Sky and Ground


A sign outside of a closed refugee camp is an ironic statement of our fear and humanity – or lack thereof.

(2017) Documentary (A Show of Force) Guevara Nabi, Heba Nabi, Shireen Nabi, Suleiman Abderahman, Oum Mohamed, Rita Nabi, Abdo Nabi, Abu Raman. Directed by Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett

I really can’t fathom man’s inhumanity to man. How screwed up a species are we when you consider how many people in the world have been uprooted from their homes, forced to live as refugees? Then again, I don’t think most of the rest of us even have a clue about the tribulations refugees face on a daily basis.

Guevara Nabi – so called because as a student in university he professed admiration for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara – has fled Aleppo. Not because he wanted to; his instinct was to stay and fight for his city. However, he knew that the situation was untenable for his aging mother and the rest of his family and that for the safety of his nieces, nephews, sister and mom the family had to get out of Syria. They ended up in a refugee camp in Greece called Idomeni.

They are Syrians of Kurdish descent so the radical Muslim militants who were helping to defend Aleppo saw them as infidels who were just as bad as Bashir’s forces; Guevara knew that if his family stayed they would most likely end up dead or worse but the refugee camp had its own problems. Food was getting scarce and five days after they arrived Macedonia closed its borders. Two of Guevara’s brothers live in Berlin and could put the rest of the family up. The problem is getting there.

The problem is that the flow of refugees has caused many European nations to close their borders, fearful of terrorists sneaking in along with the refugees. Even Greece, where they’re staying, is getting ready to close Idomeni down and clear the refugees out. The way Guevara sees it, they have no choice but to try and move illegally through the Balkan states to safety in Germany where refugees continue to be welcomed.

This is no easy task. It involves moving an extended family including a frail mother and a child through rough terrain with hostile police who will arrest you and send you right back where you started. The villages are not much help either; it is rumored that there is a cash reward for turning illegal refugees in. Even the humanitarian organizations are liable to report your presence to the police. Smugglers are even more dangerous; they charge a high price and entire families have been known to disappear once they give their trust to a smuggler. Guevara doesn’t trust them but when one member of their group injures a leg he is forced to reconsider.

The film plays almost like a thriller at least to begin with; you are on the edge of your seat watching the family make its way through the perilous terrain of the Macedonian mountains and valleys. Every so often they end up mere feet away from policemen searching the countryside for people just like them. Throughout it all, they keep their spirits up as best they can and make the best of a bad situation. Sure there are complaints and sure sometimes they all question the wisdom of what they’re doing but never for one moment do they lose faith in one another.

It doesn’t hurt that the family is physically attractive but I think what you’ll remember more about them is that very faith I referred to; this is a family that is close-knit and even though they haven’t always been living in the same place (the mom notes that the last time the particular group she was travelling with had been all together in the same place was for a wedding seven years earlier) it’s obvious that the connections between all of them are strong, even the ones by marriage.

The movie does lose a little steam after the first hour as they get closer to their goal. The obstacles are a lot different as the environment becomes more urban and they are worried about being caught without passports on a train. You don’t get the same sense of imminent danger at every moment and maybe that’s a good thing but I think that it does become a different film at that point.

I have to give the filmmakers kudos because they are right with the family every step of the way. It couldn’t have been an easy shoot and of course they were subject to the same perils that the family was in being arrested and deported. Even so they allow us to get to know the family, to care about them and root for them to find sanctuary in Germany. It also gives us an insight into the refugee issue; it was shocking to me (although on reflection it shouldn’t have been) that little Rita Nabi hadn’t been to school in seven years due to the bombings in Aleppo. At 12 years old she can barely read or write.

We are also starkly reminded that the United States, once the shining beacon of freedom and hope, is closing her own doors to refugees who need that hope more than ever. That we could turn our backs on people like the Nabi family is a failure of what we’re meant to be.

Near the end of the film Heba, one of the nieces, says “We have no home. We have nothing but the sky and the ground…and family.” It shouldn’t have to be that way. Maybe films like this will bring us closer to a day when it won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: The film keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: About halfway through the movie loses some momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first of a planned three-film series about the problems facing refugees entitled Humanity on the Move.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Exodus (2016)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Mighty Atom

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Loving Vincent


But is it art?

(2017) Animated Feature (Good Deed) Featuring the voices of Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk, Jerome Flynn, Cezary Lukaszewicz, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aidan Turner, James Green, Bill Thomas, Martin Herdman, Robin Hodges, Josh Burdett, John Sessions, Joe Stuckey, Piotr Pamula, Kamila Dyoubari . Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

 

As a painter, Vincent Van Gogh was one of the world’s most influential, creating works that remain iconic to this day – most of us have seen at least pictures of some of his work. As a person, Vincent Van Gogh was an enigma; beset by mental and emotional issues throughout his life (there are some experts who believe he was bipolar) that led to him shooting himself fatally at age 30 in 1890. He remains a mystery to many, producing over 800 paintings in the last 10 years of his life and then abruptly choosing suicide.

Armand Roulin (Booth) is a roustabout, a ne’er do well who is the son of Joseph Roulin (O’Dowd), the postmaster of Arles where Van Gogh lived and a friend to the Dutch painter. Joseph has come into possession of a letter that Vincent (Gulaczyk) wrote to his beloved brother Theo (Pamula) near the end of his life. It is 1891 and Van Gogh has been dead for a year. Joseph has tasked his son with the job of delivering the letter from the late master to his brother in Paris, only when Armand gets there he is unable to locate Theo. He goes to Vincent’s art supply dealer Pere Tanguy (Sessions) who informs him that Theo has followed Vincent into the hereafter. Armand then decides that in lieu of delivering the letter to Theo he will deliver it instead to Theo’s wife Johanna. Tanguy doesn’t know where she is living but suggests contacting Dr. Gachet (Flynn) in Auvers who treated Vincent in the last months of his life and was with him when he died.

Roulin travels to Auvers only to find that the good Doctor is out of town. He decides to stay at the same inn and pub where Vincent stayed; the kindly innkeeper’s daughter Adeline Ravoux (Tomlinson) who remembered the painter quite fondly puts him up in the very room where Vincent lived and died. Armand sets out while he waits for the doctor to return with talking with various townspeople about the painter, from the doctor’s daughter Marguerite (Ronan), his housekeeper (McCrory), a boatman (Flynn) and the local policeman (Herdman). The more Armand interviews the people who knew Van Gogh the more murky his death becomes. Was it really suicide, as the painter himself confessed to on his deathbed? Or was it something else?

First off, this movie is a remarkable achievement in animation. The filmmakers started by filming the actors against green screen, then utilized more than 100 artists to create each frame as an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh (inserting actual paintings of the master in various places more than 40 of them – see if you can spot them all) which came out to about approximately 65,000 paintings all told. In a way, we’re getting a view inside Van Gogh’s head and coming about as close as we will ever get to seeing the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.

The voice acting can be stiff and stuffy at times, but unlike a lot of reviewers I found the story compelling. There is a bit of a mystery to the death of Van Gogh, particularly in light of a 2011 biography that questions the official account of his death and hints that he may have been the victim of an accidental shooting and that he insisted it was suicide to protect the person who shot him. There are certainly some compelling reasons to think it, mainly based on the angle of the shot that mortally wounded the painter. Most suicides put the gun to their head; most don’t kill themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach which is an exceedingly painful way to go. The angle of the wound also suggests a trajectory that would have made it physically unlikely that Van Gogh shot himself although it was possible.

That said, most scholars today agree that this new theory is less likely than suicide and while the filmmakers here seem to lean in the direction of homicide, it at least gives us a bit of a gateway into examining the painter’s works, particularly in the last months of his life. While the movie seems preoccupied with Van Gogh’s death more than his life – something in which Adeline Ravoux actually scolds Armand about during the film – there is no doubt that the filmmakers hold his work in great reverence.

And that’s really the beauty of the film. It brings the world of Van Gogh to life, gives it depth and meaning in ways that most of us could never do on our own. It will hopefully give some folks the impetus to take a closer look at his work and his life; it did me for sure. Spending so much time trying to make sense of his death may give the movie a bit of a morbid tinge but that doesn’t detract at all from the overall beauty that Van Gogh created – and the filmmakers re-created with such obvious love. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up on the shortlist for the Best Animated Feature Oscar for next year.

REASONS TO GO: The technique is startling and brilliant. The use of Van Gogh’s paintings is clever. The story is compelling. The end credits are extremely well done. The film will likely motivate you to explore Van Gogh, his life and his work.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems more concerned with Van Gogh’s death than with his life. Some of the voice acting is a little stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly mature; there’s also some violence, a bit of sexuality and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each one of the film’s more than 65,000 frames were hand-painted using similar techniques to what Van Gogh actually used. It took a team of more than 125 artists more than seven years to complete the massive task.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Painting (Le tableau)
FINAL RATING: 8..5/10
NEXT:
Clarity

Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Assassin’s Creed

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

Child 44


You've got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

You’ve got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

(2015) Mystery (Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Agnieszka Grochowska, Mark Lewis Jones, Petr Vanek, Jana Strykova, Ursina Lardi, Michael Nardone, Lottie Steer, Zdenek Barinka, Ned Dennehy, Finbar Lynch, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Lorraine Ashbourne. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

I wonder sometimes if the current American regime misses the Soviet Union. After all, they gave us someone to hate and an ideology to deride. Then again, I suppose that ISIS has given that to us as well.

But in the bad old days there was Stalin and the Russians but despite everything they couldn’t have been worse for us than they were for the Russians themselves. The country was rebuilding after suffering horribly during the Second World War but after having Hitler’s troops knocking on their doorstep they had somehow managed to push them all the way back to Berlin. Orphan Leo Demidov (Hardy) had distinguished himself during the war, taking the Reichstag and planting the Soviet flag, becoming a national hero in the process. Boyhood friends Alexei (Fares), a wild but loyal man, and Vasili (Kinnaman), a vicious coward, had been at his side (and in Vasili’s case, slightly behind him).

These days, instead of chasing the German army Leo is chasing Soviet traitors for the MGB along with Alexei and Vasili. Their latest case, a veterinarian named Brodsky (Clarke) had resulted in Vasili shooting a mother and a father who had harbored the fugitive before Leo stopped him and humiliated him in front of the men. This makes Leo Vasili’s sworn enemy, one who will plot and scheme Leo’s downfall.

But things are already in motion. For one, Alexei’s child is found dead by the railroad tracks. It is officially ruled an accident but Alexei knows better – he knows his child was murdered. However since Stalin declared that murder was a Western capitalist affliction, it wasn’t possible for murder to occur in the Soviet Union. “There are no murders in paradise” goes the refrain (and it is repeated more than once, usually ironically). When Alexei questions the official ruling, he runs afoul of the authorities who quickly force him to recant. Leo is in fact the one who warns his friend what is happening.

Leo should be watching his own back. His wife Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher, has been getting restless in her marriage to the driven Leo and has been having an affair. However, Vasili makes a case against Raisa for being a traitor because the man she is seeing, a fellow schoolteacher, seems to have non-communist (or at least non-Stalinist) sympathies. When Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, he is punished by being sent to a backwater town under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), himself in disfavor with the current Soviet regime. Normally Leo would have been executed but being a hero of the Soviet Union has its perks.

But there have been a series of child deaths in the vicinity, all with similar wounds to what Alexei’s son had suffered. Leo realizes that there is a serial killer in their midst. And since murder doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union (much less serial killers), the official position is that these deaths are all accidents. However Leo realizes that in order to protect the children of the district he will have to risk everything – including his own life – to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Vasili, who sees the perfect opportunity to take Leo out permanently, is closing in.

I expected this to be not very good, given that it got almost no push from the studio and received pretty miserable reviews but this is one of those times I got to be pleasantly surprised. The setting of the old Soviet Union filmed mostly in the Czech Republic – the Russia of Putin found the movie to be insulting to their history and promptly banned it – is unusual for Hollywood thrillers. The depiction here is of a drab and paranoid world in which the only colors seem to be grey and red and the only way to survive is to assume that everyone is out to get you which it seems is pretty much the case.

Hardy has become one of my favorite actors at the moment. Poised to be Hollywood A-list royalty (and will probably achieve that status with Mad Max: Fury Road later this month) he is on a role in which he seems to be incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance. His Leo is like a pit bull in many ways, but an honorable one – he doesn’t attack indiscriminately but only to those who in his view deserve it, such as traitors to his motherland. He chooses not to question the corruption that is in plain sight all around him, merely accepting it as part of the Way Things Are and when he becomes a victim of it chooses not to complain but simply adapt.

The rest of the supporting cast is for the most part solid; Rapace seems oddly subdued but still remains a very underrated actress, one who underlines how few really well-written roles for women there are out there. She makes the best of a fairly undefined character. Oldman is also another one of those actors who seems to always elevate the part he’s in whether it’s well-written or not.

While based on an actual case, this fictionalized movie comes across as a fairly predictable thriller despite being based on an international best seller which was reportedly anything but (I haven’t read it as of yet). It is the first of a trio of novels and no doubt Summit was hoping for a franchise here initially but given that the movie has been given little push and has been a box office disappointment, the other two are unlikely to be filmed.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. Now largely out of first release theaters with the first blockbusters of the summer season taking the lion’s share of screens, you can still catch it in second run theaters and likely soon on VOD. It’s actually a pretty interesting film and a well-made thriller worth taking the time to seek out. It isn’t perfect but I found it to be entertaining enough to overcome its flaws.

REASONS TO GO: Hardy continues to be a reason to go see a movie all by himself. Captures the paranoia and political infighting of Stalinist Soviet Russia.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too rote in terms of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a few disturbing images, adult themes, some foul language and a scene involving sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel the movie is based on was inspired by the hunt for the real serial killer Andrei Chikatilo which was chronicled in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen X
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Misery Loves Comedy

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill

Hugo


Hugo

Time flies when you're making a Scorsese film.

(2011) Family (Paramount) Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emil Lager. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Our dreams guide us, sometimes into odd territories. We can be spirited away to fantastic landscapes or sent hurtling back into our own memories, into our own past. Dreams are the lenses through which we view reality.

Hugo Cabret (Butterfield) lives in the cavernous Montparnasse train station through a set of tragic circumstances. He fixes the clocks and makes sure that they are running on time – important work for a train station, particularly in Paris in the early 1930s.

He didn’t always live this way. He once lived with his father, a clockmaker, who had discovered an automaton (a kind of early robot) while doing some work in a museum. His father had attempted to fix the machine but now it was up to Hugo to get the thing to work. He is convinced that the automaton carries some sort of message from his father and in order to fix it, pilfers parts from a grumpy toymaker named Georges (Kingsley).

Hugo is also trying to stay one step ahead of the station inspector, one Inspector Gustav (Cohen). Gustav, who has an eye on pretty flower girl Lisette (Mortimer), was injured in the War and wears a mechanical leg brace to allow him to walk in a kind of shuffling gait. It freezes up from time to time and Gustav must move it manually, causing him a great deal of humiliation. Gustav relies on a Doberman to help him patrol the station where he regularly catches orphans like Hugo to send them to the orphanage. Hugo knows if Gustav catches him, the automaton will be taken away and he’ll never find out what his father was trying to tell him.

Aiding Hugo in his quest is Isabelle (Moretz), the goddaughter of the toymaker who is being raised by Papa Georges and his wife Jeanne (McCrory). Isabelle is a plucky sort who can relate to the intense and somewhat shell-shocked Hugo. She loves a good mystery and yearns for a good adventure of her own. She spends most of her time reading books lent to her by the kindly bookseller Labisse (Lee).

The automaton has all the parts it needs but lacks a heart-shaped key to fit a heart-shaped lock that will wind up the mechanism and get it working. Hugo must find that key and in the discovery of it will find out that the magic of movies, which he attended with his father, was far more ephemeral than he thought and that fame is even more fleeting than that. He will also discover a key to Papa Georges’ past and a path to his own future.

The movie is based on an illustrated novel by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret and marks Scorsese’s first foray into family films as well as his first 3D movie. Once again the great director has hit a home run.

The setting is amazing. Much of Hugo’s world revolves around the inner workings of the clocks of the station, so there are gears and cogs aplenty. The train station itself recalls the romance of train travel of the era much as Murder on the Orient Express did. Labisse’s bookshop is a magical repository of imagination and knowledge, much larger than you’d expect to find at a train station.

Much of the movie rests on thin shoulders of Butterfield and Moretz. Moretz is one of the better actresses of her generation, with films like Kick-Ass and (500) Days of Summer to her credit. She has a role that requires her to be the kind of English plucky heroine that have overpopulated film and literary franchises like The Chronicles of Narnia‘s Susan Pevensey and Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger. Moretz gives the role a little bit more soul and humanity than you might expect.

Butterfield has amazing blue eyes and has received some criticism for his role for not expressing a lot of emotion. Personally, I think that was the perfect way to play the part. With all the things Hugo has gone through to this point, I think it would be natural for him to be a bit shell-shocked and plenty wary about expressing his emotions as he’s had so much taken away from him and so many people leave him. In the film’s final scenes he seems to finally be showing some joy and love and for my money it’s a terrific performance. Phooey on the critics who say different.

Ben Kingsley is, well, Ben Kingsley. We all know he is one of the great actors of the past 20 years, going back to his scintillating performance as Gandhi. He inhabits the role of Georges with dignity and a hidden reservoir of pain. I think it’s one of his best performances ever, one that should merit some awards consideration although thus far it hasn’t.

A word about the 3D. Generally I’m not one to recommend 3D to anyone – it rarely enhances the movie and more often than not, detracts from it, forcing viewers to look at a cinema screen through polarized sunglasses which does nothing for the brightness and the color of the film. However, here the movie actually benefits from the 3D which opens up Hugo’s world and makes it more lifelike and real. This is one of those rare times when I’d urge those of you going to see the movie to see it in 3D if you can. It’s well worth the upcharge for once.

The movie obviously has a direct connection to a soft spot in Scorsese’s heart. His passion for the preservation of old films is well-known and you can almost feel the pain in the great filmmaker’s soul when he talks about how the celluloid from old silent film were melted down to make the heels in ladies boots. Through Hugo we get to experience a time when movies were new and nobody quite knew what to do with them. While I won’t reveal the plot point that takes Hugo Cabret from automatons to motion pictures, I will say that film buffs and history buffs will be pleasantly surprised by the turn the movie makes. Be wary though – other reviews tell you precisely what that turn is and since I hadn’t read any before seeing the movie, I found the turn to be more effective.

All in all, this is a delightful motion picture, one full of fantasy and clearly a labor of love. Even the villains of the piece aren’t all bad – they have just had some hard times. It’s a bit on the long side – if your children are fidgety you might want to take that into account – however this is a terrific family movie that the kids may actually enjoy less than their parents; but the kids should like it a lot.

REASONS TO GO: Generally raises an air of wonder and magic. Terrific performances all around. Fantastic sets realistically depict Paris of the early 30s but also lend an air of fantasy.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little too long for fidgety sorts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence, children put in peril and of course, smoking. Fiendish!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The automaton is based on actual machines that draw similarly complex drawings, complete with head movements and eyes following their own drawing except the real ones were built in the 18th century – they can be seen at the Musee D’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchatel in Switzerland.

HOME OR THEATER: I never thought I’d say this but not only do I recommend seeing this in a theater, but it should also be seen in 3D.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Agora