Cezanne et Moi–Artistic Jealousy

Cezanne et Moi

Guest blogger: Barbara Donsky, the award-winning author of the memoir Veronica’s Grave,  is posting for the second time–“Cezanne et Moi”– for my website. [Her first guest feature was “The Innocents” –And War” on July 16, 2016. For the unedited version of this review go to Barbara Donsky’s blog, www.desperatelyseekingParis.com, –“Cezanne and Zola”]

Cézanne et Moi portrays the troubled friendship between the Post-Impressionist master Paul Cézanne (played by Guillaume Gallienne) and the Nobel Prize-nominated novelist Émile Zola (Guillaume Canet).

Young Zola is so poor he catches birds so he and his mother can eat. Cézanne, on the other hand, comes from a privileged background but is bullied by an austere and imposing father.

The biopic Cezanne et Moi traces their tumultuaous friendship from early school days to nights of debauchery and eventually to a reversal in social standing.  Cézanne, disheartened by the success of the Impressionist painters, forges ahead trying to find a way forward from Impressionism to what we now know as modern art. His early efforts meet with disdain in a world still captivated by the works of the Impressionists. Cezanne et Moi

Although Zola comes to his friend’s defense, Cézanne’s pride remains wounded. The arguments and jealousies increase, in part because Zola, after the publication of a few novels, has become a wealthy man.   Eventually they have a falling out over Zola’s “L’Oeuvre,” a fictionalized depiction of Cézanne’s life as a loser and failed artist.   When Zola’s novel met with great acclaim, Cézanne accused Zola of ‘selling out’, of siding with the bourgeoisie.

Adding more misery to their relationship is Alexandrine, Cézanne’s previous lover, who marries Zola.  Years later, Cézanne, against his family’s wishes, would live for many years with another woman made famous by his paintings of ‘Madame Cezanne’. if a woman his family regarded as beneath them socially.

That these two geniuses, temperamentally 180 degrees apart, should have met and befriended one another seems improbable, and yet it happened. And the world is richer for it—if not the women who loved them and lived with them. Cezanne et Moi is a family saga with twists and turns any viewer and writer would love.

American Gods–A Subversive Riff on Religion

American Gods TV series (STARZ)

The dual theme of religion and government is an intriguing new exploration for television. Handmaid’s Tale (see my May 14th review) focuses on women’s debasement in the name of religion  American Gods, on the other hand, focuses on immigrants (pre-travel ban), and the brewing and stewing of mythology in opposition to institutional religions. Both myth and established religions fight a new belief system of technology and money.  This is experimental film-making and cinematography at its best.

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is a convict who is released a few days early from prison, due to the death of his wife. Without income, he begrudgingly becomes a bodyguard and partner to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (the magnetic Ian McShane).  American Gods is first and foremost the story of Mr. Wednesday.

Based on the 2001 novel by the same name by children’s book author Neil Gaiman (of Coraline fame), American Gods is part stylized art, part time-travel, part political commentary and part science fiction/fantasy. With its intensity, stellar acting, stunning visuals, and diverse cast, this is a complex fantasy series. The plots involving con men and forgotten but vengeful deities combat each other in horrific scenes of violence. The series begins with a Vikings episode of blood and gore commanded by the Norse gods.

American Gods is not for the faint-of-heart. But for those who are unafraid of the darkness of the soul, or of the repressive effects of religion —American Gods tackles difficult subject matter:     the human need for the spiritual., Not every viewer can watch this series without being offended. For those who can, they will experience a provocative tour of the divisions in spiritual versus material values. The divisions, coupled with the depredation of violence in the name of religion and egomania, are dazzling and impossible to forget. The series’ first season (on Starz) has not ended and the questions of division and unification remain to be answered.

The Wizard of Lies–Decades of Untruth

 

This HBO TV drama (which premiered on May 20, 2017) chronicles the infamous Wall Street meltdown of financier Bernie Madoff’s $64 billion dollar Ponzi scheme, perhaps the largest financial fraud in US history. Starring Robert de Niro as Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth, The Wizard of Lies  (directed by Barry Levinson) is based on the book by well-known financial journalist Diana B. Henriques.

How did this man get away with such massive fraud for so many years? The Wizard of Lies raises this question as a Shakespearean tragedy, a family saga in which the volatile patriarch father manipulates one son while another son desperately yearns for his approval. This all takes place while Madoff is building a financial empire on smoke and mirrors. In 2008 Madoff was finally arrested.

The Wizard of Lies opens with Madoff already incarcerated and being interviewed by a reporter (Henriques plays herself.) In a series of flashbacks we see Madoff wine and dine extremely wealthy investors. In a cycle of increasingly desperate and deceptive maneuvers, Madoff promises unrealistically steady profits, continuing his Ponzi scheme for years: pitching to family, friends, charitable institutions, whomever can be the next gullible investor.  But profits cannot be sustained.

One of his sons, overwhelmed by his father’s fraud and his part in contributing to it, commits suicide when the investigation by the SEC finally gains momentum. (Madoff was a former NASDAQ chairman and therefore, considered by many as beyond reproach.) The remaining son dies before his father’s indictment. In the end Madoff is a devastated old man serving a prison sentence of 150 years, with no wife (Ruth has divorced him), no sons, no visitors, but still clinging to the belief he has committed no crime.

Many defrauded clients remain nameless and faceless while some of his more desperate victims committed suicide. Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies  is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess. What would we do if given steady profits over many years? Why would we question our good fortune? Why would we ask if the steady positive returns were too good to be true? These questions are left for us to reflect upon.

The Wizard of Lies features a strong cast of seasoned actors that give their best on screen, particularly De Niro and Pfeiffer. De NIro plays Madoff as a deeply delusional sociopath who masterminds one of the largest Ponzi schemes of the century while denying his own criminal behavior.

The ending is satisfying for those wanting to see karma function as it should.

Note: To date about 70% of the money Bernie Madoff swindled has been recovered.

“Dear Evan Hansen”–A Note to Loneliness

 

“Dear Evan Hansen” is “13 Reasons Why” meets “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” This original Broadway musical premiered this year and has received critical acclaim. At the upcoming 71st Tony Awards (this Sunday, June 11), “Dear Evan Hansen” is nominated for nine awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Actor in a Musical.

The title character, Evan Hansen, is a shy teenager almost incapacitated by some sort of cognitive or  social anxiety disorder.   Assigned by his therapist to draft letters about why each day will be good, one letter becomes the catalyst for the plot of the story. This letter was never meant to be shared, a lie that was only meant to be seen by the therapist. But for Evan a life he never dreamed happens as the letter’s impact unintentionally gains momentum and opens a portal for a chance to finally fit in. With unintended consequences, Evan Hansen’s letter reshapes events of a fellow student’s (Connor Murphy) suicide, resulting in both Hansen’s mom and Connor’s family experiencing heart-piercing grief. There is no justification for those left behind by a suicide and Connor’s death threatens the very existence of his family.

Deeply personal and profoundly contemporary, Dear Evan Hansen is about social media’s ability to unintentionally magnify “little lies” until they take on a life of their own. At that point there is no easy way out. As the lonely protagonist, Evan Hansen desperately wants to connect, even in cyberspace, but remains in an emotional abyss.   It’s also about how we project ourselves in our world, both physical and digital–but it’s not the “real you.” Our vanity metrics of “likes” become addictive and the dependency continues its hold on us.

The memorably soulful and emotionally resonant songs, by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on a story from Pasek’s adolescence, strike the same complex notes that expose the tensions and conflicts of Evan Hansen.  The breathtaking stage design simulates social media’s continuous flashing and lightng, with computer screens in long hangings cascading behind and next to the performers on stage, reminiscent of the imaginative and Tony-award winning design for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is unforgettable, operatically emotional theater that should become a national sensation.

 

“A Third Gender–Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints”– Japan Society, New York City ( March 10- June 11, 2017)

 

A Third Gender--Japan Society

“A Third Gender–Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” is a mind-bending exhibit which resonates today.

The Royal Ontario Museum has loaned its extraordinary collection of 65 Japanese woodblock prints to the New York branch of the Japan Society. The exhibit focuss on wakashu (“young beauties”) –a unique “third” gender.  The notion of gender fluidity — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is the essence of these woodblock prints. They challenge modern notions that male and female are obvious either-or identities.

Wakashu were most often handsome teenage boys (and sometimes adolescent girls) who were highly desired by both older men and women. The young women who participated as wakashu were most likely the daughters of geisha.These young boys and girls did not carry the social responsibilities of adults, but were nonetheless sexually mature and sexually ambidextrous. During this stage of life, before full-fledged adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with either men or women and to engage in crossdressing. Later on, the wakashu self-identified as they wished.

The most discerning feature to identify a beautiful figure as wakashu is the hairstyle, an essential but subtle visual cue in woodblock prints. Combs and hairpins as well as very elaborate hairdos were traditionally markers for identifying young women. Forelocks or slightly carved bald spots, were markers for identifying young male wakashu. Young women could also dress as samurai but with a tell-tale obi (waist sash) tied in traditional feminine fashion. Wakashu males would also wear long-sleeved kimonos like unmarried women,. In several prints, you have to look closely to find the shaved triangle in the hair, or spot a sword tucked in a geisha wakashu’s sash (impersonating a female). In erotic woodblocks (shunga), the genitals telegraph the gender.

Many permutations of gender and sexuality were acceptable: men or women in liaisons with wakashu; female geisha dressing like male wakashu engaging in sex with male patrons; male prostitutes cross-dressing as women; and even a male Kabuki “actor” impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man aggressively initiating intercourse. Such fluidity of gender identity is deliberate, playful and often arousing.

The prints range from lively humorous scenes of daily life or classical myths (mitate-e) to uninhibited portrayals of desire. Sometimes the young wakashu males practice feminine arts such as flower-arranging or playing the samisen . A screen shows several wakashu surrounding a Buddhist monk, tickling him and plying him with alcohol, suggesting foreplay before male-male sex (not prohibited in Buddhism). A young woman passes a love note to her male wakashu lover behind the back of an older artist who is signing his name to a painting. A male wakashu dreams of sex with a famous prostitute, while another woman tenderly covers him with a jacket. One of the artworks at the very end of the show, dating back to the 1800s, showcases lesbian intercourse with a dildo, demonstrating an example of non-heteronormative sex at the end of the Edo period.  

The show reveals how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s. More rigid notions of gender and “acceptable” sexual expression followed. The tradition of wakashu ended. Homosexuality was outlawed. The suppression of this sexual component of Japanese culture runs so deep that most Japanese are unaware of the historical existence of the wakashu.

This Japan Society exhibit is a corrective to past misidentifications of wakashu as young women as well as a portal to a new world of gender fluidity.  Walking through “A Third Gender” is a reckoning with categories, definitions and how uncertain the lines between genders can be.  This exhibit is not to be missed.

“A Doll’s House Part 2”–Knocking on the Door

 

A door slams. The viewer is stunned. Nora makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children. That is where A Doll’s House, the iconic 1879 play by Ibsen, leaves off.

Now the young playwright, Lucas Hnath, has continued Nora’s story in this intriguing Tony-nominated play asking us to imagine her life fifteen years later. Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, opens with a knock on that door. Nora is back.

Nora (Tony-nominated Laurie Metcalf) returns home, but not as we imagined. Now a wealthy best-selling author whose books are loosely based on details of her married life, Nora has become rich on selling the view that marriage is a woman’s prison. We soon learn that Nora herself remains married. Consequently, all contracts and investments she has made in the past fifteen years are now null and void, since married women could not engage in business without their husband’s consent. Unless she can get her husband Torvald to divorce her, she is now worse off than she once was. She may be tried as a criminal.

Metcalf, Houdyshell, Rashad, and Cooper

Yet this is a very different Nora. She’s no longer the person who had to appear “smaller” and “barely visible” in order to be desired by her husband as feminine, needing protection and support. A Doll’s House Part 2 asks the same question Ibsen did in 1879: Can a woman find her own voice in an exclusively male-dominated society?

A Doll’s House Part 2 raises high stakes. In the original classic, Nora chooses her own freedom over that of caring for her young children. Here we see her try to forge an alliance first with her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (the multiple Tony-award nominated   Jayne Houdyshell) and later with her adult daughter, Emmy (played with poignant grace by Condola Rashad). First, Anne Marie, in a scathing rebuke, rejects Nora’s offer of money. After all, Anne Marie has given up caring for her own child in order to be a nanny for Nora’s. Then, Emmy moves in to blistering effect–extolling the virtues of being a married woman and mother, responsibilities Nora rejected.

Chris Cooper & Laurie Metcalf

The astounding Laurie Metcalf constantly acts within her acting, as if she is listening to her own argument in opposition to Torvald’s countering dialog, a riveting feature of this play. Like Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (novels by Evan S. Connell), we see scenes from the same marriage but from completely different perspectives, with very little intersection. Torvald (in a quiet but searing performance by Chris Cooper) is her counterpoint and both actors reveal their wounds in every facial expression, even in the comic relief interjected before the breakdown of the human spirit becomes unbearable.   They box each other into a corner.

Yet, how can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? Even their emotional truths are disjointed. That is the puzzle and it is left unsolved. Nora as a character will always be defined by her never-to-be-completed quest for independence and fulfillment. The perception that a woman who puts her own needs above her children’s is violating a sacred pact —and the collision of viewpoints: freedom versus duty and obligation, relationships versus solitude, marriage and family versus individual growth —is explosive in the context of gender and social class. A Doll’s House Part 2 almost dares us to see the hypocrisy in considering Nora’s quest and struggle for identity as a human being separate from her roles as mother and wife. The price she has paid to even think it is possible may be too high. How could she have left her children out of self-care and self-love? What about social convention?

A Doll’s House Part 2 is staunchly unapologetic and an extraordinary accomplishment in literature. Each character is given center stage to see the consequences of his or her own failings, a series of unfortunate and tragic events, with visceral angst.

“The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,” Nora confesses to Torvald. But she’s not prepared to concede defeat. Hnath brings Nora’s struggles to a new generation, knocking on our door once again.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale–In Service of Democracy?

 

Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, based upon the psychological award-winning 1985 sci-fi thriller by Canadian author Margaret Atwood,  is the Hulu adaptation of the dystopian Republic of Gilead, a fascist autocracy resulting from a religious coup, a war focused mainly on women.

Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death. No one in Gilead has any autonomy, even at the top of the hierarchy, although the elite are given more benefits.

Environmental contamination has resulted in widespread infertility in this near-future world. We see the torment and hell for women and their families, when not allowed to speak truth to power. The ongoing  subjugation of women creates an underground resistance movement that is slowly gaining momentum. Only a few young fertile women,—called Handmaids [of the Lord], referring to a Biblical reference —assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, play the crucial role of replenishing the population. These “handmaids” are “fertility slaves”, submitted to ritualized rape from their male masters while the masters’ wives bear witness. The wives of the elite are concomitantly enraged and subliminally frightened by the situation they’re in.   

Offred (the brilliant Elisabeth Moss) is the handmaid assigned to a Gileadean Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife. She had been happily married with a daughter, husband, and dreams for her and her family. Now, post-coup, Offred is bound to the Commander and his wife.

As in the majority of abusive relationships, we see Offred’s isolation and imprisonment as she suffers constant surveillance, unable to trust any one, without friends but determined to survive. Offred lives a nightmare but she realizes that she can pull levers of power and manipulate those in control in order to escape. She is not powerless.

This Hulu original series has adapted a 32-year old novel at a time when The Handmaid’s Tale unexpectedly resonates in Trump’s America. Gilead is an imaginary society of the worst kind, an allegory for the anxieties about the world we live in now, told with heat and intensity. The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes a way of seeing directly into darkness and madness, heartlessness and dehumanization. But The Handmaid’s Tale also emphasizes irony and tenacity while concluding that cynicism and despair are dead ends. But in the midst of this forlorn and seemingly hopeless world, the Handmaid remains optimistic and determined. At the heart of the story is a woman who has had everything taken away from her: her family, daughter, friends, rights, freedom — everything. And she will not give up. Nevertheless, she persisted….a message even more compelling today.

 

Note:  This is  available currently only on Hulu and the first three episodes have been broadcast already.

The Circle– A Cautionary Tale

 

[David Spiselman is guest blogger for this review and author of CypherGhost, Book 7 of the Spies Lie series, an  Amazon bestseller, under his pen name D.S. Kane].

The Circle, based upon the 2013 bestselling novel by Dave Eggers, is a flawed movie but an important one. The Circle is the first movie to explore the balance between openness and privacy of technology in a way that delivers an indecisive conclusion for its viewers. It’s a polemic against technology and the Silicon Valley lifestyle, startup companies and how easy it is to assume easy answers to difficult questions. You can draw your own conclusions when you see the movie.

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and John Boyega are a stellar cast, and will keep you entertained. Mae Holland (Emma Watson) takes a job with the world’s most powerful social media company. and joins an experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics and personal freedom. Her participation in the experiment starts to have an impact on her friends’ lives, her family and that of the population at large.

While Dave Eggers, the author of the 2013 novel, claims he didn’t do much research, The Circle has the exact feel of the Google campus. I should know. My wife and I attended their pre-IPO party and it felt spooky seeing the movie version of what could be Google, Facebook, or any other of the massive tech giants up close.

The protagonist, Mae Holland, says “Secrets are lies.” This is a central theme of the movie, and it’s the scene you’ll revisit after you leave the theater. I advise you to see The Circle. You might dislike it. You may find it enlightening. But I don’t believe you’ll find it a waste of time and money.

“Thirteen Reasons Why”–The Amber of the Moment

Thirteen Reasons Why

The Netflix Orginal Series, Thirteen Reasons Why, is based upon the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, depicting the trauma of teen angst, cyberbullying, sexual assault, and suicide. All thirteen episodes were released for streaming March 31.Co-produced by singer and actress Selena Gomez and her mother, Thirteen Reasons Why has evoked heated commentary, leading to the most-tweeted TV show this year.

Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on two narrators: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford in a breakthrough role). In the opening scene Clay returns home from school to discover a box containing six double-sided cassette tapes lying on his front porch. These are Hannah’s tape-recorded diary, an account of why she concluded that suicide was the only way out of her pain. The twelve reasons why (later, Clay adds the thirteenth) are an intricately woven, searing and gut-wrenching fabric of young Hannah’s life– confusion and desperation that rips out her will to live. Each of the twelve tapes calls out in detail a high school student’s grave injury to Hannah, leading to her unraveling.

Hannah, a beautiful teenager new to Lincoln High School, is an only child with devoted parents.   She is eager to make friends. Rather passive at first, succumbing to boys’ arrogant and callous mistreatment in order to be accepted, Hannah soon finds the role and status assigned to her to be overwhelming and demeaning.   The confidence needed to stand up and report to school administrators is just not there. Moreover, Clay–who is secretly and awkwardly in love with her–exhibits the same lack of confidence necessary to express his feelings towards her. This is a Romeo-Juliet dance ending with horrible repercussions for all involved in Hannah’s undoing.

Hannah’s parents—concerned, compassionate, and determined to understand their daughter’s suicide—are ultimately absent from Hannah’s life. Neither is able to even identify Hannah’s friends, let alone her enemies or tormenters.  The other parents can’t deal with what is happening and bewildered, distance themselves from Hannah’s parents. In the end, what’s most responsible is the failure of parents to understand the stresses in their teenage sons and daughters’ lives and of the administrators to care enough to intercede.   Alarms bells should ring. As Clay says in the final episode, reflecting on the student body’s treatment of Hannah: “It has to get better somehow–the way we treat each other.”

Thirteen Reasons Why is, in no small part, controversial because of its graphic portrayal of the act of suicide and of assault. Some have criticized the series as a how-to manual–an inspiration, even a glorification or act of revenge– for copycat teenage suicide.   But it is an expose of teenage angst and how it can accelerate and lead to tragedy, when there is no one to help. For those of us who only vaguely remember those years in which a glance or an insult could deeply wound and be almost unbearable, Thirteen Reasons Why may seem overwrought and slow in pacing. But give it time to sink in: that teenagers are unbelievably vulnerable. In the thirty-minute discussion with professional psychologists after the series finale, we see how the warning signs are always there, if we are perceptive enough to see them and brave enough to acknowledge them.

However problematic this series may seem to some, Thirteen Reasons Why  reveals a painful and undeniable truth. Many parents know next to nothing about what goes on in their teenagers’ lives.

Kurt Vonnegut may have said it best: “Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”

 

13th –Not a Lucky Number

13th
13th

The Academy award-nominated documentary by director Ava DuVernay (Selma) opens with the deeply disturbing fact that, even though the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. This is mass incarceration and it is deeply ingrained with race and our judicial system.

The beginning of 13th is almost a recap of Slavery by Another Name. (See my review  , September 17,   2016). We see the Jim Crow laws up close and personal. Convict leasing and lynchings reached their peak at the turn of the 20th century. This vigilantism had the support of businesses who needed free convict labor to substitute for slavery which had been ostensibly outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Increasingly, as labor was needed, more behavior was criminalized. Historical photos and movie footage disturbingly show what happens when blacks use whites-only facilities, look at a white person eye-to-eye, congregate in small groups or fail to move off the sidewalk at the sight of a white person. At the same time, blacks were excluded from the judicial system as jurors and, when sentenced for violating a Jim Crow law, were given fines they could not pay, sending them back to prison to become free labor.

Convict labor took a new turn following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. We see the connection between the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing of drug users, the rise in prison labor, and eventually the symbiotic relationship with for-profit prisons. 13th notes the Republican Party’s appeal to Southern white conservatives, to be the party to fight the war on crime and war on drugs. After their presidential candidates lost to Republicans, Democratic politicians including Bill Clinton joined the war on drugs. Insidiously, this “war on drugs” became a war on blacks. Minority communities endured severe penalties for first offenders while young white offenders were often given probation. By the late 20th century, mass incarceration had become an industry with privatization of prisons  served by corporate contractors to supply phone, clothing and food at exorbitant prices. Securus, for example, provides telephone services at exorbitant rates and Aramark  provides food services that are often substandard.These same special interest groups lobby for criminalizing minor activities and lengthening sentences in order to keep the prisons to capacity. For the prisoners, one felony conviction–for a minor drug offense–virtually ensures that their prospects for stable employment, living arrangements, and even voting would be out of reach.

The film explores the role of ALEC (The American Legislative Executive Committee), backed by corporations, that has provided like- minded state and federal legislators with draft templates for legislation to support the prison-industrial complex among other issues. Only after journalists exposed ALEC’s corporate sponsors did corporations like Wal-Mart and others drop out of the organization.

The relationship between profits based on 19th century slavery and profits based on for-profit private prisons is depressingly illustrated. 13th explores the demonization of African Americans to serve political ends, contributing to fears of minorities by whites and the persistent problems of police brutality against minority communities. In the 21st century, the regularity of fatal police shootings of unarmed minorities in apparently minor confrontations has been demonstrated by videos taken by bystanders and by the increasing use of cams in police cars or worn by officers. DuVernay ends the film with a graphic mosaic  of recent videos of fatal shootings of blacks by police.

DuVernay powerfully shows that the United States, in the final analysis, has to recognize its role in criminalizing not a subset of black people but black people as a whole. This has become a heinous process that, in addition to destroying untold lives, effectively transferred the guilt for slavery from the people who perpetuated it to the very people who suffered through it. The over-incarceration of adults, the movie goes on to assert, has severely damaged generations of black and minority families and their children.

This is an extraordinary film, a history lesson for us all.

“Land of Mine” (2015)–Made for You and Me

 

Land of Mine movie
Land of Mine

Inspired by true events, the 2016 Oscar-nominated foreign film “Land of Mine” is a harrowing depiction of what many consider to be Denmark’s worst war crime.

Nazi Germany buried 1.5 million mines along Denmark’s coast in preparation for an invasion by the Allied forces that never took place. After World War II ended, more than 2,000 German prisoners were sent to disarm those landmines. “Land of Mine” focuses on fourteen German teenage prisoners who are forced to defuse 45,000 mines from a Danish beach, restoring it for future use. Promised a return to their homes upon defusing all the mines, the life-threatening mission begins.

“Land of Mine” powerfully conveys the Danes’ bitterness towards the Nazi occupation, a rage so terrible that dismembered or exploding young boys were an acceptable, if uncomfortable, consequence. The exploitation and death of children is viewed as collateral damage, the price of war. As the cycle of victim and tormentor are reversed,– the Nazi boys by Danish soldiers– the Danes turn off their humanity.

Perhaps the most memorable arc in an extraordinary story is the dramatic change in Sergeant Carl Rasmussen, a Danish soldier put in charge of the boys at a desolate outpost.   Feeling a visceral hatred for his enemy, Rasmussen is brutal and indifferent, demonstrating his affection only towards his dog.

With its philosophical and psychological dramatization of dehumanizing the enemy, “Land of Mine” is profoundly anti-war. The tranquillity of the beach is painfully contrasted with what lies beneath the sand. With bare hands, crawling and trembling, the German teenagers–half-starved and terrified–have no choice but to comply. There is no escape. With every landmine that explodes, the viewer is as surprised as the boys who are trying to defuse the bombs. Not one moment is safe. And the boys cry out for their mothers.

The cinematography in “Land of Mine” captures not only the beautiful Danish seascape, but also the desperate, bewildered mood of teenagers who never wanted to be soldiers.

 

Note: “Land of Mine” is currently playing in select indie movie theaters.

“Pure”–A Torn Soul

 

Pure the movie
Pure (2010)

In the Swedish film “Pure” (2010) 20-year old Katarina (Alicia Vikander has her breakthrough role before ” Ex Machina” and “A Danish Girl”). She is determined to flee her dreary grungy life, bullied by tormenters at school and neglected by her alcoholic prostitute mother. Everything changes when she hears a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, opening up a new world to a soul aching for an intellectual life. But the path she has to follow in order to escape proves a treacherous one, filled with lies, betrayal and a dangerous liaison.

She has been a combative, fiery, but aching soul. Katarina’s love for music and her eagerness to learn gain her the position of Concert Hall receptionist where Adam the composer introduces her to great literature and philosophy. Dramatic changes, created by her burgeoning awareness, transform Katarina. “Courage is life’s only measure”, a quote she has learned from an admirer of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, becomes her mantra. Music saves her soul and her life, but with unintended consequences.”Pure” rapidly takes the viewer on a roller coaster of surprising turns and an even more surprising end.

The entire film depends on the performance of Alicia Vikander as Katarina, and that performance is flawless. First, we see her as a young girl of passion, through her disillusionment. Second, in the very last scene, her soulful eyes are both exhilarating and deflating.

Catch this underrated psychological thriller and its unexpected ending as soon as you get the chance. Instant stream on Netflix.