Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

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Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

The Immigrant


This isn't the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

This isn’t the American Dream Ewa was thinking of when she emigrated.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, Dagmara Dominczyk, Jicky Schnee, Yelena Solovey, Maja Wampuszyc, Illia Volok, Angela Sarafyan, Antoni Corone, Patrick Husted, Patrick O’Neill, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Robert Clohessy, Adam Rothenberg, Matthew Humphreys, James Colby, Peter McRobbie, Susan Gardner. Directed by James Gray

It takes a certain amount of courage to make a new start in a new place. If that new place is in a new country, amplify that by hundreds and thousands, more if it’s an entirely different language spoken there. Something like 40% of all Americans had someone pass through Ellis Island at one time or another; not all of them made it through unscarred.

Ewa Cybulska (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Sarafyan) have come from Poland to New York City in 1922. They can see Lady Liberty rising in the distance; beyond her, the skyline of a new world. Their new life is so close they can reach out and touch it.

But it is not to be. Magda’s cough turns out to be tuberculosis and she will need to be quarantined and likely deported afterwards. The aunt and uncle who were supposed to greet the sisters when they arrived never showed and the address that was given them doesn’t exist according to the immigration officer (Clohessy). Ewa is all alone in a strange land; she speaks English pretty well fortunately but she has nowhere to go and no money.

Fortunately there’s an advocate there for a traveler’s society to help her out. His name is Bruno Weiss (Phoenix) and he has a small apartment where she can stay. He gives her food and shelter, offering her a job at the Bandit’s Roost Theater as a seamstress. Ewa is grateful but sleeps with a weapon under her pillow just in case.

Getting Magda out of Ellis Island before being deported will be a lengthy and expensive process. Bruno knows people who can speed the process along but the money is going to be an issue. It will take far too long on what she earns sewing and mending for her to retrieve her sister, and that’s everything to her. She decides that in order to get her sister out, she’ll do anything – including dance with Bruno’s troupe who do a lot more than dance, if you get my drift.

Into this mix comes stage magician Orlando the Magnificent – who happens to be Bruno’s cousin Emil (Renner). The two are on not-so-good terms but they become worse when Emil falls for the lovely Ewa – and Bruno has done the same (which doesn’t prevent him from continuing to pimp her out). Emil urges her to leave with him for California, a more pleasant and gentle land. Bruno wants her to stay away from Emil who has a gambling problem. Ewa isn’t going anywhere without Magda. Something has to give.

James Gray has amassed a reputation for doing quality work. He isn’t the most prolific director in the business, but he prefers to work on movies he believes in and generally with Phoenix when possible (four of his five films feature the actor). In some ways he’s much more of a European director in terms of style; his films aren’t flashy nor are they fast-paced. They take their time, unfold organically like a blossom in spring and then let you immerse yourself in the depths of their beauty – or ugliness as the case may be. The films may be set here in America but they definitely have a European soul.

He wrote the movie specifically for Cotillard, an actress he admires, and she doesn’t let him down. She is mesmerizing, whether as a deer in the headlights or when she is strong as iron. Sometimes both expressions occur at once and let me tell you, that’s nothing to sneeze at. This is a character who is obstinate and strong, but tender and vulnerable at once. She’s an unusually strong female character which is less refreshing than it used to be – a good sign – but nonetheless a welcome appearance. I’m not sure that Cotillard will get any Oscar attention given that the film was released so early in the year, but this is a performance worthy of recognition none the less.

Both Phoenix and Renner are terrific actors and they do a good job. Phoenix’ role is a little bit more meaty than Renner’s who is essentially more of a dramatic element than Phoenix whose character is more central to the story, but Renner is so interesting an actor that even in a part that is very subordinate he makes it compelling even so. Phoenix takes his role and runs with it nicely. I don’t think you’ll find any movie this year with three finer actors in the lead roles and three more complex characters for them to play.

The cinematography is lush and very evocative of its era which is a good thing. We get a sense of the squalor and the desperation in the City as well as the corruption in the police and immigration departments. A beautiful soundtrack enhances the images on the screen.

This is a sumptuous movie that has not only an epic quality to it but also an intimacy that keeps it from being too cold and distant. While the story takes it’s time to unfold, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing although those of the ADHD generation might have issues with it. The pacing allows you to become fully a part of the world that Gray creates. It is a rich and compelling world, one which isn’t always pretty but one which allows you to take a moment to wonder what your own ancestors did to make things work in the new world they travelled to. This is one of those movies that really hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it deserves and while you might not have heard much about it up to now, you really do need to check this out while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and layered. Cotillard is one of the world’s finest actresses. Renner and Phoenix give fine support.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too slow-paced for the attention-challenged.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and sexual content as well as some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neither Cotillard nor Sarafyan spoke Polish. They were given approximately two months to learn the dialogue. They were coached by Wampuszyc, who plays their Aunt and is a native Polish speaker.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ragtime

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Believe in Unicorns

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

Creation (2009)


Creation

Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany pray for bigger audiences on cable.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martha West, Jim Carter, Zak Davies, Freya Parks, Robert Glenister, Bill Paterson, Harrison Sansostri, Ellie Haddington. Directed by Jon Amiel

There is little doubt that one of the most important – and controversial – scientific findings ever is Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. It called into question some of the most deeply-held tenets of the Bible – the story of creation – and put in a rational, logical sense of reason into a subject that had always been to that time more faith-related. Putting pen to paper and telling the world of his ideas would take an enormous toll on Darwin the man.

Darwin (Bettany) is a family man, married to first cousin Emma Wedgwood (Connelly) with ten lovely children to keep him busy. One in particular – 10-year-old Anne (West) – is the apple of his eye, an outgoing, inquisitive soul who seems to be the closest to his own heart. However, she contracts a disease (Scarlet Fever or tuberculosis depending on which account you believe) and despite Darwin’s heroic efforts, taking her to the seaside for a “water cure,” little Anne passes away.

This devastates Charles and Emma both. They both cope with their grief in different ways. For Charles, his unanswered entreaties to the Almighty are proof positive that there is no God, for how could a being as advanced and compassionate as all that allow a child to die such a horrible death. For the deeply religious Emma, it only deepens her faith, knowing that her precious child is in the bosom of heaven with the angels.

This causes no little strain on their marriage as you might imagine, and the once-robust Charles is beset by illnesses of the digestion, hallucinations and fatigue. It has been 15 years since his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S. Beagle but he is still having difficulty writing the ground-breaking treatise that would become “On the Origin of Species.” Friends like Thomas Huxley (Jones) and Joseph Hooker (Cumberbatch) urge him to finish his work while the Rev. John Brodie-Innes (Northam), a close friend and confidante of his wife, is troubled by its implications. Huxley, almost gleefully, exclaims “Congratulations sir, you have killed God!” which further troubles Darwin.

He is fully aware of the ramifications of his treatise and even more aware of what it will mean to his wife and his marriage. Emma is terrified that by publishing his work, Charles will be damned to Hell and be separated from her and his children for all eternity.

Of course we know that he did eventually publish his work and that it did create a firestorm of controversy, so the actual publication of the work is not in doubt even if the filmmakers have a tendency to make it a point of suspense. However, it is not so much Darwin’s theories that are on display here (although there are some nice animation sequences used to explain the concepts) so much as Darwin the man.

As such, a heavy burden falls upon Bettany to carry the story and he is more than up to the task. Bettany has impressed me over the years with his ability to take on a wide range of roles, from villain to action hero to mild-mannered academic as he is here. He imbues Darwin with a decency and gentleness that humanizes the nearly-mythological figure who often is castigated for being godless. Darwin was far from godless; he was a believer for at least a portion of his life, but his belief system shifted elsewhere.

Connelly is given the difficult task of taking a rigid and inflexible person and making her likable, but she possesses the skills to accomplish just that. This isn’t a glamorous role and Connelly, who is one of the most beautiful women in the world might have easily passed on something like this, but to her credit took it on and conquered it. Emma can be dogmatic at times, but there is no doubt that she possesses a fierce devotion to husband and family. Despite her misgivings, she comes to understand that if her husband doesn’t publish his work, someone else will eventually reach the same conclusions as he (which Alfred Russel Wallace did – it is a letter from that scientist that eventually prodded Darwin into completing his work) and in the end she supports him.

Amiel directs this at a stately pace and if at times it gets a little bit overly-contemplative, that can be forgiven. This isn’t an action film to say the least, and there are some big concepts involved that deserve some conversation.

It is a testament to how Darwin’s work continues to be a source of controversy to the religious right that the film had difficulty in picking up distribution in America, at last falling to Newmarket which had a hit a few years back with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This isn’t going to change your mind about religion or evolution but it might give you some insight as to the man who brought evolution into our collective midst, and the personal demons he had to face down in order to do it. This is the kind of solid film that won’t let you down if you choose to rent it for an evening’s viewing.

WHY RENT THIS: A sober and even-keeled examination of Darwin the man. Bettany and Connelly bring humanity to roles that are difficult at best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie deals with grief as well as religious faith, subject matter which might be difficult for younger folk to follow.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a biography of Darwin by noted author Randal Keynes, who is Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a surprising amount. Several featurettes look into the life and times of Darwin, visit his home (which is a museum today) and participate in the debate that Darwin’s work engendered.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $896,298 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Assassination of a High School President

Bright Star


Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

(Apparition) Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Samuel Barnett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin, Olly Alexander, Samuel Roukin, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Sebastian Armesto. Directed by Jane Campion

John Keats is now considered one of the greatest poets of all time, but during his lifetime he was almost universally reviled and when he died at the tender age of 25, he considered himself a failure.

Keats (Whishaw) lives with his friend Charles Brown (Schneider), a burly Scot in Brown’s home (a sort of pre-Victorian duplex) in Hampstead, which at the time was on the very edge of London (but today part of the borough of Camden). Brown is disdainful of neighbor Fanny Brawne (Cornish), whose family lives in the other part of the house. He thinks her vain and spoiled, a typical society flirt who has little understanding of poetry and little intelligence beyond what is in fashion and what is not.

For her part she considers Brown a rude misogynist of little talent who has made no money from his scribblings and has no prospects of making any. At first, she finds Keats attractive but like most poets, impractical. She sends her brother Samuel (Sangster) and sister Toots (Martin) to a local bookseller (Ashton-Griffiths) to purchase Keats’ recent publication “Endymion.” This proves to be no problem, as the bookseller had purchased 20 copies and has sold, counting the one to the Brawne children, one copy.

As she reads “Endymion”, she realizes that his poetry may be difficult to understand in places but is leaps and bounds ahead of his peers (Brown, a poet himself, also realizes this). She begins to fall for the callow young man, not so much for his looks but for his soul. This is cemented when she observes him nursing his brother Tom (Alexander) who is dying of tuberculosis. 

For his part, he slowly falls for the young woman who is more self-possessed than most women he knows. She winds up being his muse, inspiring some of the most beautiful poetry of all time. Their relationship blossoms despite the objections of Fanny’s mother (Fox) who is concerned that Keats is penniless and has no means of supporting her, and of Brown who simply doesn’t like Fanny and is highly protective of his friend, whose genius he recognizes.

When Brown rents his half of the cottage out for the summer, he and Keats head off to the Isle of Wight where Keats writes ardent letters to his ladylove. Well aware of his social status and the impossibility of a relationship between the two, he moves to London initially but is unable to stay away from the love of his life and returns to Hampstead to be with her. However, their courtship is destined to be short-lived.

Oscar-winning writer (for The Piano) and Oscar-nominated director (for the same film) Campion once again performs both functions on this film. Her task was to create a movie that was as visually beautiful as the words of Keats. She succeeds, mostly using the landscapes of Hyde and Bedfordshire. There is something magical about the English countryside, and the Australian-born Campion captures it like lightning in a bottle. Her characters take long, languid walks in meadows filled with spring flowers and wetlands with dry summer reeds. She also manages to recreate rustic 19th century country village life, as well as the harsh alleyways of London.

Whishaw has the thankless task of portraying the dying, love-struck poet and that’s not nearly as easy a job as you might think. How does one portray a sensitive genius and yet make him accessible to general audiences? If you aren’t sure, just watch Whishaw here. He does a really good job of making Keats seem like a real person instead of an icon, which biopics often do with the poets and authors of the period.

Cornish, mostly known for her Australian television appearances, is a revelation as Fanny. She plays the woman at turns forthright and self-confident, and at others completely besotted by love. She’s complex and not always likable, but always true to her convictions. It’s a career-making performance and one which potentially may generate some Oscar buzz. Schneider play Brown like a Scottish laird, witty and not without charm but fiercely possessive of his friend.

Keats himself wrote that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Bright Star certainly fits the bill. Is this the definitive biography of Keats? No, because this is more a chronicle of his relationship with Fanny, the details of which must be inferred mostly through letters later in life from Fanny to her sister – most of the letters Keats wrote her from the Isle of Wight and Italy (where he went at the end of his life in an attempt to beat the tuberculosis) were destroyed at the poet’s request. Still, I’ve always wondered what makes a romantic poet so gosh-darned romantic, and Bright Star gives us an answer worth considering. There is no overt sexuality – the two followed the morals of their day, limiting their affection to ardent hand-holding and a few chaste kisses – but nonetheless this is a sexy movie – sexy in the ways of the heart.

REASONS TO GO: Cornish’s amazing performance, as well as solid work from Whishaw and Schneider is buttressed by cinematography of extraordinary beauty. Stay for the closing credits to listen to Whishaw read the poet’s own words regarding his love affair, which are worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at a glacial pace at times which may drive modern movie audiences to distraction.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hyde House and Estate substituted for the actual Keats House in Hampstead Heath because the director deemed it “too small.”

HOME OR THEATER: A British costume romantic drama set at the turn of the 19th century? Sounds like home video to me.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Year One