Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

The Huntsman: Winter’s War


Sisters are doin' it for themselves.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith, Alexandra Roach, Sope Dirisu, Sam Hazeldine, Sam Claflin, Sophie Cookson, Conrad Khan, Niamh Walter, Nana Agyeman-Bediako, Amelia Crouch, Fred Tatasciore, Lynne Wilmot, Colin Morgan, Liam Neeson (voice), Kara Lily Hayworth. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

When making a successful cinematic fairy tale, remember the cardinal rule – always leave room for a sequel. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman didn’t really go that route, although there was certainly a possibility for a sequel. What they did was an oddball mix of prequel and sequel – a pre-sequel, if you will.

Ravenna (Theron), the beautiful but evil queen from the first movie, has a sister named Freya (Blunt) who is married and happy. When a tragedy turns Freya’s life upside down, Freya finds that she has magical powers as well – an ability to control the cold. She turns her kingdom into ice, and forbids love of any sort to exist. She ravages the towns of her kingdom, murdering the parents and stealing kids to be groomed into medieval ninja assassins, whom she calls Huntsmen.

Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) are the best of these; no others can stand against them. They become leaders of an organization that strikes fear throughout the land but then they break the most sacred law of the kingdom by falling in love and they end up paying a terrible price for it. One, I’m sure, you can see coming.

Fast forward seven years and the events of Snow White and the Huntsman are no longer taking place in the future but in the past – raise your hands if you find that confusing. The audience certainly did. In any case, Ravenna is dead but Freya has figured a way to bring her back to life – by acquiring the Magic Mirror of the first film. Eric is not about to let that happen. Aided by a quartet of comic relief dwarves, he heads out to stop Freya at all costs – but he doesn’t count on the one card Freya has to play that he could never have possibly expected.

Like a lot of the fairy tale films produced by Joe Roth, this movie is effects-laden and often sacrifices story for imagery. That’s OK, when the images are as scintillating as they are here; this is a beautiful film to watch. The problem here is that the movie feels like the pacing has gone by the wayside. It’s slow and turgid, and while the actors do credible work, they are given characters who lack much in the way of personality.

Hemsworth is one of only four actors who return from the first film, and as there he shows here that he has all he needs to be a strong leading man. He has that “one of the boys” feel that serves him well as a certain Marvel superhero, but he also commands the screen with confidence as befits a big star. Theron, in addition to being absolutely knock-down drag-out gorgeous, is an actress of considerable range and ability; she does the villain role as well as anybody, including Christoph Waltz.

Emily Blunt is one of those actresses whose name isn’t well known, but who delivers a strong performance every time out. She’s been impressive in such films as Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow and she gives the most emotional performance of any here. Freya is a tortured soul and we get to see glimpses of it; her experiences have hardened her heart (or frozen it) but not completely. From time to time we see flashes of the pain she bears.

Chastain has become one of those actresses who appears in a lot of movies, nearly all of them good. This one is a bit of an exception (more on that later) but she still carries herself off as a warrior struggling with her emotions and her feelings of betrayal. Now while these sound like characters who should have loads of personality, they aren’t allowed to really express them through action or even dialogue. The body language and eyes of the actors gets across most of the characters’ inner feelings. You can tell the actors are trying hard and quite frankly they could have been excused if they’d just phoned it in once they’d cashed the paycheck.

But this movie feels ponderous and not in the sense that it ponders – more like a bloated elephant stomping its way through the underbrush. There’s little finesse here and a little bit too much reliance on the effects to give the movie a sense of wonder. The sequences in the fairy forest of the first film were truly magical; nothing here equals that. In fact, given the somewhat jarring move from prequel to sequel (which in itself was a promising idea) it feels like the filmmakers at times were distracted by things not even going on in the movie.

This is reasonably entertaining with some fine performances, but as other critics have deftly pointed out, there are a lot of good elements here that don’t add up to a good film. Winter’s War is mediocre at best and given that there are so many really good movies out there just waiting for you to check out, it makes no sense to throw your money away when you could be seeing something that really does have plenty of movie magic to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects. Theron makes a delicious villain.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels a bit too bloated. Overall, lacks focus.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence of the swords and sorcery variety as well as a little bit of sensuality..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the popularity of the first film, Kristen Stewart who played Snow White was not asked to reprise her role, the producers electing to go the prequel route. Some say that her notorious affair with director Rupert Sanders was the reason both were made absent from this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Jungle Book

Noah


Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

(2014) Biblical Epic (Paramount) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Finn Wittrock, Madison Davenport, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Dakota Goyo, Ariane Reinhart, Adam Marshall Griffith, Don Harvey, Sami Gayle. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Most everyone in the Western world – and a good part of the Eastern – are familiar with the story of Noah and the Great Flood. How God, in his wrath, wiped out all life on Earth – except for Noah, his family and all the innocent creatures of the Earth…well, two of each species of them, anyway.

The story of Noah actually takes up only four chapters in Genesis however and is lacking in any sort of detail except for those important to the writers of the Bible and/or those they were writing it for. You have to wonder what the real story was.

Darren Aronofsky did. Intrigued by the tale of Noah since the age of 14, he set out to film his own interpretation of the events that led up to the flood and what happened during and after it. He and co-screenwriter Ari Handel did extensive Biblical research and while they did interpret some of it fairly loosely, this is what they came up with.

Noah (Crowe), a descendant of Adam’s son Seth and grandson of Methuselah (Hopkins) lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and his sons from oldest to youngest Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman) and Japheth (Carroll) in the wastelands. They take from the Earth only that which they can use, eat the flesh of no animals and stay away from the civilizations of the time which are the works of the descendants of Cain. Noah had watched his own father (Csokas) slain for no real reason by some of those descendants.

Noah receives visions from the Creator – never referred to at any time as God in the film – that He is displeased with the wickedness of the world and intends to wipe everything out and start over. He will use a great flood to accomplish this. Troubled by his vision, Noah decides to visit his grandfather to see what this all means which makes sense since as part of the vision he saw the mountain his grandfather lives a hermit-like existence on. Along the way they pick up Ila (Watson) whose family was butchered by Cain’s descendants and whose own horrible injuries have left her unable to bear children.

Methuselah gives Noah a tea to drink which brings on another vision – this time of a great ark that must be built to survive the storm. Methuselah gives Noah a seed – the last seed from the Garden of Eden. This creates a forest and convinces the stone Guardians – fallen angels whose light has been sheathed in mud – to help Noah and his family to build the massive structure.

Years pass and word passes to Tubal-cain (Winstone) the King of the local city who recognizes that Noah is serious. He means to possess the Ark for his own and start a new world in his own image while Noah is just as sure that men are a plague upon the Earth that need to be eradicated. Neither outcome sounds particularly palatable to Naameh and her children.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the film even before it came out. Evangelical Christians were damning the film based on remarks made by Aronofsky who is an atheist and said in an interview that it is the least Biblical epic made about a Bible story and characterized Noah as the first environmentalist. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that is sure to make an extreme right-wing Christian get their panties in a bunch.

However, in many ways I can’t blame them. They take a good deal of liberty with the story – six-armed fallen angels made of rock, Tubal-cain who barely appears in the Bible and then as essentially a blacksmith being elevated to King and nemesis. The core elements are all there though and the scenes of the flood are spectacular.

Sadly, not all the CGI lives up to that. There isn’t a single animal in this film that is alive – every animal is CGI and many of them are beasts that are no longer around or never were around. They don’t walk like animals do and there are so many that they all kind of run together. I know the story inherently calls for spectacle but the grand scale is too much; we need something as an audience to latch onto.

Fortunately there is Crowe who makes a mighty badass Noah. Noah is a bit pigheaded during a certain stretch of the movie and you can see in him the tenacity that would make a project like the Ark even possible. There is also a tender side to Noah that allows him to sing a gentle lullaby to an injured and frightened little girl. Noah is portrayed in the Bible as someone who follows God’s directives unquestioningly and we get the sense of that here.

Unfortunately, there is also Connelly who is a terrific actress but has one of the least satisfying performances of her career. She has one scene where she has a confrontation with her husband over his increasingly vile point of view, particularly when they receive some startling news involving Shem and Ila. The normally reliable Connelly is shrill and overacts within an inch of her life. I was kind of saddened by it. Watson, likewise, is misused and her character – who is apparently made up for the purpose of testing Noah since she doesn’t appear in the Bible – never really syncs up.

There is a message for our modern day squandering of our resources and our inhumanity to one another. Once again there has been some grousing from the right over these leftist messages, but I have to say that the Biblical parables were meant to be timeless and relatable to all people no matter the era. If Aronofsky is attempting that here, I would think that he’s in line with the intention of these stories if not their execution.

At the end of the day the clumsy CGI and occasional bouts of overacting make this two and a half hour film squirm-inducing particularly near the end. There are some beautiful moments – a dove appearing with an olive branch in its beak signifying that land exists and their ordeal is nearly over, or the rainbow at the film’s conclusion that signifies God’s covenant to never use the waters to destroy all life ever again. I wish I could recommend this more because of them, but the flaws overwhelm the strengths of the film too much that even a miracle couldn’t save it.

REASONS TO GO: Crowe is strong. Draws modern parallels on the story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on spectacle. Some of the CGI is woeful. Misuse of Connelly and Watson.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE prior to release because it would contradict the teachings of Islam, which forbids the depiction of prophets cinematically. Islam considers Noah to be one of the prophets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fountain

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Florida Film Festival Begins!

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

The Woman in Black


The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe discovers that black is the new acccccck!!!!!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Liz White, Janet McTeer, Alisa Khazanova, Tim McMullan, Roger Allam, David Burke, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara, David Burke, Victor McGuire, Jessica Raine, Sophie Stuckey. Directed by James Watkins

 

Rage and insanity don’t mix well. Give someone already unbalanced a reason to hate and the consequences can be dire indeed.

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a man who doesn’t smile very much. His wife (Stuckey) died in childbirth four years earlier and he’d been in a funk ever since. Mr. Bentley (Allam), Arthur’s boss at the law firm that he works at, makes no bones about it; he needs to turn things around immediately and this next assignment will be his last if he doesn’t get it right.

This assignment is to go to a far-off village on England’s coastal marshland to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client. It will mean leaving his four-year-old son with the nanny (Raine) but he must do what he must do – there are already overdue bills he must attend to.

When he reaches the town he is met there with suspicious and downright hostile town folk with the exception of Sam Daily (Hinds) who is the richest man in town and offers Arthur a ride to the town’s only inn. As it is pouring down cats and dogs Arthur is only too happy to accept.

At the end the innkeeper (Dooley) denies he has a reservation and is eager to throw him out into the pouring rain but his wife (Stockley) is kinder, putting him up in the attic…the same attic from where her three children leaped to their deaths not long ago.

Few will take him to Eel Marsh House, the home where his client lived and died….and where a mountain of papers await him. And there are good reasons for it as well. For one, it sits on an island that can only be reached via causeway, a causeway that floods when the tide is in. Second, the house is overgrown, musty and spooky – the nearly perfect haunted house.

And like most perfect haunted houses, it comes with a ghost, a mysterious woman in black. She’s not Casper the Friendly Ghost though; when people see her, children in the village die. This explains their hostility towards him.

But why is she killing innocents? Why would she possibly want the children to die? Arthur has a personal stake in finding the answers; his own son is coming to town in just a few days for a visit and could be the next victim of the Woman in Black.

Watkins creates a really strange vibe here, kind of a cross between Jane Eyre and The Haunting. There’s a gothic element that comes out rather nicely. This is based on a novel by Sue Mills and was made into a British telefilm in 1989.

Radcliffe is making his first post-Potter appearance here and it is a very different role for him. The general complaint is that at 22, he seems a little old to be playing a widower and the father of a 4-year-old, but in the era that is depicted here they married younger. He does very well as a man who has been devastated and not quite recovered. As you might imagine a man in his situation would, Arthur is emotionally tight-lipped and Radcliffe captures that nicely.

Hinds is one of the more underrated character actors out there and he’s in top form here. McTeer, who plays his wife, is an outstanding actress who is up for an Oscar for Albert Nobbs and she has a juicy role as a woman who has been driven around the bend by the death of her child.

The atmosphere here is genuinely spooky which is all-important for a haunted house ghost story. The scares when they come are legitimately nightmare-inducing and may not be for the more sensitive Potter fans in the household who will surely be going out to see this in droves the first weekend.

Some of the story bogged down in places and to be honest, there is no new ground broken here. There are the old hoary horror clichés of the paranoid townspeople and the family graveyard where the spectres hang out but they don’t detract from what is a classic story told in an effective manner. I liked the ending which was a bit different – think Gladiator. I myself am fond of the haunted house movie and can’t get enough of them when they’re good, and The Woman in Black is most assuredly a good one. Well worth your time if you, like me, love a good scare

REASONS TO GO: Very atmospheric. Radcliffe acquits himself well. Some genuinely awesome scares. The ending works well.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled in places story-wise A few horror clichés worked their way in.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a little bit of violence and a few pretty good shock scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter’s dad James Potter in the movie series, played the same role Daniel Radcliffe is playing here in the 1989 version of the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others

RURAL ENGLAND LOVERS: Some beautiful shots of the misty English countryside and the bucolic villages therein.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ondine

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The old and the new collide in modern Shanghai.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao, Vivian Wu, Hugh Jackman, Russell Wong, Coco Chiang, Congmeng Guo, Yan Dai, Ying Tang, Chen Tao, Zhong Lu, Mian Mian, Wu Jiang, Feihu Sun. Directed by Wayne Wang

What makes a friendship last? Is it the experiences we share or is it something deeper, a connection that cannot be explained or quantified? Why is it that our friendships sometimes seem far more lasting and deeper than our romantic relationships?

In the early 19th century in China, two young girls – Snow Flower (Jun), born into a family of wealth, and Lily (Li), born into poverty, have their feet bound on the same day (the bones broken then the feet wrapped tightly in silk in order to inhibit growth which made the feet smaller, a prized feature in ancient China) and are made laotong  – which translates to “old sames” and is a deep friendship between two women that is contractual but entered in through mutual choice rather than arrangement.

The two young girls grow up into women and each are married; Lily, whose perfect feet make her a prize, into the wealthiest family in Hunan Province and into a loveless marriage and Snow Flower, whose family fortunes have taken a nosedive when her father blew the fortune on opium, to a butcher (Jiang), the lowest rung on the social ladder in the day. Snow Flower’s marriage has its share of difficulties but at least there is some love there.

In modern Shanghai, Nina (Li) is about to leave for New York City to run the North American office of a prestigious financial firm. However, her plans are interrupted by the news that her estranged friend Sophie (Jun) has been gravely hurt in a bicycle accident, lying in a coma in a Shanghai hospital. Nina discovers that her friend is writing a book about the two laotong from the 19th century, seeing in them a parallel between herself and Nina. The occasion is hastened by an exhibit on laotong at a Shanghai gallery.

Nina decides to dig into Sophie’s life, searching for a missing fan on which Snow Flower and Lily communicated in nu shu, a secret language for women. In the process, she discovers the insignificance of the barriers between them and the importance of friendship, particularly one as deep and lasting as the one they share.

Wang, who has also directed The Joy Luck Club, based this on the bestselling novel by Chinese-American author Lisa See. He and writers Ron Bass, Angela Workman and Michael Ray, added the modern sequences which didn’t appear in the book. The device allows some juxtaposition between modern and ancient China; whether or not that was necessary is a subject of some debate.

To the movie’s credit, it captures both the ancient and modern Chinas beautifully. This is a very good looking film. Also to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t skimp on the ugliness that sometimes rears its ugly head, from the foot binding to the abuse of women and mistreatment, particularly in ancient China when they were little more than property

Jackman, who has a song and dance background from Broadway, gets to show off his singing chops as a singing nightclub owner in the modern sequences in a very small role so if you’re going to see the movie because of his presence, be aware he only appears in a handful of scenes. However the performance of Li, who plays both Lily and Nina, is strong and is one of the reasons I gave the movie a rating this high. She makes a compelling lead and carries most of the movie on her shoulders, which may seem delicate but are much stronger than they appear.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has received some scathing reviews, some of which I can kind of see, but others seem to be more aimed at the involvement of Rupert Murdoch (who personally lobbied to get this film released) and his wife (who is listed as a producer for the film). While I hold no love for Murdoch or his media empire, I can only review the movie, not who made it. The movie is beautifully made on a subject rarely delved into in Hollywood (even Thelma and Louise was a movie that was less about ordinary circumstances as this one is). Sure, it’s flawed – the pace is a little too slow for my tastes and I suspect that focusing on the 19th century story rather than drawing parallels in modern China would have benefitted the film overall. Nonetheless it’s a movie well worth seeing just for the insight into feminine friendships and the cinematography alone.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling look at female friendships, a rare thing in the movies. Beautifully shot in modern Shanghai and ancient China.

REASONS TO STAY: The story moves at a fairly glacial pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some violence, a few disturbing images and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was scored by Rachel Portman, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score (for Emma in 1996).

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful cinematography should be enjoyed on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Cowboys and Aliens

I Remember


I Remember

Griff Blane and Rick Baker prepare to roast some S'mores.

(2008) Drama (Self-Distributed) Griff Blane, Rick Baker, Cassie Raye, Daniel McKinney, Randy G. Scott, Buddy Metz, Craig Hanley, Whittaker Garick, Charlie Wiggins. Directed by Ray Gaillard

When we see the homeless, we tend to view them as failures at life. They are scary in a way, as despair and desperation can drive people to do terrible things – and we sure don’t want to be around when they do.

Buck (Blane) is an eight-year-old boy who’s been through much more than any eight-year-old boy should have to. Both his parents were killed in a car accident and he and his little sister Molly (Raye) have been separated and sent to different foster homes. Whereas Molly is in a loving middle-class home, Buck has been left in the tender care of George (Wiggins), a brutish man who never tires of telling Buck that he’ll never amount to anything, or pointing out he’s been kicked out of every foster home he’s been sent to.

Driven past the breaking point, he escapes George’s clutches, leaving him with a present he’ll remember for a good long time. He decides to go out looking for his sister, but hasn’t a clue how to find her. Living on the streets and eating out of garbage bins, he finally attracts the notice of Joe (Baker), a kindly man who is also homeless.

Joe takes Buck to a camp outside of town where other homeless people are living as best they can. Joe teaches Buck the ropes and imparts the wisdom of how to survive on his own. Still, Buck is focused on finding his little sister and despite Joe’s warnings to the contrary, goes out after her. The attempt will lead Buck into a life and death situation, one in which he must make a decision that will color the direction his life takes from then on.

First-time filmmaker Gaillard filmed the movie in and around Columbia, South Carolina using friends and family as actors and crew members. Taking into account the nature of the production, it has to be said that this is definitely unpolished; the acting is uneven, as such productions usually are. However, this doesn’t feel like an amateur film. The cinematography is gorgeous, utilizing its locations nicely, and the script rarely descends into cliché.

Blane is a credible young actor; he takes the less-is-more route, rarely overplaying his hand. The result is that he comes off as a boy who is in a bit of a shell, but capable of violence when cornered. Simply put, Buck is not a kid to mess with. Blane gets that across, but manages to retain the inner core of a child. Many better known child actors wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. If he chooses to pursue acting as a career, he has a bright future in it.

Baker (not the special effects make-up guy) is the wise old Yoda to Blane’s Luke Skywalker. He plays a very complex character that is homeless by choice, rejecting the money-centric society that America has evolved into. Baker even resembles a Jedi with his snow-white hair and ponytail. In any case, he is the film’s heart in many ways and carries that aspect off solidly.

Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with the movie that depicts how the homeless are perceived by society in a very realistic manner. There are a couple of rednecks in the movie (Hanley and Garick) who precipitate a good deal of violence. Some of the violence is sudden and brutal in the manner that violence often is. Sensitive souls should note that while the movie isn’t gore-drenched, it doesn’t shy away from it either and the violence that exists in that stratum of society is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner.

The movie is a slice of life of lives that are often marginalized; that it depicts these people as human and worthwhile is a unique feature all of its own and should be applauded. It is a bit of an eye-opener as a matter of fact, and these are the kinds of movies that should be appreciated and savored. While it is exceedingly difficult to find the movie in local theaters, I would highly recommend ordering the movie from the website below. Talent such as Gaillard’s and his cast and crew should be nurtured and encouraged; I suspect that Gaillard has plenty of additional stories to tell and I for one look forward to seeing them.

REASONS TO GO: While very raw, the movie depicts the life of the homeless and how they are regarded by society in a very realistic manner. The movie is well-filmed, utilizing its locations very nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence can be off-putting to those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a smattering of foul language. While the lead character is a young boy, it would be advisable to watch the movie with your children to answer questions about the situations and the ensuing violence, some of which is directed at the boy, others committed by him.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before making this movie, Gaillard had no movie-making experience and knew very little about the process. He read several books on the subject at his local library and checked out information on the Internet before purchasing a camera and putting together the funds to film the movie, mostly with friends and family.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is on the festival circuit and your best bet is to see it at one; if you can’t find it, the movie is available on DVD at its website www.iremembermovie.com.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Princess and the Frog