  For ages 16+:  Brief nudity and brief sexual content.

“Melancholia” (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011) (B):  Lars von Trier makes strange movies: Some, like 1996’s “Breaking the Waves,” are widely acclaimed; some (2003’s “Dogville” and its 2005 sequel “Manderlay”) are controversial, and one (2009’s “Antichrist”) is vile and revolting.  But, whatever else they are, the Danish writer/director’s films are wildly original and undeniably artful.  “Melancholia” is just as strange, and artful, as those others, combining ideas, images, and behaviors that simultaneously intoxicate and perplex the viewer.  It opens with a nine-minute prologue, to the intensely romantic symphonic strains of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to “Tristan & Isolde.”  There is no spoken dialogue during that prologue; rather, it’s a succession of highly impressionistic images and tableaux, beginning with an utterly still close-up of a woman’s face, as birds fall lifeless from the sky off to the side.  There’s a manicured lawn overlooking the sea; evenly-spaced evergreens stand like sentinels on two sides, while a large stone sundial looms in the foreground.  The scene abruptly switches to a classical painting which depicts hunters with dogs approaching a placid wintry village, while people in the distance are gathered (perhaps skating?) upon a frozen lake, as if the wild and dangerous and potentially threatening is relentlessly encroaching on the orderly and civilized.   Bits of black ash float by, as the painting begins to curl in fiery heat.  We’re in space, where we see the Earth moving into shadow.  Then, there are a series of tableaux (they resemble strangely stylized three-dimensional dioramas) that at first appear to be still images but which actually disclose painfully slow movement – of an adult carrying a child across a lawn, a horse falling to the ground, a woman with outstretched arms surrounded by agitated moths, and three people on a lawn by night, one of whom is in a wedding dress.  Our perspective returns to space, as an unknown planet looms behind our Moon.  A woman raises her hands as tendrils of light emerge from her finger-tips; then she runs, as if half-caught in amber, in a wedding dress, trailing long strands of something…  Then, that same woman lies – in her wedding dress, clutching a floral bouquet – in a stream, a scene which conjures thoughts of Ophelia and her head-long flight into despair, madness, and suicide.  (Indeed, Ophelia is later referenced more explicitly by an image of her death in an art book.)  As the prologue ends, the errant planet, blue, and much bigger than Earth, collides with our world and engulfs it.  “It’s meant to be a film about melancholia,” says von Trier.  After the impressionistic prologue, we get characters, dialogue, interaction, and an amorphous plot.   The movie is divided into two parts – told from the perspective of two sisters.  The first part begins with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) arriving at a stone mansion in the countryside with her newly married husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, who is best known as the Nordic vampire Eric on television’s “True Blood”).  They’re very late for an elaborate reception being hosted by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (Canada’s Kiefer Sutherland).  And it doesn’t take long for us to realize that something’s ‘off’ about Justine.  At first, she just seems distracted or inattentive; then, she wanders off to a green on the manor’s private golf course to hike-up her wedding dress and relieve herself (an inexplicable excursion that rankles with its gratuitous oddness).  It gradually becomes clear that Justine has what the director sees as a melancholic personality, but which looks more like severe clinical depression or a complete psychotic break.  One thing is clear:  She is cascading into unhappiness before our eyes.  Perhaps it’s inherited?  The sisters’ father (John Hurt) seems irresponsible and immature; their imperious mother (Charlotte Rampling) impoliticly declares to the assembled guests that she has nothing but contempt for marriage; and she urges Justine to flee the place (and, seemingly, the marriage):  “What do you want in this place?  You have no business here.  Nor have I.”  Does she mean the reception, or, more probably, the world of normalcy to which Justine seems to be making a desperate, if doomed attempt to cling?  Both Justine and her mother retire to their respective baths just as the reception begins, leaving their host John to exclaim:   “Is everyone in your family stark raving mad?”   All Claire’s plans for entrenching Justine in the normalcy of a marriage (and a happy celebration thereof) get shredded by the relentless advance of madness.  The film’s second part is told from Claire’s perspective.  Her (still single) sister Justine has arrived for a visit, nearly catatonic from a severe attack of the black dog of depression.  Claire’s role in the relationship is that of nurse:  She strives to bring order and calm into the chaos of her sister’s precarious mental state.  But Claire has worries of her own.   The world is expecting a celestial visitor, in the form of a hitherto unknown rogue planet that has appeared from the other side of the sun and is approaching Earth at 60,000 miles per hour.   John is the voice of calm reason, reassuring his increasingly nervous wife (their stabled horses share her skittishness) that scientists are unanimous:   It will be a close fly-by, and not an extinction-causing collision.  Justine seems preternaturally calm about the possible danger; indeed, she is convinced that apocalypse is imminent:  “The Earth’s evil.  We don’t need to grieve for it.  Nobody will miss it.”  At night, she bathes, naked upon the greensward, in the blue light from the growing orb in the sky, taking a sensual pleasure in its light and its presence.   Maybe, in a symbolic sense, it is her true spouse, come to join itself to her in place of the misfire of her marriage to a mortal man?  One thing is clear: Justine has assumed the mantle of calm and composure from her sister Claire.   The story presents the approach of the rogue planet as though it is real, rather than imagined.  But, is this really a detour into the realm of science fiction?   Or, is there something intrinsically metaphorical going on here?  The planet just happens to be called Melancholia; and, lest we forget, melancholia of the emotions is what this film is about.   Could it be that the entire second half is really a metaphor in action – a morality play about sadness and loss, and helplessness in the face of those things, that’s played out on the purely symbolic canvas of a rogue planet and a doomed world?  Seen through the lens of symbolism, the events and words in the second half take on new meaning.  When someone says, “Melancholia [the planet] is just going to pass right in front of us,” maybe the real melancholia being referenced is not an immense planetary body but rather an overwhelming menacing presence within the human psyche – a presence we can hope will pass us by without harm, but, which, on some level, we know is inescapable?   How do we react to that which we cannot evade – with dread, or acceptance; with resignation, or a lover’s embrace?  There are images of great beauty in “Melancholia,” but abandon all expectations for conventionality.  What’s on offer instead will perplex you; it might even frustrate you with its sheer strangeness.   But, if you are open to originality, there is ample here to engage your mind and tempt your senses.  (Why does Justine substitute the paintings she does in place of the abstract art on display in the open pages of art books in the mansion’s library, for instance?)  The film’s dialogue is all in English; and it boasts a very talented international cast – among them, the always watchable Stellan Skarsgard, who makes every role he plays interesting.  Among its numerous awards and nominations, “Melancholia” won Best Actress at Cannes, and Best Film, Cinematography, and Production Design at the European Film Awards.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language; brief nudity; and brief sexual content.

“Expecting” (USA, 2013) (B-/B):  Although their therapist tells a husband and wife that their sessions with her are boring, their lives are about to become a lot more complicated.  Lizzie (Radha Mitchell) does some tutoring; Peter’s (Jon Dore) a real estate agent.  They can’t get pregnant; but a solution to their problem presents itself in the person of Lizzie’s best friend Andie (Michelle Monaghan of HBO’s “True Detective” in 2014), who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand.  The girls concoct a plan.  Andie will move in, carry the pregnancy to term, and deliver one brand new baby into the care and safe-keeping of her friends.  Peter is reluctant at first, but he acquiesces, even if he does keep thinking (silently and aloud): “I just don’t understand why she has to live here.”  But, if three’s a crowd four’s an outright mob.  And four is exactly what they get when Peter’s ne’er do well brother, Casey (Michael Weston), moves in – straight out of drug rehab – so his sibling can keep an eye on him.  With two unpredictable houseguests (one of whom, Andie, is prone to saying whatever’s on her mind), problems at work, and money worries at home, Peter is starting to get stressed, and so is his relationship with Lizzie.  Much of resulting story of the quartet’s intersecting lives plays out as low-key comedy, with some more straight-faced relationship stuff, and a bittersweet ending.  At first, we aren’t sure what to make of the unusually close relationship between the two women.  They’re always in a huddle – confiding, bonding, or just being giddy.  Is it overkill?  Is it a little odd?   Is it a writer’s contrivance?  In the end, the appealing female leads tip the scale in favor of us accepting their relationship as genuine; they are simply more like close-knit sisters than mere friends.  It’s a good small film (writer-director Jessie McCormack’s feature debut) with a surprisingly strong likeability factor.  The entire cast acquit themselves very well. Australian actress Radha Mitchell has held our interest ever since we first saw her in the female lead in 2000’s sci-fi drama film “Pitch Black.”  (She’s long past due for another leading dramatic role.)  Her three co-stars are likewise appealing in this nice blend of humor (there’s a cute, if raunchy, sexual joke involving a pun on Horatio Alger) and more serious elements.  For ages 18+ only: Lots of coarse language and some sexual content, including strong sexual talk.

“Avenge But One of My Two Eyes” [“Nekam Achat Mishtey Eynay”] (Israel, 2006) (B/B+):  At its heart, this fascinating documentary is about tribalism, that lamentably ubiquitous human habit of dividing ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and then neglecting, oppressing, hating, or even killing those deemed to be ‘other.’  Its setting is modern-day Israel; its subject is the bitter conflict between Jews and Arabs – two groups occupying the same territory.  Director Avi Mograbi illuminates the mistrust, hatred, and conflict between those warring tribes through the duel prisms of history and irony.  Whether someone is a zealot, or a patriot; an oppressor, or an upholder of law and order; a hero, or a villain, often depends on one’s point of view.  “They are not like us,” says a Jewish man about his forbears’ ancient oppressors, the Romans; but, he might as well be talking about the present-day Palestinians. Israeli students are taught to admire the Bible’s Samson, who chose death as a way of controlling his fate; but it never dawns on those students that today’s suicide bombers might have precisely the same outlook about their own attempts to take as many of their perceived foes with them as possible.  Likewise, the irony of admiring the Jewish rebels who preferred mass suicide at the mountain redoubt of Masada to capture by the Romans (in 73 A.D.) is lost on students who fail to recognize that Palestinians – who also perceive themselves to be occupied and oppressed – turn to acts of suicidal desperation for precisely the same reasons.  And the Roman strategy of encircling the besieged Jews with “a system of hermetic closure” bears a striking resemblance to present-day efforts by Israel to contain the Palestinian Arabs under its occupation with an impenetrable wall.  “May God humiliate them as they humiliate us,” says a young Arab woman, “God will rid us of them.”  For the most part, the filmmaker gives us the raw materials of injustice and inequity without editorial comment:  Israelis (rightly) perceive themselves as having been on the receiving end of egregious oppression in the past; but many of them can’t see that their modern-day role as an occupying power is daily imposing injustices and indignities on another people.  The irony couldn’t be sharper.  And the dichotomy – between how we want to be treated and how we treat others – will never be overcome until we cease disdaining those we regard as ‘other.’  The more things change, the more they remain the same, it seems:  Always there is an oppressor and an oppressed.  It’s a sad commentary on the human condition.  Mograbi leaves us to connect the dots ourselves, entering his film directly only through sporadic telephone conversations with an Arab friend and in an angry confrontation with Israeli soldiers who arbitrarily bar passage of women and children innocently trying to walk home.  The admirably thought-provoking film lingers overlong on some scenes (like visitors to Masada shouting to hear an echo), but it makes its points quietly and pointedly. “Avenge But One of My Two Eyes” won the Amnesty International DOEN Award (which was established in 2002 for films addressing human rights and human dignity).  It dares to suggest that the two peoples who so acrimoniously share one land might actually have more in common than either cares to admit.

“Noah” (USA, 2014) (B):  What are the constraints on human actions?  Do we see ourselves as shepherds and protectors of the natural world, or do we regard it – and all that it contains – as our birthright, to use (or abuse) as we see fit?  You don’t have to be religious to see the importance of those big questions in a world that’s in wholesale environmental peril.   (Indeed, historically, ostensibly religious folks were very well represented among the ranks of those who held that the planet and all its other life-forms are ours – to do with as we will.)  Planet Earth is the only home we (and all the other species with which we share the place) have.  Yet it is threatened by over-population; resource depletion (including the wholesale felling of the planet’s great forests and the crash of its immense fish stocks due to their wanton overuse); glacial melting; the danger of whole oceans becoming lifeless; rampant pollution of the air, water, and soil; climate change attributed to man-made global warming; and levels of species going extinct that haven’t been seen in all the years that Man has walked the planet.  That moral, practical, and religious divide – between us being cast as rapacious users of the Earth or its guardians and preservers – is at the heart of writer-director Darren Aronovsky’s (2010’s “The Black Swan”) revisionist take on the Bible’s story of the Great Flood.  The Biblical account is pretty brief and pretty straightforward.  Why Aronovsky opts to alienate part of his audience by freely deviating from the source material in important respects is unclear.  Perhaps he adds an escalating conflict between Noah and his second son (over the absence on the voyage of wives for each of the three sons) simply to artificially infuse conflict into the story.  The same goes for the presence of a dangerous stowaway, in the person, no less, than the king of the cruel human society that’s about to be washed away.  His presence creates an opportunity for violence and action scenes, not that the story needs them.  More usefully, that character is a spokesman for the view (long prevalent in the real world) that Man is the rightfully rapacious consumer of all he sees before him, subject only to such limits as are imposed by his own ingenuity:  “The Creator does not care what happens in this world. Nobody has heard from Him since He marked Cain.  We are alone.  Orphaned children, cursed to struggle by the sweat of our brow to survive.   Damned if I don’t do everything it takes to do just that.  Damned if I don’t take what I want.”  Aronovky’s depiction of earthbound angels (whom Noah and his contemporaries call ‘the Watchers’) as lumbering ‘Transformers’ made out of stone boulders, has to be the oddest depiction of angels ever:  They’re more the stuff of science fiction or fantasy than of a Biblical tale.  But, as odd as they are, they grow on you.  The most drastic change to the story is suggesting that Noah intends humankind, including his own family, to die off once their mission of rescuing other forms of terrestrial life is accomplished:  His son Shem cries out: “I thought you were good.   I thought that’s why He chose you.”  But Noah sees things differently:  “He chose me because He knew that I would complete the task.  Nothing more.”  It’s in direct contradiction to the Biblical notion that Noah and his family are the last vestiges of righteousness among humankind.  But the movie’s Noah has a point:  “The wickedness is not just in them.  It’s in all of us.”   Two or three millennia of human history, post-Deluge, would appear to prove him right:  We’ve come full circle to the world depicted at the movie’s outset – a dreary, desolate place that’s been strip-mined, clear-cut, and over-used to the breaking point.  Does any of that sound familiar?  For, surely, we’re on a fast-track trajectory to precisely that same bleak outcome.  The film does a good job in articulating two incompatible views of Man’s role.   Noah lives in gentle harmony with nature, and he talks about Man’s duty to something higher.  His antagonist, the brutal human king, proudly argues that, “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens.  A man is ruled by his own will.”   Those prideful words sound a lot less elevated, though, when he exhorts Noah’s son Ham to ‘become a man’ by slaying his own father.   The film works, thanks to a cast that bring gravitas to their roles – with the quietly charismatic Russell Crow as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as his wife Naameh, Ray Winstone as King Tubal-cain, Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, along with Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Douglas Booth as key members of Noah’s family.  (Madison Davenport also makes an impression in a small role as the ill-fated girl Na’el).  And Iceland provides many of the gorgeous locations – including this reviewer’s beloved ‘black beach:’ Reynisfjara.  Paramount’s combo pack puts all the extras on the Blu-ray disc, including featurettes on Iceland and on the construction of the Ark; but, there’s no director’s commentary, which is a shame.  For ages 14+: Violence and disturbing scenes.

“Quinceañera” (USA, 2006) (B):  Here’s an engaging look at Latino-American family life in Los Angeles’ Echo Park.  There are no gangs or guns, just well-sketched characters, natural performances, and an almost documentary-like style.  Magdalena is approaching her 15th birthday (and the attendant coming-of-age party that gives the film its title) when she finds herself pregnant – despite being a virgin!  Her protestations fall on deaf ears with her parents (her previously doting father decries “the shame that you brought on this house”); so she finds a sanctuary with her Uncle Tomas, a sweet-natured old man whose cozy home is surrounded by an idyllic garden.  Tomas sells ‘champurrado’ (a Mexican beverage made with cocoa and sugar) from a cart on the neighborhood’s sidewalks.  He’s a kind, gentle man, never one to judge others.  For that reason, his small home is also a refuge for Magdalena’s black sheep of a cousin, Carlos, who has the word “Travieso” (or “Troublemaker”) tattooed on his abdomen.  In fact, Carlos’ ‘trouble-making’ is of a fairly benign (or at least minor) sort; but that hasn’t prevented an angry break with his parents.  But his same-gender sexual relationships don’t really belong in this film and may be a case of self-indulgence by the film’s writers/directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.  And given that Carlos’ sexual life involves a triangle with a pair of older, well-to-do, and white yuppies – who have a vaguely predatory eye for younger Latino men of a markedly different socio-economic class – there is also something a little off-putting about the subplot in question.  On the other hand, there are very appealing natural performances by Emily Rios as Magdalena, the sensible teen (she may be eminently mature, but she nevertheless hopes, like all of her peers, to have a Hummer limo for her 15th birthday celebration), who finds herself in an unexpected predicament; Jesse Garcia as the troubled Carlos; and Chalo González as Uncle Tomas, their 80-something grandfather figure, who delivers a low-key, but touching performance that’s of award caliber.  The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance.   At the ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Awards, “Quinceañera” won Best Actor (Garcia) and was nominated for Best Film and Actress.  With its sweet-natured story about the intersection between family, culture, and one girl’s coming of age, it’s the epitome of a good small film (a ‘festival film,’ as it were), the very sort of film that represents refreshingly original filmmaking but never gets seen by the wide audience it deserves.  DVD extras include a full-length commentary.  For ages 18+:  Some coarse language and some brief sexual content, including same-sex references.

“The Seagull’s Laughter” [“Mávahlátur”] (Iceland, 2001) (A-):   It opens with atantalizing juxtaposition:  There’s a small fishing town at the top of the world, in that wondrous place of ice, fire, and volcanic rock known as Iceland; there’s a new arrival who is attired in fashionable couture more suited to New York, London, or Paris than to these down-to-earth northerly environs; and, on the soundtrack, there’s the playfully upbeat strains of “Life Could Be A Dream.”  It’s the 1950’s, and an expatriate is making an unexpected return to the simple place of her origins. Freyja left to marry an American serviceman; but now she’s back from America, widowed, and with trunks and trunks of fine fashions.  She decamps in the mostly female household of her late mother’s dear friend; and, as something of a celebrity, she’s given the big bedroom.  The story of her impact on this place and its inhabitants is the stuff of whimsy punctuated by fleeting darker moments.  For Freyja is a force of nature who transforms those she encounters through sheer dint of personality.  Tall, slender, imperious of gaze, and sporting exceedingly long tresses of chestnut hair (which she usually wears atop her head in tight braids) there’s something elemental about the woman.  She is a force to be reckoned with.  Imagine a female Heathcliff:  Like Emily Bronte’s character, Freyja is drawn to the local equivalent of the moors.  There she goes, by day and night, for solitary walks, in a wild, barren, foreboding place in which the very bones of the earth have emerged from the surface – twisted and roughhewn and assuming strange forms that are equally the stuff of fancy and of nightmares.   A folkloric belief in mythological beings like elves, and fairies, and trolls persists in Iceland to this day – and it’s no wonder, given its alien-looking landscape.   When she walks on those lava fields, clad all in black, with a black scarf over her hair and black fur at her neck, Freyja conjures her namesake, the Norse goddess of love, sexuality, fertility, gold, ‘seidhr’ (or sorcery), war, and death.  That Freyja appears in poetic and prose mythology dating back to the 13th century.  And, in one way or another, our Freyja personifies all of her namesake’s associations.   She is irresistibly attractive to men; she has the fierceness of a warrior; and the mystery of a witch: In one scene, a character opens a door to find her freshly arrived, at the very moment another woman is about to give birth, and preceded by a meowing cat (the goddess rode a chariot pulled by, wait for it, two cats).  The startled girl who opens the door asks, “How did you know?”   Passed over for the role of faery queen in a local theatrical, Freyja later declares that, “I don’t have to play a part.   I am a faery queen!”  And, stricken by a fever, she utters the words of the Lord’s Prayer in jumbled order:  My will be done, as in temptation…   For mine is the power and the glory.”  Mere febrile ramblings?  Or a symbolic, even Freudian, slip?   One thing is certain: Freyja is willful.  She is beneficent to her allies – treating the household of seven women and girls to colorful fashions.   (In one outing, three of them are attired in monochrome: Freyja is clad from head to toe in blood red; one of the others is all in white; and the third is in dark blue – the three colors of Iceland’s flag.)   Freyja separates her best friend from her drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband.   When that bully later chases them from the house, Freyja says, under her breath, “Just you wait, mister.”   One night soon thereafter, the male malfeasor’s house goes up in flames.   Did he fall asleep with a cigarette? Or did Freyja exact a ruthless retribution?   When several boys accost a slow-witted member of her household, Freyja intervenes forcibly (and effectively), routing the brats and sending them packing.   Freyja gains the hand of a rich eligible bachelor; but his mother disapproves, thinking Freyja’s working class origins are beneath her family.   In a moment of anger, Freyja flings, wait for it, a cat at her hostile mother-in-law.   And when her upset friend is on the verge of suicide, holding a knife to herself, Freyja stops her in a fascinatingly strange manner:  Freyja unties her own hair, letting it cover her own face, and then crawls to her friend:  It’s a engrossing moment that’s fraught with mystery and with something vaguely animalistic and vaguely unsettling.  Her behavior here seems to be that of a predator, a sorceress, or a witch – though it is intended to calm her distraught friend.   Lest you think these doings are painted in dark and menacing tones, think again.  This is a story that’s rich in whimsy and humor.   Much of it unfolds from the eyes of 11-year-old Agga, who simultaneously resents Freyja, and suspects her (“There’s something evil about that woman. Have you seen her eyes?”), and emulates her.  She is fascinated by Freyja – sometimes serving as her helper, sometimes accusing her to the bemused local constabulary.  And Agga’s not above surreptitiously ‘peeping’ while Freyja is in the clinch with her new husband.  It seems that the director regards his anti-heroine as a villainess; but we do not agree.  Rather, she’s a feminist, before such things existed. She is not a woman to be scorned or trifled with, but, unprovoked, there is no malevolence in her.  A femme fatale, she may be, but not one intent on causing mischief or harm – unless she or those under her protection are wronged.  Freyja is a memorable leading lady in the sisterhood of Scarlet O’Hara.   And her impact on her sleepy home town is the intrusion of the Dionysian principle in a male-dominated Apollonian order, that is, the clash between unbridled passion and restraint. In another visually interesting scene, Freyja observes a tug-of-war at a fair:  We see things from behind her, and she is right in the middle of the two opposing sides, as though, symbolically, she is at the heart of their strife.  The result is a delightful surprise, with a fresh setting, but a story and characters that are immediately accessible.  Its ironic sensibility, its setting (with the sea on one side and starkly rugged terrain on the other), and its feel for winter will strike a kindred chord for those of us who inhabit the North. There’s a visceral sense of place: “  This country swallows you.  It’s cold, dark, and full of evil.”  And there’s a convincing sense of a personality that has outgrown its origins, or wants to“I can’t stand it.  I can’t stand the smell of fish, the ration coupons… the staring and rudeness… and the screeching of the birds…. The seagulls mew and scream…   At night I can hear their laughter all the way up here.”   Is the woman speaking those words somehow “unnatural,” at least in the sense of being out of place in this environment; or is she haunted by guilt?  The cast is first-rate: You won’t be able to take your eyes off Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir as the indomitable Freyja.   The young Ugla Egilsdóttir is outstanding as Agga, whose coming of age unfolds in counterpoint to Freyja’s story.   The rest of the cast – Kristbjörg Kjeld, Heino Ferch, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Edda Björg Evjólfsdóttir, Bára Lyngdal Magnúsdóttir, and the rest – do note-perfect work.   You’ll hate to see this film end – you’ll want to see more of its memorable characters.   Directed by Águst Gudmundsson, who also wrote the screenplay (from the novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir), it’s one of the best films of 2001.   At Iceland’s version of the Academy Awards, the Edda Awards, “The Seagull’s Laughter” won Best Film, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Screenplay, where it also garnered an additional Best Actress nomination, two more Supporting Actress nominations, and another Supporting Actor nomination.   The DVD has five deleted scenes, a slip-cover essay by the director, some television ads, and a trailer; but it’s a shame there’s no feature length commentary by the director and key cast members.   Don’t miss this utterly engaging film:  It’s a keeper!   For ages 18+: Nudity and sexual content.

“Twenty Feet from Stardom” (USA, 2013) (A-):  Destiny can be a cruel mistress, just as talent can be a fickle muse.  For those of us who aspire to greatness and yet fail to achieve it, its outward markers – recognition and success – can sometimes feel like they’re nearly within our reach.  But, when the victor’s laurels remain tormentingly elusive, always just beyond our grasp, twenty feet may as well be twenty million.  That’s how it is for the talented performing artists who work wonders as back-up singers and yet never achieve fame as solo artists.  In the film’s opening words, Bruce Springsteen puts it this way:  “It’s a bit of a walk, you know, from… back by the drummer over here.  That walk to the front is complicated.  Singing background remains a somewhat unheralded position….  So, people make that leap.  It’s almost more of a mental leap than just the physical act of singing.  It’s a conceptual leap, and, if you can comfortably come up with it… then you may find a spot out there.  But I know tremendous back-up singers who just aren’t comfortable in that position.  You gotta have that narcissism, you gottta that ego.  It can be a pretty long walk.”  Director Morgan Neville brings us the stories of background singers (also known as back-up singers and ‘session groups’) – enormously talented performers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear, the Waters Family, and Judith Hill.  Most of them are women; most of them are black; and most of them are now middle-aged.  What they all have in common is the major impact they have had on popular music – spanning genres and decades – and the fact that despite possessing talents that qualified them to be superstars, they never achieved that status or even broad public recognition.  Here, then, is a story with many layers of meaning.  First, and foremost, it is the story of the particular women depicted in the film – women who we get to know – and like – as their story unfolds.  It’s also about the travails of back-up singers generally.  And beyond that, it has resonance for two larger concentric circles – those in all areas of artistic endeavor who fall short of stardom, despite their talent, and those in any walk of life for whom success proves agonizingly elusive, again, despite their talent.   The same question permeates each of those discrete groupings:  Why do some people with great talent fail?  It’s a big question that’s addressed in the very particular microcosm of these back-up singers.  And, it becomes clear that there is no single answer to that question.  For some, working in the background can become a dead-end or cul de sac“As a background singer, they would like you to come in, make things sound great, take very little credit, and go home quickly.”   It can be a matter of habit and a matter of psychology – the back-up singer’s job is to cater to the needs of the soloist.  It is also their job to “sacrifice individuality in order to arrive at [a] blend” of voices.  “And the blend is something that’s not just infectious for the listener.  It’s the transformative experience for the singer. And some people just wanna stay there.”  As those words are spoken, we see a flock of birds swirling in harmony across the sky, with many individuals moving in unison.  For some, that harmony is an experience too dear to forego.  A collaborative effort can be intoxicating and deeply comfortable.   For others, “it is a springboard in the beginning, but it can easily become quicksand if it’s not what you wanna do.”  Some may be hobbled by a lack of concentrated focus:  Do I want one thing or the other?  Which path do I take to best utilize my talent?   “I just don’t think anyone knew what to do with me.  I don’t think I knew what to do with me.” Others have the desire, as well as the talent, to be soloists; but something always seems to stand in their way.  For Merry Clayton, it was too much talent:  “She made three really good [solo] albums.  They all sound like someone who’s as big as Aretha Franklin….  [But] the industry, it was controlled.  There were rules.  She was a gospel singer.  There’s only one Aretha.”   In Darlene Love’s case, she was exploited by an egotistic producer, who preferred to have her “ghost” songs, while others lip-synched to her work and got all the fame. Some weren’t good self-promoters. Some weren’t attentive enough to the business side of music: “I just loved music is all,” says Tata Vega.   And most of them just didn’t catch the big breaks that would have propelled them to fame:  “I thought people would be banging down my door for deals, and it didn’t happen like that.  You’re too fat.  You’re too old….  And after that, it’s hell.”  But these empathically aren’t stories of self-pity, bitterness, or regret.  On the contrary, these real-life characters are not just enormously talented, they’re also funny and wise and full of life.  Besides its A-List of back-up singers, the film also gathers insights from a compendium of the stars they accompanied – the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, trumpeter Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, Mick Jagger, and Sting.  What results is part character study, part musical history, and part paean to great music – and it succeeds wonderfully in each of those roles.  Its musical excerpts are a lively pleasure to hear; its insights are genuine and novel; and its cast of (mostly women) protagonists is simply irresistible! Perhaps Sting sums up the conundrum of unrecognized and/or unrealized talent best:  “It’s not a level playing field.  It never is a level playing field, and you come into life understanding that.  It’s not about fairness.  It’s not really about talent.  It’s… circumstance; it’s luck.  It’s destiny.  I don’t know what it is; but the best people deal with that.”  And do the subjects of this not-to-be-missed film ever ‘deal’ with their lot!  Whatever cards destiny may deal them; whatever the yawning gap between their immense talent and the recognition that should be their due, they take it in their stride – with confidence, good humor, and an abiding love for their art.  “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is one of the very best films of 2013.  Among its many nominations and awards, it won Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards and at the Independent Spirit Awards, and it was among the Top Five Documentaries of the Year named by the National Board of Review.  This astonishing and inspiring film is highly recommended!    DVD extras include some Q&A sessions and deleted scenes.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.

“The Secret of Crickley Hall” (U.K., 2012) (B+/A-):  With three episodes totaling just under three hours, this made-for-television miniseries from BBC is a nifty, involving story – well, two stories in one.  There’s a present day family struggling to cope with the trauma of the sudden disappearance of their six-year-old son.  Eleven months later, in an effort to get out of the city for the approaching anniversary of their young son’s disappearance, the husband and wife and their two daughters decamp to the countryside, to take up residence in a Gothic Revival style manor house while the engineer husband takes temporary work in the nearby town.  The second story is set in the past, in 1943 to be precise, and it unfolds contemporaneously with the present day story.  It concerns an orphanage operating at the same manor, where a number of children suffer the not so loving ministrations of the brother and sister who run the place.  When a new young teacher arrives to take up her post, she is appalled by draconian regime in place at the orphanage – and by the severe corporal punishment meted out on a regular basis by its dour master.  Said punishment rises to physical abuse, and much of it is visited upon a young Jewish refugee from Germany.  The new teacher is determined to help the children (“You don’t have to instill fear to get respect”); but she’s short on allies, as even the local minister refuses to hear an ill word about the school’s seemingly devout head-master.   Past and present intertwine artfully, with past tragedy and death rearing its spectral head in the present.  The mother of the lost boy becomes convinced that her son is still alive and that the key to finding him is someone connected to this house, in which none of them had hitherto set foot.  The story conjures a nice sense of unease, menace, and suspense, along with its subtly-done ghostly spirits.  But, its real strength is in characterizations.   An exceptionally strong cast portrays strongly drawn, nuanced characters.   There isn’t a weak link in the bunch, though several of the women are especially memorable:  Olivia Cooke (a stunner who was also very good in the 2014 horror film “The Quiet Ones”) is note-perfect as Nancy, the young teacher who’s “not afraid of bullies” and who is fearlessly resolute in her determination to save the children; Suranne Jones is Eve, the modern day mother who hasn’t given up hope of finding her son alive; Sarah Smart plays Magda, the beautiful, but cold and ruthless, head-mistress of the school; Douglas Henshall plays her mentally disturbed, and abusively disciplinary brother Augustus Cribben, a figure of remorseless malice who is nevertheless given enough hints of nuance (he is a damaged soul) to make him terrifyingly real; David Warner and Ian de Caestecken play different versions of Percy, a local who falls in love with Nancy as a young man and is haunted by past tragedy in his older age; Maisie Williams plays Loren, the current day family’s oldest and feistiest child (like the character, Arya Stark, whom Williams plays on “Game of Thrones,” Loren meets danger head-on); while Tom Ellis, Pixie Davies (the family’s youngest child, who gets a great line, cheerfully announcing, “We’ve got ghosts!”), Donald Sumpter, Susan Lynch, Bill Milner, Kian Parsiani, and Elliot Kerley are among the rest of this first-rate cast.   The result is a very fine production.  It’s far more than just a ghost story.  Indeed, the truly scary thing on view here is man’s all too believable inhumanity to man.   It’s even got moments of humor, as when the new man in town asks about the town’s ominous name:  “Why’s it called Devil’s Cleave? It’s not exactly touristy, is it?”  Things go a tad over the top in the climactic moments, with violent confrontations, murder, betrayal, and a too literally skeletal apparition.   The subtler stuff is more satisfying.  But the minor moments of excess aren’t enough to dent our high esteem for this production.  And there are redemptive elements that are particularly pleasing.  This award-caliber production was ably adapted and directed by Joe Ahearne, based on the novel by James Herbert.   Spoiler alert:  One nagging bit of unclear exposition is the nature and source of some vital messages from beyond uttered by an unseen young voice to Eve.   For ages 15+:   Not suitable for young children, due to disturbing subject matter.  There are no DVD extras – alas.  A commentary with the cast would have been welcome.  From our DVD cover art trivia department:  The sprawling mansion shown on the DVD cover is not the house that figures in the production; so why use it?  And the skull and flock of circling crows also convey the false impression of a mere conventional horror movie, rather than the nuanced character drama it is so incorrectly depicting.

“2 Autumns, 3 Winters” [“2 Automnes, 3 Hivers”] (France, 2013) (B-/B):  “Something has really, really got to happen… I’m in a long quitting phase right now.”  That means Arman (Vincent Macaigne) is between jobs.  He’s not a conventional leading man, let alone hero – given that he’s scruffy, bearded, and thin on top.  And there’s no girl in his life, either – at least not until he collides with a cute young woman while out jogging in the park one day.  Amélie (Maud Wyler), aged twenty-seven-and-a-half, is a graduate in art history – and she’s a Gallic Tina Fey in looks.  “What does she do?” asks the narrator.  “She’s ‘searching.’”  In this charmingly light confection from writer-director Sébastien Betbeder, the point of view changes from one character to another; and they sometimes digress from talking to each other to talking directly to us – looking directly at the camera as they do so:  “Rather dapper, aren’t I?” Arman asks us, as he shows off the new track suit he’s acquired to impress Amélie on their hoped for not-so-‘chance’ second encounter.  A handful of other characters come into the story – there’s Arman’s friend Benjamin (Bastien Bouillon), Benjamin’s speech therapist turned girlfriend Katia (Audrey Bastien), and Katia’s comically suicidal cousin Jan (Thomas Blanchard), who’s been unlucky in love, an art school chum named Hazuki (Eriko Takeda), and a winter holiday to the mountains, on which Amélie cries “without knowing why.”  Relationships are tested and conclusions drawn: “If we needed each other so much, it was out of weakness.  Out of habit.  Out of fear of being alone.   We knew that now and we had to live with it.   We had to try to reinvent our story.”  And it’s all punctuated by droll section headings, like ‘the year of the apocalypse as per the Mayan calendar.’  The result is eccentric and whimsical, though perhaps it tries too hard to be both.   It’s fluff of a kind – romantic and bittersweet, but also gently humorous – in short, a mildly cute little diversion.  For ages 18+:   Brief coarse language; brief sexual content.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Voyage d’affaires” [“The Business Trip”] (France, 2008) (B+):  A man checks into a hotel.  There’s a dire message on his cell-phone from a female caller, who is clearly his wife or girlfriend:   “I can’t live like this any longer. We’ve been stuck in a rut and I feel trapped – and, to be honest, I don’t love you anymore.  By the time you get back from your business trip, I will be gone.”  That’s quite a way to get such a profoundly hurtful rejection!  The man cries.  But, it’s a saved message, not a new one – so hasn’t he heard it before?  In anguish, he throws his phone onto the floor of his hotel room.  Retrieving it a moment later from under the bed, he also finds a Polaroid photograph of a naked woman with a provocative message and telephone number.   He realizes that the picture was taken in the very room he is now occupying.   With the words of the message ringing in his ears, the man silently revolves to extricate himself from what his paramour harshly described as ‘a rut’ by doing something truly impulsive:   He calls the number on the photograph and launches into an intimate monologue to the woman who answers, accepting the ‘indecent proposal’ proffered by the words written on the picture.   What happens next is almost worthy of an O.Henry-like twist, surprising the man – and us.  The end credits roll with an ironically upbeat rendition of “Bring Me Sunshine” in this amusing 11-minute short from writer/director Sean Ellis.  BAFTA nominee as Best Short Film.  One DVD flaw: The English subtitles are tiny.  For ages 18+: Coarse language and nudity.

“Hide and Seek” [“Sum bakk og jil”] (South Korea, 2013) (B-/B):  It opens with a child’s voice:  “There’s a weird rumor going around in my neighborhood.  It’s about squatters hiding in other peoples’ homes and secretly living there.”  After a prologue that has a young woman ambushed in her apartment by an intruder, the scene jumps to a happy family of four playing hide and seek.  The victim’s environs were all dark and decrepit and cluttered; by contrast, the family’s apartment is modern, bright, white, and spacious.  But there seems to be something a little bit wrong with the man:  He may suffer from an obsessive-compulsive disorder.   In time, we learn that he is haunted by his own role in a past injustice.  The ensuing guilt leads him to investigate when he hears that his disgraced and disinherited brother has disappeared from the same sinister-looking apartment building where we witnessed the attack that opened the film.  He goes there to investigate and soon finds his own family, who are back on the comfortably middle-class seemingly safe side of town, in mortal peril.  The feature film debut by writer/director Huh Jung is quite creepy in its first half, while the menace is still undefined.  Once the source of the jeopardy is revealed, the film becomes a more conventional predator and prey drama – and it is too dependent on recurring violent struggles.   But, it’s a nifty thriller all the same, even if the last reel doesn’t measure up to what preceded it.   And here’s a spoiler alert:  The male protagonist’s tormented conscience and seeming flirtation with madness ends up going nowhere in particular.  Instead, those elements end up being a heavy-handed and ultimately pointless way of artificially boosting the tension.  As a consequence, those elements of the film feel unsatisfying and inchoate.   On the other hand, there’s some high suspense when two children are menaced in their sunny upscale home by a masked intruder intent on getting in to harm them.   For ages 18+:   Coarse language and frightening scenes.

“Grace Unplugged” (USA, 2013) (C-/C):  A former rock star (Johnny Trey, played by James Denton), who is now a clean-cut Christian music pastor at a church in Alabama, starts to butt heads with his 18-year-old daughter Grace (AJ Michalka).  She’s a musical talent in her own right, and she’s straining to do her own thing, by rocking-up their music at church:  “I want to blow people away with my music.   I know that I have what it takes.”   Grace is increasingly headstrong, with her adolescent and artistic selves both yearning for independence – and freedom from parental and religious restraints.   But her father wasn’t always on the straight and narrow:   He nearly ruined his life with drugs and drink; so he’s protective, if a tad overbearing, toward his daughter.  She leaves home and goes to L.A., where she teams up with her father’s ex-manager (played by Kevin Pollak) to do a newly revamped version of her father’s hit song.  But everything else she is exposed to – including being manipulatively thrown together with a young television star for the PR value of the pair being seen together on dates, and the ministrations of Kendra (Emma Catherwood), an image consultant, whose fondness for cocktails and superficial values apparently are highly contagious – feel a bit contrived.  Would her father’s ex-manager (and seeming friend) really be so careless about Grace’s well-being in the pursuit of fame and fortune?   And what of Grace?   She has had a loving upbringing, with good role models in her parents.   Some coming of age rebelliousness is plausible; but would she really stray so easily from her sound and wholesome roots?   And too little is done with Grace’s mother, who remains curiously passive.  She’s never much of a player in the family dynamics; but, this is mainly a story about the relationship between father and daughter.   These elements of the story feel a tad heavy-handed, which is a ubiquitous pratfall for Christian “message” movies.   Yet there are interesting issues here for people of faith, what with the tensions between independence and familial dutifulness; and indulging our ego at the expense of the interests of other people (or indeed, of our own professed values).  Is it wrong to leave the groove of our lives and to veer off in unexpected directions?   Certainly, if that course change is destructive to oneself or others.   But, is leaving a church music setting for a commercial music setting inevitably bound to change us for the worse?   What if Grace, despite her tender years, had been able to resist pressures to change her lifestyle and values and still work in the music industry?   There is precedent for that even in the film, in the person of Quentin, an absent-minded but sweet, wholesome, and admirably decent young record studio intern who befriends and protects Grace.  (Michael Welch brings great charm to the role.)   The film would have been stronger if it had explored these real tensions in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.  Directed and co-written by Brad J. Silverman, “Grace Unplugged” is a well-intentioned film with a good cast; but it is a tad clumsy, heavy-handed, and overly simplistic at times, yielding a watchable, but generally mediocre result.  Two big songs at the end (one of them about chasing bright lights and empty values) make an impression.  And any movie that cares enough to be interested in spiritual and moral values gets points for aiming at substance.   There’s nothing wrong with having a message; but the danger lies in allowing it to take priority over good storytelling

“The Lunchbox” [“Dabba”] (India/France/Germany/USA, 2013) (B):  Can two people who’ve never met fall in love?  Yes, if they if they get to know each other from afar by the daily exchange of letters.  The setting is Mumbai – India’s second most populous city.  A neglected housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur) daily prepares hot lunches for her husband and dispatches them to him via the city’s efficient ‘dabbawala’ system – which moves millions of lunch boxes to and from their intended recipients every day by couriers traveling by train, bicycle, and foot, using a complex coding system of colors and lettering.  (Why don’t the recipients of these daily lunches simply take them with them when they go to work, thus obviating the need for this highly complex daily delivery system?)  The lunches are packed in metal canisters which then fit together as a single metal cylinder, covered with a cloth carrying bag.  But, one day, the lunch Ila has lovingly prepared for her husband ends up at the office desk of a stranger named Saajan (Irrfan Khan).  Despite the delivery mix-up, he eats the lunch he has received by mistake and sends the canister back to Ila with a curt note commenting (adversely) on the seasoning.  His initial words may lack praise, but his actions speak louder than words, since, as Ila notices, “it’s like he licked [the containers] clean!”  The delivery glitch proves to be a persistent one – every day Saajan gets the lunch Ila makes for her husband, and every day they exchange notes in the lunch canisters.  Soon enough she’s really making the lunches for the now openly appreciative Saajan, and what started as brief notes have blossomed into a close connection and sharing of confidences.  This charming story is an epistolary romance between two lonely people. Ila is woefully neglected by her husband, while the widowed Saajan is approaching early retirement after 35 years as corporate accountant.  He starts off as unhappy, unfriendly, and reclusive – embittered and lonely after the loss of his wife:  “I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.”  For her part, Ila despairs at the ailing state of her marriage:  “My husband stares at his phone.  As if nothing else exists.  Maybe nothing else does…..  What do we live for?”  Her cross-town relationship with Saajan gives her something her hollow marriage does not:  “For a few hours, I thought the way to the heart is really through the stomach.  In return for those hours, I am sending you ‘paneer,’ my husband’s favorite [food].”  Their relationship is born of food and of letters, and their exchanges nourish the two correspondents.  Saajan, who was drifting into premature old age is rejuvenated, befriending the eager young trainee (Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whom he is supposed to be training but whom he initially ignores.  His apprentice is eccentric, but he helps Saajan see the value of friendship and love – including the love that is expressed in food preparation:  “Anyone can make food, but you need magic [to cook like this].”  And the day inevitably comes when Saajan and Ila decide they should meet:  “Isn’t it odd to keep writing like this? We can write anything in a letter; it’s very easy.  But this, I can tell you only in person.  I think it’s time for us to meet.”  “The Lunchbox” combines a love for good food with a love story about a man and a woman whose lives stand the hope of being redeemed and given meaning by their relationship.  The premise and performances are charming.  Besides the players noted above, Lilette Dubey makes an impression as Ila’s elegant mother, as does Shruti Bapna in a small role as Shaikh’s fiancé Meherunissa.  And we get some comic relief in the exchanges between Ila and her unseen aunt, who lives in an apartment on the floor above:  The pair talk through their open kitchen windows.  We never see the aunt, but she shares plainspoken advice and red-hot chillies with her niece.  Written and directed by Ritesh Batra, “The Lunchbox” (which is, remarkably, his feature film debut!) has earned a great many nominations and awards at festivals and film awards around the world.  The DVD has a commentary by Batra, who, contemplating the stroke of fate that brings Saajan and Ila together, asks:  “Is it a mistake or a miracle?  I think it’s a miracle.  One in six million has got to be a miracle.” The result is a film for romantics everywhere.

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” [“Ming tian ji de ai shang wo”] (Taiwan, 2013) (B-/B): The unfathomable ways of romantic relationships are grist for the mill of this cute little film about love, marriage, desire, and the elusive thing we call happiness.  Weichung (played against type by Richie Jen, who normally plays handsome leading men) is an introverted optometrist and a dutiful husband and father.  But, despite a promotion at work, and a wife (Feng, played here with minimal make-up, by pop star Mavis Fan) and young son whom he loves, Weichung seems to be simply going through the motions in life.  He bumps into a flamboyant old friend, Stephen (Lawrence Ho), a reunion that reminds him (and informs us) that Weichung once preferred the company of the same sex.  Now that long-suppressed fact is forcing its way to the surface, in the form of an attraction to a customer at work.  “I haven’t been gay in a long time,” Weichung tells the man to whom he is attracted.  Indeed, he has been faithful to his wife and monogamous through his marriage.   But he’s feeling increasingly restless now.  For her part, 38-year-old Feng decides that a second child might be just what their family needs.  She’s slow in realizing just how much the team-leader (Gaby Lan’s ‘Big Chen’) at her office job selflessly (and chivalrously) cares for her:  “I worry about you [he tells her]… You’re not as happy as you seem.” Then there’s Weichung’s sister, Mandy (Kimi Hsia).  She’s finally engaged to get married – to the decent, but bland, San San (Chin-Hang Shih) – that is, until she panics at the idea of a lifetime of domestication and leaves her fiancé high and dry in a supermarket.  He’s inconsolable, seeking guidance in winning her back from the aforementioned Stephen, who urges San-San to man-up and assert himself.  (San San is the only one who doesn’t realize that the openly gay Stephen is in fact gay.)  Mandy consoles herself with binge viewing of a weepy soap opera, sharing boxes of noodles and conversations with an imaginary companion – the romantic male lead of the very television series she is watching.  The result is a low-key humorous take on romantic relationships, with pleasant performances and little hints of something bittersweet:  “After the wedding, it’s hard to stay as happy as the image in your wedding portrait.” The film features an old-fashioned romantic score (heavy on the strings) that plays in counterpoint to the only half-serious doings of the characters; and there’s a touching karaoke scene (involving a heartbroken Feng) that gives the movie its name.  Written and directed by Arvin Chen, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was nominated as Best Film at the Tribeca Film Festival and for Best Supporting Actress (Mavis Fan) at the Asian Film Awards.  For ages 18+:  Brief instances of coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Mei” (Taiwan, 2006) (B+): A young man, Jian (Jack Yoo) works at a noodle stand in a Taipei night-market in this 13-minute short film from writer director Arvin Chen.   He’s hopelessly smitten with his boss’ daughter, Mei (the fetching Wu Char-Wei).  But he’s too tongue-tied around her to say so; and, anyway, Mei (pronounced Maya) has her heart set on emigrating to America.  Her father, Lu (Bi Zr-Gang) says, “She might really leave this time.” But Mei lingers, to keep a protective eye on her father, who is given to drinking and gambling in mourning for his lost wife.  Mei speaks some English but amusingly mistakes some Aussie accents for ones from the southern United States.  The premise and performances work very well, as does a jazzy, bittersweet score by Jacob Shea.  When Jian finally speaks up, he makes a revelation that selflessly sacrifices his own unspoken love in favor of the happiness of his beloved.  What greater love is there than that?  But, will it lead to the loss of his heart’s desire, as he supposes; or might it unexpectedly open the eyes of his beloved?  The question is embodied in a sweet little story that’s a pleasure to watch.

“Call Me Crazy: A Five Film” (USA, 2013) (B/B+): Five short films (with unexpected plot links between some of them) from five different directors (four of whom predominately work as actresses) explore what it’s like to live with mental illness – for the person who’s ill and for their loved ones.  And these short stories square the circle of reconciling a didactic function with engaging storytelling.  That is so because these short films are meant to inform and educate us about the nature of the mental illnesses depicted, but they do not let that educative goal encumber their effectiveness as stories.  These characters engage our interest and sympathies as they contend with all of the confusion, panic, denial, embarrassment, and alienation that their illnesses carry in their wake.  But, these are redemptive stories, stories about overcoming obstacles through love and perseverance and moments of unexpected humor.  The first part, “Lucy,” directed by Bryce Dallas Howard, concerns a young woman (very well played by Brittany Snow) with schizophrenia.  A psychotic episode, prompted by auditory hallucinations, takes her from law school to the hospital, where her one bright light is a budding romance with a fellow patient named Bruce (Jason Ritter).  Lucy says that she went off her medication because she wanted to prove to others “that you were wrong.  About me.  About my diagnosis.  [But] you’re not.” Institutionalized for a time, she’s hurt by the fact that her sister never visits, to which another patient replies, “I’m glad that they don’t come here.  I don’t want anyone to see me in here.” And Lucy has no illusions about the very real possibility that her illness will permanently distort and limit her life:  “I know what my life should look like.  I know that I should be in school and starting my career and going on dates and making-out in inappropriate places, but I’m never gonna be able to do that.” Or, canshe find a way to prove the world wrong and achieve the high goals others might deem out of her reach?  In “Grace,” directed by Laura Dern, a child confides to us:  “I have a secret.  It’s about my mother.  There was the one I told my friends about, the mom I wished I had….  Then there was Up-Mom.  Then there was the other Mom.” One version of her mother is wildly exuberant and manically demonstrative, in a frenetically out-of-control high; the other crashes into severely debilitating depression.  The predicament of a child growing up in such circumstances, trying to protect her mother and herself and struggling to hide her mother’s bipolar disorder malady, is conveyed with poignancy and touches of humor.  As she gets older, Grace approaches the breaking point:  “I can’t save you.  I can’t watch you do this over and over and over again.” But, in her college admission essay, Grace explains why her mother is her hero of choice:  “She faces her battles every day, even though she may never win the war.” In “Allison,” directed by Sharon Maguire, dark humor predominates in a difficult family reunion.  Allison has brought her new boyfriend home for the holidays to meet her parents.  But when she gets there, she sees that all the doors have been removed from their hinges – a precautionary measure taken in advance of the arrival of her recently institutionalized schizophrenic sister.  All of Allison’s pain and resentment come out in a torrent:  “From the first time [she] got sick, everything has been about her.” The result is a story about emotional pain, internal family strains, and the possibility of reconciliation.  It is expressed with counter-intuitively comedic dialogue.  Allison’s sister tells the family’s guest (who is preoccupied about the uncertain bathroom arrangements in a house without doors):  “So, you obviously don’t know that I am bat-shit crazy.” The fourth part, “Eddie,” directed by Bonnie Hunt, concerns a professional comedian who struggles with severe clinical depression.  He’s on top of the world while he’s on stage; but, after each show, he sits immobile and alone in his car, finally returning home to his wife (played by Lea Thompson) where he sleeps each new day away.  This section of the film has less substance to it than the others.  It’s just a few days in the life of a man suffering from depression, and it shows that his mentally healthy wife is suffering right along with him:  “Depression is not circumstantial.  It has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do.  Eddie is not choosing to feel this way.” The final part, “Maggie,” directed by Ashley Judd, has Jennifer Hudson as a returning war veteran.   Initially, all seems well.  She is greeted by her loving father (himself a veteran of the military) and her young son.  But Maggie bears grievous psychological wounds – in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder borne of a sexual assault she endured.  Suddenly, she looses custody of her son.  But she finds an unexpected ally and friend, who assures her that “There is hope.” Originally made for cable television, “Call Me Crazy” is more involving than most of what is typically shown at cinemas.  For ages 18+:  A brief sexual reference and brief sexual violence.

“Tanta Agua” [“So Much Water”] (Uruguay/Mexico/The Netherlands/Germany, 2013) (C+/B-): It’s still pitch dark out when a father collects his two kids from his divorced wife for a short holiday to a hot springs resort.  It’s a chance for the non-custodial parent to spend some quality time with his children; or so he hopes.  But it’s pretty quiet in the car en route – there’s not much conversation, and no chatter, laughter, or exchange of news or stories; indeed, there’s very little sign of familial warmth from the reunited members of this sundered family.  They may not exactly be estranged, but they neither are they a close-knit unit.  On a rest-break, the daughter declines the fast food proffered by her father in favor of a homemade snack packed by her mother for the trip.  When they reach their resort cabin, the son complains that there is no television mounted on the empty wall bracket.  “Soon you won’t even notice it’s gone,” promises the father.  “Speak for yourself,” replies the son.  And, it’s raining – non-stop and torrentially.  The pool is closed for fear of lightning strikes, and the family is confined to their cramped quarters, save for excursions to nearby indoor tourist sites like a hydroelectric dam.  Claustrophobia, close-quarters, unrelenting rain, boredom, disappointment, and frustration take their toll on the trio.  There are awkward silences, as the father and his children don’t seem to know how to talk to each other.  Thwarted in his goal of re-bonding with his children, the man takes up with a woman he meets at the resort.  In an odd scene, he opens the bathroom door to bid his daughter good night while she is in the midst of using the facilities.  Nothing prurient is suggested, but it seems odd nevertheless.  When the rain finally eases and the sun comes out, the kids scatter to spend time with peers they’ve met at the resort; but the daughter’s new acquaintances (and her crush on a boy from the nearby town) cause her to make some poor (and potentially risky) choices.  Most of what’s going on in these characters’ minds and emotions is left for us to infer.  The father does plaintively ask: “Will you ignore your poor father?’ and “Why can’t we do anything as a family?” But it’s over an hour into the movie before he smiles at his daughter.  Until then, things are largely given over to vacant (and/or sullen) stares, minimal dialogue, and the characters’ pervasive ennui.  It makes spending time with them a bit tedious.  Very casually-paced, the film is, to its credit, very naturalistic, with an almost documentary-like immersion in the time we spend with its characters; but it is also mostly charisma-free.  It lacks spark and vitality, and it is too low-key for its own good.  It’s almost all of one note – and a slightly downbeat one at that.  Co-written and co-directed by Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge, Tanta Agua” is their feature film debut.  It earned nominations and awards at several film festivals; and it shows enough inchoate potential to promise better things to come from its filmmakers.  For ages 18+:  Occasional coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Home Road Movies” (U.K., 2001) (B): A son reflects back on his childhood years with his father, a man (played by Bill Paterson) who invests the family automobile with the near-mythic status of a chariot that can transport the family out of their mundane reality and into exotic places and adventures.  Idiosyncratic camera angles and a stylized color palette give the story a painted quality, and for good reason – the backgrounds are animated.  Somewhat reminiscent of a comic book in visual style, the film’s distinctive look also conjures the retro style of a 1950’s promotional brochure for cars.  Excerpts from a holiday road trip across Europe are part of the narrator’s idealized impressions of childhood, with his dad cast as the captain of their expeditions, before perceptions mutate into the jaded impressions of childhood’s impending end.  With the passage of time, all things deteriorate, among them car, house, and father.  The 12-minute short film, directed and animated by Robert Bradbook, is ironic but affectionate, a cute bit of whimsy with a highly original look and a touch of poignancy.  It won Best Animated Short at the Toronto Worldwide Short Film Festival; and it was nominated in that same category at BAFTA.

“Little Fish” (Australia, 2005) (B): Watching this movie reminds you of why Cate Blanchett went on to win Best Actress (at the Academy Awards and almost everywhere else) for 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.” Here, she plays Tracy Heart, a 32-year old woman whose life is finally getting back on track after a sharp detour into drug addiction.  Trouble is: Her best friend and surrogate father figure, Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a once great soccer star; her brother Ray (Martin Henderson); and her ex-boyfriend Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), who’s freshly back on the scene after a sojourn abroad, are precisely the sort of influences which could tip her back into drug-use.  Add to that her inability to get a bank loan to finance a business venture and her worried mother’s (Noni Hazelhurst) tough-love (“Tracy, it’s your life.  It’s no one else’s.), and we have a damaged soul at the crossroads.  Will she overcome her past mistakes and present-day setbacks?  Perhaps the answer to that question is less important than the journey into Tracy’s psyche.  Director Rowan Woods assembles a strong cast in a gritty, character-driven drama.  These characters are not always likeable; but it’s impossible not to take an interest in their predicaments – thanks to the first-rate performances.  In addition to those named above, the always effective Sam Neill is along as a well-heeled crime boss.  “Little Fish” won Best Actor (Weaving), Actress (Blanchett), Supporting Actress, Editing, and Sound at the Australian Film Institute, where it was also a nominee as Best Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Henderson), Musical Score, Production Design, Costume Design, and Cinematography.  For ages 18+: Coarse language; very brief partial nudity; and very brief violence.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” [“La vie d’Adele”] (France/Belgium/Spain, 2013) (B): “My heart was missing something, but it did not know what it was.” So says Adele (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), a 15-year old girl who ends up finding her heart’s desire in the embrace of Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired art student who describes herself as “the weird and imposing type.”  Emma is a few years older than the still-in-high-school Adele (is it even legal for Adele to be sexually active with an adult when she’d still at the tender age of 15?), and she’s far more worldly.  Emma is a confirmed homophile; while it may be that Adele is bisexual.  But a passion and a love develop between them.  Until she meets (and is instantly attracted to) Emma, Adele confides to a friend that, “I feel like I’m faking.  Faking everything…. I’m missing something.” Whether she’s simply talking about sexual preferences or more broadly about the absence until that time of a grand amour (of either gender) is open to interpretation.  Adele feels completed by Emma.  They become a couple; but, as the years pass, differences start to strain their relationship.  Differences may incite attraction; they may always undermine unity.  In the former category we count the facts that Adele doesn’t know about philosophy, art, or wine.  Emma teaches her about those things and encourages her to develop a taste for shellfish (perhaps, in part, a metaphor for sexual experimentation).  But behind those minor differences loom more fundamental ones that ultimately create disharmony:  Emma is an artist, and her life, apart from Adele, revolves around art and ideas.  She’s fond of quoting Sartre:  “He said we can define our lives without any higher principle…. We define ourselves by our actions.  It gives us a great responsibility.” And, over time, she grows subtly impatient and obliquely condescending over Adele’s more down-to-earth aspirations.  Adele is a bright young woman; but she has humbler, more ‘conventional’ ambitions than Emma.  Adele wants to teach young children; but Emma quietly disapproves that Adele doesn’t aim for something ‘more.”  Sensing Emma’s disapproval, Adele comes to feel insecure.  When she was younger, Adele followed class discussions about romantic predestination in literature with keen interest:  Some of what she learns may prove prophetic in her own life:  “Tragedy is the unavoidable.  It is what we cannot escape, no matter what… It concerns what is timeless.  It concerns the mechanism, the essence, of mankind.” Watch for frequent use of the color blue:  There’s lots of blue in Adele’s bedroom; when they first meet, Emma’s hair is blue; there’s blue smoke at a street protest; a banner in a park proclaims France bleu;” and so on.  Surprisingly, Adele comes across as rather callow:  She fidgets with her hair a great deal and is frequently open-mouthed in repose.  Indeed, the 19-year old actress is reminiscent, in look and manner, to Kristen Stewart of the “Twilight” film series – she has a similar blankness of expression, with lips perpetually apart in a sort of permanent pout.  It’s a mannerism that distances us from the character to some extent.   For her part, Emma initially comes across as rather tough and unattractive, with unnaturally pale features.  While it may be true that the heart wants what it wants, the film might have done more to explain to us what it is that draws these two characters together and ignites them in a sexual and romantic combustion.  The film is a tad heavy-handed at times.  Adele feels left on the margins at a dinner party for Emma’s friends.  Adele is a considerate hostess, but she doesn’t share the interests or work of her partner’s guests.  The trouble with that premise is that even artists can talk about things besides the relative merits of Klimt and Schiele.  (The discussion in the same scene about how men and women experience pleasure, and how it is depicted in art was very interesting to this reviewer.)  And the false notion that people from different walks of life cannot happily mingle and converse and relate to each other in a social setting is contracted in the film itself:  Adele manages to have a meaningful conversation with a male actor whom she meets at the party:  They do utterly different sorts of work; but they can still talk in ways that are accessible to each other. “Blue is the Warmest Color” is a long, casually-paced look at one human relationship:  It’s about intimacy (in the broadest sense of that word) and sensuousness and about the expectations we have about those to who are close to us.  Are they who we expect?  Can we accept them (and cherish them) for who they are?  Or does some indefinable perversity compel us to find flaws and seek to remake those close to us as we wish them to be?  Human relationships, even the closet ones with the strongest bonds, can be fragile things.  Perhaps there is some restlessness, or some destructive impulse, in human nature that makes it very difficult to remain contented in our most important relationships:  (E) “Anyway, it’s up to you.  I don’t know…  I’d like for you to be…”  (A)  “Be what?”  (E) “I don’t know.  For you to be fulfilled.”  (A) “I am fulfilled – with you.”  (E)  I like it that you’re here, cooking and stuff…. I’d like to see you happy.  (A) “I am happy.  I’m happy with you, like this.  It’s my way of being happy.”  (E) “If you say so.”  (A) “It hurts me to hear you insist.”  (E) “I’m not insisting.”  (A) “A little.” Random chance (or fate, depending on your point of view) caused Adele and Emma to cross paths in the first place.  At the end of the film, the self-same imponderable seems to thwart another potential turn in life’s path.   Written and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the Palme d’Or (i.e. Best Film) at Cannes.  It also earned a great many other awards and nominations, including a nominations at BAFTA and the Golden Globes as Best Foreign Language Film,  At France’s César Awards, Adèle Exarchopoulos won Most Promising Actress, and the film was nominated for Best Film, Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, and Sound.  It won Best Breakthrough Performance at the National Board of Review in the U.S., and it was nominated as Best Film and Director at the European Film Awards.  But what may have attracted much of the attention is the film’s strong sexual content.  Out of an overlong three hours, roughly only ten minutes is devoted to sexual scenes.  But those scenes are very graphic; true, they stop short of showing genitalia, but sexual activity of an overt sort is on full display.  Oddly enough, the scenes in question are not particularly “sexy” (which suggests that their purpose was not intended to be merely titillating); though, of course, such matters are highly subjective.  More objectively, though, it is not at all clear that such graphic displays are necessary or even justified.  More subtle depiction of the great passion between these lovers could have conveyed the strength of that passion just as well, maybe even better.  As it is, nothing in the three hours creates a strong emotional engagement between the viewer and these characters; their story holds our interest and has, for the most part, an authenticity; but its appeal is more cerebral than visceral, never really moving us in a deep and abiding way.  DVD extras include interviews with the director and the actress Adèle Exarchopoulos.  For ages 18+:  Warning:  Nudity and very strong sexual content, as well as coarse language (including very strong sexual language).

“Watermark” (Canada, 2013) (B/B+): It opens with visually arresting slow-motion images of surging water that surreally straddles the borderline between liquid and roiling clouds of vapor.  The beauty and power of those images, and all those that follow, is mesmerizing.  The scene changes abruptly to dry, parched land – land that is cracked and broken, like a shards of a mirror or pieces of an immense puzzle, into innumerable taupe-colored pieces.  It is the arid bed where the mighty Colorado River once lay.  “All the fish died,” as an old Native-American woman says, in order that a desert (California’s Imperial Valley) could be turned into farmland.  An abandoned tin rowboat sits like a forlorn anachronism in the midst of an immense desert.  Then, the scene turns to the still-wet paths of streams and rivulets of a river delta that are etched into an arid landscape like the branches of a tree.  The film’s co-directors, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (who directed 2006’s “Manufactured Landscapes”) and still photographer Edward Burtynsky, together with the film’s cinematographer, Nick de Pencier, seek to address these questions in this visually striking documentary:  “How does water shape us?  And how do we shape water?  There is this interplay between what nature has provided and what technology can do.” And, alas, all too often the power of technology is harnessed to the task of making war on nature.  Witness the silt release at a staggeringly huge dam on China’s Yellow River.  That country’s vast Xiluadu dam, still under construction, is the size of a small mountain.  Is it a monument to human ingenuity or to human overreach?  Ingenuity used irrigation to transform part of Texas into a highly productive agricultural horn of plenty, a quilt work of giant irrigation circles that brought green life forth from grey lifelessness.  The source of the transformation was the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground natural reservoir of water that covers seven states.  Six to seven million years old, it contained nine Lake Erie’s worth of water:  “It’s as if you drained the Great Lakes,” someone tells us.  And the relentless drain on the vital resource of water has already wrecked havoc:  In the 1920’s, water could be found at 65 feet; now it’s down to 800 feet!  Its level has crashed because we use far more water than the aquifer’s ability to replenish itself can accommodate.  The same result is apparent in the Step Wells of Rajasthan, India.  Built in the 12th century, this architectural wonder (it’s reminiscent of an inverted pyramid) filled with water during the monsoons, harmoniously complementing the natural cycle of groundwater for centuries.  But we drilled below the water table, and the wells dried up.  Meanwhile, the dried-up bed of Owens Lake in California became the biggest source of dust pollution in the U.S., necessitating a billion dollar plumbing project to hold the dust down.  The film may devote a bit too much time to a mass pilgrimage at Allahabad, where 30 million people gather to bathe in the Ganges River to ceremonially wash away their sins.  It’s a long section, without any of the larger-than-life beauty of the rest of the film.  The point of that section is unclear, unless it is simply to convey a ritualistic reverence for water.  Elsewhere, the images are engrossing, often speaking for themselves, as this is much more a work of images than it is of words.  Whether we’re seeing the natural beauty of an unspoiled river ravine in B.C., or a landscape disappearing in time-lapse photography as a new dam’s reservoir drowns the surrounding landscape, leaving a daddy-longlegs spider trapped on a rock that’s now a tiny island, the film’s images are always astonishing, often beautiful, sometimes stark, sometimes poignant, and sometimes deliberately ugly.  Burtynsky sees the film as ‘a lament’ for the loss of what nature was before we changed it.  It makes its point with sparse use of the spoken word.  The image is the message here.  And those images cry out to be seen!  Canada’s Mongrel Media has outdone itself on the combined DVD/Blu-ray set:  The cover art is artful and arresting.  The generous assortment of extras include deleted scenes, a ‘making of’ feature, a discussion with the co-directors, a narrated picture gallery, a PDF study guide, several hardcopy picture postcards, and more.  A marriage between art and environmentalism, “Watermark” won Best Feature-Length Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards.

“Against the Wild” (Canada, 2013) (D+): Two kids and a dog survive the crash landing of a small plane and find themselves lost in the wilderness.  The location is never clearly identified in the film; but it was filmed near Georgian Bay in the environs of Parry Sound, Ontario.  The setting is pretty irresistible (especially some nice aerial shots of the lake’s coastline) – with the autumnal forest cloaked in yellows and reds, blue lakes, and gurgling streams stealing every scene they’re in.  As for the rest, this well-meaning family film feels like routine made-for-television fare.  The acting (even the dog’s) is often a bit awkward; the dialogue even more so.  At one point, a search leader exhorts his team, “Don’t take any chances,” a cliched and overly emphatic admonition that seems out of place in this relatively forgiving wilderness of the Canadian Shield.  (Even a trio of wolves seem half-hearted about their would-be predation.)  The soaring musical soundtrack (by the grandly-named Czech composer Varhan Orchestrovich Bauer) is oddly out of place here; it’s a nice score in the abstract, but it does not suit this material, sounding instead like a musical variation on “Rodeo.” And there’s a recurring (and rather amateurish) visual misstep when we see a clumsily directed parade of extras walking back and forth in a straight line behind a pair of lead characters engaged in conversation.  The story and the characters grow on you, slightly, as things progress; but, overall, the result never amounts to more than tepid pablum.

“Downton Abbey: Season 4” (U.K., 2013) (B+):  Broadcast on PBS in early 2014, the British series continues its extreme popularity on the public broadcaster, drawing large and devoted audiences with its upstairs, downstairs stories about a wealthy family and their large contingent of faithful retainers at an elegant country estate.  Spoiler Alert: The balance of this review touches upon plot points from Season 4.  Season 4 is not the series’ most involving, plot-wise, but that does nothing to detract from the undeniable appeal of its ensemble cast of characters.  For it is the engaging characters, the lavish setting, the historic milieu, and the charming gentility of the life it depicts that create the allure.  Season 4’s eight episodes are set in 1922, in the aftermath of the preceding season’s final episode sudden death of Matthew Crawley, heir to estate.  (A ninth episode was originally broadcast in the U.K. as a Christmas special; but it was joined to Season 4 for its North American run.)  His widow Mary shakes herself out of grief and soon finds two suitors in hot pursuit (Lord Gillingham and the initially abrasive Mr. Blake).  Meanwhile, Miss O’Brien (who has always, somewhat improbably, embraced duplicity and villainy as ends in themselves) is written out of the show this season.  For her part, ‘Her Eminence,’ the great Maggie Smith, continues to steal every scene she’s in as the humorously acid-tongued Dowager Countess.  She gets all the best lines.  There is a truly jarring moment in episode 3 when Anna is raped – a crime that causes her to pull away from her husband, out of fear that he will avenge her, but her attempt to protect him from himself imperils their happy marriage.  The rape does not fit comfortably in the “Downton Abbey” world.  Yes, the characters have to contend with loss and danger (and even occasional maliciousness) but, on the whole, their world is a positive one – and that is one of the appeals of the series.  Most of its characters are good-hearted, and most of the time goodwill prevails.  A traumatic sexual assault (even though it takes place off-screen) is at odds with the tone and ethos of the series.  It feels like a misstep.  That goes double for a revelation late in the season that the upright Mr. Bates doubles as an accomplished forger!  Other plot points (like former chauffeur Tom’s near-entrapment by a scheming new lady’s maid) come and go too quickly to really signify – as if they are mere plotting after-thoughts.  These mini-tempests are distractions that do nothing to advance the season’s character-arcs.  That goes for Rose’s flirtation with a black nightclub musician and the come-uppance meted out to a card-shark.  All of those elements feel overly episodic in nature, little plot elements that fade away as quickly as they arrived, without any lasting significance.  For its part, the disappearance of Edith’s beau, Michael Gregson, in Germany hangs over much of the season like a gathering cloud, but pending its future resolution, it seems pointless and heavy-handed.  On the other hand, it is often the little things of daily life – like the chief cook’s qualms about exchanging the familiar ice-box for a new-fangled refrigerator – that give the series its charm.  And charm it has aplenty, along with numerous characters who engage our interest and sympathy.  Well-acted and handsomely presented, it’s no wonder “Downton Abbey” is so compulsively watchable.  The Season 4 set from PBS includes 30 minutes of behind the scenes material about the season.

“Mr. Selfridge: Season 2” (U.K., 2013) (B):  The on-going series about the American businessman (inspired by the real Harry Selfridge) who created a successful modern department store in London on the strength of vision, showmanship, and sheer force of personality returns with another ten episodes (which were broadcast on PBS in early 2014).  It stars the engaging Jeremy Piven (who also serves as series producer) as the entrepreneur who eagerly embraces all that is innovative and modern.  He positively exudes energy, self-confidence, and infectious enthusiasm.  His wife Rose (played by Frances O’Conner, who was so good as Jane Austen’s heroine in the film Mansfield Park) has an easier time with her hitherto serially wayward husband:  He seems to have settled down to happy domesticity after the near-ruin of his marriage in Season One.  (But, for the viewer, that signals the absence of the irresistible Zoe Tapper who was so seductive as the aptly named Ellen Love.)  Season One set in 1909-10, but the second season jumps ahead several years to the year 1914.  Among the continuing ensemble cast, Aisling Loftus continues to engage our sympathies as Agnes Towler, the beautiful young woman who has a natural talent for business at a time when women are not supposed to aspire to such heights; while we see a new side of Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly), the singer who married into wealth and class but now has to contend with a bullying, abusive husband.  And the appealing Amanda Abbington’s Josie Mardie, another independent-minded career woman has a tentative romance with a younger man (a musician from the continent).  The series has several strong roles for women; but the new character Delphine Day (played by Polly Walker) is not one of them.  Her meddling interference in the lives of Harry and Rose feels heavy-handed, contrived, and ultimately pointless.  Indeed, the season devotes too much time to a trio of other unsatisfying new plot developments.  One has the suave Gregory Fitoussi’s Henri Leclair in trouble with the law.   The others have the normally astute Harry Selfridge being far too easily manipulated and deceived by unscrupulous members of the English elite:  The first sends him on an ill-advised intelligence-gathering mission to Germany, another frames him for defrauding the British government’s wartime procurement system.  Like “Downton Abbey,” “Mr. Selfridge” derives strength from its ensemble of engaging characters.  Other key continuing characters include Trystan Garvelle (as Victor Colleano), Tom Goodman-Hill (as Roger Grove), Ron Cook (as Mr. Crabb), and Samuel West (as Frank Edwards).  Despite the occasional plotting missteps, the series’ ongoing characters keep us interested in the daily currents of their lives, in what may be regarded as an urban retail variant on “Downton Abbey” – complete with class differences, romance, and obstacles to be overcome – all in a historical setting with a refreshing air of overall optimism.  DVD extras include deleted scenes and a featurette.

“Liam” (U.K./Germany/France/Italy, 2000) (B): A working class family in 1930s Liverpool, England struggles to survive during the Depression.  The title character, Liam (Anthony Burrows), is a sweet-natured child of about seven.  He has a nervous stutter (which proves unexpectedly fortuitous during a bartering session with a pawnbroker); he’s preparing for his first Communion; and he’s just starting to become aware of the differences between the sexes.  (Indeed, he is traumatized when he happens to see his mother naked during her bath.)  His older sister, Teresa (very nicely portrayed by Megan Burns), has taken on a part-time housekeeping job with a wealthy Jewish family, but she is troubled by her complicity in covering-up her employer’s infidelity.  The oldest son, Con (David Hart) has a job.  And it’s a good thing, too, since the head of the household (Ian Hart) has abruptly lost his.  And unemployment brings with it not only financial pressures but also feelings of injured self esteem – feelings which find a blame-laying balm in xenophobia and racism.  Meanwhile, the family’s wife and mother (Claire Hackett) struggles to make ends meet.  The result, from director Stephen Frears and writer Jimmy McGovern (who created the excellent 2006-09 British television series “The Street”), is an evocative look at its time and place.  It’s a family’s coming of age story, and it unfolds in a gritty, working-poor setting.  There are many moments of humor and sentiment, but the story does not shy away from life’s less noble moments.  Even admirable characters, like the mother, can drink too much at a New Year’s celebration and become boisterously combative.  And the father’s damaged self-respect (there are hints that it took a beating in his childhood by institutionalized religion’s drumbeat of guilt) looks for scapegoats through his growing animosity toward Irish immigrants and Jewish businessmen.  And the influence of the Catholic Church looms large in the story, with its stern admonitions in the classroom and its hellfire sermons in church.  The talented Anne Reid (2003’s “The Mother”) plays Liam’s teacher.  The film excels at presenting the small details of life:  The mother sits at the kitchen table and divides the meager coins between food, rent, gas, and coal.  A bell at school signals the boisterous children to fall silent and form queues.  The adults at a pub join in singing “Someone to Watch Over Me.”  Scarce white sugar is stretched by being mixed with less dear brown sugar.  Liam’s mother has an angry set-to in the street with her sister (Julia Deakin’s Aunt Aggy).  At a carefree juncture, the father shaves in front of his kids as he prepares for New Year’s, amusing them (and himself) with playful winks and facial expressions.  Such moments adroitly capture the ebb and flow of a family’s life.  There are very funny moments, as when Liam overcomes his stutter by singing his confession to a startled priest (Russell Dixon).  There are poignant moments, as when the father has to tell the rent-collector that they are broke: “We’re skint!,” he shouts in anger and shame.  And there is the dreadful siren call of hate as the father, and those in similar dire straits, vent their impotence, rage, and resentment on Irish immigrant workers and prosperous Jewish business owners.  But, those who turn to prejudice and hatred are often injured by it themselves, as the father learns the hard way.  While most of these characters are good people, they are, like the rest of us, imperfect:  Liam’s sister makes an anguished confession to her priest about something that racks her conscience – a simple preference for the more genteel lifestyle and manners of her employers:  “There’s worse.  She makes me ashamed of my own mother.  She’s nice.  She talks nice, she dresses nice, and my mom doesn’t.  My mom shouts and she’s poor and she’s tired.  And I want this other woman to be my mother.” The result is a well-acted, down-to-earth story about a family’s day to day life – surviving, laughing, and coming to crises that will forever change them.  The ending may not be entirely satisfying; but the journey that leads us there certainly is.  “Liam” was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival, where it won two awards, including one for Megan Burns as best emerging actress.  The film was nominated for Best Actor (Ian Hart) at the British Independent Film Awards.  Incidentally, the actors playing the father and the oldest son closely resemble each other and bear the same surname; we presume that they are closely related in real life.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and brief nudity.

“At Middleton” (USA, 2013) (B-): A man and a woman meet at the college to which they have each driven their kids for a campus tour.  Their first impressions of each other are not favorable:  She’s all off-the-wall spontaneity; he seems to be the buttoned-down poster boy for all things conventional.  “Of course a guy who wears a bow tie would back into a parking space… I bet you he irons his underwear,” Edith (Vera Farmiga, who made such a strong impression in “The Conjuring” and “Up in the Air”) snidely remarks to her daughter Audrey (played by the lead’s real-life younger sister Taissa Farmiga).  George (Andy Garcia) and Edith are both married (to unseen spouses who did not make the trip); but it seems that neither is happy in their marriage.  The initial friction between these strangers promptly gives way to curiosity and attraction, as they leave their kids in the tour group of a guide nicknamed ‘Dinkleberry’ (the scene-stealingly funny Nicholas Braun, who, on this evidence, clearly deserves a comedy of his very own) and head off together for an afternoon of adventure on campus that includes a duet of chop-sticks, the misappropriation of a pair of unattended bicycles, and an impromptu bit of drama in a student acting class.  This romantic comedy feels a tad heavy-handed at times.  Striving to be sweet-natured, it initially strikes a silly chord.  But, surprisingly, it grows on you, buoyed by the charm of its two leads.  The writing is a tad contrived and the tone is too inconsistent, flitting from silly fluff to bittersweet romance.  It would have been better to tone down the sillier aspects, though at least they do not entail the lowest common denominator type of so-called “humor” that rears its head in most mainstream comedies nowadays.  But the film gathers strength and substance as it goes, and it ends up being surprisingly moving.  There are some nice supporting performances, with Peter Riegert (of 1983’s “Local Hero” and 1988’s under-appreciated “Crossing Delancey”) as a campus radio DJ called Boneyard Sims, Tom Skerritt (of the memorable series “Picket Fences”) as a professor who offers Edith’s willful daughter some good advice (“The line between ambition and obsession is much thinner than one might imagine.  You would be well served to look down and see exactly where you are standing.”), and Mirjana Jokovic as a drama teacher.  And Spencer Lofranco shows promise as George’s son Conrad.  Filmed in the state of Washington (and produced by its star, Garcia), the result ends up being likeable, gently (if only sporadically) engaging, and unexpectedly wistful in tone.  The romantic attraction between these two erstwhile strangers, their rediscovery of their youthful and mischievous sense of fun and, and their bittersweet reflection on life’s roads not taken make the film worth seeing.  It might have been better; but it’s still pretty good.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language; brief sexual content.

“Odd Thomas” (USA, 2013) (B-): “My name really is Odd….I may see dead people; but then, by God, I do something about it.”  An amiable short order cook in the small town of Pico Mundo, with the odd name of Odd Thomas, is an undercover detective for the dearly-departed, uncovering whatever it is that is preventing them from being at peace.  But there’s new creep in town (nicknamed ‘Fungus Bob’) with a gateway to hell in his house and scores of malevolent “bodacks” following in his wake.  Those amorphous, semi-transparent demonic beings are attracted to the scene of impending violence and bloodshed; so, Odd knows that something bad is in store for his town.But something very good is in store for viewers.What a pleasant surprise!  This supernatural comedic thriller adeptly blends elements of humor, horror, mystery, and romance – topping it off with an extremely engaging lead character, nicely played by Anton Yelchin (Chechov in the recent “Star Trek” re-imagining).Addison Timlin and Willem Dafoe are likewise appealing as Odd’s sassy girlfriend Stormy, and the town’s police chief.  It opens with twangy theme music reminiscent of the “True Blood” theme; and its wise-cracking, smart-alecky dialogue has much in common with the latter series and with the late, great series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And “Odd Thomas” gets a big tip of the hat for managing to unfold without any of the coarse language that is so tiresomely ubiquitous in movies these days.  Written and directed by Stephen Sommers from a novel by Dean Koontz, “Odd Thomas” is well worth a look.

“I’m So Excited” [“Los Amantes Pasajeros”] (Spain, 2013) (D):In an effort to keep a problem with the aircraft’s landing gear from panicking their passengers, the crew conspires to distract those remain awake. (They’ve drugged the all the economy class passengers to render them unconscious.)  A trio of male flight attendants administer an aphrodisiac to their charges and do a lip-synch rendition of the Pointer Sisters’ song that gives the film its English title.It is not a promising premise, and the result is self-indulgent dud.  That’s a rare, unexpected feat for the otherwise talented writer/director Pedro Almodovar.  The film is meant to be a sex-farce, but it’s not funny.  Instead, it is crude enough to be downright gross at times.  It aims for engaging silliness, but instead, it makes a rough landing (without wheels) on the unpaved terrain of the ridiculous.  There is an overwhelming surfeit of ‘same-sex’ talk (and behavior) that will be utterly off-putting to those who are not of that persuasion; and that goes double for all of the pervasive crude talk – sexual and otherwise.  In a story that is top-heavy with ‘gay’ male characters, it is the characters on the distaff side of the aisle that come closest to engaging our interests.  Sporadic attempts at poignancy seem out of place here – and they all fall flat, as passengers who know about the plane’s potentially catastrophic malfunction talk to significant others on the ground, with the loudspeakers stuck in the ‘on’ position, so everyone on board hears these communal confessions.The result is a major disappointment:  Skip it!  For ages 18+ only:  Very coarse language, including very crude sexual language, and some sexual content.

“Thor: The Dark World” (USA, 2013) (B-): Dark elves are on the hunt for the dark energy known as “aether” in an obsessive bid to banish light from the universe.  (With their expressionless facial masks, they look a bit too much like “Doctor Who’s” Cybermen.)  The dark object of their desire has, coincidentally, taken up residence inside a human scientist played by Natalie Portman.  She, in turn, just happens to be the romantic interest of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a warrior from Asgard, a world whose inhabitants possess superhuman strength and longevity.  When Asgard itself comes under lethal attack, the noble Thor (“I’d rather be a good man than a great king”) is forced to enlist the aid of his treacherous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who steals the show as a gleefully amoral, cunning, and guileful schemer, who can rise to temporary heroics on occasion).  At first glance, the movie’s mixing up of tropes from fantasy (so-called “elves”) and science fiction (space ships and energy beam weaponry) is not altogether pleasing; after all, the two genres have very different styles.  But, elven nomenclature aside, it hews pretty closely to the sci-fi side of the ledger.  The action stuff is entertaining, but what really engages here are the performances, with nice work from Rene Russo (she’s a stand-out as the brave warrior-queen, Frigga), Anthony Hopkins as her husband, Odin, Kat Dennings as a wise-cracking science intern (she gets all the best lines), the always watchable Stellan Skarsgard as the original absent-minded professor, and Idris Elba as the dignified watcher at the gates.Even small roles are blessed with very good performers – like Jaimie Alexander as the Asgardian warrior Sif, and Chris O’Dowd (who was so good in “The Sapphires”) as Portman’s abandoned date.It’s a shame that the chief villain, played by the fine actor Christopher Eccleston, is hidden beneath make-up.  The only DVD extra is a single deleted scene.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (USA, 2013) (B-): “I haven’t really been anywhere noteworthy or mentionable.”So says the nice-guy dreamer Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, who also directed the film), who has faithfully worked at the same job for 16 years.He handles “negative assets” for Life Magazine.  It means he’s responsible for processing the negatives from the magazine’s contributing photographers.  But it’s a bit of a double entendre, since, to most observers, Mitty is short on assets of his own:  He’s an obscure, shy fellow who disappears into the background.  He’s a decent man but an unmemorable one who has seemingly never had an adventure.  Instead, he lives in his imagination, fantasizing about larger-than life exploits.  The film is far too dependant on CGI effects for turning Mitty’s day-dreams into spectacles that would be more at home in a superhero movie.  More subtlety might have boosted the poignancy quotient.  Also, Mitty’s habit of completely “zoning out” in the presence of others is a heavy-handed device for making him an object of mockery by some – and truth be told, it is a proclivity that distances us from the character, because it’s just a little too odd.  Also, for a guy who’s supposed to be so shy and timid, Mitty seems (improbably) able to converse with the female apple of his eye (played by Kristen Wiig) comfortably enough.  A missing negative, described by its acclaimed photographer as, “my best ever, the quintessence of Life, I think,” sends Mitty on a real-life adventure – to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan (with glorious Iceland serving as the filming location for all three destinations).  Will he find the photograph that has been earmarked for the cover of Life’s final issue?  Will he get the girl?Will he stand up to the bullying corporate raider who is firing Mitty’s colleagues by droves as the new owners switch to a solely online publication?  The mild-mannered result is likeable enough, though the only thing that makes a lasting impression (for those of us who know and love Iceland), are the scenes that have Mitty traveling by skateboard through that volcanic island of the north’s green mountains.  Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn do nice work in supporting roles.Very brief crude language.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (USA, 2013) (B/B+): The eponymous protagonist of this film is in the midst of an existential crisis.   Lead actor Oscar Isaac compares the result to “a comedy of resilience” in the spirit of Buster Keaton:  “He bumps up against so much hardship trying to do this thing, which is the love of music, something that’s a real expression of his soul.”   The story concerns a very particular time and place and topic, namely, a ‘lost moment’ in the history of folk music set in the Greenwich Village music scene of 1961, just before game-changing figure of Bob Dylan appeared on the scene.  Llewyn Davis is a young man, but he hews to traditional folk music.  Migrating from couch to couch, he has many acquaintances, but few, if any, real friends.  The closest thing to a friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan), the relentlessly angry woman (and sweet singer) he may have made pregnant:  “Do you ever think about your future at all?… You’re the one who’s not getting anywhere.  You don’t want to get anywhere.  You sleep on the couch… You don’t want to go anywhere.  And that’s why all the same shit is going to keep happening to you.  Because you want it to.” Davis is rootless and all but penniless.  He wanders from place to place without a winter coat or snow boots.  He’s very good at his craft; but he cannot make it pay enough in order to support himself.  And there’s a reserve and an irascibility about him that keeps others at a distance.  He’s a bit of a loner; but he’s also a fighter, and we root for him, wanting him to “catch a break,” as one of the filmmakers says.  He is also steadfastly true to his craft:  For Davis, doing anything but music is to “just exist.”  And, he does have a softer side, as we discover when he is forced, by misadventure, to reluctantly (but gently) take a host’s cat under his wing, carrying it with him on the streets and subways of New York, in a feline/human pairing that humanizes the human half of the equation.  All of the movie’s music was played live.  They needed an actor who could also be a credible musician, and they found exactly that in Oscar Isaac.  He is ably supported by the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman (who is no stranger to the Coens’ movies), F. Murray Abraham, and Garrett Hedlund, among others.  A few days in the life of a struggling musician, the story is about the place of music in the lives of its characters.  The film’s music producer, T Bone Burnett, says that, “Recorded music is to the United States as wine is to France.  We’ve defined ourselves through recorded music since the beginning of the country…. We have Mississippi Delta, they have Bordeaux.” Combining fine performances, very fine music (you do not need to know a thing about folk music to enjoy the songs on offer here), and a remarkable sense of atmosphere, the result is an absorbing look at its time and place and characters.  Co-written and co-directed by brothers Joel & Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” won Movie of the Year at the American Film Institute (AFI) Awards; and it won Best Film, Director, Actor, and Cinematography at The National Society of Film Critics Awards, where it also won Second Place for Screenplay.  A critical darling, it earned a great many nominations, among them: Best Film, Actor, and Original Song at the Golden Globes, and Best Cinematography and Sound Mixing at the Oscars.  For ages 18+:  Abundant coarse language.

“The Great Beauty” [“La Grande Bellezza”] (Italy/France, 2013) (B+): It opens with the printed word, projected on a dark screen:  “Our journey is entirely imaginary…. It goes from life to death….  It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative…” Then, the camera pulls out a cannon’s mouth, moments before it shoots its shell – as if to announce the beginning of this particular narrative.  The camera glides sensuously through an urban park, offering us a series of short scenes:  Amidst the architecture and statues, there are a few living people, standing almost motionless as they observe their surroundings.  Then, gradually, there are snippets of activity – a tour guide, a man talking on a telephone, an octet of young women singing, and a suddenly stricken man falling to the ground.  There’s a compellingly languid tranquility to all of these little moments from strangers’ lives.   But that serenity changes in an instant to a boisterous, larger-than-life party.  It is hedonism writ large – a Latin variation on Jay Gatsby’s pageantry of excess – with writhing dancers lost in the hypnotic beat of the music and self-induced intoxication.  And it’s the recurring milieu for Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a self-styled ‘king of the high-life,’ who has an expansive balcony-terrace overlooking the Coliseum.  The party is in Jep’s honor – to mark his 65th birthday.  Some 40 years earlier, he wrote a celebrated novel.  But he has never written another, falling instead into what he calls “the whirlpool of the high life.” When he’s not attending lavish parties or entering smaller gatherings, Jep works as a celebrity interviewer for a periodical.  His life is a strange amalgam of beauty, leisure, and superficiality.  The people Jep encounters tend to be self-absorbed narcissists and self-important poseurs.  He’s part of their world, yet also apart, since he possesses a keen eye and ear for all that is false – along with an unerring ability to puncture self-congratulatory airs of superiority with acid lucidity.  But he is not unkind, reassuring the target of one of his barbs that they have something in common: “We’re all on the brink of despair.” Jep is a study in suppressed regret and neglected talent.  A new and more genuine friend tells Jep, “It must be very satisfying knowing so many people.” Jep replies, “You’re guaranteed to be unhappy.” “Have people let you down?” his friend asks.  “I’ve let them down,” Jep replies.  “The Great Beauty” juxtaposes a beautiful setting (but why are the streets and monuments of Rome so often nearly deserted in the film?) with a satire about the shallowness of the self-styled avante garde in the age of the media tycoon, former prime minister, and outlandishly shameless bad-boy Silvio Berlosconi.  Its central figure is a man who has traded talent for fashion.  But he wears his ennui lightly:  Capable of scathingly witty critiques of his own and others’ foibles, Jep nevertheless remains likeable – and he seems mostly at ease with his superficial life of leisure.  And, it seems, he still has the capacity to be moved – by past regrets and present-day losses.  Hedonistic parties, or shall we call them bacchanalia – wild contortions of dance, drink, drugs, and general excess – alternate with long, languid, dreamy sections that are a Latin variation on filmmaker Terence Malick’s impressionistic movies.  “The Great Beauty” is one mighty strange movie:  Its pace is often leisurely, its baroque cast of characters has been likened to those in a Fellini film, and it is more given to creating an impression, a sense, of a man – with disconnected, oft-eccentric moments (to wit, encounters with a giraffe and an odd, ancient nun) from the world around him – than it is to conventional storytelling.  But the visually lush film is hypnotically watchable – full of beauty, strangeness, and a very subdued poignancy.  “The Great Beauty” won Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, BAFTA, and the Golden Globes.  And, it won Best Film, Actor, Director, and Editor at the European Film Awards.  The main DVD extra is a “making of” featurette that is as artful as the film itself; indeed, it is a miniature version of the film itself, full of impressionist moments from a life in Rome.  For ages 18+:  Nudity and brief coarse language.

“Venus” (U.K., 2006) (B+): A mostly older cast (Peter O’Toole, Leslie Philips, Richard Griffiths, and Vanessa Redgrave) deliver standout performances in this gentle story about an aging romantic named Maurice (the charismatic O’Toole, who died in 2013) who takes an interest in a much younger woman (played by Jodie Whittaker).  She’s tough, petulant, and unrefined.  By contrast, he’s witty, wry, cultivated, and cultured a self-styled”scientist of the female heart.”  He’s also rather randy.  It’s an odd match, but O’Toole is poignant as a man who refuses to be defined by his age:  (A) “Do you believe in anything, Maurice?” (B) “Pleasure, I like.  I’ve tried to give pleasure.  That’s all I can recommend to anyone.” There’s humor here, too.  When the callow young woman admonishes the interested (but much older) man, with the words, “Don’t keep touching me;” he extemporizes, “I thought my legs might go.” Her unimpressed retort?  “That’s no reason to cling on.  Just let yourself fall to the ground, natural-like.” And there’s a surprising measure of wisdom here, too.  (A) “Venus is a goddess… She created love and desire in us mortals, leading often to foolishness and despair.  The usual shit.  For most men, a woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they’ll ever see.” (B) “What is the most beautiful thing a girl sees?” (A) “Her first child.” The oldsters deliver fine performances some of the best of the year.  In a compelling moment, when he is all alone, Maurice cries out, “Come on old man!” as he slaps himself to rouse himself out of the relentless advance of physical and psychological disability.  A portrait of the artist as an old man (O’Toole plays an acclaimed actor who is reduced to playing dead or dying men), it’s a story about the way passion sustains itself throughout our lives, about the stubborn pull of that particular kind of love we call ‘Eros,’ and about a seemingly odd couple who find themselves connected in unexpected ways.  The result is full of charm, humor, concupiscence, and poignancy.  “Venus” earned nominations for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  It won Best Supporting Actor (Philips) at the British Independent Film Awards, where it was also a nominee for Best Actor, Actress (Redgrave), Screenplay, and Promising Newcomer (Whittaker).  For ages 18+:  Coarse language, brief nudity, and brief sexual content.

“Roads to Koktebel” (Russia, 2003) (B-/B): It opens with a field, a steep man-made incline, and a circular opening (a drainage tunnel or access-way), from which emerge a man and a boy with their meager belongings.  They are a father and his 11-year old son, on the road, traveling by foot, and occasionally hopping aboard empty freight cars on trains.  They have fled the disappointments of Moscow (the boy’s mother has died and his unemployed aeronautical engineer father has retreated into drink), and they are making their gradual way toward a town called Koktebel in Crimea, where they have kin.  The boy is propelled by the hope of a better life and especially by his father’s stories about glider aircraft that find a congenial home there:  “They have the right terrain there.  Constant winds, ascending air currents.  There is a ridge there – if you stand on the top and throw a piece of paper, it will fly high and far away.” Those words awaken a deep, wordless longing in the boy; he wants to get there, without a thought of what, in practical terms, he will do then.  Flight is a recurring metaphor in the film:  We see a gliding falcon; the boy is fascinated with the ability of the albatross to glide for great distances; and the boy has (or imagines he has?) the ability to leave his body below and see the place where he is standing from very high above:  “I can see everything from above,” he says, simply.  Perhaps flight in general, and the albatross in particular, represent all of the boy’s inchoate hopes and dreams, along with the potential of those things being dashed to the hard ground like every object that takes to the air.  The film is full of big, expansive landscapes – meadows, prairies, copses of trees, and roads or railroads which stretch to the horizon.  Those landscapes are mostly empty, usually devoid of other humans and their habitations.  The boy grows impatient to reach his destination, while his father is sidelined by distractions, ranging from the piecemeal work he takes en route to earn some cash, to a resumption of his drinking, to a chance for new romance with a good woman.  Increasingly restive with his father’s delays, the boy sets out on his own.  The result is a very quiet, very casually paced movie.  Heck, let’s call it what it is – slow-paced.  These are small moments from life on the road.  The camera gives us long takes (one has the boy gradually falling asleep in a truck).  Nothing much “happens” in these long takes, in the conventional sense; they are just closely observed moments – full of simple details of the journey and those few people who are encountered along the way.  Co-written and co-directed by Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, “Roads to Koktebel” won a number of awards at film festivals, including the Special Jury Prize in Moscow.  The film is an immersive experience and a journey that’s worth taking, despite its unhurried pace.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language and brief violence.

“The Iran Job” (USA/Iran/Germany, 2012) (B+/A-): When is a documentary nothing like a documentary?  Why, when it immerses us in its characters’ lives and unfolds like a narrative feature.  The protagonist here is truly a stranger in a strange land:  American Kevin Sheppard accepts a job playing basketball in Iran.  As a “journeyman” player, Kevin has played abroad before – in China, Brazil, and Israel.  But, given the icy relations between Iran and the West, and the host of preconceptions and prejudices each side in that geopolitical contest has about the other, Kevin has misgivings:  “My first response when I thought about Iran was “Hell no!…  But God put something in my spirit and said you need to get away from the familiar and go to the unfamiliar.  And here I am.” Things open with a collision of unexpected elements:  The rap music that plays over the opening credits is in Farsi – the musical form of Black America is counter-intuitively set to the language of Iran!  What follows is a delightful surprise of a movie – full of wonderfully engaging characters, fascinating cultural differences, an exciting underdog story (the brand-new team for which Kevin plays in the city of Shiraz starts at the bottom of the national league rankings), and generous dollops of humor, affection, and humanity.  See Kevin – and a fellow imported player (from Serbia) – struggle to whip their initially ham-handed team of novices into competitive shape.  Join Kevin in his quest to find a Christmas tree in Iran.  See the challenges that come when you don’t speak the language:  “I don’t know what s**t they’re talking about,” admits Kevin in response to the manager’s animated pep-talk to the team.  And meet the people who befriend Kevin.  Among them are three admirably smart, fashionable, and lovely women:  One, Hilda, is a physiotherapy nurse whose smile could light up any room; but she seems to quietly nod when someone says  that, “Life is tough in our country.” Another, Elaheh, dreams of becoming a movie star, and she has all the requisite glamour and charisma!  The third, Laleh, rejects the notion seemingly promulgated by Islam that a woman is only worth half of a man.  The three women befriend Kevin.  Their friendship is perfectly innocent and respectable; but it breaches taboos enforced by the national theocracy.  (It is against the law for them to be in a man’s apartment; a so-called ‘offense’ which could result in beatings or imprisonment if they are caught.)  There’s a lad at chicken restaurant who greets Kevin with a song and dance, and a shopkeeper who sings Bob Marley songs and confides that he smoked marijuana when he visited America.  German-American writer/director Till Schauder posed as a tourist to make his film; but serving as his own cameraman gave him an intimacy of access to these characters that might have eluded a multi-person film crew.  Schauder and his co-producer and wife, Iranian-American Sarah Nodjoumi, sought to create “a more nuanced image of what Iranians are like….  They’re human.  They like to laugh, they like to flirt, they like to go to basketball games, [and] they like to root for their team – just like we do.” Their delightful film has several storylines going on simultaneously – there’s the story of the Yankee in a land that officially disdains America, the suspenseful story of the Shiraz sports team, and the story of the three women.  Religion and politics percolate in the background.  For instance, there are references, late in the film, to the dubious reelection in 2009 of the President Ahmadinejad (he of the hard-line, crackpot demeanor) and the ensuing violent crackdown on protestors. One of them, (known to the world as ‘Neda’) is killed, and Kevin realizes that it could just as easily have been one of his friends:  “This thing right here is bigger than basketball.  As an African-American, I know what standing up for your rights is all about, and I know it can lead to something… Playing in Iran, you’re not only playing basketball.  You have an effect on people’s lives, and you can see it….  My teammates – they’re not happy with their situation, they’re not happy with their government, and yet they come out here and play and do the best they can.  It really humbles you.” And so does the boundless humanity of this not to be missed film about the things we all have in common!  Extras include an interview and a Q&A with the director and producer.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “City Bomber” (Germany, 1995) (C+/B-): In this 22-minute short film from director Till Schauder, an architect in Frankfurt is a loving single parent to his young daughter.  But he is incensed at work when his magnum opus is shelved because no site is available for the erection of his new tower.  Will his anger and resentment fly out of control?  It seems so, as he appears to be intent on taking matters into his own hands by blowing up an existing tower in an act not so much of terrorism as it is of extreme make-over, urban edition.  The authorities on are on his trail, and his daughter seems to be inadvertently headed directly into harm’s way as misadventure takes her to ground zero.  Shot in black & white, the film builds tension with jump cuts between brief scenes of quarreling investigators, its temperamental, and increasingly twitchy antihero, and a steam kettle!  There’s even a dash of satire:  “If explosives were food, nobody would go hungry.” The tone is deliberately melodramatic.  Is it meant to be real or simply a fever dream of the imagination?   It is artful in its way, but it doesn’t really gel as one thing or another.

“Watchtower” [“Gözetleme Kulesi”] (Turkey/France/Germany, 2012) (B+): A solitary man disembarks from a bus in the midst of forested, mountainous terrain.  At one point, the camera moves to an extreme long-shot: Our vantage-point is atop a mountain, and he is tiny in a valley below, as if to emphasize the smallness of Man swallowed whole by Nature.  And yet, Nature is neither hostile nor threatening in this story – maybe just impassive and vast.  Along the way, we hear birdsong and the creaking of trees in the breeze.  A long hike takes him to his destination – a narrow, two-story citadel of stone and glass on a forested summit.  (Other than its Spartan bathroom facilities, the place is idyllic.)   The clear glade in front of this lighthouse of the mountains tapers to a prow like the deck of a ship with a panoramic sea of mountains below and all around.  Almost in the clouds, it is a majestic eyrie of solitude.  It’s a place where the wind is always in motion.  It’s a place where one goes to be alone.  It’s a bewitchingly beautiful setting, a place in which a quiet, gentle story about pain and loss unfolds, a story that brings two damaged souls – one, a middle-aged man, the other, a younger woman – together in a search for solitude, sanctuary, and, perhaps, if they are lucky, some kind of healing.  Each of them, first Nihar (Olgun Simsek), and then Seher (Nilay Erdonmez), gives precisely the same laconic account as to how they found themselves in this lonely place, “It just happened that way.” But there is more to each of their stories than that, of course.  Each has been propelled into the wilderness by tragedy.  Nihar has taken up a job as a fire warden:  His work consists of scanning the horizon for signs of forest fires, checking-in at intervals with unseen, distant counterparts with the catchphrase “Everything’s normal.” But everything is far from ‘normal’ in his tortured psyche; and that goes double when chance causes his solitary path to intersect with Seher’s.  She has fled university in a distant city and is working as a hostess and guide aboard a bus that takes travelers through the wilds. Their story is a quiet one that takes some unexpected turns.  But don’t look for pat resolutions here:  Like moments from real life, it closes with possibilities rather than certainties.  At a moment of emotional crisis, Nature’s storm reflects the tempest roiling within the characters:  Lightning strikes a tall, tall tree and the camera pans up its trunk, past lateral, almost horizontal, branches that point like the arms of a weather-vane in opposing directions.  Which direction will these characters take?  Where will their choices take them?  “Watchtower” was written and directed by Pelim Esmer; she was recently included among the world’s 100 most promising young film directors.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language and very brief partial nudity.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “The Foreigner” (Greece/USA, 2012) (B+): In this 17-minute short film, only 34 residents remain in a quaint village in Greece.  Unless they can increase that tally by one before month’s end, they stand to be cut off from all the services provided by the local government.  The deadline looms – it’s only a week away – since their official notification was late in arriving.  In a humorous opening, we get a glowing description of the village from its remaining occupants, an account that doesn’t match the reality of this sleepy place, save for its gorgeous setting.  But, who should arrive, as if on cue, but an American tourist, who has taken a wrong turn on his bicycle.  The village mayor, Kostas (amusingly played by Manolis Sormainis) may like to talk to his donkey, Socrates; but he’s sharp enough to realize that their inadvertent visitor is the village’s last, best hope of surviving:  “The truth is:  we have more people in the cemetery than in our homes.” The locals wine and dine and charm their visitor, in hopes that he’ll stay.  They put him up in a recently vacated house but neglect to mention that its prior occupants died in bed and were not found for a week.  The result is a thoroughly charming, utterly engaging bit of whimsy, as sunny and flavorful as a Greek day, filmed in Greece’s Laconia district and produced at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, & Television.   We look forward to seeing more from writer/director Alethea Avramis.

“Out of the Furnace” (USA, 2013) (B): It opens with a scene of violence that is as shocking for its casualness as it is for its sheer brutality.  It lets us know in a hurry that Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is a violent, merciless villain.  The story shifts to a rough and tumble working class town in Pennsylvania.  Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at a steel mill, an enterprise that’s just hanging on in the face of wage competition from Asia.  Russell is a good man – conscientious, hard-working, caring to his dying father, worried about his troubled younger brother, brave, decent, and in a steady relationship with a woman he loves (Zoe Saldana’s Lena).  But his life is derailed in an instant when a car crash sends him to prison.  When he gets out, he has lost many things, and he’s about to lose his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck).  Rodney has been messed-up psychologically by military service in Iraq; he can’t hold down a job, and is engaged in illegal fighting for gamblers.  But his intended last fight takes him to the territory of “inbred mountain folk from Jersey led by the aforementioned DeGroat, who murders Rodney in cold blood.  Russell is determined to exact vengeance.  That may sound like a formula for a revenge/action/suspense story, and truth be told, those elements do gain prominence late in the movie.  But, surprisingly, and to its great credit, this movie is as much a character study as it is an action drama – indeed, more so during its first half.  It has a very strong cast (with Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, and Tom Bower supporting those already named), and a gritty sense of place in the decaying industrial heartland of America.  A federal election speech overheard on a television early in the film has Edward Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama with a pledge “to change America, to restore its future, to rise to its best ideals” — pledges that remain sadly (and wholly) unfulfilled to this day.  And there are nicely unexpected bits, like the local underworld chief (Dafoe) being a pretty decent guy, who actually tries (and fails) to protect Rodney from his own recklessness.  And, against expectations, the authorities actually do try to apprehend the bad guy.  On the down side, it is a tad far-fetched that the villain could be so easily induced to come out of hiding on a fairly feeble pretext.  But, there’s a nice symbolic moment when Russell has a deer in his gun-sights and spares it; while, more or less at the same time, his younger brother being shown no mercy at all.  Over-all, “Out of the Furnace” is much better than expected, rising above genre constraints to become a memorable (if sometimes ugly) drama.  Directed and co-written by Scott Cooper, who also wore both hats for 2009’s excellent “Crazy Heart,” starring Jeff Bridges.  The extras (three featurettes) are on the Blu-ray disc only, unfortunately.  For ages 18+ only:  Very coarse language and violence.

“Austenland” (U.K./USA, 2013) (C-/C): A young woman named Jane is in love with her literary namesake’s (i.e. Jane Austen) fiction.  And she’s in luck:  There’s a resort, at a Regency-style country estate in Great Britain, where, “You get to play the heroine of your very own Jane Austen story” in “the world’s only immersive Austen experience.” It’s a grand idea, for everyone who ever fantasized about playing dress-up with Elisabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and rest of Austen’s unforgettable role call of characters. And it has an always likable heroine in actress Keri Russell.  But the good idea is sunk by silliness and excess.  They went for farce, when they should have played it straight.  JJ Field’s “Mr. Nobley” is a highlight, precisely because he is played straight – as a combination of Austen’s male protagonists Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley.   Jane Seymour suits the setting but is utterly wasted here; while Jennifer Coolidge is part of the problem, with a loud, overbearing, bumptious, and too broadly comedic take on the ‘Ugly North American’ stereotype.

Parkland” (USA, 2013) (B): On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy went to Dallas, Texas.  Less than an hour after he arrived, he was dead.  This movie looks at those events, and their immediate aftermath (over the following three days), from the multiple points of view of a cast of characters:  There’s a doctor and nurse at Parkland Memorial Hospital (where Kennedy was rushed after he was shot), FBI agents, Secret Service men, Abraham Zapruder (the businessman with a camera who was eager to see the President and  First Lady as they drove through Dealey Plaza), Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, Oswald’s appalled brother, Robert, and, to a lesser extent, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Parkland strives for an up-close-and-personal immediacy and authenticity.  It mostly works very well.  At moments, the sense of horror and of momentousness feels a tad forced (especially in the Zapruder scenes, for some reason).  But at other times, little gestures, like Jackie Kennedy quietly slipping off her ring and putting it on the finger of her slain husband, are very touching.  Throughout, the hand-held camera jumps about frenetically, lending a visceral sense of confusion and alarm:  “His head just flew to pieces,” whispers one witness.  And the discordant, metallic-sounding musical score nicely echoes the sense of impending of doom and horror.  There’s a disturbing jurisdictional fight over the slain President’s body, which literally comes to push and shove, leaving the Secret Service men, who are disgusted with the city that slaughtered their charge, spitting out the words, “Let’s just get the hell out of here.” There’s the seemingly half-crazy mother of the accused Oswald, who declares, with a mixture of inappropriate pride and defiance:  “I will never be ordinary again!” And ironies abound:  The wounded Oswald is rushed to the same hospital as his presumed victim; and the Oswalds have to implore nearby reporters to serve as impromptu pall-bearers during the accused man’s obscure burial.  Parkland has a documentary-like feel at times.  Kennedy is shot seven and a half minutes in; and he’s dead 22 minutes in; but the movie is not about him, but rather those who were touched by his violent death:  “It’s a very undignified end for a very dignified man,” says one of them.  The first-rate cast includes James Badge Dale (as Robert Oswald), Macia Gay Harden (as a head nurse), Billy Bob Thornton (as a Secret Service officer), Ron Livingstone (as an FBI agent haunted by the fear that he may have inadvertently dismissed the threat posed by Oswald), Paul Giamatti (as Abraham Zapruder), Zac Efron (as a young trauma doctor), Jacki Weaver (as the totally self-absorbed and delusional Oswald matriarch), Tom Welling, Jeremy Strong, Jackie Earle Hayley, Gary Clarke, and Kat Steffens (as a poignantly affecting Jacqueline Kennedy).   The movie did not get the attention it deserved at theaters; it merits a look on DVD.   Extras are at a minimum – just deleted scenes and a trailer, when a commentary would have been very welcome.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language and some gore.

“Wadjda” (Saudi Arabia/Germany, 2012) (B): “Girls, stop.  Why are you laughing out loud?  You forget that women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by men outside.  How often must I repeat this?  A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” So says a dour principal to two students engaged in some innocent (and not unduly loud) laughter.  Her stern admonition reveals the ugly misogyny at the heart of a society that obliges adult females to drape themselves in black robes in public and forbids them to drive cars; indeed, they need a male’s permission to come and go at all!  Ten year old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) has her heart set on a bicycle.  Her friend, Abdullah (Abdul Rahman al Gohani) has one, and she promises to race him once she gets one of her own:  “If I had a bike, you’d see,” she vows.  Bikes are frowned upon (though apparently not forbidden outright) for young girls, but Wadjda refuses to give up.  She is determined, resourceful, and full of initiative:  “If you set your mind on something, no one can stop you,” says her mother.  She’ll earn the money to buy a bicycle, if her parents won’t buy it for her.  Despite her status as a non-conformist (she insists on wearing running shoes to school instead of the plain black ones that prevail among her peers), Wadjda enrolls in her school’s Koran recitation competition with her eye fixed on the cash prize.  But does she surrender her free-spirited ways in the process?  Not a chance.  It’s her underdog status — the sheer gumption it takes to buck a rigidly strict patriarchal society that insists on conformity — that makes us root for this young rebel.  Wadjda’s mother, (played by Saudi television star Reem Abdullah) is both smart and loving.  She has a job outside the house (seemingly as a teacher at a distant school); but her life nevertheless remains circumscribed by the rigidly arbitrary boundaries set by a harsh ideology.  She is dependant on a rude (but necessarily male) driver to make her hours-long daily long commute to work; instead of trying a new dress on at the woman’s apparel store in a modern-looking mall, she has to change in a woman’s washroom outside the store; and, she is at the mercy of her inlaws, who wish to supplant her with a second wife for their son since she has failed to produce a male heir.  Despite the unappealing attributes of the retrograde society in which it is set, “Wadjda” is an uplifting, life-affirming story about emancipation and hope.  Filmed in Riyadh, “Wadjda” is the first and only movie ever to be directed in Saudi Arabia by a woman.  It is the feature film debut of writer/director Haifaa al Mansour (who had to conceal herself in a van to avoid being seen interacting with males on a public street), and she tells a very personal story that aims for authenticity and a documentary-like style.  Viewers can draw their own conclusions about the society in which it is set; the film simply sets out to acquaint us with one dauntless little girl and her admirable independence of thought, word, and deed.  “Wadjda” has earned numerous award nominations, among them: Best Foreign Language Film at BAFTA, and Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.  And, it won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review and three awards at the Venice Film Festival, including Best First-Time Young Actor.  The DVD has a very informative commentary with the writer/director and a likewise substantive “making of” backgrounder, a Q&A, and the film’s trailer.

“Garibaldi’s Lovers” [“Il Comandante e la Cicogna”] (Italy/Switzerland, 2012) (B): Leo is a plumber and a widowed father of two teens who still has nightly conversations with the perfectly tangible ghost of his dead wife Teresa.  He expects her to pull her weight in the trying business of child-rearing, though she ironically refers to the “till death us do part” clause while she longingly sniffs coffee grounds, the earthly pleasure she misses most in the hereafter.  Elsewhere, the hapless artist Diana is behind in her rent and reduced to painting an artistically dubious mural at the offices of a self-aggrandizing lawyer to make ends (barely) meet.  Her landlord, Amanzio, is an eccentric given to shoplifting.  But he is indignant when he is apprehended; after all, he only takes expired foodstuffs that the store should not be selling anyway. Meanwhile, Leo’s daughter has been surreptitiously captured on celluloid in flagrante delicto by her boyfriend, and her reputation is in dire jeopardy.  In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of slyness, the screenplay has someone subconsciously misstate her family name as Buontempo (or ‘Good Time’), instead of Buonvento, after seeing the x-rated video.  Meanwhile, her younger brother marches to the beat of a very different drummer, as he secrets fish-heads and frogs to feed his feathered friend, a wild stork named Agostina.  Over all of these amusing proceedings preside the statues of Rome’s public squares, prominent among them the man on horseback who is lauded as the liberator and unifier of modern-day Italy — Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), who, surveying the chaotic scene of daily life below him, laments that, “The sad truth is that with every passing day, my mind is increasingly instilled with fear that these people aren’t fit to govern themselves.” There are other moments of wry social satire, too, as when someone caustically remarks about modern Italy:  “What nation?  We only see flags flying during a national soccer match.” And Leo’s shy, gentle son, Elia, is bemused with questions like:  “Do you think birds know that we don’t know how to fly, or do they think we don’t want to?” An equally eccentric character has a perfectly logical reply to that imponderable:  “Depends on the bird.” Directed by Silvio Soldini, “Garibaldi’s Lovers” is a sweet-natured comedy with engaging characters and a quirky, off-beat, whimsical sensibility that’s reminiscent of France’s “Amelie.” The film was nominated at Italy’s academy awards (the David di Donatello Awards) for Best Supporting Actor.  And, in case you’re wondering, the Italian title of the film translates as “The Commander and the Stork” (the ‘commander’ in question being the aforementioned Garibaldi).  For ages 18+: Some coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “The Kiosk” (Switzerland, 2013) (B/B+): In this cute, seven-minute bit of animated whimsy, a good-natured woman has grown too large to leave the kiosk from which she sells candy, magazines, and tobacco.  So she remains in her tiny ad hoc home, spending the night reading travel magazines and dreaming of postcard-perfect sunsets in exotic locales.  Murmured vocalizations, in lieu of discernable words, unmoor this sweet little fable from any particular geographic or linguistic setting and lend it a universal appeal.   Directed by Anete Melece, “The Kiosk” was nominated for the animated film grand prize at the film festival in Tallinn, Estonia.  It appears to be the first film from its writer/director; we are eager to see more.

Dallas Buyers Club” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): “Let me give you a little newsflash.  There ain’t nothing out there that can effing kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”   That’s how the rodeo cowboy, electrician, and hustler reacts to the sudden shocking news that he has HIV.  It is 1985 (in the fairly early days of that dread virus) and its latest victim blithely assumes that the scourge is confined to the homosexual community.  Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey in one of the year’s top performances) is 100 percent heterosexual, but he leads a life of promiscuous debauchery.  The doctors give him no more than 30 days to live, noting that between the illness and his heavy drinking and drug use, “We’re surprised you’re even alive.” Alive he is – and determined to stay that way, however gaunt and emaciated he may be.  Ron Woodroof may be crude, lewd, and lascivious; but he is also smarter than he looks.  He starts to research his illness and the experimental treatments that are being tried in the United States and abroad.  As resourceful as he is tenacious (“So you’re telling me I’m as good as a horse being sold for dog food, huh?… I ain’t ready to crawl in a corner.”), he bribes an orderly to smuggle him the experimental drug AZT.  When it proves toxic, Woodroof heads to Mexico for alternative treatment.  It helps, and he soon starts smuggling “unapproved” drugs and supplements into the county for sale to other HIV/AIDS sufferers.  That brings him into contact with people he once scorned, including the transsexual Rayon (with Jared Leto providing the film’s second award-caliber performance).  A tender platonic relationship develops between this oddest of couples.  And the once sleazy, bigoted Woodroof is transformed.  He may be out to make a buck; but he is also certain of the efficacy of the treatments he distributes.  And he cannot help but come to sympathize with the stricken people who desperately need those treatments.  It’s a remarkable, touching portrait of a man who is redeemed by adversity.  Rejected, ostracized, and mocked by his erstwhile friends, he becomes a crusader against the selfish interests of Big Pharma and government regulators alike.  The rest of the cast is very good, too, with Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doctor, Griffin Dunne as a defrocked medical man who is doing good in a place where he is needed, and Steve Zahn as Woodroof’s policeman friend.  It’s a strong character study, about a David who fights not one but two Goliaths – a lethal illness and the implacable powers that be.  And there are elements of social commentary about drug testing and the big business of pharmaceuticals.  Directed by Canada’s Jean–Marc Vallée (2011’s “Café de Flore,” 2009’s “The Young Victoria,” and 2005’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” Dallas Buyers Club” is one of the best films of the year.  It is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay.  It won Best Actor and Supporting Actor at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes.  It is a nominee in both of those categories at the Independent Spirit Awards; and it has a vast number of other awards and nominations.  Alas, the DVD offers hardly any extras; this film deserves a commentary.  For ages 18+:  Very coarse language (including sexual language); sexual content; and brief partial nudity.

“Captain Phillips” (USA, 2013) (B): “It was supposed to be easy.  I take ship… ransom… nobody get hurt.” That’s the way a young Somali pirate looks at his hijacking of the American container ship Maersk Alabama.  For him, it’s “just business.” The plague of piracy off the coast of the war-ravaged, impoverished, failed state of Somalia on the east coast of Africa has followed a familiar pattern over the past few years.  Small boats of armed men intercept large cargo ships in the busy shipping lanes where the Indian Ocean meets the Red Sea’s passage to the Suez Canal.  The pirates capture ships and crews and extort huge ransoms for their release.  Illegal fishing by foreign nations off the coast of Somalia as well as the illegal dumping of toxic wastes there by other nations have been cited as possible root causes for the decline of indigenous fishing and the rise of piracy.  One thing is certain:  Lawlessness and violence are endemic in Somalia.  It is thought that at least 70% of coastal communities there support the practice of piracy.   Based on an actual 2009 hijacking, “Captain Phillips” has elements of an action and suspense drama; but, at its heart, it is the battle of wills between a middle-aged commercial ship’s captain (the eponymous Richard Phillips of the title, played by Tom Hanks) and a young Somali pirate leader (Muse, played by the Somali novice actor Barkhad Abdi).  In their own ways, each of these men is in over their heads, faced with unpredictable events that threaten to spiral out of control.  Yet each needs to muster all of their wits and self-control in a struggle to prevail and stay alive.  It’s an involving, up-close-and-personal look at a life or death struggle that’s literally personalized in the form of these two foes.  Despite what separates them – language, history, material well-being, and familiarity with violence – they share some things in common, including a need to understand their opponent and to stay alive in the midst of desperate conflict.  It’s two men in an emotional pressure-cooker; and there is a movingly emotional scene from Tom Hanks late in the film that makes this a must-see movie.  “Captain Phillips” is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Abdi), and Best Editing.  It has a great many other award nominations elsewhere.  Very brief coarse language.

“Blue Jasmine” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming….  See, everything unraveled so quickly.” It opens with a cross-country flight.  Jasmine is talking compulsively and incessantly, turning her captive audience seatmate into an unwilling confidant for every detail of her life in an open-ended monologue.  She’s fleeing from Manhatten to San Francisco to find sanctuary with her sister; but her new accommodations and lifestyle are far from the ones in which she is accustomed to living.  Flashbacks show us her life of luxury and wealth in the Hamptons, along with the eventual collapse of both fortune and family — thanks to her husband’s financial fraud and marital infidelity.  Jasmine is spoiled, self-indulgent, and self-involved:  She may be broke, but that doesn’t stop her from traveling first class on her flight into self-imposed exile.  She’s also a snob – and a terrible sister.  Jasmine comes unhinged in time, with the present folding back into the past and old conversations replaying as monologues apparently addressed to the vacant space into which she sometimes stares.  At times, she seems half-crazy to others, but she’s just lost in painful memories.  But her instinct for self-preservation hasn’t been extinguished:  She can still muster the self-assurance of a once-privileged socialite; she has style; and she has a knack for embellishing.  It’s an award-caliber performance by Cate Blanchett.  Indeed, she has won Best Actress at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Australian Film Awards, and she is a leading contender in that category at the Academy Awards.  The rest of the cast isn’t far behind, with Sally Hawkins (as Jasmine’s self-doubting sister, Ginger); Alec Baldwin (as Jasmine’s big-wheel husband Hal); Bobby Cannavale (as Ginger’s good-hearted beau, a working class ‘Joe’ for whom Jasmine shows haughty, ill-disguised disdain); Andrew Dice Clay (as Ginger’s embittered ex, who blames Jasmine and Hal for the ruin of his marriage and his prospects); Peter Sarsgaard (as an American diplomat, who inexplicably lives like a man of leisure and means on the west coast rather than attending to his job-posting in Europe); and Louis C.K. as a low-key lothario.  Written and directed by Woody Allen (who does not appear in the film), “Blue Jasmine” is a poignant depiction of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Or, could she be in the midst of one?  Jasmine has been broken by life – and by her own character flaws.  But we can’t help feeling for her.  There are moments of dry humor, often arising from the anti-heroine’s monumental self-regard and snobbery.  The result is one of the best films of 2013.    DVD extras are modest, with a cast press conference and some mini interviews.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.

“Don Jon” (USA, 2013) (B+): “There are only a few things I really care about in life:  My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, and my porn.  I know, that last one sounds odd.  But I’m just being honest.  Nothing else does if for me the same way.” Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed the film) is a thirty-something bartender in working class New Jersey.  His enviable success with women has earned him the sobriquet “The Don.”  But, despite the bevy of beauties who visit his bed in a remarkable run of one-nighters, he still prefers porn to the real thing.  No real life sexual encounter has enabled him to ‘lose himself’ in the way that the pornographic videos he regularly consumes do.  The shimmering screen-saver on his computer (giving new meaning to the term ‘laptop’) is a sensuous swirl of color that beckons seductively.  Jon and his friends shamelessly objectify women, rating them for sex appeal on a scale of one to ten at the nightclub they prowl.  In their social setting, it’s the macho thing to do.  But this blend of social satire and romantic comedy makes it clear that viewing women as sex objects permeates our culture — it’s as close as mainstream magazines, television, movies, and advertising, not to mention the cheerleaders who strut their stuff at sports games.  The fact is that all of those media are saturated with sexual imagery — some of it borrowed from the underworld of pornography and dressed up to look marginally respectable.  But when Jon meets a particularly hot number who won’t ‘put out’ on a merely casual basis, he may have met his match.  Assessing the situation, Jon’s friend opines, “I think it’s dinner.  Maybe even lunch.  You might have to take this girl out for coffee.  Yeah, this is the long game, son.” Barbara (Scarlett Johansson in very funny Jersey-girl mode) wants to meet Jon’s family and friends; but she also wants to remold this diamond in the rough, cajoling Jon to enroll in night-school and aim for upwardly mobile white collar work.  In one funny moment, she is snobbishly appalled by Jon’s fastidious attention to housecleaning:  His knowledge of household cleaning products is not a fit topic for her notion of who he should be!  How then will she react to his addiction to pornography?  She’s a princess, and her childhood room in her parents’ house, decorated in shades of pink, with a movie poster from “Titanic” on the wall, proves the point.  And she knows how to use her considerable sexual charms to bend her man to her will.  As for Jon, he’s a chip off the old block:  Weekend meals with his family demonstrate that this particular acorn did not fall far from the tree:  He and his father (Tony Danza) are both adorned in sleeveless white tee-shirts, full of testosterone-driven macho bluster, as football blares on the flat-screen during dinner.  And there are recurring satirical jabs about Jon’s weekly confessionals at church.  His confessions include a very frank numerical tally of his sexual activities.  But one week’s better behavior yields the self-same penitential penalty from the unseen priest, to Jon’s amusing indignation.  And his weekly drives to church are incongruously preceded by a regular de rigueur display of verbal road rage on wheels.  Jon comes to love Barbara; but, he observes, “I’m sorry to say it’s still not as good as porn.” At night-class he keeps running across an older woman.  She grates on Jon at first, but he gradually starts to connect with her:  Julianne Moore’s Esther is a warm, accepting earth-mother, and she may have things to teach our wayward protagonist. “Don Jon” is coarse and raunchily funny at first; but, like its title character, it shows a gentler side as things progress.  There’s wisdom here, and poignancy, too.  But on the naughty side of the ledger, watch for a playful jest during the opening titles:  They suddenly go blurry, presumably in a nod to the old cautionary tale that too much self-gratification will lead to blindness.  There’s also an amusing take on a character arc, when a post-coital drive replaces road-rage with a bout of lip-synching to “Good Vibrations.”  “Don Jon” was nominated for Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.  No DVD extras.  For ages 18+:  Abundant coarse language; very frank sexual language (and lots of it); some sexual content; and brief partial nudity.

“Adore” (Australia/France, 2013) (B+): Growing up in an idyllic setting on the Australian coast, two childhood friends have retained an extremely close bond into adulthood.  Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) are inseparable, with a deep and abiding friendship that makes them as close as sisters.  Indeed, Roz tells Lil that her husband says that, “My real relationship isn’t with him, it’s with you.” Each of the women has had a single child — Ian and Tom, respectively — and the sons have followed in their mothers’ footsteps by becoming boon companions.  Then, one day, when the boys are 18 or 19 years old, the unexpected happens:  Each of them become sexually and romantically involved with their best friend’s mother.  There is no secrecy about it, among the quartet itself:  They simply accept these highly unconventional, mildly transgressive, twin parings as something natural and good.  Regarding their sons, the women remark, “They’re beautiful.  They’re like young gods.” And that’s only the first of three metaphorical allusions in fast succession to the world of mythological gods and demigods.  Lil says, “There’s something about them.” Roz replies, “It’s sort of an unearthly aura.” And a short time later, one of the young men remarks on the women looking at childhood photographs of themselves as young girls, in these words, “They’re looking at pictures of themselves as nymphets.  They’re admiring their own beauty.” And, beauty is much in evidence here — from the four protagonists themselves to the drop-dead gorgeous setting.  The film was shot on location at Seal Rocks in Australia’s New South Wales; and the small community clustered on the cliffs above the ocean-bay is utterly intoxicating.  It’s precisely the sort of place in which Aphrodite should meet her Adonis.  The relationships on display here are close, but never suffocatingly so.  Could it be that Lil and Roz seek sexual and romantic fulfillment with the other’s son in a symbolic surrogacy for an unspoken passion between the two women themselves?  That seems a remote possibility.  More likely, the close bonds between the four simply take organic expression in each woman’s relationship with the other’s son:  In this setting, and among these characters, it seems neither unnatural nor unwholesome.  Or are things as simple as they seem?  There are subtle hints here and there which may (or may not) point to jealousies and competition between the young men.  But is it doomed to end, if and when the young men’s fancies turn to partners their own age?  A song overheard by two of the characters may foreshadow that possibility:  “The sweet things in life to you were just loaned / So how do you lose what you’ve never owned?” Watts and Wright deliver quietly nuanced performances.  There are no histrionics here; but the tilt of a head and the flicker of an eye speak volumes in these two award-caliber performances.  For their part, Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville deliver sympathetic portrayals, of Ian and Tom, respectively, in lieu of the superficial ones we might have expected.  The handful of supporting players are likewise very good.  The dual mother-and-best-friend’s-son pairings, sound like the stuff of lurid Hollywood melodrama.  But that’s not what we get here.  “Adore” is an intoxicating relationship story:  It offers no moralistic judgments about the unconventional choices made by its emotional quadrangle.  Whether, in the end, it adds up to anything will be in the eye of the beholder.  For this reviewer, it is a lovely, highly original story about unbreakable connections forged by love.  “Adore” was directed by Luxembourg director Anne Fontaine (2009’s Coco avant Chanel”).  The screenplay was written by Christopher Hampton, who, appropriately, penned the play “Dangerous Liaisons,” about other transgressive relationships.  His screenplay is based on a short story, “The Grandmothers,” by the British novelist, poet, and playwright Doris Lessing (1919-2013), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.  Alas, there are no DVD extras at all.  What a shame!  We would have welcomed, at the very least, a commentary by the two leads and the director, a trailer, and a featurette on the location.  The dialogue in this film is in English.  For ages 18+:  sexual content; coarse language; brief partial nudity.

“The Sessions” (USA, 2012) (B+/A-): Like the rest of us, the severely handicapped long to experience love, in all of its forms — emotional, spiritual, and physical.  Crippled by polio at the age of 6, and confined to an iron lung for most of each day, Mark O’Brien (beautifully played by John Hawkes, who got an Oscar nomination for his memorable portrayal of Jennifer Lawrence’s fearsome uncle, Teardrop, in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”) earned a university degree and became a poet and journalist.  But, at age 38, he has never had a sexual encounter.  He longs “to touch, to hold, to kiss” a woman.  The absence of such experiences has left him feeling like “dried up bubblegum, stuck on the underneath of existence.” So, he asks the new priest at his parish how the church would view his project to lose his virginity outside the bounds of marriage:  “This is not exactly a confession.  I haven’t yet done the deed.  I was sort of hoping to get a quote in advance.” Father Brendan (William H. Macy of Fargo fame) tells Mark that he thinks God will give Mark a free pass on his enterprise.  And, so, Mark arranges a series of sessions with a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt’s Cheryl).  And it turns out that their encounters are more than just clinical exchanges.  Mark touches Cheryl in ways besides the physical, with his mischievous sense of humor and poetic view of life:  “Let me touch you with my words, for my hands lie limp as empty gloves.” Based on a true story (and an article penned by the real-life Mark O’Brien), “The Sessions” is sweetly bawdy, gentle, funny, poignant, and touching.  There are really moving performances from all concerned, including supporting players like Moon Bloodgood, Robin Weigert,  and Annika Marks — with award-caliber work by Hawkes and a career best from Hunt.  The result is extraordinarily humane, heart-warming, and endearing.  In short, it is one of the best films of 2012.  Written and directed by Ben Lewin, “The Sessions” earned a great many award nominations:  To name but a few, it was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at both the Academy Awards and BAFTA.  It was nominated in that category and for Best Actor at the Golden Globes.  And, it won the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance, where it was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  Extras (most of them on Blu-ray only, alas) include five featurettes and deleted scenes.  A commentary would have been very welcome.    For ages 18+.  Warning:  nudity; very frank sexual talk; and brief coarse language.

“Key of Life” [“Kagi-dorobô no mesoddo”] (Japan, 2012) (B): What do an earnest businesswoman in search of a husband, an amnesiac hit-man, and a young actor who has been unlucky at life and love, have in common?  Their paths collide in amusing ways in this romantic comedy of errors that’s built around mistaken identity.  It opens with a very sober and sensible businesswoman, Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue from 2008’s wonderful “Departures”), making a personal announcement to her workplace subordinates:  “On a more personal note, I will be getting married.”  “Who’s the lucky man?” asks one of her co-workers.  To which the earnest Kanae replies, “I still haven’t decided… I’d like to explore all my options.  If you know any suitable men looking to get married, please let me know.” Kanae has not yet met her intended mate, but that does not strike her as an insurmountable obstacle.  On the contrary, she methodically allots time to find, get to know, and marry Mister X.  She intends to bring her trademark efficiency to the objective she has set for herself:  (A) “Just because you’ve decided, doesn’t mean you’ll meet someone.” (B) “Have I ever failed at anything before?” Meanwhile, a despondent young actor, Sakurai (Masato Sakai), suffering the cumulative indignities of unemployment, being spurned by his girlfriend, and ignominiously failing in his attempt to end it all, goes to a public bath to contemplate his unhappy lot.  There, an errant bar of soap brings him into the path of Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa), a well-heeled 40-something man of aloof demeanor who slips and falls and ends up not knowing who is he is.  The depressed young actor sees a chance to reinvent his life, taking on the identity of the man who has lost his memory.  But, little does he know that the man with amnesia is a professional hit-man!  Needless to say, complications ensue.  The focus here is on Kondo, who is not all that he seems.  Reduced to poverty upon mistakenly assuming the identity of the unemployed young actor, he reconnects with his gentler side and forms a tentative relationship with the husband-hunting Kanae.  He is older than her, and he seemingly has nothing to offer in material terms, but she is intrigued by this quiet man without a past who is reinventing himself from the ground up:  “I don’t want others to define me.  I want to find out for myself who I am.” Indeed, identity — the question of who any of us really is — is an important theme in this film.  Written and directed by Kenji Uchida, the film blends moments of slapstick with genuine human tenderness for an appealing result.  Two of the key players are associated with different music — for Kanae, there’s the brightness of Mozart; for Kondo, the darker tones of Beethoven.  “Key of Life” won Best Screenplay at Japan’s Academy Awards, and all three leads got acting nominations for these roles.  Be sure to stay tuned for a brief postscript that comes onscreen after the first few end credits.  “Key of Life” is good fun, surprisingly touching at times, and a refreshing change of pace from North American examples of its genre.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is “Finale” (Hungary, 2011) (B). Two dour-looking men in dark suits drink in silence in a somewhat garish bar, then walk off purposefully into the night — with a deliberate stride that suggests a definite purpose.  We suppose that it may be a sinister one.  Are they mobsters or hit-men?  We don’t find out until the proverbial fat lady sings in this cute little one-note joke.  There’s no spoken dialogue in the conventional sense in this 8-minute short film directed by Balazs Simonyi.

“Amélie” [“Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”] (France, 2001) (A): Random moments, seeming coincidences, and ripples of causality (note the cascading dominoes in the film’s opening titles) all figure prominently in this delightfully whimsical story about a quixotic, oh-so-eccentric young woman.  In a dry, dead-pan voice, a narrator informs us that, “On September 3, 1973, a blue fly capable of flapping 70 beats a minute landed on St. Vincent Street in Montmartre.  At that moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth… At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome… made a dash for an egg.  Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born.” The same narrator proffers random bits of odd information, including lists of likes and dislikes for various characters (“Raphael Poulain dislikes peeing next to someone else”) — even those of a cat (who ‘likes overhearing children’s stories’).  Cause and effect collides with irony in the misapprehension that leads young Amélie to be erroneously deemed medically unfit for school and consigned to home-schooling, where her only friend is a suicidal goldfish.  “Deprived of playmates, slung between a neurotic and an iceberg, Amélie retreats into her imagination… In such a dead world [she] prefers to dream.”    Yet, as another character notes, and as this reviewer can personally attest, “Times are hard for dreamers.” We’re eleven and a half minutes into the film before actual dialogue begins; before that, it’s the narrator we hear.  And, from time to time Amélie breaks the proverbial “fourth wall” by looking right into the camera and talking directly to us.  She’s a gamin-like ingénue with impossibly large, impossibly dark eyes:  those saucer-like orbs are dark pools that set off an impish smile that is at once sweet and sweetly mischievous.  When she finds a box of someone’s childhood memorabilia that’s been lost for 40 years, our heroine “has a dazzling idea… She would find the box’s owner and give him back his treasure.” It’s her first step in becoming an anonymous, benevolent intervener in the lives of others.  With a peripatetic garden gnome as an inanimate sidekick, she’s equal parts agent provocateur for good, agent of fate, and guardian angel:  “Like Don Quixote, she pitted herself against the grinding windmills of all life’s miseries.” And in one bravura scene, she gives a blind man a whirlwind tour, complete with rapid-patter color commentary.  But the old painter whom she befriends urges Amélie not to neglect her own happiness.  She may be ‘different’ and ‘in the middle yet outside’ of the world of others, but “luck is like the Tour de France.  You wait and it flashes past you.  You have to catch it while you can.” This magical film is fanciful, funny, and sweet — just like its irresistible elfin heroine.  Audrey Tautou is utterly enchanting in this role, causing at least one film critic to fall hopelessly in love with her!  “Amélie” was co-written by its director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1991’s “Delicatessen,” 2004’s “A Very Long Engagement,” and 2009’s “Micmacs”) and Guillaume Laurant.  Yann Tiersen provides the whimsical, accordion-driven musical score — and it’s note-perfect, saturated with the same loveable eccentricity as the film’s protagonist.  And, speaking of saturation, watch for the prominent use of primary colors — especially red (signifying perhaps the heart) and green (embodying mayhap vitality and life).  “Amélie” earned five Academy Award nominations, as Best Foreign Language Film, Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Sound.  At France’s César Awards, it won Best Film, Director, Music, and Production Design; and it was nominated in nine other categories, including Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor (twice).  It was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.  It earned nine nominations at BAFTA, winning in two of those categories — Best Original Screenplay and Production Design.  And, at the European Film Awards, it won Best Film, Director, Cinematography, and an Audience Award; and it was nominated for Best Actress.  The DVD offers an informative full-length commentary by the director, who points out, for example, that a brief news scene of a horse spontaneously leaping over a fence and running alongside racing bicyclists is footage of an actual event.  He also notes that the snippets of imaginative childhood playfulness seen over the opening credits correspond to each of the various jobs being credited on screen.  A second disc offers a generous helping of other extras. “Amélie” is a sheer delight — and it is not to be missed! For ages 18+:  Brief nudity and brief sexual content.

“Viper in the Fist” [“Vipère au poing”] (France, 2004) (A): “Birth is a lottery.  To this day I wonder, was I lucky or not?  Luck makes us kings or potatoes.” Whimsical, darkly funny, and poignant all at the same time, this wonderful film is like an unexpected gift.  It adeptly straddles the borderlands between muted humor and darker drama, as an adult narrator reflects back upon the pivotal moments of his childhood in 1926 Brittany.  It was then that two boys are reunited with their parents after a seven-year absence:  The death of their kindly grandmother obliges the boys’ parents to return to France from a protracted stay in Indochina.  A new, younger brother comes with him.  But, he’s the least of the changes.  For their mother is the cold antithesis of all things maternal.  Icy, imperious, and utterly devoid of any semblance of kindness or compassion, she imposes a Spartan regime, depriving the boys’ of their bedroom heat source, their pillows, and their eiderdowns; and she even confiscates the little luxuries (like fountain pens and tie pins) their doting grandmother had bestowed.  Here’s a mother who embodies every mean-spirited ounce of the proverbial wicked step-mother.  In a word, she’s cruel — and she is close kin to the dark queens of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White.” Except that she’s not the boys’ step-mother; she’s their actual mother.  The narrator, Jean (Jules Sitruk), attracts Paule’s (Catherine Frot) particular animosity for some reason.  Could it be because he reminds her of her self?  “You hate me, yes, but I’ll tell you this.  Of all my sons, you resemble me the most,” she says with intense emotion to a shocked Jean.  Could it be that there is grudging admiration between this pair of implacable foes?  Paule says of Jean (in justifying her latest harshness toward him), that, “He’s hard as nails, like me.” For his part, Jean has this to say about his tormentor:  “What guts, Mother!  Convalescent, half-drowned, she leads the assault.  I’m proud of us both.” A war between the two begins the very day Paule arrives:  “By evening, we’d lost all desire to call this woman ‘Mother.’” Jean’s father is ineffectual; while he provides the prized family name, his wife holds the purse-strings:  “The Rezeaus belonged to the true-blue bourgeoisie who never had to earn a living.  His wife’s wealth allowed Father to put all his [time] into his life’s work: flies… He’d brought back 50 new species.  Care of his children could wait.”  The beguilingly matter-of-fact tone throughout is dryly ironic:  Jean’s older brother’s first impression of their mother is that, She’s got a tongue like a kick in the pants.” And when the family’s civil war is at its most bitter, young Jean muses that, “The Borgias poisoned each other.  Why shouldn’t we?” Based on the acclaimed autobiographical novel by Hervé Bazin, “Viper in the Fist” was directed by Phillipe De Broca.  It is beautifully written and performed, with a first-rate cast.  But, what truly sets it above and apart is the sheer originality of its tone and story, telling a coming of age story with an unexpected combination of sadness, dry humor, and unvarnished nostalgia.  It is a wonderful, whimsical treat, and it is easily one of the best films not only of 2004 but also of the decade. Highly recommended! For ages 16+:  Brief coarse talk.

“Frances Ha” (USA, 2012) (B): Someone tactlessly tells the 27-year old protagonist of this quirky comedy that, “You don’t have your shit together.” The fact is that Frances lives in a state of perpetually suspended expectations.  Part free spirit, part wounded bird, she longs to soar free.  But, beset by setbacks and dashed hopes, her life, or rather, her future, is indefinitely on hold.  Frances wants to work as a dancer; but there seems to be little or no prospect of her making it past the apprenticeship level at a New York dance company.  And, in lieu of a home of her own, Frances shares space with a succession of roommates, in flats that belong to them.  One of them, Sophie, is Frances’ best friend; but their platonic partnership is rocked by Sophie’s engagement.  For her part, Frances declines her boyfriend’s suggestion that they move in together.  She can’t offer much in the way of rationale.  Maybe it’s just, as noted above, that Frances lives only in the present and lacks whatever it takes to plan and work toward a future.  Does she have trouble committing to her own life?  Or, is she just unrealistically devoted to dream values?  Frances seems to have postponed acceptance of grown-up responsibilities, opting, instead, for a protracted stay in the dreamy world of a post-adolescent who is always on the verge of full adulthood.  She’s on that threshold, but she keeps declining to cross it.  Meanwhile, she’s carefree on the outside but subtly sad and lonely and serially disappointed on the inside.  Greta Gerwig (“Lola Versus,” “To Rome with Love,” and “Greenberg”) is a thoroughly engaging actress.  Here, she gives a serio-comic portrayal of a quirky (maybe even kooky) young woman and makes her quite endearing.  Directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale” & “Margot at the Wedding”), “Frances Ha” is a characteristically offbeat look at eccentric characters trying to find not just their place in the world but also themselves into the bargain.  It skirts the borderlands of pretension and pointlessness; but, at the end of the day, it is redeemed by Gerwig’s portrayal of a young woman who is awkward and uncertain, but also full of élan.  Mickey Sumner is also very good as Frances’ gal-pal Sophie.  The film is shot in B&W, which somehow makes it at once immediate and fable-like.  A festival-film to its core, “Frances Ha” is a nominee for Best Film and Editing at the Independent Spirit Awards.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language and some sexual talk.

“Fill the Void” [“Lemale et ha’halal”] (Israel, 2012) (B): Eighteen year old Shira (Hadas Yaron) is looking forward to marriage — and her parents and a matchmaker are already hard at work to find her a suitable match.  Things begin humorously, with Shira and her mother, Rivka (Irit Sheleg), looking-over one matrimonial possibility (by prior arrangement) in the dairy section of their local supermarket.  But, the sudden death of Shira’s older sister Esther (Renana Raz) changes everything.  Esther is pregnant, and her infant survives, though she does not.  Her husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), soon thinks about remarrying, and his likely choice is a childhood friend living abroad.  Desperate not to be parted from her only grandchild, Rivka suggests that Shira take her sister’s place.  What unfolds is a story about choices, confusion, pain, and love.  Although it is set inside the seemingly alien world of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Hasidic community, it eschews politics and religion altogether.  Writer and director Rama Burshtein had embarked on a career in filmmaking before she became religious.  She is part of the Hasidic community, and she seeks to give a cultural voice to that world — a world which is too often perceived from the outside in merely fundamentalist, if not outright extremist, political hues.  Burshtein is on the inside of this world, telling their story to the rest of us.  And guess what?  For all the differences in custom and attire, it’s a universal story, one that’s instantly accessible to viewers the world over.  Yes, we can readily identify with these characters’ very human dilemmas; but, there is something off-putting about the markers of tribalism that abound in this cloistered world:  The prescribed dress code for men (black coats and outlandishly oversized headwear) look like anachronistic relics of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century:  All of the men sport archaic-looking beards and forelocks; all of the married women cover their heads; and in temple, the sexes are segregated.  The resulting conformity of appearance and custom looks uncomfortably cult-like to an outsider.  And old habits, like the older generation meeting in secrecy to discuss the marital future of a young woman, are hard to reconcile with a contemporary understanding of human rights.  While Shira agonizes over her future, an alternative solution is never adequately addressed.  Why not enlist her far more willing middle sister, Frieda (Hila Feldman) as the replacement bride?  Frieda has been passed over by all potential suitors.  (It’s not clear why, as she is an attractive woman.)  But she is never seriously in contention to replace her deceased sibling:  “I can’t,” says Yochay.  “Why not,” asks Shira’s mother.  “I don’t know,” is Yochay’s unhelpful explanation.  Without some cogent reason, it lingers like a logical flaw in the story.  Just as ambiguous, but far more satisfying, is this exchange between Yochay and Shira, when she is considering marrying him:  (Y) “Why do you want to marry me?”  (S) “For the same reasons you’re willing to.”  When Yochay persists in his quest for an explanation, all Shira will say is, “It’s the right thing to do.”  But, there’s no doubt that Shira is conflicted and torn about this choice.  Playing an accordion for a class of kindergarteners, she unconsciously switches from a playful upbeat tune to a melancholy one that stops the children’s play dead in its tracks.  That same music carries over into the next scene, in which she covers her head, as if figuratively trying the signifier of married status on for size.  And Shira is never less than clear-minded about what her choice entails — giving up the hope of young love with a man her own age for a marriage born of convenience with her older brother-in-law.  When a rabbi asks Shira how she feels about the possibility of marrying Yochay, she says “It’s not a matter of feelings.”  The rabbi wisely replies, “It’s only a matter of feelings,” which is to say that feelings ought to trump all other considerations in such matters.  It would spoil things to give away the ending.  Suffice it to say that things end on an ambiguous note, leaving it to us to draw our own conclusions:  Will Shira’s choice bring her happiness, or not?  This reviewer imputed a very different conclusion to that final scene than the one the director has stated was in her own mind.  “Fill the Void” is a gently-paced but immersive experience:  It moves slowly, but it completely envelops us in a culture that is unfamiliar to most of us.  “Fill the Void” won Best Film, Director, Actress (Yaron, who is not a member of the Hasidic community), Supporting Actress (Sheleg), Cinematography, Screenplay, and Make-up; and it was nominated in six other categories, including Supporting Actor   The Europen Film Awards recognized the film’s cinematographer for ‘intuitive camerawork — both realistic and poetic’).  And the film won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, as well as an honorable mention for its director — and a nomination for the Golden Lion (Best Film).  DVD extras include a feature -length commentary and a 16-minute Q&A session — both of them with the director and the lead actress.

“Broken” (U.K., 2012) (B-): ‘Skunk’ is a precocious and vivacious eleven-year old girl who lives with her single parent father Archie (Tim Roth), her older brother Jed (Bill Milner), and their live-in nanny Kasia (Zana Marjanovic) on a cul de sac in suburban England.  But it will be a time of innocence lost for Skunk (Eloise Laurence), as she is forced to grow up too soon in reaction to things she witnesses.  It starts with a moment of sudden violence, when a bellicose and intimidating Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear) launches a violent assault in broad daylight on a gentle, simple-minded neighborhood boy named Rick (Robert Emms).  The Oswalds are a blot on the street’s sense of calm and security, with the volatile single-father and his trio of trashy, delinquent daughters intimidating — if not assaulting outright — anyone who crosses them.  Meanwhile Skunk has a crush on her nanny’s boyfriend (Cillian Murphy’s Mike), a man who is going to be her teacher when she starts high school in a few days.  But she’s also drawn to Dillon (an orphaned boy who’s staying with his aunt for the summer).  Skunk is a bit of a tomboy.  She is also the apple of her father’s eye.  (The filmmakers see “Broken” as an innocent love story between father and daughter.)  He, in turn, is a man of quiet decency, who happens to be a lawyer.  Discerning readers may already have detected fascinating similarities to a famous novel and film:  Indeed, the parallels to “To Kill a Mockingbird” are many and deliberate.  But this adaptation of a novel by Daniel Clay is not meant to be a direct reboot of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel.  Rather, it’s an intriguing tribute to that masterpiece from director Rufus Norris (who comes to the task from an award-winning background as a theater director) in his feature film debut.  It’s also the acting debut of the 12-year old actress who plays Skunk, and she is thoroughly convincing as a girl with great strength of character.  The result is an ensemble drama about loss of innocence and different forms of love.  There are first-rate ingredients here — foremost among them, the strong performances and the intriguing echoes of the great aforementioned American novel (and movie) — but they don’t quite gel into something as successful as we’d like.  There is far too much going on in the overly busy plot, with intrusions of contrivance and heavy-handed coincidences and convergences that strain authenticity.  And, the film has too much artifice at play in re-imagining the Harper Lee novel, instead of daring to find and hew to the heart of the story.  Despite the winningly precocious, but always very genuine, presence of novice thespian Laurence and solid work by the rest of the ensemble, there is little or no emotional engagement for the viewer with these characters or their predicaments.  They intrigue rather than move:  Moving an audience is, after all, the most elusive and ephemeral quality of any story and any performance.  “Broken” won Best British Independent Film and Best Supporting Actor (Kinnear) at the British Independent Film Awards, where it was also nominated for Best Actor (Roth), Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Murphy), Promising Newcomer (Laurence), and Technical Achievement (for music).  At the European Film Awards, it was nominated for European Discovery of the Year (for director Rufus Norris).  For ages 18+ only:  Abundant coarse language; some sexual content; brief nudity; and some violence.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is “The Way the World Ends” (USA, 2012) (C+). One morning an ordinary suburban couple wakes up to discover that the world vanished overnight.  “The sun’s gone.  It didn’t rise,” observes Susan (May Mackay).  Sky and earth have vanished, too, leaving a flat grey plane in their place.  But people, houses, cars, and chattels remain.  And, there’s no mention on the radio or in the newspaper that anything is amiss.  People seem a tad constrained or awkward in their manner, but no one broaches the subject that something terrible and final has happened.  Nevertheless, Dave (Joseph Buttler) decides to go to work as usual, since it seems better than ‘sitting around here.’  There’s a subtle tension in the air when he gets there.  But, why should he not be there, since his colleagues are?  An astute observer may notice framed posters on the office walls which combine pictures of carnival rides with words like “Dreams” and “Believe.”  Starting with deliberately melodramatic, retro-style titles that hearken back to 1950’s science fiction, this 15-minute short film from director Matthew B. Wolff concerns the intersection between subjective and objective realities and takes us in some unexpected directions.

“Epic” (USA, 2013) (B-/B): A teen girl goes to stay with her kooky-scientist father and finds herself drawn into the world of diminutive beings he’s somehow sure exists in the forest and about which he obsesses to the exclusion of all else (an idée-fixe that cost him his marriage).  As luck would have it, the skeptical ‘MK’ is shrunk down to size (a couple of inches tall) and thrust into the midst of a life and death battle between the little people who protect the forest (the leaf-men and their queen) and a host of goblin-like “boggans.”  The result is an enjoyable animated fantasy-adventure — with a nicely realized sylvan world, plenty of derring-do, moments of both romance and humor, and mostly engaging characters.  Making MK’s father an over-the-top zany, klutzy, and absent-minded caricature is a misstep; otherwise, the seasoned hero, the noble queen, the irresponsible swordsman in training, the comical slug and snail chums, a cool-cat caterpillar, a ruthless villain, and the resourceful teen girl herself all keep us engaged.  There’s even a nice guiding principle, namely, “Many leaves, one tree:  We’re all individuals, but we’re all connected.” (All of the extras are on the Blu-ray disc only.  Why do they do that?)

“Spring Breakers” (USA, 2012) (F): Three wild things and a good girl who’s bored with being good head to Florida for a rowdy bacchanalia on the beach.  The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll that ensue never amount to more than an excuse to leer at nubile young coeds.  Despite its absurd pretensions at avant-garde art, it’s just a “Girls Gone Wild” video turned into an imitation of a movie.  Things are improbable from the get-go, with the three inexplicably thrill-seeking girls robbing a roadside diner (armed with squirt guns, hammers, and bluff) to finance their hedonistic holiday.  Eventually they hook up with a party-loving gangster named ‘Alien’ (James Franco), a creepy-looking character with corn rows and silver teeth, for a descent into real reckless abandon.  Things culminate with a scene that encapsulates the monumental absurdity of what writer/director Hamony Korine has wrought:  Two of the girls invade a rival gangster’s compound clad only in neon bikinis and pink balaclavas mowing down the opposing minions with their newly acquired machine guns.  Presumably those neon bikinis and bright head-coverings blind the professional thugs and make the girls invulnerable to the many bullets aimed in their direction.  It’s just one of this film’s many moments of wanton excess.  It is filled to overflowing with extremely vulgar talk, copious consumption of alcohol and cocaine, and all-pervasive lewdness — all of which are thoroughly off-putting.  But that’s not even mentioning the gratuitous oddness that masquerades as style:  In one scene, two of the girls twirl with guns (and the aforementioned pink balaclavas) while Alien sings a Britney Spears anthem.  And, in lieu of words worth hearing, we get pseudo-philosophical inanities like this:  “Some people want to do the right thing; I like doing the wrong thing.” The result is a psychedelic train-wreck of a movie, with Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine as the girls who just want to have fun.  The director describes his film as “some crazy shit.”  He’s not wrong — except in his even crazier assumption that anyone would want to watch it.  For ages 18+ only:  Nudity and copious amounts of very coarse language.

“The Conjuring” (B/B+): In 1971 in Rhode Island, a couple with their five daughters move into an old country house.  Their very first night brings stopped clocks, a “funky smell,” bruises on the wife, and a dead dog.  Next up are sleepwalking and all manner of frightening bumps in the night.  Someone in the story remarks that, “Fear is defined as a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or immanence of danger…” Well, a feeling of agitation and anxiety is what this nice haunted house thrill delivers in spades.  Unease looms large here and builds relentless.  The first half is scariest — because the family is alone.  It switches gears halfway through, to investigation procedural mode, as a husband and wife team of ghost-hunters are enlisted to help; then it changes tack again to become an exorcism story.  It gets a tad too busy when some out-of-work avians from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” make an appearance.  But, it’s a sheer delight that “The Conjuring” all but eschews the usual genre staples of gruesomeness, gore, and grossness.  It generates most of its scares from atmosphere and from creating characters we care about.  Joseph Bishara’s creepy, dissonant score doesn’t hurt, either:  It is effectively nerve-wracking from the moment the Warner studio logo appears on the screen.  The DVD has an 8-minute behind the scenes featurette; while the Blu-ray adds two more (totaling 21 minutes), which introduce us to the real life principals whose story (loosely, one can safely presume) inspired the movie.  Director James Wan has utilized “classic haunted house horror movie tropes” here, noting that, “There’s a reason why they’re there; because when they work, they’re so effective!” They sure work here!  For ages 16+: Frightening scenes.

“The Croods” (B+): “Our world was about to come to an end, and there were no rules on our cave walls to prepare us for that.” A prehistoric family of cave-dwellers has to flee geological cataclysm born of continental drift — and their journey propels them in what they have hitherto most feared — the unknown.  This highly entertaining animated adventure is voiced by Nicholas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, and Clark Duke.  The result is fun, funny (“We’ve gotten along just fine without brains till now”), unexpectedly touching, and impressively inventive.  Uplifting and recommended.

“Requiem” (Germany, 2006) (B/B+): “Why won’t God let me be happy?” Bedeviled by epilepsy, a cold, unloving mother, and social isolation, a young woman yearns only for a normal life — with independence, friends, and romance.  Michaela seems set to achieve all of those things when she leaves home for university; but her illness returns and, with it, a growing conviction that her malaise is supernatural rather than medical.  But is it?  It’s clear that Michaela is under severe emotional stress, and it’s just as clear that she interprets the world around her through a prism of devout religiosity that treads nigh onto superstition.  Hence, her fascination for the suffering figure of St. Katharina of Biasca, who “resisted the devils and found redemption in death” at the age of 33.  One of Michaela’s few friends, urges her, in exasperation and concern, to “Stop it with your stupid saint.  Do you want to end up like her?” And it’s an ever so apt question.  Does Michaela’s skewed sense of herself and of the world around her set her on a collision course with real or imagined martyrdom?  Is her epilepsy accompanied by another, undiagnosed psychological disorder?  There may be signs of obsessive behavior here.  Or, is there something supernatural going on?  Interestingly, the film never lets us see the demonic forces its protagonist professes to see, or hear the voices only she can hear.  Is she schizophrenic?  Or is she just a lost soul, made fragile by a cloistered, unhappy existence and overwhelmed by the stress of a dysfunctional family and uncertainty about how to make her way in the strange new world of everyday life?  Is she pushed to a mental and/or emotional breakdown by cold objective realities, rather than by anything spectral?  You can draw your own conclusions from this remarkably understated, yet quietly poignant story of a young woman struggling to stay afloat in turbulent waters.  Sandra Huller delivers a strong performance.  The basic premise is not unlike the 2005 American film, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” but the emphasis here is strictly on character.  There are no special effects at all — and they’re not needed.  “Requiem” won Best Actress and Director (for Hans-Christian Schmid) awards at the Berlin International Film Festival.  It was nominated for Best Actress at the European Film Awards.  At the German Film Awards, it won first place as Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (for Imogen Kogge, who plays Michaela’s mother), Sound, and Costume Design;  it won second place as Best Film, Director, and Editing; and it was nominated as Best Supporting Actor (for Burghart Klauftner, as Michaela’s father), Screenplay, and Production Design.

“Before Midnight” (USA, 2013) (B+): It’s trite nowadays to cite the saying that, “Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” But the differences between the genders often do seem to transcend mere anatomy.  Differences — in outlook and goals and emotional reactions — are not simply a factor of gender, of course.  But gender does seem to play its role, too.  And, while some differences may prompt attraction, others can just as easily repel.  How, then, can we hope to form lasting relationships and enduring bonds?  One cinematic pairing — between an American man (Ethan Hawke’s Jesse) and a French woman (Julie Delpy’s Celine) — has spanned 18 years.  It started in 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” in which boy met girl on a train, when both were in their twenties.  They disembarked in Vienna and walked and talked all night.  Simply that, but it was enough for the couple to fall in love a little.  But, separated by time and distance, they lost contact with each other, until an autobiographical book by Jesse caught Celine’s notice and she contrived to reunite with him in Paris, while he was there on a book tour:  That second encounter is the story of 2004’s “Before Sunset.” More perambulatory conversations ensued, and it ended with the now-married Jesse and the still single Celine looking like this reunion was for keeps.  Flash forward another few years, to 2013’s “Before Midnight,” and we find that the couple have indeed stayed together.  In the interval between the second and third installments of their story, Jesse has divorced his American wife and moved in with Celine; and they have a pair of twin daughters from their union.  As the film opens, Jesse is seeing off his 14-year-old son, who is returning to Jesse’s ex-wife in America, after a summer holiday with Jesse’s new family in Greece.  In their scene together at the airport, Jesse seems to be trying too hard; he’s overly solicitous with questions and advice, as if trying to compress a lot of parenting into these parting few minutes with his son.  The parting lingers with Jesse, who is troubled by all that he is missing in his son’s life.  He muses about relocating his new family from Paris to Chicago; but Celine is not well-disposed to the hypothetical notion.  The more they talk, the more other doubts and irritants get voiced.  Do they still love each other?  Are they still motivated to make their relationship work?  What kinds of compromises can each make to satisfy the other?  It is notat all necessary to be familiar with the previous two movies to enjoy this one; but, this latest installment follows a similar pattern.  At once conversational and philosophical, the film is full of non-linear dialogue.  Early on, for example, Celine’s deliberations about a possible job change jump tracks to  amused banter about their secreting a half-eaten apple from the hand of one of their sleeping daughters.  That, in turn, prompts an exchange of memories from their own childhood.  Jesse and Celine are loquacious; indeed, they talk incessantly — about anything and everything, with topics that take abrupt turns down many highways and byways.  Affectionate teasing can just as easily turn to serious disagreements, however.  And the relationship, however clearly “meant to be,” is fraught with competing perceptions and divergent aspirations.  There’s a lovely extended scene (many of the film’s scenes are shot as long extended scenes) with three couples and a pair of single elders at a dinner table, all of them sharing varied perspectives on love and relationships.  One young woman quotes the advice left by her great-grandmother:  “Her big advice was not to be too consumed with romantic love.  Friendships and work, she said, brought her the most happiness.” Although a brief scene of Jesse discussing his next novel seems a tad pretentious and pointless, most of what’s talked about in the film is utterly authentic.  These characters feel as real as our own friends, and their conversations are pleasingly naturalistic in content and delivery.  It gives the film an almost documentary-like feel.  Those who are familiar with the two earlier films will have the added advantage of having seen the same couple at three different stages of their lives.  With our arrival in the 40’s often comes restlessness and doubt and sometimes regrets:  “Is this really my life… Is it happening right now?” asks Jesse.  “There’s no room for spontaneity.  It’s all gone from our lives.” says Celine, who, late in the film, has a very good moment on the proverbial razor’s edge, poised between making one choice or its opposite.  Not until an hour into the film do we learn (though it is not a spoiler to reveal it here) that Jesse and Celine aren’t actually married.  But, in the midst of the sudden frictions between them, Jesse utters words that would make (and perhaps do constitute) a perfect marriage vow:  “I am giving you my whole life… I’ve got nothing larger to give.  I’m not giving it to anybody else.” Directed (as were the first two films) by Richard Linklater, “Before Midnight was co-written by him and its two stars.  (Their screenplay won a Hollywood Film Award.)  Conversational to its very core, it has two people exploring life and relationships and each other through words — all against the lovely backdrop of old stone houses and seaside tavernas in Greece’s southern Peloponnese.  The result is sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, sometimes poignant, sometimes fraught with tension, and always quite enchanting.  DVD extras include a welcome commentary with the director and stars, a Q&A with the trio, and a featurette about their characters’ reunion.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language; sexual talk; nudity; and sexual content.

“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (USA, 2013) (B/B+): He walked out that door as [a] sort of aging student hobo.  By the time he made the 50 yard walk, he was a rock star.  He was one of the most famous guys on the planet.” So says someone about the peripatetic computer hacker Julian Assange.  A “transparency radical,” this prematurely white-haired young Australian cyber-hippy founded WikiLeaks as a purportedly safe way for whistle-blowers to unveil state and corporate secrets in the public interest.  And that was a commendable aim in the post-9/11 world of massive state surveillance of its own law-abiding citizens and the ill-conceived, open-ended war on terrorism that is being used to justify every manner of lawless encroachment on fundamental human rights.  It’s a world, after all, in which a supposedly ‘liberal’ president of the United States, Barack Obama, has the shameless temerity to say that the state apparatus over which he presides is showing commendable “restraint” in wielding its unconstitutional police-state powers and that we should therefore simply ‘trust’ its countless (and nameless) minions not to abuse those unwarranted powers.  Those nefarious powers include the power to intercept all of the telephone calls and emails of every person on the continent — without a search warrant, let alone reasonable and probable grounds to believe that those being indiscriminately eavesdropped upon have committed any criminal offense whatsoever.  And, there’s the power to hold prisoners without charge or trial (in flagrant violation of the most basic legal guarantees), to implement assassination by aerial drone as a routine part of state practice, and to ignore the law (and common decency) by torturing prisoners.  Sadly, in that world of egregious state misconduct, most of us have chosen to ignore the relentless attack on our supposedly cherished rights and freedoms.  Into that vacuum come the few who still feel inclined to act on their conscience.  There’s Julian Assange, who aptly remarks, “I’m fond of the phrase: ‘Lights on, rats out.” (In a free country, the lights should truly be kept on, to illuminate the wrongdoing of those in positions of power, wrongdoing that subverts our freedom and poisons our democracy at its very root.)  There’s Bradley Manning, the troubled young U.S. Army private who made what very well may be “the biggest leak of secret material in the history of this particular planet” and who was improperly held in solitary confinement, subjected to systematic abuse while awaiting trial, punitively charged with the clearly inappropriate offense of “espionage” (of which he was ultimately acquitted), and sentenced to a draconian term of 35 years imprisonment — far more than most actual criminals ever face.  There’s the Icelandic poet turned parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, who hopes to turn her country into a haven for freedom of information, after corrupt banking practices nearly destroyed that fair land.  And, most recently of all (though he does not figure in this film), there’s Edward Snowden, who did the world a immense favor by revealing the clear and present danger posed by security state apparatus in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere in the supposedly free West, an apparatus that began (soon after 9/11) to intercept our telephone calls and emails at the rate of 60,000 per second, turning every citizen into a potential suspect and crushing any semblance of privacy or due process.  We have shamefully allowed ourselves to be cowed by the threat of terrorism into accepting the relentless erosion of the very freedoms and rights and sacred principles upon which our very civilization is founded.  (Truth be told, we accepted untold foreign oppression and war in years gone by on the equally flimsy basis of our struggle against the malign ideology of communism.)  The truth-tellers amongst us deserve to be lauded and supported and emulated.  But turning them into celebrities is another thing altogether:  Someone says of Assange, “He was kind of the new Mick Jagger.  Groupies, stalkers, media, everyone had a big interest in Julian at the time.  And he knew it.” Governments, too, had a keen interest in him, singling him out for verbal attack (and, it is supposed, intended prosecution) in connection with the Bradley Manning leaks, even though they chose to ignore the large traditional media organizations (The New York Times and The Guardian) which cooperated with WikiLeaks in publishing the same revelations.  The howls of outrage were, instead, focused with laser-like precision onto WikiLeaks and Assange.  The former was decried as “a terrorist organization.”  Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, opined that Assange is “an enemy combatant who’s engaged in information warfare against the United States.” Others, including the reliably histrionic Fox News, lambasted Assange as a “blackmail, extortionist, terrorist,” and as a “crackpot, alleged sex offender,” adding that “a dead man can’t leak stuff.”  Even a former adviser to Canada’s Prime Minister made an incendiary remark urging that Assange be assassinated by the state.  Such splenetic displays of venom in the public discourse were grossly abusive, disproportionate, and unjustified.  For his part, Assange may at times be guilty of poor judgment, arrogance, and an alleged propensity for playing the prima donna.  When other journalists pointed out that the Manning leaks might endanger the lives of Afghans who had assisted the U.S. led coalition forces in Afghanistan, Assange is alleged to have dismissed the concern, likening those in danger to collaborators or informers:  “If an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces, he deserves to die.” Such an attitude smacks of callousness, arrogance, and an ideological bias that few benign critics of Western policies would support.  People of good will, people of conscience, want to correct the mistakes and deliberate misconduct of our governments and our countries; but we do not seek to harm either.  Assange’s disturbing callousness put his own benevolence into some question.  But it takes more than one offensive remark to take the true measure of a man; and, one thing is certain:  WikiLeaks, or other outlets like it, is serving a vital public interest.  Only an informed public can make informed decisions.  Only an informed public can hold its own government (and private sector power brokers) accountable.  By their determined undermining of fundamental rights, our own governments have rendered themselves untrustworthy.  It is not their so-called “restraint” that we must rely upon, but rather our own zealous scrutiny of their covert actions that will safeguard our liberty and our battered democratic way of life.  As George Orwell said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Written and directed by Alex Gibney, who won an Academy Award (Best Documentary Feature) for 2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side,”We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” is a gripping story of ideas and personalities in collision.  There’s hubris here, but there’s also courage — heroism, even — in those who seek to inform the public of what every free people has an absolute right to know, including the real costs of the wars being waged in our name (witness the infamous “Collateral Murder” video of an Apache helicopter gunship mowing down innocent civilians in error in Iraq) and the unprecedented but very deliberate development of nascent police-states in the very heart of the free world.  Such efforts need to be widely and vigorously supported and emulated, even if those who spearhead them sometimes have clay-feet like the rest of us.  Dealing, as it does, from its first word till its last, with such vital, pressing issues of the day and with such oft-colorful personalities, this fascinating documentary is a must-see for all thoughtful people.  DVD extras include some deleted scenes and a portion of the audio of a statement made by Bradley Manning at his trial, which was covertly recorded and smuggled out of the military courtroom.  For ages 18+: Coarse language.

“The Hunt” [“Jagten”] (Denmark, 2012) (B+/A-): “It wasn’t supposed to happen.” So says a child, whose ill-conceived (and untrue) accusation against her father’s best friend unleashes a maelstrom of suspicion, accusations, anger, and hostility upon the head of an innocent.  For it is clear from the outset that Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is utterly innocent of the sexual abuse accusation that gathers force and assumes all the proportions of a social tsunami.  A beloved teacher, he is adored by the kindergarten kids who are in his charge.  They delight in laying in wait for him, setting an ambush, and then springing upon their prey in happy laughter:  “Get him!  Get him!” they shout.  To which their mock prey replies, “You are too many,” as he pretends to collapse under their onslaught.  That mirthful pantomime is a prophetic harbinger of what is to come:  An entire community — friends, colleagues, storekeepers, and perhaps even the new woman in his life — are about to make Lucas the prey of their metaphorical (and at times even literal) bloodlust.  And why?  Because the child to whom he is closet of all, the precocious young Klara, utters a few accusatory words in a moment of jealousy, when Lucas gently tries to deflect the child’s crush on him.  When school authorities question the girl, they ham-handedly break just about every rule in the book, putting words in her mouth and ideas in her head, ascribing meanings she never intended.  And when things take on a life of their own, a full-fledged witch-hunt is unleashed, making it all but impossible for a confused young child to retract the few short words that created the frenzy in the first place:  “They say you did things to me,” she says in her confusion.  Ironies abound:  Lucas hurts Klara’s feelings by doing precisely what is (obviously) the right thing (rebuffing her inappropriate expressions of affection for him); and Klara is only even aware of the sexual matters she speaks of because she was fleetingly shown a pornographic image, in a moment of mindless irresponsibility, by her boorish teenage brother and his friend.  Few, save his own son, stand by Lucas, and he is reduced, without just cause, to the status of hated pariah: “They’ve gone raving mad,” says his sole remaining friend.  And therein lies the dark human stain at the heart of this story — the human capacity, nay, need, to unleash a vicious bloodlust, hatred, and gleeful desire to victimize the socially designated ‘other.’  The appointed object of persecution may be an individual or it may be a minority.  What remains is the ease and enthusiasm with which people can sometimes turn on their fellows.  As a phenomenon, it is as old as mankind, and our ready capacity to fall into its waiting grasp may be at the root of all evil.  It’s not just the prejudice toward another, or even a willingness to neglect another, that is the problem (though both are warning signs); rather, it is the fervent, aggressive transformation of the other to someone who ‘deserves’ to be victimized, about whom others feel ‘good’ about tormenting, that is the ultimate degradation of the human soul.  Few works of fiction choose to peer into this particular heart of darkness; but those that do — like Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” or the 2003 film “Dogville” (also by a Danish director) — leave an indelible impression. “The Hunt” is in that tradition, and its enigmatic ending seems to suggest that not all wounds can be readily healed.  Directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, “The Hunt” is a gripping drama and a all-too-believable parable about man’s inhumanity to man.  Mads Mikkelson delivers an award-caliber performance; and he is ably supported by the young Annika Wedderkopp (as Klara), Thomas Bo Larsen (as Lucas’ erstwhile friend Theo), Alexandra Rapaport (as Nadja, the girlfriend who doubts Lucas), Lasse Fogelstrom (as Lucas’ son Marcus), and Lars Ranthe (as Lucas’ sole remaining ally).  “The Hunt” won Best Actor and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes, where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film).  It won Best International Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards; and it was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at BAFTA.  And, it won Best Screenplay at the European Film Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Actor, Director, and Editing.  Regrettably, the DVD has no extras.  It would have been instructive to hear the director’s thoughts about the film, which is easily one of the best of 2012.  For ages 18+:  Brief sexual content; brief coarse language; brief violence, and adult subject-matter.

“Aliyah” (France, 2012) (B): “I’m going because no one’s asking me to stay.” So says Alex Raphaelson, a 27-year old Parisian Jew who has decided to “make aliyah,” that is, to claim citizenship in Israel on the strength of his heritage and move there to start a new life.  Alex is motivated neither by religion nor by any sentimental attachment to Israel.  Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Alex is solely a secular Frenchman, and Israel is an alien land for him.  But Alex wants to change his life, and making a complete break with his current one seems to offer a chance to do just that.  As the film’s director and co-writer, Elie Wajeman, points out, “Many people who make alijah don’t do it because of ideology or religion, but simply to run away — from troubles, sorrows, disappointments, or sometimes the law.  It’s as simple as that.” There is no guarantee that things will get any better for them when they reach Israel — quite the contrary.  But some people feel compelled to make the departure anyway, perhaps in the desperate hope that a change will be as good as an improvement.  Alex (Pio Marmai) is estranged from his father, and he longs to be free of his manipulative older brother Isaac (Cedric Kahn), who is constantly asking Alex for money and other favors.  Alex resents his brother’s barrage of requested favors, but his deep and abiding love for his brother leaves him powerless to deny him anything.  Alex’s longtime ex-girlfriend Esther (Sarah Le Picard) is engaged to marry another man; and Alex feels stuck in a dead-end occupation as a drug dealer.  When he hears that a French relative plans to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Alex decides to buy his way in as an investor and partner.  One more drug deal should provide the requisite financing; and, in an ironic scene, Alex listens to Hebrew lessons while packaging cocaine — studying for his new life while still very much engaged with his disreputable old one:  “Good idea, selling dope to get to the Holy Land,” observes his friend, Mathias (Guillaume Gouix).  Fortunately, Alex’s age will exempt him from mandatory military service, though not from reservist status in the event of war.  Still, his impulse to seek a new life in a troubled land he doesn’t know (and to which he feels no religious or ethnic connection) surprises those who know Alex.  His brother calls Israel “the land of the mad,” while his ex-girlfriend says, “We said our life was here.  Jews, but Parisian Jews.  That place wasn’t for us.” But Esther goes on to say something that may hold the key to Alex’s enigmatic decision:  “Your fortune was so bright.  You could have done anything.  But you deal [drugs], and now you’re off to Israel.” Unrealized potential and a dearth of dreams can prompt a yearning for sudden and complete change.  And so it may be for Alex.  To qualify for immigration to Israel, he has to establish his “Jewishness,” which sets him on a search for family records, which is also a more figurative search for his roots.  But his resolve to go is sorely tested not only by the difficult break it will entail with his brother, but also by a new and unexpected relationship.  Alex meets and falls for a non-Jewish woman, Jeanne (Adele Haenel).  She despairs that Alex’s quest for “serenity” abroad will make their love impossible.  But Alex suggests, on the contrary, that, “once he has done something good in his life, then he can be loved.” They are hopeful words, but the few scenes that follow seem ambiguous and non-committal about Alex’s prospects.  Despite his occupation as a drug dealer, Alex is a decent enough human being to engage our sympathies; and his story is a surprisingly low-key character study with solid performances and a novel storyline.  For ages 18+: Some coarse language, and brief drug use.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is “On the Road to Tel-Aviv” (Israel, 2008) (B+). Based on real events, this 15-minute short from director Kenh Shalem is a study in mistrust, fear of the other, and irony.  It takes place in Israel in the heyday of suicide bombings.  Indeed, one such crime briefly opens the film.  But then we join a young couple as they rise from bed and leave for work.  When a young Arab woman enters the same bus, carrying a large bag, the Israeli passengers make a panicked exit from the bus.  Suspicious and angry, they demand that the driver eject the Arab.   But he desists, calmly telling them, “There is no terrorist here.  She’s a human being.” To a loud and nearly hysterical woman, he says, “What if someone pointed their finger at your daughter?” Do we suspect and fear all those whom we designate as other?  Surely not, at least if we are to call ourselves civilized and humane.  But in a place where some people on opposing sides — sides drawn by ethnicity, religion, language, ideology, or by simple resentment over real or imagined past wrongs — are prepared to use lethal violence to express their rage or their perceived powerlessness, in such a place, a risk does exist.  Maybe irrational fears aren’t so irrational in a place in which anybody could be a suicide-bomber.  (Sadly, there are far too many such places in the world.)  But, how large is that risk?  And, how do we respond to it without sacrificing our humanity or victimizing innocents?  Not all risks can be anticipated and safeguarded against.  Do we therefore acquiesce in police-state measures to “protect” ourselves and to “control” those whom we fear?  Do we succumb to fear and hostility, becoming a mob without anything but mere ‘proof of otherness’ to justify our actions?  This fascinating little morality tale takes us in unexpected directions, flipping our expectations on their head time and again.  It offers no tidy answers to the problem of sudden violence or the fear it inculcates.  But the questions it raises cry out for consideration.

“Kon-Tiki” (Norway/U.K./Denmark/Germany/Sweden, 2012) (B): In 1947, a young Norwegian anthropologist by the name of Thor Heyerdahl resolved to demonstrate the thesis he had already spent ten years researching, namely that the islands of Polynesia in the western Pacific were settled, 1500 years ago, by the pre-Incan people of Peru, and not by Asians as previously supposed.  Heyerdahl was convinced that those early South Americans had made that 5,000-mile voyage atop balsa-wood rafts, navigating toward the setting sun (which represented their sun-god Tiki). Heyerdahl was determined to prove to a skeptical world that, for those ancient mariners, who lacked conventional boats, “the oceans were not barriers, but roads; not impediments, but pathways.” There was only one sure way to prove that it was possible, and that was to construct a raft using only the same techniques and the same materials that existed 1500 years ago, and to cast off into the Pacific, relying on wind and ocean currents to take the raft and its human passengers to Polynesia.  With five brave companions (two war heroes, a childhood friend, a Swedish ethnographer, and a restless refrigerator salesman who had a background in engineering), Heyerdahl managed to persuade the president of Peru to finance this quixotic journey.  And, off they set, in April 1947, on a journey which, if successful, would take them 100 days to complete.  This account of men prepared to test their own courage and endurance is based on that true story.  With very little sea-going experience between them, the adventurers quickly encounter leaning pains:  Some don’t know even which side of their vessel is starboard; and their dauntless leader has to be reminded to take the lens cover off the motion picture camera he brings to document their journey.  And Heyerdahl, who cannot swim, has to overcome his own fear of water (born of a near-drowning in childhood).  Their plans for regular radio contact with the world are dashed early on when a pet parrot bites through the cable holding their balloon-suspended antenna aloft.  And for days and days, they float helplessly in the wrong direction, unable to steer.  But Heyerdahl projects absolute certainty in the rightness of his theory and boundless optimism about the ultimate success of his venture: “Believe everything will be okay, and it will be.” The man has the confidence of a visionary.  As his wife says, “If you fell in the water, you’d float by sheer will power.” But his companions’ nerves start to fray, after a close encounter with an ocean-going leviathan, hair-raising attacks by sharks, worrisome signs that their wooden raft is becoming waterlogged, and a punishing storm that threatens to hurl them into the sea, if it doesn’t demolish their floating refuge first.  There are moments of high suspense and mortal danger for these six men, and there are stretches of tedium — into which doubt and worry interpose themselves like the water that sloshes between the tied-together logs of their raft.  “People who think they have worries should try this,” says one of these wry adventurers.  But there are also moments of transcendent beauty and wonder, such as a nighttime sea aglow with strange phosphorescent creatures.  “Kon-Tiki” is a story of adventure, endurance, fear, perseverance, and friendships forged and tested.  It’s about the human spirit and its ceaseless quest for what lies beyond the horizon.  It’s a captivating account of exploration, with striking cinematography; and, it has moments of both stress and humor that make its characters universally accessible.  It was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.  At Norway’s “Amanda Awards,” it won Best Actor, Production Design, Visual Effects, and the Audience Award; and it was nominated as Best Film, Director, Cinematographer, Editing, and Sound Design.  It was also nominated for the Audience Award at the European Film Awards.  Kon-Tiki was filmed simultaneously in a Norwegian version (at 118 minutes) and in an English version (at 96 minutes).  Both versions appear on this two-disc DVD set, along with two featurettes.  The film contains brief violence.

“Still Mine” (Canada, 2012) (B+/A-): Here’s a quiet, gentle, low-key love story about a man and a woman who’ve been together for over 60 years.  It takes the challenges of growing old in its calmly self-possessed stride, offering a lovely metaphor for aging in the form of a hand-crafted wooden harvest table that was fashioned with love and endures, despite a lifetime of nicks and scars:  “But as the years went by and the scars added up, the imperfections turned that table into something else.  That’s the thing about pine: It holds a lot of memories.” Craig and Irene live on their family farm in New Brunswick.  He raises strawberries and a few cattle and operates a small sawmill; she tends to the garden.  But her memory is starting to fade, and Craig realizes that a smaller, one-story house has become a necessity for his wife’s well-being.  And so he embarks upon a project to build her a new house with his own hands.  With a wealth of experience handling wood, Craig knows what he’s doing; but the local building authorities see things differently, insisting on permits and plans, and then finding a myriad of technical infractions.  When they affix a stop-work order on the house that love is building, and threaten prosecution, it is never clear whether they are motivated by pettiness, spite, or sheer bloodymindedness.  But Craig is not one to be daunted by bureaucratic busybodies:  He forges ahead, never letting his age (87) impede his hard work or his resolve to prevail over the meddlesome powers that be.  Irene’s gradual decline gives the movie (which is based on a true story) a bittersweet tone.  But no one here succumbs to hopelessness or despondency!  On the contrary, “Still Mine” is about the extraordinary qualities of resilience, loyalty, and dogged determination that can be found in ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  It’s the quiet, humble sort of day-to-day heroism that’s part of the human spirit at its best.  Its protagonists are undaunted by obstacles (be they declining health or officious bureaucrats) as they resolutely carry on:  (C) “So you can’t remember a couple of things.  So what!  We’re still here.  We have each other.  And isn’t everything else a bonus?” (I) “I hope so.”  You know what scares me?… What if I forget everything?” (C) “You’ll still be my Irene.” (I)  “Promise?” (C)  “I’ve never broken a promise to you yet.” It’s an award-caliber performance by the lanky James Cromwell (who is still fondly remembered as Farmer Hoggett in 1995’s “Babe”), with an understated performance from Genevieve Bujold as Irene.  Campbell Scott appears in a supporting role.  Written, directed, and produced by Michael McGowan (“Saint Ralph” and “One Week”), “Still Mine” won Best Actor at the Canadian Film Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Actress, Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, and Editing.  It was also nominated for Best Director and Editing by the Director’s Guild of Canada.  Accented with wry humor, it’s a gently-paced, tender love story that reaffirms the strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.  It’s one of the best movies of 2012.  The DVD’s useful director’s commentary discusses the humor, intimacy, and connection between Craig and Irene, and points out Craig’s “tactile relationship” with the world.

“Love is All You Need” [“Den Skaldede Frisør”] (Denmark/Sweden/Italy/France/Germany, 2012) (B): Here’s a truly international effort — a Danish movie, with a British male lead, set in Italy!  As a romantic comedy, it is lighter territory than most of director Susanne Bier’s best-known dramatic work (2004’s “Brothers,” 2006’s “After the Wedding,” and 2010’s “In a Better World”).  It tells the intersecting stories of an English widower and a Danish woman, whose paths (literally) collide.  Philip is a businessman (played by none other than 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan) who runs a agricultural produce company from a headquarters in Copenhagen.  Having lost his beloved Danish wife years ago, Philip has made her native land his own.  But he has thrown himself utterly into his work, inoculating himself against further heartbreak by becoming stern, solitary, and brusque:  “I’m a guy who has chosen to be by himself.  Simple as that.” But the impending marriage of his son forces Philip out of his rigidly-embraced comfort zone of avoiding any and all interpersonal relationships.  Meanwhile, the mother of the bride, Ida (played by the beautiful Trine Dyrholm) has just completed a course of treatment for a life-threatening disease.  Awaiting word on the success of that treatment, she learns that her supposedly loyal husband has taken up with a much younger woman.  Reeling from that blow, she doggedly sets out for Italy, and, as (a somewhat overly-convenient) fate would have it, she has an auto mishap with Philip (the two have never met) at the airport.  Their first impressions of each other are not very favorable:  Ida comes as scatter-brained and emotionally fragile, while the glowering Philip is taciturn almost to the point of being dour.  But the pair grow on each other.  And who wouldn’t, given that their breathtakingly irresistible destination is Sorrento, on Italy’s fantastical Amalfi coast.  The betrothed young couple have opted to be wed at Philip’s long unused villa, and its gorgeous panoramas of the sea, mountains, and adjacent town are simply ‘to die for!’ With its cliff-side views, seaside grotto, and acres of lemon orchards, the place would, in the real world, only be affordable by a billionaire. But who cares! It’s the magical kind of setting (like the Greek isles) that is made for romance.  Philip’s cool reserve starts to crack under his growing tenderness for the sweet Ida.  Interestingly enough, the film’s dialogue (along with almost all of the cast) is Danish.  But Brosnan doesn’t speak a word of Danish, which obliges the others to speak to him in English.  Initially, that puts actress Dyrholm at a disadvantage, insofar as she seems slightly stilted in English.  But as the film gets past those linguistic growing pains, we develop a real fondness for its central relationship.  A subplot involving another character’s confused sexuality is a weak link:  For one thing, it is hard to imagine that such confusion would suddenly arise at this particular moment of a young man’s life.  Worse still, it is telegraphed to the audience in such a heavy-handed, clumsy fashion that the big revelation comes as no surprise at all.  (The only thing that is surprising is that no one in the story sees it coming a mile off!)  The same-sex attraction subplot is both an off-putting distraction and a clumsy plot contrivance.  Another awkward element comes in the person of Philip’s shrewish, brashly overbearing sister-in-law Benedikte.  She has helped raise his son, and she gives Philip some good advice:  “You can never get nor give enough love.” But, she’s also obnoxiously loud, selfish, and in hot pursuit of Philip for herself.  Paprika Steen is a highly talented Danish actress (witness 1998’s “The Celebration” and 2009’s “Applause”), but even she cannot give enough range to a character that comes very close to being a discordant caricature.  And Ida’s husband, Leif, comes across as too much of a lout, showing up at the wedding with his brand-new girlfriend in hand.  But, perhaps those seemingly over-the-top characters and behaviors are intended as comedic touches.  In truth, the best thing about the story is its tender romantic relationship; it makes one forget (until we are jarringly reminded) that the film is both a romance and a comedy.  As the director has said, finding the right balance between the story’s “sadness and comedy [is] hugely challenging.” The result may not wholly achieve that delicate balance; but it has far more to commend it than not.  Molly Blixt Egelund makes an impression as Ida’s daughter Astrid; but one wishes there was more substance to her part, which founders on the aforementioned sexual confusion of her fiance (Sebastian Jessen’s Patrick).  The Danish title of this movie translates as “The Bald Hairdresser,” for reasons that become clear as it unfolds.  “Love is All You Need” won the ‘Robert Award’ (from the Danish Film Academy) as Best Actress, as well as the Audience Award as Best Comedy; and, it was nominated there as Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Egelund), Editing, and Production Design.  It was also a nominee for the Audience Award at the European Film Awards.  DVD extras include a commentary with Pierce Brosnan and the director; a Q&A with the two leads, the director, and the writer, a behind the scenes featurette with Trine Dyrholm, and interviews at the Venice Film Festival.  For ages 18+: Coarse language, brief nudity, and brief sexual content.

“At Any Price” (USA, 2012) (B+/A-): Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid in a career-best performance) is a farmer who supplements his income by selling seeds for a big agricultural corporation.  His Iowa farm has been family-owned for four generations, and Henry is always on the hunt to increase its 3,700 acres, wholeheartedly embracing the “Expand or Die” mantra of Big Agra. Indeed, as the film opens, Henry is at a funeral, not to pay his respects for a farmer he didn’t know, but rather to make an early pitch to buy the deceased man’s 200 acres.  Henry’s younger son Dean (Zac Efron) is uncomfortable, telling his father that ‘it’s not right,’ and another interested party agrees, scornfully calling Henry a “shark.”  And, truth be told, Henry is every bit the capitalist:  “When a man stops wanting, a man stops living.” Fiercely competitive, he likes to win, and he expects his sons to follow in his footsteps, just as Henry has emulated his stern father (Red West’s Cliff Whipple).  But one (unseen) son is climbing a mountain somewhere in South America; while Dean has his heart set on the NASCAR circuit.  Dean is disrespectful to his father; he wants to be racing cars, not staying down on the farm.  It goes against the grain (pun intended) for Henry.  At first, he is openly dismissive of his son’s ambition:  “You’re not going to make it in the big leagues.  Just take the land.  It’s in your blood.  And the sooner you understand that, the better.” But Henry is sensitive enough to see, feel, and regret the increasing discord between them; and he gradually tries to accommodate himself to his son’s passion.  It’s a touching character arc in miniature, one note in the bigger composition that is Henry’s life. A former football quarterback, Henry is having an affair with the former head cheerleader (Heather Graham’s Meredith), though, strictly speaking, the two actors don’t appear to be close enough in age to have ever shared a football field at the same time.  Henry’s loyal wife, Irene (Kim Dickens) knows that he’s being unfaithful:  “I love you Henry.  And you make me feel like an idiot for it every day.” Bit by bit, Henry’s self-satisfied life starts to spiral out of control:  Business dealings of questionable legality put him under suspicion with his ruthless pay-masters at Big Agra; while a sudden personal tragedy threatens to throw the family into a crisis from which they can never recover.  Always the grinning, glad-handing salesman, Henry has a serious of genuine moments on the road to his reevaluating what really matters in his life.  One comes at the racetrack, when he tells Dean that he’s proud of him.  Another comes when he looks at Dean’s racing trophies, perhaps for the first time, and a photograph of his two sons.  And Henry forms a very touching paternal relationship with Dean’s parentless girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe, who makes a strong impression as the precocious teen).  For a time, she takes on an impromptu role as Henry’s seed-selling apprentice, a role he own son has scorned, and she shows an instant knack for the job.  Henry even confides in her when his practice of cleaning and reselling surplus seeds (something he is contractually forbidden to do by the manufacturer of genetically modified seeds) gets him into dire legal and financial jeopardy:  (C) “So, kind of like bootlegging DVDs?” (H) “Yes, but there’s a lot more money at stake here.  These guys didn’t just copyright movies; they copyrighted life.” When things are at their worst, Henry has to choose between conflicting moral imperatives:  Should he do a wrong thing to protect a loved one?  It has to do with taking responsibility for events that have hurled violently out of control and with making the best of the imperfect choices on offer, in order to minimize the harm in a no-win situation.  “Am I a happy man?  How can I not be?” Henry asks at one point.  As the story progresses, his superficial happiness (born of material success) is displaced by something like wisdom and a deeper love for others:  He learns what’s truly of value in life.  It’s a lovely performance by Dennis Quaid, one that gives us glimpses of the sensitivity, conscience, and vulnerability that lie beneath a glib, self-confident demeanor.  And he is ably supported by the rest of the cast, including Clancy Brown as a decent man who is Henry’s business rival.  Directed and co-written by Ramin Bahrani, “At Any Price” was a nominee for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival.  DVD extras include a commentary with the director and Dennis Quaid, a Q&A, and some rehearsal footage.    For ages 18+: Coarse language and sexual content.

“The DeepBlueSea” (USA/U.K., 2011) (B+/A-): “I love you so much.” For some of us, those words have the power of life and death.  So it is for a woman in 1950 London, a city still bearing its unhealed wartime wounds and coping with material shortages through rationing.  It opens with the woman turning on the gas in her flat to kill herself.  And, for ten minutes, we swirl through her memories of a bloodless marriage and of the sudden, inexorable infidelity that’s born of an overpowering love for a man who is not her husband.  All the while, the tragic strains of Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14,” set the emotional tone.  Apart from flashbacks, all of writer/director Terence Davies’ romantic drama takes place in the hours following his tragic heroine’s failed bid to put an end to her life.  Based on the 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, the story is about the discovery of passionate love — the type of love that brooks no compromise, the kind of love that is all-consuming.  Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz in an award-caliber, career-best performance) is married to an older man.  Sir William Collyer (a quietly affecting performance by Simon Russell Beale of 1999’s “An Ideal Husband”) is gentle, selfless, patient, and kind.  He’s a good man, and he loves Hester, but he’s a stranger to physicality.  Once Hester finds a more visceral kind of love, in her passion for Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), it becomes impossible for her to countenance settling for anything less:  William argues that, “It’s infatuation.  There’s more to love than… physicality.”  “Well, there isn’t for me, anymore,” replies Hester.  And so she leaves her husband, a well-off, well-respected judge, to move in with the flamboyant (but ceaselessly restless) ex-wartime pilot, with whom she has so little in common in term of breeding, education, and outlook.  But the most compelling disparity between the two of them is that Hester loves Freddie more — more completely, more irretrievably, more strongly — than he loves her.  She knows that from the get-go, but she is helpless to desist:  “Do you honestly think I can tell you in sober truth what it is I feel for Freddie?  Lust isn’t the whole of life, but Freddie is, you see, for me, the whole of life.  And death.” Once his initial anger has passed, William hopes that his feigned indifference will hurt Hester’s vanity and bring her back to him.  When that, too, fails, he offers to be there for her in whatever capacity she sees fit.  There are many nice touches, starting with a movingly effective use of song — in a pub (a flashback to Hester’s happier times with Freddie has them joining in with others in a pub singing “You Belong To Me”), and in a subway (where Hester and William take shelter during a wartime air raid and those gathered there sing “Sweet Molly Malone” to keep their spirits up).  Those are fine moments of cinematic storytelling at its most tender and affecting.  A crusty old medical man, Mr. Miller (Karl Johnson of “Lark Rise to Candleford”) makes a strong impression in his two scenes:  “I give my respect to those who’ve earned it.  To everyone else, I’m civil.” So do:  Ann Mitchell, as the salt of the earth landlady Mrs. Elton (“A lot of rubbish is talked about love.  You know what real love is?  It’s… changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves.  And letting them keep their dignity so you can both go on.”), and Freddie’s friend Jackie (played by Harry Hadden-Paton), who is a decent bloke who is less volatile than Freddie.  And Barbara Jefford likewise does first-rate work as Collyer’s disapproving, condescending, and endlessly critical mother.  Her disdainful remarks about ‘pleasure’ and ‘passion,’ and her seeming inability to approve of anything her son or daughter-in-law do, make it clear where William’s emotional limitations come from.  And, for her part, Hester is often attired in a scarlet coat — is it a literary ‘scarlet letter’ writ large?  Hester is a bold figure, a woman determined to make her own choices in life — choices that are not defined by the dictates of men (either her vicar father or her high court judge husband) about morality and decency.  As the director has pointed out, she has thrown off a marriage that has proven to be “bankrupt of any joy.”  It was not precisely a loveless marriage, but it was a platonic one; and Hester wants, nay, needs, more.  Does her relentless pursuit of that something more make her a self-destructive heroine, like literature’s Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary?  Perhaps.  Does she not, after all, put her entire raison de vivre into the none too reliable person of Freddie, a man whose life stopped, frozen in amber, in 1940, a man who longs for the “mixture of fear and excitement” that enlivened him during the war years?  Davies compares Hester to Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Does her passion for Freddie amount to a Heathcliffian monomaniacal obsession?  Is it truly romantic, or is it ultimately self-destructive?  The answers to those questions will be in the eye of the beholder.  One thing is certain:  “The DeepBlueSeais a richly compelling romantic drama — with marvelous acting and a literary theatricality.  Its characters possess multiple facets; and ultimately, although Freddie does behave badly at times, there are no villains here, only people who come together and fly apart again according to the vagaries of overpowering forces of attraction and repulsion.  “The DeepBlueSea was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes; and it won in that category at both the New York and Toronto Film Critics Awards.  DVD extras include a commentary, interviews with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, a ‘making of’ featurette, and a “master class” with Terence Davies.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language and mild sensuality.

“Three Worlds” [“Trois Mondes”] (France, 2012) (B+): Three lives collide and become entangled in utterly unexpected ways in a story about

Raphael Personnaz, Arta Dobroski, and Clotilde Hesme in “Three Worlds” (courtesy of Fim Movement).

cause and effect, the imperatives of conscience, and conflicting points of view.  Al (Raphael Personnaz) is young, handsome, successful, and engaged to be married.  When he marries his fiancée in ten days’ time, he’ll take over management (and part-ownership) of her father’s high-end car dealership, where he has worked long and hard to earn his position as the business’ star salesman.  On a boys’ night out to celebrate his impending marriage and promotion, Al collides with a pedestrian while driving under the influence of alcohol.  At the urging of his friends, and out of fear for the consequences, Al flees the scene of the accident.  But, unbeknownst to him, the accident has been witnessed from a nearby balcony.  Juliette (Clotilde Hesme, who very

Clotilde Hesme & Raphael Personnaz in “Three Worlds (courtesy of Film Movement).

much resembles Canadian actress Carrie-Anne Moss) is a pre-med student.  She is in the early stages of pregnancy, but she’s not ready to commit to her boyfriend, putting off his urgings that they move in together and get married.  She’s in the midst of a disagreement with him, when she steps out onto her balcony and sees the accident occur across the street.  Concerned for the fate of the badly injured stranger, she goes to the hospital to check on his condition, where she meets his wife.  Vera (played by the Kosovar-Albanian actress Arta Dobroski) is, like her stricken husband, an illegal immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldavia.  Her comatose husband’s spine is broken; if he survives at all (he is still in very critical condition), it will be as a paraplegic.  But, their illegal status means that they have been working under the official radar, without the benefit of the pay-stubs they need to establish their eligibility for public medical and rehabilitative coverage.  Beset from all directions, Vera clings to Juliette for moral support, and their lives become interconnected.  And then, one day, Juliette thinks she recognizes Al as the hit and run driver, when his troubled conscience impels him to visit the hospital to check on the man whose dire injuries he caused.  He kneels by the bed of the unconscious man and says, “You have to live.  You have to live.  Please.  You can’t die.” Juliette sees Al sob in anguish on the hospital elevator, then follows him to ascertain his identity.  Without revealing her discovery to Vera, she goes to Al and confronts him, demanding that he take responsibility for the suffering he has caused.  Even before their encounter, Al’s life is starting to unravel, bit by bit.  He is tormented by feelings of guilt and remorse and torn between his natural instinct to do the right thing and his fear of losing everything he’s worked so hard to attain:  “It’s like someone’s else’s nightmare.  I’m not a bastard.” His turmoil increasingly becomes Juliette’s, for some intangible something is drawing her to Al (and vice versa).  She can’t bring herself to turn him in, but neither can she resist the mutual attraction that is developing between them.  At Juliette’s urging, Al resolves to get money to Vera to help with the otherwise impossible bills.  But he cannot legitimately access the money he needs to help her.  Is it fair game to steal from his crooked prospective father-in-law for a good cause?  There are interesting subtexts in the film about financial class and about ethnic status.  When hospital officials approach Vera about the hypothetical possibility of organ donation, she says she’d want to be paid.  Her rationale is not solely mercenary; rather, she is affronted by the intrinsic inequality — between the comfortably off and the poor, between the French citizen and the illegal immigrant:  “You get paid don’t you?  Why not him?  He’s not as good as you?  He’s providing the main thing [the organs], right?  At home, a kidney is 30,000 euros!” And clothes are presented as tangible symbols of socio-economic status in two separate scenes.  Al comes from humble origins.  His mother used to work as a cleaner in the very business to which Al is going to ascend to part-ownership.  But her consciousness of her status relative to her prospective inlaws makes it hard for Al’s mother to attend her son’s wedding:  “I’ve worn [the boss’ wife’s] hand-me-downs.  Facing her now is too much,” she says.  Al replies that, “You don’t work for them now.  You’re just like them.” Do clothes (or the money and the material success that they represent) make the man (or woman)?  Vera has similar concerns.  She blames herself for wanting to come to France to improve the material lot of her husband and herself:  “My mother had [only] two dresses.  I wanted to change dresses every day.  I didn’t want my mother’s life.” Al’s conflict with his two erstwhile friends from work (one of whom, Franck, is played by Reda Kateb, who starred as the kidnapper in “A moi seule” and also appeared in “A Prophet”) is a somewhat heavy-handed plot device.  The same goes for his run-ins with a pair of Moldavian heavies.  And we may wonder if Al would have come across as sympathetically to Juliette if he’d been middle aged and overweight?  But, the film combines very convincing performances (Adele Haenel also makes an impression as Al’s fiancée, Marion), strong writing, and abundant food for thought.  What ought we to do to make amends?  Are right and wrong always immutable and clearly discernable?  Why do we love who we love?  When should we listen to inner doubts about making commitments — in love, or in our professional lives?  Can experiences, even bad ones, change us for the better?  Moral questions play out in the lives of three people who are thrown together by fate, or misadventure.  The changes wrought by their interactions are profound:  “It swept everything away.  I can’t live the same way anymore.  I tried to protect something that I’ve lost now.  I’ve lost everything.  I’m sorry.” Directed and co-written by Catherine Corsini (who also directed 2009’s “Partir,” about a woman who sacrifices her marriage for love), “Three Worlds” was nominated for “Un Certain Regard” at Cannes.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is “The Piano Tuner” [“L’accordeur”] (France, 2010) (B/B+): A gifted young pianist sees his dreams collapse around him when he fails to achieve the prize he has long sought:  “Last year, I was a prodigy.  I had a brilliant career ahead of me.  For 15 years, all my efforts tended to one goal… I failed.  That day, my life collapsed.  I stayed alone, haunted by my defeat, sucked into a black hole.” Adrien (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) survives as a piano tuner.  He feigns blindness to enhance his appeal for that work:  “They think my other senses are more developed, that I have a perfect musical ear.” He gets better tips, and, behind his sunglasses, he sees secret things, like a dancer client dancing in her undergarments.  But, one day, he stumbles into a frightening situation in which he truly sees something he shouldn’t.  Written and directed by Olivier Treiner, this 14-minute short film plays out to music by Schumann and Rachmaninov.  It has won several awards including a César as Best Short Film.  It’s a nice, compact monument to irony, fitting of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.”  For ages 18+:  Coarse language.

“Amour” [“Love”] (France/Germany/Austria, 2012) (B+/A-): Two of the great actors from French cinema — Emmanuelle Riva (1959’s “Hiroshima, mon amour”) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (1956’s “And God Created Woman”) — are united, at the ages of 86 and 83, respectively, in a story about the abiding, steadfast love between a man and a woman..  Anne is an elegant woman, an accomplished piano teacher whose past students include some who have attained greatness.  And when Georges tells her, “Did I tell you that you looked very pretty tonight?” it is no exaggeration.  She has retained her beauty, grace, and refinement.  For such things truly do not fade.  Anne and Georges live quietly and contentedly in an apartment surrounded by art and music and books.  Their love finds contentment in each other’s company, as they share the quotidian routines of sharing meals, memories, and music:  “It’s beautiful… Life.  So long.  Long life,” muses Anne as she looks through the photo albums that chronicle their years together.  But human lives are finite and happiness ephemeral.  One night, there are faint sounds of restlessness, and Georges asks “What’s wrong?” Anne replies, “Nothing;” but it’s a foreshadowing of what’s to come.  After Anne is stricken by a stroke, she is paralyzed on one side, but she can still speak and mostly fend for herself.  However, she foresees worse times ahead and dreads what the future will bring:  “There’s no reason to go living… I know it can only get worse.  Why must I inflict that on us?  On you and me?” (Georges) “You inflict nothing on me.” (Anne) “You don’t have to lie, Georges.” (Georges) “It’s improving everyday.” (Anne)  “I don’t want to go on.  It’s touching, all you do is make it bearable, but I don’t want to do on.  For my sake, not for you.” Anne makes Georges promise to never take her back to the hospital.  And he bravely keeps that promise, even when a second stroke renders Anne helpless.  Their concerned daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is well-meaning, but she lives far off and has other troubles to divide her attention.  Georges tell her that, “Your mother’s in a bad way.  She’s increasingly like a defenseless child.  It’s sad and humiliating for her and me.  She doesn’t want anyone to see her. … You have your life and that’s fine.  Leave us ours…” “What will happen now?” asks Eva.  Her father replies that, “What happens now is what’s happened until now.  It will go steadily downhill for awhile and then it’ll be over.” Georges’ unshakeable devotion to Anne is matched by his calm acceptance of the painful spectacle of the woman who is his wife, his partner, and his love reduced to a stricken shadow of her former self:  “None of that deserves to be shown,” he says of the daily indignities of Anne’s deeply diminished life.  Writer and director Michael Haneke (“Caché,” “The White Ribbon,” “The Piano Teacher,” and “Code Unknown”) has fashioned one of his more accessible films; it’s a quiet story (don’t look for histrionics here) that unfolds at a very gentle, measured pace.  It’s about devotion and loyalty and romantic love.  After her second stroke, Anne keeps uttering the word “Pain.” It may be only a random reflex vocalization, but the word seems to encapsulate and crystallize the psychic and emotional pain that their ordeal inflicts on both Anne and Georges.  It’s a sad story (and an emotionally harrowing one, in a very subdued, understated way), but there is comfort to be taken from its depiction of unbreakable, unflinching love.  “Amour” earned a great many nominations and awards.  Among them are these examples:  It won the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes.  It won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Actress, Director, and Original Screenplay.  At the Cesar Awards in France, it won Best Actor, Actress, Film, Director, and Screenplay; and it was nominated in five other categories.  At BAFTA, it won Best Actress and Best Foreign Language Film; and it was nominated as Best Director and Screenplay.  At the European Film Awards, it won Best Film, Actor, Actress, and Director; and it was nominated as Best Cinematography and Screenplay.  It also won Best Language Film at the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review.  DVD extras including a “making of” featurette and a Q&A session with the director.    Very brief coarse language.

“To the Wonder” (USA, 2012) (B/B+): A Terrence Malick film is a work of art:  Lush, poetical, drenched in imagery and symbols, the writer/director’s latest film follows the stylistic pattern set by his brilliant “The Tree of Life” in 2011.  That film juxtaposed the history of the cosmos with the fate of one family in 1950s Texas, in an eon-spanning search for meaning.  Now, as then, Malick has created an impressionist painting come to life, one that all but eschews traditional storytelling and conventional narrative in favor of a torrential waterfall of brief scenes which are more intended to convey feelings than to tell a story.  His camera swoops above and below his characters, as we fly through a kaleidoscopic array of fleeting, fragmentary scenes narrated by whispered sentence fragments.  Feelings are given poetic voice in a stream of consciousness meditation that has the heartfelt urgency of a prayer that’s confided to the mysterious universe that surrounds us.  It’s a mood-poem, as elusive as a will o’ the wisp, which draws us into a dreamlike reverie, a contemplative inner monologue of the soul that takes on tremulous, fragile, ever-shifting form.  Dialogue is at a minimum; indeed, there are stretches with none at all.  In its place is a full body immersion in the prancing joyful exuberance of new love and the gnawing unbearable pain when love slips away.  It’s about love and loss; and it’s also about our ceaseless search for meaning.  Along the way, there’s the bitterness of failure, the exhilaration when two become one emotionally and spiritually, and the counterintuitive comfort we can take in the sheer immense fecundity of the living world that surrounds and cradles us.  It is part inner meditation, part prayer to the divine; part confession, part striving for wisdom.  In short, it’s an audaciously original, utterly unconventional, and stunningly ambitious attempt to embody emotions in pictures and brief snippets of spoken words.  It opens in France with Marina (Olga Kurylenko): “Newborn… a spark… You brought me out of the shadows.  You lifted me from the ground.  Brought me back to life.” She is in love with Neil (Ben Affleck), though she had given up hope of finding love:  “Love makes us one.  Two.  One.  I in you.  You in me.” Marina swirls and prances and positively pirouettes with joy:  She is always in motion.  It’s the exuberance of happiness, unlike Neil’s more restless, pacing, and mute demeanor.  What has drawn the pair together?  We never know.  It is enough that they love.  Marina and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) travel back to America with Neil:  But rural Oklahoma may as well be another world.  It seems, at first, “a land so calm.  Honest.  Rich.” But the soil, the very dust in the schoolyard, is poisoned with cadmium and lead.  And a vague discontent lurks at the edges of their lives until it starts to infiltrate their consciousness:  “We need to leave.  Both of us.  There’s something missing,” says the young child.  They part from Neil for a time, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), a woman from his past who has experienced losses of her own, comes back into his orbit.  The local priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) offers good counsel even as he struggles with a different sort of loss — the loss of his faith:  “Everywhere you’re present.  And still I can’t see you.  You’re within me.  Around me.  And I have no experience of you.  Not as I once did.  Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?  My heart is cold.  Hard.” The very cosmos seems encapsulated in these ordinary people — as powers of attraction and repulsion determine their orbits and dictate their destinies.  These characters are always searching.  For what?  Why, for meaning, it seems.  As if to make their restless quest tangible, the camera keeps moving in toward various scenes — giving expression to the fitful, tentative series of approaches (to relationships, to emotional connections, to places, to life-choices) that these characters experience.  If Malick’s film tantalizes like a dream, it also punishes like one.  Its meaning is elusive; it offers an experience but provides no firm answers.  Its characters make one choice, then another, at times with what seems like fickle arbitrariness.  We are never told what motivates them, let alone what animates the discord that arises between them.  Clearly, we aren’t intended to know.  Instead we are meant to feel what they feel without the mediation of expository plot or more than fragmentary language.  It is, as we have said, a mood-poem.  It may enchant, or it may confound, or it may do both at once.  Some will be transported by its poetical imagery; others will loathe its seeming lack of structure, story, and sense.  Is it incomprehensible?  Maybe, if one is looking for conventional storytelling.  But it aspires to something else altogether — it seeks to embody intangibles like the soul’s longing, to conjure the most ephemeral manifestations of our mind, body, and spirit in a poetical flight of fancy.  The result may not be entirely successful (the woman dances too often — in fields, in supermarkets, atop beds; while the man remains a dour cipher); but there is something astonishing about its attempt at capturing the sublime on celluloid:  “We climbed the steps… to the wonder.” “To the Wonder” was a nominee for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival.  The Blu-ray disc has a look behind the scenes; but why no commentary?  For ages 18+:  Brief nudity.

Arcadia” (USA, 2012) (B): Early one morning, at dawn, a father loads his three kids into the car, and they head off on a 2800-mile cross country road trip.  They’re leaving the east coast behind as they head west toward Tom’s new job in California.  Tom (John Hawkes of “Winter’s Bone”) promises 12-year old Greta (Ryan Simpkins), 9-year old Nat (Ty Simpkins), and 16-ish Caroline (Kendall Toole) that their unseen mother will join them there.  He’s vague about why she isn’t coming with them, and why they left the beloved family dog at the curb of their hastily vacated home.  And there’s no mention of what’s no become of their household belongings, all of which appear to be in place in the home they are so abruptly quitting.  In their place, there are promises of a new start, with palm trees and a backyard swimming pool:  “Smile.  You’re headed for sunshine 365 days a day.” We get up close and personal with this quartet on the road — there’s family banter, singalongs in the car, and a succession of diners and motel rooms.  There are lots of close-ups — of faces and hands — with the result that we often see only one person at a time, and frequently only a part of that person at that.  But, the (presumably) hand-held camera draws undue attention to itself by darting here and there quickly and often — a technique that is not altogether pleasing but may be intended to convey spontaneity, rapidly shifting centers of attention, and the claustrophobic sense of being confined to a car for hours on end.  The story unfolds through the eyes of the middle child, Greta.  She still carries her inseparable stuffed rabbit, named Harrison, but she’s on the cusp of adolescence.  She is becoming self-conscious about her body’s changes; she doesn’t play with her younger brother the way she used to; and she’s slowly but surely starting to question her father’s glib account of what’s going on.  Why didn’t her mother accompany them?  Why can’t they talk to her on the telephone?  What do the snatches of angry conversation she half overhears between her father and someone on the telephone signify?  And for all his effusive bonhomie, something seems to be bothering Tom.  At unpredictable moments, his affability disappears and is replaced by anger and impatience.  He drags them out of a diner after provoking a dispute with a waitress; and when an incident with another driver ends with an exchange of blows, the family ends up in police custody.  With his kids watching, Tom tells a bald-faced lie to secure his release — later telling them that, “Sometimes you have to lie.” It’s a worrisome lesson to be imparting to children.  There are some problems.  One has to do with casting:  John Hawkes left no doubt about his talent as a rough, tough hillbilly in “Winter’s Bone.” But some of that darkness persists here; and one is left with the unsettling concern that he is dangerous in some way.  Has he murdered his wife?  It’s not clear that writer/director Olivia Silver intends for us to perceive Tom as being sinister or malevolent; yet, undercurrents of that suspicion are there — in this feature film, though not in the short film which inspired it.  That is the result of an actor who carries more baggage with him that this role is meant to bear.  Also, the dialogue doesn’t always sound quite authentic; instead, it sometimes sounds written.  And, Tom’s frequent use of pet-names for the kids (Nat is “Natman” and “Nattie;” Greta is “Griz” and Grizmeister”) grates somehow.  But, maybe it’s meant to.  Maybe its insistent intimacy is meant to get on our nerves a little bit to conjure the sense of four people being stuck in close quarters together for hours on end.  It may also be meant to be a clumsy stratagem by Tom to ingratiate himself with his charges and keep them compliant on the long journey.  Either way, it feels like fingers on a chalkboard at times; but maybe that sense of too much intimacy is a deliberate device by the screenplay to convey the stifling claustrophobic closeness of the family road trip.  The kids all deliver naturalistic performances, with Kendall Toole reprising her role from the same filmmaker’s 2008 short film version of the exact same story, “Little Canyon.” But pride of place goes to Ryan Simpkins; for this is really Greta’s coming of age story.  And Simpkins delivers an understated, quietly nuanced performance of a girl who’s no longer at ease in her own skin, a girl who is crossing from childhood into adolescence, a girl who comes to challenge her father’s vague explanations and to demand the truth.  Oddly, though, she’s very prone to wandering off — including alone to a county bar at night, stuffed bunny in hand.  On the other hand, there’s a very effective scene of a family meltdown in the car, a blow-up that leaves young Greta stranded by the side of the road for several minutes — utterly alone in the midst of the Arizona desert.  The success of the movie depends on our finding the four characters likeable or at least interesting.  Twenty-five minutes in, the jury was still out — on both counts.  But patience is rewarded:  These characters (and especially Greta) grown on us, and we become invested with their fates.  It’s a simple story, perhaps a tad underwritten, but for the most part, it has the air of authenticity.  And, while its understated tone (the emotions are mostly pretty low-key) deprives it of big emotional moments (excepting the aforementioned meltdown), it does get points for naturalism and simplicity.  Like its father figure, it doesn’t “have all the answers,” but the journey it takes us on is worth the bumps in the road.  Arcadia, by the by, is the name of the town in California that is the family’s destination.  The family won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival as “Best Film — Generation Kplus” (a category for films about children and young people).  For ages 18+: Some coarse language.

The DVD’s accompanying short film is “Little Canyon” (USA, 2008) (B): The same writer and director, Olivia Silver, tells the exact same coming of age story that she went on to tell in 2012’s feature length film “Arcadia,” in this 20-minute short film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.  All of its incidents, from a family’s cross-county road trip, and most of its dialogue were used verbatim in the later feature.  It might be argued that the slender nature of the story is better served by a 20 minute treatment than it is by the later 91 minute version.  And, the shorter version feels even more authentic someone, pared down to its essential core.  There are a couple of interesting differences:  In the short film, we see the fate of 12-year-old Greta’s inseparable companion — a stuffed rabbit named Harrison, who is a tangible emblem of the last holdout of her childhood.  And, in this version, the promised swimming pool in California proves to be a mirage.  There’s an entirely different cast in the short film, excepting Kendall Toole, who plays the older sister Caroline in both films.  As to the rest, Tessa Allen plays Greta, Kevin Jacobsen plays the dad, and Aaron Refvem plays Nat.  Very brief coarse language.

“Catfish” (USA, 2010) (B+): “When you really want something to be true, you’re willing to overlook any detail that does not agree with that.” Those words are at the heart of this marvelously unique story about the odd intersection between reality and make-believe.  But, my goodness, it’s well-nigh impossible to say a thing about this film without spoiling its surprises.  It is part road-trip, part mystery, part cautionary tale, and part journey of discovery into the human psyche at its most enigmatic.  They say truth is stranger than fiction, and “Catfish” is, it can be revealed, more or less a documentary.  But it never feels like one; rather, it plays out like something else, something that’s at once simple and mesmerizing, something that constitutes a category all its own.  It starts with Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, an earnest 24-year-old photographer in New York City.  In August 2007, one of his pictures appears in The New York Sun.  Three months later, he receives a parcel in the mail:  It contains a painting based on his photograph, and it is signed by one Abby.  She is introduced by means of an emailed video as a precocious 8-year-old living in northern Michigan.  Nev takes her on as a kind of artistic benefactor, encouraging Abby’s irrepressible enthusiasm for art.  An innocent, well-intentioned pen-pal relationship ensues between the man and the vivacious child; letters, emails, and telephone calls are exchanged between Abby’s family and Nev, as Nev gets to know her mother, Angela, and her older sister Megan.  In due course, he falls (from afar) for Megan, a gorgeous blonde singer, who has all the makings of a kindred spirit (and did we mention that she’s a knockout?).  An online romance is kindled; but, it’s not all in cyberspace.  They talk by phone, and she, and Abby, and Angela send Nev parcels, more paintings, pictures, and a recording of one of Megan’s songs.  Filmmakers Ariel “Rel” Schulman (Nev’s brother) and Henry Joost cajole a reluctant Nev into making a documentary about these online relationships.  But doubts creep into Nev’s hitherto unquestioning acceptance of what he knows about Abby and her family; and the filmmaking trio embarks upon an unannounced cross country road-trip to meet their correspondents in person.  What ensues conjures a kaleidoscope of changing emotions.  There’s a palpable sense of unease at one juncture:  When they do a reconnaissance drive-by of Megan’s dark and lonely farm in the middle of the night, one of the young men observes that, “This place gives me the creeps.” Things get stranger, so much stranger, as these cosmopolitan big city sophisticates go outside their comfort zone and journey into a world of intricate artifice where the border between reality, illusion, and delusion melts away, leaving our travelers — and ourselves — in a state of utter, astonished bemusement.  At the end of the film, someone explains that catfish are shipped with cod fish to Asia to keep the cod agile:  “And there are those people who are catfish in life.  And they keep you on your toes.  They keep you guessing; they keep you thinking; they keep you fresh.  And I thank God for the catfish.  Because we’d be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.” To say more would be telling; but discover for yourself the power of a simple real-life story to utterly engage, mystify, and fascinate.  “Catfish” was nominated as Best Documentary Film by the Online Film Critics Society; and it was nominated for Best Sound by the Motion Picture Sound Editors of America.  Brief sexually suggestive dialogue.

“The Girl” (USA/Mexico, 2012) (B+): Ashley works at a big-box department store in Texas; the sort of soulless place that adorns its blank-faced staff in colored aprons.  She lives in a bleak trailer park; a place that suffers by comparison to the manicured, green surroundings of the foster home where Ashley’s five year old son, Georgie, has been placed by the state.  Her provisional loss of custody is the result of her driving while impaired (with her son in the car); but Ashley is determined to lay blame elsewhere.  She is poor and bitter and bitter about being poor:  “I don’t care what anyone says.  You gotta have money….” It’s not hard to see where she has gleaned those attitudes.   Her truck driver father, Tommy (whom Ashley wishes would reunite with her mother, now that her mother has quit “the car-wash guy”), has found a way to supplement the money he earns by hauling freight across the U.S./Mexico border:  He’s started carrying some illicit cargo, in the form of illegal immigrants.  This is blue-collar America; and it’s a distinctly unpretty corner of it, at that.  Ashley is sullen, resentful, and irresponsible:  She wants her son back, but she’s not doing him (or herself) any favors by nursing resentment against all and sundry.  Her life’s as disorderly and neglected as the home she sulkily describes as a “box.”  Full of self-pity, she sees herself as a victim — of life, of circumstance, of other peoples’ indifference — and she’s developing an idée fixe that her impecuniousness is the root of all her problems:  “You find a poor person in Texas who doesn’t have the same problems as me.” It’s little wonder, then, that she suddenly decides to follow in her father’s footsteps by embarking, out of the blue, upon a little impromptu human smuggling of her own.  The suddenness of Ashley’s ad hoc plunge into a life of cross-border crime puts some strains on the story’s credibility; but we go along with it, more or less, because it is presented as a crime of opportunity.  Ashley certainly hasn’t thought the whole thing out:  Her first venture proves to be her last; it goes badly wrong, and she finds herself as the unwilling custodian of a young girl, Rosa, who has been separated from her mother as a result of Ashley’s ineptitude.  Her first, second, and third instincts are to ditch the child:  “It ain’t my fault your mama didn’t hold onto you.” And Ashley’s father urges her to do just that:  (T) “Oh boy.  She’s not going to let go.  Before you know it, you’re going to be her… damn mother.  Once they get hold of you… You’re going to spend the rest of your life taking care of that little girl.  You walk away.  You don’t look back…. You drop her at the corner.”  (A) “Is that how you do it?”  (T)  You’re damn right.  You can’t worry about the whole world…. You gotta think about yourself.” That exchange speaks volumes about these characters, because, in effect, it encapsulates Tommy’s own lifetime of imputed neglect of Ashley.  It also touches upon the nicely understated racism that peeks into the story from time to time:  Tommy lives with a Mexican woman, yet he calls the little girl, Rosa, a “wetback.”  More subtly, Ashley has a thoughtless confidence that seems born of national or racial superiority, when she pushes her way to the front of a queue at a Mexican shelter or recklessly drinks (and flirts) with Mexican men in a low-end bar.  Perhaps it doesn’t occur to her that she is unsafe, because, after all, she is an American, while they are just Mexicans, even poorer than herself.  But Tommy’s words are most meaningful in their harsh admonition to “think of yourself,” for that is precisely what Ashley has always done — until now.  Slowly, bit by bit, Ashley comes to bond with the child; and what she first regards as a bitterly unwelcome intrusion (doing the right thing by this little girl) gradually transforms into a sense of a freely accepted duty.  It’s a transformative character arc that sees Ashley take responsibility — for her own actions and for the welfare of another person — for what may very well be the first time in her life.  When, late in the film, Ashley, turns and sees herself reflected in a framed mirror, is she seeing herself for the first time?  Or is she seeing herself transformed?  Has she acquired heightened self-awareness, or objectivity, or a new-found emotional maturity and calm, or all of those things at once?  For the first time, she tells the truth — to Rosa and to herself — about the reasons she lost custody of her son, “I guess I didn’t take care of him the way a mother should.” It’s a sad moment, but also a healthy one, because Ashley has become a mature, responsible adult — by acknowledging her own mistakes and by putting the needs of another above her own.  It’s a lovely performance by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (“Somersault,” A Good Year,” and “Bright Star”), who facially resembles Charlize Theron in this role.  She plays a woman who’s not particularly likeable at the beginning; but she takes us with her on a redemptive journey.  Tommy is played by Will Patton; and young Maritza Santiago Hernandez plays Rosa.  “The Girl” was written and directed by David Riker, who also wrote this year’s documentary film “Dirty Wars.” The film won Best Film at a festival in San Antonio, Texas and was nominated as Best Film at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.  The DVD (distributed in Canada by TVA Films) boasts an eminently artful cover but (alas) no extras of any kind.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

“The Gatekeepers” (Israel/Germany/France/Belgium, 2012) (B+/A-): “In the war against terror, forget about morality.” So says one of the six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service (the better known Mossad handles external intelligence), who are interviewed in this fascinating documentary.  They discuss 1967’s Six Day War, which suddenly brought one million unwilling Palestinians (in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza) under Israeli military rule; the Lebanon War in 1982, and the First and Second Intifadas, in which, they say, “a nation rose up and tried to launch a revolution to kick us out.” The surprising thing is that most or all of these important figures from Israel’s long quest to secure its security and the safety of its citizens now believe that it was (and is) a grave mistake not to talk seriously with the Palestinians about peace and to find a way to detach the Occupied Territories from Israel.  One says he agrees with one Professor Leibowitz, an early Israeli critic of the Occupation, who wrote, in 1968 that, “A state ruling over a population of one million foreigners will necessarily become a Shin Bet state, with all that implies for education, freedom of speech and thought and democracy.  The corruption found in every colonial regime will affix itself to the State of Israel.  The administration will have to suppress an Arab uprising on the one hand and recruit Quislings, or Arab traitors, on the other.” As one of the Shin Bet sextet says, there is no alternative to talking (and making) peace; but, “You can’t make peace using military means.  Peace must be built on a system of trust.” Instead, as the six point out, Israeli regimes of all political stripes have continued the same policies — of ignoring the Palestinians and either tacitly accepting or openly promoting the creation and enlargement of Israeli settlements on occupied territories: “What’s the difference between Golda Meir and Begin?  Nothing.  He didn’t visit the Arabs.  She didn’t either.” Erecting settlements on occupied land makes the achievement of a peace agreement infinitely harder; and they cater to the views of the right-wing branch of Israel’s political spectrum, whose radical fringe demonized and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for his tangible efforts to make peace with the Palestinians:  “Some punk of an assassin [a Jewish radical], with a pistol that could barely shoot, could eliminate hope, an entire peace process.  He could change everything.” Those of similar ilk plotted to blow up the Muslim ‘Dome of the Rock’ in Jerusalem; they were apprehended by Shin Bet, and some were convicted, but all were granted clemency by the government — for planning an act of terror that would probably have precipitated all-out war against Israel by the Muslim world.  These men talk about the cycle of revenge, a succession of tit for tat strikes that have no end.  They mourn the loss the Israel they once knew, a nation that has been supplanted by one torn by venomous internal division and extremism.  They note that at one time in their organization’s not so distant past, “There was no such concept as an illegal order.” They talk about collateral damage:  How many innocents and bystanders is it acceptable to kill to eliminate a wanted target?  Are targeted assassinations moral?  Are they effective?  The answers these men — who have engaged in such activities — give will surprise you?  And they ask, ‘where do such tactics end?’ If it is deemed justifiable to kill the man who comes to kill you, what about the man (or woman or adolescent) at the furthest end of the chain of causality — the man who simply preaches the idea that inspires the man who comes to kill you?  Such questions matter in Israel; but they matter just as urgently in the West. Since 9/11, we, too, have invaded and occupied the territory of perceived enemies; we have used brutal methods to fight insurgencies; and we have inflicted dire “collateral damage,” including countless deaths of innocents.  As one of the six points out, the Americans dropped a bomb on a wedding in Afghanistan, killing 70 people “and no one knows if the [intended] target was killed.” Targeted assassination by drone attack has become a routine part of Western policy and practice, vastly accelerating under a president who was (perversely) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Our governments covertly eavesdrop not just on suspected terrorists, but on everyone else — all of us.  They imprison suspected enemies indefinitely without charge or trial.  And they create an unending supply of new enemies by using the very tactics most likely to inflame hatred and extremism.  For some of Israel’s most intransigent foes, the concept of “victory” has become so degraded that it now means simply “to see you suffer.”  It’s a bleak, nihilistic objective born of hopelessness:  It is the same noxious mental arithmetic that purports to “justify” the unjustifiable deployment of suicide-bombers against innocent Israeli civilians — on the grounds that ‘Israel has fighter jets, and tanks; but we have suicide-bombers.’  The stark issues that face Israel also face the rest of us:  In part, they have to do with “‘the banality of evil’… Suddenly, the processes become a kind of conveyor belt.  You ask yourself less and less where to stop.” Will our legitimate desire for security continue to serve as an all-purpose rationale for massive human rights abuses and the incremental erosion of freedom, in Israel, or in the West? One of the film’s interviewees is pessimistic:  “The future is bleak.  It’s dark, the future… It’s a very negative truth that we acquired… I’m afraid to say it….  We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.” The film uses gripping visuals from wars, uprisings, and targeted assassinations (we get a bombadier’s viewfinder perspective before the missiles incinerate targets on the ground).  And in one arresting sequence, the use of sound effects and camera movement creates the impression of a still photograph transforming into a live reel of an unfolding event (the apprehension of a hijacker who was later beaten to death off-camera).  Directed by Dror Moreh, “The Gatekeepers” was nominated as Best Feature-Length Documentary at the Academy Awards (giving “Searching for Sugar Man” a run for its money).  The U.S. National Board of Review named it as one of the year’s Top Five Documentaries.  And it won the Cinema for Peace Award in Germany. The result is utterly arresting, thought-provoking, and timely.  DVD extras include a director’s commentary and a Q&A with the director.

Midnight‘s Children” (Canada/U.K., 2012) (B): “A child and a country were born at midnight once upon a time.  Great things were expected of us both.  The truth has been less glorious than the dream.  But we have survived and made our way; and our lives have been, in spite of everything, acts of love.” With a story that opens in Kashmir in 1917, some 30 years before the birth of its central protagonist, and follows three generations of a family into the 1970’s, Midnight‘s Children” is simultaneously the journey of one human being and of the country with which his identity and fate are intertwined.  The film is based on Salman Rushdie’s 1980 novel, an acclaimed work that propelled its author to fame and earned the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981.  It went on to win “The Best of the Booker Prize” twice — in 1993 and again in 2008.  It’s a story with epic sweep, touching upon the decline of an empire, the birth of a nation, its bitter sectarian division into two, then three parts, and the wars, assassinations, pogroms, and injustices that accompanied those events.  But it’s as much a story about birth as it is about death, and it celebrates hope even in the face of disappointment and despair.  It’s full of color, joie de vivre and wonderful humor.  Canadian director Deepa Mehta (known for 1996’s “Fire,” 1998’s “Earth,” and 2005’s “Water”) has assembled a fine cast and gorgeous locations for a story about a young man, Saleem Sinai, who is deliberately switched as a newborn infant for another baby, and given to a wealthy family, without their knowledge, while their actual offspring is given to a very poor man whose wife died delivering Saleem.  But Saleem has identity issues even before he learns, years later, what happened in the maternity ward:  “I had many families and no family…. I wandered among them all.” For he can hear voices in his head and ultimately see visions of other children from across the Indian subcontinent:  He dubs them “midnight’s children,” those who were born on the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, the moment that also heralded India’s birth as an independent nation.  And Saleem discovers that each of those children has been blessed with an extraordinary, often supernatural, gift.  (One of them, Parvati, is a magician; when her path and Saleem’s finally cross in the tangible world, the pair become love interests.)  Steeped in the atmosphere of magic-realism, the film makes very restrained use of outright magic.  Indeed, the one section of the film that ventures the furthest from realism, depicting a national state of emergency invoked by Indira Gandhi that was used to cloak severe human rights abuses, including (in the story) an attempt to eradicate these special children, is the least successful, least coherent section of the film, however (heavy handedly) allegorical the intent there may be:  “Who were we?  We were the promises of independence…. And, like all promises, made to be broken.” It’s also a shame that the story abandons its early account of Saleem’s grandfather so abruptly.  Once Saleem appears on the scene, we hear no more of the grandfather, the doctor whose story opens the film, and very little more about Saleem’s three aunts, one of whom is Saleem’s (unwittingly adoptive) mother.  It’s surprising, too, that Saleem’s alter ego cum nemesis, Shiva, the boy with whom he was switched at birth, is never developed as a fully realized character:  He’s left as a figure of bitterness, cynicism, and menace — at one point coming across as a motorcycle-driving horseman of the apocalypse.  Novelist Rushdie does double-duty in the film, writing the screenplay and giving voice to the wry, ironic narrator.  There is irony aplenty in the story:  Saleem survives a bomb blast that claims those close to him, only to be brained by a flying silver spittoon, later awakening from the ensuing protracted coma just in time to be conscripted for a war.  But the prevailing tone here is playful and even joyous.  It’s a story about surviving deep disappointment and loss and never losing hope.  On the down side, the subtitles are inexplicably tiny; fortunately, most of the film is in English. “Midnight’s Children” was nominated for eight Canadian Screen Awards (including Best Film), winning in two of those categories, for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress (Seema Biswas, who plays the maternity ward nurse whose impulsive act has such profound consequences).  The film was also nominated as Best Film at the London Film Festival.  DVD extras include a director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a behind the scenes featurette, a look at the novel’s Booker Prize success, and the trailer.  Brief violence and very brief partial nudity.

“The Intouchables” [“Intouchables”] (France, 2011) (B+): When the wealthy quadriplegic Phillipe (Francois Cluzet) interviews applicants for the position of caregiver, a hotheaded man from the housing projects bursts into the opulent interview room:  He’s impatient with waiting, and all he really wants is a signature to prove that he applied for a job so he can qualify for social assistance benefits.  But there’s something about his irreverent, no-nonsense, ‘calling things as he sees them’ demeanor that appeals to Phillipe.  Without even wanting the job, Driss (Omar Sy) gets it, making a stunning transition from homelessness to living in palatial surroundings in the blink of an eye.  What ensues is an amusing, often endearing, head-on collision of cultures and personalities.  Driss is poor, black, and sometimes on the wrong side of the law.  When the name Berlioz comes up, for example, one man is referencing the 19th century composer, the other means the bleak housing project that bears his name.  Driss is all earthy vitality — he is the unpolished, polar opposite of stuffiness.  When Phillipe arranges a taste of classical music for Driss, Driss associates the famous pieces with the contexts in which he has encountered them before — everything from “Tom and Jerry” cartoons to television commercials.  Then, he returns the favor with a rendition of “Earth, Wind, and Fire,” complete with his own dance interpretation.  And Driss knows how to liven up the normally deadly staid annual gathering of Phillipe’s relatives.  More than that, he brings fun into Phillipe’s life, helping him to “breathe a little,” as Phillipe puts it.  An unconventional friendship develops between the two men:  “[You] seem kind of jinxed.  The accident, the wheelchair, your wife.  Sounds like the Kennedys… [You’re] used to tragedy, but I’m not.” They differ in temperament, social class, material wealth, and skin tone, but each has valuable lessons for the other — in a Gallic twinning of “The Odd Couple” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” Phillipe loosens up and learns to laugh at things he once took too seriously, while Driss becomes more responsible and, well, more civilized, through their friendship.  The result is not subtle — one might even say it is rather heavy-handedly manipulative — but it’s hard to fault it for that when it works.  The writer/director collaborators Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache have fashioned an unapologetic crowd-pleaser, based on a true story (we see the real men in the end credits), that blends humor and sentiment to pleasing effect.  Omar Sy won Best Actor at France’s Cesar Awards, where the film was nominated in eight other categories, including Best Actor (for Cluzet), Film, and Director.  It won Best European Film at Italy’s David di Donatello Awards and at Spain’s Goya Awards; it got four nominations at the European Film Awards (including Best Film and Actor); it was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes; and the U.S. National Board of Review named it as one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of its year.  DVD extras consist of nine deleted scenes — all of them worth seeing.  For ages 18+:  Some coarse language.

“Quartet” (U.K., 2012) (B): Retired opera singers and musicians plan a gala fundraising concert of music by Verdi to bolster the finances of their posh, but struggling, retirement home.  The interesting thing about Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is that all of the supporting players actually are retired opera singers and musicians; in many cases they are figures of considerable renown, as the end titles reveal.  And, come to that, they aren’t all retired either:  Dame Gwyneth Jones, who was 76 years old when this film was made, was still actively touring as an operatic singer, and she delivers a strong solo near the film’s end.  The film is the latest in a new subgenre about older people, following in the footsteps of 2011’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the 2011 film from France “And If We All Lived Together?” Each of those films had serious things to say about the trials and tribulations of aging but said those things with humor and charm and a talented ensemble cast.  “Quartet” boasts all those elements in abundance, with the great Maggie Smith (of “Downton Abbey,” “A Room With A View,” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”) as an operatic diva who mourns past glories, Tom Courtenay (“Little Dorrit,” “Doctor Zhivago,” & “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”) as the man who never got over loving (and losing) her, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly (“Mrs Brown” & “Brave”) as a would-be rake, who says precisely whatever is on his mind, propriety be damned, when he’s not shamelessly pursuing young women, Pauline Collins (“Albert Nobbs,” “City of Joy,” and “Shirley Valentine”) as a good-hearted woman whose short term memory is starting to fail, and the great Michael Gambon (“The King’s Speech,” “Gosford Park,” and most of the “Harry Potter” movies) as the imperious producer of the fundraising show, a man who wears only kaftans, like those favored by the artist Gustav Klimt.  There are rivalries, past transgressions, and personality clashes — but, most of all, there are artistic temperaments dealing with the indignities of being past their artistic prime.  It’s all served up with whimsy and good humor:  Their retirement house is named after Thomas Beecham, one of Britain’s greatest conductors:  “Yes, I know who he was.  He inherited a fortune.  His grandfather made laxatives.  Naming a nursing home after him is frighteningly apt.” Yet none of these characters is likely to go quietly into the night.  As Connolly’s earthy, irreverent character (who immodestly proclaims himself “the most attractive man in the place”) says, “I read somewhere that the average man thinks of sex every seven seconds… I wish it were only every seven seconds.” Sheridan Smith (2011’s “Hysteria”) also makes an impression as the home’s lovely and endlessly patient resident physician.  One curious choice in the film is to deny us ever seeing the quartet performance that drives the story; but then, the four performers concerned are not actually singers. (We hear Pavarotti et al. filling in for Smith & Company on the audio track.) “Quartet” is based on the play by Ronald Harwood, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s a fairly simple premise; what elevates it is the caliber of its cast.  They bring charm, wit, humanity, and moments of vulnerability to a story about people facing the relentless decline of fame, fortune, and physical well-being with verve and humor.  The film was nominated for Best Actress (Maggie Smith) at the Golden Globes and for Best Supporting Actor (Billy Connolly) at the British Independent Film Awards.  It was named to the list of 2012’s Top Ten Independent Films by the U.S. National Board of Review.  DVD extras include six brief featurettes, and a very interesting commentary by Dustin Hoffman.  At age 74, he can relate to the characters in his film:  “The cloud that hangs over all these people… That is their mortality.  They’ve reached an age now where they can see the end of the tunnel.” For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

“Poulet aux Prunes” [“Chicken with Plums”] (France/Germany/Belgium, 2011) (B): “You were so shattered that your heart turned to stone.  You no longer let the breath of life enter you… You renounced life.  There is nothing worse than giving up on life!  Nothing!” Nasser-Ali (Mathieu Amalric) is in despair over the destruction of his beloved violin, an instrument which was his only solace for the loss of the woman he loved and which propelled him to international fame as an acclaimed violinist:  “Since no violin would ever again give him the pleasure of playing, Nasser-Ali decided to die.” And so, he takes to his bed and waits for death to come to him.  His story is told by a narrator, whom we ultimately learn is Azrael, the Angel of Death, and this dryly comedic theater of the absurd is described in seemingly serious fashion, without any overt irony.  But irony is there all right, in a quirky, offbeat story that’s part parable and part straight-faced comedy.  It seems that Nasser-Ali met the woman of his dreams in the person of Irane (Golshifteh Farahani).  But their love is derailed by her disapproving father:  “I know passion.  It comes as fast as it goes!  The reality of life is very different!” Irane fears that choosing Nasser-Ali would kill her father; instead, by heeding her pater’s injunction, her choice effectively

Maria de Medeiros in “Poulet aux Prunes” (courtesy of Alliance Films).

kills Nasser-Ali — in slow stages.  He marries Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), a much younger woman who has loved him all her life.  But Nasser-Ali is unable or unwilling to return her love, and their life together has become embittered and vituperative.  It is Faringuisse who smashes his cherished violin.  She’s an angry scold much of the time; but Medeiros gets a chance to reveal another dimension to this woman scorned in a lovely, touching scene in which Faringuisse shows the gentle and loving qualities that have been so blighted by rejection and unhappiness.  There is humor here, as in the boisterous misbehavior of Nasser-Ali’s son that makes an inter-city trip by bus a sheer misery for fellow travelers.  And sometimes the ever-so-dry humor is decidedly iconoclastic, as in Nasser-Ali’s neglectful disdain for his obnoxious child and his apparent readiness to temporarily quell the child’s antics with the opium-doused milk proffered by the flamboyant seller of curiosities (is he a huckster or a magician?) to whom Nasser-Ali has journeyed (with, very reluctantly, son in hand) in search of a Stradivarius — the “marvel of marvels.”  But there is also wisdom about love, about art, and about lives ruined on the shoals of a quest for the ever-elusive “perfect” when steering a course instead for “the good” might have brought them to safe harbor and happiness.  While still a student of music, Nasser-Ali is told that he has technique, but not art“For it is through art that we understand life….  Life is a breath, life is a sigh.  It is this sigh that you must seize.” When his heart is broken by thwarted love, Nasser-Ali’s mentor tells him to sublimate that unbearable pain into his art:  “You see, my child, from now on, the love that you have lost will be in each note you play.  She will be your breath and your sigh.  This love is precious, because it is eternal.” Do we take responsibility for our own fates or blame others?  Nasser-Ali seems prone to the latter, assailing Faringuisse for all that ails him:  “I’ve lost the taste, the joy, the savor.” He’s overtly referring to food, but he means life. “All by your fault.  I will never forgive you.” Yet his inability to understand and empathize with Faringuisse’s own distress — distress for which he is largely responsible — locks Nasser-Ali in a self-built prison cell girt with looming adamantine walls of self-pity, bitterness, and resentment.  Forgiving her and Irane is just too intimately connected with acknowledging his own culpability.  C.S. Lewis once warned that it is important that we resist the temptation to regard ourselves as the central players in a great tragedy, lest we lose all perspective and humility in the process.  As someone in this film observes, “My coming brought no prophet to the sky; nor does my going swell its majesty.” Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paromaud, “Poulet aux Prunes” is based on Satrapi’s graphic novel, as was 2007’s beautiful film Persepolis.” Unlike that earlier film, this one employs live actors rather than animation.  “Poulet aux Prunes” was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice International Film Festival.  The story’s offbeat eccentricity appeals, and its cast (which includes Isabella Rossellini) acquit themselves very well; but, somehow, the film falls short of its potential, leaving a feeling of the inchoate rather than fully satisfying the viewer.  Still, it’s hard not to like a story that opens, rather like a tale told by Scheherazade, with the cryptic invocation:  “There was someone, there was no one.  That is how Persian tales begin.  Yeki boud, yeki naboud.”

“Life of Pi” (USA/Taiwan, 2012) (B+/A-): “Above all, don’t lose hope.” Those are words to live by, as the sole survivor of a shipwreck at sea learns.  Did we say sole survivor?  Well, initially, 18-year old Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) has to share his lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger.  Soon, only Pi and the tiger remain; and the tiger sees Pi as its next meal.  For the film, adapted from the book by Canadian novelist Yann Martel, does not flinch from depicting the savage ferocity of animal predation.  They may be lost at sea; but the law of the jungle is still very much in force.  And yet Pi never loses hope.  On the contrary, when he finally has the advantage — with himself in the boat and the tiger (whom he calls Richard Parker) in the sea — the logical thing for him to do is to let the tiger perish.  Instead, Pi chooses to save it, giving value to its life even though it craves to take his.  Ironically, his moral (and religious) choice to honor even hostile life ends up saving his own:  “Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now.  My fear of him keeps me alert.  Tending to his needs gives my life purpose.” Films that deal overtly with philosophical, moral, and religious issues are few and far between.  This one is all about man’s place in the universe, our perch midway between the natural world and the transcendent, between what is mortal and what is eternal.  In one scene, the ocean becomes the cloud-filled sky, as the one reflects the other in the yellow light of dawn on the completely still surface of the sea.  In another scene, at night, the sea is aglow with phosphorescence; then, an immense whale breaches, as if in slow motion.  It is a magical moment for man and beast; but the transcendental comes at price — the turbulence overturns Pi’s raft and scatters his essential supplies.  Later, swarms of flying fish hurl toward the travelers like aquatic kamikazees, with bigger fish in pursuit.  The vegetarian Pi has to eat fish, and raw fish at that.  But he is moved to tears, for the fish, the first time he has to kill one in order to survive:  “I’m sorry,” he cries out to the fish.  Pi comes to see Richard Parker as a fellow orphan:  “Maybe [he] can’t be tamed, but with God’s will, he can be trained.” One still, dark, and silent night, after the inauguration of their uneasy truce, the tiger sits in the stern of the boat, his back to Pi, gazing into the infinite darkness of the sky.  Then the tiger looks down into the deeps of the sea that lies beneath them.  There, a giant squid attaches itself to a whale; their life and death struggle morphs into a vision of all the land animals that had been aboard the sunken freighter as they sink into the dark reaches of the deep.  That tableau is succeeded by a psychedelic phantasmagoria of faces and images — a waking dream that maybe beast and boy have shared:  “Words are all I have left to hang onto.” Night dreams, day-dreams, and reality are all blurred together.  In a raging storm, Pi is suddenly euphoric:  “Praise be to God… Come out Richard Parker.  Come out.  You have to see this.  It’s beautiful.  Don’t hide yourself.  He’s come to us.  It’s a miracle!  Come out and see God.” And, addressing the storm above, Pi puts his fate into the hands of the divine, “I’ve lost everything.  I surrender.”  When he is close to death, Pi faces that prospect with humility, peace, and acceptance:  “God, thank you for giving me my life.  I’m ready now.” When they reach a place of seemingly idyllic respite, a place furnished with fresh water and sustenance (edible plants for Pi; countless meerkats for the tiger), Pi realizes that its gifts, too, come at a price.  When boy and tiger finally part, it comes as heartbreakingly unceremonious to Pi:  “I suppose the whole of life becomes an act of letting go.  But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” In the end, Pi tells his astonishing tale to a writer, but he also offers a simpler, more mundane, alternative account.  Which story do we prefer?  The one that intermingles the extraordinary and the transcendent; or the prosaic one that’s easier to believe but devoid of magic?  Directed by Ang Lee, “Life of Pi” is a powerful work of the imagination and a testimony to the power of storytelling.  As beautiful to look at as it is poetically reflective about life and our place in it, the film attracted many nominations and awards.  To cite only a few examples:  It was named Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute (AFI).  It won Best Director, Cinematography, Original Score, and Visual Effects at the Academy Awards, where it was also nominated in seven other categories, including Best Film.  And it was nominated as Best Film and Director at the Golden Globes, where it won Best Score.  Extras (available on Blu-ray only) include three featurettes, an art gallery, and storyboards; but, sadly, no commentary.  The film has some disturbing content.

“Don’t Tell” [“La Bestia nel Cuore”] (Italy/U.K./Spain/France, 2005) (B): “A scar is an indelible mark, but it’s not an illness.” We are all marked by our experiences, for good or ill.  And when our experiences harm us, sometimes the scars that remain never fully heal.  So it is for Sabina (the beautiful Giovanna Mezzogiorno of 2003’s “Facing Windows”).  On its face, life seems to be good for her:  She works as a voice-over actress dubbing foreign language films into Italian; she’s in love with her partner Franco (Alessio Boni); and she has good friends.  But, she is also having nightmares, suffering a vague sense of unease, and pulling away from Franco.  And her past is a blank.  Sabina has no concrete memories of her deceased parents or her childhood, “not even of the house, as if it never existed… Even their death.  It’s so unreal.  I wonder how I just erased them this way.” But, we gradually come to realize, along with Sabina, that there is a reason why she “erased” her past:  It is just too painful to remember.  There are little clues along the way:  The first film we see her dubbing depicts a woman being sexually assaulted.  And, later, Sabina flinches when Franco tries to touch her.  Her emotional turmoil has prompted her to visit her beloved brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio) in America; and she voices her concern to Franco that he will be unfaithful to her while she’s away, citing the recent desertion of her friend by a faithless spouse:  “You’re just like them,” she harshly accuses Franco, “When you have a h***-on, you need to f***, with anyone.” The operative words there are, “just like them.”  Without knowing it on a conscious level, Sabina is including her father in that condemnation, for, we learn, her father sexually abused Sabina and her brother when they were children.  That trauma has left Daniele unable to express emotion, or even to hug his young son; and it has left Sabina (who is pregnant by Franco) with a newly emergent suspicion of men.  Her suppressed memories of what happened to her in childhood — her father’s direct culpability and her mother’s no less damaging failure to intervene — are suddenly coming to the fore, and they are threatening to break Sabina:  “How can we blend a secret like ours into normal peoples’ lives?  We can’t.” Sabina’s journey into the locked recesses of her past — and the growing turbulence her past trauma creates in her life in the present — is complimented by several subplots.  One involves Franco.  Will he be unfaithful, as Sabina divined, especially with the eager prompting of a young actress (Francesca Inaudi’s Anita) at work?  Then there are Sabina’s two closest friends.  Emilia (Stefania Rocca) is a childhood friend, who was stricken by blindness as they grew up.  Now she sits alone in a gloomy apartment, working on a loom, and pining (sexually and romantically) for Sabina, a love that can never be requited in the way she desires.  And then there’s Maria (Angela Finocchiaro), an otherwise no-nonsense older friend who is distraught and embittered by the sudden desertion of the husband who left her for a much younger woman.  Knowing that she will be away and therefore unable to provide her two friends with the close emotional support and company they need, Sabina contrives to bring those two friends together.  The unusual relationship that results brings about an unexpected transformation in each of the women that is quite engaging and also endearingly funny. Meanwhile, the mercurial television director (played by Giuseppe Battiston) for whom Franco works transforms from a rather farcical figure into a rather wise and tender one.  The interest generated by these supporting characters and secondary plot-lines is a real strength of the film, all the more so because they add very different tones (including humor and unconventional romance) to its emotional palette.  There are some very nice touches of subtlety in the film:  When Sabina is out jogging, she passes marble statues, some of whose heads are missing — perhaps a metaphoric allusion to what’s missing from her own head?  In another scene, her brother works alone in his study, just like their father used to do; the image reminds Sabina (and us) of that sinister presence in her early life, and it also (briefly) makes us worry that father and son may share less benign similarities.  And there is a moment where one lover, making a bed, touches the side where the other lover (who is presently absent) normally lies, a lovely illustration of tactile memory.  And we often view Sabina and Franco’s apartment through a glass wall, as if they are, on some level, actors playing roles in their own lives on a large set — perhaps casting us, the film’s viewers, as voyeurs?  And, there is a subtly sexy scene when the matter of fact Maria helps the blind Emilia dress, a scene that positively sparkles with the nascent, unexpected attraction that has developed between a middle-aged straight woman and a younger lesbian one.  Sabina’s story traverses an arc.  She writes to Franco, saying:  “I’ve realized I’m very fragile.  I’ve become mistrustful of humankind, affectionate words seem phony, commitments in love, impossible.” And, as she says those words in voice-over, we ironically see Franco at the crisis point in his fidelity to Sabina.  But, “Don’t Tell” is also a story about reconciling our present lives with our past, about learning to carry on, even in the midst of pain that cannot be cured:  “There are types of pain one never heals from:  Ours is one of those.  This doesn’t prevent us from walking with our heads high and our feet on the ground…  A scar is an indelible mark, not an illness.  We can take back the life we thought was stolen from us, even if, to do so, we had to erase the memories of the children we were.” The result is a film that starts slowly but gains an incremental hold on our sympathies and affections as it progresses, adding, seriatim, to our investment in the characters and their highly divergent concerns.  “Don’t Tell ” was written and directed by Cristina Comencini from her own novel, “La Bestia nel Cuore.” That title (of both the novel and the film) translates as “The Beast in the Heart.” Does it refer, we wonder, to the scars left by a beast’s predations, or to the beastliness that prompts horrors like child abuse, or, perhaps, to the raw wordless savagery that is left, however suppressed, in the victim’s psyche as a result of their being so grievously wounded by abuse?  The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film.  At Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, it won Best Supporting Actress (Finocchiaro), and it was nominated for Best Actress, Supporting Actress again (this time for Rocca), Visual Effects, Editing, Sound, and a “Youth” category for its writer/director.  And it won several awards at the Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film).  For ages 18+:  Coarse language, nudity, and sexual content — all of them brief.

“Silver Linings Playbook” (USA, 2012) (B+/A-): “The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed.  And, I can’t begin to explain that or the craziness inside myself and everyone else.  But, guess what? … I think of everything everyone did for me, and I feel like a very lucky guy.” Pat (Bradley Cooper) is freshly out of an eight-month stint at a psychiatric hospital and living with his parents.  He has lost his wife, his job, and his home.  He is obsessed with reuniting with his estranged wife; indeed, he thinks of little else.  But Pat snapped when he walked in on her and another man; and it was his violent assault on that man that got Pat into trouble in the first place.  That’s when he learned that he had been going through life as “an undiagnosed bipolar,” subject to erratic mood swings and delusional “weird thinking” brought on by stress.  While Pat plots to win back his ex, restraining order notwithstanding, his parents fret about his well-being and his continued eccentricities.  Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro deliver award-caliber performances as the concerned parents:  Delores has to worry almost as much about her spouse as her son.  Pat Sr. makes a risky living as a bookie.  A football fanatic, he has been banned from the stadium of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles for fighting.  And when he watches their games on television, he surrounds himself with superstitious rituals and lucky charms aimed at boosting his team’s “ju-ju.”  It’s not hard to see where the son gets his obsessive-compulsive ways.  Pat’s best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) surreptitiously lines him up with his sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence); and an odder couple is hard to imagine.  Tiffany is also living with her parents and with her own set of psychological issues, arising from the accidental death of her husband and an ensuing bout of compulsive promiscuity.  Pat is given to unfiltered stream of consciousness  speech.  He’s a walking, talking verbal theater of the absurd, who spouts non sequiturs at dizzying intervals  The moment he meets Tiffany, he asks her point-blank how her husband died and why she got fired.  He blurts out whatever is on his mind, without any heed for niceties.  But Tiffany gives as good as she gets:  “What meds are you on?” she asks, sarcastically.  It’s clear (to us) that this idiosyncratic pair is made for each other.  Their exchanges are smart-alecky and iconoclastic: (P) “You have poor social skills.  You have a problem.” (T) “I have a problem?  You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.  You scare people.” (P) “I tell the truth.” But Tiffany needs a partner for a dance competition she has entered, and she secures the cooperation of a very reluctant Pat by promising to smuggle a letter from him to his estranged wife.  Though he’d be loathe to admit it, Pat soon comes to enjoy their time together — and the company of a woman who is as unconventional as himself.  Maybe this increasingly meaningful contact with another wounded soul will do him more good than all the self-affirmations he learned in the hospital:  “I’m gonna take all this negativity and I’m gonna find a silver lining.  That’s what I’m gonna do.” In a film that is full of good performances, Chris Tucker is very amusing as Pat’s manic friend Danny; Anupan Kher plays a psychotherapist who shares Pat’s family’s fondness for football; Julia Stiles appears as Tiffany’s condescending sister; and Shea Whighan plays the brother with whom Pat has often felt under-appreciated in comparison.  “Silver Linings Playbook” is a thoroughly engaging blend of comedy, romance, and moments of real poignancy.  The film’s sassy dialogue is reminiscent of the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s.  It’s about people who don’t ‘fit in’ finding a niche in the world in which they can succeed and be happy.  Written and directed by David O. Russell, from the novel by Matthew Quick, “Silver Linings Playbook” earned a multitude of nominations and awards.  To cite a few examples, it won Best Actress at the Academy Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing.  The American Film Institute named it Movie of the Year.  At the

Jennifer Lawrence in “Silver Linings Playbook” (courtesy of eOne Entertainment).

Independent Spirit Awards, it won Best Feature, Director, Female Lead, and Screenplay, and it was nominated for Male Lead.  It won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF; and, it won Best Actress at the Golden Globes, where it was also nominated as Best Comedy Film, Actor, and Screenplay.  A couple of the DVD extras (Bradley Cooper fooling around with a steady-cam and some dance rehearsal footage) are brief and pointless; but the other two extras are more substantive and worthwhile.  A 28 minute featurette explores the desire of the novelist and director to make mental health accessible:  “I wanted people who might be feeling alone to feel less alone,” says novelist Matthew Quick.  The director wanted to tell a story “that would allow [those with mental health challenges] to feel like [they’re] part of the world.” The film’s humor breaks down our defenses and gives an entree to people we might otherwise never take the trouble to get to know and understand.  As someone says, destigmatizing starts with understanding.  The 26 minutes worth of deleted scenes are welcome opportunity to spend a little more time with these characters:  “The feeling inside, whatever it is — sadness, pain, loneliness, heartache — it’s trapped inside like a caged animal.  That’s what makes you effing crazy.” For ages 18+:  Coarse language.

“A Moi Seule” [“Coming Home”] (France, 2012) (B+): When she is just ten years old, Gaelle (played by Margot Couture at age ten) is abducted by a stranger.  Vincent (Reda Kateb of 2009’s “A Prophet” and 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty”) never molests her sexually; but he keeps her captive for eight years.  He locks her in a basement apartment by day while he is at work and lets her up into the house itself by night.  The only contact Gaelle has with another human being is her strange, nocturnal life with Vincent.  And he scarcely interacts with anyone but her.  The first words he says to her are, “I’ll never touch you.  I’ll be nice.  You can have everything you want.” And, for the most part, he is an unexpectedly gentle captor.  The subject of sex never comes up, until, in her 17th year, Gaelle (now played by lead Agathe Bonitzer) herself raises the subject; and, even then, it is not at all clear that anything sexual actually takes place between the two.  On the contrary, their platonic relationship seems almost to be that of a surrogate parent and child.  He cooks for her and buys her books and music and even eyeglasses.  She reads to him.  On occasion, he flies into rages (demanding that Gaelle not “glare” at him), but Gaelle learns how to cajole and sway Vincent.  He takes her for drives and walks at night; and he sounds more like an exasperated parent than a kidnapper:  “We finish this.  We eat.  You do your homework.  Then you relax.” Even though it is a skewed inversion of normalcy; something like interpersonal closeness and friendship develops between the two.  But we never forget that, appearances notwithstanding, Gaelle is a prisoner.  The one thing she cannot have is her freedom.  Even when she seems resigned to, and perhaps even content with, her life with Vincent, Gaelle never gives up the desire to be free.  And one day, he lets her go.  As she runs off, she pauses at the bottom of the driveway and looks back, as if in hesitation.  But what is she running to?  Her old life has been shattered, and so has part of her psyche:  “I’m crazy too…. Otherwise, I’d have killed myself ages ago,” she tells the psychiatrist (Helene Fillieres) who is trying to help her heal.  The strain of Gaelle’s disappearance has broken the marriage of her parents (Noemie Lvovsky and Jacques Bonaffe).  Her father sits up all night, and sleeps very little: “I shut myself away in here,” he says.  “Just like me,” observes Gaelle, who has led a similarly confined and nocturnal existence.  Her mother, who has never given up hope of getting Gaelle back, finds herself troubled by guilt and unable to easily relate to the young woman who has come back in the place of the little girl who was taken from her: “It’s a bit awkward.  We need a little time.” To spare her daughter the intrusive gaze of the reporters waiting outside, she cautions Gaelle not to show herself in the window; and, at the sanitarium where she is being treated, Gaelle finds her nocturnal ramblings stopped by locked doors:  Those restraints are echoes of her long captivity.  Flashbacks develop Gaelle’s life with Vincent.  When he is very late returning home one night, she fears he has been killed in an accident and that she will be abandoned in the basement:  “Someone please come for me,” she prays. “I don’t want to die in here.” When he does get home, Gaelle angrily tells Vincent that she wishes he would die and that she could be there to see it.  “Where else would you be?,” he calmly responds.  Vincent is unexpectedly quiet and almost passive with Gaelle most of the time — even when she holds a kitchen knife to him.  The implication is that there is a genuine, mutual, meaningful connection between the pair, however glaringly wrong the circumstances are that have precipitated that relationship.  Vincent’s last words to Gaelle make that connection explicit:  “We have been happy, I know it.  You know it, too, if you’re honest.” Or, is whatever Gaelle may (or may not) feel toward Vincent just a kind of ‘Stockholm syndrome,’ wherein the captive comes to identify with the captor?  Gaelle had earlier told Vincent that she would never feel love for him.  Is it true?  The film is ambiguous on the subject.  It’s a strange relationship, one that begins in the abduction of a child — an act of unspeakable repugnance — and it persists through years of involuntary captivity.  That Vincent is mostly kind to Gaelle does not ameliorate the acute wrongfulness of him keeping her in captivity, obviously; but the mutually dependent nature of their relationship and the very real possibility that something like friendship and affection develops between them, despite the terrible circumstances, is most unexpected.  And there’s a real poignancy to Gaelle’s alienation from the world of normalcy once she finally finds her way back to it:  “Home is not my home anymore,” she says to a stranger on a train who is kind to her.  (Marie Payen makes a strong impression as that kind stranger.)  There are a couple of puzzling, hard to fathom moments, to wit: two or three scenes shot in near darkness, and an inchoate, under-developed scene of Vincent’s awkward attempt to socialize with a colleague from work.  But, writer/director Frederic Videau has fashioned a quietly fascinating, low-key meditation on the human need to make connections, even with those who have done us wrong, the unquenchable need to be free, and the ways our past can alter our lives forever.  Florent Marchet contributes a good score.  A translation of the film’s French title, “A Moi Seule,” would seem to be “For Me Only.” One can only ponder the implications of that title, as opposed to the prosaic English title, “Coming Home,” selected by the filmmakers or their distributors.  “A Moi Seule” won an ‘Art House Cinema’ award at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Bear (Best Film).  For ages 18+:  Some coarse language.

“Game of Thrones” Season 2 (USA, 2012) (B+): The five lengthy books (at least two more are planned) that comprise novelist George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series defied conventional cinematic adaptation:  With numerous characters, far flung locations (everything from deserts to great cities to a wintry wasteland), and complex plots, each of the books is simply too long and too involved to fit into the confines of even a three hour movie.  HBO’s answer to the challenge was an ongoing series, with ten episodes each year for each of the novels.  And the producers have admirably met the challenge of producing a handsome, sprawling series within a television series’ finite budget.  Location filming in the coastal city of Dubrovnik (which managed to survive the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia with much of its medieval charm intact), in Malta, and in Iceland lends beauty and verisimilitude to a series that is set in the invented world of Westeros.  The mostly British cast brings considerable gravitas to the characterizations, and they are aided by fine scripting, and by a first-rate musical score by Ramin Djawadi.  (The original soundtrack recordings for seasons one and two are available on CD from Varese Sarabande, distributed in Canada by Outside Music.)  “Game of Thrones” is ‘fantasy,’ but it is a very gritty kind of fantasy that uses its fantastical elements (like baby dragons) very sparingly.  Its world is one of knights, clashing kingdoms, and a lethal preternatural menace that lurks on the other side of an immense wall of ice in the north.  Downfall and death can come without warning in the series — even to prominent characters.  (A case in point:  Sean Bean’s Ned Stark, the star of the first season, was falsely accused and brutally executed for treason at that season’s close.)  But, for all its vaunted preference for painting in ‘shades of grey,’ rather than clearly delineated ‘black and white,’ the series (like the books upon which it based), proffers too many characters who are thoroughly despicable.  Worse still, the series revels in extremely foul language, explicit nudity, very strong sexual content, and extremely brutal violence.  Those elements have come to be associated with HBO productions.  Perhaps HBO has the mistaken impression that such content makes their productions “all grown up?”  Or perhaps it just appeals to the prurient interest of viewers?  One thing is certain:  The deluge of gratuitously ugly content cheapens, degrades, and, yes, even befouls all that’s laudable about “Game of Thrones” and the novels upon which it is based.  Indeed, it very nearly derails the series entirely.  Even more troubling than the utterly gratuitous display of sex, nudity, obscene language, and brutal violence, is the series’ moral nihilism.  Examples of this pervasive dearth of integrity, decency, and morality in so many (though not all) of the series’ characters are legion.  To cite some examples from Season Two: one brother murders another by means of sorcery; prisoners of war are tortured in horrible ways; a sadistic boy-king has his betrothed publicly stripped and beaten and later forces one prostitute to savagely beat another for his amusement, and a highborn warrior brutally murders an innocent fellow captive in order to create a diversion and thereby escape imprisonment.  Rape, betrayal, brutalization, deceit, treachery, cowardice, sadism, and outright psychopathy run rampant in the story; and it is maddeningly discomforting to watch a show with such repugnant characters and behavior.  Conscience is an endangered species in this series; and, somehow, that is deeply off-putting.  And yet, and yet…“Game of Thrones” does exert a magnetic attraction — not because of its distressing lack of a moral center and its undue fondness for ugliness, but despite those facts.  There is wit here, there are (some) men and women of honor here, there is true love, courage, and self-sacrifice; and there are moments both tender and witty.  Some of them come courtesy of the ill-fated but admirable Stark family:  Sundered by war and the treachery of others, they strive to do what is honest and right.  And there is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage won an Emmy for the role).  A hard-drinking, whoring, outwardly cynical man, Tyrion is despised by his own family for being born a dwarf; but he is a keen judge of character and a man with a good heart, who, as he puts it, enjoys the challenge of out-talking and out-witting everyone else.  To his wicked queen (Lena Headley’s Cersei) of a sister, he says, “You love your children.  It’s your one redeeming quality.  That and your cheekbones.” And there are innumerable lovely, tender, and wise moments, often coming from supporting players, or in fleetingly brief exchanges, as when Donald Sumpter’s Maester Luwin tells a boy troubled by seemingly prophetic dreams, “I was young [once].  And what boy doesn’t secretly wish for hidden powers to lift him out of his dull life [and] into a special one?” And, how about this memorable exchange between two deadly fraternal rivals (Stephen Dillane’s Stannis Baratheon and Gethin Anthony’s Renly Baratheon) for the throne:  (S) “The Iron Throne is mine, by right.  All those who deny that are my foes.” (R) “The whole realm denies it, from Dorn to the Wall.  Old men deny it with their death rattle, and unborn children deny it in their mothers’ wombs.  No one wants you for their king.” And there’s a touching moment between Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), the young tomboy who has seen her noble father butchered, and the gruff ranger (Francis Magee’s Yoren) who has taken her under his protection:  (A) “How do you sleep?” (Y) “Same as most men, I expect.” (A) “But you’ve seen things, horrible things.” (Y) “Aye.  I’ve seen some pretty things, too, though not nearly so many.” Moments after that gentle exchange, he is dead, and she is a prisoner of deadly enemies.  She later comes face to face with the leader of the forces that captured her (Charles Dance, as Tywin the patriarch of House Lannister), and for all his severe ruthlessness, he is kind to young Arya.  Still, she never forgets what his family has done to hers, and, in a line that is pregnant with meaning, Arya quietly says, “Anyone can be killed,” as she coolly holds her powerful captor’s imperious gaze.  (It is not only an expression of bravery and determination on her part; it also foreshadows her transformation into an assassin later in the series.)  There’s an elegantly scripted contrast between two men who break oaths of betrothal:  Robb Stark (Richard Madden) forswears a politically arranged engagement in order to marry for love (a well-intentioned act that will nevertheless later cause his downfall), while, far away, his bitter enemy, the cruel boy-king Joffrey publicly disavows and deliberately humiliates his betrothed in favor of a political union.  The ebb and flow of the story is often quite captivating.  In fact, there are many different stories unfolding concurrently — separated by many hundreds of miles.  But, here and there, there are missteps and logical lapses in the storytelling.  Tyrion tells a different story to three different counselors to see which of them will betray his confidence.  But it is painfully obvious to the viewer, as it should be to the astute Tyrion, that none of the trio is even slightly trustworthy; so, in fact, his ruse proves nothing at all.  Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) slaughter of a loyal cousin to effect his own escape is a clumsy contrivance (on the part of the writers) to induce an improbably unwary guard to turn his back and be throttled.  A knight known as The Hound appears out of nowhere (and for no conceivable reason) in Sansa Stark’s bedroom right in time to discover that she has ‘become a woman’ and is therefore ready for marriage to the vicious king.  The Hound later offers to help Sansa escape; why on earth would she decline that chance for freedom?  It’s an arbitrary choice by the screenwriters that defies belief.  Worse still, why would she listen to the faux-sympathy of the clearly treacherous counselor who tries to insinuate himself into her favor?   There’s no way the otherwise prudent and intelligent Catelyn Stark (the admirable Michelle Fairley) would give up a prize hostage and simply trust his utterly duplicitous kin to reciprocate by releasing her daughters.  An otherwise sensible woman strolls into the tent of the King of the North (Richard Madden’s Robb Stark) to socialize, while he is in the midst of a meeting — a breach of etiquette and common sense that does not ring true.  And when the Stark family’s imposing fortress in the north, Winterfell, is reduced to flames, there are no culprits on hand who could (or would) have done such a thing:  It’s an effect with no discernible cause.  And why does a would-be king, Stannis, who bet everything on the blandishments of a seductive witch, succumb yet again to her empty promises after his ignominious defeat in battle?  That which makes no sense can only be perceived as a flaw in the storytelling.  It likewise defies belief that any Stark would delegate the liberation of their home and close kin to some far-off (and none too trustworthy) supposed ally.  But against such distracting missteps, there are moments that move and seduce, like this exchange between a wise old man (Luwin) and a young man (Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy) who is incrementally losing his soul in a bid to be respected:  (L):  You’re not the [bad] man you’re pretending to be.” (T)  “You may be right, but I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else.” Elsewhere, Liam Cunningham makes an impression as the steadfast, loyal, and true Ser Davos Seaworth, a pirate turned knight, as does Iain Glen as Ser Jorah Mormont, a once disgraced knight who now lives by a creed of knightly devotion to Emilia Clarke’s exiled princess and “Mother of Dragons,” Daenerys Targaryen.  The aforementioned Richard Madden (Robb Stark) plays a young man who is forced by the loss of his father to abruptly put his youthfulness behind him and become a stern leader of men at war; Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) is a Stark from the wrong side of the bed whose illegitimacy gainsays his innate nobility and courage not one whit; while John Bradley is affecting as his rotund but wise and resourceful friend, Samwell Tarly.  Simon Armstrong plays a more seasoned leader among the ranks of the rangers, Qhorin Halfhand, and one wishes the story had found more room for him (as well as his fellow member of the “Night’s Watch,” Yoren).  Sophie Turner comes into her own in Season Two as Sansa Stark, transforming from a selfish child to a young woman who has to endure violence and degradation, but who grows all the while in courage and composure.  Also worthy of note are:  Isaac Hempstead Wright as young Bran Stark, whose fortitude is not dampened by the paralysis he suffered after being pushed out a castle window, Tom Wlaschiha as the assassin Jaqen who comes to young Arya’s aid more than once, and Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy, a young man who loses his soul along with his honor with each misjudged step he takes.  The series’ two most despicable characters — the sadistic boy-king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and the master of treachery Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) — make this viewer recoil in disgust each time they appear and shatter lives with, respectively, glee and indifference.  Each is an abhorrent monster, whose early demise would be cause for celebration; but one must admit that the actors do an effective job of inducing such loathing.  “Game of Thrones” is severely wounded by its sometimes grotesquely ugly and hateful content and by its moral emptiness, but it saved by its affecting characterizations, its mostly exemplary writing, and the breadth of its story.  In addition to all ten episodes, the Season Two set has a good selection of extras (on Blu-ray only), including 12 audio commentaries, a close-up look at the full episode Battle of Blackwater Bay; a look at the competing religions of Westeros; seven character profiles; and more.  For ages 18+ only:  Warning — brutal violence, extremely coarse language; explicit nudity; and very strong sexual content.

“Promised Land” (USA, 2012) (B): When big business comes to town, its siren call may be all but irresistible for communities experiencing the harsh realities of hard times.  The trouble is that whatever big business is peddling may bring dire environmental risks right along with the promised investment and new jobs.  Witness the current controversy (in both the United States and Canada) over proposed new continental oil and gas pipelines, grave concerns over deep sea oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Sea, the ruinous effects of heavy oil extraction from Alberta’s ‘tar-sands’ — a massive industrial effort that makes a mockery of purported concerns about increasing hydrocarbons in our atmosphere, and the uncertain environmental costs of “fracking,” a process that entails drilling deeply into shale rock formations and injecting toxic chemicals under high pressure to force out natural gas.  Fracking has become big business south of the border, despite concerns about poisoning the aquifers on which we depend for life and creating geological instabilities in the ground itself.  In this film, two sales agents arrive in a small farming town looking to buy drilling leases for fracking operations.  Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand of “Fargo”) are old hands at this:  They need to fit in — by presenting a collegial, just-folks persona (they even outfit themselves in the flannel attire favored in this neck of the rural woods) — and they need to make an earnest appeal to the struggling local citizenry’s need for a boost in incomes.  And, for those with qualms, they have persuasive answers:  Who doesn’t want North America to be energy independent, after all?  “There’s no such thing as a neutral position here.  If you are against this, you are for coal and oil.  Period.” But obstacles arise, in the person of a stubborn local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) with 32 years of experience in industrial R&D:  “Money can very often lead to bad decisions.” And all bets are off when a dauntless environmental activist (John Krasinski) arrives with a truckload of signs and abundant charm.  And is there a chance that Steve and Sue may go-native?  Steve is fond of a single young school teacher (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Sue has caught the eye of a local store owner (Titus Welliver from “Argo” and television’s “The Good Wife”) whose alliterative merchandise comprises ‘guns, groceries, guitars, and gas.’  Co-stars Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay, and Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Elephant,” and “Good Will Hunting”) directed a film that is one part public policy issue, and one part character drama.  The former component can be a tad heavy-handed and didactic in places; but the film is redeemed by its low-key, character-driven story and authentic-feeling sense of place.  There’s a quiet wistfulness here, in the film’s depiction of an economy that has seen better days and a way of life that’s in gradual decline:  “These people, this town, this life.  It is dying, or damn near dead.  And you all see it coming.” There is pointed social commentary on the gulf between the very few rich and the rest of us:  “You and I both know the only reason you’re here is ’cause we’re poor.  How many wells you got up there in Manhattan?” It’s about hard choices:  “You came here and offered us money, figuring you were helping us.  All we had to do to get it was be willing to scorch the earth under our feet.” And it’s about remembering the things that make us strong, things like learning to take care of others and of the earth around us:  “Everything that we have is on the table now.  And that’s just not ours to lose.” “Promised Land” offers food for thought, and an amiable character drama, too.  It won the Freedom of Expression Award and inclusion in the Top Ten Films of The Year from the U.S. National Board of Review.  And won a Special Mention from the International Jury at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Silver Bear (Best Film).  One curious footnote:  Some of the film’s financing came from the Gulf State of Abu Dhabi:  One hopes there is no big-oil agenda here designed to discredit the competing energy resource of domestically-fracked natural gas?  DVD extras are confined to extended scenes and a featurette about the making of the film.  A commentary would have been welcome.  For ages 18+:  Coarse language.

“In Darkness” (Poland/Germany/Canada, 2011) (B+): In 1939, a diabolical pact between two malign tyrants (Hitler and Stalin) divided Poland between them.  But, when Nazi Germany turned on its ‘ally’ of convenience two years later, the whole of Poland fell under Nazi occupation. Fully one-third of the population of the city of Lvov (also known as Lviv) in eastern Poland (now western Ukraine) was comprised of Jews at the onset of World War II; and it was an important center of Jewish culture.  But those hundreds of thousands of human beings were viciously annihilated by the Nazis (and their sympathizers), with no more than 300 of them left alive at the war’s end! “In Darkness” is the true story of a handful of Jews who, in sheer desperation, seek refuge from murderous extermination by secretly fleeing to the city’s sewers.  The film depicts the round-up, brutalizing, and wanton murder of the captives of Jewish Ghetto to the musical accompaniment of waltz music, and it is a deeply unsettling juxtaposition.  The only route of escape is down — into a black hole in the ground.  And, it’s not simply a storm sewer, either:  It is a dark, dank place; it reeks of excrement and death; and it is crawling with rats.  The refugees pay a Polish sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), to keep their secret and to keep them supplied with the bare necessities of a subsistence life in the dark.  Socha is an anti-Semite, but he gruffly agrees to help — for a price.  But when too many seek sanctuary in the sewer tunnels, Socha demands that the refugees cull their own numbers to just eleven.  And they do, abandoning the larger group to their fate in the darkness.  It’s not the noble choice we might wish for; but this film does not offer us pictures of saints.  Its men and women are innocent victims of genocide; but they are still flawed human beings, just like the rest of us.  One deserts his wife and child in favor of a mistress (whom he later abandons); some fall victim to despair (“There is no place for us anywhere”); others succumb to a ruthless impulse to survive at all costs — even at the expense of their fellows.  But, in the midst of it all, life goes on — children play, people fall in love — even in this hellish setting.  Noble and base instincts alike survive right along with the handful of people huddling together in the dark, claustrophobic confines of the tunnels.  For his part, Socha’s motivations are unambiguously mercenary.  Still, for all his disdain for those whose lives depend entirely on him, he never contemplates turning them in for the reward proffered by the Nazis.  And Socha’s bigotry gradually begins to soften as he comes to know his charges.  Could it be, as his broader-minded wife, Wanda, asserts, that, “Jews are the same as us.” One of the bravest and fittest of the refugees smuggles himself into the Janowska concentration camp to look for the missing sister of the woman he has come to love:  It’s an improbable adventure-movie device that feels out of place here.  What works far better is a heroic moment of fast-thinking when Socha’s young daughter saves the day after inadvertently blurting out the refugees’ existence to a Ukrainian Nazi who is hunting for them.  Director Agnieszka Holland (1990’s “Europa Europa”) has fashioned a real-life horror story, but one that is also a story of desperate hope, survival, and redemption — in which a selfish man learns to love others and to proclaim: “These are my Jews.  These are my work.” “In Darkness” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.  It was nominated as Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Sound Editing at Canada’s Genie Awards.  And it won Best Actor, Supporting Actress, and Cinematography at the Polish Film Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Costumes, Music, and Production Design.  DVD extras include the film’s trailer, several deleted scenes, and a 27-minute conversation between the director and the real-life Kystyna Chiger, the last surviving member of the people whose stories are retold in the film, who authored a book, “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” about her ordeal.  The film itself was written by David F. Shamoon, based on the book “In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall.  For ages 18+ only:  Coarse language; nudity; sexual content; violence; and disturbing content.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (USA, 2012) (B+): “They think we all gonna drown down here.  But we ain’t going nowhere…. Daddy says brave men don’t run from their home.” Good things — things like love and beauty and courage and a sheer exuberant joy in life — can be found in all manner of places, even places that might strike outsiders as harsh or full of deprivation.  Such a place, the bayou outside New Orleans, at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi river, is home to a precocious six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis, who, at age 9, went on to become the youngest nominee for Best Actress in Academy Award history for her performance in this movie), her stern but well-intentioned father, Wink (played by Dwight Henry), and a small community of hardy individualists.  There’s poverty and squalor here; but the people who live in ‘the Bathtub,’ as they call it, see far more than just that:  They see a place of beauty, where they live in intimate terms with Nature in all her moods.  Floating on the water in a makeshift raft (the hindquarters of a pick-up truck suspended atop metal barrels) like explorers who regard our modern urban world as utterly alien, Wink espies looming industry in ‘the dry world’ that borders their sanctuary and observes, rightly, “Ain’t that ugly over there?  We got the prettiest place on earth.” A volunteer teacher in The Bathtub’s impromptu school weaves tales of marauding carnivorous prehistoric mammals called “aurocks” (they resemble a gigantic amalgam of bison and boars), and Hushpuppy imagines them loosed from their Ice Age confinement by global warming and freed to rampage and threaten her small community.  Hushpuppy narrates the story, and we see life in this novel setting through the eyes of a free-spirited young child.  Yet she has wisdom and inner resilience that surpasses her tender years:  “Everybody loses the thing that made them.  It’s even how it’s supposed to be in nature.  The brave men stay and watch it happen.  They don’t run.” A storm is coming (perhaps a loose interpretation of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina?) and The Bathtub is in jeopardy.  When the wind and rain and flood dies down, men from the dry world want to evacuate Hushpuppy’s swamped community, by force if need be.  But the people of The Bathtub are a tough lot:  They do not shrink from the harsh sides of nature — there’s birth here and death, beauty and decomposition, human camaraderie and animal predation.  These hardy souls celebrate all that living entails, enjoying more holidays than we do on the dry land, and exhorting their youngsters to “Beast it!”– that is, to eat a crab barehanded and without a knife.  (Once done with that feast aided only by fingers and teeth, the adults chant, “Yeah, you’re an animal.  Yeah!”) It’s a visceral way to live (complete with recurring imagery of the beating heart that keeps life pulsing in humans and other animals alike), a way that banishes squeamishness, a way that’s in touch with nature’s primitive side, and a way that’s an effective model for survival in this remote, hardscrabble place.  Hushpuppy has a lively imagination, but she is also grounded in practicality:  “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.” And should one of The Bathtub’s human community die, those left behind shed no tears, but, rather, proclaim their friend or loved one’s imminent arrival in the great beyond:  “I see I’m a little piece of a big, big universe.  And that makes things right.” The result is a mesmerizing, highly original look at life in an unfamiliar place seen through the unjaundiced eyes of a young child.  It’s one of the best films of 2012.  Director Benh Zeitlin co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Lucy Alibar, who in turn wrote the stage play, “Juicy and Delicious,” upon which it is based.  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” earned a great many nominations and awards:  It had four Academy Award nominations (as Best Film, Actress, Director, and Adapted Screenplay); it won four awards at Cannes, including Best Director; it won Best Film at the American Film Institute (AFI) Awards; it won Best Cinematography at the Independent Spirit Awards (where it was also nominated for Best Film, Actress, and Director; and it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Best Cinematography at Sundance.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.

“Robot & Frank” (USA, 2012) (B+): Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone in a small town.  His beloved public library is being converted to a bookless environment, which not only means no more books (they are all being converted to digital displays), but, maybe, no more conversations with the attractive librarian (Susan Sarandon).  Frank’s memory is starting to fade and he lacks nearby family.  He’s irritable and solitary and his family is worried.  But his daughter (Liv Tyler) is a free-spirited wanderer, and his son (James Marsden) lives too far off to keep a close eye on his dad:  “You have a problem.  You’re worse every time I come up here, Dad.” Frank is adamant that he will not move into a nursing home; so his son brings an alternative solution with him on one of his weekly visits.  He brings Frank someone who will serve as butler, cook, caregiver, and companion.  It happens to be a walking, talking robot!  Frank doesn’t mince words:  “Get this hunk of crap out of my house!” he insists.  But the robot (very nicely voiced in deadpan tones by Peter Sarsgaard) stays, gently, but firmly, cajoling Frank into eating healthy foods, having his enema, and going to bed on time:  “It’s crucial we establish a set schedule for your day — to help keep you oriented.” The robot even proposes that they plant a vegetable garden in the backyard — to give Frank a constructive project.  Frank grumbles and resists the whole way, but his son didn’t share the password needed to shut down his new caregiver, so Frank is stuck with his unwanted company.  And then, Frank gets an idea:  “You want to be partners?  Let’s be partners.  You said yourself I need a project.  I do.  I need something to keep me stimulated, to keep me exercised.  Well, this is it.” The “it” Frank has in mind is a return to the career from which he had retired — that of a cat-burglar.  The robot has serious misgivings: “Frank, you don’t have any free time scheduled after sunset,” he observes, in a practical-minded objection to Frank’s nocturnal plans.  But, determined to engage Frank, the robot reluctantly goes along, and it turns out he’s got a knack for picking locks and sussing out safe combinations.  The target of Frank’s intended larceny is the obnoxious big city yuppie (Jeremy Strong) who has taken over the town’s library and transformed it into something that would make any bibliophile shudder — the same condescending (prematurely rich) man who treats Frank like a fossil from some bygone era.  Frank’s back in his cat-burglar black — and this time, it’s personal. The result is a sheer delight, combining gentle humor with real poignancy, as a truly odd couple bond and become friends.  Indeed, Frank sometimes mistakes the robot for a younger version of his son.  They become a unique sort of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  And, like Frank, we can’t help but anthropomorphize the mechanical man.  Frank Langella is one of the best actors working today:  His Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his performance as Richard Nixon in 2008’s “Frost/Nixon” came hard on the heels of his award-caliber leading role in 2007’s “Starting Out in the Evening.” (He may be 75, but he currently has five films in various stages of production.)  In “Robot & Frank,” he invests his character, a man who is in inexorable decline, with great charisma and gravitas and power.  We care about this man, and we get utterly invested in his relationship with his robotic companion.  The direction by Jake Schreier, the screenplay by Christopher Ford, and every one of the performances (Jeremy Sisto also makes an impression in a small role) yield a truly winning combination: “Robot & Frank” is tender and moving as it is humorous.  In its own way, it’s a surprisingly sweet story.  And, lest you roll your eyes at the premise, clips shown over the end credits show just how astonishingly fast real-life robotics are racing to arrive at the very near future depicted in the film.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.

“Rust and Bone” [“De Rouille et d’Os”] (France/Belgium, 2012) (B+): Can our journey through life’s vicissitudes sometimes fill what’s empty, mend what’s broken, and heal what’s unwell?  When they meet, neither Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) nor Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is very admirable — or particularly likable.  She trains orcas for a living.  Perhaps she does it for the sense of control it gives her; for she’s coldly aloof in most of her dealings with fellow humans.  He’s rough and tough and streetwise.  An aspiring kickboxer, he gets by as he can, scavenging, stealing, and working as a bouncer and security guard.  He is sexually promiscuous, seemingly disinterested in love, and benignly neglectful of the young son of whom he has just assumed custody.  Stephanie has an edgy sexual attitude of her own:  “I like being watched.  I like turning them on.  I like getting them worked up.  But then I’d get bored.” Both of them come across as damaged people; but Stephanie’s damage soon becomes very literal, when a terrible accident at work results in the loss of her legs.  Bereft and scarcely caring if she lives or dies, she turns to Ali for some undefinable something.  Maybe his emotional hardness gives her something she can prop herself up on?  None too gently, he cajoles her into leaving the self-imposed solitude (and self-pity) of her apartment.  Out she goes — into the light and into the water she so adores.  Later, Ali suggests sex, doing so tersely and with no attempt to be romantic, or even seductive:  Stephanie asks, “Do you mind if we don’t kiss?” To which Ali handily replies, “No problem.” Sex is a physical need for him, nothing more; there is no true intimacy involved.  But the two start spending more time together; Stephanie even, unexpectedly, becomes a kind of muse to Ali as he enters street fights to make money from those who bet on the bruising contests.  Slowly but surely, their relationship deepens and seems to work changes on each of the pair.  In a nice scene, Stephanie stands on her apartment balcony rehearsing her orca training signals, before having a lyrical reunion with the source of her grievous injury behind glass at the aquarium where she worked.  And she grows less tolerant of Ali’s selfish, thoughtless ways.  After he leaves her side at a nightclub to depart with a woman he has just met on the dance floor, Stephanie gives voice to the connection and commitment that have developed between the two:  “What am I to you?  A friend?  A pal?  A buddy?  You [eff] your buddies?… If we continue, we have to do it right.  Let’s show some manners.  I mean consideration.  You’ve always been so considerate with me… We continue, but not like animals.” And Stephanie draws on inner reserves of strength she did not know she possessed when she reluctantly steps in to serve as Ali’s fight manager in an exclusively male preserve:  “I don’t know that scene, those guys.  [Do you] see me with those beasts?,” she asks.  To which, Ali’s departing manager offers a dead-certain, “Yeah!” He knows she’s as tough as nails inside.  But she is also becoming a fully human being for the first time in her life.  As Marion Cotillard says about her character, “She’s empty when she’s a whole body.  And then she becomes a real woman, even without legs.” The question is:  Will Ali, too, become a whole person, by accepting full responsibility for his son and learning to give and receive love?  Based on a story by the Toronto writer Craig Davidson, director and co-writer Jacques Audiard (2009’s “A Prophet”) has fashioned an unconventional love story about a man and a woman who have a chance to find wholeness (and redemption) in their unlikely pairing.  Anchored in strong performances, it offers two characters who traverse a transformative arc, with the possibility of emerging on the other side as better people than they were when their stories began.  “Rust and Bone” has earned critical acclaim.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes.  It was nominated as Best Actress and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes.  At the Cesar Awards in France, it won Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Music, and Most Promising Actor (Schoenaerts); and it was nominated as Best Film, Actress, Director, Cinematography, and Sound.  It attracted Best Actress nominations in such diverse competitions as BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild, the Australian Film Institute, the Irish Film Awards, and The Netherlands’ Rembrandt Awards.  For ages 18+:  Sexual content; nudity; violence; and coarse language.

“And If We All Lived Together?” [“Et si on vivait tous ensemble?”] (France, 2012) (B/B+): “It’s strange.  We plan for everything.  We insure our cars, our homes….  We even insure our lives.  But we don’t give a thought to our final years and how we’ll spend them.” Who was it that said, ‘Aging is not for the faint of heart?’  Well, it seems that we can bolster ourselves against its trials with humor.  Indeed, a whole new subgenre of film seems to have sprung to life in the past couple of years — films about aging men and women who decline to ‘go gentle into that good night,’ as the Bard put it.  The subgenre is personified by such recent fare as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011) and “Quartet” (2012), though earlier contenders include 2004’s “Ladies in Lavender,” 1991’s “Enchanted April,” and perhaps 1989’s “Shirley Valentine.” And If We All Lived Together?” is the latest addition to that list, and it’s as poignant as it is gently funny.  If aging brings with it a host of uncertainties, indignities, and fears about infirmities, what better way to face them than with friends and humor?  In this film, written and directed by Stephane Robelin, five 70-something friends decide there’s strength in numbers, and they decide to share a house to better face whatever time and fate may bring.  Jeanne (Jane Fonda) and Albert (Pierre Richard) have to cope with his failing memory.  Claude (Claude Rich) is as randy as ever, but he has had a heart attack, and his son is intent on seeing him safe and sound in a nursing home.  Jean (Guy Bedos) is a lifelong social activist, and he has no intention of slowing down now.  But, he is disappointed when the police ignore him at his latest protest:  (A) “Why didn’t they arrest me?” (B) “Obviously it’s easier to clobber the young.” Meanwhile, at home, Jean and Annie (Geraldine Chaplin of “Doctor Zhivago”) can’t decide whether to argue or make love; but they do both passionately.  And one of the quintet has a secret — in the form of a terminal illness.  The five have been friends for 40 years or more, but living in close quarters nevertheless brings its share of stresses and strains.  There are secret infidelities to cope with; and, when the forgetful Albert runs a bath, and then goes out of the house leaving the tap running, he turns the house into waterworld.  To contend with his memory lapses, he notes important facts in his notebook, where he daily rediscovers a shocking revelation afresh.  The ever practical Jeanne dismisses talk of dividing household chores equally, suggesting that they adopt a do as you please “libertarian” model instead of a “collectivist” one.  For one thing, dividing five people into groups of two poses a problem; for another, “Collective farms are for twenty year olds.” Still, the five friends form a surrogate family, and their support for one another often exceeds that offered by their well-meaning but distant actual kin.  The friends are helped along the way by their live-in dog-walker, caregiver, and confidant, Dirk (Daniel Bruhl), a young anthropologist who is writing a thesis about “old Europeans.”  There is ample humor here, but also moments of poignancy; one of the five observes, “Last night, I dreamed I was getting younger… When I woke up, I realized that I’ve spent more time dead than alive.  In the end, there’s nothing to worry about.” The result is a heartwarming take on life and aging and the things that connect us to others.  For ages 18+:  Nudity, sexual content, and brief coarse language.

“April Captains” [“Capitaes de Abril”] (Portugal/France, 2000) (B/B+): “It’s time to start listening to those who never get heard.” The directorial debut by the multi-talented actress (and singer of Brazilian jazz) Maria de Medeiros concerns the last day of the right-wing dictatorship that

Stefano Accorsi & Maria de Medeiros in “April Captains” (photo by Joao Tuna).

held Portugal in its iron grip since 1933.  Ideological kin to Franco’s dictatorial regime in neighboring Spain, Portugal’s dictators (Salazar, and, after 1968, his successor, Caetano) ruled by fiat, force, and fear.  But years of harsh oppression at home and widespread repugnance for the brutal and ugly colonial wars the regime was waging in Africa (to keep control of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea) finally came to a sudden, decisive head on April 24, 1974, when junior military officers staged a coup d’etat, that was spontaneously joined by thousands of ordinary civilians in the streets.  Together, they stared down and shamed the authoritarian government.  Their nearly bloodless “Carnation Revolution” overthrew a tyranny, despite its ruthless thugs and torturers, paving the way for Portugal’s rapid emergence as a modern democratic nation.  “April Captains” was a labor of love for Medeiros, who co-wrote the film.  With fictionalized characters who are closely inspired by the real life dramatis personae, she has fashioned an intelligent screenplay that is sometimes very witty and often very inspiring.  In a priceless moment, a long column of tanks and armored personnel carriers stops at a red light, while the civilian occupants of a double-deckered bus in the adjoining lane of traffic gawk at the peaceful invaders.  It’s an old-fashioned story, in the best sense of that term, for it depicts ordinary men and women who find it within themselves to do the extraordinary:  Men who are trained to obey find the courage to question orders and to stage a non-violent revolt against the oppressive powers that be: “In Guinea, I did things that my conscience abhorred.  Now I know that sometimes the only solution is to disobey.” The story divides its time between three small groups:  (i) those who rally the troops and march on Lisbon, (ii) the quartet of officers who occupy the capital’s radio station, and (iii) a political dissident from within the country’s ruling class.  Said dissident, Antonia (Maria de Medeiros), is also the wife of one of the film’s eponymous captains (Manuel, played by Frederic Pierrot).  But, in an ironic misperception of her spouse’s true character that’s worthy of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” or “Zorro,” Antonia has no inkling that he’s part of the revolt; instead, she feels contempt for his seeming complacency about the status quo.  The eloquence, determination, and daring of the charismatic coup leader, Captain Maia (Stefano Accorsi) — whom Canadians will recognize as a dead-ringer for CBC personality and host George Stomboulopoulis — drives the story (as well as the tanks) — fueling it with idealism and heroism:  “I’ll keep my word.  Even if I must die!  The only way to change the government is by force:  We are the only people who can!” Meanwhile, the four amigos at the radio station provide some gently comic relief; while the intervals with Antonia and her circle represent the intellectual underpinnings of the revolution and give voice to the liberal denunciation of tyranny, torture, and wars of oppression.  As the story moves between these three small groups, some of its accompanying changes in tone work better than others.  But, the story inspires with its unabashed idealism.  It’s about people finding within themselves the bravery and pluck to stand up for what’s right — in a time and place when doing so can have terrible consequences.  “April Captains” sings the praises of freedom, justice, democracy, and courage — and that gives it a timelessly inspirational power.  For some, the story may, at occasional moments, stray a little too far toward the Scylla and Charybdis of farce and didacticism.  But, such cavils count for nothing against the film’s strengths:  It is refreshingly sincere (which today, in a period that too often favors moral nihilism, is as invigorating as a breath of fresh air); and it offers authentic-feeling characters: There’s Maia, the heroic leader; Gervasio, the cynical poet and inconstant ally of the revolution (played with roguish charm by Joaquim de Almeida); a couple of young lovers; and the foursome at the radio station who are, very believably, improvising their next moves on the fly.  Medeiros’ own character feels, perhaps, more like a type than an individual — given her function as a spokesman for the liberal point of view.  But, that’s assuredly no reflection on Medeiros’ estimable acting skills.  The film’s idealism cannot be called naive.  On the contrary, Portugal’s example has been emulated in recent years — successfully (for a time, at least) in Ukraine, Georgia, and Tunisia, and unsuccessfully in Iran, Burma, and Syria.  It is also a spiritual precursor for the mostly non-violent popular uprisings that felled noxious communist regimes in places like East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1989.  And Medeiros knows how ideals can crash on the rocks of entrenched authority — as when a senior general pushes aside his much more junior subordinates and takes charge of their revolution with the easy sense of entitlement possessed by those who are too accustomed to wielding power.  We also see a clear-eyed example of the capacity of emotional crowds to turn into ugly, violent mobs.  And there is true heroism in the figure who not only defies the odds to encourage others to join him in bringing down a tyranny, but also humbly stands aside and recedes back into anonymity when that great goal is accomplished, not begrudging more powerful latecomers to the revolution their undeserved assumption of power:  “I’ll disappear into the shadows of history.  That’s fine with me.  In fact, freedom is an internal struggle.”  Let’s hope that Maria de Medeiros — whose outstanding work as an actress has graced such films as “The Remains of Nothing” (Italy, 2004), “Riparo” (Italy, 2007), “Il Compleanno” (Italy, 2009), “The Storyteller” (Brazil, 2009), and “Henry & June” (USA, 1990) — will return to the director’s chair — and to such politically inspirational subject-matter.  In “April Captains,” she has told a simple story with abundant charm and warm humanism.  Herself a student of political philosophy, and an admirer of the work of poet and playwright Edward Bond, Medeiros says that Portugal’s Carnation Revolution “occurred in great innocence.” So, too, does her film, which, like the events it depicts, posits the radical notion that great power can spring from the innocence and from the noble aspirations of ordinary men and women.  For ages 18+:  Brief coarse language.

“Chinese Take-Away” [“Un Cuento Chino”] (Argentina/Spain, 2011) (B/B+): Ricardo Darin (the male lead in 2009’s “The Secret in Their Eyes,” 2005’s “The Aura,” and 2002’s “Kamchatka”) stars in a low-key, gently-paced look at a loner of a man who has locked himself behind walls of isolation (“I’m not used to being with people,” he says) and dismissive disdain for the rest of the human race.  The proprietor of a small hardware shop, Roberto obsessively counts the screws in a shipment from his supplier, fully anticipating that said supplier, along with the rest of the world, is out to get him:  “Scammers.  They’re all scammers… Screw them!,” he inadvertently puns.  “If the machine sometimes spits out a few more and other times a few less, I always get less.” He may be referring to widgets in a box, but what he’s actually talking about is life.  Clearly, he’s a glass half-empty kind of guy.  He’s not only sour on his fellow man, he’s well on his way to full-blown misanthropy.  Or, so it seems.  Too cranky to know that he is lonely, Roberto, is, nevertheless, not without a conscience.  And, despite himself, he has within him the neglected embers of a softer heart — and with it, the possibility of forming meaningful connections with others — no matter how much he consciously resists the very notion of letting someone, anyone, inside the seemingly impenetrable walls he has built around himself.  Heaven knows, he’s relentless about pushing away Mari (Muriel Santa Ana), a woman who loves him, despite his cantankerous ways.  Mari tells him:  “As soon as I saw you, I felt I’d known you all my life.  Maybe because there are two things I notice very quickly in people: integrity and suffering.  And you have them both.” But Roberto’s life is turned upside down when he is reluctantly thrown together with Jun (Huang Sheng Huang), a young Chinese man stranded in Buenos Aires, who speaks nary a word of Spanish.  Roberto longs to rid himself of this unaccustomed, unwanted, and unintelligible company.  They are truly an odd couple.  Will they find common ground?  There’s a possibility of redemption (and emotional healing) here that gives this comedy a bittersweet resonance.  Grounded in the realities of quotidian life, the film opens with a moment that has the extraordinary tinge of magic-realism, even though it is purportedly based on an actual, ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ occurrence.  Does life have meaning?  Or, is it nothing but a series of unconnected random events, a “totally absurd… huge ball of nonsense” as Roberto proclaims?  Not every comedy addresses those kinds of deep questions.  This one does — in an entertaining and engaging way!  Written and directed by Sebastian Borensztein, “Chinese Take-Away” won Best Film, Actor, and Supporting Actress in Argentina, garnering nominations there in eleven other categories.  It won Best Ibero-American Film at Spain’s Goya Awards; and it won both Best Director and the Audience Award at the Rome Film Festival.  For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and very brief violence.

“The First Grader” (U.K./USA/Kenya, 2010) (B/B+): “We are nothing if we cannot read.  We are useless…. Please teach me to read.” The thirst for knowledge is a wonderful thing, however much it is sometimes crassly subordinated in our all too market-obsessed world to less exalted material concerns, like qualifying for better paid work.  Education may make us better qualified for this or that employment; but, at its purest heart, learning is an intrinsic good in and of itself:  To learn is to grow and to enhance our ability to understand the world around us.  Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, upon whose true story this gently affecting story is based, knew this.  He earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to start primary school; and he went on to address the U.N. General Assembly.  Maruge lost his wife and child to senseless violence in the brutal conflict between British colonial forces and Kenya’s vicious Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950’s.  He endured years of imprisonment; and he resolved, at the age of 84, to avail himself of the universal free education proffered by the now independent state of Kenya, by enrolling in Grade One.  But that resolve puts him on a collision course with an implacable bureaucracy and with scarce school resources, while it also stirs the ugly, sometimes violent, tribal rivalries that sorely trouble Kenya to this very day.  When he’s dismissively told to “go home and rest,” Maruge stubbornly demurs, replying, “Rest in peace?  I’m not dead.” Actor Oliver Litondo brings quiet dignity to the role, as an old man who finds himself surrounded by young children; while English actress Naomi Harris (who made an impression as Eve Moneypenny in 2012’s “Skyfall”) invests school principal Jane Obinchu with humanity and grace:  “Learning never ends until you have soil in your ears… I just don’t have it in me to send him away.” This uplifting and quietly inspiring true story is a simple, low-key film, with nice, understated performances.  It’s a small cavil, but one might say that the introduction of some thugs and malcontents is a somewhat artificial way to boost the drama in what is fundamentally just a small, gentle story; but, then again, the agitators (and the threats they utter) were part of the actual events depicted by this film.  For ages 16+:  Brief nudity and brief violence.

“Rebelle” [“War Witch”] (Canada, 2012) (B+): Speaking to her unborn baby, a 14-year old girl in a war-torn place says, “…it’s very important that you know what I did before you come out of my belly.  Because when you come out, I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.” Taken by force from her village, in the inaptly-named Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire), at the age of 12 by guerrillas, Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is terrorized into becoming a child-soldier in a band of so-called “rebels.”  In a country that has been beset by brutal violence for years, this private guerrilla army serves their leader’s greed (for the precious ore called ‘coltan,’ which is used in electronic devices the world-over), rather than any apparent political cause.  In one ironic scene, the real-life child-soldiers watch an American war movie — a strange moment of harsh reality being entertained by violent fantasy.  At times, the rebels come across as primitives, complete with a witch-doctor, pagan rituals and chanting, the practiced use of hallucinogens, and a brutal disregard for life.  Their leader superstitiously decides that young Komona is a witch, who can divine the whereabouts of the government soldiers who lay in wait for them, and he presents her with a rifle that has been bestowed with “magical powers” by his “wizard.”  Yet, all of that savagery is juxtaposed with a gentler world.  One of the young rebels, nicknamed Magician (Serge Kanyinda), is kind to Komoma; an unexpected love is kindled, and Komona sets her wooer on a quest for a rare white rooster to earn her hand.  For a time, the couple find refuge from the guerrillas in scenes that are peaceful, bucolic, and almost idyllic.   Here simple domesticity and affection is contrasted to the primitive rites practiced in the guerrilla camp.  Later still, pushed to her most desperate extremes, Komona encounters a random act of kindness by a complete stranger.  “Rebelle,” is a study of the worst and the best in human nature.  Its protagonist experiences (and is compelled to do) things that could only be called horrors; but she never loses what is decent and true inside herself.  Her story is often a sad one; but it is also one that never loses sight of hope and the possibility of redemption.  Apparently, the young lead actress Rachel Mwanza lived on the streets of Kinshasa before being cast as Komona.  She delivers a natural performance that has the authenticity of a documentary film.  Writer/director Kim Nguyen was born in Quebec to a Vietnamese father and a Canadian mother.  His film runs the gamut from the harsh to the humanistic in ways that will capture the viewer’s sympathies, despite the outwardly alien setting and scenario.  Some of its characters behave like savage brutes; but others are instantly recognizable as essentially decent human beings.  “Rebelle” was nominated for twelve Canadian Screen Awards, winning in these ten categories: Best Film, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, and Sound Editing.  It was an Oscar nominee as Best Foreign Language Film; it is nominated for nine Jutra Awards in the province of Quebec; the U.S. National Board of Review named it one of the top five foreign language movies of the year; it won Best Actress and Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca; and it won a Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, where it also won a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury.  The DVD offers a director’s commentary; but, alas, it is en francais seulement. For ages 18+:  Some war-related violence and one brief disturbing scene.