Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

MOVIE: Canopy (2013)

May 20, 2014

canopyThis Australian film, one of about 12 movies I’m going to in the next 3 weeks during the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), wins my award for the year’s Most Silent Not-a-Silent-Movie movie.  There’s virtually no dialogue — instead, the soundtrack primarily consists of the roar of planes and pops of guns, the buzz and hum of the jungles of Singapore, and the periodic sounds of someone’s breath (or lack thereof, depending on the scene).

Set during World War II in Singapore, the movie opens with a young Australian pilot coming to after ejecting from his plane. He cuts himself loose from the tree he woke up dangling in and takes a slow, careful look at his surroundings: dense walls of green closed in on five sides of him, with a floor of thick mud below.  The sky is visible only in tiny glimpses here and there, sometimes only in a puddle and then gone again as soon as he looks up and the trees shift together (hence the title Canopy) — and in it, mostly all he sees are more planes zooming, firing, exploding, as the war continues on without him.

After a few hours stumbling around in the jungle, the pilot hears the sound of a troop of Japanese soldiers nearby and begins to run, careening full-force into another man doing the same thing (and they weren’t even texting!).  Stunned, they both leap up ready to fight, realize they’re actually allies (he’s Australian, he’s Chinese), and immediately dive back into the tall grass, just as the Japanese soldiers they’d heard in the distance come walking through the glen.

The soldiers pass, the men rise, and so begins a very quiet, very short, very intense friendship: two men, neither of whom speaks the other’s language, in the most terrifying situation of their lives, together.

This relatively short film (about 85 minutes) goes by quickly, spattered with brief moments of sadness, fear, yearning, or loss, sprinkled atop longer moments of disorientation and dream.  Neither man talks to the other — not only because they can’t communicate in the first place so what’s the point, but also because there is rarely a moment they can be sure they won’t be overheard by the Japanese soldiers who have infiltrated the jungle, are virtually invisible behind those thick walls of green, and are not known for their kindness to their enemies.

Though you might wonder how a story like this could be told when nobody says a word (a lady behind me in the theater certainly seemed annoyed by that), it’s amazing how powerful this film truly is in moments.  It’s not a perfect movie — in a few places, I’d go so far as to call it a mess, in fact.  But it’s an interesting one about the power of silence and noise, the bond of fear, and the life-long, ever-resonating nature of trauma and loss.

Recommended to fans of the war film genre.  Keep an eye out for it!

[Official web site | Trailer]

MOVIE: Black Narcissus (1947)

May 10, 2014

blacknarcHere’s a little known fact about me:  I’m a sucker for stories about nuns.  Also private schools (The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman leaps to mind here), isolated locations like islands (The Weight of Water) or hotels in the middle of nowhere (1222), mountain climbers (North Face) or campers (The Bear), and the military (most recently, We Band of Angels, which combines an island and the military — awesome!).

While this may seem like a disparate group of interests, they actually have something important in common:  they’re all about people in closed communities, frequently people who have been exiled or have exiled themselves, usually in an attempt to improve their lives in some way, only to find the containment itself a formidable force for or against change (depending on the change).

(Containment is also occasionally also a formidable force against zombies, incidentally, but it doesn’t always work out consistently so I wouldn’t rely on it when the apocalypse comes, if I were you.)

This movie is one I watched about two months ago with my mom — also a big fan the nun yarn genre.  I went into it not having a clue what it was about (“It’s about nuns,” my mom said. “Sign me up,” I replied), aside from the fact it starred Deborah Kerr, star of another nun movie I have long loved, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (about a young nun (Kerr) stranded on an island (yay!) with a handsome, gruff Marine (Robert “Humina Humina” Mitchum) during WWII).

Kerr is excellent at playing uptight, regimented ladies who encounter males of quite the other personality type and are loosened up a bit by their experiences with them.  She is, in fact, kind of the queen of that.  Unsurprisingly, that is exactly the role she plays in Black Narcissus.  I love it when a typecasting comes together!

Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, which I aim to read soon, this is a psychological drama about a group of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Kerr), sent to live in an extremely isolated castle of sorts on the top of a very windy mountain in the Himalayas.  The plan?  To serve the Indian community below by establishing both a school and a medical clinic.

For Sister Clodagh, the assignment is a chance to show off to her Mother Superior just how strong a servant of God she has become.  It’s the first time she’ll be in charge, for one thing, and both the isolation and the culture shock should thoroughly test her faith as well.  Little does she realize just how tested she is about to be, not to mention which culture is actually going to be the most shocking of the bunch.

The first person she meets when she arrives, you see, is the local British agent, a man named Mr. Dean, who is about as opposite of Sister C as one could get.  Contrasted to the nun’s full-coverage, big fluffy pristine-white habit, Mr. Dean is usually wearing sleeveless shirts and ridiculously short shorts (think Viggo Mortensen in G.I. Jane), looking rather more like a wild man than a British official.  And, in fact, his time in the Himalayas has turned him into just that — he’s laid back to the point of apathy, a heavy drinker, and utterly devoid of manners.

So, naturally, the two opposites attract almost immediately, much as they are equally loathe to admit it.

Meanwhile, there’s a second romantic subplot dealing with opposites of another variety — a young, wealthy prince and the peasant girl he falls hard for.  All set against a backdrop of contrasting warm colors and chill winds.

Throughout the film flows a steadily increasing undercurrent of sensuality, which has to have been quite a shocker for audiences in 1947 (nuns and sex?! *clutches pearls*). Aside from the budding attractions between characters, the castle itself is a former brothel, complete with semi-lewd (full-on-lewd for 1947, I imagine) murals painted on the walls.  There are also a number of flashbacks about the incident that led Sister C. to the church in the first place — the painful spurning of a lover she has never fully recovered from.

For extra fun, about 34ths of the way through the film it turns from psychological drama to freaky, freaky horror flick, when one of the sisters, jealous of Mr. Dean’s attention to Sister C., comes utterly unglued.  We know she’s come utterly unglued, by the way, because her eyes go wide and crazy and she does things like PUT ON RED LIPSTICK. You know, plus she tries to throw Sister C. off a cliff — always a good indicator there may be some mental health issues at play.

Though for modern audiences used to HD resolutions, the movie doesn’t appear to be anything “all that” visually, it was actually quite amazing for its time, I gather, shot in technicolor, with color used to clever effect.  As I mentioned before, the nuns are all in giant bright-white habits, while the locals are all clad in vibrant colors (the locals who are important to the story, anyway — the extras are all in drab earth tones so they blend into the background more as extras should).  Wind is another major motif — the castle is plagued by gusts at all times, blowing curtains, blowing objects, blowing nuns.  Winds of change, winds of destiny, winds of . . . windiness.

The story is engaging and entertaining enough, though movies from the 40s tend, from my perspective, to lean heavily on exaggerated, cheesy acting and dialogue, and this one suffers from that affliction.  But it’s a stunning picture in variety of other ways, and, you know, it’s about nuns on a mountain top — few stories could be more perfectly engineered for my tastes.

Recommended, though if you haven’t seen Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, rent that one first because it’s delicious!

[Netflix it | Buy at Amazon]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Sabu, Esmond Knight, Kathleen Byron

MOVIE: Big Miracle (2012)

March 11, 2014

bigmiracleA few weeks ago, I was stuck at home sick for a couple of days.  Lying around on the couch feeling crappy, I couldn’t find anything on Amazon Prime or Netflix I wanted to watch (rawr!), and I was getting more and more cranky and annoyed as the morning progressed (“rawr!” is often my state of mine when I’m home sick — I lack patience for illness).

We had recently signed up for HBO, so in a last ditch attempt to find something with which to occupy myself (OCCUPY MEG STREET!), I activated their HBO Go app on our Smart TV and started flipping through the options.

While poking around in there, I came across the movie Big Miracle, a “family” movie starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. The description said it based on a true story about a pod of gray whales that got trapped in the ice outside Barrow, Alaska in the late 1980s.

I love both Drew and John (not to mention Rob Riggle, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Bell, and Ted Danson, who are also all in this film), I’ve always liked stories about whales, AND I’ve always been utterly fascinated by Barrow, Alaska (it’s weird, I know, especially considering how much I hate being cold).  I’ve always wanted to go there — I’m drawn to it for some reason I can’t even begin to explain.  I’ll watch anything set there — from cheesy stuff like 30 Days of Night to the thought-provoking indie film On the Ice (highly recommended, by the way).

In other words, this movie sounded like it was exactly what I needed.  FIRED UP! FEELS GOOD!  Pass me some juice; let’s do this thing!

I’m pleased to report I ended up finding this movie exactly as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be, and I don’t think it’s because I’d hit rock-bottom-boredom right before I turned it on (though, that’s certainly possible).

The screenplay is based on the non-fiction book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose and is about what became known as “Operation Breakthrough” (OB).  In October 1988, an Inupiaq hunter in Barrow came across a mid-sized hole in the iced-over Beaufort Sea where three whales (two adults and a baby) were trapped.  Because whales have to breathe air, they couldn’t leave the area — the ice had frozen over before they had gotten out to open sea and they wouldn’t be able to hold their breaths long enough to get from the hole they were stuck in all the way out.

The hunter immediately reported the pod, and soon reporters and activists were flying in from all over.  As each attempt to get the whales out fails, the group of residents and outsiders start coming together to pool their ideas and try to find a solution, learning an  important lesson about letting bygones be bygones for the sake of the greater good (for example, the corporate CEO has to learn to work with the Greenpeace lady — two people not typically palling around a lot in real life).  Also, there is a sweet little romantic subplot, which is always nice.

How they end up freeing the whales is pretty amazing, and though the movie ends on a more optimistic note than the “real” story did, that’s what I want in a movie when I’m sick anyway — I want optimism, goddamn it! — so that was fine by me.

All in all, this is a really sweet, good-natured movie that would be extremely appealing to kids and adults alike.  Definitely one to rent on family movie night, I would say.  Recommended!

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre:  Kids, Drama
Cast: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Vinessa Shaw, Stephen Root, Ted Danson, Dermot Mulroney, Rob Riggle, Michael Gaston, Tim Blake Nelson

MOVIE: Captain Phillips (2013)

March 4, 2014

capphilWhen I first saw the trailer for this film, I confess I bristled a bit.  Despite the fact it’s based on a true story, making it slightly more difficult to accuse it of being an unfair portrayal (not completely, but slightly), my first thought as the trailer got into full swing was, “America’s sweetheart attacked by evil, evil black men!”  Though  that’s obviously true on one level — the real Captain Phillips and his crew were, in fact, attacked by a group of black Somali pirates — it’s waaaay more complicated than that, and the trailer didn’t inspire much confidence in me that the filmmakers were on it.

As the film came and went from theaters, I kept reading extremely positive reviews of it — both of the acting and of the “compassionate” take on the issues surrounding the story.  So, I finally sat down and watched the thing last weekend.  Unfortunately, given those same rave reviews, I have a feeling my final opinion isn’t going to be terribly popular.  It may not even be entirely fair — I’ve been extremely interested in African politics and economics since high school (particularly West and East African — less so North and South), and have strong opinions on the subject that admittedly can cloud my perception at times.  Nevertheless, clouded or not, this was my reaction, and it feels valid to me, so here we go.

The movie tells the based-on-a-true-story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by a small group of Somali pirates in 2009.  Cargo ships traveling in that region at that time (and now as well, though not to the same degree) were being attacked so often by pirates the area was officially declared a “war risk zone,” subject to higher insurance premiums for all the vessels traveling through it (in other words, this had a cost for corporations beyond the obvious ransom-y things).  Ship captains were continually warned about the risk of pirates, and companies developed a long list of procedures used to try to deter or block them from getting on board.

Despite constant drilling on those procedures by Captain Phillips, though, when the Somali pirates in this story speed into view, there’s no stopping them (the Alabama crew manages to keep the pirates off the ship initially but not ultimately).  Once aboard, the small crew of four “bad guys” make their demands — they will hold the ship and its people hostage, releasing them only in exchange for a million dollars.

The movie is primarily focused on the interactions between Phillips and the head pirate, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi, who just got an Oscar nom for his work in this film).  There’s definitely an attempt to make Muse seem like a nice enough fellow — at least inasmuch as he’s the only pirate in the group who doesn’t want to kill anyone, and who has some ideas on how to keep the violence to a minimum.

But, of course, his partners are the usual movie-style African bad guys, filled with fury and blood lust, not to mention extreme greed.  (When Phillips offers them the $30,000 in the ship’s safe, for example, the  implication when they refuse is that it’s not enough because they’re greedy, know they can get more, and therefore want more.  In reality, it’s got less to do with personal greed, and more to do with the fact returning with “only” $30,000 is a great way to get themselves shot by their bosses.)

Making matters worse, as Phillips and Muse are trying to come up with a plan to get out of this thing alive, the U.S. Navy arrives on the scene and begins preparing to send a team of SEALS in to kill or capture all the bad guys.   Phillips talks the pirates into getting into the lifeboat so they can get the hell out of Dodge, and they, in turn, trick him into getting in there with them — the better to ransom him with, my dear.

Soon, Phillips and the four scary, evil pirates are stuck together in a tiny little motorized boat, the entire U.S.  Navy (feels like!) hard at their heels.  By the end of the incident, all but one of the bad guys are dead, one is sent to the U.S. and sentenced to 33 years in jail, and Phillips is on his way to writing a book that will eventually be made into, FULL CIRCLE!, this movie. (Note: sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this WAS in the news, you know.)

The film makes the most minimal of efforts to try to convey the idea that the pirates are not necessarily pirates by choice.  The opening scenes include one of Phillips at home with his wife, all smoochy kissy, followed by a scene of the pirates in Somalia, where they are being ordered by their warlord boss to go get a ship and not come back without a million bucks in their pockets.  Later, Muse says two things to Hanks that support this idea — “We [pirates] are just fisherman” and  something about how “we all have bosses” (in other words, both Muse and Phillips are doing what they have been told to do).

The problem is, without any real context for either of those two statements, they’re not terribly meaningful, I would wager, for the majority of the audience.  “We are just fisherman” comes off sounding rather a lot like Tony Soprano’s “I work in waste management,” for example.   Yet, the fact is, Somalian piracy DOES have its roots in the fishing industry, and was, at least initially, an attempt to try to protect that industry and the families dependent on it.

You see, in 1991, dictator Siad Barre was overthrown, plunging the country into war as multiple sides battled for dominance.  This left Somalia with no central government to defend the country’s economic interests — including the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) off their coast (territory rights to the waters and their fish).  As soon as the government fell into disarray, fleets from Europe and Asia quickly took advantage, rushing to the EEZ and fishing the crap out of it.

Initially, the groups of “pirates” were the same fishermen who had made their livelihoods working those waters, now struggling to regain control and push out the Europeans and Asians exploiting their political upheaval. (The United Nations has reported that an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters every year — so, you know, if you wanna talk about piracy, let’s talk about piracy. . .)

As the country continued to dive and more and more Somalians began to spiral down into extreme poverty, the fishermen realized how lucrative full-on piracy could be and started using it to help make money more directly — through a focus on theft and ransom instead.

After that, Somalian warlords inevitably got involved, forming increasingly sophisticated gangs. By the time Captain Phillips’s ship sailed into the region, warlords were calling all the shots, piracy had become one of the only real ways the average Somalian male could make enough money to feed his family, and trying to quit a pirate “gang” was about as safe a move as ratting out the mob.

None of this is explained in the movie, and the result of this lack of context or background is that we in the audience can’t help but see the pirates as evil men who need to be stopped at any cost.  They are vicious men, driven predominantly by greed — not human beings with a complex set of needs and wants.  Though initially, Muse is presented in a semi-sympathetic way, it gets harder and harder to hold onto that view the more you watch Forrest Gump suffer (though, Gump-jokes aside, Tom Hanks IS actually phenomenal in this film — the scene after he is rescued and in the US ship’s clinic is a powerful one, no argument there).

Then the U.S. Navy shows up, and things get even more disconcerting, as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the contrast between the “heroes” and the “villains.”  The nasty, scary pirates?  Are actually four utterly emaciated, dirt-poor, black teenagers (they were all under the age of 20; the real-life Muse was estimated to be between 17-19 years old), now being chased by dozens of highly trained, fully-armed white guys.

I get that this is how it went down and that it’s also how Phillips got out alive, so it’s arguable I’m being unfair.  I can picture some readers interpreting this as me saying we should never make a film — no matter how accurate — about black people attacking white people because that alone is somehow inherently racist.  Let me be clear, though: that is NOT what I’m saying.

What I’m saying is that this movie’s attempt to tell a rich story by including a look at the perspective of the Somalian pirates is so half-assed it almost ends up doing more harm than good, if you ask me (if there even was an attempt to tell  a rich story here, a dubious premise in the first place).  Without any such depth, Captain Phillips just becomes yet another in a long line of exciting, entertaining, but ultimately empty action flicks.

The filmmaker made very clear choices to keep things simple here — the Navy’s the good guys, the pirates the bad.  But the total lack of political context made me uncomfortable as a viewer, and I left feeling disappointed by all the wasted potential.  Captain Phillips could have been the platform for a truly thoughtful look at class and culture in Africa (and elsewhere), but instead takes a token shot at providing “the other side” and then it aims itself squarely at Hollywood-blockbuster-dom and fires.

And, man? I hate it when that happens.

I’m not saying this is a bad movie — as action flicks go, it’s well-made, well-acted, and satisfyingly suspenseful.  But as thought-provoking flicks go, it’s a total flop.  At least, it was a total flop for me.  I’d be curious to hear what others who saw it think about all this, so if you’d like to share your experience, hitten zee comments!

(By the way, up next in my DVD pile is the film A Hijacking, a Danish film telling a similar story about Somalian pirates, but in a much more effective way (or so I’ve heard). Watch for a review of that coming soon!  Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRhWoVylmdo.)

[Prequeue at Netflix | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali

Dyatlov Pass Incident Double Feature! Devil’s Pass (movie) and Dead Mountain (book)

January 24, 2014

devilspassA few weeks ago I checked out a book from my local public library about something called the “Dyatlov Pass incident.”  When I got home, I set it on my dining room table and then kind of forgot it was there.

The following weekend, I was in the mood for a crappy horror movie, and I noticed this flick called Devil’s Pass was available for streaming at Netflix.  It sounded intriguing: I love movies set in snowy nowheres, and it was directed by Renny Harlin — admittedly not a great sign but at least I’d heard of him.

As soon as the movie started, I was astonished to discover it was about the same thing as the book I’d just picked up — the Dyatlov Pass incident — something I’d never even heard of until this bizarre coincidence.

What a bizarre coincidence!

Also: what a fascinating story!  And man, is it ever the perfect fodder for a horror or sci-fi movie — why there haven’t been more of them, I have no idea.  Before I get into specifics about the movie and the book, though, let me fill you in on a little background.  This part is the true-story part.

In the winter of 1959, a group of young adults in Russia decided to take a break from school and go ski-hiking into the Urals.  They started out as a group of 10 (8 men, 2 women), but not long into the trek, one of them fell ill and had to turn back.

The other 9, led by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old student at Ural Polytechnic and highly skilled climber, had no concerns about their trip, despite the fact they were climbing in the snowy nowheres of Siberia in January — certainly not my first choice for camping.  These guys knew what they were doing, though, and they were having a great time doing it.  Photos from their trip show them goofing around, enjoying camp, laughing.  It was clearly a blast.

At least, it was until it wasn’t anymore.

After their deadline to get back to town came and went, the group’s friends began to get worried.  They soon put together a search team and headed up along the same path the Dyatlov group had taken.

For five days, they found nothing.  On the sixth day, they found the group’s tent, eerily set up inside as though the group had just been there and would be back any moment.  Food was laid out.  Several of the hikers’ boots were lined up by the tent entrance.  But at the back of the tent was an ominous sign: a huge slash in the canvas, clearly made from the inside, as though something terrible had been coming in the front and the rear was their only way out.

Eventually, all the hikers’ bodies were found, and it became clear they had fled in a panic, separating from each other and running in wildly impractical, random directions.  Most of them had frozen to death alone — they were all drastically under-dressed for the weather, many in what amounted to pajamas, and, as the boots in the tent had suggested, several were in their stocking feet.  In Siberia.  In January.

Disturbingly, though, two of the bodies showed evidence of some kind of violence — one had a crushing head injury, the other was missing her tongue.  Another two were found in an embrace, next to the embers of a small fire. And, weirdest of all, several of them had high levels of radioactivity on their clothing.

Leading to the question: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

First, the movie’s theory.  Devil’s Pass is about a group of film students who decide to follow the path the Dyatlov group took and make a documentary about the incident.  It’s essentially The Blair Witch Project, only set in Siberia instead of New Jersey — this, for me, was not a bad thing.

After days of hiking in, the group finally gets to the place where the Dyatlov tent was discovered, and decide to call it a night, pitching their own tent essentially on the same spot where Igor’s had been. This, incidentally, would also not be my first choice for camping.

While the others are setting up, the team leader and her buddy head out for some early poking around.  It’s just trees and snows and hills and rocks and stuff — until they come across something plenty weird: a door.   A door in the side of the mountain.  Thumbs up!

From there, the movie gets even more intriguing. Annnnnnd then it takes a sharp turn towards Hilariously Dumb.  All in all, though, it’s not a terrible flick and I’d say it’s well worth a rental if you’re interested in some really crazy theories about what happened to Igor and his pals. Why the hell not?

deadmountain

Speaking of really crazy theories, let’s move on.  The non-fiction book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is written by a journalist, Donnie Eichar, who essentially does the same thing the kids in the movie did — he goes to the Northern Urals and hikes the same path, in the hopes he’ll discover something no one else has and finally put to rest the decades-old  question, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The book is written in alternating chapters, with half of them set in the present day, focusing on the author’s research, interviews, and travels, and the other half set in 1959, telling the story of the Dyatlov group (reconstructed thanks to the hikers’ journals and camera, as well as interviews with friends and search party members).

Everybody in Russia seems to have a theory about what happened to the Dyatlov party, with no two theories alike.  Those theories range from alien abduction to a Soviet military conspiracy involving a secret radioactive weapon the group had accidentally stumbled across them testing out.  The conspiracy theory is strengthened somewhat by the fact the government had been unwilling to help during the search, and later refused to release any of their own information about the incident and the victims.

Assessing and dismissing most of the major theories one by one, Eichar finally proposes yet another idea, only this time, the theory is based in science and is supported by scientists specializing in exactly that very scientific thing — a thing I will not describe so as not to spoilerize you.

The problem is, after such build-up — such suspense, such drama, such crazy, crazy weirdness — Eichar’s theory was kind of a super-bummer let-down for me.  Partly because it’s really the only theory that makes any sense whatsoever, which means it’s probably truly what happened.  Which means, ugh, how awful.  Frankly, alien abduction probably would have been a gentler way to go.

So, what the hell happened?  The answer is we still don’t know for sure and we may never know (though, apparently, there are more super-secret documents the Russians won’t release — suspicious!).  Yet despite the fact that after reading the entire book, you still won’t really know anything more about what happened than you did when you started (which is to say: nuttin’), it’s well worth reading anyway, just so you can meet Igor and his friends, follow them along their journey, and mourn their tragic deaths.  If what Eichar thinks happened really is what happened, it seems the least we can do for those poor kids.

As soon as you turn the last page, though, pop in Devil’s Pass so you can end your own journey to Siberia with some serious eye-rolls and snorty giggles.  Really, Renny Harlin?  Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  Of all the possibilities?  You cheeseball.

Recommended!

Movie: Devil’s Pass: Netflix it | Amazon Rental
Book: Dead MountainBuy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews

MOVIE: Sarah’s Key (2010)

January 6, 2014

70153543This thoughtful, heartbreaking film tells the story of two different people in two different times, their lives linked together by an apartment in Paris, France.

The first is a little girl named Sarah, a Jew living in France in 1942.  The second is a an American expat, Julia, married to a Frenchman, Frédéric, who has just inherited an apartment in Paris that belonged to his grandparents.

Julia is a journalist, and as the film opens, she’s been assigned by her magazine to do a feature on the infamous 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” of the Jews in France.  As she digs into the story, she finds her interest piqued further when she learns Frédéric’s grandparents had moved into that Paris apartment just a few weeks after the Roundup took place.

Struck by the coincidence, Julia begins to research the apartment, soon discovering that a Jewish family had lived there just before Frédéric’s family moved in — Sarah’s family.

Sarah’s story opens on the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv, when she is awakened by the sound of the French gendarmes pounding on her front door.  As her mother moves to open up, 10 year-old Sarah ushers her little brother, about 4 years old, into the closet, hands him a little container of water, and tells him not to move until she comes back for him.  She locks the closet, slips the key into her pocket, and dashes into the hallway before the policemen are any the wiser.  Sarah and her mother are whisked outside, where her father catches up to them, and the three are quickly taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large cycling stadium where all the Jews are being held until they can be moved out en masse to internment camps.

When Sarah and her parents realize what’s happening — that they and about 13,000 other Jews (30% of them children) are about to be taken away forever, they panic.  But there’s nothing they can do; there’s no way to escape, no way to get the key to the closet to someone who can help.  A few days of astonishing hell later (no bathrooms, no food, no water, stifling temperatures — think the Superdome in New Orleans, Julia tells her colleagues, times a thousand), the family is moved to the French-run Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp.  The adults are soon separated from the children and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them are eventually killed.  The children stay behind a short while longer, before also being shipped off to their deaths.

But not Sarah.  Determined to get back to her brother before it’s too late, she and her new friend Rachel manage to charm one of the French guards into letting them slip under the wire.  When Rachel becomes extremely ill on their way back to the city, Sarah seeks help from a farmer and his wife, who offer to take them both in and protect them.  Despite being utterly exhausted, Sarah refuses to stay — she must get back to Paris, to her brother, and if they won’t take her there, she’ll go alone.

And so, they take her. And when they finally arrive, Sarah races up the stairs, pounds on the door, and is greeted by a little boy of about 12 years — Frédéric’s grandfather, it turns out.  She pushes past him, runs to the closet, unlocks it — and, well, you can imagine.

From there, the two stories weave together further as Julia becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Sarah.  She never showed up on any of the lists of Jews killed in WWII — but where is she?  What she eventually discovers about the rest of Sarah’s life is a powerful testament to the devastating long-term effects trauma and loss have on those who are left behind to live.

Despite the obviously depressing storyline of this film, it still somehow manages to end on a more-or-less optimistic note — a bittersweet ending to a very bitter tale.  Even when life doesn’t go on, life still goes on, after all — a family can heal. The truth can help.

The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up is something I had never heard much about until seeing this movie.  After looking into it more, I can understand why France would want to bury as deep as they could their shameful complicity with the Nazis, and their wholesale sending-to-slaughter of so many of their own (the Vel’ d’Hiv is just one of several similar events in France during the early days of the war, by the way).  Initially, I assumed this was a decision that had to have been based squarely in fear — France was already occupied by Germany 1942 and its people must have been terrified of where that occupation was leading, and too afraid not to cooperate.  But the more I read, the more it became clear that, at least at the state level, the French (Vichy) government didn’t mind too much the idea of packing off their Jews — from the elderly right down to the infant.  As long as I live, I will never understand things like this — and thank god for that.

This film was based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, and as soon as I’ve recovered from seeing the movie, I’ll definitely be seeking out the book.  Highly recommended, though be prepared for a heavy experience — rare is the WWII movie that doesn’t provide one, I suppose.  It’s worth it.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot,  Aidan Quinn

MOVIE: The Kings of Summer (2013)

December 31, 2013

kingsofsummerThis incredibly charming film is about two best friends, Joe and Patrick, sophomores in high school, who, one summer, decide they’ve had enough of their obnoxious parents and run away to live in the woods.

There, along with a third kid they hardly know, a delightfully weird little dude named Biaggio who attaches himself to them and won’t let go (“What is this kid doing here?” Patrick asks. “I don’t know,” Joe replies, “I’m afraid to tell him to leave — I don’t know what he’s capable of.”), they build themselves a pretty remarkable little house and begin going about the business of becoming men, sparsely-haired, teenaged mustaches and all.  (For 90 seconds of Biaggio awesomeness, by the way, go here — you can thank me later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqvImEZkHDI.)

As is usually the case with these things, it’s not long before a girl shows up and throws a long, blonde monkey wrench into the works, breaking up the band, so to speak.  Meanwhile, back at home, Patrick’s parents and Joe’s dad (Nick Offerman, essentially playing Ron Swanson with a teenage son), are working with the police to try to find their boys.

Patrick’s parents, who are the kind of lame-o dorks we all perceive our parents to be when we’re 15, mostly just seem befuddled.  It’s Joe’s dad who has the real transformation — after his wife died a few years back, he became emotionally shut-off from his kids, a gruff father with a lot of strict rules.  As the summer progresses, though, his initial fury over Joe’s behavior softens into exactly the kind of heartache I imagine most parents feel when their children leave home, the kind of heartache that reminds you why you put up with those crappy teenage years in the first place.

This is an utterly delightful film — overall one of the sweetest, warmest, and funniest pictures of 2013 for me.  Absolutely, totally, and completely recommended.  Go watch it right now.  RIGHT NOW, I SAID.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Craig Cackowski, Megan Mullally

MOVIE: Gravity (2013)

December 10, 2013

gravityRemember way back in 2006, when Les Stroud and Bear Grylls were co-Boyfriends in Chief, and I shared with you guys the list I keep of places I never, ever want to go to due to the fact: gruesome, terrifying death?

Yeah, well, you can now add “OUTER SPACE” to the top of that list. Yes, put it in all caps. In fact, do it like this — huge and insanely, blindingly red:

1. OUTER SPACE

I always thought I wanted to try space walking one day. Now I’m pretty sure I can never watch NASA TV ever again.

GOOD GOD.

Highly recommended, just like everybody else has told you it was.  Don’t forget to breathe.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: HOLY SHIT, Science Fiction, Drama
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, that other astronaut guy whom: alas, we hardly knew ye.

(p.s. WordPress, why you gotta be so weird with the formatting?)

MOVIE: Into the White (2012)

December 4, 2013

intothewhiteSet during WWII, or, more specifically, in the middle of the snowy nowhere in Norway during WWII, this little gem of a film tells the true story of two British and three German soldiers forced by extremely cold circumstances to work together to survive.

It starts with an air battle in the blinding snow.  Both sides end up going down — the British plane shoots the German one and then crashes itself.  Freezing, the two groups of crew miraculously manage to stumble across the same little cabin in the aforementioned middle of the snowy Norwegian nowhere — kismet!  Unable to do anything until winter abates and they can hike out, the five men have to learn to live together — something that comes much easier for the two eldest officers, who are about as war-weary as they come, than for the two young bucks who pretty much want to blow each other up REAL BAD (the roles of prisoners v. guards switch a few times, depending on who happened to grab the gun while the others were sleeping).

As time passes and tedium sets in, the men slowly get to know each other — something facilitated greatly, as is often the case, by the exciting discovery of a bunch of liquor stored under the floor boards.  Ultimately, grudging respect turns into full-on friendship, and they begin to make plans for getting out together and going home.

Annnnnd then the Norwegians ski in and ruin everything.  Ach, typical. (Oh wait, I’m part Norwegian. . . never mind, we’re awesome.)

Based on a true story (you can read about it here), this movie was incredibly engaging and entertaining.  It was also a pleasant surprise to see both Rupert Grint (Ron from the Harry Potter films) and Florian Lukas, whom I first saw in the mountain climbing film North Face and find just utterly and ridiculously handsome.  Grint did a surprisingly good job being cocky, which I would not have figured him for.

Good acting, great story, cute guys — what’s not to like?  Recommended!

[Stream on Netflix | Buy or rent from Amazon]

Genre: Drama, War, Foreign (in German, Norwegian, and English with subtitles)
Cast: Florian Lukas, David Kross, Stig Henrik Hoff, Lachlan Nieboer, Rupert Grint

MOVIE: Mud (2013)

June 12, 2013

mudEllis and his BFF Neckbone (“Neck” for short, because: obvs), are 14 year-old boys growing up poor in Arkansas.  Ellis lives on a houseboat on the Mississippi — his father is a fisherman — and he and Neck spend a lot of their free time zipping up and down the waterways in a boat, exploring the myriad islands that pepper the region.

One day, Neck takes Ellis to one of those island, eager to show him a discovery.  Out exploring, see, he’d come across the coolest thing — a big speedboat (I guess; I know naught of boats) stuck at the top of a tree, probably in the aftermath of a flood.  Excited to have found what amounts to a free tree house, the boys climb up and begin to explore, only to find the lower deck stocked with fresh food, a sure sign someone else got there first.

Just minutes later, they meet exactly whom — a tall, lanky, grubby-looking character named Mud (McConaughey).  Though Neck is wary, Ellis is immediately taken in by Mud’s personality, and his story.  He’s there, he tells the boys, waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon), to show up so the two of them can run away together.  The hitch?  He killed her last boyfriend in a fight — protecting Juniper, he says — and that guy’s extremely violent family is out for revenge.  What he needs is for Ellis and Neck to get him the supplies necessary to get the boat down and running again, and to find Juniper and pass her a few notes about the plan.

Neck is pretty “no way,” but Ellis, currently watching his parents’ marriage — and thus his whole world — crumble around him, is inspired by Mud’s yarns of everlasting love in the face of strife.  Which is how he quickly finds himself smack in the middle of Mud’s problems, danger (physical and emotional) and all.

This is a really beautifully made and thoughtful film, with astonishingly solid acting chops on both the boys at its helm.  The kid who plays Ellis in particular (Tye Sheridan) exhibits an incredible depth in a very 14 year-old sort of way (“I know everything, I am brave; I know nothing, I am afraid” is how I would describe that way).  The river as metaphor for the unknown, unforeseeable, and slightly scary paths we travel as we grow up works as well as it always does (think Huck Finn).

McConaughey employs his usual charms here, but this time with a hint of the unbalanced thrown in for good measure and to good effect.  He also gets an A for effort at looking ugly, never easy for him, though in putting in the crooked teeth, they might’ve made them slightly less Tony-Curtis-in-The-Great-Race white (*gleam*).  Mud is a complicated man with a complicated past, and he’s battling a set of very serious demons, as well as more than one delusion.  Watching Ellis get sucked into the “romance” of Mud’s life, only to get a series of smacks in the face from reality in response, is an incredibly gripping and moving experience.

Also:  Sam Shepard.  ‘Nuff said.

Highly, highly recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Drama
Cast:  Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Tye Sheridan, Joe Don Baker, Jacob Lofland


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