Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

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Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Paul Taylor Creative Domain


An expression of love.

An expression of love.

(2015) Documentary (Resident Artists) Paul Taylor, Amy Young, Andy Labeau, Michael Trubnovec, Robert Kleinendorst, Sean Mahoney, John Tomlinson, Michelle Fleet, Annmaria Mazzini, Michael Novak, Peter Elyakim Taussig, Sean Gallagher, Parisa Khobdeh, Bettie de Jong. Directed by Kate Geis

Dance is the most physical of art forms. It is all about the human body but it is also about the human soul. The athletes who practice it must be physically fit, but also deeply in touch with their emotions. Those who choreograph these dances must have exceptional understanding of the human form, but also of human beings. The best choreographers are the best observers of our species.

Perhaps the most revered choreographer of modern dance is Paul Taylor, whose career spans six impressive decades. He danced for Martha Graham as a soloist and as a choreographer has such iconic works as Esplanade, Dust and Company B. He was, as Graham characterized him, “the naughty boy of dance” and has explored topics as diverse as incest, American imperialism, the afterlife, the effects of war and the natural world and mankind’s place in it.

He has always kept his creative process somewhat close to the vest, but granted documentarian Geis extraordinary access to his 133rd piece, one which would eventually be titled Thee Dubious Memories which has a bit of a Rashomon-like oeuvre as it explores the same events seen by three different sets of eyes. It takes us from the casting through the rehearsals and the film culminates with the performance of the piece.

Those who love dance will need to see this. Geis wisely lets her camera roll through the rehearsals and just captures Taylor at work with his dance company. The dancers themselves are a little bit star-struck and while most of their interviews are essentially excuses to heap praise and adoration on Taylor, some of the dancers – particularly Amy Young – reveal a good deal more about working for him and the demands involved. The filmmakers are clearly reverent about the man and while at times you get a sense that they are gushing a little bit, the respect is clear to see.

Taylor is extremely soft-spoken and to be honest at times almost lulled me to sleep. He is not particularly an exciting or vibrant interview although to be fair, he is a living legend in the dance community and doesn’t especially need to prove anything to anyone. For those who want to see a more exciting presentation of Taylor, they should look no further than the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary Dancemaker.This is meant to be more about his creative process and at times, he seems to rely more on the dancers to spark some sort of inspiration in him than providing inspiration for his dancers to work with. The thing about a creative process however, is that it is of more interest to the creators than to those observing the creation. Caveat emptor.

The rehearsal sequences can be fascinating; you get the sense that Taylor notices everything and some of his notes to his cast show an amazing observational acuity. The dancing sequences both at the rehearsal and through the performance are absolutely magnificent; true devotees may miss the intimacy of a live performance but this remains a testament to Taylor’s genius and preserves one of his works for posterity, so that’s a very good thing. Those who don’t love dance may find this tedious.

At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to understand about dance is what you see onstage and how that makes you feel. Movies are very similar in that regard. What I saw was at times mesmerizing and at times, stupefying. I don’t know that I got a ton of insight into what makes Taylor tick, but I do know I got to learn a little more about dance and who can possibly say that’s a bad thing?

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful dancing. Clearly reverent.
REASONS TO STAY: Offers little insight into the man. Little or no context. A little bit boring in places. More for people who love dance.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of mild profanity and some sensuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since this film was shot, Taylor has gone on to choreograph nine more works as of this writing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :First Position
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: A Walk in the Woods

No One Knows About Persian Cats


No One Knows About Persian Cats

Even in Iran, rockers know how to pose.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad, Hichkas, Hamed Seyyed Javadi. Directed by Bahman Ghobadi

What if you lived in a place where expressing your deepest feelings could get you arrested? Where making the kind of music you loved was illegal? Sadly, there are a lot of places like that.

Iran is one such place. Negar (Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Koshanejad) are a pair of alternative-type musicians who have just been released from and Iranian jail. Their crime? Performing forbidden music – without a permit. Hardened criminals, these two are.

They have gotten an invitation to play in London and they mean to take it but first they have to put together a full band. And they have to get a permit to leave the country, for which they require the services of a manager, who they find in Nader (Behdad). Nader links them up with a couple of shady businessman who will forge the papers they need.

However, Negar and particularly Ashkan are dead set on performing a final concert in Teheran before they go. That is going to produce some problems of its own – the police in Teheran aren’t particularly forgiving of young people expressing themselves, particularly in a proscribed manner.

Iran is a heavily regulated country with an extremely radical and conservative clergy calling the shots. Even house pets must remain behind closed doors (which is where the title comes from). Women, of course, are second class citizens, forbidden from studying, holding certain kinds of jobs and even of showing their face in public.

That kind of repression is bound to provoke some pushback, and a thriving independent rock scene has flourished in Teheran and other Iranian cities – there are supposedly more than 2,000 bands operating in Iran currently that play music that is against the law.

That the story takes such conditions so matter-of-factly is part of what makes the movie interesting. While they all hope for more freedom, it’s the world they all live in and they just try to get by the best way that they can. That part of the movie is fascinating. There is also a certain amount of charm, particularly in the music community which is extremely tight knit, crossing genre lines (which would never happen in the States or at least to the degree depicted here) in a kind of gallows cameraderie that would have to develop in a situation such as theirs.

What is even more thrilling is that the music in the movie is uniformly good. The band that the lead characters create (and by the way, the screenplay is based on the experiences of Negar and Ashkan, who are actual musicians) makes music that wouldn’t sound out of place in the hippest clubs in San Francisco, Austin or Seattle. The other bands play a variety of styles from rap metal to acoustic anti-folk to grunge, but all of it is uniformly good. For some of them, the film is going to be the only record of their creativity available to them, because recording music is prohibitively difficult in Iran.

With most of the actors being amateurs (Behdad is a notable exception and he is one of the bright spots in the movie), the acting can be a bit on the unrefined side. That does give the movie a greater sense of realism; it’s not quite a documentary in that sense but it’s as close as you come without capturing actual events.

There are some stark images in the film that are balanced out by a gentle sense of humor that shows up in unexpected places. I have to admit, I was captured by the movie’s charm and you can ride that an awfully long way. It doesn’t quite rocket the movie into instant classic territory but it is certainly worth checking out as an alternative to what you usually watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A look into a culture that has received almost no coverage in Western media and none at all in their own homeland. Great music and some gentle humor round out a nice film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a little bit on the raw side and the production values are a little dicey.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of language and some smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the bands seen in the movie are actual bands (or were) operating on the Iranian underground scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $879,937 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Rango

Love Actually


Love Actually

Is it love actually or lust actually?

(2003) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Rodrigo Santoro, Gregor Fisher, Thomas Sangster, Lucia Moniz, Andrew Lincoln. Directed by Richard Curtis

Our world can be a hard, cruel place. We are buffeted on all sides by cruelty and meanness. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us sane in this world is the love of another, but that seems to be in short supply in these hard times. However, if you look carefully enough, you may find that love, actually, is all around us.

Billy Mack (Nighy), a fading rock and roll legend, tries to kickstart a comeback with a Christmas version of one of his hits as shepherded by his long-suffering manager Joe (Fisher). The new Prime Minister (Grant) falls for Natalie (McCutcheon), a plucky member of his staff. Jamie Bennett (Firth), a writer, mends his broken heart in France while cared for by a Portugese housekeeper named Aurelia (Moniz); the two begin to develop a deep fondness for one another despite the language barrier.

Daniel (Neeson) grieves for his late wife while his son Sam (Sangster) pines for a schoolmate. His friend Karen (Thompson) – who is also the Prime Minister’s sister – prepares for a school Christmas pageant. Her husband Henry (Rickman) runs a graphic design business, where Sarah (Linney), an American employee, yearns for Karl (Santoro), an enigmatic designer while Henry struggles with infidelity with an aggressive receptionist.

Colin (Marshall), an upbeat courier, gives up on finding the right woman in the UK and prepares to immigrate to the United States. Newlyweds Peter (Ejiofor) and Juliet (Knightley) have their lives complicated somewhat by Peter’s best friend John (Lincoln) who has a deep crush on Juliet, one that he would never act on. All of these stories intertwine an  intersect in London at Christmastime, perhaps one of the most magical places on Earth.

First of all, let me get this out of the way – this is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an astonishing piece of work, considering this is Richard Curtis’ first feature as a director (he had previously written a number of terrific movies, including Four Weddings and a Funeral). Here, he skillfully interweaves the stories among one another, linking some together directly and others indirectly, creating a viable whole giving none of them short shrift; it’s quite the tightrope walking act, and it is so rarely done well that when it is it must be applauded just on that basis alone.

I wrestled with using this as part of my Holly and the Quill series of Christmas movies, but eventually decided this isn’t a Christmas movie so much as a movie set at Christmastime. It is about love and could easily be set any time of the year. However I admit the Christmas setting adds to the overall warmth of the film.

One of the things I love about this movie is that not all of the relationships work out in the end. Like love itself, things can be pretty tangled and end up unfinished. Of course, some of the relationships also pan out. Will those relationships succeed? Who knows! All that I know is that love is wonderful while you’re in it, especially when you’re in it with the right person long term. All of these relationships – showing love at various stages of the relationship – have a sense of realism to them. The movie is well cast and all the couples have legitimate chemistry and an organic feel to their relationships.

This is a movie I watch often, usually with Da Queen and we always enjoy it, even after many viewings. We own the soundtrack, which is one of the better ones in any movie in the last ten years. In fact, this is one of my favorite movies of all time – but I’ve said that already. If you’re looking for a movie to snuggle up with your honey to this Valentine’s Day, this should be at the top of your list.

WHY RENT THIS: All of the vignettes work; there aren’t any weak moments or characters. The movie is sexy and funny and nearly everyone gets enough screen time to sufficiently develop their characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe it’s too English for you or you just don’t like romantic comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexuality, a little bit of nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos here, as well as a featurette in which Curtis discusses the movie’s music.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $246.9M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sanctum