“In a Better World”—Or Is It?

In a Better World movie

“In a Better World” (winner of the 2011 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) takes place in a beautiful village in Denmark where Anton is a doctor who travels between his home and a Sudanese refugee camp where he performs surgery for the most heinous of crimes in a bloody civil war.   He and his family are faced with conflicts of their own: his son, Elias, who is angry at his parents’ pending divorce and at being bullied at school; and Marianne, who cannot forgive Anton’s affair.

Christian, a quiet and sullen ten-year old and Elias quickly become friends when Christian confronts some school bullies.   When Christian involves Elias in a dangerous act of revenge,   their friendship is tested, lives are put in danger, and their parents must face their own failure.

Directed by the idiosyncratic Susanne Bier (“Love is All You Need”), the battle presented is between revenge and forgiveness. The boys’ story and their parents’ frustration and anger are powerful and understandable, if not quite sympathetic. What Susanne Bier does is contrast people who are instinctively cruel with those who are instinctively kind. The outcome is surprising and unpredictable. A superb and original film!

 

“Words and Pictures”–Graphic Dullness

Words and Pictures

This movie’s central theme asks the question:  “Is a picture worth a thousand words?” In a contest between art and literature, a high school teacher of English literature and a teacher of painting are determined to prove that their specialty depicts the reality of experience more effectively than the other.

English  teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is barely making it to his classes on time, drinking from a flask in his car during recess.  In the past he was a gifted poet but no longer.  Then the renowned artist  Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is hired to teach gifted aspiring teenage artists. The battle  between words and pictures becomes increasingly tense with a dialogue that falls flat and focuses more on their dislike for each other than on the theme of articulation in words and images.  A subplot is introduced involving a shy art student who is hesitant to express herself and is humiliated by a fellow student.  As in all rom-com films we see  two main characters who are repulsed by each other, who eventually have to surrender their egos, and finally realize that they need and are incomplete without the other.

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche,  excellent actors, almost seem embarrassed by the  clichés and mundane script. “Words and Pictures” supports neither literature nor art, and  ultimately the theme gets muddled. Though the audience gets a few laughs, the story is just not structured well enough to achieve what it wants.  The only interesting feature is that Binoche actually is  a real artist and the art she’s making in the film is her own art.

This film reveals a predictable outcome without subtlety, nuance, or original twists.  Don’t bother seeing it!

 

“Incendies”–Scorched and Fiery

Incendies
Incendies

“Incendies” was nominated for a 2011 Best Foreign Film Academy Award and also named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best films of 2011.  A French-Canadian drama  adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play of the same name, “Incendies” tells the family saga  of twenty-something twins, — brother (Simon) and sister (Jean)– who are determined to  know the mystery of their reserved mother’s life even though they have not had a warm, affectionate relationship with her.

In their mother’s will she has left two letters.  One is to be delivered to their brother (whom they did not know existed) and the other to their father (whom they had presumed dead). The will further states that the mother will only be buried naked and facing away from the sun in an unmarked grave, until the two letters have been delivered to their brother and father.   To carry out their mother’s wishes, they must travel to the Middle East, the region of her birth. A series of flashbacks — extremely powerful and unforgettable– reveal the secrets their mother did not share.

Events this powerful do not require embellishment, and Denis Villeneuve’s spare dispassionate directorial style maximizes impact.

Every scene adds a piece to the puzzle while giving us a palpable sense of the hopelessness of war. The film builds up to an unforgettable ending that is sure to shock any viewer.  To say more would be to ruin this film.

“Incendies”  is that rare movie that lingers long after seeing it.  Devastating and searing in its unflinching depiction of  the horrors of war and the enormous human costs, this film  simply must be seen.  It is,  foremost,  a plea for reconciliation and forgiveness: to have the courage not to pass conflict down to yet another generation. The only way to win a war is simply to stop fighting.

The Book Thief–Not to be Shelved

Book Thief A pre-teen  girl, Liesel Menninger (the extraordinary Sophie Nelisse)  is handed off by her mother, who no longer  can care for her , to a middle-aged couple. The time is pre-Kristallnacht Germany, 1938.

Her foster home is simple and impoverished.  Her foreboding foster mother, Rosa Hubermann (the extraordinary Emily Watson) shows little affection, at first,  for the frightened girl. But the  irascible  father Hans (the endearing Geoffrey Rush) comforts the shy twelve-year old with magical and fanciful allusions to literature and music, playing his accordion and composing songs just for her.

Liesel soon adapts to her intimidating environment.  Her foster father teaches her to read and to find comfort in books, even though the only book she has is one that had dropped in the snow.  Soon she begins  stealing books and, even hiding them, when Kristallnacht’s infamous night happens.

This movie is hauntingly beautiful, but moves at a pace that , at times, is slow. Moreover, the  ending  is anti-climactic.  But the performances are startling and award-worthy.    Based on a novel, commenting on the inhumanity  of Nazi Germany, “The Book Thief” is  a graceful tale of one small soul fighting to make sense of her world, questioning its cruelty, and seizing independence. Liesel is determined  to find a way of being “normal” in a world of unspeakable horror.

Above all, “The Book Thief” is  a love story:  of friendship, love of integrity, love  of the written word, with the feel of a fable or children’s tale, a dreamy sort of look at the life books open to the eyes of a child.  A must-see.   Rent it on Netflix, which has just released it!

“Happy Valley”-No One’s Idea of Happiness

Happy Valley

This compelling and addictive police drama stars Sarah Lancashire as  the middle-aged Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood,  who struggles daily between remembering  the suicide of her teenage daughter and developing love for the young boy her daughter left behind.  Divorced and estranged from her son partly because of that tragic death, Catherine  is determined to capture her daughter’s lover/killer/rapist, but the search almost spirals out of control when the perpetrator, Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) is released from prison.  Her pursuit of Tommy Lee Royce becomes an obsession.

A popular BBC production distributed by Netflix on August 20, Happy Valley consists of  six episodes, which  do not involve any hunting for clues, since we know the heinous nature of the crime from the first episode.  But the characters are so sharply drawn and the situation so suspenseful that binge viewing is the way to go.   . The proliferation of drugs, corruption of government, and police complicity are part of the  problems  she faces every day.

Cawood is the type of woman we rarely see on television:   self-aware at times,  unbelievably vulnerable and foolish also.  Occasionally, she is just out of control–both emotionally and physically–and recklessly puts herself in danger. Happy Valley

“Happy Valley”, like “The Fall” (also from the U.K. and distributed exclusively through Netflix) as well as The Killing and The Bridge (American adaptations of two Scandinavian shows)—not to mention the mother of them all, Prime Suspect—suggests just how much a thriller can be designed focusing on  a woman  police officer, who is damaged but tenacious in accomplishing what she needs to.  Season Two of this highly unusual drama is being produced now and scheduled for US release in January 2015.

 

“Boyhood”–Childhood is Never Easy

 

BoyhoodFilmed over 12 years with the same cast, “Boyhood”  is like no other movie made in Hollywood.  This groundbreaking story feels like a documentary, not a scripted narrative written and directed by Richard Linklater (of “Slacker” fame), who films  intermittently for five days each year over an eleven-year period (from  2002 to  2013).  The decade-long time-span for shooting the story is in itself pioneering, but “Boyhood” is so much more.  This coming-of-age story is about all families, families we know and families we grew up in.  It is not exclusively about boys, although there are scenes encapsulating maleness.  “Boyhood” is more  about all of us: growing up and growing old.

The viewer is pulled into the film, almost as a voyeur.  We see the  beautiful six-year old boy,  Mason (the phenomenal newcomer Ellar Coltrane),  grow to eighteen years old, encompassing the baby-faced  charm, but also the  pain, of early childhood through the indecisiveness of adolescence with a single mom and a well-meaning  father ill-equipped for either parenting or marriage.  “Boyhood”  opens with a sudden decision by Olivia (Patricia Arquette),  the lovely but exhausted single mother, to move to Texas in order to start a new life with her two children, Mason and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).   The drifter dad Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) insinuates himself into their lives.  There is no place any of them can call home.    Boyhood 2

 

 

 

Everyone in the family makes very poor choices.  As the story unfolds, there are other possible outcomes , different from what actually happens, but equally viable. When Mason, now eighteen years old, is asked: “Do people seize moments or do moments seize them?”  Mason replies:  “We are always in the moment.”  And “Boyhood” reveals the ever-constant present that replays our past. That is part of the genius of “Boyhood”, although the pacing is at times uncomfortably slow.

Ultimately, “Boyhood”  belongs to the young actor Ellar Coltrane who plays the boy Mason.   Lorelei Linklater, as his sister, Samantha,  also shares center stage for underscoring the tensions of everyday family life.   I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie  becomes a film classic!

 

“The Priest of Love” — D.H. Lawrence’s Travel Diary (Unfortunately)

 

[Guest post from author Shelly King, who has written the novel, THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, about a young woman who finds love notes written in the margins of a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in a used bookstore. The quest to learn the truth behind these notes turns her life, and the lives of those around her, completely upside down. THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING will be in bookstores from Grand Central Publishing (Hachette) on September 2, 2014. For more about Shelly and her debut novel, visit: www.shellyking.com.]

 

The Priest of Love

 

It’s hard to make an interesting movie about a writer. The process of writing is quiet and boring to watch. It’s interior and that often doesn’t make a good movie. But what do you do if you really want to make a movie about a writer, especially a writer whose work screams to be visual like D.H. Lawrence? Well, my suggestion would definitely not be to make it a travel diary which is basically what The Priest of Love is.

What made me interested in a 1981 movie I’d never heard of? Well, I’m fascinated by D.H. Lawrence’s work. Lady Chatterley’s Lover plays a key part in my own novel, The Moment of Everything. I like how Lawrence pushed boundaries, not only by the four-letter words he uses but by questioning the morality of the industrial age. He celebrates the tenderness between two people (the first title for the novel was Tenderness) while showing the expression of that tenderness with a frankness no one had read before. It’s a novel I didn’t like at first, but have grown to love for its heart. So when I found out there was a movie about the years Lawrence spent writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover–his last novel–starring Ian McKellen, I was so there.

Unfortunately, “The Priest of Love” was a disappointment. It starts with Lawrence and his new wife Frieda in Cornwall at the beginning of WWI. They are expelled because Frieda is German. So they leave England and accept the patronage of a wealthy, eccentric woman in Taos, New Mexico. Lawrence and Frieda fight. They go on to Mexico and fight some more. Then it’s back to England, then to Italy and France, fighting along the way, all while John Gielgud is back in England banning and burning Lawrence’s books.

It’s hard to say what this movie is really about. It only got interesting in the final 30 minutes when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published and we got to see the reaction and how Lawrence reacted to the reaction. But it’s all a very shallow telling of a very fascinating story of how that book came to be.

The movie is trying very hard to show the complex relationship between Lawrence and Frieda, and that’s a noble goal. They were complex people (she left her husband and three children for him), but the movie barely scratches the surface. Ian McKellen is wonderful as Lawrence and could have been extraordinary with a better script. In the end, the film is little more than a travel diary.

D.H. Lawrence was an astonishing and revolutionary writer. It would have been amazing if this film about him had been so as well.

 

 

GORGEOUS: Confronting Beauty in Some Extreme Forms

[Guest post from artist Tracey Adams who currently has her own show at the Bryant Street Gallery,  Palo Alto, and K. Imperial Fine Arts, San Francisco.   In addition, The Huffington Post interviewed Tracey in “Everything in My Life Is Interconnected” on art, music and math.]

 0904-14-Gorgeous-exhibition-majorLast week I had the pleasure of seeing GORGEOUS, an exhibition of works  from both the SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.  The curators mentioned, this exhibition is not about the context or meanings of the objects. Rather, the focus is on what the objects look like and how we react to them.  What grabbed me the most were the text plaques alongside each piece. The subject of Beauty is one I’ve been exploring and reading about for the last 2 years. I’m including a few highlights from the “Gorgeous” catalog:  excerpted text  from the curators, Allison Harding and Forrest McGill.  

 Lotus-deer-and-maple-leaves-1800-50-School-of-Sakai-Hoitsu-set-of-3-hanging-scrolls-ink-and-colors-on-silk“The gorgeous challenges the limits of conventional beauty, often approaching the grotesque, abject, overwrought or kitsch. It catches us off guard with an attraction to that other thing, the under belly, where beauty gets messy and unpredictable. Some may feel attracted, others repulsed. We can’t look away. S/he may not be beautiful; s/he is gorgeous.”

“Beauty is always bizarre. I do not mean to say that it is voluntarily, coldly bizarre…I mean that it always contains a bit of strangeness, not intentional, but unconscious, and it is this strangeness in particular that creates Beauty…Reverse the proposition, and try to conceive of a commonplace beauty!” – Charles BaudelaireEllsworth-Kelly-ntitled-Mandorla-1988-bronze

 

Go experience GORGEOUS at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, through September 14, 2014!

“Chef”–A Recipe for Fun

"Chef"

With an all-star cast, “Chef”  centers on the once-celebrated chef Carl Casper(Jon Favreau, director of the Iron Man series),  who is ordered by the owner (Dustin Hoffman) to preserve the status quo: a  predictable menu the customers want.  “No one goes to a Rolling Stone’s concert  not expecting to hear ‘Satisfaction’.”  The boss commands Carl  to play to his strengths, because business is business.  When a famous food critic (the ever-appealing Oliver Platt)  dismisses the menu as tired and yesteryear, the conflict boils over into a confrontational fist-fight, gone viral. Chef Carl’s passion for trendy and innovative food, and his sense of pride, won’t let him stay.

Unsure of how to reclaim his passion for food and maintain an amiable relationship with Inez,  his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara, the sexy star of “Modern Family”) and his young son, Percy (the amazing newcomer Emjay Anthony), he starts a food truck business.   Another ex-husband of  Inez   (Robert Downey Jr. the Iron Man himself), helps finance the food truck for the down-and-out Chef.  Carl’s former restaurant’s hostess (Scarlett Johansson) also encourages him to follow his dream.

What follows is an unorthodox road trip with a fellow restaurant worker, a Cuban American (John Leguizamo,) and the twelve-year old tech-savvy Percy, who videos the fast-food orders of Cuban-style food and tweets so that foodies can find his father’s  food truck’s location (like the famous Kogi truck in LA, a model for this movie!)

The connection of food to family  is truly delicious in its own way.  While “Chef”  is certainly a feast for the senses,  it’s the  theme about restoration– restoring the father-son relationship– and restoring passion–that are the pivotal scenes in this film.

“Chef” is a  familiar recipe  with great ingredients, enjoyable for almost anyone not expecting an “art film”.  An entertaining, humorous movie that hooked this viewer,  “Chef” is hard to resist:  pairing of sumptuous shots of food porn with sensual Latin music.  You can almost smell what’s cooking, and all I could think of was what I was going to eat for dinner afterwards.  This film is more than food porn–it is a recipe for fun!

 

“Snowpiercer”–Don’t Get on This Train

Snowpiercer

“Snowpiercer“(2013), directed by the Korean master Bong Joon-ho (of “Mother” fame) is a sci-fi dystopia in the year 2031, after a failed climate-change experiment seventeen years before has frozen all of Earth and wiped out all life, except for the survivors on a bullet train–Snowpiercer–  traveling across the globe in a self-contained ecosystem. The  train is class-structured with the poorest in the back suffering like slaves under grotesque conditions and the 1 % in the front with every luxury imaginable, epitomized by spa pools, floor-to-ceiling aquariums, and sushi bars.  Curtis (Chris Evans from “Captain America”), a passenger who is in the back of the train, wants social change and a wise old man named Gilliam (John Hurt) helps him.  Curtis’s  friend, Edgar (Jamie Bell),  and a mother (Octavia Spencer) of a child seized from her also are determined to change their destiny.

The scene-stealer is Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable as the spokesperson for the privileged ruling class.  Every shot she is in perks up this two-hour film that, although carefully crafted and loaded with special effects, has a story that does not arc properly, dragging in plot points until another over-the-top fight scene tries to grab the audience’s attention. Swinton2

“Snowpiercer” is Korean director, Joon-ho Bong’s first English-language film with a combination of A-list Korean actors and exceptional American ones.  I am not the right demographic for this film.  It is a  thriller for the audience who loves “300” (mainly under-30 males) with long fight scenes and special effects that chew up any story or semblance of one.  If you want to see a masterpiece by Bong, rent “Mother”and don’t get on this train.

 

“The End of Poverty?”– The Problem Persists

End of Poverty

Global poverty did not just happen. Yet the overwhelming magnitude of poverty seems unsolvable.  Can we really end poverty within our current economic system?

In this award-winning documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, we see the historical foundation that, for over five centuries,  laid the groundwork for today’s financial crisis.  It began with military conquest, slavery and colonization (often in the spirit of missionary zeal) that resulted in the seizure of land and  minerals and in forced labor. Today, the problem persists because of the structuring of debt, trade and tax policies.   The “End of Poverty” (2009) reveals  a co-dependency in which the southern hemisphere provides cheap resources for the northern hemisphere without a way out of  financial indebtedness and towards economic independence.  The dependency is necessary to prop up the industrialized nation’s standard of living.

The film begins with the premise: since 20% of the planet’s population uses 80% of its resources and consumes 30% more than the planet can regenerate,  the northern hemisphere lifestyle mandates that more and more people have to sink below and remain below the poverty line.

For anyone wanting to understand not only the US economic system but the foundations of today’s global economy, this is a phenomenal documentary without the eyeball-glazing snooze of economists’ jargon.

Instead of trying to shock you or force you to  a specific conclusion, “The End of Poverty” leaves the viewer with images and personal accounts. It is not about poverty as a whole, but poverty in Third World countries.  It is an  educational opportunity to become aware of the history of global expansion, trade and the role of religion in the commerce of modern times.

 

“The Fall” (mini-series) — “Prime Suspect” Revisited

thefall-articleLarge

In this Netflix Original production distributed by BBC Ireland, (not to be confused with the 2006 movie of the same name–see August 16, 2011 review),  the story unfolds, not as a mystery to be solved, but as a contrast between two obsessive personality types. One is Detective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson of “X-Files” and “Bleak House” fame), called in to solve a murder.  The other is the psychopath leading a double life, not unlike “Dexter”. Interestingly, it is the seeming normalcy of the psychopath, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, soon to be  known as the actor in the upcomng “Fifty Shades of Grey”),  who appears to have the more balanced life: an effective  grief counselor with a supportive wife and two loving kids to whom he is devoted. The detective, meanwhile, is lonely, absorbed by her work even when eating,  and seems to engage only in brief sexual encounters with no emotional commitment (not unlike the unforgettable Helen Mirren’s character in “Prime Suspect”).  A strong and no-holds-barred dialogue about the hypocrisy towards women’s sexual behavior in contrast with that of men runs throughout.

The five-part series, set in the dark landscape of Belfast, explores the motivation and precise technical prowess of a sexual predator with a clinical voyeurism at once chilling and puzzling.  It is deeply disturbing to watch the antagonist shampoo his five-year old daughter’s hair after a sinister “kill” involving a bathtub scene.  Furthermore,  the little girl is subtly sexualized in a deeply unsettling way. Spector’s “normal” life of teacher conferences,  spousal harmony, and empathy for those he is counseling can be viewed in two ways:  as a life he would like to maintain because it could heal his many unknown wounds, or as the life which allows him to commit his notorious and heinous crimes.

In the chilling ending, after three murders and a cat-and-mouse game between Gibson and Spector, we are left on the edge of our seats at the inconclusive final scene:  unfinished business that may leave viewers dissatisfied.   This viewer would have liked either a tighter connection between subplots and murders, or at least a backstory on both of the main characters.  Neither happens, though the scenes and some of the dialogue are absolutely stunning.   Nonetheless, “The Fall” is riveting and addicting.

Netflix has another hit in this miniseries.   I can’t wait for the six-part Season 2, to be broadcast on Netflix this coming autumn!