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Life ItselfIf you discovered movies as I did, coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, then you probably also had a love/hate relationship with Siskel and Ebert. Delivered from a darkened theater balcony, first on PBS and then in syndication, their television reviews brought us news of the latest films, but both critics could infuriate us with a snarky comment or an inappropriate thumbs up or thumbs down. While other great film journalists had come before them, Siskel and Ebert brought criticism into the mainstream of American culture.

As a young film buff, I was never a huge fan of the reviews, but over the years, I couldn’t help but come to respect the two, both because they were passionate advocates for film and because both battled premature health problems nobly before succumbing to too early deaths in 1999 (Siskel) and 2013 (Ebert). Before his death, Ebert wrote a memoir, Life Itself, which is destined to become a classic of the form.

Life Itself follows Ebert from his youth in the 40s and 50s, through his rise in the world of Chicago journalism, into his battles against alcoholism, his surprising journey into television and fame in the film world, the blossoming of a late-life marriage, and his struggles with the cancer that took first his jaw and ability to speak, and ultimately his life.

This is a book that even those who don’t care much about film will find worthwhile. Ebert approached life with self-effacing humor and a healthy sense of his own good fortune. Running in circles of big egos and beautiful people, Ebert was full of a sense of his own abilities, but also with a sense of humor about his own shortcomings. He was a regular guy with a great journalistic talent who made the most of the opportunities life gave him, and over the course of his autobiography, you’ll come to appreciate his quirky outlook, his work ethic, and the way in which he learns from his experience. Life Itself is full of charming diversions: Ebert isn’t afraid to spend a few pages describing the merits of his favorite fast food restaurants or London streets. He weaves other familiar names into his narrative but always in a bemused way that can’t help but make you grin. His descriptions of the most important relationships in his life —his difficult mother, his rivalry with and deep respect for Siskel, and his connection and love with wife Chaz Hammelsmith — are each moving in a different way.

Try Ebert’s book and you too will end up with a greater respect for an unusual man and for Life Itself.

Check the WRL catalog for Life Itself

Or try Life Itself as an audiobook on CD

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certifiedA chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.

James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.

Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.

The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.

Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.

The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.

Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for Certified Copy

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Plenty (1985)

plenty To be fair, I was not a major fan of Meryl Streep. I know there were many who would disagree with me, but it wasn’t until Out of Africa that I was hooked. And I’ll admit that my original attraction to that movie was Robert Redford. But as I grew up, I really learned to appreciate her talent and flexibility, and I became a fan. I came across Plenty and decided to watch, and I am glad I did. She did an amazing acting job in this film.

The movie starts when she, as a young girl, is part of the Resistance in World War II. After the war, she becomes enmeshed in English politics and the good life, but something is missing. Her attempts to have a child out of wedlock fail. Her relationships with men are not easy. Ultimately she marries well, but is still dissatisfied. In some ways she is a victim of her time. During the war, women assumed new roles, but after the war they were expected to revert to pre-war roles. It was not a happy transition for many. Her attempts slowly lead her into behaviors that are not yet acceptable in society. This leads into a stronger descent to mental illness, or at least what the prim and proper consider mental illness.

This is not a happy movie and does not have a happy ending. However, I think it is a realistic view that portrays how many women felt in the times. The whole cast is amazing; every character does a superb job of acting. Plenty, in many ways, shows the real beginning of the women’s movement and foreshadows the future when women will take control of their lives. It is a bit of history we generally ignore, but our lives today were certainly changed by the characters in this film.

Check the WRL catalog for Plenty

 

 

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi brings us a deliciously complex domestic drama. Set in contemporary Iran, A Separation explores the dissolution of a marriage against the backdrop of a mystery.

Simin is seeking a divorce from her husband Nader because he refuses to leave Iran with her. Nader also won’t allow Simin to take their daughter Termeh out of the country. Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. A judge refuses to grant the divorce, and Simin immediately packs up and leaves for her mother’s house. Termeh decides to stay with her father Nader. Simin’s absence from the home leaves Nader with no choice but to hire a daily caretaker for his father for the hours when he, Nader, is away at work. Nader hires Razieh, a financially-strapped married woman with a young daughter and a child on the way. Nader comes home from work one day to discover Razieh gone and his father on the bedroom floor, his wrist tied to his bed. Additionally, some money is missing from a drawer, and Nader believes that Razieh has taken it. When Razieh returns to Nader’s home, tensions erupt and a physical encounter results in Razieh accusing Nader of a crime against her.

So did he or didn’t he commit the crime Razieh accuses him of? In the ensuing legal drama, the characters struggle with questions of morality, informed by societal dictates of religious and gender roles, and what it means to tell the truth. A Separation prompts us to ask: In desperate circumstances, when our backs are up against the proverbial wall, are we more likely to transgress our moral and ethical boundaries?

American viewers unfamiliar with the Iranian justice system will undoubtedly make some interesting comparisons between the American justice system and the Iranian system of justice as depicted in A Separation. Lawyers are non-existent in the film as the accuser, the accused, and witnesses battle it out with each other in front of a judge.

Simply put, A Separation is an extraordinary film, one of the best films I have ever seen. The top-rate performances alone make the film worth viewing. Particular stand-outs include Peyman Moadi as Nader; Sareh Bayat as Razieh; and Kimia Hosseini, who steals every scene she is in, as Somayeh, Razieh’s inquisitive, mischievous, and adorable daughter.

Check the WRL Catalog for A Separation

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It is without question that slavery in America was a brutal, vicious, and inhumane institution. However, for anyone who thinks slavery was the more relatively benign institution depicted in Gone with the Wind or some of the other mainstream meant-for-entertainment Hollywood films, 12 Years a Slave quickly and effectively puts such thoughts to rest.

The film, 12 Years a Slave, was directed by Black British director Steve McQueen, and adapted from the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That the film springs from the narrative of Northup himself offers a fresh cinematic perspective on slavery that makes it a more powerful statement on the subject of slavery in America than perhaps any other film ever made. There is no sugar coating of the facts, and there are no “happy slaves” or kindly White masters or White mistresses here (in this film, the masters’ wives are just as, if not more, sadistic as their husbands). Instead, we are allowed to witness slavery in its raw and unmitigated horror.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, the film was triggering an uncomfortable experience for me as an African American whose ancestors endured the horrors of slavery. However, the realization of the importance of the film — this film is so necessary –gave me a compelling reason to press on. The story, the acting, the cinematography, the directing — just everything about this film — kept me riveted even in my discomfort. Flesh tears with each crack of the whip, wails pierce the air as Black mothers and their children are sold away from each other, and women look as if their very lives are being squeezed from their bodies as they are raped by their White masters.

A visual scene of people being stripped naked and examined in preparation for sale into slavery could have easily devolved into objectification of the Black actors and actresses portraying these people on screen. But, the truth of 12 Years a Slave is unabashedly on the side of the victims and survivors of slavery; and, the perspective of the film is further supported by their humanity. Skillfully and intentionally, objectification is successfully avoided. It is to director McQueen’s credit that he is able to expertly navigate such tricky terrain (How did McQueen not win the Best Director Oscar for this movie?).

Credit also goes to the incredible actors and actresses who fully embody the enslaved people they portray. All praises to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his brilliant portrayal of Northup. Ejiofor emotes loss, bewilderment, betrayal, anger, hope and hopelessness, and more with sometimes as little as a turn of his head or a shift in his gaze (How did Ejiofor not win the Best Actor Oscar for this movie?). And Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Patsey, deserved every ounce of that golden statue she won for Best Supporting Actress on Oscar night — enough said.

The camera work in 12 Years a Slave is stunning and enhances the movie’s sense of dread. An example of such artistry is found in an extended scene of Solomon so close to death, asphyxiating, as he hangs by a noose from a tree. Solomon Northup’s feet barely touch the squishy, muddy ground beneath his hanging body as the camera alternates between close-up shots of Northup’s feet – as they struggle to gain traction on the slippery ground – and wide shots of Northup hanging while everyday life on the plantation goes on around him. Simply put, director McQueen wants us to feel uncomfortable — very uncomfortable — as we watch the everyday horrors of slavery unfold before our eyes.

With its unsparing honesty, the film 12 Years a Slave challenges us as a country to never forget about the abominations of slavery and to never forget about the Solomons and the Patseys who were forced to endure such hell. For that reason alone, 12 Years a Slave is a film that every American should see.

Check the WRL catalog for 12 Years a Slave

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longmireThere have been a couple of posts about Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery series on this blog. A recent post referred to the A&E Show based on the series, Longmire, so I’m following up with a review of the TV show.

I’ve only read two or three books in Johnson’s Longmire series so far, but I really enjoyed them and was intrigued at what a TV show based on it would be like.

The role of the titular Absaroka County, Wyoming, sheriff is taken on by Australian actor Robert Taylor. He looks and speaks exactly how I imagine Longmire from the books would, and this is what drew me into the show: aging, a bit cranky, set in his ways, gruff manner covering a rather soft heart. However, his character is a bit darker and more angst-ridden than in the books. His past is also murkier, with some dark secrets driving a major plotline which is absent from the books. This plotline necessitates more of a sense of inner torment and greater recklessness in the TV show Walt. His relationship with his daughter, Cady (portrayed by Cassidy Freeman), is explored in both formats, though the TV show cannot resist infusing it with far more Sturm und Drang than in the books.

Longmire’s deputy, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, played by Katie Sackhoff, is in my mind quite similar to the character in the books. I haven’t gotten through all of the books, nor the rest of the TV show, but I’ll be interested to see how the relationship between Walt and Vic plays out and how it is treated in the show versus the books.

Craig Johnson’s character of Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend and oft-times liaison to the Cheyenne Indian reservation’s law enforcement and citizens, is happily present and accounted for here. His speech, mannerisms and stoic nature from the books are intact in the show, for which I’m grateful. He plays an important part in every episode. He is portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips who I think does an outstanding job.

Lucian Connally is the former sheriff who preceded Walt, and he plays a bigger part in the books than he does on the show. I’ve gotten through Season 1 and only seen him in one episode, but he was relatively true to life in his reckless cantankery. His nephew, Branch Connally, is Walt’s competitive deputy on the show, but this character does not appear in the books. His presence provides several storylines which were not possible in the books, but certainly add to the show’s dramatic and sexual appeal.

Fortunately for the book lovers, major themes of the books are revisited honestly and regularly by the TV series: the ever-present tension between the Cheyenne on the reservation and the local Absaroke County residents; a sense of social justice attained or denied; man versus nature.

Some of the plotlines are recognizable from the books, but much liberty is taken with them. I actually don’t mind this – for me this show can co-exist quite happily independent of the book series. One “character” I do miss from the books is the sense of mysticism surrounding Cheyenne legends and beliefs. Although each television episode has had a small element of it, the books dwell much more on Walt’s spirituality as a part of his character; in the TV shows it’s more of a simple plot device, although perhaps this will be explored further in future episodes.

On the whole, I’d say if you enjoy the books you will enjoy the series, if you don’t mind major plot deviations. Enough of the essential elements of appeal are present: characters, atmosphere, and setting. Craig Johnson seems to have nothing but good things to say about the show, and the TV series has boosted circulation of Johnson’s books. On his blog Johnson reports that the same folks who are “binge-watching” the series on A&E are going on to buy and “binge-read” the books in his series, and this must be very gratifying.

Give Longmire a shot! And check out Johnsons’ newest entry in the Walt Longmire series, Any Other Name.

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big miracle 2012I’m usually a sucker for animal rescue stories and films (just look at some of my previous posts, including this one.).  While vacationing at the beach last week, I was presented with the opportunity to watch this movie, and I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to spend my valuable beach time watching yet another movie about animals that need to be rescued.  Well, I was glad I did, because The Big Miracle is exceptional for several reasons:

One extremely cute family of three whales, including an adorable baby whale, that get trapped in the ice five miles from the shoreline near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Their desperate calls for help are very moving.

Some extremely hazardous weather conditions,  including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit , high winds, blizzards, and treacherous ice, mean that their chances of survival are slim, and make for exciting drama.

An extremely unlikely group of people join together to help these poor whales, including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a wealthy oil tycoon (Ted Danson), a local TV news reporter (John Krasinski), and a local Inuit tribal elder (John Pingayak).  A typical movie like this pits the good-guy activist against the bad-guy industrialist, so it’s refreshing to see them all working together for once, even if they have ulterior motives for helping.

The actions of this group bring about some amazing results.  The local TV news reporter, who first discovers the whales, does a feature report about their plight for the local Anchorage news. The story is picked up by the national news, and quickly goes international. Before long, thousands of reporters from all over the world are descending on little Barrow, Alaska.

More importantly, the news reports bring people to the town who think that they can help in the rescue operation, including two brothers from Minnesota who have invented a de-icing machine.

The situation on the ground quickly becomes desperate, as the rescuers race around the clock and face crisis after crisis to save these whales.  I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a lot of ingenuity on the ground and help from the Alaska National Guard and an icy neighbor of the United States. And I won’t say if all three of these whales make it out alive (oops, maybe I have said too much).

This exciting, feel-good movie is based on true events in 1988 as set forth in Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.  The acting is top-rate, and I especially enjoyed Drew Barrymore as the Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer.  In one scene she dives under water to check on the health of the whales, which I found to be very memorable and sad.

I also enjoyed watching media clips from 1988 of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings when they were still in their prime. This gives the movie a sense of authenticity (reminding viewers that this was a real story) as well as a sense of nostalgia for older viewers like myself who remember watching these famous TV news anchors.

The Big Miracle is an exciting movie that I highly recommended watching, on or off the beach.

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