“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” 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.