More Reviews of Films on DVD
© By John Arkelian
“Into the Forest” (Canada, 2015) (B-/B): The idea of civilizational decline seems to be in vogue these days, what with real-world concerns about potential environmental or economic collapse, the disconcerting erosion of the middle class, a sense that the West is losing ground to upcoming (mostly authoritarian) powers in the Third World, and a vague but persistent sense of slippage. The poet W.B. Yeats was prescient when he wrote: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” It’s there in our pervasive decline in civility, in the bottom of the barrel politics to which we are subjected, in the alarming and ever-widening gap between rich and poor, in the daily obscenities to which ‘the worst’ among us stoop in the name of some vile ideology or other, and in the popularity of post-apocalyptic stories (like “The Walking Dead”) in pop culture.
Well, imagine if society simply ground to a halt – with no more electricity, running water, telephone or internet service, mail delivery, or, most urgently of all, replenished supplies of food or fuel in stores. That’s what happens in this film from Canadian writer/director Patricia Rozema (she helmed 1999’s excellent “Mansfield Park”). We never know how or why: Things just stop. But the emphasis here isn’t on the disorder and fear that occasions in society as a whole. Rather, it’s an intensely personal, character-driven story of two sisters living in isolation. One, Nell (Ellen Page), is practical, determined to conserve their dwindling resources. The other, Eva (Evan Rachel Wood), is an aspiring dancer, driven to despair by the loss of music, a loss that effectively kills her art.
Based on the poetic, if deeply sad, novel by Jean Hegland, “Into the Forest” is quiet and introspective: It deals with the sadness of relentless incremental losses, as its protagonists lose the amenities of modern civilization, followed by their provisions, other people in their lives, security, and shelter. Early in the film, before the lights go out, Nell is studying for a college admission exam. A test question is: “What is a ‘fugue state?’” The answer is: “When amnesia continues for an extended period of time, the amnesiac occasionally begins a new life, entirely unrelated to his previous condition.” Here, ‘amnesia’ is not literal; instead, it is a metaphor for the complete break these characters face between their comfortable old lives and their starker new reality. The story is meant to be hopeful in its way, as the sisters learn to cope and survive, summoning resolve they didn’t know they possessed. And, there’s an implicit message here about learning to live in harmony with nature. Whether hopefulness or melancholy predominates in the story’s tone may depend on your point of view. In its favor, the film has solid performances from the leads and Callum Keith Rennie (the kindly father he portrays is a contrast to the darker roles he more often plays), lovely location settings in B.C., and a refreshingly different approach to apocalyptic storytelling: Instead of mayhem (or zombies), we get a mostly gentle character-driven story about two young women facing the loss of all they knew. On the down-side, we never feel emotionally invested in these characters, though, truth be told, it is rare indeed for any film, however good, to elicit that emotional response.
“Into the Forest” was nominated for Sound and Picture Editing by the Canadian Screen Awards and the Directors Guild of Canada, respectively. For ages 18+: Some coarse language; brief nudity; one scene of brief sexual violence; and a briefly ‘icky’ scene involving a slaughtered wild animal.
“Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (Israel/France/Germany, 2014) (B+): Ronit Elkabetz co-directed and co-wrote this film with her husband Shlomi Elkabetz. She also appears as the titular Viviane, a woman who simply wants a divorce. The trouble is that divorces in Israel are governed by religious law, regardless of whether the parties are religious or secular. That means that a woman needs her husband’s consent (in the form of a “gett”) in order to get a divorce. And Viviane’s husband (Simon Abkarian) is having none of it. Whether he refuses out of some destructive kind of love or sheer bloody-mindedness is up to us to decide. What is certain is that it is the classical case of an implacable force meeting an unmovable object. The story takes place over the course of some years, as the battle of wills results in a protracted stalemate, despite the able efforts of Viviane’s sympathetic attorney (Menoshe Noy’s Carmel). And it all takes place in the same plain rabbinical hearing room, or the waiting room just outside it. If it sounds like it might be a dreary film, guess again. It is remarkably riveting – with some very fine performances, led by its leading lady: She is a study in barely repressed frustration and impotence in the face of glaring unfairness.
“Gett” was a Golden Globe nominee as Best Foreign Language Film. It had twelve nominations from the Israeli Film Academy, winning for Supporting Actor. The U.S. National Board of Review named it as one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of the Year. The same filmmakers made two other films about earlier times in the same couple’s marriage – “To Take a Wife” (2004) and “Seven Days” (2008) – but no familiarity with those earlier stories is needed to enjoy this one; on the contrary, it stands proudly on its own as an emotional indictment of injustice at the hands of outdated patriarchal institutions.
“Captain Fantastic” (USA, 2016) (B+/A-): A man and his six children live a back-to-nature life in the idyllic midst of a forest in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. The first time we see them, we almost don’t, as they are hunting a deer and are darkly daubed with mud for camouflage, like the savage young castaways from “Lord of the Flies.” But this isn’t anarchy; instead, it’s a carefully organized immersion into self-reliance and living off the land. These kids, who range in age from very young to high school seniors, have a vigorous program of self-defense, calisthenics, and improvised home schooling, reading way above their ages in literature, science, and political theory – and being expected to analyze and debate what they’ve learned. (At times, one wonders if they are so much free thinkers as ideologically indoctrinated, since all six, and their father, have the same core beliefs about society and its ills.) And they all participate in an ad hoc musical performance (heavy on the percussion) for good measure. Their home is an orderly log cabin with a cultivated garden and bottled preserves. Their favorite gifts (regardless of age) are deadly hunting knives.
One day, their father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen of “The Lord of the Rings,” in an award-caliber performance), drives off in their family bus to inquire into the progress of the children’s hospitalized mother. He returns with dire news and delivers it in blunt, unvarnished terms: “Last night, Mommy killed herself. She finally did it. Your mother is dead.” His not-so-tender way of breaking the news is characteristic: Ben treats his kids as little adults, rather than children. There are many things to admire in his radical approach to parenting. These kids are extremely smart, multilingual, and unafraid of challenges, including the climbing of a looming vertical rock-face on a mountainside. They’ve learned individuality and responsibility. They are precocious; but they aren’t so well schooled in dealing with the outside world or the niceties of interacting with others: They’ve always said what’s on their mind, without filtering it – an approach that’s inconsistent with basic social etiquette. Those limitations become evident when the family leaves their mountain on a long road trip to the Southwest to attend their mother’s funeral.
Ben and his offspring have a certain amount of hubris about their back-to-nature, quasi-survivalist lifestyle. Has the mission of turning the kids into philosopher-kings robbed them of their childhood and turned them into awkward outsiders vis-à-vis the rest of society? The eldest son (George Mackay) secretly yearns to go to university (unbeknownst to Ben, he has been accepted by the cream of the academic crop): “I know nothing. I am a freak because of you! You made us freaks!” Another son harbors bitter resentment toward his father over his mother’s lost battle with bipolar illness: “Dad made her crazy. Dad’s dangerous,” he declares in a moment of anger.
Those mutinous sentiments, as well as the hostility of his father-in-law (Frank Langella), and a narrowly averted tragedy, shake Ben’s certainty that he’s doing the right thing. Has the path he and his wife laid out for their family truly been enlightened, or has it been self-indulgent? He has fashioned each of his kids into something unique – part hippy, part survivalist, part eccentric, and part autodidact. Their upbringings have focused on self-examination and self-improvement: But at what cost? “It’s a beautiful mistake. But a mistake,” Ben muses. Chances are you’ll admire some aspects of this individualistic lifestyle and cringe at others. The result is a highly original, character-driven journey of discovery, combined with a road trip and culture clash, one that explores how to be a parent, and how simply to be, with moments of laughter, tears, poignancy, and wisdom. These characters will stay with you – and that’s something special.
Among its many nominations and awards, “Captain Fantastic” earned Best Actor nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Independent Spirit Awards. It won a directing prize at Cannes, and it was named one of the Top Ten Films of the Year by the U.S. National Board of Review. For ages 18+: Coarse language and brief nudity.
“Come What May” [“En mai, fais ce qu’il te plait”] (France/Belgium, 2015) (B+): The German invasion of France in May 1940 displaced eight million men, women, and children. Leaving everything behind, they took to the roads to flee the invaders. This film tells the story of a few of them: There’s Hans (August Diehl), a German opposition activist who narrowly escaped the Gestapo and is living quietly in northern France, masquerading as a Belgian. He has been separated from his young son Max (Joshio Marlon) and is desperately trying to find him amidst the human exodus. There’s Paul (Olivier Gourmet), the mayor of a French village who leads his people with unshakeable integrity. There’s Mado (Mathilde Seigner), the mayor’s wife, who is the voice of practicality. There’s Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), the village teacher who selflessly protects the children under her care. There’s Percy (Matthew Rhys), the British soldier who is the last survivor of his company. And there’s Albert (Laurent Gerra), the village tavern-keeper who is humorously reluctant to abandon his wares. We get thoroughly engaged in the fate of these refugees.
For a story set in wartime, “Come What May” is surprisingly gentle. It is character-driven, and it is often quite touching, thanks to an able cast. And, despite the dangers and losses these characters face along the way, their story is a testament to the human spirit – full of love, friendship, and decency. Those qualities persist, along with resolve, even in the dire circumstances of war. “Come What May” was co-written and directed by Christian Carion, with a César-nominated musical score by Ennio Morricone. The first few minutes are a tad hard to follow; but all becomes clear thereafter. The Blu-ray from Cohen Media Group has a commentary, among other extras. For ages 16+: Very brief coarse language.
“Julieta” (Spain, 2016) (B/B+): “Things happened without my participation, one thing foretelling the next.” How often are we the captains of our own destiny, at the helm of our own life’s course, and when are we simply swept along in the currents of fate? After an uncharacteristic misfire (2013’s “I’m so Excited!”), Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is back in fine form with this up-close-and-personal look at a woman’s life as she makes the transit from being a daughter to a wife to a mother. And, make no mistake: it is very much a one woman’s story: Those whose lives closely intersect hers impact her in profound ways, but it’s the eponymous protagonist whose life is charted by this story. And we get two award caliber performances for the price of one, with Adriana Ugarte playing Julieta as a young woman and Emma Suárez playing her in middle age. The transition from one actress to the other is artfully done – with the lifting of a bath towel that’s covering her face.
And, speaking of the artful, there are many nice visual touches. The filmmaker’s signature use of the color red is evident in such details as a bright red wall in a kitchen. Do the hands of the large clock on that wall subconsciously hint at the hands of fate? There’s a robe that conjures a Klimitian painting, with a geometric patterns of color atop a gold background. There’s a reindeer running in slow motion toward a rushing train in the snow at night. There’s Julieta’s marital room with a view, with its triple windows looking gloriously out onto the very sea that’s to play a pivotal role in her life. There’s that aforementioned ‘big reveal,’ when a lifted towel marks the boundary between young adulthood and emotionally battle-scarred middle age. There’s a moment when past memories converge, with the recollection of stricken expressions on the face of a stranger on a train, and, many years later, on the face of her husband – expressions which in each case were precursors of tragedies for which Julieta would blame herself. The color red reappears as Julieta drives a red car on a fateful trip into the mountains – a trip that is to bring her the worst loss of her life. And a birthday cake for a sundered love one is all red – from frosting to candles.
The story has to do with themes of love, loss, and guilt. Sometimes, we burden ourselves with guilt for things over which we have no control. The director says it’s all about fate “and fate really doesn’t have anything to do with the actions of human beings.” Yet, perhaps sometimes it does, with ripples of causality yielding unforeseen consequences from life’s myriad of seemingly small choices. There are instances of mirroring and duality in the film: The way Julieta’s ailing mother is neglected by her father mirrors the way Julieta’s husband treated his first wife. On the train, where chance or fate introduces Julieta to her future husband, an intrusion of mortality is juxtaposed with the conception of life. The film is based on three stories by the Nobel Prize winning Canadian writer Alice Munro. It’s about emotional pain, but it’s also about learning to forgive ourselves.
The Blu-ray from Sony has two featurettes (one of which concerns Almodóvar’s body of work), but, sadly, no commentary. Among its many nominations and awards, “Julieta” was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes; for Best Foreign Language Film at BAFTA; and for Best Film and Director – and twice for Best Actress – at the European Film Awards. It had seven nominations at Spain’s Goya Awards, winning for Best Actress (Emma Suárez). And the U.S. National Board of Review placed it in the top five foreign language films of the year. For ages 18+: Brief nudity and brief sexual content.
“Mon Roi” [“My King”] (France, 2015) (B): It opens amidst glorious snowy mountain peaks. We see our protagonist. She’s still at first; then, she skis into the wintry surroundings. The scene is drenched in sunlight, but we hear wintry winds blowing – a contrast between what most people find inviting and what is not. Then it fades to black. The next time we see her, Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) is in a wheelchair, arriving for a protracted stay at a rehabilitation center. An intake counselor there asks her, “Why did you get tangled?” Ostensibly, she means tangled in the skis, but the question has larger implications. Tony has torn ligaments in her leg, and the counselor ascribes a psychological connection to that physical injury: “The knee signifies the capacity to let go, give way, or even retreat.” Six minutes in, the story makes its first flashback, and it continues to juxtapose Tony’s attempts at healing in the present with the arc of her relationship with Georgio (Vincent Cassel) in the past.
Their relationship starts with a spark and it is fueled by mad passion. The attraction is instant and combustible. But, what if the very thing that draws us to another also harms us? Can we always live happily with the person, or characteristics, that ignite our passion? For Tony and Georgio, the passion appears to be mutual, and for each of them it’s irresistible – and addictive. But, like other addictive things, it also proves to be unhealthy – at least for Tony. It’s not entirely clear whether Georgio’s lust for her encompasses love, but with the passage of time, his utterly self-centered ways and stark neglect for his partner’s best interests take a terrible toll on Tony. It’s painfully clear to her brother (Louis Garel) that Tony should break with Georgio, but Tony simply can not. Not even his flagrant infidelity can get him out her system. In a scene in which she recites a satirical prose poem, there’s an ironic contrast between what we hear (the piece she recites is titled “Must You Ruin Everything?”), and what we see. What we see is giddy love: “Love before the storm is not a decision. It’s a decree.”
The damage to Tony’s leg severely impairs her mobility; the damage to her psyche impedes her in even worse ways. Love is usually considered to be a positive thing, indeed, the most positive thing we can experience. But, its subset, passionate love, can be a destructive force when passion dominates over empathy and respect for the other. When Tony musters the resolve to try to break free from her hobbled life, Georgio protests, “When you love someone, it hurts; it’s not easy.” Tony has sufficient insight to retort, “You don’t hurt much.” But Georgio has an insight of his own when he says, “You came over to me precisely because I am what I am.” That which we crave so hungrily may be our undoing and ruin.
Written and directed by Maïwenn (who was born Maïwenn Le Besco and started as an actress), “My King” is a deep dive into addictive passionate love, a relationship that is inexorably destroying one of its two participants. Each of its two leads delivers an award-caliber performance. “My King” won Best Actress at Cannes, where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film). It had eight nominations at France’s academy awards (the Césars), among them: Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, and Supporting Actor. For ages 18+: Nudity, sexual content, sexual talk, and occasional coarse language.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “I’m An Actrice” (France, 2004) (B): Written and directed by Maïwenn (she was born Maïwenn Le Besco and started as an actress), this 24-minute short film has two key players – a ten-year old girl nicknamed ‘Baba’ (Shanna Besson, who is Maïwenn’s actual daughter) and her flamboyant mother Isabelle (played by Maïwenn herself). The parental responsibilities of housekeeping, cooking, and child care (for two younger siblings) have all fallen on Baba’s young shoulders, while her mother devotes herself to her own entertainment – and to the project of securing auditions for acting roles for Baba. Isabelle is determined to make an actress out of Baba, whether her daughter is on board with the idea or not. There’s a certain appeal in Isabelle’s sheer flamboyance. She’s a one of a kind individualist – and proud of it: “I’m not like other women. I do nothing like anybody else. Wherever I go, everybody looks at me!” Egocentric, narcissist, or just plain irresponsible, Isabelle willful insistence on marching to the beat of her own drummer all but ignores the interests and welfare of others, particularly her young children (she has a fourth on the way). It’s a portrait of self-indulgence, which may get Isabelle looks (and maybe even some guilty admiration) for its sheer colorfulness; but, ultimately, it is a study in lack of empathy (and a destructive disregard for the interests of others), akin to the director’s later feature “Mon Roi” (2015). The mixing of French and English words in the film’s title is deliberate – a playful nod, one presumes, to the ill-fated, not entirely bilingual, audition in the film.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (U.K./China/USA, 2016) (B): It opens with a firefight in Iraq in October 2004, then pulls back to a news footage of said event – an early hint of the film’s juxtaposition between the devastating reality of war and the ways it is perceived and consumerized from afar. Ang Lee’s new film depicts a few days in the life of a 19-yearl old American infantryman, the titular Billy Lynn, who is being feted stateside, along with the rest of his eight-man squad, for Lynn’s bravery under fire. Their victory tour is culminating with an appearance in the halftime show at a big Thanksgiving Day football game in Dallas, “receiving the nation’s thanks.” But the spectacle that ensues seems more focused on selling the war, manipulating patriotism, and turning armed conflict into entertainment than it does on understanding or truly empathizing with the soldiers’ ordeal: “Bravo [squad’s] a story about America feeling good about America again.” They’re supposed to feel privileged to share a stage with Destiny’s Child, even as the flash and percussion of fireworks remind them of the deadly explosions they faced mere days earlier.
It’s an unreal, even surreal, experience for Billy and his mates: They’ve been plucked from the horrors of the battlefield (where they are scheduled to return after a brief respite) to meet and greet patriotic folks who haven’t the faintest conception of what these young men have experienced and endured: “It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life.” Some of them may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For his part, Billy, doesn’t feel like a hero: “It’s not something I feel proud of, but… I did what I had to do.” Based on the novel by Ben Fountain, the story combines satirical elements, which aim to skewer the absurdity, hypocrisy, and jingoistic ways of society, with genuine compassion for Billy and his fellow soldiers.
Newcomer Joe Alwyn (a British actor still in acting school when he was cat) nails the modesty, shyness (around the opposite sex), and quiet introspection of Billy. As the filmmakers say, it’s a role that needed to speak volumes with facial expression alone. Billy is torn: His beloved sister (Kristen Stewart) is anti-war and blames herself for Billy’s enlistment through misadventure. She suggests an exit strategy, getting a medical diagnosis for PDST to justify not returning to the inferno. But Billy feels a bond with his unit and with the two sergeants who mentored him. One (Vin Diesel) is an engagingly zen warrior-philosopher who calmly says, “If a bullet’s going to get you, it’s already been fired.” The other (Garrett Hedlund) is a surrogate big brother who makes Billy feel needed and appreciated. There’s the cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) who takes a shine to Billy: She’s part sex-appeal, part devout Christian, and part patriot. There’s the tantalizing prospect of a big payday for the eight men: a civilian agent (Chris Rock) is frantically working the phone trying to sell their story to Hollywood. And there’s the wealthy tycoon (Steve Martin) who owns a football team and stadium but isn’t above rubbing shoulders with some ‘real American heroes’ to boost ratings.
Satirical jabs are sprinkled throughout a story that simultaneously feels real empathy for these young men. For instance, the squad, so recently deployed on a battlefield, arrives at the stadium in a black stretch hummer. Some professional football players (who, it is noted, have better body armor than the troops) are keen to get the down-and-dirty on the ‘stopping power’ of the soldiers’ weapons. An industrialist says he’s ‘fracking’ at home so the troops won’t have to fight over oilfields abroad. The single best satirical moment has Billy imagining a totally honest exchange at a press conference: When asked, “Are we making a difference over there?” Billy imagines his sergeant answering, “Absolutely, sir. America’s out there producing dozens of suicidally pissed-off insurgents every day.” Among the story’s dichotomies, we hear Billy’s account of the flight home – with the coffin with a fallen comrade sharing the ride with rowdy, well-paid, and celebratory contractors.
The result is an effective blend of satire and sympathy. At times, it is heavy-handed in drumming home its disdain of turning war into showbiz. The recurring brawls with some stadium roadies feel excessive and contrived. Ditto for: the gratuitously obnoxious civilian sitting near the boys in the bleachers; the publicist’s speech in the washroom after Billy rejects an insulting bargain basement offer for his story from a supposed patriot; and even the comely cheerleader’s reflexive disapproval when Billy innocently remarks that he’s tempted to run away with her – instead of returning to war, as she expects him to do. Those bits could have been omitted (in the case of the belligerent roadies) or handled with more subtlety. Despite those missteps, however, the film is at once thought-provoking and touching.
The Blu-ray from Sony has deleted scenes and four featurettes. There are insights into the casting process, as well as the goal of the story, which is “to bring the war home.” The novelist describes the story’s big halftime show as “this surreal, pretty psychotic mash-up of American patriotism, exceptionalism, popular music… flags, and fireworks.” There’s also talk about the unusual technical approach to the film’s shooting: It was shot in 3-D and in a very high (five times faster than normal) frame rate in an effort to get an immersive experience; but, none of which matters one whit to those of us without specialized equipment on which to view it. Such technical gimmickry aside, the film succeeds because it has something worthwhile to say. For ages 18+: Lots of very coarse language, brief sexual content; and some moderate war-related violence.
“The Eagle Huntress” (U.K./Mongolia/USA, 2016) (B+): A surprisingly engaging documentary about a girl in Mongolia who breaks into the exclusively male field of eagle hunting. In this traditional pursuit, hunters capture golden eaglets while they’re still confined to their mountain nests, raise them, and train them to hunt on command, to secure meat and fur for the hunter’s family. (After long service, the hunters release their companions, restoring their freedom.) The most talented hunters and their birds compete in regional trials of prowess, in which man and bird must demonstrate speed and precision. Into this male preserve comes a plucky 13-year-old girl, Aisholpan, whose yearns to emulate her father and become an eagle hunter. Her journey to her heart’s desire is an unexpectedly uplifting one. It has a simple story, and a good-natured, humble, yet determined protagonist. It’s an understated story about prevailing over the odds (and the prejudices of others) – and it takes places in a starkly beautiful setting. This otherworldly landscape is a vision to behold, a place where distant mountains have a silver sheen. And it has glorious aerial photography to capture the literate flight of the eagle and the figurative flight of its heroine’s spirit. Mostly, the story unfolds without explication, but British actress Daisy Ridley (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) provides occasional narration. Part underdog story, part girl-power parable, part wildlife documentary, and part inspirational salute to the human spirit, this charming film needs to be sought out and seen. Nominated for Best Documentary at BAFTA and the Directors Guild of America, “The Eagle Huntress” placed among the year’s top five documentaries by the U.S. National Board of Review. The Blu-ray from Sony has a full-length director’s commentary. The film is highly recommended.
“Moana” (USA, 2016) (B+/A-): This sparkling animated musical adventure from Disney is a winner. Set long ago in the Polynesian world of ocean, islands, and myths, it has a feisty young maiden and a shape-shifting trickster demigod with a magic fish hook on a quest to restore the heart of creation. It opens with Moana (winningly played by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as a young child: Her grandmother (Rachel House) tells a creation story – all the other children are frightened; but Moana is rapt and eager. Something is calling to her. Is it the sea? Or it is the age-old call of the quest? Moana is the daughter of the chief, a role she will one day inherit. She learns the role of leader as she grows into adolescence, but she chafes under her father’s overarching edict: “No one goes outside the reef,” he commands. Their island home is idyllic, but its entrenched traditions and its semblance of security (“The island gives us what we need,” is the accepted wisdom) are ultimately self-limiting. Something in Moana keeps looking to the horizon, yearning for the open sea – beyond the protective barrier of the reef that encloses their safe harbor. Her yearning is beautifully stated in the stirring song “How Far I’ll Go.” That song, reprised in part on several occasions, is the girl’s anthem (and, vicariously, ours): Poignant, inspiring, and full of emotion, that song, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) richly deserved its recent Oscar-nomination! It’s a great song, in the lineage of great songs from other Disney musicals, and it sends shivers of pleasure along the listener’s skin. (The film’s over-all score was composed by Mark Mancina.) Indeed, the first act (some 32 minutes or so) of the film has something of cinematic greatness about it: At its core, it’s a story about being called by destiny, of the young hero (or, in this case, heroine) going out into the wider world to find said destiny – all of it set in a distinctive, unusual setting and culture.
Once Moana sets out, it may be said that the story takes a more conventional (if no less entertaining) tact, what with the self-congratulatory ally (Maui, nicely voiced by Dwayne Johnson), the comic relief (a cross-eyed, mentally challenged rooster), a comedic variant on a mob of marauders from “Mad Max” in the form of the ‘Kakamora’ (who are bellicose pirate coconut creatures), and a grandstanding gigantic crustacean. The film spends a lot of time in broadly comedic territory (as with Maui’s amusingly bombastic, and surprisingly catchy, song “You’re Welcome”): These elements are amusing, but they come at the expense at the deeper resonance evident in the first act. By the end, though, the story returns to its more dramatic mode and builds to a rousing finish. With its engaging heroine (who was a sheer delight singing her song at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony), its lovely oceanic settings (the filmmakers do first-rate work animating water), and its mythological resonance, “Moana” is even better on a second viewing, and it is one of the best films of the year. It’s about family, choosing the unknown, courage, self-sacrifice, and “the answer to the question you keep asking yourself: Who are you meant to be?”
Among the Blu-ray extras are a deleted song, a short involving the film’s characters, and a short film called “Inner Workings,” which is an imaginative look at the inner conflict (in one man, and in us all) between the competing impulses to play it safe and follow the rules – or daring to take a chance and seeking who we are meant to be.
“Doctor Strange” (USA, 2016) (C/C+): A brilliant neurosurgeon, with the unlikely name Stephen Strange, is also an arrogant egotist: “Stephen, everything is about you,” says the woman who fruitlessly loves him. A reckless high-speed drive along a winding mountain road makes him the patient: He has survived a massive crash, but his hands are ruined. It is all but impossible to like this guy. It is particularly off-putting to witness his seeming indifference for the safety of everyone else on the road as he reckless races along, just to indulge his own selfish need for speed. But catastrophic injury and an eventual pilgrimage to Nepal in search of reputed mystical healing changes the man. Only when he loses all that once mattered to him – chiefly, flaunting his talent, his wealth, and his general obnoxiousness – is he ready to achieve a different, deeper perspective. “There are other things that can give your life meaning,” says his new mentor, the oddly named “Ancient One.” Tilda Swinton steals the show with her performance as the graceful, self-composed, yet unmistakably offbeat (a quality that’s bred in Swinton’s bones, apparently) guru and leader of a group who secretly protect humanity from mystical threats. Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, learns mystical stuff, and it’s not long before mumbo-jumbo, action sequences, and the inevitable effects take over – with lassos and shields comprised of energy, inter-dimensional portals, and scenes of cityscapes folding in on themselves like an immense Rubik’s cube or clockwork – à la “Dark City” or “Inception.” All that spectacle and action stuff is serviceable enough, but what elevates this comic-book derived genre piece from Marvel is the strong cast. Besides Swinton’s stand-out performance, there’s solid work by lead Cumberbatch, by the always watchable Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Serenity” and “Dirty Pretty Things”), Mads Mikelsen (hampered as the villain by distractingly heavy-handed make-up), Benedict Wong, and Canada’s Rachel McAdams.
“Arrival” (USA, 2016) (B+): Twelve immense extraterrestrial
objects appear at seemingly random locations around the Earth; and the world scrambles to uncover their intentions. A professor of linguistics is enlisted in the effort to make contact with the aliens. That’s the science fiction milieu in which this thoughtful, oft-poetic drama unfolds, and its first-contact scenario is handled very realistically. Indeed, two of the film’s best moments come early on, and they convey a visceral sense of suspense. In the first, military aircraft streak across the sky toward some unknown danger. In the second, we arrive at the Montana site by helicopter: Low-lying clouds from a mountain range drift across the valley until something ominous greets our view. It’s huge, black (or very dark grey), featureless, and, despite its hulking mass, it is hovering motionless a few yards off the ground – a gravity-defying contradiction that is utterly alien to our senses and to our experiences with the physical world.
Amy Adams delivers an award-caliber performance, ably supported by the likes of Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, in a story that’s astonishingly interior in its gaze, dealing, as it does, with memory, communication, connections, and the most potent of life-choices. On first viewing, one might crave more of a rationale for the visitors’ arrival at planet Earth. But, upon further reflection (and this is certainly a movie that encourages reflection), the story is ultimately not about them at all: It’s about one woman, who chooses the path of a visionary and embraces love no matter the cost. That’s a pretty good path for any of us to follow: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and I welcome every moment of it.” Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson contributes an effectively ominous score. Directed by Canada’s own Denis Villeneuve, the result is one of the year’s best movies – it’s a gently-paced, contemplative character-study, and that’s the exception rather than the rule in a genre more often given over to action.
Among its great many nominations and awards, “Arrival” is nominated for eight Academy Awards, namely: Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Production Design. It was nominated as Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. Amy Adams was a Best Actress nominee at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Screen Actors Guild; and she won that award at the National Board of Review. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“The BFG” (USA, 2016) (B/B+): Steven Spielberg brings the children’s story by Roald Dahl to life for Disney, with charming results. It hooks us from its opening moments, as Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a girl of about 12, wanders the London orphanage where she lives, wrapped in a long quilt and trailed by a cat, very late at night: “It’s the witching hour, when the bogeyman comes out, when people go missing,” she tells us in voiceover. It’s a precocious, instantly engaging character – and performance. Sophie soon discovers that bogeymen are real, when one reaches through the window and snatches her away to ‘the land of the giants.’ But this particular bogey is actually a friendly giant, with nary a malicious bone in his body. He is winningly portrayed by British actor Mark Rylance. He won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies” on the strength of that character’s wry humor and gentle humanity. He brings those same qualities to the character of the ‘Big Friendly Giant.’ The CGI-animated character appears to have been closely modeled, through motion-capture technology, on the actor’s own face. And what a face! This gentle giant is sweet, kind, humble, and good – and those qualities shine from his face in a delightfully irresistible way: It’s a winning, award-caliber performance – and one of the best marriages between actor and technology we’ve ever seen (along with Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”).
His jumbled-up jargon also sets him apart as a unique (and lovable) protector and friend to his young human guest: “I cannot be helping it if I was saying things a little squiggly.” The pair set off on an excursion to ‘the land of dreams,’ where BFG captures these darting, luminous will o’the wisps in bottles, distills them, and later sends them to sleeping humans – to give us moments of happiness in atonement for the predations of his brutal kin. The other giants are savages, who eat humans, whereas BFG is a vegetarian, even though the only vegetable available, ‘snozzcumber,’ is as unappetizing as it sounds. The other giants (there are nine of them) feel kind of intrusive in this otherwise predominantly sweet and gentle story: They are raucous, overbearing, and largely played for broad laughs (despite their culinary preferences), which represents a different tone than the prevailing one. Mind you, the funny bits involving breakfast with the Queen (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey”) and her corgies are very amusing. What’s best here is the story of an unexpected friendship between two lonely figures – the brave, plucky girl and the friendly giant. Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall each make an impression in supporting roles as staffers in the royal household, and Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader voice two of the not so friendly giants. Seek this one out: It didn’t get the attention it deserved in its theatrical run. Not suitable for very young children.
“Pete’s Dragon” (USA, 2016) (B/B+): A young child tragically orphaned in a forest is raised by a dragon in this remarkably well-done live action remake of a 1977 animated film. It mixes conventions from the ‘wild child’ and ‘boy and his dog’ themes very effectively, thanks to an affecting performance by young Oakes Fegley and good supporting work by the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, and Oona Laurence. The surprise here is the prevailing tone of dramatic realism. Premise aside, the story eschews overt fantasy. Even the sentient (but non-talking) dragon is very much grounded in the natural world, though dragon aficionados might have omitted the green fur and stocky quasi-mammalian legs in favor of a more classic draconian body. (The legs in particular are a bit of distraction, hanging clumsily during flight against all imperatives of aerodynamics.) But the appearance is doubtless designed to make bonding between dragon and boy more credible, by playing up the dragon’s inner canine. Still, this idiosyncratic take on all things dragonish is still capable of mustering majesty. We care about these characters, and there are moments of tangible emotion, revolving around friendship, loss, loneliness, family, and love. “Pete’s Dragon” is a happy surprise – and one of the better movies of the year. Good on ya, Disney. Among the Blu-ray extras is a cast and directory commentary. The film bears up very well on a second viewing, and it is strongly recommended for all ages, excepting very young children.
“Game of Thrones” (Season 5) (USA, 2015) (B+/A-): The award-winning fantasy series from HBO – set in a world of knights
and kingdoms and rival great houses – is as strong as ever in its fifth season, combining a first-rate ensemble cast (with an impressive roll call of mostly British acting talent), gorgeous locations (in Ireland, Iceland, and Dalmatia), laudably strong characterizations, and a myriad of interconnected plot-lines that grab (and hold) our attention. The ongoing adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels has moments of tenderness, high suspense, and shocking violence. There’s riveting spectacle here (witness a ferocious battle with an undead army ‘north of the wall’), high production values (with costumes, sets, and effects that are as good as anything on the big screen), and gentle, poignant moments. Indeed, the series is never stronger than in its quietly tender
In the midst of this oft-brutal world of the powerful preying on the powerless, of treachery, and of sudden violence, there are still moments of gentleness, compassion, and loyalty: An elder knight gives sage counsel to a young queen on the subject of justice and mercy: “The Mad King [her father] gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved [i.e. ruthless, violent retribution]. And each time, it made him feel powerful and right. Until the very end. [When his subjects revolted, killing him and nearly all of his family.]” The interaction between these characters mixes wisdom, humor, and coarseness. There’s this exchange between Stannis (Stephen Dillane), a stern claimant to the throne, and the heroic Jon
Snow: (S) “You’re as stubborn as your father. And as honorable.” (JS) “I can imagine no higher praise.” (S) I didn’t mean it as praise. Honor got your father killed.” A moment later Snow remarks, “I heard it was best to keep your enemies close,” to which the worldly-wise Stannis retorts, “Whoever said that didn’t have many enemies.”
Enemies certainly make their presence felt in Season 5’s ten episodes: For example, there are the plotting “Sons of the Harpy” in far-off Meereen, insurgents who use terrorism against the enlightened queen who has abolished slavery. Here is one of several useful parallels to our own world: Can a benevolent leader prevail when the existing power structure (the people with wealth and
power) oppose reform? Elsewhere, in the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, we get an object lesson in failing to leave sleeping dogs be. One of the series’ most relentless schemers, Queen Cersei, supports and arms a fundamentalist religious sect (she’s decidedly not a true believer herself), planning to use them against her rivals; but, once they acquire secular power, the zealots prove impossible to control, turning on their erstwhile benefactor with a vengeance. Cersei’s forced “atonement” late in the season is a harrowing sequence that, thanks to Lena Headley’s anguished performance, conjures viewer sympathy for the (she) devil. (It’s an impressive pivot from “hateful bitch” to victim and back again.) But, here, as elsewhere, the graphic nudity is utterly gratuitous. The same
decidedly goes for the exceedingly vulgar language, the sexual content, and the most brutal violence. All of those things could have been done better with a little subtlety and restraint. It’s a cheap, lazy choice in a series which is otherwise anything but cheap and lazy. With such involving stories and such finely drawn and developed characters, the shock-value stuff is redundant and off-putting.
Our gravest objection to earlier seasons of the series was its frequent and extreme immersions into the very worst imaginable sides of human nature, taking an almost perverse delight in putting sadism, rape, treachery, torture, and murder directly in front of our eyes and not stinting at showing us the gory details. A great many of
the characters, early on, represented the worst that that humanity is capable of. The trouble is that that kind of material is degrading. Central to the human condition is the need for stories to uplift and inspire us. Who are we to ‘root for’ if most of the characters are as like to stab you in the back (literally) as look at you? Happily, Season 5 strikes a more palatable balance between different aspects of human nature. There are more moments here of compassion and heroism, more instances of wise and noble behavior, more moments to inspire us as viewers. The despicable, terribly ugly stuff (like the rape of Sansa Stark by a brute who is fond of flaying his victims alive) is still there, alas; but there’s less of it – or, at least, there’s more heroic stuff to counter-balance it, like the sudden redemptive moment granted to Theon Greyjoy, a man who has been degraded by abuse into a cowering mockery of his past self. Best of all, there are the stirring words of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who, as Commander of the Nightwatch, must put aside countless years of conflict and the vehement opposition of his own peers, to seek peace with a longtime foe, in the name of mutual security against an inhuman enemy. His insight into what is necessary is extraordinary, his words inspiring. As an ally says, “What he did took courage. And that’s what we need today, the courage to make peace with men we’ve been killing for generations.” Apt words for our world, too.
Another thing in short supply in the world of “Game of Thrones” is happy endings, or the “eucatastrophe” that J.R.R. Tolkien saw that we all long for in our bones. Martin’s world, instead, favors cruel and bitter ends to good and noble characters. But, Season 5 offers some rescues and little triumphs of good over evil – and the viewer who hungry for such moments will applaud them in delight. A semi-tame wolf makes a timely appearance to drive off would-be rapists; and, in the single most exciting moment of the season, an errant, only slightly tamed young dragon appears when it is most needed. Indulging too many such moments would cross over into “deus ex machina” territory; but, there’s no need to fret about a surfeit of well-timed rescues: The characters of “Game of Thrones” are in real and frequent peril: any one of them might die before our eyes.
The cast is a sheer delight, with riches too numerous to comprehensively list here. Among them are: Admirable characters, especially Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen), Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), and Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig); sympathetic ones like Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), Mance Ryder(Ciaran Hinds), Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan), and Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman); morally grey (or dark) but interesting ones, like Cersei Lannister (Lena Hedley), Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), Bronn (Jerome Flynn), and Lord Varys (Conleth Hill); sexy ones, especially the female ‘Sand Snakes’ (Amazon-style warriors intent on vengeance); and despicable ones like Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and both of the brutal Boltons. Sadly, Charles Dance (as Tywin Lannister) is gone; but we get great moments from his female opposite number, Diana Rigg’s matriarchal Olenna, who sees right through the duplicitous Littlefinger: “You’ve always been rather impressed with yourself, haven’t you?” She suffers no fools gladly and she gets the lion’s share of great ironic lines.
Each episode jumps back and forth across the continents of Westeros and Essos, and the interconnected plotting gets nearly everything right. But, a few moments feel like missteps. Would an aspiring king who truly loves his daughter harden his heart and brutally sacrifice her in his quest for the throne? The character in question is a hard man, ruthless even at times, but he also has his own stern code. Killing his daughter at the prompting of a priestess/witch (Carice van Houten’s Melisandre) who has promised great things and delivered nothing, seems out of character. At least, in the aftermath of that unlikely act, he seems to realize that he has lost all moral legitimacy along with his daughter. Elsewhere, the religious zealots in the capital make an overly quick leap to power, turning on their benefactor with improbable ease and speed. We see more of the inhuman White Walkers, but, frankly, they are underwhelming as the glacially advancing preternatural menace – too human-looking by half. And, how is it that the insurgents in Meereen are able to field such plentiful numbers in their struggle with Queen Daenerys?
The writing is very good. There’s the strange Jaqen’s penchant for the third person. Speaking to Arya, his aspiring protégé in assassination, he says: “Is a girl ready? To give up… her hopes and dreams, her loves and hates. All that makes a girl who she is? Forever? No. A girl is not ready to become no one. But she is ready to become someone else.” And there’s the engaging character of Tyrion, the diminutive member of a leading family who is fond of drink (in abundance), prostitutes, and withering cynicism, but who, at the same time, is a very decent man – and an insightful one: “You’re an eloquent man. Doesn’t mean you’re wrong. In my experience, eloquent men are right every bit as often as imbeciles.” And, “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked out in your favor.” With such a cast, such writing, and such an intricate storyline – and despite its deliberately (and gratuitously) ugly bits –“Game of Thrones” is top-notch imaginative drama, an exemplar of how good stories made for the small screen can be..
Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” won 12 prime-time Emmys, among them: Outstanding Drama Series, Directing, Writing, Supporting Actor (Dinklage), Casting, Production Design, and Visual Effects. The same season was nominated for 12 other Emmys, three of them for acting categories. And it was again a worthy nominee for Best Television Series at the Golden Globes. Among the Blu-ray extras are 12 audio commentaries to various episodes. Warning: For ages 18+ only – Very coarse language, nudity, sexual content, brutal violence, and disturbing content.
“45 Years” (U.K., 2015) (B): Kate and Geoff prepare to celebrate their 45th anniversary when a message from the long-lost past threatens to destabilize their marriage. It seems that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) had another love before Kate (Charlotte Rampling). That other woman, from so long ago, fell to her death on a mountain excursion; but a letter from the Swiss authorities reveals that her body has been found, 50 years later, frozen in glacial ice. Have Geoff’s feelings been preserved, along with the body of his lost love? The news sets Geoff on a reverie into the past. He becomes increasingly introspective; he resumes the long ago discarded habit of smoking; and he gets ever more preoccupied with the woman and events that have been ice-bound for so long: “It’s building up and up and up, like a dam. It’s waiting, waiting, waiting… No warning… Come down like a tsunami, [wiping] out everything in its path.”
Those words are an apt metaphor for the effect of this reminder of the past upon Geoff and his life in the here and now. He and Kate lead a quiet retirement life in the bucolic countryside of Norfolk. They’ve never had children: It’s just them, their dog, their history together, and their circle of close friends. They seem comfortable, and contented, with each other. But as Geoff becomes increasingly preoccupied by the reminder of what once was, so Kate grows increasingly concerned, then restive, then unhappy. The revelation that her husband had a love before her, and the fact that its return from the past so unsettles him brings an ambiguous array of feelings to the fore: Is Kate jealous? Does she feel insecure about a long-dead rival – finding a memory an even more potent competitor than a living rival? Or does she feel that Geoff has been less than fully frank with her about the nature and extent of his relationship with the lost Katya? “It’s like she’s been standing in the corner of this room all this time, behind my back. And it’s tainted everything.” Kate’s reaction may or may not be entirely rational, but it certainly feels very human – and vulnerable.
The result, written and directed by Andrew Haigh, has two award-caliber performances. Geraldine James also makes a strong impression in a supporting role as their friend Lena. On the down-side, things move at a very leisurely pace, sapping the film of energy. But, truth be told, the engine driving this story is not plot but characterization: It is an up close and personal observation of its two characters, with a pair of finely-tuned, subtle performances. (Whether or not there is too much ambiguity at times will be in the eye of the beholder.) Still, for all that we observe them so closely, we always feel frustratingly detached from these characters – and that emotional disconnect feels like a flaw.
“45 Years” was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards; for Best British Film at BAFTA; and for Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay at the British Independent Film Awards. It won Best European Actress at the European Film Awards, where it was also nominated for Actor and Screenplay; and it won a place in the year’s Top Ten Independent Films from the U.S. National Board of Review. The DVD would have benefited from a commentary by its writer/director and leads. For ages 18+: Some coarse language and brief sexual content.
“The World’s Fastest Indian” (New Zealand/USA/Switzerland/Japan, 2005) (B+): “All my life I wanted to do something big.” So says Burt Munro, a feisty old New Zealander who has had a lifelong fascination for “things that go fast.” His dream? Why, it’s to travel to the other side of the world to compete in the land speed races at the Bonneville Salt Flats with his lovingly customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Munro, winningly played by Anthony Hopkins, is a real character – resolutely marching to the sound of his own drummer. He’s got a tenacious, never say die approach to life: “You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out, than some people do in a lifetime.” And his determination, quirky personality, and witticisms charm everyone he encounters: “ If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find [that] you’re gone.” People just naturally want to help this rumpled hedge-knight on his quixotic quest. His journey from Invercargill to Utah, on little more than a proverbial wing and a prayer, is more than half the fun. Munro meets a succession of engaging characters along the way. His life intersects with theirs for a short time, and they help him on his way, with both sides always the better for their encounters: When a child asks about his sleek ride (“Is this a rocket ship?”), Burt replies, “I hope so.”
Burt is a down-to-earth man with larger-than-life dreams; and, as he says, “If you don’t follow up on your dreams, you may as well be a vegetable.” The utterly charming result is the funny, uplifting, and admirably character-driven story of an unconventional hero. Based on a true story, “The World’s Fastest Indian” was nominated for ten New Zealand Screen Awards, winning seven of them, including Best Film, Actor, Director, and Screenplay. Among the DVD extras is the documentary short film, “Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed” (1971) by the same filmmaker (Australian writer/director Roger Donaldson). For ages 14+: Mild coarse language.
“Tampopo” [“Dandelion”] (Japan, 1985) (B+): From the tantalizing line of movies that celebrate food comes this inventive deadpan comedy of noodles from writer/director Jûzô Itami. It opens with a gangster all dressed in white at a movie theater. He jumps up and addresses us, observing, “So, you’re at a movie, too.” What follows is a through-line story about a laconic stranger helping a young widow open a noodle shop, punctuated by free-standing vignettes. One has that virile yakuza from the prologue and his main squeeze inventively finding wildly erotic uses for food. Another has a noodle novitiate at the elbow of his solemn master: “Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aroma,” intones the older man. Another has a group of businessmen playing follow the leader at a fancy French restaurant whose menu is alien to them, until the junior man among them breaks cultural ranks by charting his own culinary course – with an unexpected command of the minutiae of French cuisine. Elsewhere, a very proper lady is instructing her young charges about all things spaghetti, until her attempt to instill Western dining table decorum is hopelessly derailed by a loudly slurping diner (who, counter-intuitively, is Occidental). There are nods here to various cinematic icons, genres, and conventions. A tramp expertly whips up an omelette in a scene that brings Charlie Chaplin to mind. The stranger in a cowboy hat who rides (by transport truck) to the rescue of the struggling young widow instantly conjures the western. We visit a hobo camp full of gourmets; and a housewife rises from her near-death bed to prepare one last meal for her family. Satire meets slapstick in delightful ways, accented by the sublime notes of Franz Liszt’s ever-so-romantic “Les Préludes.” The result is not to be missed! For ages 18+: Nudity and some sexual content (and a brief instance of violence to a reptile).
“Gloomy Sunday” [“Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod”] (Germany/Hungary, 1999) (B+): Some of you will know Billie Holiday’s 1941 rendition of the controversial and bittersweet song, “Gloomy Sunday.” Well, here’s a fictionalized story built around that song and focused on the most unconventional of love stories. Two men each love the same woman, and she loves both of them. Somehow, they make it work, and a deep bond forms between these three friends: “Everyone would like it all: something for the body, something for the soul. Something that fills you up, something that makes you hungry. And Ilona takes just that: a László and an András. I’d still rather have a part of Ilona than no Ilona at all.” Apart from a prologue and an epilogue, the story is set in the cosmopolitan, refined city of Budapest, Hungary in the 1930s and 40s. László (Joachim Król), a genial restauranteur, is a man of great integrity and decency, a good man who also a very engaging one. Ilona (Erica Marozsán) is an utterly fetching brown-haired, blue-eyed beauty; she’s an innocent siren – not calculating in her allure, just irresistible to the two men who love her. For his part, András (Stefano Dionisi) is the talented, melancholy pianist they hire to perform in the restaurant. His composition so moves people that it allegedly drives some to suicide – an unsubstantiated notoriety (of an ‘urban legend’ sort) that the real song (which was composed in Hungary in 1933) shared. The film is most winning as a highly unconventional romance. The Nazis make their presence felt in the second half, which marks a darkening of the tone; though, surprisingly enough, there are moments of unexpected humor even then (listen for a hint of bagpipes in a brief Scottish variation on the title theme).
There’s great, somehow old-fashioned, charm here: We like the three leads very much, as they navigate the uncharted intricacies of their pas de trois. It’s a very romantic story, with touches of that aforementioned humor, even as something vile eventually peeks in from the corners. There’s a twist or two, and there’s wisdom here, too: “I think the song says every person has his dignity. We get hurt. We get insulted. And we can stand it as long as we can hang on to a last shred of dignity.” Among its other nominations and awards, “Gloomy Sunday” won Best Screenplay at the German Film Awards, where it was also nominated as Best Film and Best Actor. For ages 18+: Nudity and mild sexual content.
“My Love, Don’t Cross That River” (South Korea, 2014) (B+): Here’s a real-life love story about a couple who have been inseparable for 76 years. He’s 98, she’s 89: They practically qualify as hundred-year old lovebirds. They live in their own home in the verdant South Korean countryside, chopping their own wood and fetching their own water. They’re fond of dressing in the bright, satiny traditional clothes of their country. And they’re matter of fact about aging (“Time passes, people get old. There’s nothing you can do about it”), though they do concede that: “Getting older isn’t all too easy.” Instead of fretting about what they cannot control (including their own approaching infirmity), they carry on with their daily lives together. Playfulness is a big part of their relationship (they splash water on each other like youngsters), and so is tenderness. The film follows their day-to-day lives over the course of 15 months. There’s no narrator commenting on the couple; so, it feels more like a gentle love story than it does a documentary. It’s about marriage, mortality, and enduring love, as it follows this sweet old couple who’ve been constant companions for most of their lives (“Being here for you makes me feel warm all over”) all the while knowing that time will ultimately part them. The result is sweetly affecting – and it was a nominee as Best Documentary at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Ed & Pauline” (USA, 2014) (B): This 19-minute short film from co-writer/directors Christian Bruno and Natalija Vekic is a low-key ode to the love of movies. In the 1950’s, two cinephiles came together briefly to create “a church for movie lovers” in the midst of a cultural milieu in which “art, literature, and thought flowed.” Pauline Kael, who went on to become one of the country’s most respected film critics, was already penning “little masterpieces” – conversationally-styled capsule reviews that enticed readers to see unfamiliar films from home and abroad. For his part, Ed Landberg, opened a storefront cinema in San Francisco devoted to bringing half-legendary domestic titles like “Citizen Kane” and eclectic foreign fare to Bay Area audiences. The pair joined forces, personally and professionally. “His theater, her writing: It was a perfect match.” Or was it?, asks the film. Two strong individualists, Pauline and Ed shared a passion for film, but competing egos made for a short union. Although its subject is the brief partnership between these two champions of cinema, this gentle documentary (shot mostly in B&W) is really a beguiling evocation of our shared love of movies, nowhere better exemplified than in a stand-out scene in a cinema which has magic shadows flickering across the intent faces of moviegoers.
“Shut Up and Sing” (USA, 2006) (B+/A-): Here’s an entertaining, funny, eye-opening, and even inspiring documentary about a female band, the Dixie Chicks, who went from the top of the charts to reviled ignominy when they dared to criticize the American president at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That one off-the-cuff remark ignited a firestorm of anger among country music’s mostly conservative core following and saw the trio blacklisted, denounced as traitors, and anonymously threatened. The decision of these three women to bravely stick to their guns is cause for admiration when too many others – be they politicians, journalists, celebrities, or ordinary citizens – failed to exercise their democratic duty to dissent. Their defiant song “Not Ready to Make Nice” is electrifyingly emotional. (It’s a shame the film’s DVD doesn’t include the official music video for that powerful song as an extra.) The controversy is this film’s central thread, but it’s also about the women themselves – women who tour, perform, and raise families with down-to-earth good sense and charm. It’s one of the best films of 2006 – with an all too applicable message for us ten years later, in the troubling aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (USA, 1939) (A): “There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromises with human liberties. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them.” So says the earnest young man who is appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a sudden vacancy. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart in the role that catapulted him to fame) is an unabashed idealist: he loves what America stands for, including, first and foremost, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” He is also shy, humble, and sometimes awkward. The cynical powers that be take him for “a big-eyed patriot,” an easy mark for their corrupt machinations, a stooge they’ve cast as a compliant figurehead. But, my, have they miscalculated! Jeff Smith may be new to politics, and he may be a little naïve; but he’s steadfast in his values. His “plain decent everyday rightness,” as an admirer puts it, puts him in fierce opposition to “the whole rotten show” represented by jaded, self-serving insiders.
What ensues is a headlong collision between cynicism and idealism, corruption and integrity, deceit and probity, and ruthlessness and decency. It’s a David versus Goliath struggle, a mismatch of epic proportions that pits one man against a whole system. But that one man represents ideas, imperishable ideas – and don’t underestimate the power of the ideas of liberty, justice, and equality.
In a year (1939) that was bursting with truly great movies, director Frank Capra made another timeless classic, with a story that embodies great idealism and trust in the simple decency (and goodness) of ordinary people. A Capra movie is a paean to optimism, and in the hope that right can and will prevail over might. He has assembled an utterly marvelous cast here. James Stewart morphs from quiet moments to soaring impassioned rhetoric. He is an everyman who becomes a hero. Top-billed Jean Arthur is note-perfect as Saunders, the tough-as-nails Washington veteran who is won over by Stewart’s decency and earnestness. And there’s Claude Rains (as the one-time crusader for lost causes who has been seduced by compromises with power), Edward Arnold (as the ruthless master manipulator), Thomas Mitchell (as ‘the poet of the press gallery’), Harry Carey (a sheer delight as the bemused Vice President of the United States), Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee, Astrid Allwyn, and Charles Lane.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Film, Actor, and Supporting Actor (twice); it won for Best Original Story in an award season dominated by “Gone with the Wind.” It’s a great film, a not to be missed film, a film that reminds us that some things (including so-called ‘lost causes’) are worth fighting for.
“Mrs. Henderson Presents” (U.K./USA, 2005) (B-): It opens in 1937 with Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) at the burial of her husband. She goes for a solitary ride in a rowboat and weeps – briefly letting down her stiff upper lip. But very shortly afterwards (on the self same day), she declares, “I’m bored with widowhood!” Her husband has left her very well provided for. She’s nearly 70. What to do with her time, she wonders? She rules out embroidery; and she’s bored with charitable work. When she happens across a closed theater that’s for sale in London, she buys it. The next step is to interview a theater professional to run it for her, in the person of Mr. Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins). “You’re twenty minutes late. And you’re rude,” he gruffly declares at their first meeting. But Laura likes his gumption: “I think we’ll make a splendid team.”
The idea is try something new: musical theater presented in all-day shows. It’s a success, at first, till everyone starts to copy them. It’s time to think outside the box, and Laura has an idea: “Why don’t we get rid of the clothes?” Somehow, they get this daring notion past the government censors, on the strength of a technicality and Mrs. Henderson’s highly placed contacts. The result is a hit, one that draws (mostly male) crowds, becoming a quirky morale booster as war breaks out and London suffers under ‘the blitz.’
Inspired by a true story (and very soon to be the subject of a musical stage iteration), “Mrs. Henderson Presents” is an amusing character story, a blend of two parts humor and one part serious content. However, the switch in tone to serious concerns about the fate of Van Damm’s Jewish relatives in Holland is a bit jarring. The film is a tad heavy-handed over-all, and its sometimes prickly leading lady is not altogether likeable. But, those cavils aside, it’s a pleasure to see Dench and Hoskins interacting: They make engaging foils. For ages 18+: Nudity, adult subject matter, brief crude language, and brief coarse language
“Monsieur Lazhar” (Canada, 2011) (B): “No one wants to work here now,” someone remarks after the tragic sudden death of a Montreal elementary school teacher. But a volunteer steps forward in the person of Bachir Lazhar, a middle aged immigrant from Algeria. He is a natural with the children, bringing sensitivity, kindness, and respect to his role as their substitute teacher. Perhaps over-estimating their reading sophistication, he naively assigns work by Balzac as their first assignment. The school wants to sequester the children’s grief at the untimely loss of their teacher into their scheduled sessions with a professional counselor, but M. Lazhar wisely resists those attempts to draw arbitrary and impenetrable boundaries around grieving and loss: “The dead stay in our heads because we loved them. And because they loved us.”
“Monsieur Lazhar” is a gentle, warm film about a kind man and his young charges. It’s a simple story but also a touching one, with affecting performances by Fellag as M. Lazhar, Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron as two key students, Brigitte Poupart as a sympathetic teacher, and Danielle Proulx as the principal. If there’s a flaw here, it comes in the form of a wholly unnecessary plot twist near the end that undercuts (and somewhat contradicts) all that has gone before. Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, from the play by Evelyne de la Chenelière, “Monsieur Lazhar” was an Oscar nominee as Best Foreign Language Film. It earned nine nominations at Canada’s Genie Awards, winning six – as Best Film, Actor, Supporting Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. It was nominated for nine awards in Québec’s Jutra Awards, winning seven. And, it won Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF.
“Viktoria” (Bulgaria/Romania, 2014) (B+): In 1979, no one would have dreamed that communism would collapse in Eastern Europe, like an edifice suddenly felled by dry rot, a mere ten years later. Until it fell, that oppressive system sat like a great weight on the shoulders of those condemned to be its vassals. For Boryana (Irmema Chichikova), life in the East is oppressive beyond all endurance. Bringing a child into this bleak, soul-deadening world is an intolerable prospect for her. She is estranged from her mother (Mariana Krumova) – bitter about her mother’s perceived emotional neglect and hostile about her mother’s true believer’s support for communism. Boryana prevails upon her reluctant husband (Dimo Dimov) to make arrangements for them to flee to the West. Before they can leave, however, Boryana becomes pregnant. Now she is trapped – and full of resentment. But, when her baby is born, it has a seemingly impossible physical anomaly: It has no belly-button! Boryana wants little to do with her new-born daughter, as lost as she is in bitter unhappiness about a life without freedom and her own legacy of a remote and detached mother. The unhappiness is etched on this young woman’s face.
But young Viktoria (played by Daria Vitkova as a child) gets a surrogate mother – in the form of the communist state. It fetes her as its ‘child of the decade,’ arbitrarily bestowing favors upon her that set her apart and spoil her rotten: She’s the apple of the president’s (Georgi Spasov) eye, but the unmerited, fawning attention threatens to turn her into a bad seed, as she acts the part of a petty tyrant to others. She’s “special” simply because the state says so, an absurd, artificial bestowal of status that gives rise to moments of biting social and political satire. But when she’s older, Viktoria (now played by Kalina Vitkova) has somehow managed to weather that lamentable upbringing. Her mother remains cold to her; so she reaches back one generation, forming a relationship with her grandmother.
The result is a lyrical and gently haunting reflection on mothers and daughters, written and directed by Maya Vitkova, in her feature film directorial debut. The heart of the story is a pair of two badly damaged relationships, lives that play out in the context of crushed dreams and lifelong disappointment. Artful use is made of symbolism (for example, recurring imagery connected with milk, including rain that turns into milk, may represent the impaired maternal bonds that afflict two generations); and there is a lovely melancholy score by Kaloyan Dimitrov. At times, there’s an acerbic theater of the absurd quality to the film’s satirical depiction of the oppressive blight known as communism; but most of this quiet, gently paced story is rooted in its close and touching observation of three generations of mothers and daughters.
“Viktoria” has received accolades (and nominations) at many film festivals, including Sundance. On a technical note: The subtitles are smaller than they should be. For ages 18+: Nudity.
“Standing Tall” [“La tête haute”] (France, 2015) (B): A young woman (Sarah Forestier’s Séverine), who is far too young and irresponsible to be a mother, angrily denounces her own child and peremptorily abandons him to state care as the six-year-old mutely watches and listens. It’s a tragic, traumatic moment that sets the trajectory of his life: “I created a monster, like his father…. He’s a load on every day! Take him! I want to be rid of him!” After that brief prologue, the story jumps several years ahead, and we see Malony Ferrandot (Rod Paradot) as a delinquent teen, joy-riding in a stolen car with hip-hop music blaring. He’s become what his mother prematurely dubbed him as a young child – a troubled kid, violent, abusive, and out of control. Yet, despite that early abandonment, he’s back with his mother, whom he loves dearly, when he’s not in state-supervised custody at one home for juveniles or another.
What he has going for him is the indefatigable support and encouragement of the family court system: There’s the judge who oversees his care – Catherine Deneuve’s Florence – who removes sharp objects and breakables from her office before meetings with Malony. There’s the street-smart case-worker (Benoît Magimel, a standout as Yann), whose stoic patience is tested to its limits with the self-destructive belligerence and angry obstinacy of his new charge. And there are many other dedicated teachers and supervisors, some of them at a school in a peaceful bucolic setting, a place that’s tailor-made for volatile troubled souls. Their chief goal is to teach accountability, self-respect, and respect for others. And they never give up on him. But whenever there’s a sign that Malony might come around, he reverts to self-destructive form, as heedless of his own best interests as he is contemptuous of others. Can the boy be redeemed?
Directed and co-written (with Marcia Romano) by Emmanuelle Bercot, “Standing Tall” is the story of the surrogate family of professionals who strive to redeem the troubled youngsters in their charge. The performances are first-rate; but, it’s mighty hard to warm to the character upon whom all of this effort is expended. We can feel sorry for Maloney when he is six, and at brief intervals thereafter; but, the fact is that he is a relentlessly unlikable character. True, his undoing – those catastrophic words, “He’s a load on every day! Take him! I want to be rid of him!” – were beyond his control. But, is he not the beneficiary of too much forbearance? It feels that way, at times. He has been a lit fuse all his life. Can he change? Does he even want to? His pattern of behavior, which has mostly been destructive to himself and others, makes it very hard for us to trust him, as much as we may hope for his redemption. And we’re not sure we entirely buy the attraction a teacher’s daughter (Diane Rouxel’s Tess) feels for this severely troubled boy.
The film was nominated for eight César Awards, winning two of them, including Best Supporting Actor (Benoît Magimel) and Most Promising Actor (Rod Paradot). It is, remarkably, Paradot’s debut as an actor. For ages 18+: Coarse language, including some sexual language; moderate violence; and some sexual content.
“Marguerite” (France/Czech Republic/Belgium, 2015) (A-): The wealthy Baroness Marguerite Dumont is a dedicated patroness of the arts from her chateau outside Paris in 1920. As benefactress of the Amadeus Club, she hosts private concerts featuring chamber orchestras and operatic vocalists – sublimely talented artists all. But the pièce de résistance is the Baroness herself. Resplendent in a professional costume, and crowned with a freshly-plucked peacock feather, she is the very picture of grace and beauty – until she opens her mouth and sings. She is appallingly out of tune, and she is blissfully unaware of that fact. Those around her feign enthusiastic praise and keep her in the dark about her musical shortcomings. Learning the truth might shatter the woman whose distant, neglectful husband has left her bereft of love: “Music is all that matters to me… I’ve devoted my life to music.”
But in this fine, award-caliber portrayal by Catherine Frot (2004’s “Viper in the Fist” and 2006’s “The Page Turner”), Marguerite is not a ridiculous figure, not even close. On the contrary, there’s a touching dignity, sensitivity, and vulnerability about her. She is almost an innocent, a naïf, in some ways, and it gives her character great poignancy. The result, written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, is a beautiful looking, brilliantly acted film. Inspired by a true story, it seems likely that its cross-Atlantic inspiration was the American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 –1944), who was the subject of a separate movie (bearing the name of its real-life protagonist) in 2016.
“Marguerite” may be musically dissonant when its leading lady sings; but, elsewhere, it is full of breathtaking music. And it has a note-perfect cast, with the aforementioned Catherine Frot mesmerizing in the lead (it’s impossible to take your eyes off her), André Marcon as her unfaithful but still concerned husband, Michel Fau as her flamboyant opera coach, Sylvain Dieuaide as a young critic who starts off planning to use Marguerite, until he grows genuinely fond of her (“Beware of cads like me,” he warns), Conglolese actor Denis Mpunga as Medelbos, the lady’s seemingly protective butler (but are his motives truly as benevolent as at first they seem?), Christa Théret as a talented young soprano, and Aubert Fenoy as a radical young poet who keeps the company of “anarchists, avant-gardists, and what-not.”
“Marguerite” was nominated for eleven César Awards, winning four of them, including Best Actress; and it was nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film) at Venice. It’s a not to be missed film grounded in strong performances and rich characterization, with a story that only falters near the end, with a not wholly satisfying conclusion. The DVD (from Cohen Media Group) has four deleted scenes and an interview with the director. (All that’s missing is a feature-length commentary.) For ages 18+: Some coarse language, brief nudity, and brief sexual content.
“The Meddler” (USA, 2015) (B): It opens with Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) lying on her bed, gazing up mutely at the ceiling fan turning above her. What’s on her face? Is it dejection, loneliness, or purposelessness? But things very quickly morph from a moment of quietude to a barrage of loquaciousness, as Marnie recounts the mundane contents of her day in a stream of consciousness voicemail to her daughter. Having lost her beloved husband and life partner, Marnie clearly doesn’t know what to do with herself. She has moved from New Jersey to L.A. to be near Lori (Rose Byrne). They are confidantes and close friends as much as they are mother and daughter. But, can too much closeness be a bad thing? “Eighty percent of the time the phone rings, and it’s you. The phone rings and I think it could be a job, or a guy, or a friend, and it’s my mother. Almost every single time.”
“I think we should get you a hobby,” says Lori. And, in point of fact, Marnie does get a hobby, by appointing herself a surrogate mother figure to all and sundry – from the tech adviser at a telecom store (whom she starts driving to night classes) to an acquaintance of her daughter (whom she treats to an expensive wedding, with all the trimmings). Marnie is impulsive and generous to the point of extravagance with her money (her late husband left her well-off), using it to form connections with others. She is well-meaning, but it is unlikely that she intends these impulsive bestowals of largesse to create anything more than superficial connections. It’s as though she’s afraid to create deeper emotional bonds with others. Her generosity looks like a way to fill the gap left by the loss of her husband – to fill the gap, that is, with a kind of ‘physical chatter’ (or philanthropic busy-ness) that mimics her verbal chatter. But, truth be told, Marnie’s over-attentive relationship with her mopy, slightly neurotic daughter, smacks of mutual co-dependency.
The chance for a different life appears in the charming person of ‘Zipper,’ a retired policeman who raises chickens to the avian-approved tune of Dolly Parton songs. J.K. Simmons is utterly winning in the role, stealing all of his scenes as the sweet-natured man who may prompt Marnie to get on with her life. Their incipient romance is the best thing in the film. Humor and a low-key poignancy combine in this gently affecting journey by two women seeking fulfillment and happiness in life. Based on the real-life relationship between writer/director Lorene Scarfaria and her mother, the DVD has an interview with them. For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.
“The Art of Breaking Up” [“Un fil à la patte”] (France, 2005) (C+): Here’s a fast-paced farce (it opens with a burst of music from the ballet “Faust”), complete with an ensemble cast, a scurrying butler, and misunderstandings galore. It revolves around an opera diva (the beauteous Emmanuelle Béart) and a gaggle of people in her life (among them, past, present, and aspiring future lovers). Rather like a bedroom farce, it’s frenetic good fun. A comedy of errors, it mines every possibility for humor, including deliberate anachronism (for instance, it’s set around 1900, but someone answers a cell-phone) and playfulness (someone says “Excuse me” when passing in front of the camera, as though he is directly addressing us – the unseen viewers of the film). For ages 18+: Sexual content.
“Wondrous Boccaccio” [“Maraviglioso Boccaccio”] (Italy/France, 2015) (B): The year is 1348 and the cultural capital city of Florence is stricken with the plague (the Black Death was to wipe out three-quarters of its population). Carts in the street pick up the dead, who are unceremoniously consigned to anonymous mass graves. Death hangs over the city like a miasma; it can come at any time and it strikes the rich, the poor, the young, and the old without favor or distinction. Seven young women and three young men resolve to leave the city and to take their chances closer to nature, in a villa surrounded by a verdant green valley. Once there, they pass the time by taking turns telling stories, a new one each day. That scenario (ten young adults telling stories) is lifted from “The Decameron” by the Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75).
His book contained 100 tales of love; here we get five. In one, a woman recovers from the plague and has to choose between the husband who bowed to his family’s demands that he cast her off while she was ill, and the man who saved her. In the second, a simple soul falls for an elaborate prank, being duped by his fellows into believing that possession of a black rock will confer invisibility – a supposed state that he puts to no good use. In the third, a duke bears an obsessive love for his daughter (whether it crosses the line from paternal is ambiguous) and is tormented by her love for his protégé. In the fourth, nuns in a convent decide that they are as much creatures of the flesh as of the spirit. In the fifth, a man is ruined by his unrequited love for a married woman, retreating to the countryside with his only friend, his beloved falcon. But he crosses paths with the object of his love once more, when she is widowed; what ensues is a darker cousin to the sort of ironic twist that made O. Henry famous.
It’s a strange movie, and hard to categorize. It’s lushly beautiful to look at: These are attractive young women and men, and each is robed in a single color. What tableaux they form framed against the Tuscan countryside – sitting on a lawn framed by a low-half wall, walking in candle-lit procession, or sleeping on a green meadow after dining on wild berries and cold spring water. A disagreement is interrupted by a thunderstorm, which takes our ten characters outdoors, where they are symbolically renewed and cleansed by the falling rain. Elsewhere, horsemen galloping across a green valley are seen from high above, as if by a falcon. The stories the ten exiles tell are ones of self-delusion, obsession, unrequited love, and sacrifice. (We had the impression that “The Decameron’s” stories were oft-ribald, but the ones told here are not.) It’s a simple enough premise, simply depicted, but the result is surprisingly transfixing. There’s a theatricality about the way the ten characters move across their ‘stage,’ and there’s a painterly quality to the way color, lighting, and the grouping of figures is used. Moments here look like a Renaissance painting sprung to life. The stories themselves probably aren’t quite ‘morality tales,’ in the strict sense; but they certainly are ‘tales with morals’ about the glories and indignities of matters of the heart and matters of the ego. “Wondrous Boccaccio” earned nominations at Italy’s Academy Awards (the David di Donatello Awards) for Best Production Design, Costumes, and Hair Design. For ages 16+: Very brief partial nudity.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Ground Floor” (Israel, 2014) (B): Here’s an impressionistic streetscape very nicely rendered in B&W animation: We see hands with strings like those of a stringed musical instrument. Angular patterns on a sidewalk spring to life and fly off like butterflies. Rectangles of light (windows on a building) pop open; train windows dart past; geometric shapes swoop by like swallows; and sheets on a clothesline flap stiffly in the breeze like unmarked flags of surrender. And surrender we do to this evocative three-minute dive into urban impressionism by Asya Aizenstein (aka Asya Aizen).
“A Royal Affair” [“En Kongelig Affaere”] (Denmark/Sweden/Czech Republic/Germany, 2012) (B): Here’s an old-fashioned romance that closely follows the true story of a half-mad king, his neglected young queen, and the foreign physician who changed their lives forever. The tragic love triangle that develops here is set in Denmark from 1770 to 1783. Caroline (Alicia Vikander of 2015’s “Ex Machina” and “The Danish Girl” and 2016’s “The Light between Oceans”), the daughter of the late British Prince of Wales (though the screenplay inexplicably neglects to apprise us of that background), is wed by proxy to a husband she has never met, King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). (In real life, she was only 15 at the time of the marriage.) She is destined for ‘a new life in a new country,’ but she goes willingly, determined to be a dutiful wife and queen. But what she doesn’t know is that her husband is mentally unstable. His councilors rule the kingdom, his stepmother Juliane Marie (Trine Dyrholm of 1998’s “The Celebration”) plots to displace him, and he’s more enthusiastic about his favorite hound than he is about his new bride. On her first night there, Caroline is publicly humiliated; and their first night together is anything but loving, romantic, or tender. Her books are confiscated under the kingdom’s draconian censorship laws (it’s a place that’s run by nobles and clergy in a style unchanged since the Middle Ages), and her chief lady-in-waiting, Louise von Plessen (Laura Bro), who becomes her confidante and ally (it seems odd that Caroline brings no companion or lady-in-waiting with her from Great Britain), is soon banished from court, and Caroline is left isolated and neglected.
Into their lives comes a young German doctor named Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen of 2012’s “The Hunt”). An idealist who champions the reform-minded thinkers of the Enlightenment in the anonymous political pamphlets he pens in Germany, he is recruited by a pair of out of favor Danish nobles to become both the king’s personal physician and their own path to being restored to the royal court. It’s never clear why Struensee agrees to this mission. Why would such a free-thinking (even radical, by prevailing standards) man want to cater to a king? During his interview for the post, a game of dueling literary quotes with the king (who is fascinated by theater and acting), ingratiates him with Christian. The two bond, and Christian comes to regard Struensee as a close friend and confidante. But how much of this is genuine on Struensee’s part – and how much is just part of his assigned job of ‘managing’ the king?
The queen’s initial impression of the newcomer is not positive: He takes the king carousing at bordellos and he is reputed to be “an amoral libertine.” But when Caroline finds Enlightenment writings (among them, Rousseau’s observation that, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is shackled”) among the doctor’s books, her view of him changes. He saves her son’s life with the then experimental procedure of smallpox inoculation. He encourages Caroline to dispense with side-saddle riding in favor of sitting astride her horse, in a scene that represents her liberation and empowerment. And, inevitably, they fall in love. Each of them can now say that, “For the first time in my life, I was happy.”
Their love for each other is mirrored in their shared love for Enlightenment ideals. They influence the king to gradually assert himself in small ways with his councilors and enact modest reforms. The king is an eager collaborator, though perhaps more out of the sense of adventure that his assertiveness entails, or a desire to please his friend, or the sense of creating a lasting legacy (a notion that Struensee inculcates in the king) than out of strong philosophical conviction. When the council blocks further modest reforms, the king stiffens his spine and dismisses them, in a kind of top-down revolution that puts the reformers in the absolute ascendancy. For 16 months, Struensee becomes, in effect, the de facto regent of the kingdom, and a tidal wave of reform follows: 1,069 cabinet orders (or three per day), mandating inoculation for the public, abolishing corporal punishment of prisoners, opening access to university for all citizens, granting a general license to publish and abolishing censorship, established homes for orphaned children, and much more. Voltaire himself declares the newly enlightened Denmark to be “the light of the North.”
But it all seems too good to be true. Idealism in action has its consequences, in the form of animosity by the nobles and clergy who find their unfettered authority and privileges curtailed – and, lamentably, in growing hostility of the commoners who are told that a foreigner has usurped their king’s place. And, though the film does not very much touch on it, people sometimes prefer their established customs and traditions, however retrograde and oppressive, to unfamiliar principles they may (however perversely) regard as threatening what they are used to. Forces align against the reformers. And they make mistakes, too. What is more important: The social and political ideals they cherish, or their personal happiness? Would they not be wiser to put their romantic love (or at least its physical expression) aside in favor of the bigger, nobler purpose of transforming a whole society? And they become coldly dismissive of the king, openly sidelining him and treating him like an errant child, instead of returning his friendship and valuing him as an ally. It is interesting that the initially unsympathetic king grows on us (somewhat) as things progress, while the lovers erode some of our sympathy for them through their heavy-handed disdain for the man who is the husband of one and the friend of the other. They grow presumptuous and over-confident and neglectful of kindness and respect in their dealings outside their small inner circle. In short, they come to think, rashly, that they can have it all their own way. Even an erstwhile ally says, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Well-intentioned though they are, Struensee and Caroline’s selfish pursuit of their own love, and the mounting number of interest groups opposed to reform, create a looming storm. Will love – and idealism – prevail? Or will reactionary foes crush the couple and their dream of an enlightened society?
Directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel (who wrote 2009’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), “A Royal Affair” was a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. It had seventeen nominations at Denmark’s Robert Awards, winning ten awards – among them, Best Actor, Director, Supporting Actress, Cinematography (the film is lush to look at), Score, and Costumes. It was nominated for Music and Production Design at the European Film Awards. The result is a well-acted, involving (albeit gently paced), romantic drama, which has the romance both in its love story between a man and a woman and in the idealism they possess for bettering the human condition. For ages 18+: Brief sexual content; and very brief partial nudity.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (USA, 2016) (B+): What’s it like to leave a familiar life behind and plunge head-first into another culture and lifestyle? And what if that alien milieu is a war-zone? For Western journalists based in Afghanistan, it meant life inside “the Kabubble,” the exotic, highly charged, utterly artificial bubble created for and by expatriates temporarily posted in Kabul. Kim Baker impulsively volunteers for the posting in 2003, tired of the sameness of her behind-the-scenes role as a producer for a U.S. news network in New York. But, is she ready for what awaits her? Her plane makes a ‘corkscrew’ approach to the runway, a disconcertingly jarring maneuver designed to make it a tougher target for ground-to-air missiles. And then she’s hit by the acrid stench (from an unmentionable source) that pervades the air in Kabul. There’s the rowdy crowd at the journalists’ residence, the helicopter and armored personnel carrier rides through the stark beauty of Afghanistan’s mountains and desert, and there’s the “Kabul-Cute” boost to her allure: A more seasoned counterpart, Tanya, bluntly tells Kim that while she (Kim) would be only “a six or seven” back home: “Here you are a nine, borderline ten.” Why? Because this is a dangerous place, where expatriates tend to live fast and loose (they ‘party’ hard at night), and where Western women are in short supply. Kim is on the phone to home the same day: “I don’t think I can do this.”
But she acclimatizes quickly. She learns the lingo (wet hooch, FOB, IED, APC, and embed), even as she learns the tricks of the trade – ferreting out newsworthy scoops, cultivating sources, and getting prime-time worthy footage. She shows a reckless enthusiasm for getting action shots on her first embedded mission ‘outside the wire’ with U.S. Marines, a boldness that earns her their gruff colonel’s approval. As weeks turn to months, Tanya tells Kim that her former (Stateside) self is dead: “This is your life.” Kim’s soft-spoken Afghan handler, Fahim, warns her that she’s becoming an adrenaline junkie: “An addict always needs a greater and greater dosage. And then people make mistakes. People get hurt.” In the process, Kim learns how life in the bubble changes people: “That’s what this place and that’s what this job does to all of us. It changes your perception of what’s normal…” Will she realize just how far removed from normal it really is, before it’s too late?
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” may be set in a war zone, but it looks at the real world through a humorous lens: Not precisely a comedy in the conventional sense, it is full of humor. Though vastly different in tone, it is distant kin to “The Year of Dangerously,” which also created a realistic portrayal of Western expatriates working in a Third World country. This film is very appealing as a character-driven ‘dramedy,’ with engaging performances by Tina Fey as Kim, Margot Robbie as Tanya, Martin Freeman (who has played Sherlock’s sidekick Dr. Watson, as well as that hobbit on a long journey there and back again, Bilbo Baggins) as a Scottish freelance photographer (who opines, brogue and all, that, “There’s aught like a good shag”), Christopher Abbott as Kim’s local ‘fixer’ Fahim, Billy Bob Thornton as the tough Marine colonel, Alfred Molina as an Afghan political notable who wishes he were Kim’s “very good friend,” Stephen Peacocke as Kim’s New Zealander security man Nic, Evan Jonigkeit as a laid-back, philosophical Marine corporal, Josh Charles (from television’s “The Good Wife”) as Kim’s sometime boyfriend back home, and Cherry Jones as a network boss. Even Sheila Vand makes an impression in a small part as the oddly named Shakira. Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by the real-life Kim Barker. (The Blu-ray disc has a look at the real-life woman behind the film’s story.)
For ages 18+: Pervasive coarse language (including sexual talk), and brief violence.
“Zootopia” (USA, 2016) (A-/A): What a happy surprise! We feared this animated story from Disney, set in a city (and its hinterland) inhabited by sentient animals, would be childish. What we got instead is one of the best films of the year. Its story of a rabbit who defies convention by becoming a police officer ( a job that’s usually the purview of bigger, ostensibly tougher animals) gets top marks for characterization, especially for its memorable leads: Judy Hopps the determined rabbit voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, and Nick Wilde the roguish fox voiced by Jason Bateman. We got completely invested in these characters and their relationship. The ‘imagineering’ that went into the film’s eponymous metropolis (it was built by and for its diverse mammalian denizens) is a delight to behold. There are moments heartwarming, funny (look for the crime syndicate’s tiny Godfather, Mr. Big), and endearing. The animation is first-rate: We love the scene when Judy first arrives in the city. She’s infused with wide-eyed wonder and excitement, positively skipping out of the train station to the utterly infectious strains of “Try Everything” (sung by Shakira as Zootopia’s pop-star Gazelle) playing on her ‘walkman;’ it’s a sweet, exuberant Mary Tyler Moore moment. That note-perfect song returns as a big production number over the end credits: It must be among the candidates for Best Song at the next Oscars. Characterization, heart, and sublime inventiveness: “Zootopia” has them all. Don’t miss it: It’s a treat!
“The Old Settler” (USA, 2001) (A): Real-life siblings Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen (who also directed) play sisters Elizabeth and Quilly in an outstanding adaptation of John Henry Redwood’s play. Set in 1943 Harlem, the sisters take in a male tenant, and a relationship develops between him with the elder sibling, the eponymous “old settler” of the title (the expression is a term for a spinster). The acting and story are first-rate. When it ends, you’ll long to see more of these fully-realized characters. The film was made for television (the ‘PBS Hollywood’ series), but it’s much better than most of what appears on the big screen. Although it is a film, rather than a filmed play, it retains a theatrical feel: The emphasis here is on character, relationships, and darn good writing: “You could kill a roach in a corner with the tip of those shoes.” It’s about regrets, the endurance of love, and the possibility of second chances. Phylicia Rashad was nominated as Best Actress (TV-movie or Mini-Series) by the American Film Institute for her performance here. Debbie Allen is just as good, and Bumper Robinson and Crystal Fox also do solid work in supporting roles. Why can’t more of television (and cinema) be like this – moving, intelligent, and full of talent?
“Aferim!” (Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic, 2015) (B): This one poses a conundrum: It’s well-made but very hard to like. The time is 1835; the setting is Wallachia (a region in Romania). A constable, Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son Ionita (Mihai Comaniou) are on the trail of an escaped gypsy slave named Carfin (Cuzin Toma). Their ‘there and back again’ journey is shot in black-and-white and traverses terrain ranging from arid semi-desert, to high hills, to forests to swamps. There’s a lot of riding about on horseback, with the garrulous constable sharing his worldly wisdom with his son in the form of simple aphorisms. (Imagine a non-Jewish, dark-side Tevye mixed with Eli Wallach’s iconic Tuco.) He seems to have one for every situation: “The clear sky fears not the lightning” and “A good butcher doesn’t fear thousands and thousands of sheep.” That’s all well and good, but along with the adages comes a steady stream of bigotry and invective. Clearly, writer/director Radu Jude aims to immerse us in a gritty recreation of this time and place, without sparing us the squalor of daily existence and hateful prevailing attitudes. Sadly, of course, remnants of those sordid things persist in the modern world, not least the human fondness for prejudice (or worse) aimed at the perceived “other.’ As they cross the changing terrain, father and son encounter people of different nationalities, ethnicities, and stations in life. A so-called ‘priest’ loudly pontificates on those he deems beneath him: “Gypsies is human. Jews ain’t. They’s beasts.” That sort of bigotry is hateful in the extreme, of course; but it is uttered easily here, sometimes with venom, sometimes with an even more off-putting casual matter-of-factness. It’s a window into the uglier side of the human psyche which is not at all pleasant to peer through.
The constable is stocky, aging, and lame. He is also aggressive, arrogant, and coarse. He comes across as part bully and part petty functionary, more two-bit bounty hunter than lawman. It grates when we hear people who rank below him deferentially call him by the customary term, “Bright master.” There’s nothing “bright” about him. On the contrary, he’s harsh in the way he talks about others: “Nasty language these crows have. Fit for devils, not people.’ (‘Crows,’ it seems, is the preferred derogatory slang for gypsies in this time and place, and they are relegated to the lowest rank in this misbegotten society, as outright slaves, to be bought or sold.) The constable’s son seems to be a callow youth, given to shadow dancing against imaginary adversaries with his sword. For about 26 minutes, we see the constable and his son only in long or medium long shots: Never really seeing their faces has the effect of distancing us from them both literally and figuratively. Perhaps it’s a technique designed to get us gradually adjusted to their archaic mindset. In the opening scene, the stark arid landscape, with two men on horseback, resembles a Western, with a twist: The camera is not perpendicular to the ground, and the horizon tilts at a 40 degree angle, perhaps a visual cue that the world we’re entering is uneven and askew relative to the one we’re living in now. Things like prejudice weren’t masked in those days: They were an open (and unapologetic) part of existence, alas.
Gradually, the camera grows closer to the two lead characters. With that physical drawing-nigh comes a figurative approach to the pair. They are simple and bigoted, very much a man and boy of their time and place. But they aren’t only that. Slowly, and incrementally, there are little gestures of sympathy, humanity, and even something approaching a rough decency about the pair. The constable’s son shares some confection with a captive gypsy boy, though, a short time later they sell that child to a new master. Why? Because, there is a universal matter-of-fact acceptance in this benighted society that slavery is the lot of the gypsy. Besides, it raises some money for a night of drinking and whoring. But, even here, bits of humaneness peek through: The prostitute has a heart; and the constable offers food and drink to the runaway Carfin. It turns out that he’s been falsely accused of stealing from his master. His real offense was to succumb to the advances of his master’s wife. Costandin and son believe him; they sympathize with him; and Ionita even proposes that that just let him go. A sense of professional integrity compels the constable to complete his mission, but he sticks his own neck way out in urging clemency for the prisoner he delivers. Instead, the prisoner meets with a horrible fate – in a scene that’s too disturbing to watch (or hear), even though very little is actual shown explicitly. The trouble is that that moment of brutal violence and savage injustice crushes the little moments of gentler humanity the story gradually displays under an iron-clad boot. Doubtless, that’s the point: Inhumanity, injustice, and brutality are endemic, and they too often hold sway – just as the powerful few do over the victimized many. Indeed, Costandin sounds resigned, world-weary, and sad at the way things turn out: “The world will stay as it is; you can’t change it, try as you might. We live as we can, not as we want.”
That returns us that conundrum we spoke of – it’s a good movie, but a nearly relentlessly harsh and unpleasant one. It’s an unflinching and unapologetic look at a harsh time and its inhabitants – people full of coarseness, superstitions, and open bigotry. It’s terribly hard to like any of them at first, but very gradually we see more palatable facets to the two leads, evident in their little moments of decency and humanity. But, as noted, that gradually warming to those characters all amounts to nothing in the end: They stand by helpless (if, like us, appalled) at the awful fate of the more or less innocent man they have delivered to a ruthless overlord (or ‘boyar’). Brutality wins the day (as, sad to say, it still too often does in our modern world), and that fact impairs our ability to like this story. Still, compared to another recent harsh movie about rough people, Tarantino’s ugly (though aptly named) “The Hateful Eight,” “Aferim!” has the edge, by granting us more moments of benign humanity (and therefore more rounded characters). Incidentally, the film’s title, “Aferim!” is an Ottoman Turk expression (Wallachia and much of the rest of southeastern Europe having long been under Ottoman suzerainty), possibly from Persian roots, meaning “Bravo!” The expression is often used ironically. That suits the film, which has an ironic, very darkly comedic tone.
“Afermi!” won the Silver Bear (second place) as Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was nominated as Best Screenplay at the European Film Awards. And it swept Romania’s “Gopo Awards,” winning ten of said awards, among them: Best Film, Director, Actor, Screenplay, and Cinematography. DVD extra: An award-winning 23-minute short film, “The Tube with the Hat” (Romania, 2006) from the same director. (Artsforum’s review of the short will follow at a later date.)
Warning: For ages 18+ only: Very coarse language; one sexual scene; a very disturbing scene of brutal violence; and pervasive attitudinal content which may offend.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “The Tube with a Hat” [“Lampa cu căciulă”] (Romania, 2006) (B): “It’s junk, but it does its job.” That’s a man’s terse take on the old junker of a television set which he’s trying to get repaired for, it seems, the umpteenth time. Trying to appease his young son, who has his heart set on watching a Bruce Lee movie that very evening, father and son set off by foot over soggy terrain, lugging the old television in a blanket. They cross fields, make their way across a rough plank ‘bridge’ over a small gorge, and finally reach a highway. From there, a bus takes them to town. The TV repairman’s shabby home (these people and this place are poor and run-down) does double-duty as his shop. It’s a Saturday morning, he’s sleeping-in, and there is already a queue of waiting customers. Nothing goes smoothly, including the long trudge back home in the rain. Will the television even work when they get back? All the father knows for sure is that, “I never had so much trouble in my life, except with this TV.” That’s all there is to this simple story: There are no big plot developments, no deep heart-to-hearts between father and son,. It’s just a simple ‘road story,’ a little slice of life in this poor rural family’s day. But, simple or not, it holds our interest. One (unwelcome) surprise is the abundance of coarse language that issues from the father’s mouth: One might have hoped that he’d watch his mouth around a young child. And a technical misstep is the size of the subtitles: they are too small. “The Tube with a Hat” was directed by Radu Jude, who also directed the 2015 feature “Aferim!” (The short is an extra on the DVD containing that feature.) This 23-minute short film has won awards at many film festivals, including Best Short Film at Sundance. For ages 18+: A lot of coarse language!
“Deadpool” (B+/A-): Who’d have thought a foul-mouthed, R-rated superhero movie (though our protagonist balks at being regarded as a ‘hero’) would be so engaging? Mind you, its appeal comes despite its very crude content, not because of it. We love sly, wise-cracking humor, and this unexpected winner nails it. The tone is set from the opening credits: A gently romantic song, “Just Call Me Angel of the Morning,” is juxtaposed with scenes of ultra-violent mayhem that play out as a series of freeze-frame images, over which the camera glides artfully to create an innovative sense of movement as it depicts the unfolding action, while smart-alecky credits appear at intervals (e.g. ‘starring God’s Perfect Idiot, A Hot Chick, A Brutal Villain, The Comic Relief, A Moody Teen, a CGI Character, and a Gratuitous Cameo’). Breaking ‘the Fourth Wall’? The film manically demolishes it: It and its characters are aware of us (the audience), and its eponymous lead occasionally stops in mid-sentence to turn and give us a witty aside. Those credits aren’t far wrong when they applaud the screenwriters as “The Real Heroes Here;” they do a masterful job of playing with genre tropes: Nothing is ‘sacred,’ not even lead Ryan Reynolds’ markedly unsuccessful prior superhero outing as the Green Lantern – a flop that is referenced, as a flop, at least twice in this movie. “Deadpool’s” closest cinematic kin is the likewise highly entertaining “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
That aforementioned opening sequence is a deliciously funny floating tableau – very interesting to look at in its own right, with admirable attention to detail, like a collector card of Reynolds in character as the green-clad lantern-carrying guy in that other superhero movie. When the credits end, the live action begins, with our costumed lead in the back of a taxi, playing with the window and pulling gum off the ceiling. ‘Why the red outfit, Mr. Pool?,’ asks the young cabbie. “Oh, that’s because it’s Christmas Day [it isn’t] and I’m after someone on my naughty list.” Glib quips are the order of the day here, and they are delivered with a self-awareness, a consciousness of popular culture, and a self-effacingly dark humor of a kind not seen since the glory days of television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly.” You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Deadpool” was likewise the work of those series’ creator, Joss Whedon, but it is not. (Poor Whedon has let success go to his head, straying from his strong characterization and witty verbal riposte roots to the big budget effects-driven Avengers movies.) Instead, the director here is Tim Miller, in only his fourth time helming a feature film.
“Deadpool” has action aplenty (the opening car chase is almost up to Mad Max standards), and its action entertains in a way most action movies do not, because it is so closely grounded in characterization and in irreverent, smart-alecky humor. Ryan Reynolds is note-perfect in the role of wise-cracking small-time mercenary (“I’m just a bad guy who gets paid to eff-up worse guys”) turned cheeky masked avenger. For much of the time, his face is covered by a mask, making this the most memorable masked character since the great title character in “V for Vendetta.” It’s no mean feat creating such an engaging character when your face is covered, but the script and Reynolds’ flippant delivery make it work – big time. (There’s also something amusing about the devil may care look of his outfit itself: Its raised eyebrows and saucy wink aren’t literally there, but they are, somehow, certainly implicit in the costume design.) And Morena Baccarin (“Firefly” and “Serenity”) delivers her best-ever work here as the woman our antihero loves – she’s at once warm, engaging, funny, and ever-so-sexy. In some of her other work, there’s been a sense of guarded reserve or remoteness. Not here. Here, her character is fully rounded, fully human, and fully appealing. (She must be coming into her own of late, as she has likewise made a strong impression in her recurring role on television’s “Gotham.”) The supporting players (among them, Ed Skrein as the villain and T.J. Miller as the lead’s sarcastic buddy) all add nicely to the movie’s very original vibe. The result? It’s one of our favorite movies of the year, despite its gleeful vulgarity. (It’d have been every bit as good without the x-rated language and needlessly crude content.)
This film is emphatically not for children, though at its opening show (during its theatrical run), two grossly irresponsible parents arrived with children aged 8 to 10 in tow (they stayed for the entire film), proving once again that Ontario’s “parental accompaniment” ratings are worthless (this film needs a hard-R rating), not to mention utterly incompatible with the welfare of minors, and that some ‘parents’ don’t have even a gnat’s worth of good sense.
Warning: For ages 18+ only: Extremely coarse language (and lots of it!); very crude content, including sexual content; and very violent.
“Sicario” (USA, 2015) (B/B+): “You went up the wrong tunnel. You saw things you shouldn’t have seen.” Those few words encapsulate the theme of this riveting action thriller. We are thrown headlong into the war on drugs and its ruthless combatants. The strength of the film is its focus on the female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who gets drawn into deep and murky waters when she is seconded to an inter-agency task force. At one point, she’s the only woman in a room full of macho men – Texas marshals, Delta Force special operations soldiers, and the team leader (Josh Brolin’s Matt) she suspects is with the CIA (an agency that’s not allowed to operate domestically). Worried she’s being kept in the dark about the operation’s real objectives and methods, Kate protests, “I just want to know what I’m getting into!” A mysterious loner (Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro) tells her, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do. But, in the end, you will understand.” For his part, Matt cryptically suggests that, “you’re giving us the opportunity to shake the tree and create chaos.”
Their target is the Sonora drug cartel: It’s based in Mexico but its tentacles stretch across the border. Kate is our point of reference in this dizzying, dangerous world: She’s out of her natural element, eager to build a prosecutable case against bad guys, while her new allies have a very different agenda. Directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (2010’s excellent “Incendies” and 2016’s upcoming “Arrival”), the result is a very effective thriller that takes us into the belly of the beast. We quickly learn that in the war on drugs (as in so many other wars), borders between right and wrong, good and bad, lawful and lawless, can easily dissolve if we stray from the right course: If we use the methods of the enemy, we become our own enemy.
Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson delivers a highly effective, award-caliber score. Its driving percussive beat conjures something ominous and dangerous. In one scene, it is accompanied by a motorcade driving through “The Beast,” the violence-torn Mexican border city of Juarez, accompanied by Mexican federal police with machine guns mounted on the back of their trucks. In another scene (on the US side of the border), we get an aerial view of a barren, etched landscape, a world that’s vaguely sinister, vaguely alien. It’s a story about moral choices: Kate and her skeptical FBI partner (Daniel Kaluuya’s Reggie) are uncomfortable about the methods and goals of their new allies: “I am not a soldier! This is not what I do!” protests Kate. But will she be seduced by the promise of making a real difference in the fight against crime, of doing more than just “scratching the surface,” as her FBI boss (played by Canada’s Victor Garber) puts it?
There are some flaws and missteps here, moments that constitute huge improbabilities. One glaring example is the transformation of a lawyer into a relentless international hit-man: That’s an unlikely career trajectory, to put it mildly. After all, a desire for revenge does not a proficient professional killer make. Then there’s an ambush in a giant traffic jam: What are the odds that cars full of bad guys would, in that traffic snarl-up, manage to be right next to the protagonists’ convey? (Answer: No chance at all.) Then, there’s a massive implausibility at the end when someone is extorted at gunpoint into signing a release. The legal effect of a document signed under such duress would (in fact) be less than nil. Also, it may be a mistake, late in the film, to move to another character’s point of view. He’s a larger than life character; what anchors the entire story up till then is the fact that we see it through the eyes of someone more like us, an ‘everywoman’ who isn’t used to covert missions, bloody gun battles, and cavalier disregard for the law. But, then, the film’s point is that there’s an ugly underbelly to things, about which most of us are blithely unaware: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
Among its great many awards and nominations, “Sicario” got three Academy Award nominations (Cinematography, Music, and Sound Editing); and three BAFTA nominations (including Supporting Actor); and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes. For ages 18+: Violence (most of it gun-related); coarse language; and some brief disturbing scenes.
“The Mermaid” [“Mei ren yu”] (China, 2016) (C): A fractured fairy tale from China has a dwindling population of mermaids (the term is used in this film to reference mer-folk of both genders) out for deadly vengeance against the ruthless tycoon they hold responsible for (albeit unwittingly) decimating their kind in the pursuit of his own profit. Their plan? They’ll disguise one of their small remaining number as a human woman, with a view to seducing their nemesis and killing him. This live action blend of comedy and fantasy very nearly lost us in its opening minutes, which pointlessly involves a tour of pseudo-scientific curiosities by a charlatan. One member of the tour group snickers wildly, while chewing the figurative scenery. Maybe it’s the Chinese equivalent of Jerry Lewisesque inanity, but it isn’t funny. In fact, it makes the Three Stooges look smart in comparison. (The same director, Stephen Chow, did make oddball antics funny in 2004’s manic “Kung Fu Hustle.”) Things do improve, a little, when we meet the mermaids. They are inventively portrayed: One has octopus tentacles instead of a fishlike lower body. And they have a creatively zany home. The assassination plot turns into an odd-couple romance, the corporate tycoon is gradually redeemed by love (at one point the leads burst into song: “Being invincible is lonely”), and things get surprisingly violent when a human woman scorned tries to exterminate the mermaids. Her attempted act of genocide feels out of place here. Maybe the result would have been better if the filmmakers had throttled way back on the would-be humor, with its shameless overacting and cartoonish slapstick, in favor of straight fantasy. We nearly walked away in the opening few minutes, but things do improve somewhat after a slow build, and it is marginally redeemed by its romance and its depiction of the mermaids. Chao Deng is the ruthless capitalist; Yun Lin is the mermaid for whom he falls (her tone shifts from overly silly to sweet); and Yuqi Zhang is a knockout as a femme fatale. For ages 16+: Violence.
“A Little Chaos” (U.K., 2014) (B): “There is an outdoor ballroom in the garden of Versailles.” How it came to be there is the subject of this drama set in France in 1682. It’s the reign of Louis XIV, that exemplar of absolute monarchy who became known as the ‘Sun King’ over the course of his 72 year reign (1643-1715). He wants a new palace in the countryside as a showpiece to project regal splendor; and this is the story of two of the landscape designers who seek “to see beauty and recreate it” in the gardens of Versailles. Their art is created not with a paintbrush, pencil, or sculptor’s chisel, but art it is nonetheless. Inspired by real people, the story combines a romance, a character drama, and an exploration of this art form. Most of the film’s characters are based on real people (with the prominent exception of the female lead), and its aesthetic tension – between order and chaos, between the formal and the naturalistic – reflects the rivalry between those approaches that dominated 17th and 18th century garden design. Here that rivalry is embodied by the master garden designer André Le Nôtre (Mattias Schoenaerts of 2015’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”) and his independent-minded female counterpart, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet). Initially, he is not impressed with her unconventional approach to garden design: “I did not say I did not care for your plans. I said that I could find no order in them. This abundance of chaos, this is your Eden?” But in due course, he sees Sabine, and her approach to art, differently: “Your heart beats fiercely. Mine just ticks. I have not the gifts to offer such a wonder.” And it’s not just her designs that strike him as wonderful – hence, the low simmering romance.
The film was directed and co-written by the inimitable Alan Rickman, who died earlier this year. It’s only his second time at the directorial helm of a feature film. He also co-stars as the king, and it’s an immensely engaging performance – as full of nuance as is it of charm. Playfully educating his children on the role of a monarch, he says, “Your eloquence they must love, your demeanor they must fear.” One of the best scenes in the film has a quietly grief-stricken Louis alone in a small garden. When Sabine comes across him, she mistakes him for a gardener, and Louis plays along, glad for the brief respite from the demands of maintaining his regal role. Another standout scene has Sabine at court, where she is instantly befriended some of the ladies there. The women who take her under their collective wing are mostly middle age and surprisingly down to earth. It’s a delightfully human sharing of confidences – one of the moments in this film that really sparkle.
It’s a lovely looking film, with a lot of charm. The exchanges in a couple of scenes – specifically, Winslet and Schoenaerts’ first overtly romantic scene and the latter’s rejection of his estranged wife – feel a tad stilted. And some sabotage of the garden work feels a little contrived. But those slightly awkward moments are very much the exception here: Everything else is sparklingly engaging. And that goes for the cast, too. Besides excellent performances by the three leads, there’s very good work from the supporting players, who bring their characters fully alive, even in relatively brief appearances: Jennifer Ehle’s Athenais de Montespan, Stanley Tucci’s Phillipe, Helen McCrory’s Madame Le Nôtre, Stephen Waddington’s Duras, Rupert Penry-Jones’ Antoine, and Paula Paul’s Princess Palatine all make strong impressions here. The result is a charming, highly pleasant surprise of a film – one that’s well worth seeking out. For ages 18+: Very brief nudity and mild sexual content.
“The Cuckoo” [“Kukushka”] (Russia, 2002) (B+/A-): Imagine two men and a woman thrown together in a beautiful, but remote, rugged, and lonely setting – namely, Lapland in the north of Finland. It’s September 1944, a few days before Finland exited the Second World War, and a Russian officer (Viktor Bychkov as Ivan) on his way to summary execution for running afoul of a communist political commissar for some obscure and trivial ideological offense, and a Finnish sniper (Ville Haapasalo as Veikko) who has likewise escaped captivity (he was chained to a rock like Prometheus), both find unexpected and uneasy sanctuary at the remote home of an ethnic Saami (or Sámi) woman (the lovely and delightful Anni-Kristina Juuso as Anni). None of the three has a language in common, and all three have good reason to mistrust the others. The two men, for example, represent opposite sides in the war, insofar as Finland had found an ally of convenience in Nazi Germany to fend off its mortal foe Russia. For her part, Anni has no allegiance to either warring side; after all, it seems that her people are perceived practically as foreigners by Finland’s majority Finns, though the Saami are the land’s indigenous occupants. But the young woman is a no-nonsense sort, who also happens to be unabashedly starved for male companionship. She’s a liberated woman, at a time and place where one might not ordinarily expect to find such a thing. What ensues is the blend of a struggle to communicate, a gentle farce, a character study, and an anti-war fable. The result is charming, with a large dose of wry humor, considerable sweetness of spirit (we like these odd companions, who are thrown together by chance or by fate or by some cosmic trickster of Lokiesque propensities), and a nice dash of understated poignancy.
Among its other awards and nominations, “The Cuckoo” won Best Film, Actress, Director, and Production Design at the Nika Awards (Russia’s version of the Academy Awards), where it was nominated for Screenplay, Costumes, and Sound. For ages 18+: Brief violence, coarse language (in three languages other than English), and brief sexual references.
“Persuasion” (U.K., 1995) (B+): “All the privilege I claim for my own sex … is that of loving longest when all hope is lost.” So says Anne Elliot, a young woman who once rejected a suitor on account of his lack of material prospects and who has regretted that decision throughout the intervening eight years. Now, chance (or is it mere chance?) causes them to cross paths again. Will either of them be persuaded to resume the romantic attachment they once held? Published in December 1817, “Persuasion” is Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and this BBC production is probably the definitive adaptation of its story of star-crossed lovers. Anne is literary kin to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: She is sensible (seemingly the only member of family who is), humble (in stark contrast to her father’s overweening vanity), and kind. She is pleasant to look upon, if a little plain, outwardly reticent (preferring always to remain in the background), and very quiet – and, consequently, she tends to be overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted by her self-preoccupied kin. Indeed, she is relegated to near-Cinderella status by her preening father and sisters, left with all the mundane practical matters that they are unwilling (or unable) to handle themselves. Yet, when crises arise, be they big or small, it is always Anne to whom others turn, for she is the practical, calm one who can handle problems. As someone admiringly says at a pivotal moment, “I think it should be Anne [who is entrusted with the requisite responsibility]. No one is so capable as Anne.”
Yet, as a very young woman of 19 years, Anne permitted herself to be swayed by the guidance of her surrogate mother figure in breaking off her connection to Frederick Wentworth, whom her adviser, Lady Russell, describes as, “a man who had nothing but himself to recommend him – spirit and brilliance, to be sure, but no fortune, no connections. It was entirely prudent of you to reject him.” But that purported ‘prudence’ yielded only regret and sadness over the years that followed. Anne gave up a good man, a man she loved, on material grounds – and, unlike the rest of her family, Anne is not one to make an idol out of worldly ‘prospects’ or wealth. In the process, she broke two hearts. Now, the wheel of fortune has turned, for Anne’s family, the Elliots, who are landed aristocrats, are well-nigh impecunious, while Wentworth has made his fortune as a captain in the Royal Navy. We meet four naval officers in the story, and all of them are men of high character, noble purpose, and honorable conduct: The most senior of the four, Admiral Croft, has such a loving relationship with his ahead-of-her-time wife that he has her accompany him on his voyages. This idealized vision of the navy – populated by gentlemen who are at once bright, energetic, and progressive in their thinking – is in contrast to the decadence and egotism of most of the landlocked titled characters.
The film belongs to its leads – Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds – but they are surrounded by a talented roll-call of supporting players. Here’s a film in which subtlety is key. In one amusing sequence, everybody confides (singly) to Anne and seeks her support for their respective concerns. As ever, she’s the mature and sensible one. But there is a sense of repressed emotional turmoil beneath her calm surface. From the moment their paths intersect after that eight-year absence, there is something meaningful and unspoken between Anne and Frederick. There’s understated tension, perceived in little remarks, in stolen glances, and, especially, in glances avoided. It’s a very romantic tale, but in a quiet, understated, subtle way. It is a gentle story, gently paced. A melancholy solo piano scores turns spritely later, just part of the spare telling of this story. Shot on location (and lovely locations they are), it relies heavily on natural light. Austen’s keen eye for social and class foibles are here, but it’s also a naturalistic (and affectionate) look at its dramatis personae. “Persuasion” won BAFTA awards for Best Drama, Photography, Costumes, Production Design, and Music. Made for British television (as part of an anthology series comprised of self-contained installments), it was deservedly released in the rest of the world as a feature film.
“Jane Got a Gun” (USA, 2016) (C+/B-): It opens with a mother telling a nursery story to her young daughter, one that ends with the moral “Good people don’t turn bad.” It’s 1871, and the title character, Jane (Natalie Portman) has settled down in New Mexico Territory with her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) and child. One day, he rides home with several bullets in his back, the result of a run-in with a gang of bad men. Jane seems awfully matter of fact, emotionless even, about her husband’s dire plight and about having to do some impromptu surgery in a bid to save him. Her steely demeanor (nicely set off by her black hat and too-nice looking black jacket) is doubtless meant to show us what a tough cookie she is; but it feels a tad heavy-handed. Anyway, she takes her daughter to safety, then fetches help from the only person she can – her jilted ex-beau (Joel Edgerton’s Dan), whose bitterness at having lost Jane years back initially prompts him to reject her request for help. But, he relents, and the two men (one of them bedridden and all but helpless) and one woman start preparations for the arrival of a dozen killers (led by Ewan McGregor, whom we prefer to see in more sympathetic roles that make use of his convincing sensitivity). When the big showdown comes, it plays out in the dark; consequently, it’s darn hard to see. But there are some suspenseful moments – and no certainty in advance that the besieged ‘good guys’ will prevail, despite Dan’s conviction that if you’ve got “will and purpose” numbers don’t matter. What does matter here is the low-key love triangle that has two good men in love with the same woman. The recurring flashbacks reveal how and why Jane ended up with partner number two. But the real interaction is between Jane and her original (now embittered) paramour. The flashback structure is somewhat awkward, interrupting the present-day story with critical explication in irregular fits and starts. It’s a simple story (true to its genre, it has elements of a morality play), with a small cast, but they are well portrayed and their choices and fates hold our interest. The result is a not-bad western. For ages 18+: Some coarse language, adult subject matter, and violence.
“Peace after Marriage” (USA/Israel/Jordan, 2013) (B): Underemployment obliges a 30-year old New Yorker to live with his concerned mother and his over-bearing father. They are intent on getting him married to some nice girl or other from back home (they hail originally from the West Bank), but he’s not keen on an arranged marriage. Meantime, his ‘love-life’ (to put it euphemistically) is practically non-existent, and it isn’t as though he’s not interested. Consequently, he turns (perhaps too often) to close encounters of a solitary kind, being interrupted by parents barging in when he finally ‘gets lucky’ with a tourist gal from out of town. In a very funny moment, he disguises an inflatable sex doll as a punching bag, adorned with a taped-on face of George W. Bush. Arafat (comedian Ghazi Albuliwi) is a Palestinian-American variant of a nebbish, kin to Woody Allen in self-deprecating style, one part quipster, one part pratfall-prone gentle mama’s boy. But the film creates real affection for its characters, including its sweet-natured leading boy-man.
“Peace after Marriage” (the title might suggest a contradiction in terms to a cynic) is an Arab-American variation on a Woody Allenesque New York tale, by way of “My Big Fat Bicultural Wedding,” with a little of the movie “Green Card” thrown in. Arafat enrolls in a sex addiction support group, and the constantly on-the-make friend he meets there (Mark Lucaj’s Kenny) steers him into a ‘green card marriage’ of convenience. But it turns out that Arafat’s intended is a lovely young Israeli Jew (Einat Tubi’s Michaela) who wants to stay in America. Spurred on by Kenny, Arafat has visions of both money and sex dancing in his sexually deprived mind. At the wedding (which is shunned by both families) a rabbi and an imam comically compete for supremacy. Afterwards, Arafat is consigned to an air mattress in his new bride’s living room. But might some genuine attraction between the two develop? And, if so, can they bridge the cultural divide?
There’s a jazzy score over the credits – and the opening credits (with animation and music) have a very appealing retro-feel, hearkening back to the fifties or sixties. The supporting cast is solid, led by the beautiful Hiam Abbass (“The Syrian Bride”) as Arafat’s mother: That actress brings intelligence, dignity, depth, and warmth to everything she does. The result is a cute and funny small film that’s sometimes politically incorrect (Arafat’s mother says of his cross-sectarian marriage, “At least he’s not gay”) but always quite winning. And speaking of winning, the film won a Creative Promise award at Tribeca. Leading man Ghazi Albuliwi, who resembles Jerry Seinfeld, also wrote and co-directed the film. For ages 18+: Some coarse language; some sexual content; sexual talk; and very brief nudity.
“Day for Night” [“La nuit américaine”] (France/Italy, 1973) (B): Writer/director François Truffaut’s comedic homage to movies concerns the cast members and crew who are shooting a romantic melodrama in the south of France. Complications abound, among them: office romances, an emotionally fragile leading lady from England, a tipsy actress, various interlopers on set, egos, narcissism, sexual jealousy, insecurities, and illicit liaisons. It all opens with the filming of an urban street scene. It’s the manufactured world behind the ‘magic shadows,’ the artifice behind the illusion, in which street crowds and even the rain all appear on cue. In creating its simulacrum of reality, movie-making is the epitome of the artificial and pre-planned – even the placement of the lead’s hands on a balustrade is very deliberate and prearranged. In such an artifice, as we see in one amusing scene, a balcony does not need to be attached to an actual building. The director of the film within the film is played by our film’s actual director, who tells us in voice-over that, “We’re at the halfway point. Before starting, I hope to make a fine film. When the first problems arise, I lower my sights and hope just to get through it. Halfway through, I do some soul-searching and think ‘You could have worked harder, given more. You have the second half to make up for it.’” Those words seem an apt metaphor for life.
“Day for Night” is an affectionate, mildly humorous ode to movies and the people who make (and watch) them. As the producer of the film within the film resignedly says, “You know, real estate is where the money is today, not movies. I only stay in it because I love it.” Among the cast, Valentina Cortese, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Nike Arrighi make particular impressions. Among its awards and nominations, “Day for Night” won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, where it was nominated for Director, Supporting Actress (Valentina Cortese), and Original Screenplay. It won Best Film, Director, and Supporting Actress at BAFTA. The film’s French and English titles both refer to the technique of shooting nighttime scenes in daylight, using a special lens.
“Hello, My Name is Doris” (USA, 2015) (B/B+): With her conspicuous beehive hairdo, held aloft by brightly floral ribbons, and her outlandish attire, it’s remarkable that Doris (Sally Field) fades into the background of her co-workers’ perceptions. Maybe it’s her middle age (she’s a token hold-over from corporate amalgamation) that leaves her unnoticed among her younger colleagues. Maybe it’s just the universal assumption that she’s the diametrical opposite of all that is hip or cool. But, make no mistake: Doris is one of a kind – a walking, talking eccentric. Therein lays the riddle of this character and this film: Part cat-lady (though we espy only one feline), part hoarder, and part, well, kook, Doris is at once lovable, endearingly zany, and kind of pathetic. When a newcomer (Max Greenfield) joins the firm, Doris mistakes his casual friendliness for romantic interest, and she sets her cap for this much younger man, ignoring the warnings of her good friend (Tyne Daley). She’s so clearly on the path to severe disappointment that we can’t help but shrink from her willful naivety and cringe at some of her inappropriate behavior. Mustering all of her nerve, Doris embarks upon a campaign that feels vaguely unsettling, as though she’s taken a step (or two) on the road to creepy, obsessive stalker behavior. But, the next moment, we’re rooting for her again. Why? Because she’s played by the perky, plucky, irresistibly cute Sally Field, of course. In real life, this character might not retain her hold on our sympathies.
The character is a distaff cousin to Walter Mitty, someone who is at least half lost in daydreams. There’s a bit of Peter Sellers’ Chance from “Being There” (a character who is propelled by his own simple naivety) in Doris, too. She’s also a comedic variant on the character of Julie Harris’ Eleanor Vance in “The Haunting,” a woman whose stunted life has left her yearning, pitiable, and sometimes grating at the same time – three distinct characteristics that all spring from the same source: a legacy of loneliness and lack of fulfillment. But this is a comedy, so we can often laugh at Doris’ effort to reinvent herself, applauding her when she succeeds, and cringing a bit when she misunderstands, misinterprets, or misses the mark by sometimes failing to treat others with empathy and honesty. She’s a flawed person – wildly eccentric and somewhat damaged, but, in the end, endearing. For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“Glassland” (Ireland, 2014) (B+/A-): What a wonderful surprise! Here’s a small film from Ireland that blows much more expensive fare out of the water with award caliber performances and a heartfelt, touching story. Jack Reynor (the American-born Irish actor who is so good in this year’s excellent “Sing Street” and who also made an impression in 2015’s “A Royal Night Out”) plays a twenty-something young man who is devoted to his family and best friend. John works hard driving a taxi at night, but it’s barely enough to make ends meet, not when he has an alcoholic mother to contend with. John tends to the household chores while keeping a protective eye on his mother, when he isn’t sitting in the dark hearing her sobs. Drinking herself to unconsciousness, Jean (Toni Collette) finds solace in the bottle, solace from a life of disappointment and unhappiness: “I got a new friend. A silent friend. A friend that would never talk back to me or hurt me. A friend that was always there for me… and made things better, even it was just for a little while.”
John is a loving son – and brother (to a younger sibling, with Down’s Syndrome, who is in foster care). He is patient and gentle with his mother. When she’s not too far gone to appreciate it, she is at least aware of it: “You’re a good boy, John.” So is Jim (Michael Smiley), the kind head of a rehabilitation center: “You’re a good man John. You’ve been of loving service to your mother.” It is very pleasing to have such an admirable character in the lead. But, as good a young man as he is, John is not impervious to hurt, harm, and despair. And his loving patience is not infinite. After Jean smashes their dinner plates, John asks, partly in weariness, partly in accusation: “So, how are we gonna get new plates?” “I don’t know,” replies Jean. To which John says, “I’m gonna buy the new plates, Ma. I’m gonna go out and work my arse off for the rest of the week, driving a taxi. And what are you gonna do? You’re gonna drink and drink and drink, and you’re gonna pass out in bed.” Later, when the dam breaks and he loses his cool, John exclaims, “You’re breaking my heart every f***ing day, and I can’t take it! I can’t take it, Ma!” The words of John’s voiceover narration (words that open the film and are repeated two more times during the story) are a window into the world-weary state of John’s soul: “It’s been a long night. Had a few difficult clients. Worked a lot of hours. I can’t do this anymore.” Those matter of fact words sum up the whole of John’s life: They apply as much to the emotionally grinding situation at home as to what he does for a living.
John’s best friend Shane (Will Poulter) complains (something John almost never does) a lot about his ex, and the child for whom he pays support but doesn’t get to see, and even the mother (‘Bridie’ played by Dairine Ni Dhonnchú) whom he thinks is overly protective. But those family connections are ones that, in large part, John might have reason to envy. The same goes for Shane’s imminent emigration. He’s off to seek better prospects in another country, telling John that he feels “trapped.” Oh, the irony. Who knows about being “tapped” more than John? He’s trapped in a dead-end life and by his thankless (seemingly futile) devotion to his addicted mother. When Shane tells John he should go abroad with him, John can only say, “Can’t. Too much going on.” Finally, John comes to an ethical crossroads when, desperate to give his mother a chance at recovery, he’s faced with the seemingly impossible task of raising a lot of money for a private clinic.
There is very effective use of a song, “Tainted Love,” in the story: Jean dances to it. And lyrics that seem to concern a broken romantic relationship also very aptly fit this dysfunctional relationship between a son and his mother: “I’ve got to get away, get away… Once I ran to you, now I’ll run from you… I love you though you hurt me so. Now I’m gonna pack my things and go.” As to the film’s title, in a brief DVD interview, writer/director Gerard Barrett, focuses on the effect of the ethical decision John has to make late in the film: If he does something bad to get the money, will he be “walking on glass” for the rest of his life? This reviewer, however, sees the title’s significance in an altogether larger way: It could be said that John’s world has always been made of glass – with the fragile remains of his family and the dangerously brittle condition of his mother equally liable to shatter irreparably at any moment. And, it could be said that living in a world made of glass threatens to make John turn into glass himself: if his repressed anguish gets loose, he’ll break in two.
With note-perfect performances from leads and supporting players alike, and a tender, engrossing story, “Grasslands” is a gem, easily one of the best films of 2014. It was nominated for six awards at Ireland’s version of the Academy Awards, namely: Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography. And it won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in the Actor category. Don’t miss this fine film! For ages 18+: Quite a bit of coarse language.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Aïssa” (France, 2014) (B/B+): In this engrossing 8-minute short from writer/director Clément Tréhin-Lalanne, a lovely young Congolese woman (the eponymous Aïssa, played Manda Touré) has been apprehended by the authorities in France and brought to a clinic for a medical examination. Her status is somewhat vague: She readily admits to being from abroad. She has completed her training and works as a beautician. The implication seems to be that she is (or may be) an illegal immigrant. For some unspecified reason, her age seems to be determinative as to whether she’ll be allowed to remain in France or not. She’s says she’s 17; but the unseen male doctor who examines her concludes that, “an actual age of 20 seems more plausible.” How he arrives at that conclusion involves a sometimes invasive examination of the young woman. All the while, we hear a blandly impersonal recitation of his observations (as to bone structure, hygiene, and even her teeth) as a voice-over narration (by Bernard Campan). There’s no emotion, no sign of feeling, just a coolly scientific series of verbal notations of the kind a medical examiner doing an autopsy might produce.
Much of what we see is shown in close-up – the tape recorder and other objects on the doctor’s desk, the clasp of the woman’s brassiere, the stethoscope against her skin, her breast, and so on. Throughout, there’s that impersonal narration going about its business, taking stock in deliberate, mechanical fashion of its living subject. That’s juxtaposed – and very effectively so – against the understated embarrassment, humiliation, tension, and fear in the young woman’s eyes and in her sometimes labored breathing. There’s subtlety in this glimpse into one immigrant’s life that reminds us that whichever country we are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be born in, we are all human beings – brothers and sisters under the skin, despite differences in skin tone, language, race, religion, or culture, and despite, most of all, the artificial lines on maps. It’s a timely message. Simple, but effective, this short is a compelling little call to our conscience to treat ‘the other’ (and especially, the helpless) with kindness and compassion. In one close-up, we see only part of the young woman’s head, a kind of visual ‘amputation’ that symbolizes her reduction to a mere subject of interrogation and examination in this coldly impersonal violation of her dignity as a fellow human. “Aïssa” won at Special Mention at Cannes, where it was nominated as Best Short Film; and it was nominated as Best Short at France’s César Awards. For ages 18+: Brief nudity.
“The Motorcycle Diaries” [“Diarios de motorcicleta”] (Argentina/USA/Chile/Peru/Brazil/U.K./Germany/France, 2004) (B): In 1952, two friends embark on what they intend to be a four month, 8,000 kilometer trip across South America, “to explore a continent we had only known in books.” The movie is based on the real-life experiences of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal), a 23 year old medical student, and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a 29 year old biochemist. The former, of course, later became known as a charismatic revolutionary with the nickname ‘Che.’ And it seems that this journey of discovery (which ended up being 12,425 km) changed him and his life’s trajectory: “I’m not me anymore, at least I’m not the same me as I was.”
Setting out on an aged and temperamental motorcycle the friends affectionately dub ‘The Mighty One,’ they have no money but plenty of élan. And Alberto’s penchant for tall tales often wins them food and rough lodgings along the way. Their story is a character-driven road-story, one that traverses the Pampas, snowy mountains, Inca ruins, mighty rivers, and volunteer work at a leprosy colony: “This isn’t a tale of heroic feats. It’s about two lives running parallel for a while with common aspirations and similar dreams…. What we had in common [was] our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and a love for the open road.” It’s a journey of discovery – a discovery not just of the continent’s places and people, but also of what lies within the travelers’ own hearts. As the miles go by, their sense of carefree adventure morphs into something else, namely a connection with the poor and dispossessed and a sense of growing solidarity with their plight of those at the margins of society – the poor, the old, the sick, and indigenous people. In an exchange about life, Guevara tells a young woman at the leprosy colony that, “I want to be useful, somehow.” She replies, “You’re wasting your time.” “Why?” he asks. Because, “Life is pain,” she replies. Guevara makes a revealing rebuttal: “Yeah, it’s pretty screwed up. You have to fight for every breath and tell death to go to hell.”
We get brief introductions to the assorted characters the friends meet in their travels. Mia Maestro makes an impression as the beautiful Chichina Ferreyra, Guevara’s girlfriend at the outset of his trip. So do a husband and wife who’ve been forced from their land and now seek itinerant work at a dangerous mine. But, many of the places and people pass too quickly for us to get more than a transitory impression of them: The pair linger the longest at the leper colony in Peru, putting down temporary roots there late in their journey. The people with whom we spend the entire movie are, of course, the two travelers; but one feels a tad distant even from them. We witness their adventures and personal growth without really becoming emotionally engaged with it or them, or at least not as engaged as we’d like: It’s a worthwhile story to observe; but we never get powerfully involved with it.
Based on the memoirs of its two real-life travelers, and directed by Walter Salles (1998’s “Central Station” and 2006’s “Paris, je t’aime”), “The Motorcycle Diaries” won an Oscar for Best Original Song and it was nominated for one as Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. It got seven BAFTA nominations, winning two of them – as Best Foreign Language Film and Music. It won three awards at Cannes, where it was nominated as Best Film. And it got a great many other awards and nominations elsewhere. DVD extras include reflections from the real-life Alberto Granado. For ages 18+: Coarse language.
“The Intern” (B-/B): Ben (Robert DeNiro) is a retired executive. His wife is dead and the usual retirement things – travel, hobbies, and funerals – have all lost their luster: “There’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it – soon.” When he sees a flyer about a ‘seniors’ internship program’ at an e-commerce firm (that sells clothing online), Ben applies, in search of “the connection, the excitement… to be challenged, to be needed.” Jules (Anne Hathaway) is the dot-com company’s founder. She takes some customer calls herself, part of her hands-on style. But it’s a style that leaves her sorely over-extended, and there’s pressure on her from investors to bring in an outside CEO. What she needs most is what Ben provides – a calm, steady, and mature presence to reassure and support her. With his ubiquitous suit, tie, and briefcase, Ben sticks out like a sore thumb in this informal workplace, where his fellow interns are a fraction of his age. He’s the voice of experience in their business and personal lives. The result is a cute relationship based story about an unexpected friendship. Combining the odd couple and generation gap tropes, “The Intern” mixes humor and warmth to good effect. It’s puzzle that the obvious step (making Ben the CEO) never occurs to anyone. The workplace staff (including a sexy Renee Russo as the office physiotherapist) are all appealing, though Jules’ house-husband is less so (they don’t make a convincing couple). For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“Theeb” (Jordan/U.K./United Arab Emirates/Qatar, 2014) (B): It opens with a voice-over on a dark screen (with only the flourishes of Arabic script as visuals) as a father gives poetic, parable-like prescriptions for life to guide his young son: “He who swims in the Red Sea cannot know its true depth. And not just any man, Theeb, can reach the seabed, my son. In questions of brotherhood, never refuse a guest. Be the right hand of the right when men make their stand. And if the wolves offer friendship, do not count on success. They will not stand beside you when you are facing death.” It’s 1916 in the desert of Hejaz Province (now Jordan) in the Ottoman Empire. There’s war just over the horizon, lawlessness closer to home, and everywhere the death throes of the nomadic culture of the Bedouins. Two brothers lead a contented, if subsistence, existence in that harsh environment. The older one, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweihiyeen), teaches the younger, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), how to care for their camels and how to aim a rifle. There’s a close bond between them. So, when strangers (one an Arab, the other an English officer) approach their tribe’s campfire one night, and Hussein agrees to be their guide on a dangerous path, young Theeb follows.
Their late father was the tribe’s leader. Theeb’s name means ‘wolf’ in Arabic, and the journey upon which he embarks will take his measure: Will he live up to the strength of character implicit in his name? When Theeb is thrown together with a dangerous stranger (Hussan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh), will they cooperate for their mutual survival? The film is a striking coming of age fable set in the stark beauty of a sand-colored land of narrow mountain defiles, shadeless plains, and isolated wells that are the difference between life and death in an unforgiving environment. The gently paced result is an understatedly elegiac story about a way of life and a culture that are being overtaken by modernity (like ‘the iron donkey,’ or railroad, that has cut a path through these once well-nigh impenetrable lands). It may share a setting with “Lawrence of Arabia,” but “Theeb” has more of the small scale survival story attributes of a Western than the larger than life romance of an epic. Its take on adventure is tough and gritty, and not at all heroic.
Directed and co-written by Naji Abu Nowar (who contributes thoughtful, sensitive insights on the Blu-ray commentary) and filmed in Jordan, “Theeb” was an Academy Award nominee as Best Foreign Language Film; at BAFTA, it won Outstanding Debut by a British Writer or Director and was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film; and at the Venice Film Festival, it won as Best Director and was nominated as Best Film. For ages 16+: Some brief violence.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Waves ‘98” (Lebanon/Qatar, 2015) (C+): This 15-minute animated film from writer/director Ely Dagher is set in post-war Beirut. A teenage boy surveys the man-made canyons of tall buildings with a mixture of boredom and hopelessness. We hear realistic traffic sounds, but the apartment and office towers feel lifeless and inert. And our narrator speaks again and again of ennui: “Nothing ever changes… I’m tired of hearing the same story over and over again… It feels like everything is stuck.” How much of this is typical teen angst, universal in its applicability, and how much a sense of emptiness following hard on the heels of bitter internecine conflict? The film incorporates real news clips and other moments of life footage, and it frequently cuts to black, as if emulating the staccato bursts of an impressionistic journey by a morose imagination.
But that journey of the imagining takes the boy to the hidden center of the city, where some massive futuristic thing (which vaguely resembles a giant slumbering robot) looms motionless. Inside it, fanciful protozoa move about as four young humans watch. It turns to dreamscapes of bicycling under the stars, traversing rocky canyons, and lingering by a bright surf under a night sky – before chaos rears its head once more. The result is very odd. Maybe it represents a flight from tedium, with a bland reality morphing into fantastical imaginings? But we keep seeing the face of an old man: Does our inner old self, with its attendant world weariness, always abide with our younger selves, in a place where the clear-cut boundaries linear time dissolve and past, present, and future coexist at a single moment of time? The film won the Palme d’Or as Best Short Film at Cannes, and it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It is interesting and original (there’s certainly talent on display here) but not altogether satisfying, for, as a story, its intent and meaning remain frustratingly out of reach.
“The Lady in the Van” (U.K., 2015) (B/B+): “Gloucester Crescent has had many notable residents, but none odder or more remarkable than Miss Mary Shepherd.” A neurotic London writer, who has a habit of conversing with his own alter ego, grudgingly permits a homeless woman to take up residence on his driveway, where she remains, inside her dilapidated van, for the next 15 years. Mary (Maggie Smith) may be “a bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow,” but her reluctant host (Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings) is intrigued by her, despite himself: How did she come to such straits, he puzzles. And she provides grist for his writing mill, as he contemplates her hard to miss aroma: “The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone’s ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool, and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd’s multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley’s Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, as it were, in her odoriferous concerto.”
This autobiographical yarn, based on a true story, is penned by the real-life Alan Bennett. It’s a new spin on an odd couple motif, gleaning its humor (and moments of poignancy) from the outrageously eccentric character of Mary and the comedic potential of her relationship with her host. As always, Maggie Smith is a pleasure to behold in action. And, as befits “Downton Abbey’s” Dowager Countess, she still gets all the best lines: (Neighbor): “Sorry, you can’t park here.” (Mary): “No, I’ve had guidance. This is where it should go.” (Neighbor): “Guidance? Who from?” (Mary): “The Virgin Mary. I spoke to her yesterday. She was outside the post office.”
Our narrator tells us that he and the rest of his Camden neighborhood tolerate Mary’s presence to assuage their liberal middle class guilt. But, as one commentator has asked, is merely permitting an old lady to live on your driveway in her van really all that beneficent? Alan has a whole house to himself, yet he shrinks at even according Mary use of his bathroom facilities: (Alan): “In future, I would prefer if you didn’t use my lavatory. There are lavatories at the bottom of the High Street. Use those.” (Mary): “They smell. And I’m by nature a very clean person. I have a testimonial for a clean room, awarded me some years ago. And, do you know, my aunt, herself spotless, said I was the cleanest of all my mother’s children, particularly in the unseen places.”
The result is funny, and Maggie Smith makes every character she plays delightfully engaging. But there’s something pathetic about the situation: Here’s a woman who is verbally feisty, but who has been badly damaged by life. She leads a pretty circumscribed existence, in squalid conditions – so much so that it’s hard not to feel a little guilty when we laugh at her goings-on. Her host is a bit harder to warm to: He’s nearly as odd as his ‘guest,’ but less endearingly so. “The Lady in the Van” got BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations as Best Actress. Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, and Dominic Cooper are among the supporting players. The DVD from Sony has a commentary by director Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys” and “The Madness of King George”) and two behind-the-scenes features. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and brief crude content.
“Antonia’s Line” [“Antonia”] (The Netherlands/Belgium/U.K./France, 1995) (B): Antonia (a warm performance by Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns to her childhood home in the Dutch countryside after World War Two (though, curiously, the war is never referenced in the story). She has her daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) in tow; but there’s never any mention of a husband, living or deceased. Maybe that’s because Antonia is so strong-minded, self-assured, and independent. She takes over her family farm as if she’d never been away and almost immediately starts attracting outsiders with the sheer gravitational force of her character. The first arrival is a mentally slow young man who is being teased by some children: Antonia hoists the misbehaving child on his own petard, making a lifelong friend of the grateful bullying victim. Others follow in fast succession – a victim of rape, a woman from the city who prides herself on her boundless fertility, a reclusive intellectual (Mil Seghers) who is fond of quoting gloomy passages from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a vicar who leaves the priesthood, and, as the years pass, a granddaughter (Thérèse, a math prodigy, is well-played by different actresses at different ages), and a great-granddaughter (Sarah).
What develops is an extended, multi-generational surrogate family – a kind of rural matriarchy that rejects the conventional and the parochial at every turn. Antonia is free-spirited and she draws likeminded souls to her: “Like seeks like,” as she observes. A widowed farmer, Bas (Jan Decleir) falls hard for Antonia, and she accepts him first as a friend and help-meet and later as a lover (they have weekly trysts in a purpose-built cottage); but Antonia is too independent to entertain thoughts of marriage: When Bas first broaches the subject (“You don’t need a husband?”), Antonia’s reply is calmly matter of fact (“What for?”). That goes for her artist daughter Danielle, too. She decides she wants a child, but not a husband; so Antonia accompanies her to the city to acquire the necessary “services of a man.”
Written and directed by Marleen Gorris (1997’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and 2003’s “Carolina”), “Antonia’s Line” won an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. It’s an engaging, whimsical, character-driven story about embracing life, family, and human foibles and eccentricities. The passing seasons and years are punctuated by change, but the close bond between these people, who have come together from choice as a surrogate family, is a constant: The highly original result is as engaging as life – sometimes funny, sometimes a little sad, a little bit wise, and often very poignant: “Nothing dies forever. Something always remains. A little something from which new things grow. So life begins, without knowing where it came from or why it exists. Because life wants to live.”
The film is available on Blu-ray in North America for the first time from Film Movement. For ages 18+: Sexual content, brief nudity, and brief sexual violence.
“Labyrinth of Lies” [“Im Labyrinth des Schweigens”] (Germany, 2014) (B+): It’s Frankfurt in 1958, and an idealistic young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), is guided by the words his father left him: “Always do the right thing.” As a newcomer to the ranks of the public prosecutions staff, Radmann is consigned to handling traffic infraction cases. But even in that prosaic setting, his defining inner qualities are apparent. A woman cannot afford a small prescribed fine, so the judge proposes lowering it; but Radmann demurs, seeking to uphold the letter of the law: He pays the defendant’s fine himself rather than consent to it being reduced without proper cause – a choice that combines kindness with a strict regard for the rule of law.
Radmann’s life goes in an unexpected direction when he overhears a man pleading with the authorities to heed his recognition of a school teacher as a former SS guard at Auschwitz. The police and other prosecutors just aren’t interested. Radmann’s boss, the chief prosecutor, tells him not to pursue the matter: “It would be the first time a country charges its own soldiers for their actions during a war. It’s a non-starter.” But Radmann ignores that directive from on-high, pulling at a string that unravels into a web of culpability and denial. He finds allies, in the form of a crusading journalist (André Szymanski) and the Attorney General Fritz Bauer (fine work by the late Gert Voss), and he embarks upon an epic investigation of Nazi crimes against humanity, pointing out that only 150 men were convicted at Nuremburg, and they were prosecuted by the Allies, not by the German state. Others, a great many others, have gone unmolested by the law. Focusing on Auschwitz, Radmann notes that, “It was a machine. It was a machine made up of 8,000 parts [the number of SS personnel who worked there], small ones, big ones, bureaucratic ones, sadistic ones.”
Initially, it’s the big ones that preoccupy Radmann: “He’s the one we must get, Dr. Josef Mengele, he’s the one, he is Auschwitz.” But the older and wiser Bauer (himself a survivor of the camps) sees things differently: “All those who participated, who didn’t say no, they are Auschwitz.” The shocking thing is that many young adults, near contemporaries of Radmann, have no inkling about what went on in the war. They and their country have not yet looked that radical evil in the face and come to terms with it: “Just look around,” says one survivor, “This country wants sugar-coating. It doesn’t want to know the truth.” It takes a man like Radmann and his allies to identify the murderers in society’s midst and to seek to hold them accountable. The result is a pleasingly idealistic story, a character drama that’s based on a true story and grounded in strong performances. Besides those already mentioned, we have Friederike Becht as Radmann’s spirited girlfriend, Johannes Krisch as a troubled survivor, and Hansi Jochmann as Radmann’s secretary (in a nice touch, we sometimes see her dismayed reaction to survivors’ testimony rather than hear it ourselves). Their fight for truth and justice is an inspiring and uplifting one. Despite the underlying subject-matter (the Genocide), this movie is not a downbeat or depressing one. Quite the contrary! Directed and co-written by Giulio Ricciarelli, in his feature film directorial debut, “Labyrinth of Lies” was nominated as Best Film, Supporting Actor (Voss), Screenplay, and Score at Germany’s academy awards. Blu-ray extras include a commentary by the director and leading actor. For ages 18+: Brief sexual content.
“Gravity” (U.K./USA, 2013) (B+): Marooned in space. The concept isn’t unique; but director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s “Children of Men” & 2001’s “Y Tu Mamá También”) certainly does something special with it here. It opens with several astronauts in near-Earth orbit. The two we get to know are Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist on her first shuttle mission, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is commanding his last mission before retiring. The contrasting pair make the film: She’s a capable novice, exhilarated by being there but not immune to vertigo as she floats high above the Earth; he’s a self-assured veteran, savoring every minute of his last foray into the final frontier. Bullock brings an everyman (or woman) quality to the role. When disaster strikes, she reacts in a way that we could imagine ourselves reacting. She’s a professional, yes, but her breathing accelerates to near panicky levels when calamity strikes, in contrast to the unruffled calm of Clooney’s character. It is Bullock’s very vulnerability that makes her so accessible to us: She’s a character we can instantly identify with. Cascading catastrophes oblige her to summon reserves of resolve, courage, and perseverance she didn’t know she possessed. As one thing after another goes wrong, and as she is left all on her own, adrift in a spacesuit with a dwindling air supply, she has to bring a fierce combination of determination and resourcefulness to bear on the succession of seemingly insurmountable problems, or she’ll die. And she may die anyway, no matter what she does.
“Gravity” is a very effective combination of intensely believable character drama, gripping suspense that never lets up, and realistic science-based fiction. The best part of the film is its opening 15 minutes or so – before disaster strikes. The images of fellow humans floating above the looming blue sphere that is our home are dizzyingly breathtaking. While it takes a realistic approach to the subject of surviving in the unforgiving environment of space, the story is not without a few moments that feel improbable. Would an astronaut test out a new EVA suit by taking a joyride around his working colleagues? He is untethered at the time, which makes it all the more unlikely – because it creates risk for no discernible reason, except the sheer fun of the ride. Would an exploding satellite create such a ruinous chain-reaction in space, relentlessly destroying everything in orbit? Would so many different objects all be in the same orbital pathway anyway? (Possibly, if for some reason, it is an optimum altitude for orbiting stations and satellites.) If a cockpit is opened directly onto the vacuum of space, wouldn’t it instantly void all the atmosphere and warmth, killing an occupant who is not wearing a helmet on the spot?
“Gravity” won seven Academy Awards, namely: Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects; and it got Oscar nominations for Best Film, Actress, and Production Design. It won Best Director at the Golden Globes, where it was nominated for Best Film, Actress, and Original Score. It had several wins at BAFTA, among them: Best Film, Director, and Cinematography; and it had a great many other awards and nominations elsewhere. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“Youth” (Italy/France/U.K./Switzerland, 2015) (B-/B): There is an offbeat type of comedy that puts a group of characters in an ostensibly normal situation and then stretches said characters and scenario beyond the boundaries of the strictly realistic. Here, the setting is a spa resort in the serenely beautiful Swiss Alps that caters to an exclusive clientele: Miss Universe is here, along with a film-star, an accomplished director, a laboriously rotund Spanish celebrity of unknown profession (is he an opera star?), and a Tibetan monk. The focus is on Fred (Michael Caine), an esteemed retired composer and orchestra conductor who makes annual pilgrimages to the place. His daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is with him on this visit, as is his longtime filmmaker friend Mick (Harvey Keitel). What unfolds between them is more of an impressionistic contemplation of life and of aging than it is a straightforward story. Indeed, it would be a mistake to expect a conventional film from Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, who brought us 2013’s “The Great Beauty.” Once again, he brings a Felliniesque flourish to his work, with overt eccentricity and an absurdist quality that blends the grotesque and the decadent into its portrait of these characters.
The film is intentionally slow-paced and deliberately odd – in content and style. There are dream images scattered here and there, and the entire film very often feels like a waking-dream, suffused with a strangeness that may be a tad too self-conscious and, perhaps, self-indulgent. Some will find the result pretentious. And so it may in fact be, at times. But it has its moments. There are reflective observations, like the one that characterizes parenting as a “tremendous effort with a modest result.” There’s the dryly humorous moment in which a group of screenwriters at work on a script literally put their heads together. And, there’s a powerful scene between father and daughter in which an embittered Lena tells her father, “You give everything to your music… There was nothing else in your life. Only music. And aridness. Never a caress, never a hug, never a kiss, nothing.” Lena speaks these words as the two lay in a massage room: She’s on her back, almost motionless, in seeming repose; but her face and words are animated with emotion as she gives voice to a lifetime of resentment. Her father lies silent and still on the adjacent massage table. It’s a strong scene. And there’s a funny moment in which a resident film star played by Paul Dano comes to breakfast made-up as a notorious historical figure, to the great consternation of his usually unflappable fellow resort guests.
Fred Ballinger seems to have shrugged off involvement (and interest) in life, sending envoys from the British monarch, who is intent on getting him to do a benefit concert, perfunctorily on their way. But his apparent apathy is a mask for grief, loss, and loneliness. Michael Caine is a pleasure to watch in action, as always, despite the strangeness of the material. And he is surrounded by a good cast, which includes, in a cameo, Jane Fonda. What’s it all about? According to cast-member Dano, “It’s about learning to let go, looking for what’s missing, and appreciating what’s there.” It aims at the artful. While its eccentricity of tone and presentation sometimes draw too much attention to themselves (like the musical score), it deserves credit, and it is worth seeing, precisely because it dares to be different – and to strive to be art.
Among its many nominations and awards, “Youth” won Best Film, Director, and Actor (Caine) at the European Film Awards, where it was also nominated for Actress (Weisz) and Screenwriter. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes; Original Song at the Oscars; and Supporting Actress (Fonda) and Original Song at the Golden Globes. For ages 18+: Coarse language; nudity; and sexual content.
“Mansfield Park” (U.K., 1999) (A): A witty screenplay (by Canadian Patricia Rozema, who also directed) and winning performances make this adaptation of Jane Austen’s third novel (it was published in 1814) a sheer delight. It’s literate and irresistibly engaging at the same time. “Your tongue is sharper than a guillotine, Fanny,” someone observes. To which our heroine dryly replies, “The effect of education, I suppose.” The precocious, irrepressible Fanny Price is a bright, keen-eyed, and quick-witted observer of people, played to award-caliber perfection by (the English-born Australian actress) Frances O’Connor (and by the equally talented Hannah Taylor Gordon as her younger self). Fanny may be a ‘poor relation;’ but she allows neither her humble material means in life, nor her gender, to shackle her independent spirit. It’s a character with whom to fall in love: “Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.” The rest of the cast – Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller, Alessandro Nivola, Harold Pinter, Sophia Myles, Justine Waddell, and “Downton Abbey’s” Hugh Bonneville, among them – shine as well. The script incorporates some of Austen’s playful juvenalia as well as autobiographical material from her letters and journals. Canadian Lesley Barber’s delightful musical score is sophisticated but still able to make your heart soar – much like this crisp, charming film itself.
“True Detective, Season Two” (B+): Sometimes a drama will ignite our interest from its first breath; sometimes it’s a slower burn. Things don’t coalesce in the second season of HBO’s “True Detective” till the final moments of its first episode. At that moment, three police officers from different forces meet for the first time at the scene of a violent crime that will forever change the trajectory of their lives. But most of that opener jumps from character to character, offering us passing references to things of unknown importance (like an allusion to a wartime mercenary contractor ‘Black Mountain’). The opening episode is hard to follow at first; but it’s well worth the effort. Initially, it’s not clear that we’ll even like its cast of characters: They are flawed, troubled people. Ani, a detective played by Canada’s Rachel McAdams, is tough, embittered by her past, and disinclined to get close to others. (We’d have thought that McAdams’ persona was too sweet to pull off this role, but she inhabits it flawlessly.) Once a good cop, detective Ray (Colin Farrell) has been corrupted by a past act of vengeance. Now, he is dissolute and nearly lost in drink and in a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife. Paul (Taylor Kitch) is an ex-mercenary and deeply troubled by what he saw and did in the war. His work as a solitary motorcycle cop gives him a temporary respite from the demons that haunt him. The fourth major character is Vince Vaughn’s Frank, a gangster who is trying to go mainstream (jumping from rackets to outwardly ‘respectable’ land speculation with powerful political and corporate partners). Vaughn’s character is the most original (and by far the most appealing) gangster we’ve seen in ages: For a criminal, he’s actually a pretty stand-up guy; he deeply loves his wife; and he’s given to philosophical musings (“Am I diminished?” is one existential question he ponders). The stories of these characters first meet at the end of episode one, and all that follows in the remaining seven episodes is grippingly addictive.
The three police officers are from different forces (local, regional, and state) with different agendas. But they bond, develop loyalty to each other, and doggedly stick to their investigation, even when it shows signs of something powerful and frightening lurking beneath the surface. Several plot strands are woven together to become a single story about pervasive corruption – with corporate, criminal, political, and law enforcement forces involved in massive criminal collaboration. It should be noted that the second season of this series has only its name in common with its first, its name and its broad theme of partners bonded in crime solving. The location and characters and crimes are all fresh here: Season One had Matthew McConnaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives investigating ritualistic serial crimes in Louisiana. Season Two is set in southern California, with recurring aerial shots showing us the tangled knots of highway exchanges that metaphorically take the place of the first season’s bayous. There’s a fictional city within the urban sprawl here, more of a fiefdom really, that’s entirely give over to industrial grotesqueries, bars, and small casinos.
While it is slightly less effective over-all than its mesmerizing first season, the new season is also very adept at suggesting something truly sinister lurking just out of sight. It gives the series a sense of dread; and it makes these true detectives’ resolute efforts at bringing the bad guys to justice almost heroic. They, and their unexpected ally (Vaughn’s set-upon gangster), gradually come to realize the sheer enormity of what they’re up against: “Men like this, they always skate [i.e. get off scot-free],” says Ray. “Not with me, they don’t,” counters the ever calm Frank. But he’s smart enough to see that, “We’ve been in a secret war… Everybody’s bought.”
There are scenes that make us squirm with acute discomfort and apprehension (when Ani goes alone into the lion’s den of an orgy arranged for rich and powerful men. There are scenes of wonderful wit (when erstwhile allies Ray and Frank nearly come to a lethal falling out, guns drawn out of sight, over a breakfast table, and Frank breaks the tension with a quip, “You bang down my door for a staring contest?”). And there’s a breathtakingly choreographed fire-fight in the city streets, that leaves our flawed heroes as the last men (and woman) standing. And always there’s the gnawing feeling that outside the lead quartette (and their mates), no one can be trusted. The corruption and conspiracy here is all too believable, even though it has metastasized through the body of society. That sense of widespread rot evokes a sickening, sinking feeling – nicely creating a sense of moral nausea. But the same sense of pervasive corruption bonds us all the more strongly to the four lead characters. They may be very flawed; but they are dead-set against truly wicked foes. The series, like its characters, is moody. It treads close to being self-consciously arty, with a quirky articulateness (from Frank), which, however delightfully engaging, may not be entirely credible as inhabiting the prosaic real world. The only (rare) false notes come in some of Fran’s conversations with his wife: Something about them feels artificial, as though we can see the screenwriter behind the actors.
The series follows a crime – and the unsettlingly pervasive moral, political, ethical, and legal rot to which it leads the investigators, like layers of an onion being peeled away one after another – but, at its heart, it is character-driven, with damaged people seeking some sort of redemption: “Sometimes a thing happens, splits your life. There’s a before and after.” “True Detective” plays like a novel you can’t put down, with characters and situations that will linger once you’re done. Well-acted, well-written, and original, it is apt to be the best crime and punishment drama you’ll see this year. For ages 18+ only: Very coarse language and violence.
“The Tribe” [“Plemya”] (Ukraine/The Netherlands, 2014) (B): These words appear at the outset: “This film is in sign language. There are no translations, no subtitles, no voiceover.” And that’s no exaggeration: There are no audible spoken words here, none at all. That’s a huge adjustment for the viewer. In the opening minutes, we squirm with the sheer unfamiliarity with it all. In those first few minutes, the film feels strange – and yes slow. Is this a mere gimmick, we wonder? An elaborate joke played upon… us? Will we be able to navigate an entire feature film without spoken language? Will we even want to try? The cast use sign language, and only sign language. And it’s not interpreted for us by subtitles. Whole conversations take place that we aren’t part of, though the gist is clear enough from the context. At first, we ache (is this an exotic new strain of cinematic angst?) for the sound of voices or, at least, the sight of printed words. But, then, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in, something astonishing and unexpected happens: We adjust to the absence of words – and we cease to notice their absence!
Writer/director Myroslaw Slaboshpytskiy (remarkably, this is his feature film debut!) says, “I wanted to make a modern silent film…. I knew it would be a universal story in sign language, easy to understand by any audience in all corners of the globe, without voiceover or subtitles. It was my principal challenge – to make a film in film language.” To do that, he uses a deaf cast of novice actors.
The setting is a boarding school for the deaf; its central characters are all in their older teens. A new boy, Sergei (Hryhoriy Fesenko) quickly discerns that in order to fit in he must align himself with classmates who are members of a gang engaged in a variety of crimes, including the prostituting of their female members. (Precisely why those girls contentedly go along with being sold at regular intervals to truckers at a truck stop is not addressed, however. What’s in it for them to be willingly turned into whores?) The gang, or ‘tribe,’ also mugs and robs strangers in parks and on trains, smuggles contraband in and out of the school, and exacts tribute from younger or weaker classmates. Another imponderable is the ease with which they have the free run of the school (and surrounding city) by day and by night. One of their instructors actively abets their criminal enterprises. But, is there no one at the school who maintains benign control over the movement and activities of these minors? Apparently not; there is nary a sign of adult staff at night. The seeming utter absence of any in loco parentis (a surrogate parental role) responsibility is shocking. In time, Sergei is drawn to Anya (Yana Novikova), a lovely girl he escorts on the illicit nightly prostitution outings. Lust may be the initial draw, but it seems to turn to love. But love and ensuing concern for the welfare of another collide head-on with obedience and conformity. It’s a sure recipe for trouble – and trouble isn’t long in rearing its ugly head, as this one boy confronts and defies the ‘tribe.’
“The Tribe” is a gritty story about gritty lives. Its depictions of sexuality are strong and frank (in three scenes in particular); and a scene involving an abortion is emotionally raw and troubling: It’s well-nigh the only time we hear a human voice, and it’s a voice that is sobbing. That vocalization, set amidst a film that has none, makes the scene all the more jarring. There is some sudden violence in the film, most notably at the end; but, as severe as it is, it is not depicted in a way that makes it awful to witness: Instead, we see it from a distance and, visually, it is more implied than shown.
Audaciously original, “The Tribe” immerses us in its world: It’s not a pretty world, but it holds our gaze. The cast deliver naturalistic performances. And, as noted, we somehow adapt to this alien world without words. One puzzling choice, though, is to present nearly all of the scenes in long or medium long shots: The result is to further distance us from the characters and to detach us from them. Further, we are simply presented with these characters: This is how they are. That’s all we know. There are no hints as to how they got that way; what their upbringing or families might be like. Likewise, we glean very little about their inner lives and motivations. Do the girls know that they’re being prepped for a life of prostitution abroad? Do they care? Is Sergei’s love for Anya truly selfless or merely selfish? Soon after his arrival at the school, he undergoes an initiation fight that pitches him against several classmates: He seems remarkably matter of fact about it (not to mention pretty adept at holding his own against multiple adversaries). But the source of his ability to cope with such trials remains a mystery. Consequently, we get a snapshot into these lives, rather than real insights into their psyches. “The Tribe” won three awards at Cannes, where it was also nominated for the Golden Camera (Best Director). It won a ‘New Auteur’ award from the American Film Institute; and it was named one of the Top Five Foreign Language Films of the Year by the U.S. National Board of Review.
The DVD from Drafthouse Films is handsomely put together (giving the Criterion Collection a serious run for its money), with a first-rate booklet, a feature commentary, an interview with the female lead, and the director’s nine minute short film, “Deafness” (Ukraine, 2010) (B-/B): That short involves crime and corruption (not to mention police brutality) at a deaf school. The aforementioned police misconduct is disturbing; but witnessing it becomes worthwhile when the short changes direction on a dime and ends on a darkly humorous note.
Warning! For ages 18+ only: Sexual content (which is quite strong in three scenes); nudity; some violence; and an emotionally troubling scene involving abortion. (As to profanity, it’s anybody’s guess.)
“Coming Home” [“Gui lai”] (China, 2014) (B): A husband and wife are parted for 20 years – by a pernicious ideology and a totalitarian dictatorship (the same noxious regime with whom we so eagerly do business today). When he finally returns, she has been shattered by disappointment, betrayal, and loss. She still loyally awaits her husband, but she cannot recognize him when he is standing right in front of her. Three lives have been derailed by a hateful belief system that sets a daughter against her parents (it’s for “a righteous cause,” she’s assured) and condemns a man to wretched exile (and so-called “rehabilitation”) simply because he is educated and shows a capacity for independent thought. The result is a gentle, touching, sometimes poignant, story about love confronting loss from director Zhang Yimou (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and “Red Sorghum”). It is anchored in three very good performances – from Gong Li (“Farewell My Concubine,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and “Red Sorghum”) as Yu, Chen Daoming as her husband Lu, and Zhang Huiwen as their daughter Dandan. If the one you love doesn’t know you, is it enough to simply be near them and to care for them? Unlike a progressively debilitating disease, like Alzheimer’s, Yu’s amnesia may be reversible. At least, her husband hopes so, and he uses every ounce of ingenuity he has to try to reconnect his wife with her memories. The Blu-ray disc from Sony has a director’s commentary; but, as far as we can see, that commentary (which is in Mandarin) has no subtitles or English translation. Odd!
“Benny & Joon” (USA, 1993) (B/B+): Here’s a whimsical love story that’s bound to make you smile. Benny (Aidan Quinn) runs an auto mechanic shop by day and lives with his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) by night. He’s responsible, sober, and neglectful of living his own life in the course of taking care of her. She’s artistically gifted but mentally unwell. On her good days, she’s wildly unpredictable, driving away a succession of housekeepers with her outbursts (“She really knows how to rattle the day-help,” someone quips). And she certainly has her idiosyncrasies: She makes milk-and-cereal shakes while attired in a snorkel mask and armed with a ping pong paddle. And, on bad days, she needs watching: “She paints, she reads, she lights things on fire,” concedes Benny. Joon’s therapist wants Benny to put her in a group home; but older brother Benny is devoted to his sister and insists that he can care for her in their riverside home (an artist’s retreat if ever there was one).
Things take a turn when a friendly poker game leaves Benny and Joon with the custodianship of a friend’s visiting cousin. (Other items on wager in the card game include ‘soap-on-a-rope, slightly used,’ a lava-lamp, and dog-shampooing chores.) To call Sam (Johnny Depp) eccentric would be a major understatement. Dressed like a latter-day Buster Keaton (distinctive hat, flexible cane, and all), he has a savant’s gift for Keatonesque physical comedy – and his routine with a hat and handkerchief in a park has to be seen to be believed. But his entire life is performance art: He’s fond of sitting in trees; he uses a clothes iron to make grilled cheese; and he dusts the furniture atop a rolling stool. He astonishes (and delights) his initially reluctant new hosts; but the developing romantic feelings between him and Joon soon alienate a protective Benny.
The story opens with intimations of creativity and oncoming change: In juxtaposed visuals, we see a train making its way across mountains and forests (the story is set in Spokane, Washington) and an artist at work in her studio. And we hear the utterly infectious, percussive beat of the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” sung by the Scottish band The Proclaimers. What better way to set the stage for an inventive, original character-driven story about different kinds of love. The result is a delightful piece of whimsy – a romantic comedy tinged with moments of sadness that’s anchored in utterly engaging performances by the three leads. The supporting cast, led by Julianne Moore (as the nice gal Benny can’t connect with due to his full-time preoccupation with his sister’s well-being), CCH Pounder as Joon’s concerned doctor, and Oliver Platt as a friend, all hit just the right notes. And, speaking of which, composer Rachel Portman (“The Cider House Rules”) delivers a bouncy, whimsical musical theme that nails the story’s tone. Directed by Canadian Jeremiah Chechik, “Benny & Joon” was nominated for Best Actor (Depp) at the Golden Globes. For ages 18+: Very brief coarse language.
“If You Don’t, I Will” [“Arréte ou je continue”] (France, 2014) (C+): A married couple (Emmanuelle Devos & Mathieu Amalric) have drifted apart. She asks, “What have we become?” He replies, “Your parents.” They’re out of synch – not noticing, not listening, not communicating, and not really paying attention to each other. An exchange about towels (of all things) leads to an exclamation that, “You don’t love me anymore.” Is that non sequitur a question, a statement of fact, or a plea to be reassured? We don’t know. Nor does the screenplay (by director Sophie Fillières) enlighten us about the cause(s) of this marital malaise. The film is billed as being about what happens when the spark of romance falters or goes out after a 15 year relationship. But, surely, it’s more than that. Romantic love may wane, but in its place a deep, more enduring type of love ought to endure: And what about the bonds of friendship, respect, and shared life-history that ought to become stronger with time’s passage? There’s a disconnect here: This couple hasn’t just lost the spark of romance; they seem to actively dislike each other. Why, we don’t know. Are they simply mismatched? One possibility, and it’s a deeply depressing one, is that the film is telling us that people inevitably grow to dislike each other when they overstay their welcome: Spend too much time with anyone close to you – in a familial or spousal relationship – and, sooner or later, you’ll simply have had enough of the other? That’s a mighty bleak view of things. But this film seems to embody it.
Here, Pierre and Pomme seem at odds over everything and nothing. He dismisses the snack choices she’s packed for their regular forest hike; she wants to dance at a party, he does not; he sees her naked a couple of times yet seems indifferent; she dresses up, he says he prefers her in torn jeans (is it coincidental that another woman who seeks out his company is seen in the very sort of attire he says he prefers?). The couple carry on (unenthusiastically) with their regular walks through the 111,000 acre Chamoiselle forest, until, one day, a minor disagreement (or the casual sourness between them) prompts Pomme to declare that’s staying in the forest and not returning home with Pierre. She only has the minor supplies for a day-trip: There’s no tent, sleeping bag, or even proper clothing (she’s in shorts). But he lets her stay. Yes, there’s some (brief) reluctance, but then he goes home alone, leaving her there. And there she stays – overnight and for several days to come – walking the paths in silence by day and sleeping on the ground by night. There’s something deeply troubling about one person leaving another on their own in the wild: For the viewer, it’s a parting that’s drenched in isolation and loneliness, though the story (and these characters) inexplicably treat what should be a traumatic separation as something oddly matter of fact. That’s another tonal disconnect. It’s also wildly unrealistic. But, that’s where the film’s self-description as “comedy” comes in. The writer/director sees comedy as being “elastic,” a medium in which “everything is stretched.” Accordingly, it stretches reality by positing that a man would accept his wife staying alone in a large forest, or, indeed, that she would want to stay there in the first place. But the comedy here is surely not intended to elicit laughter. (It doesn’t.) It’s more of a satirical, absurdist ilk.
There’s something tonally off here. It doesn’t play out like comedy, however straight-faced. But its events are too odd, unbelievable, or troubling to be accepted as realism. When Pomme returns to her family, no one exclaims, “Where have you been” or “We’ve been frantic with worry!” or “How could you do that to us?” Instead, her son’s girlfriend casually confides that sometimes he makes fun of her for a board-game she plays (Chinese checkers, mayhap) and hurts her feelings in the process. Pomme abruptly gets up and leaves. Is she perceiving, even in this young couple, the seeds of the distaste that will eventually turn their love to animosity? We’re merely left to speculate, since the screenplay does little or nothing to elucidate why its characters behave the way they do.
One scene, in the forest, does manage to touch the viewer: Pomme has sheltered for the night in an oval depression or gully. A young chamois (a kind of goat-antelope) falls into the gully with her. It’s still there in the morning, so she gets ahold of it and lifts it to safety. Then, she follows, perhaps emerging, metaphorically, from her own sense of being lost or uncertain. It’s a good scene. And the best line goes to her comment to a pair of rabbits: “Your relationship won’t last,” she warns them. The lead actors are very good ones, but neither of their characters is exactly likable. They are as opaque to us as they are to each other. The subject matter might be better examined as a straight drama rather than this off-key, rather discordant, dryly absurdist ‘comedy.’ It’s hard to sympathize with characters whose motivations are so obscure, and whose behavior is so often odd: Pomme seeks a temporary respite in an expensive hotel, only to steal a blanket and trek back into the forest. Why? The director said she wanted to avoid turning Pomme into “a closed-off, neurotic, crazy character, a fickle woman.” It’s not clear that the film entirely succeeds in that goal. The filmmaker professes to have something constructive (and positive) in mind – the story of a woman who, through self-imposed silence, solitude, and loneliness, “becomes herself again.” She’s caught up in “bitterness, resentment, misunderstanding, and despair,” yet emerges (in the chamois scene) from the status of one who has been emotionally “buried alive.” But that sort of redemptive arc is not so clear in the story. Odd, impenetrable, and slow-moving to boot, “If You Don’t, I Will” is hard to like. Yet, just as odd, we want to like it – and while falling short of being fully satisfying, it provokes questions, lots of them. And that’s something.
For ages 18+: Nudity and brief coarse language.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Driving Lesson” [“Leçons de conduite”] (Belgium, 2012) (B): An hour or two in the life of a 17-year old girl reminds us of the ties that bind. Manon (Pauline Etienne) has just learned that she is pregnant. Preoccupied and worried by the implications, she nevertheless proceeds to her scheduled driving lesson, where her instructor berates the sorely distracted girl for being “irresponsible.” The criticism hits home in ways the instructor does not guess. But, there’s a passenger in the back seat, who defends Manon. It’s her grandmother (Bella Wajnberg), whose presence has been imposed upon Manon by her mother. Manon is to keep her company, which means (ever so reluctantly) taking her along on the driving lesson. Manon’s grandmother is prone to saying exactly what is on her mind; but Manon has insisted that she observe a vow of silence on the ride-along. All bets are off when the old lady divines what’s bothering Manon and speaks up to defend her. It’s a moment of family solidarity, loyalty, and love – a touching reminder that nothing’s more important than those we too often take for granted. This 14-minute short film was directed by Elodie Lélu.
“The Way” (USA/Spain, 2010) (B): When an American eye doctor gets word that his 40-ish son has been killed in an accident in the Pyrennes, he flies to France to retrieve him. Once there, however, he decides to complete what his son began – an age-old pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago – an 800 kilometer walk through the countryside and towns of northwestern Spain that leads to the resting place of the apostle St. James in the cathedral of Santiago. Tom (Martin Sheen) is a lapsed Catholic and not particularly religious; but his journey becomes a spiritual reawakening in the broadest sense of that term, a way to reconnect with his son and embrace his son’s conviction that, “You don’t choose a life… you live one.”
Tom takes his son’s ashes on the trip, leaving some of them at intervals: it’s both a final parting and a belated bonding over something his son always craved – to see what lies beyond the horizon. Quietly grieving, Tom prefers to stick to himself, keeping others at a distance with a taciturn, introspective reserve. But his best efforts at living within himself on the journey are challenged by those he meets along the way – a Dutch man (Yorick van Wageningen) who likes to eat, a Canadian woman (played by Canadian Deborah Kara Unger) who copes with past trauma with a tough exterior and an addiction to cigarettes, and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) who may be suffering from writer’s block but who hasn’t lost his gift of gab. Tom half regards these fellow travelers as irritants, at first. But this quartet of strangers slowly, gradually insinuate their way into each others’ lives, Tom’s included, until they bond as a surrogate family of the road. It’s a redemptive arc for each of them.
Directed by Sheen’s real-life son, Emilio Estevez, “The Way” is a life-affirming story about friendship, family, community, and overcoming loss. It’s a simple story, simply told, but its characters win our affection. And the setting is a treat to experience, even vicariously. The mountains, valleys, vineyards, villages, and coastline of northwestern Spain (with the irresistible wild surf at Muxia) are breathtaking – it’s enough to prompt viewers to invest in a good pair of hiking boots and a seat on the next flight over.
“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” (USA, 2015) (C+/B-): The second film in a series (based on the young adult novels by James Dashner) is set in a future dystopia and pits a handful of young protagonists against a ruthless organization (its acronym “WCKD” is, aptly, pronounced as “Wicked”), whose motives and machinations are a mystery but whose chief weapons include manipulation and deceit. This installment begins where the first one left off, with six young adults (all but one of them males) who’ve survived the deadly hazards of the titular Maze seemingly being rescued. But, ‘something wicked this way comes,’ bringing suspicion, hidden agendas, flight, and hardship in its wake. Promises of being sent to a new life collide with a warning that, “I don’t think anybody ever really leaves this place.” The survivors, plus a new ally, flee their supposed sanctuary and find themselves in ‘The Scorch.’ That wretched wasteland consists of semi-desert and ruined cities that are infested with zombie-like former humans (dubbed ‘the Cranks’) who fell victim to the virulent ‘Flare virus’ and now savagely attack humans on sight. Amidst the ruins, there are some hard-scrabble human survivors, scavenging on others like extras from a Mad Max-lite world.
Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) makes a sympathetic leader: He doesn’t remember his past (he seems to be a defector from WCKD), save that he has a strong connection to fellow fugitive Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). The cast (among them, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar, and Aiden Gillen) invest their characters with interest, though it’s a shame some (like Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, and Lili Taylor) don’t get more to do. There are some contrivances and inconsistencies: (i) why explore an underground mall with unknown dangers when ample supplies are found right near its entrance?, and (ii) in a second, improbably nearby, city, crazed zombies roam within a stone’s throw of humans who nonchalantly mill about in the streets, inexplicably oblivious to the danger.
“The Scorch Trials” lacks the originality of the first film’s setting (a green, forested glade surrounded by immensely high walls, with a dangerous maze beyond). But its action, characters, and puzzles about motivations hold our interest. It only flags in its last section. The interim destination that’s attained feels too much like a low-budget let-down – a rag-tag camp in the foothills. A to-be-continued ending is probably inevitable in a continuing series; but this one feels unsatisfying. They’ve trekked and fought and struggled and sacrificed; but what’s been accomplished? Not a thing. Blu-ray extras include a filmmakers’ commentary.
“Jesse Stone: Lost in Paradise” (B): The ninth made-for-television film based on the books by Robert B. Parker has the police chief of a small Massachusetts town (Paradise, population 7,352) becalmed in a setting that currently has no crime on the go. He volunteers his services to the state police in nearby Boston and takes on a cold case: Did a convicted serial killer, who confessed to three gruesome murders, also kill a fourth victim? The Jesse Stone films are all about tone, with an eponymous protagonist, who is prone to drinking and depression. He must be distant kin to Sweden’s Kurt Wallender. Tom Selleck really shines in the role: “You don’t talk much,” someone observes, to which Stone replies, “I never found out anything by listening to myself.” As laconic as he is, Stone is a decent, honorable man and a good friend to dogs. (His quiet bond with his even moodier canine companion is one of the franchise’s appealing idiosyncrasies.) The moody tone of each installment sets them apart from other police and private-eye procedurals. Stone solves crimes, but each story is anchored in characterization and melancholy moodiness. This installment was filmed in Nova Scotia (methinks we recognized some Lunenburg streetscapes) and its maritime setting adds nicely to its atmosphere. Among the cast (nearly all of whom are female, for some reason), William Sadler (as a sympathetic crime boss), Mackenzie Foy (as a troubled teen), Leslie Hope (as a police lieutenant), and Amelia Rose Blaire, among others, all play characters whom we’d be glad to see again in future installments. Selleck also served as executive producer and co-writer of this installment. Here’s hoping there’ll be many more: The man with a hang-dog expression, who frets that “I’ve lost my conscience,” is someone we’d like to spend more time with. In that respect, a cast commentary would have been welcome (there are no DVD extras). Well-worth seeing!
“Grandma” (USA, 2015) (B): Here’s a day in the life of a no longer young woman and those closest to her. Elle, played by Lily Tomlin, deals with a crisis and confronts past mistakes, loss, and regrets, while she weathers the break-up of one relationship and the possibility of mending others that have been neglected or damaged. The whole thing turns on engaging characterization, and it is elevated by good performances all round, led by Tomlin, in what may be her career-best work. Julie Garner is very good as the young-adult granddaughter, with whom Elle embarks on a one-day road-trip of sorts – a real (and metaphorical) journey that brings her face-to-face with past and present emotional turbulence: Indeed, the past seems to bubble-up and engulf the present. Judy Greer and Sam Elliott also make strong impressions as Elle’s past partners; and Marcia Gay Harden appears as her estranged daughter. Acerbic by nature, Elle is a strong woman, if a somewhat damaged one. Her attempt to help her granddaughter with a difficult predicament (she needs to raise money for an abortion), provides moments of poignancy, combativeness, and humor. There’s even a dollop of life-philosophy in the form of an imagined “karma boomerang.” It’s about coming to terms with oneself, accepting others, and letting go of bitterness. Written and directed by Paul Weitz (2002’s “About a Boy”), “Grandma” was nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes and it has won a place among the year’s Top Ten Independent Films, as named by the National Board of Review. For ages 18+: Abundant coarse language.
“Spectre” (U.K./USA, 2015) (B): The latest entry in the long-running James Bond franchise (its first feature film installment was “Dr. No” in 1962) has what may be the biggest opening section of all, set in the playfully macabre carnival atmosphere of ‘the Day of the Dead’ in Mexico City. But every film in the series has a combination of the same strengths and weaknesses. What’s good about them? Well, there’s the suave, self-confident secret agent (who, incidentally, always gets the girl); though his latest incarnation (Daniel Craig) is weak on charm, favoring brute force instead. There’s the initial sense of mystery and suspense as the solitary agent is on the trail of some malevolent conspiracy. And there are the witty jibes (again, less in evidence nowadays than in earlier iterations). What’s not so good about the franchise? They all give in to overkill – with oversized plots by outlandish villains, lairs inside volcanoes, on space stations, or at the bottom of the sea, and final acts given over to big explosions. Those pros and cons are there in every installment, including this one. Case in point: the exotic atmosphere of the opening section is very good, but it goes overboard when a sniper’s bullet brings down an entire city block.
Here, Bond is up against a frightening shadowy organization (“If you go there, you’re crossing over to a place where there is no mercy”) of unknown intent and ubiquitous presence – its tentacles are everywhere, as the opening credits section depicts with octopus imagery. The sense of something really sinister is creepily intriguing (“These people, if you knew what they could do, the power they have”), as is our first half-glimpse of its ruthless leader when Bond (too easily) infiltrates the top-secret cabal in Rome and is greeted by a face hidden in shadow. Christoph Waltz’s soft spoken urbanity is effective; but it is later undermined by over-exposure (he’s less intimidating in broad daylight) and his choice in pets. It’s nice to see Andrew Scott (Moriarty on the BBC series “Sherlock”) as a coldly smug senior mandarin. Monica Bellucci adds glamour (and she’s better suited in age to Bond than the female lead played by Léa Seydoux), but she is under-utilized. The story has more bureaucratic infighting than we need; but a sequence with fierce hand-to-hand fighting on a train is very effective, hearkening back to 1963’s “From Russia, With Love.”
The story has several plot references to past Craig outings as Bond. They will be obscure to nearly everyone. Jesper Christensen’s Mr. White seems familiar; but who can remember exactly what he did in an earlier film, years ago? The locations are appealing: Besides London, Bond travels to Mexico City, Rome, the Austrian mountains, and Morocco. An airborne pursuit of ground vehicles is exciting, if somewhat overblown. But, the final act (back in London) is anticlimactic, unworthy of the build-up. There are little logical flaws along the way: Why would a dead assassin’s widow know the time and location of the cabal’s secret meeting? Answer: She wouldn’t. Why would a digital scan of a ring yield a wealth of information? Answer: It wouldn’t. The chief villain here is revealed as a nemesis of lifelong proportions, but his underlying motivation seems a bit too tritely personal. When we first encounter him, he’s just a shadowy back-lit silhouette. He inclines his head to whisper to subordinates, but all eyes are upon him. Then, unexpectedly, he looks up to a gallery and greets Bond: “Welcome James. It’s been a long time. But, finally, here we are. What took you so long?” If only “Spectre” could have maintained that sense of mystery and genuine menace from beginning to end. None of the Bond films manage to do so; but they always have enough strong moments to entertain us. Directed by Sam Mendes, “Spectre” has an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. MGM’s Blu-ray release is rather skimpy with extras: a commentary would have been welcome. For ages 16+: Violence.
“Bridge of Spies” (USA/Germany/India, 2015) (B/B+): Two ordinary men doing extraordinary things is at the heart of this character-driven drama set in the midst of the Cold War. A middle aged man is arrested in Brooklyn in 1957 and charged with espionage. But this quiet, unassuming, and nondescript artist bears no resemblance to the glamorous, larger than life figures in spy movies. Still, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has an unflappable calm about him. “You don’t seem alarmed,” someone remarks. “Would it help?” he dryly replies – three words that become a catch-phase for the seemingly imperturbable equanimity with which he faces an uncertain fate. The man drafted to represent him, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks in one of his signature ‘everyman’ roles), is an insurance lawyer, not a criminal lawyer. He, too, is calm and matter of fact, correctly countering a declaration that Abel is ‘a traitor,’ with the fact that Abel cannot be accused of treason, insofar as he is not an American.
Donovan takes the case, despite opposition from his family and opprobrium from society: “He’s about the most unpopular man in this country, and you’re trying to take second place.” And he conscientiously sets about doing his professional and ethical duty, by giving his client a vigorous defense and ensuring that he gets a fair trial. But the justice system doesn’t share Donovan’s idealistic adherence to due process; instead, it goes directly into kangaroo court mode, flinging basic rights to the gutter and even privately admonishing Donovan for vainly trying to impede its rush to a preordained judgment. There’s a very nice segue in the movie from a court officer intoning “All rise,” for the entrance of an unapologetically biased judge, to a classroom of children standing up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with the words, “With liberty and justice for all.” Good words, the juxtaposition makes clear, but they aren’t being observed in action. There is a striking disconnect between the earnestly avowed inalienable rights of man and the reflex actions of people so readily cowed by the bogey of the day (then communism, now terrorism).
Knee-jerk supposed “patriotism” too often trumps (no pun intended, given the current presidential primary season in the U.S.) true, thoughtful adherence to core values and first principles – the very essential stuff upon which the United States was founded. Donovan puts it elegantly in an appeal to the Supreme Court: “The coward must abandon his dignity before he abandons the field of battle. That, Rudolf Abel will never do. Shouldn’t we, by giving him the full benefit of the rights that define our system of government, show this man who we are? Who we are. Is that not the greatest weapon we have in this Cold War? Will we stand by our cause less resolutely than he stands by his?” The Cold War had the “Red Scare,” not to mention active support by the West of utterly repugnant regimes: Any military dictatorship, however nasty and cruel, that joined our camp against the U.S.S.R. was perversely designated as our “friend” and ally. How little things change: Today, we are cajoled and coerced by fear to accept the loathsome likes of torture, imprisonment without charge or trial, the massive, unconstitutional surveillance of law-abiding citizens, and the routine use of assassination by drone. And the West still has abysmal taste in so-called “friends.”
Donovan and Abel hold allegiance to opposing sides in an ideological conflict; but, as men, they find common ground for mutual respect and even friendship. Donovan takes on a hopeless cause (hopeless, given the angry groundswell of support for a preordained verdict, regardless of the law), and he fights nobly. He loses that fight, in what amounts to a rigged trial; but he reenters the story as the government’s unofficial delegate in covert negotiations to exchange Abel for the American pilot of a top-secret U-2 surveillance aircraft who was shot down while doing a high altitude reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. The idea is to exchange one spy for another. The discussions take place in East Berlin; but complications abound. First, there are competing interests between the Soviet Union and its “ally” (i.e. involuntary satellite), East Germany. Second, Donovan stubbornly insists on going off-script by including an innocent young American graduate student (who is a prisoner in East Berlin for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time) in his negotiations. The ‘powers that be’ aren’t interested in the student’s fate; rather, they want Lt. Gary Powers back, because he is privy to top secret information, information, which, if pried out of him by his captors, would be prejudicial to American security interests.
As decent a man as Donovan is, he is also a crafty negotiator, and very nearly as unflappable as his erstwhile client Abel, as he dives into unfamiliar geopolitical waters. He may be out of his natural element, but his indisputable skills as a negotiator (gleaned in the prosaic forum of insurance cases) prove very useful in this unaccustomed setting of international intrigue and superpower rivalry. There are no gun battles here; for this is a contest of wits and will-power, one in which good sense and stay the course determination are the weapons of choice of the chief protagonist. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” improves on a second viewing. It is one of the best films of the year. Among its great many awards and nominations, it has earned six Academy Award nominations (including Best Film, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay), and nine BAFTA nominations. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language.
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (B): Bel Powley, a twenty-something actress from Britain makes a convincing (and engaging) 15-year-old American girl. She’s quirky, unconventionally cute, and funny in a dead-pan way, as the heroine of her own offbeat story looking to lose her virginity (at a too-early age). This, she accomplishes with the help of her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), an indisputably adult man who is 20 years her senior. Oddly enough, though, he seems more flustered by their unabashedly sexual affair than she does: Is she unusually precocious for her age, or is her mostly matter-of-fact attitude toward this premature leap into a sexual relationship just for show, with the emotional confusion carefully confined beneath the covers? It’s hard to tell, really, and that may leach the film of strict realism. But strict realism does not appear to be the intended tone. Rather, quirkiness rules this particular roost. Still, the apparent themes of embracing female sexuality and early “woman’s liberation” (the story is set in 1976) would feel more appropriate if the protagonist was not underage. And the drug use, crude language, and sexual stuff need not have been so prevalent.
This reviewer took the film as an offbeat comedy, one that deliberately sets out to defy conventions (and propriety); others may see it in darker terms. But, try as we might, the object of the exercise does not appear to be that of a morality tale. For the most part, Minnie seems content with the choices she makes, however inappropriate they may be in the eyes of the law and morality. Her blithe passage through this premature coming of age strains credibility if taken in strictly realistic terms. But, like its protagonist’s kookily fantastic sketches (she’s an aspiring cartoonist), her experiences seem to inhabit a whimsical alternate universe, one not strictly bound by the rules, boundaries, and consequences of the real world. The DVD from Sony has a cast and director commentary. For ages 18+: Very coarse language; nudity; drug use; and strong sexual content.
“Cop Car” (B-): It opens with two kids walking across a Colorado prairie practicing crude words as they run away from home. They find a deserted police car in a gully: “I dare you to touch it!” They horse around inside the car; then they find the keys. And off they go on a joyride across the countryside. “What if someone sees us?’ asks one of the boys. “We’ll just tell them we’re cops,” replies his matter-of-fact friend. Up till then, it’s a childhood lark. Things switch gears when we see, in a flashback, how the car got there – by means of a bad cop who had two bodies locked in the trunk. He’s away disposing of one of his victims when the kids take off in his car. A desperate pursuit follows, with some moments of deadly violence. It’s an original premise, with nice performances by the youngsters (James Freedson-Jackson & Hays Wellford) and by Kevin Bacon as their dangerous pursuer. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence
“Inside Out” (C+): “Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?” That’s the premise of this look inside the psyche of an eleven year old girl named Riley. There, five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – are given anthropomorphized form as they vie for influence over the formation of memories, especially the all-important “core memories.” Each core memory powers a different aspect of Riley’s personality – namely, honesty, family, her love of hockey, being a ‘goofball,’ and friendship. But the very things that make her who she is are being undermined by drastic changes, starting with a long-distance move from rural Minnesota to downtown San Francisco – a drastic lifestyle change that jeopardizes the hitherto mostly happy circuit of Riley’s life. Things go haywire in her emotional command center, and Joy and Sadness find that must somehow cooperate in a map-cap quest to save the day. The film has some inventive touches about the working of the human psyche; but it is mostly loud, rambunctious, and overly juvenile. Oddly enough, though, one character who embodies all of those otherwise unappealing traits, an imaginary friend named “Bing-Bong” (he’s an amalgam of cat, elephant, dolphin, and cotton candy – all wrapped up in one chimerical bundle of energy), somehow manages to evoke some real pathos. Much praised by some, this film is not at the apex of Pixar/Disney collaborations.
“Star Wars: Rebels” (Season One) (2015) (B): Set during the reign of the oppressive Empire, this animated series (15 episodes on two discs) has Imperial forces out to hunt down “the children of the Force,” that is, those with the potential to become Jedi. But a small Rebel cell is doing whatever it can to thwart them, by waging a small-scale guerrilla insurgency on a world in the outer rim. There are five main characters, plus a droid, and they become an occasionally dysfunctional surrogate family. The result is ‘Aladdin in Space meets Robin Hood and the Merry Men’ (well, Merry Women, Alien, and Droid). There are some guest appearances by R2D2, C3P0, Yoda, and Darth Vader (complete with that iconic character’s bona fide voice, courtesy of actor James Earl Jones). The sextet of new characters and the premise that brings them together: The result is more entertaining than its new big-screen cousin, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The fact that an animated television series is better than a big budget movie speaks well of the former but ill of the latter.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (USA, 2015) (B): “This is the story of my senior year of high school and how it destroyed my life.” So says Greg (Thomas Mann), the teenage protagonist of this serio-comic look at being on the threshold of adulthood. The dry, vaguely ironic narration sets the quirky tone for the film, and it is an instantly appealing, original voice. For instance, Grey explains that high school is divided into a series of inimical nation-states: “Jock Nation,” “The People’s Republic of Theater Dorks,” and the “Kingdom of Stoners;” while the cafeteria is a no-go zone, “every square inch of it was disputed territory – Crimea, Kashmir, and the Gaza Strip all rolled into one.” Greg has his own way of coping with adolescence’s Hobbesian free for all: “In a typical high school life, you belong to one nation, which can never guarantee your total security. But I thought I found a way out. Get citizenship in every nation. Get passports to everywhere. Just be on low-key good terms with everyone… Never commit to an interaction that won’t be casual and mellow.” That’s one way of moving through life… And it seems to fit Greg’s relationship with the black teen Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he describes as “more of a co-worker than a friend.” For years, they’ve been collaborating on a series of homemade movie parodies of famous films, punned variations on original titles like: “The Seven Seals,” “A Sockwork Orange,” and “Death in Tennis.”
But Greg’s determination to stay on ‘casual and mellow’ terms with the world, by avoiding emotional entanglements and deeply felt commitments is thrown for a loop when he parents ask him to befriend (and cheer) a girl at school who has been diagnosed with leukemia. This parental admonition culminates with an amusing group hug, pet cat included, a very funny moment that leaves us wishing we’d see more of Nick Offerman and Connie Britton. But Grey barely knows the stricken Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and that makes his initially reluctant mission a darn awkward one. Her mother (nicely played by Molly Shannon) gives off a suppressed seductive vibe when the teenage males visit. For, with the encouragement of another girl at school (sexy Madison, played by Katherine Hughes), Greg and Earl embark upon the project of making a film for Rachel. In due course, Greg’s resolve to remain aloof and detached from commitments and emotional connections evaporates. ‘Casual and mellow’ just won’t cut it as a formula for life. The result, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and written by Jesse Andrews from his novel, is a quirky, but observant look at life, entering adulthood, and making meaningful connections with others. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is an engaging surprise of a movie, which won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (among its many awards and nominations elsewhere). The Blu-ray from Fox has 38 minutes of “making of” featurettes, a director’s commentary, and more. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and brief sexual allusions.
“1,000 Times Good Night” [“Tusen ganger god natt”] (Norway/Ireland/South Africa, 2013) (B-): “I want people to choke on their coffee when they open the paper and see and feel and react. That’s what I want.” That’s the closest a photojournalist can come to explaining her compulsion to put herself in harm’s way to cover stories from war-torn places. Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) very narrowly avoids death when covering a female suicide bomber in Kabul: She’s there for the preparation, the ritual funeral, and the drive to the final destination. It defies belief that a Western journalist would be invited to tag along on such a murderous journey. But, leaving that credibility issue aside, doesn’t her presence mark her as both selfish (doing anything to get a scoop) and complicit? She (barely) saves herself but only shouts a warning to innocent passersby at the last moment. Doesn’t that make her (legally and morally) an accessory to murder? She belatedly comes to think so herself. But her dangerous occupation (and her sometimes reckless pursuit of it) causes a crisis on the home-front. Her husband and two daughters are finding it intolerable to be constantly waiting for the call saying that she has been killed: “I’ve been waiting for that call ever since I met you. I’ve been preparing over and over and over, just getting ready,” says Rebecca’s husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Their eldest daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), echoes those words: “It would actually be easier if you were dead. Then we could all just be sad – once and for all.” Instead, endlessly anticipated mourning and the unending presentiment of imminent loss are taking a toll on the family. Rebecca swears-off dangerous assignments; then, somewhat implausibly, goes to a refugee camp in east Africa with her daughter at her daughter’s inexplicable urging! Somebody has assured them that it’s “safe,” but Rebecca surely should know better. And, when it proves to be anything but safe, she runs toward the gunfire (a wanton massacre of refugees) instead of retreating with her daughter. It’s a foolhardy, reckless, and irresponsible choice that disconnects our sympathies from her character. “It’s just an instinct: You push, push, push. I wasn’t even scared,” she says. But, it’s a hollow explanation for wildly rash behavior. Someone else must think so, too, because it shatters the family.
As good an actress as Binoche is, she can’t make this character sympathetic, let alone likable. Her behavior grates from beginning to end. When she finds herself reliving the experience (a young woman being prepped for a suicide bombing) that opens the film at the end, she has undergone enough of a character arc to react differently this time, differently but still utterly ineffectually. The film’s dialogue is in English, though there is a hodgepodge of accents within the family. They reside in a community of English-speakers, but for a time it’s unclear where the family home is located. (It seems to be Ireland.) The result is watchable, but disappointing. Norwegian director Erik Poppe, incidentally, used to work as a war correspondent himself. DVD extras include behind the scenes stuff and interviews.
“Léon: The Professional” (France, 1994) (C+/B-): This offbeat odd-couple relationship between a 12 year old girl (Natalie Portman) and the professional hit-man (Jean Reno) who reluctantly takes her under his wing is newly out on Blu-ray from Sony. Léon, a Frenchman living in New York, is an unassuming-looking anti-hero. An assassin for hire, he goes to movie musicals during the day, and he’s gentle with the kid next door. But, one day, thugs (led by an over-wrought Gary Oldman) come and murder Mathilda’s family: It’s a very unprofessional massacre – a raucous shooting gallery (where are all the neighbors?) in which the killers loudly shout each others’ names, which makes it over-the-top, verging on surreal. Mathilda keeps her head and her cool and manages to survive. When she learns Léon’s trade, she wants him to teach it to her, so she can exact revenge. His reply? “I work alone.” The result is off-beat, almost kooky, with a melodramatic music score. It seems to be aiming for dark farce, with layers of juxtaposition in its odd couple pairing: They are adult and child, Frenchman and native New Yorker, killer and ostensible naïf, mentor and student, surrogate parent and child. One odd choice is the extreme close-ups of Portman; they feel vaguely inappropriate, as if they aimed to make this underage girl a romantic figure. Extras include interviews with the cast and crew done ten years after the film was made. For ages 18+: Coarse language and violence.
“The Salvation” (Denmark/U.K./South Africa, 2014) (B-/B): It’s 1871 in the Old West: Danish immigrant Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) arrived seven years earlier with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) to make a new life as ranchers in America. Now, Jon has been joined by his wife and young son. Their journey to his home by stagecoach is interrupted by murderous, rapacious thugs. Jon ultimately deals with them, but he and Peter then have to face the violent wrath of their kin, a killer employed by the railroad to do its dirty work. Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is completely ruthless, ignoring his employer’s admonition that, “We need our operatives to look civilized.” Instead, he guns down innocent townsfolk in arbitrary retaliation for the death of his brother. He has the town – and the woman (Eva Green) he coerces into his rough affections – terrorized. Most of the town is cowed into collaboration with the gang. The town’s sheriff (Douglas Henshal) is, in a very strange juxtaposition, also its minister and collaborator-in-chief. He’s ready to sell-out Jon in the name of his notion of the greater good: “Your death’s gonna buy us some time… Sometimes you gotta sacrifice a single sheep to save the rest. I’m just a shepherd guarding his flock.” Jonathan Pryce is also on hand, as the town’s corrupt mayor. Tragic loss, the burning desire for vengeance, and sheer desperation turn Jon into a one-man army, despite his brother’s caution that, you “don’t get into a fight you know you’re gonna lose.” The result plays out like a grim Scandinavian-American variation on a Clint Eastwood western – a morality tale with one good man facing a gang of very bad ones. Mikkelson, a very good actor, is laconic in the tradition of Westerns, though he may be a tad too impassive: He doesn’t emote much (even in the face of the violent death of his loved ones), which means we don’t have a strong emotional connection to him, as much as root for him as the story’s ‘white hat.’ “The Salvation” had seven nominations at Denmark’s Robert Festival. For ages 18+: Violence.
“Hellmouth” (Canada, 2014) (B-): Canada’s Stephen McHattie is Charlie, a cemetery groundsman who is due to retire in days. He is harassed by taunting kids, by mysterious vandalism, and by a terminal illness he calls “brain fog.” His boss coerces Charlie into a six-month extension of his employment, filling in at another cemetery. He’s given an ultimatum: Agree or forfeit his pension. As he drives to his appointed workplace, under ominously glowering skies, Charlie traverses a gnarly forest and a semi-desert wasteland. It’s a strange, surrealistic landscape out of a fever dream – hallucinogenic in its effect. En route, he encounters a siren (Siobhan Murphy) on the road: With her blood red lips, sunglasses (even though it’s night), and her head covered in a scarf, she’s clearly a vamp, of one kind or another. Their destination, the Forks of Heaven Cemetery, is a ghoulish, haunted place, filled with gargoyle-like statuary. Two escaped convicts also end up there, and, before long, all hell breaks loose, quite literally. The result is mostly an exercise in atmosphere and style. The film looks very neat; shot entirely on ‘green screen,’ it has a surrealistic look throughout. Using black & white, with splashes of color, it is visual kin to “Sin City” and “300.” The story itself hasn’t got a lot to it (it’s a journey into hell); but the film is grounded in McHattie’s gritty, grizzled presence. It is definitely worth a look for fantasy and horror buffs. Director John Geddes also made 2011’s “Exit Humanity,” a well-above-par story about zombies in Civil War era America. For ages 18+: Brief coarse language and violence.
“The Trip to Italy” (USA, 2014) (B): “Beautiful countryside, beautiful women, beautiful food. What do you think?” Two British comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (who are more or less playing themselves here), contemplate reuniting for a restaurant review tour. Their last such outing (in 2010’s “The Trip”) took them to northern England. This time around, the destination is Italy, with stops in Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and the isle of Capri. Those drop-dead gorgeous settings provide the backdrop for a comedic trip by car (a convertible, of course) and by large sailing boat. Our straight-faced, wise-cracking quipsters engage in a stream of consciousness patter, frequently morphing into very funny impersonations of everyone from Al Pacino in “The Godfather” to Michael Caine as Batman’s faithful amanuensis, and everyone from Hugh Grant to Sean Connery to Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh saying, “Damn your eyes Mad Max” to Mel Gibson’s Fletcher Christian. It’s a treat for film buffs, as it is replete with comedic references to the movies.
And the topics of the patter range from spooning for survival in the event of being stranded upon a mountainside, to the appeal of Canadian singer Alanis Morissette’s music to adolescent girls, to Byron’s unromantic given name, to the middle age man’s plight of being invisible to younger women and having to find solace elsewhere: “Nature never disappoints you. No rejection.” And there is a mouth-watering succession of Italy’s culinary delights. While Claire Keelan (as the pair’s manager) and especially Rosie Fellner (as a sailboat tour guide and romantic interest) do good work in their appearances, the film actually peters out a bit at the end: It doesn’t need additional characters, like Coogan’s character’s son, or the more contemplative mood it assumes near the end. On the contrary, these two dryly funny wits, engaged in a fast-paced barrage of comedic one-upmanship, in their private theater of the absurd road-show are what sparkle here (just as they do in the DVD’s 26 minutes of entertaining deleted scenes). The two travelers (they are at once friends, rivals, and comedic sparring partners) generate smiles and laughs aplenty. There is no plot to speak of, and none is needed – as we just sit back and enjoy the view, the scrumptious dining, and the laughs. For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“The Dinner” [“I Nostri Ragazzi”] (Italy, 2014) (B-/B): It opens with a moment of road rage on a street in Rome – a metaphorical straw in the wind, prefiguring what’s to come, thematically-speaking. For this is a cautionary tale about what happens when comfortable, secure, and self-confident middle class lives suddenly fly off the rails. It’s about the possibility of something dark and ugly lurking behind respectable facades. If such things surface in those close to us, how are we to react? If a loved one does something despicable, what do we do? And what if the malefactor is our own child?
There are four main characters in the story: Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio, from 2005’s “Don’t Tell” and 2013’s “Human Capital”) is a pediatrician. He is sweet-natured, kind, patient, and supportive by nature, a thoroughly decent man. His playful domestic banter with his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who was so good in 2003’s “Facing Windows” and 2005’s “Don’t Tell”) ingratiates those characters with us: Their interplay feels spot-on. Once a month, Paolo and Clara meet Paolo’s brother and second wife for dinner at the fancy, pretentious restaurant favored by Paolo’s sibling. Neither Paolo nor Clara relish these get-togethers, which are dominated by Massimo (Alessandro Gassman, from 2009’s “David’s Birthday”), a flashy and successful criminal defense lawyer who has a trophy bride in the person of Sofia (the Czechoslovakian-born actress Barbora Bobulova). Clara cattily whispers to Paolo, “Where’s Barbie?”, when Sofia is late arriving to a dinner early in the film. For his part, Massimo is a type-A personality, overly immersed in his work, and, as a consequence, somewhat benignly neglectful of his new wife and his teenage daughter ‘Benni’ (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, currently on view in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) from his first marriage.
Benni is attractive and self-confident. She is also very close to her cousin, Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a sixteen year-old boy who is self-entitled, anti-social, and vaguely unlikable. It’s a surprising friendship, at first, since the girl is outgoing and attractive, while the boy is neither. But both teens (like far too many people in today’s world) are all but welded to the flickering screens of their windows into online videos and texting. They both show an unhealthy interest in videos of senseless violence; and Michele opts out of gym class to exercise his thumbs with texting. There’s a subtext of social satire at work here, surely. Even the grown-ups, especially Paolo and Clara, have the bad habit of having their evening meal on the living room couch where they watch television instead of more sensibly communicating with each other and their oft-absent son. Clara is fond of a true crime show called “Crimewatch.” One evening there’s a report of two young people savagely attacking a homeless woman on an otherwise deserted street late at night. A security camera captures murky images of the crime – and the seed of suspicion is planted: Are the assailants her son and niece? The answer to that question will send all of these lives spinning wildly out of their predictable, comfortable, and safe orbits. If your child has done something vilely despicable, do you shield them from the consequences? The legal and moral imperatives seem clear enough. But when strong familial bonds, and equally strong emotions, become engaged, the right course of action proves less easy for these characters to discern. And can they live with a response demanded by their deepest allegiance to their children but which at the same time offends their core notions of decency? What if what is necessary for the psyche is at utter odds with what is right?
Directed and co-written by Ivano De Matteo, from the bestselling novel by Herman Koch, “The Dining Room” has four strong performances going for it, and a compelling premise. But it is badly hobbled in its final few minutes by behavior from one character that utterly contradicts everything that character is. Maybe that’s meant to be the point, that in a situation of extreme crisis, we can act out of character. Just as stress can spark road rage, maybe protracted acute stress can spark behaviors that contradict our essential character and values. But, for this reviewer, it just doesn’t wash: The abrupt deviation by one of these characters is so completely in conflict with his/her evident values, conscience, and core character, it is impossible to accept that character’s sudden headlong plunge into the negation of everything he/she has hitherto embodied. The result feels contrived, heavy-handed, arbitrary, and unconvincing: That character aberration badly mars the film’s last few minutes; but all that precedes it holds our attention with fine performances and an ever-tightening knot of tension born of an impossible collision between love for one’s children and repulsion at their incomprehensible transgression. For ages 18+: Some coarse language and brief nudity.
“The Secret in Their Eyes” [“El Secreto de sus Ojos”] (Argentina/Spain, 2009) (A-/A): A recently retired criminal court investigator, Benjamin (played by Ricardo Darin, who played the disgruntled demolitions expert in 2014’s “Wild Tales”), is haunted by a unresolved case, involving the rape and murder of a young woman named Liliana 25 years earlier: “I don’t know why. It’s been on my mind.” Obsessed by the case, Benjamin resolves to turn it into a novel – a project that brings him back into contact with Irene (played by Soledad Villamil), the judge who was his longtime colleague and the secret love of his life. Theirs was an achingly inchoate romance, a romance that never dared declare itself, let alone take on tangible form. The pair were inhibited by differences in age, class, and rank, but also, fundamentally by a failure of will – a failure they each knew would yield loveless, mediocre lives: “How can someone live an empty life? How do you live a life full of nothing? How do you do it?”
The result is a story about missed chances and about the things missing from our lives (and from our souls) that leave us incomplete. Can missed chances – at criminal justice or at love – turn into second chances? The result is an intriguing, beautifully-nuanced love story and a murder mystery – two components that overlap and intersect in unexpected ways. Part of what obsesses Benjamin is the deep, unshakable love that leaves Liliana’s bereft husband Morales ‘stuck in time for ever:’ “Your love for that woman. I never saw it again. In anybody. Nobody. Ever.”
This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film; and it swept Argentina’s academy awards, winning Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Editing, Make-Up, Music, New Actor, Sound, and Supporting Actor. It also won Best New Actress and Best Spanish Language Foreign Film at Spain’s Goya Awards. It is not to be missed! For ages 18+: Brief (but disturbing) sexual violence; other violence; nudity; and coarse language.
“Gemma Bovery” (France/U.K., 2014) (B): Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) returned to Normandy seven years ago to take over his father’s bakery and, he hopes, to find “a peaceful and balanced life.” It’s certainly a peaceful setting – a picturesque village nestled in the countryside. But Martin brings with him an imaginative romanticism and an abiding love for Gustave Flaubert’s famous 1856 novel Madame Bovary. That book’s eponymous protagonist is propelled to her own downfall through a mixture of bored dissatisfaction with her lot in life and an impetuous, romantic yearning for something more glamorous. Then, who should come into Martin’s immediate field of view but a pair of British ex-pats, in the person of one Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband. The coincidence is too much for Martin. He cannot help but draw parallels between the novel’s Emma and his new neighbor Gemma, whom he observes, romanticizes, and secretly covets: “In the depths of her soul… she was waiting for something to happen. Like sailors in distress, she gazed over the emptiness of her life with desperate eyes, searching for some distant white sail in the mists of the horizon.” Confiding to his trusty dog Gus, Martin is convinced that here indeed life is imitating art. His interest in Gemma is at once literary, partially benevolent, and partially lustful: “In one second, that meaningless little wave signals the end of sexual tranquility” between Martin and his patient wife Valerie (Isabella Candelier).
Unlike Flaubert’s anti-heroine, Gemma seems, at first, to be happy with her somewhat older husband Charlie (Jason Flemyng). But she is troubled by recollections of a faithless past beau (Mel Raido), and she starts to emulate the least admirable habits of a chic, well-off, but utterly pretentious and superficial neighbor (Elsa Zulberstein’s ‘Wizzy’). And there’s the sudden arrival on the scene of a handsome younger man (Niels Schneider), who is heir to the fading seat of the local squire. Slowly, but surely, signs of discontentment start to reveal themselves in Gemma, and infidelity follows. Martin sees Flaubert’s story unfolding before him, romanticizing his real-life heroine to his own wife: “A boring woman who can’t stand her boring life is not boring.” “Madame Bovary! Here we go again,” she replies. But Martin is undaunted: He is convinced that Gemma is on the same path as the literary Emma: “She wants everything from love and is always disappointed.”
The film has many delights – from its dry sense of humor, to Martin’s romantically obsessive nature (and overactive imagination), to Gemma’s undeniable allure (when Martin teaches her to knead bread, the result is positively sensual), to sly intersections (and deviations) between the film’s story and the novel’s, to moments of Martin seriously confiding to his dog, to its refreshingly wry take on ostensibly dramatic plot turns: All that, a clever screenplay, and engaging performances! Nearly all of the story unfolds through Martin’s eyes: Indeed, one important scene late in the film which takes place unobserved by Martin feels wrong somehow, simply because we don’t see (and interpret) it through his quixotic gaze. Things end with a flourish, involving the deliciously clever use of Russian music that heralds Martin’s unique impression of a new arrival. That wonderfully witty musical finale, as the credits start to roll, speaks Tolstoyian volumes and well-nigh steals the show! For ages 18+: Occasional coarse language; some sexual content; and brief nudity.
“Marie’s Story” [“Marie Heurtin”] (France, 2014) (B+): It opens with a horse-drawn wagon bearing a 14-year old girl, Marie (Ariana Rivoire), and her father to Larnay, a school for the deaf run by nuns in late 19th century France. Marie’s parents (Gilles Treton & Laure Duthilleul) love her dearly, but they unable to communicate with her; and Marie, bare-foot, coated in dust, and wild, is more child of nature than young lady. But because Marie is both deaf and blind, the Mother Superior (Brigitte Catillon) feels obliged to turn her away. The nuns simply have no experience trying to teach a doubly disabled child. However, something in Marie touches one of the young nuns. Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré) is a gardener, not a teacher; but she is to drawn to Marie’s plight: “Today I met a soul. A tiny little soul, quite fragile: An imprisoned soul that I saw shine brightly through her prison bars. I had thought she was a savage, a little animal. But she was waiting for me in that tree. The girl is locked in a world of darkness and silence. How can we talk to her? Listen to her? What is it like to live in total darkness and silence? Sister Marguerite is certain of one thing: “Unless I’m wrong, my mission is to look after her.”
What unfolds is a love story between a kind woman and the small wild soul she takes under her wing. It’s an uplifting, redemptive story about a love that leads one person from darkness into the light. The result is gentle, sweet, and very touching, a blend of humor, sadness, and hope. This European cousin to the Helen Keller story has two lovely performances from the leads (Carré & Rivoire) and good supporting work from the rest of the cast. And nice attention has been paid to the pastoral setting, with a very effective sound design rendering of the trees’ leaves rustling in the wind, an inrush that may do double-duty by constituting a more metaphysical stirring – of the soul.
Director and co-writer Jean-Pierre Améris says that, “The film I had in mind was a luminous one. I wanted to film Marie’s hands touching animals, trees, and faces, moving moments which turn out to be the invention of a language and the story of liberation – a rebirth.” “Marie’s Story” won Variety’s Piazza Grande Award at the Locarno International Film Festival. Based on a true story, it’s a delightfully humane, not to be missed tale of how each one of us can make an immeasurable difference for good in the world. (And that positive message couldn’t be more timely than in today’s world – one that’s contending once again with savage violence, mindless destruction, and fear.)
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Motherly” [“Maadaraaneh”] (Iran, 2013) (B): A bench under the boughs of summer foliage in a Teheran park is the setting for this 13-minute short film from director Navid Nikkhah Azad. The chief occupant of the park bench is a lovely middle-aged woman (Shirin Bina). She’s on a mission – to discover if the girlfriend her wheelchair bound son has yet to present to her is beautiful. But the mother is blind: How then will she measure beauty? “Motherly” is simple in concept and in execution, as the mother interacts with a stranger, then her son’s beloved, and then her son. She’s kind, but curious – and we get a real sense of all of these characters’ warmth. The appealingly humanistic result is sweet and engaging – so much so that we’d be glad to see more of these characters someday in a feature-length film.
“Regeneration” [aka “Behind the Lines”] (U.K./Canada, 1997) (B/B+): It opens with mud and the prone bodies of the injured and dead: we get an overhead view as the camera pans across a World War One battlefield. But that’s just a prologue for the story’s setting at a stately building in rural Scotland. It is 1917, and Craiglockart Hospital is where shell-shocked British officers go to be treated for psychological distress. Although the treatment is humane (in contrast to a London clinic that favors the use of pain, administered by electric shocks), the chief physician (Dr. William Rivers played by Jonathan Pryce), who is himself a military officer, is not insensible to the paradox that he is making military officers better so they can return to active duty in the hell that so afflicted their psyches in the first place. The ethical dilemma is even starker in the case of the latest arrival: The poet Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) is a decorated war hero. But he has publicly denounced the war, saying that what ostensibly began “as a war of defense and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” And he decries the “callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share.”
The ‘powers that be’ want to discredit their critic. And just like the Soviet Union would do years later with its own dissidents, they besmirch their critic by falsely suggesting that he has had a mental breakdown. Dr. Rivers’ assignment, then, has nothing to do with healing his patient, and everything to do with persuading Sassoon that he is wrong. What ensues is an intelligent, involving conversation about war, dissent, and doing what is right. And what is right is not always so easy to discern, however well-intentioned we may be. For example, Dr. Rivers points out to Sassoon that, “If you maintain your protest, you spend the rest of the war in complete personal safety.” And did Sassoon’s friend (Dougray Scott) do him a favor by getting him “a medical board instead of a court-martial?”
Two other patients figure prominently in the story – Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce) is one. He is a budding poet, one who went on to famously quote what is too oft told “To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori” (that is, that “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country”). A key character is Billy Prior (Jonny Lee Miller, who plays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in television’s “Elementary”), who is afflicted with ‘mutism’ (shock-induced loss of speech) and partial amnesia. He forms a romantic connection with a young woman in town (Tanya Allen), even as he challenges the military doctor’s professional detachment: “If I went to my doctor in despair, it might help to know he at least knew the meaning the word.” And Dr. Rivers himself is appalled at the techniques of the colleague in London (played by John Neville) whose electric shock treatments are, like the war itself, a kind of violence. “I sat there and watched [a mute patient’s] silence being taken from him… He wasn’t a man; he was a fighting unit being repaired.”
“Regeneration” got eleven nominations at Canada’s Genie Awards, one at BAFTA (Best British Film), and three at the British Independent Film Awards (including the curiously named ‘Making the Most of Resources Within a Limited Budget’). Based on the novel by Pat Barker, and directed by Gillies Mackinnon, this thoughtful and involving film has good performances, ideas, and poetry, in its humanistic look at war and the toll it takes on good men. And, what is war, but a kind of collective insanity?
For ages 18+: Brief coarse language; brief sexual content; brief nudity; and very brief gruesome references.
“Portrait of Jennie” (USA, 1948) (A+): “There is a type of suffering for the artist which is worse than anything a winter or poverty can do. It is more like a winter of the mind, a dreadful feeling of the world’s indifference. My courage had all run out…” A struggling artist (Joseph Cotten) meets a strange, precocious girl (Jennifer Jones), with “big sad eyes and something about her that seemed to come from far away,” in New York’s Central Park during one such winter of the soul. She promises to ‘hurry’ at growing up, if he’ll but ‘wait’ for her: “I wish that you would wait for me, so we could always be together.” Is she real or imagined? Is she a ghost, or a soul-mate who has crossed the boundaries of time? One thing is certain: She is his muse. And, as good as her promise, she is a little bit older each time he encounters her.
Based on the novel by Robert Nathan, this brilliant 1948 film is part romantic fantasy, part bittersweet poetic dream about an artist caught by enchantment: “I knew in my heart that I was worthless. Suddenly, I felt fear. The world seemed curiously empty and silent. One note would bring it all to life; one note would make an instrument of it. But apparently that note was not to be played; the world of my art was to remain an empty box.” Haunting, melancholy, poignant, and wonderfully romantic, it benefits from a superlative cast (the leads are joined by Ethel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Cecil Kellaway, and David Wayne), and a shiveringly evocative score. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin employs the hauntingly beautiful melodies of Claude Debussy for the score: They fit this story like a glove – and bring tears to the eyes. The result is a masterpiece about faith, truth, and hope – and their place in art and in love.
“Portrait of Jennie” won Best Special Effects at the Academy Awards, where it was also nominated for Cinematography. It won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Golden Lion (Best Film of the Year). Imbued with an achingly ardent and idealistic passion, “Portrait of Jennie” is a must-see love story for every true romantic!
“Testament of Youth” (U.K., 2014) (B+): It opens with a carefree, idyllic summer in the English countryside of Derbyshire. Here we find handsome young friends in a blissfully bucolic setting of meadows, small lakes, and quiet country roads. These friends, two of them siblings, happily amble, converse, laugh, and look forward to a bright future. Vera (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”), her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and his two friends, Roland (Kit Harrington, best known as Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones”) and Victor (Colin Morgan) are fast friends; the men are looking forward to going to Oxford. But Vera’s choices seem circumscribed by her gender, and she chomps at the bit of the restricted lives women are expected to lead: “Do we have a suffragette on our hands?” one of them playfully asks. “I would be, given the chance,” replies Vera. She longs to be a writer and a poet, and she desperately wants to join the others at Oxford (where, even if she is admitted, her gender disqualifies her from being granted a degree!). Her father resists her aspiration, fearing it will make her “a bluestocking” (an unflattering term for a woman of strong literary or intellectual disposition): “That’s no way to find a husband,” he points out. V era’s reply is quick and certain: “I don’t want a husband… I’m not getting married. Not now. Not ever.” There’s something of Bathsheba Everdene (the strong-minded heroine of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”) in Vera’s character. Both women are ahead of their respective times – independent, and not at all predisposed to be a passive help-meet to a man. Y et strength of will is leavened, in Vera’s case, with a perennial sense of being an outsider: “I’ve never known where I fit,” she confides.
The scene changes from the carefree holidays in the picturesque countryside to the beautiful citadel of academe that is Oxford, with its “honey-colored stone” and centuries-old colleges. Vera is there to write the entrance exam: She can scarcely contain her eagerness to take in the sheer gravitas of this wonderful place. Fearing she’s been taken for a ‘frivolous provincial upstart,’ Vera proudly declares that that is decidedly not who she is. “I think you’re keen to stand out,” observes a rare female lecturer (Miranda Richardson). “Yes,” says Vera in simple reply. It’s her display of “an original mind” that helps Vera stand out in a crowd – that, and her strong will.
But the halcyon days are numbered, for the whiff of imminent war is in the air. The young men are drawn to the prospect like moths to the flame: “I have to go. How many generations get a chance to be involved in something like this? I can’t let others do my duty for me.” There is abundant irony in those words. The young men who romanticize war as the stuff of adventure, nobility, and duty have no inkling of what’s in store for them. The First World War was a brutal, protracted, and largely pointless exercise in mass slaughter, agony, and squalor, with a toll in futile deaths, ravaged bodies, and crippled psyches that wiped out the better part of a generation in Europe (and beyond). But these newly minted ‘men’ (of only 18 tender years) naively think only of duty, honor, and glory – concepts that bear no relation to the ugly brutality and horrors of the battlefield. The famous words of the poet Wilfrid Owen are apt: Will we, as he put it, continue to tell “To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori” (that is, that “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country”). On the eve of war, one character is prescient enough to sense the “dust and ashes feeling” about what’s to come.
The outbreak of war also sees the repressed romantic feelings between Vera and Roland break free of their restraint. Just like war, love is declared and lives are pledged to it. But will it, and the strong bonds that unite these four young friends, survive the war? The answer to that question takes us to close proximity to the battlefront, where Vera volunteers to serve as a nurse.
Based on the acclaimed memoir by Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth” tells the real life story of her and her friends, artfully juxtaposing the arcadian summer before the storm, with war years replete with darkness and unbearable loss, reemerging afterwards with the question: ‘Where do the survivors go from here?’ Was it all in vain? Were there lessons to be learned? Can we learn those lessons? Directed by James Kent, and written by Juliette Towhidi, the film was nominated for Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards. It has a solid cast, with Dominic West, Emily Watson, Joanna Scanlon, Anna Chancellor, Alexandra Roach, and Jonathan Bailey supporting those named earlier. And there are nice subtle moments: We learn by subtle inference that a friend initially rejected for military service on account of poor eyesight has been taken after all, by a war machine with an insatiable need for fresh human bodies. At another juncture, brief images of the places once frequented by the young friends dart fleetingly across the screen: The beaches, winding road, and pastures beloved by the friends are silent, empty places now; the carefree days are gone forever. Poetry is used sparingly, but to evocative effect; and the result is a tender, emotive, elegiac remembrance of a lost time and a lost generation. DVD extras include a too-brief, but informative, six-minute backgrounder, a full length commentary, and four deleted scenes. For ages 16+: Brief scenes of wartime injuries.
“Boychoir” (USA, 2014) (B): A young boy (Garrett Wareing) in Texas is on a problematical course: Beset by his mother’s alcohol abuse and the ensuing emotional problems in his single-parent home, he is troubled and prone to misbehavior. But his principal (Debra Winger) sees potential behind the delinquency. Her intervention help propel young Stet to an unlikely new environment – the prestigious National Boychoir School on the east coast. It’s a setting in which vocally talented boys, with their ephemeral treble voices, are coached to achieve musical excellence. On the stage of a concert hall, the choir director (Dustin Hoffman) describes the connection during a performance between a singer and a listener: “This is a community of [people] feeling the same thing. Most of them are strangers, but you are uniting them. You are giving them your voice. And that’s as spiritual as it gets.” But Stet has some big handicaps – a dysfunctional family background, a late start as a serious student of music, and a proclivity for acting-out. Can he overcome those impediments and let his talent soar? His prospective mentor isn’t so sure: “You have a gift, and it’s not enough…. You’ve got it. You’ve got it right now, and you’re blowing it. You’re a punk. And your clock is ticking, kid.” The headmistress of the school (Kathy Bates) likewise has her doubts: “I’ve made exceptions for you before. At some point, we all run out of chances.”
Canadian director François Girard (“The Red Violin” and “Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould”) helms this low-key coming of age story about a young boy trying to find his way. He has a marvelous opportunity, in an enviable setting; but can he overcome his own inner demons? Is he truly doomed to be “bad news,” as a fellow student says? It’s a simple story, simply told. Wareing is serviceable in the lead, and it’s a pleasure to see Hoffman, Bates, and Winger among the grown-ups. Arguably, the result is tad contrived and predictable; but it is buoyed by its beautiful choral music. And, in the end, the film’s simplicity becomes an asset, as it tells a gentle, mildly poignant story of one child’s struggle for redemption.
“The Lesson” [“Urok”] (Bulgaria/Greece, 2014) (B): What happens when an ordinary person’s life spins out of control? Do desperate times prompt (or justify) desperate measures? The 30-something protagonist of this story, Nade (Margeta Gosheva), is decent, honest, and hardworking. She teaches English to elementary school children. When it becomes apparent that one of them is a serial thief, Nade is troubled by the moral lapse that the theft represents. Without knowing which of the students has stolen, she exhorts the unidentified transgressor to anonymously return the stolen monies. But her plea yields no results: “What a pity! One of you just ruined the chance to correct your mistake…. I’m not leaving it at that. The one who stole the money should realize that nothing will go unpunished.” Will those words prove ominously prophetic?
Hewing to the moral path in life looms ever larger in Nade’s preoccupations when her life starts to spiral dangerously out of control. She has a young daughter at home and an unemployed, irresponsible husband who has a history of alcoholism. Crisis arrives at the door in the form of a bank foreclosure on their home: It seems Nade’s husband has lied to her, diverting the funds earmarked for mortgage payments. In three days, the bank intends to seize their home and auction it off. Nade is owed money by the small company for whom she translates legal documents to supplement her income, but they keep putting her off. Nade’s husband tries to sell their camper to raise money, but the fact that its engine won’t start doesn’t impress prospective purchasers. Nade is very calm and businesslike in meeting with the bank. She stands her ground; but to no avail: she’s up against an implacable, uncaring, and oft unreasonable bureaucracy. (At a later juncture, an inadvertent shortfall of a mere two leva – about $1.50 Canadian – throws Nade and her family back into imminent jeopardy.)
For all her intelligence and good sense, emotional resentment and bitterness impede Nade from seeking aid from her estranged father, who has the resources to help her. Her resentment of her father may be understandable, but does indulging those feelings make Nade, who is usually so level-headed, irresponsible? With no other recourse, she borrows money from a loan-shark. When further bad luck means she cannot repay that debt on time, she is threatened and blackmailed. What is a good person, an honest person, to do in such straits? What would any of us do in extremis? What do we do when it seems that fate itself is conspiring against us? And if we compromise our own moral authority, our commitment to doing the right thing, can we ever recover it? Lead actress Margeta Gosheva brings a quiet, serious, thoughtful demeanor to the role, even as she resolutely struggles against the cascading tide of misfortune that threatens to engulf her and her family. Co-written and co-directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, “The Lesson” has attracted awards and nominations at film festivals in Europe and beyond. Shot on a shoestring budget, it utilizes non-actors in secondary roles, a fact that may actually accentuate its tone of realism and authenticity. For ages 18+: Coarse language and brief crude (and ugly) sexual talk.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Crooked Candy” (USA, 2014) (B): In this six minute-long mini-documentary, directed by Andrew Rodgers, an unseen narrator talks about his fascination with ‘Kinder Surprise’ eggs – chocolate confections that contain small toys and figurines: “To me the Kinder egg represents my childhood, a piece of Europe I don’t easily have access to here…. I distinctly remember the first toy that I got.” As an adult, he has bought several hundred Kinder eggs, lovingly collecting the fanciful toys they contain. The trouble is that he now lives in the United States, where the product is banned – due to the risks of choking its small toys pose for young children. It’s illegal to buy, import, or even possess them in the United States; consequently, the man who is so fascinated by them (we see hundreds of the toys arrayed on a table top) smuggles them back with him from trips to Europe and Canada. For the collector, “It’s something exclusive, [not] easily replicated.” But, more than that, it is simply something that fascinates him, conjuring memories of his childhood and his county of origin (Bulgaria). The result is an evocative, nostalgic peek into a private passion that’s at once forbidden and charmingly innocent.
“August: Osage County” (USA, 2013) (B+/A-): “You want to show who’s stronger…? Nobody’s stronger than me, g**damn it. When nothing is left, when everything is gone, disappeared, I’ll be here.” S o says the steely matriarch of a Midwestern American family as she throws down the gauntlet to all challengers. Her extended family has gathered on account of a crisis; but the rifts and fault-lines that divide them threaten to tear them apart permanently. It may be 108 degrees Fahrenheit in the Oklahoma sun, but it’s even hotter inside, with tempers and fiery temperaments at the boiling point. Presiding over them all is Violet Weston (Meryl Streep). She’s loud, volatile, prickly, and aggressive. She’s fueled by raw, ugly anger. At times, she’s a nasty harridan. What she characterizes as “truth-telling” spares no regard for the feelings of others: She calls it like she sees it, no matter whose feelings she hurts. At times, she’s downright mean. But, she’s also a complicated character, marked by a harsh childhood and deprivation, now battling disease, and bereft of her husband (Sam Shepard’s Bev). Even stone cold sober, she’s not one to suffer fools gladly; and her drug dependency only increases her volatility – to the proverbial max! But, still, there are hints of loneliness, regret, and vulnerability behind the foot-thick armor plating.
Violet’s chief foil, in the absence of her husband, may be her favorite daughter Barb (Julia Roberts). Violet’s barrage of harsh words at the dinner table erupt into an outright brawl between the two, in a scene of conflict run amok. Barb is dealing with problems of her own – her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) has left her for a younger woman, and her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin of 2015’s “Maggie”) is acting out. Violet’s sisters are gathered, too: There’s the quietly unostentatious Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and the flashy (but insecure) Karen (Juliette Lewis) who appears with her latest beau (Dermot Mulroney’s Steve) in a scarlet sports car. Rounding out the tribe are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who shares her penchant for acid criticism and fault-finding, her kind husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), who shows admirable gentleness and respect for the son his wife dismisses, and Benedict Cumberbatch as ‘Little Charles,’ the boyish man who struggles to emerge from the oppressive shadow of his domineering mother. And Misty Upham plays the Native American cook and housekeeper Johnna, whose grace under pressure (and my, what pressure roils under this roof) never falters.
The film was written by Tracey Letts from his Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, and directed by John Wells. Hints of a theatrical quality linger, in a story that’s distant kin to such fare as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It’s a character-driven, conflict-ridden immersion into a believably dysfunctional family. All the resentments, scars, and sensitivities that every family harbors (to one degree or another) fuel the collisions between these full-throttle combatants: “This madhouse is my home,” says Julia Roberts’ character defensively. And it is informed by its setting every bit as much as Faulkner’s or Tennessee Williams’ stories are: “This is the Plains: A state of mind; a spiritual affliction, like the blues,” says Barb. And something like “Tin Roof’s” preoccupation with “mendacity” is at play here, too. For Violet persists in the claim that she’s a champion of “truth-telling:” “Look, wouldn’t we be better off, all of us, if we just stopped lying about these things and told the truth?” But, does she always tell the truth – to herself or to others? And, isn’t her view of “the truth” an unduly harsh one? Charlie makes a nice contrast to her: He’s kind, supportive, encouraging, and loving to the son others too quickly dismiss as a weak, ineffectual failure. Different notions of strength and weakness are recurring themes. Violet is a strong person; so is her daughter Barb, as much as the two are fiercely at loggerheads. But Violet’s strength (and her sister Mattie Fae’s) too often tramples on others – aggressively attacking those singled out for their disdain or fury. Others have a quieter kind of strength, one that endures, that shows patience and forgiveness, that nurtures instead of attacking.
The film has a bevy of memorable characters and strong performances: It is award-caliber work all-round. Even those characters who are prone to vicious outbursts are well-rounded enough that we can find things in them to care about and even admire. Besides, this emotional rollercoaster has plenty of time for humor and human bonding. And there’s ample food for thought here in contemplating how we so often hurt the ones we love. Simply by knowing our family so well, we are able, if we let ourselves, to hurt them as no other could. “August: Osage County” earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress (Streep) and Supporting Actress (Roberts); and the film garnered many nominations elsewhere. For ages 18+: Abundant coarse language.
“The Human Resources Manager” (Israel/Germany/France/Romania, 2010) (B-/B): When a young woman is killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2002, her body rests, anonymous and unclaimed, at the city morgue. No one has reported her missing; no one (at first) knows who she is. It turns out her name is Yulia, and she was a foreign worker from Romania. She wasn’t Jewish, but she nevertheless came to Israel to improve her lot. But, despite a degree in engineering, she worked the night-shift at the city’s biggest bakery, scrubbing floors. And yet, somehow, no one at her place of employment noticed that she was gone. When a local tabloid gets hold of those facts, they plan to denounce the bakery firm for its seeming inhumanity. To counter (or at least mitigate) those impending negative headlines, the company’s owner dispatches her Human Resources Manager to find out all he can about Yulia and the circumstances of her stay with the company. He takes on that assignment grudgingly. The man hates his job; his wife has left him; and he is having trouble connecting with his teenage daughter. And, at first, he is insensitive about the fate of a former company employee whom he doesn’t even remember.
His efforts are poised to get the firm “off the hook,” as far as bad publicity is concerned, since it seems Yulia was let-go some time before her death (so her whereabouts were no longer the company’s responsibility). But his boss has had a change of heart. She’s now intent on the company publicly taking responsibility for their deceased ex-employee. She wants her company to apologize and “to repent.” Her chosen agent to accomplish those things is the self-same HR man (he is never named, but he is nicely played by Mark Ivanir, who appeared in “Schindler’s List” ), who is sent with the coffin to Romania, dogged all the way by the tabloid reporter who has caused all the fuss. There, he is joined by the highly extroverted Israeli consul, her Romanian husband, and Yulia’s embittered, surly 14-year old son. A half-comedic journey ensues across the bleak, impoverished winter landscape – in a 900-plus kilometer journey to lay Yulia to rest with dignity. There are figurative road-blocks aplenty, and these odd traveling companions are obliged to have recourse to an outrageous mode of transport for the final leg. Along the way, the HR Manager bounds with Yulia’s troubled son; overcomes one obstacle after another; and starts to rediscover his own humanity, redeeming his hitherto soured soul with a new-found selfless concern for others – even strangers.
Directed by Eran Riklis (who also directed “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree”), “The Human Resources Manager” is a good-natured, good-hearted story that balances light, straight-faced humor with moments of mild poignancy. It is founded in convincing characterization, and its unnamed cast of characters effectively insinuate their way into our affection. Riklis has this to say about his film: “The mission of the Human Resources Manager… was one of discovery… His mission is obscure, his mission is forced upon him but then becomes part of him, his mission is personal yet national, emotional yet physical, a mission in the best tradition of Greek drama or Shakespearian magnitude. And it is about learning to live through the dead or better still – exploring, revealing life through death…. And death wears the face of a striking woman with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.” The film was based on the novel “A Woman in Jerusalem” by Abraham B. Jehoshua. For ages 18+: Some isolated coarse language.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Tell Your Children” [“Meséld el…”] (Hungary, 2007) (B+): It opens with men, women, and children being herded to the riverbank. They are lined up to die: It is January 1945, and a mass murder of Jews is being conducted in Budapest by Hungary’s latest fascist regime (the short-lived ‘Arrow Cross’). There’s little or no dialogue, just murmured prayer and the rough commands of men in uniforms. A mother whispers to her little girl: Flee! And, so she runs. As the adults are killed on the spot, she leaps into the Danube in a desperate bid to survive. We see her point of view, submerged in the rapid current as she is carried along by the water, then her forlorn face, alone and quivering on the shore. Those scenes of this 5-minute short film from director András Salamon are very effective. Shot in black & white, these reenactments look like actual historical footage. The little girl survives. As she walks along a city sidewalk, the years rush by. Now, she’s a senior citizen, suddenly harassed by jeering neo-Nazi punks. Its brevity doesn’t impede this little film from being a powerful cautionary tale – and a distressing reminder that man so rarely seems to learn from the wrongs his kith and kin have committed in the past.
“Gabrielle” (Canada, 2013) (B/B+): Sweet, smiling, kind, pretty, and bubbling over with joie de vivre, Gabrielle (very engagingly played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is a character we instantly like. And, at 22, she’s in love, with a young man named Martin (Alexandre Landry). But not everybody approves of their budding romance. Why? Because Gabrielle and Martin are developmentally handicapped – though, truth be told, both seem to be very high functioning. Gabrielle lives in a group home. She has a good support system where she lives and she also an unbreakable bond with her beloved sister Sophie (a nice performance by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, from 2010’s riveting “Incendies”). Trouble is: Sophie needs to leave the country to join her boyfriend, who is teaching in India (though she keeps postponing her departure, out of concern for Gabrielle). For his part, Martin lives at home with a well-intentioned, but controlling, mother, Claire, who impertinently asks (about Gabrielle): “Hasn’t she been sterilized?”
While Claire’s attitudes may be less than universally accepting and enlightened, for the most part all of these characters are well-balanced, benevolent, and loving. And, Gabrielle and Martin love not just each other but also music: They both sing with their community center’s choir, made up of people with disabilities. The choir, ‘Les Muses de Montréal,’ is due to sing with Quebec musical star Robert Charlebois (who appears, and sings, in the film) at a big upcoming event. But Claire’s attempts to dampen-down the sparks of romance; Gabrielle’s separation anxiety over the impending departure of the sister with whom she is so close; and Gabrielle’s simultaneously growing impatience at being denied full independence and autonomy – are making this naturally, and irrepressibly, buoyant young woman unhappy: “I want to live on my own and make my own decisions like you. I want to be normal like you….. I’m an adult; I want to make decisions like an adult.”
It might not be explicitly named in the screenplay, but Gabrielle’s malady seems to be “Williams Syndrome.” According to the association devoted to supporting those with that condition, “it is characterized by medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. These often occur side by side with striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music.” Highly sociable, with an affinity for music, certainly describes Gabrielle!
Directed and co-written by Louise Archambault, “Gabrielle” is a sweet, romantic film that revolves around its central character. And, what a character! She’s utterly engaging from the first moment to the last. Sadly, the DVD’s welcome extra, a 47-minute documentary about the actress (who shares the same first name as the character she is playing), “Moi aussi je m’appelle Gabrielle,” has no English subtitles. As best we can judge without the full benefit of language, it looks every bit as charming as the feature film itself.
“Gabrielle” won Best Film and Actress at Canada’s Genie Awards, where it received four other nominations. At Quebec’s Jutra Awards, it won Best International Film [Why “international?” It is a Canadian film.], Director, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Editing; and it was nominated in five other categories, including Best Film. It won the Audience Award at the Locarno Film Festival (a famous festival in Switzerland); and it was Canada’s official submission to the Oscars. For ages 18+: Some mild sexual content.
“Wild Tales” [“Relatos salvajes”] (Argentina/Spain, 2014) (B): Passengers on a jetliner (ostensibly strangers) learn, to their growing anxiety, that they all know one person in common, a person from whom none of them parted ways amicably. A waitress in a truck-stop diner recognizes her sole customer: he’s the loan-shark and bully who ruined her family. A man in an expensive car driving on a lonely road through isolated mountainous terrain gets stuck behind a slowpoke; insulting words and gestures are exchanged; then, down the road, the impatient driver gets waylaid by a flat tire. An engineer who specializes in the controlled demolition of buildings has a very bad day on the way home from work – butting heads with an implacable, intransigent bureaucracy: Is it bad luck or an overly adversarial attitude born of righteous indignation that takes his plight from bad to worse? A young man returns to his parents in anguish. He’s been at the wheel in a late night hit-and-run accident: His parents have lots of money; they try to use it to save their son from the consequences of his own actions. A bride and groom celebrate their wedding at an expensive reception: All is giddy fun, until jealousy and suspicion rear their ugly heads. Six separate stories, six variations on the theme of ‘getting even.’
Turning rage, deceit, and the desire for revenge into the stuff of comedy is an interesting departure. Mind you, the comedy here is as black as pitch. The six sections of the film vary in length and tone. Some are more effective than others. One of the best has Argentinian star Ricardo Darin (“The Secret in Their Eyes,” “Kamchatka,” “The Aura,” and “Chinese Take-Out”) as a man who is sick and tired of life’s injustices: One day, he’s had enough, and he’s not going to take it anymore. But are battles against such injustices winnable, or will the struggle take us down with the proverbial ship? The segment involving two drivers alone on the same highway is an effective parable about road-rage, with the antagonism inexorably spinning out of control; but it didn’t need its startling scene of scatological crudeness. There’s a great moment in another section, in which a suddenly distraught bride is called upon in mid-anguish to waltz to the swelling refrains of the ‘Blue Danube.’
All six stories involve situations spiraling wildly out of control – when characters get incensed (with or without good cause) and/or desperate and try to deal with some injustice. It may be an injustice that’s been visited upon them; in at least one case, they may be the authors of the injustice. But it’s the struggle born of injustice – a struggle that carries deception, fury, and loss of perspective in its wake – that brings them into crisis. It turns out that there’s a cost to ‘getting even.’ There’s savageness on display here, one that’s part of the human psyche; but it’s shown to darkly comedic effect.
Written and directed by Damián Szifron, “Wild Tales” has attracted a great many awards and nominations. For example, it earned an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. It swept Argentina’s academy awards, winning ten awards, namely, Best Film, Director, Actor (Oscar Martinez), Actress (Erica Rivas), Supporting Actor (German de Silva), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music, and Sound; it was nominated there in eleven additional categories, including several additional cast members in the acting categories. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or (Best Film) at Cannes. It got nine nominations at Spain’s Goya Awards, winning as Best Iberoamerican Film. It won Best Foreign Language Film at the National Board of Review (USA). It won eight awards at the Platino Awards for Iberoamerican Cinema, including Best Film, Director, and Actress), where it also got earned two other nominations. For ages 18+: Some coarse language; some violence; scatologically crude content in one scene; and brief sexual content.
“Far from the Madding Crowd” (U.K./USA, 2015) (B+): “I’ve grown accustomed to being on my own. Some say even too accustomed. Too independent.” For a young woman in 1870 England, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is remarkably independent and self-sufficient: “I don’t want a husband. I’d hate to be some man’s property. I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband.” A fortuitous inheritance makes her materially independent, too. Maybe it’s precisely her free-spirited ways that attract the desire of three suitors: There’s the quiet, loyal farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts from 2012’s “Rust and Bone”), the wealthy, older landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the dashing Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). One man saves the day for Bathsheba on repeated occasions; but, will he be forever overlooked romantically, despite his quiet, unostentatious devotion? The second becomes obsessed with the object of his desire. Is winning Bathsheba as his bride an idée fixe that will ruin him? The third suitor, resplendent in his scarlet soldier’s uniform, represents passion. But is he the man who can ‘tame’ Bathsheba’s independent spirit?
Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, published in 1870, first appeared as a monthly serial in a magazine (which is entirely consistent with its plot-driven story, a story that is distant, if more artful, kin to the content of modern-day ‘soap-operas’); it went on to be retold as a ballet, an opera, and in at least two different stage adaptations. It has been previously adapted for the screen in 1915, 1967 (with Julie Christie), and 1998. (There was also an indirect adaptation, by way of a comic strip, called “Tamara Drewe,” starring Gemma Arterton, in 2010.) Hardy sets his novels in the fictitious region of Wessex (named after the Anglo-Saxon kingdom), which comprises parts of southwest England. This film is set (and filmed) in Dorset (one county, i.e. Devon, over from Cornwall). And a magnificent setting it is, too. Rolling green hills, bordered by woods and meadows, sit atop the high crest of the cliffs above the ocean. With that irresistible natural beauty, a sweeping musical score, and brightly vibrant costumes, the film embodies romanticism. The result is lovely to look at and well-acted, with effective imagery. In an early scene, Bathsheba, leans sensually backwards on her horse, almost prone in a lying-position, as they pass under low-hanging branches: It’s a visual metaphor for her freedom from conventional bounds. Her strength of character is likewise on display in her first foray as a landowner to the farmer’s trading market – she and her companion-girl are the only women present; but Bathsheba wins the respect of this all-male club.
What may be a tad less compelling is the broadening and explication of character: Why do all of these men fall so hard for Bathsheba? She declares that, “It is my intention to astonish you all.” But does she ever truly live up to that momentous billing? Bathsheba is independent, lovely without trying too hard to be so, and strong-willed. But how she got to be that way is not examined by the story. Likewise, all three suitors are defined, to one degree or another, almost entirely through their desire for her. Why, for example, does Boldwood go so wholly off the deep end of romantic obsession with so little cause? Why does one suitor’s apparent passion turn to cruelty? In short, we get plot turns more often than satisfying explication for character motivation. Thomas Hardy’s novels are known for the powerful role played by Fate in turning his characters’ destinies. That’s certainly true here: An abrupt stroke of bad fortune seems to ruin one character early in the film, but it really serves to put him on the road to be reunited with the woman he loves. In many of Hardy’s novels, Fate is a cruel mistress; here, there is hope that at least some of these characters may be destined for happiness. Elsewhere in the cast, Juno Temple (as Fanny) and Jessica Barden (as Liddy) do well in supporting roles.
Danish Director Thomas Vinterberg (2012’s “The Hunt”) and screenwriter David Nicholls (who adapted the 2008 version of Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” for television) have fashioned a sweeping romantic tale of a headstrong woman and her three suitors. It’s ‘old-fashioned’ in a very appealing way. It’s a shame the deleted scenes (on the Blu-ray disc) weren’t left intact in the movie: They help mitigate the feeling that the story is inchoate in places, missing bits and pieces that would smooth the transitions from one big plot turn to the next. The deleted scenes are very worthwhile. So, too, are the featuretttes, one of which points out the pivotal connection in Hardy’s stories between landscape and mood: There’s the sensuality of a field being harvested, the mystery and eroticism of a forest of night. Another backgrounder reminds us of the centrality in Hardy’s work of ‘reversals of fortune, reversals of fate.’ Seek out the DVD/Blu-ray (from Fox Searchlight Pictures, an ever-reliable source of artful movies): This movie deserved a much wider theatrical release than it got; here’s your belated chance to see it.
“Maggie” (U.S.A./Switzerland, 2015) (B+/A-): “Dad, I’ve gone to the city. Please don’t come for me. There’s a curfew here. Just keep them safe. I’m sorry. I love you.” Maggie has left home for the city because she has contracted a terminal disease. It’s an illness that dooms her to a relentless decline – a decline that will incrementally rob her of herself. And it’s contagious. But, her father, Wade, does come for her and takes her home to the family farm, reuniting the family until precautions for their safety require that he alone stay with his beloved daughter, awaiting “the turn,” the disease’s pivotal moment, at which time Maggie will irrevocably lose the last of herself and become dangerous. Here’s a quiet, brooding, remarkably affecting contemplation on human mortality. What do we do, what can we do, when a loved one is condemned to an inexorable lingering decline? It’s a fate worse than death – both for the afflicted person and their aggrieved loved ones. The tone here is melancholy; but, it’s really a love story – about the steadfast love and unbreakable bond between parent and child, in this case a father and daughter.
This is a very good film – in fact, it is the second best film of 2015 thus far (as of August), after “Ex Machina.” And it earns that praise by its gentleness and emotional impact. It’s a genuinely touching relationship. There are two reasons why that comes as a very welcome surprise. The first is the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the father. Best known as an action hero, here the actor sports a beard and demonstrates that he can move us with a low-key, down-to-earth performance. Abigail Breslin (2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and 2007’s “No Reservations”) is likewise very good in the title role. And the second cause for surprise? Why, it’s the genre. Although the z-word is never uttered, the viral epidemic that dooms Maggie and countless others is named: It is the “necroambulis” virus. For those not up to date with their Latin, that’s “walking dead” in English. Yes, this is, in a way, a “zombie” movie. But pay that fact no mind. This is the zombie movie for people who have no interest at all in zombie movies (this reviewer included, excepting television’s utterly engrossing “The Walking Dead”). Maggie might just as easily be afflicted with AIDS, early onset Alzheimer’s, Ebola, or any progressively debilitating dread disease.
What’s important here is not the particular disease that’s afflicting Maggie, but, rather, its effect in robbing her of her hopes, of her future, and of herself – and in her father’s unblinking determination to stay by her side until the bitter end. It’s about watching and waiting for a loved one to deteriorate, to change, to lose themselves, to become something diminished and frightening, and, ever so slowly, to die. All of that could be a paradigm for any number of ruinous diseases – diseases that any one of us could encounter in the mundane world of the here and now.
The result, written by John Scott 3 and directed by Henry Hobson, is wonderfully understated and restrained, with only a couple of very briefly “icky” moments. Its goal is not the ‘gross-outs’ so common to the genre. On the contrary, it successfully conveys a creeping inevitability of doom, a familial apocalypse in slow motion that’s distant kin to 1983’s brilliant “Testament” (about a suburban family gradually dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear detonation) and 1959’s equally memorable “On the Beach” (which also depicts the quiet, but relentless, approach of the end of all things in the wake of an all-out nuclear war). Its depiction of courage, familial love, and unshakeable loyalty are inspiring, even if it is, inevitably, a sad story. For ages 16+: Two or so very brief gruesome scenes.
“Secrets & Lies” (U.K./France, 1996) (B+): British writer/director Mike Leigh’s great strength is character-driven stories about ordinary (usually working-class) people. The characters that populate his films (which are usually ensemble pieces) are always unvarnished: We see their earthy, diamond-in-the-rough nobility and their coarseness, their finer attributes and their flaws. And, while Leigh is credited as writer on his films, he prefers a long process of cast improvisation to a written script that is set in stone ahead of time. “Secrets & Lies” is Leigh at his best – and most accessible. It presents us with a moderately dysfunctional family – and the newcomer who is hurtling toward them like an unforeseen celestial body. Cynthia (a wonderful, award-caliber performance by Brenda Blethyn, who is currently on view in the fine British television drama “Vera”) wears her emotions on her sleeve. She’s weepy (the legacy of a hard life, a myriad of disappointments, and wrenching loneliness); but there’s an irresistible feistiness buried beneath her vulnerability.
Cynthia works in a factory, and she shares her home with her daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), a 21 year-old sourpuss who cleans streets for a living, though her true vocation seems to be finding fault with her mother. The person whom Cynthia is closest to is her younger brother Maurice (Timothy Spall). Maurice has made a successful living as a portrait and wedding photographer: We get amusing glimpses into in his good-natured cajoling of his customers – to elicit smiles from them. But all of the good-nature in the world isn’t enough to instill an inner smile in his moody, depressed wife Monica (Phyllis Logan). And the fact that his sister and wife don’t hit it off, keeps Maurice away from his sister more than he’d like.
Into this volatile mix comes Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). She’s a young black woman whose adoptive mother has just died. Hortense is on the trail of her birth-mother, who turns out to be both white and Cynthia. Their eventual reunion and connection changes the lives of all of these characters. For one thing, Cynthia rediscovers her inner strength and beauty – becoming a better version of herself on account of Hortense’s beneficent influence: The company she’s now keeping – and the wounds that have finally started to heal – elevate and ennoble Cynthia in ways she couldn’t have imagined. “I expect I’m a bit of a disappointment to you, ain’t I?” she asks her new-found first-born. But Hortense (who is educated and middle class) doesn’t see Cynthia as a disappointment. And through her rediscovered daughter’s eyes, Cynthia discovers a new way of seeing herself.
“Secrets & Lies” is chock-full of emotion – and humor. Its characters feel utterly authentic. They be flawed, but they have good hearts. There are things in their lives that prompt anguish; but they remain capable of overcoming it. There’s a redemptive theme at work here – and a humane view of the human condition: “Secrets and lies. We’re all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain?” There’s also a “There, but for the grace of God” theme in the background: These characters may have troubles; but other people have it much worse. There’s a warmly matter-of-fact quality to these vulnerable souls’ capacity for just carrying on – as given voice by two sentiments expressed late in their story: “Well, welcome to the family,” and “This is the life, ain’t it?”
“Secrets & Lies” was nominated for five Oscars – as Best Film, Actress, Supporting Actress (Jean-Baptiste), Director, and Screenplay. It won Best Actress at the Golden Globes, where it was also nominated as Best Film and Supporting Actress. At BAFTA, it won Best Actress, Best British Film, and Screenplay, and it was nominated as Best Film, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor. It was a hit at Cannes, winning the Palme d’Or (Best Film), as well as Best Actress and the Ecumenical Jury Prize (for ‘works of quality which touch the spiritual dimension of our existence’). It was nominated as Best Film at the European Film Awards; and it won in that category at the Independent Spirit Awards. And that’s just a small sampling of its great many nominations and awards! For ages 18+: Occasional brief coarse language.
“The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” [“Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann”] (Sweden/Russia/U.K./France/Spain, 2013) (B+/A-): “One thing always leads to another.” So says the eponymous centenarian Allan Karlsson, and he should know. Just look at the astonishingly broad canvas of his life. A grudge match with a fox literally blasts Allan into a retirement home; but the open window beckons. He unwittingly comes into a possession of a very large suitcase full of a very large amount of cash – and a hilarious road story unfolds, one that includes eccentric new friends, pursuit by outlaw bikers, an elephant on the run, and a croquet bat put to novel use. And that’s only in the present. Allan’s past includes an early interest in explosives, a stint in a mental hospital attendant upon pyrotechnics gone wrong, and service in the Spanish Civil War. He may have served the republican side in that conflict, but an inadvertent service paid to their nemesis, has Allan feted by Franco himself. Then he’s off to America, where he works on the girders of skyscrapers, helps invent the atom bomb, and has tea with a Vice-President. He’s hardly back in Sweden before he’s shanghaied by the Russkies and taken before Stalin himself. But his negative views about men dancing offend the choleric dictator, and Allan is consigned to the gulag. Who should he meet there, but Albert Einstein’s halfwit twin brother Herbert. That all segues into a new career as an international spy! What is it they say? ‘When one door closes, another one opens?’
On her death bed, Allan’s mother tells her young son that “Life is what it is and it does what it does.” So Allan lives by that credo – of ‘que sera sera’ – calmly accepting in his stride whatever life brings. He floats serenely on the current of happenchance – a current that propels him to an astonishingly diverse array of destinations. And fate (or the gods) always seems to take care of him. He emerges (usually unscathed) from scrapes that would finish another man. Superhero? Nope. Allan is a simple man, without being a simpleton. Come what may, he meets his destiny with an unruffled equanimity the rest of us can only envy. He may be 100, but his mental faculties are unimpaired: It’s just that he has never seen the world they way others do. He’s a gentle naïf in some ways, a distant cousin to folks like Pete Sellers’ Chance in 1979’s “Being There” or Tom Hanks’ title character in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.”
“The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” is the most entertaining film this reviewer has seen in a long while: Directed and co-written by Felix Hergren, from the novel by Jonas Jonasson, it restores his faith in comedies. And there a bit of poignancy mixed in with the laughs. Robert Gustafsson stars as Allan, and he is backed by a uniformly strong supporting cast. The film was nominated as Best Actor, Music, and make-up at Sweden’s Guldbagge Awards. (The music, by the way, as well as the good-natured soul of the film, conjures the whimsical tone of “Amelie.”) Among its other awards and nominations, the film was an Audience Award nominee at the European Film Awards. Our verdict? It’s a winner through and through – uplifting, funny, and irresistibly fun! Break down doors if you have to; but don’t miss this movie! For ages 18+: Some coarse language.
“For My Father” [“Sof Shavua B’Tel Aviv”] (Israel/Germany, 2007) (B/B+): You’ll have to see it to believe it: A sweet, gentle, heartwarming movie about a would-be suicide bomber? And they said it couldn’t be done! But, that’s exactly what this lovely little film is. It’s a modern twist on Romeo and Juliet, set in Tel Aviv, amidst the region’s endless internecine conflict. Tarek (Shredy Jabarin) is a sensitive and sensible young man from the Occupied Territories. He is on a deadly mission to Tel Aviv to blow himself (and as many innocent bystanders as possible) up with the dynamite strapped to his chest. Is he a political zealot? A religious fanatic? No, he’s neither. In effect, he has been blackmailed into “volunteering” by unscrupulous men who threaten his family. He may resent the occupation, the roadblocks, and the daily, petty humiliations; but, this is not a man who is seething with hatred or murderous rage. Nor does he harbor harebrained notions of so-called “martyrdom.” Rather, he is resigned to what he is doing, but he has no enthusiasm for it. When he arrives at his target – a market that’s crowded with civilians – he closes his eyes and presses the button on the detonator. And then… nothing. The button is defective. To get a replacement, he offers to repair the roof of a Jewish electrical repair shopkeeper. That man, Katz (Shlomo Vishinski) and his wife Zipora (a very warm Rozina Kambus), are in mourning over the senseless death of their young son, who died not in combat, but in training at an Israeli Army boot camp as a consequence of draconian disciplinary practices. And Tarek makes the acquaintance of the beautiful young Jewish woman who runs a small kiosk across the street. Keren (Hili Yalon) is modern in dress and attitude, but she comes from an Orthodox Jewish community – a community that’s ready to use verbal and even physical coercion to bring the rebel back into their restrictive fold.
Tarek develops a quick and strong connection with the Jewish people who befriend him. With Keren, it looks to be blossoming into romantic love. Meanwhile, his handlers are threatening (by telephone) to ignite him by remote control if he strays from his appointed task. (His dynamite vest is locked under his shirt and jacket – and it can’t be removed.) It boggles the mind, but “For My Father” succeeds, despite its seemingly bleak premise, in being sweet, gentle, and good-humored. (Katz scolds a busybody minor official who is hassling Tarek with the words, “I’ll call the police and say you’re impersonating a police officer; and I’ll tell God you’re impersonating a human being.”) Its appealing characters, including Tarek, for whom we can’t help but root (we ardently hope that he’ll shake off the awful task to which he is being driven), are what make the story heartwarming. It’s a wonderfully humanistic movie that deals with three-dimensional human beings, rather than black-and-white stereotypes. And speaking of colors, the setting here – the ground, the walls of buildings, the unearthly barren hills in the distance – are all painted in the same bright hues of yellow and sand. The effect is make the mono-color setting less important, less real somehow, than the flesh and blood people whose lives play out on this semi-desert stage.
A dramatic change of emotional tone late in the film is somewhat jarring. It doesn’t mar the film exactly: Perhaps it represents an awakening from the gentle dream that constitutes most of the film. But it is so abrupt and so at odds, emotionally, from the rest of the story that it can’t help but leave us feeling a little disappointed. But, then, maybe that’s the point: In a world where good people face off as foes, dashed hopes and disappointment are endemic. So it is for the people of Israel and Palestine; so it is for the rest of us, the entire human race, in one way or another.
Directed by Dror Zahavi, “For My Father” was nominated for seven awards at Israel’s academy awards. It’s a unique and lovely little film, one that inspires with its optimistic humanism about the fundamental decency of most people. Despite its gentle, good-natured story and characters, it makes wise points along the way, describing (without in any way endorsing) the usual rationales for terrorism, like ‘They have an airforce, we have only suicide bombers.’ Someone says, “Since I was born, I couldn’t even dream. And that won’t change, unless they are hurt.” As if hurting others will ever, can ever, be a balm to our own pain and suffering.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Ali & the Ball” (Australia, 2008) (B+/A-): In this 15-miute short film from director Alex Holmes, Arabic refugees languish behind the tall barrier fences of a detention camp run by Westerners. The exact location is not specified – it is probably the Australian desert – and it doesn’t matter. Even dialogue is extraneous in this remarkably effective short story. Indeed, there is practically no dialogue at all. And, it’s not needed. The story couldn’t be clearer. 8-year old Ali (Ali Summaka) lives in the camp with his mother (Camilla Ah Kin) and younger sister Fatima (Rayan El-Saghir). There’s little to do, as one day bleeds into another. The children play with a soccer ball, till it flies over the fence. And Ali’s mother occupies herself day and night with knitting. But a moment of violence among the cooped-up refugees leads the guards to overreact, confiscating all sharp objects, knitting needles among them. Ali’s mother is bereft. But Ali is determined to restore her only possessions to her. To that end, he wordlessly befriends a young girl (Luci Hughes) on the other side of the fence. And it all rushes toward an ending worthy of O. Henry. Along the way, there are lovely (and loving) little details that fill in the lives of these people – the mother knitting in silence, Ali gently offering water to his sad younger sibling, a tiny bud of green emerging from the arid dust, and moments of human kindness. “Ali & the Ball” won Best Short Fiction Film at the Sydney Film Festival and a similar award at Flickerfest, that country’s leading short film festival. All we can say is that those awards were well deserved, very well deserved indeed! It is a gentle, poignant gem of a film.
“Human Capital” [“Il Capitale Umano”] (Italy, 2014) (B): Billed as a tale of “class, greed, and desire,” “Human Capital” tells the intersecting stories of two families over the course of a few months – revisiting those same few months from the point of view of three different characters. Dino Ossola (Fabrizio Bentiuoglio) is a real estate agent who is bedazzled by (and openly covetous of) the wealth of others. His daughter Serena (Matilda Gioli) has been dating the son of a very wealthy hedge-fund manager. She becomes her obnoxious father’s “human capital,” the asset he trades upon to insinuate himself into the company of those whose wealth he covets. When Dino drops Serena off at the Bernaschis’ hillside mansion, he is all eyes – at the house, the grounds, the cars, and the trophy wife. Sporting a scruffy mustache that continues in disreputable-looking tufts in a complete circle around his mouth, Dino is the very picture of all that is shameless, self-serving, and disingenuous. But he’s as good at tennis as he is at unsubtly ingratiating himself with his ‘betters,’ so he soon finds himself partnering with the rich man at weekly tennis matches. But he lets that limited connection go straight to his head, living way beyond his means, and risking everything for an imagined forty percent return on the investment he has had to go deeply in hock to make. Dino has a second wife (Roberta, played by Valeria Golino) who’s too good for him – and she’s pregnant (with twins), which leaves even more of those close to Dino at jeopardy should his ‘easy money’ investment fail to yield the huge returns for which he lusts.
Then, there’s Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). Once an aspiring stage actress, she has settled into passive domesticity, at the beck and call of her wealthy investor husband, Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni). They are very well-off materially, but Carla seems hollowed out, with a vague air of resignation and repressed unhappiness. But, when she happens upon a theater that’s ready to fall down, Carla convinces her husband to buy and restore it. Suddenly, she has a purpose and she gradually starts to shake off her detachment from life – until, that is, financial troubles throw the family’s wealth into jeopardy. In the face of that change of fortunes, Bernaschi throws cold water on his wife’s newly awakened dreams, dismissively saying, “We’ll have to see about that…. We need liquid assets.”
Finally, there’s Serena, the lovely, independent-minded daughter of Dino. No one knows that she and Bernaschi Jr. have long since ceased to be a couple – and that the connection between the families is therefore tenuous and all but illusory. Indeed, Serena has grown devoted instead to a reputed ‘bad boy’ with a good heart (Luca, played by Giovanni Anzaldo). But, can Luca escape his bad luck and his bad family connections? And what will each of these characters do to protect what they have – their family, their material wealth (or material aspirations, in Dino’s case), their dreams, and their chance at happiness? A hit-and-run automobile accident provides the nucleus around which these competing orbs of ‘class, greed, and desire’ revolve.
Directed and co-written by Paolo Virzì, from the novel by Stephen Amidon, “Human Capital” combines elements of satire, darkly barbed comedy, social commentary, and existential drama, with a few elements of a thriller thrown in. It’s about lives of quiet desperation – on the part of those who want more than they have and those who find no true happiness in having material comforts. Nominated for nineteen awards at Italy’s Academy Awards (the David di Donatello Awards), it won in seven of those categories, namely: Best Film, Actress, Supporting Actor (Gifuni), Supporting Actress (Golino), Screenplay, Editing, and Sound. It was nominated for Best Actress and Director at the European Film Awards; and it won Best Actress at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. For ages 18+: Coarse language; brief sexual content; and brief nudity.
The DVD’s accompanying short film is: “Job Interview” (Germany, 2013) (B+): When a young woman, Lisa (Stefanie von Poser) arrives for a scheduled job interview after the close of normal working hours, her prospective employer, Marie (Sinikka Schubert), locks the door behind her. Lisa doesn’t make anything of it, at first. “This is exactly the job I’ve always been looking for,” she tells Marie. But she should be careful what she wishes for. The questions are odd, and they become odder. Not to worry, says Marie, reassuringly. It’s all part of an elaborate stress test. “I’m sure I’ll survive,” says Lisa. But there’s less conviction in her voice now. This 9-minute short film from director Julia Walter is a nice psychological cat-and-mouse drama, kin to “The Twilight Zone.” Its production design is cloaked in muted shades of blue and grey; but a blood red abstract painting on the office wall hints at a less than benevolent hidden agenda. Or, does it?