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Recent Movies: Your Name; The Lost City of Z; Maudie; Books: The Girl on the Train

Recent Movies

Your Name

In this animated film, Mitsuha is a teenage girl living in a rural mountainous area of Japan. Taki is a teenage boy living in Tokyo. At various times, the two switch bodies.

The animation in this film is beautiful and there are clever moments in the film as well. When the story is comprehensible, it can be engaging. The trouble, as just implied, is that it is often difficult to understand. It’s not always easy to know when each character is their real self or whether they are possessed by the other. To make matters even more difficult, the exchange is happening in different time lines three years apart.

I might have used the excuse that I’m not that familiar with Japanese Anime films but that won’t work as I’ve probably seen at least a half-dozen of them. My favourite is “Only Yesterday” (1991) which happened to have no supernatural elements. Among those with magical content, I have great admiration for “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988).

The two latter films had special universes that were bizarre but fascinating. Most importantly, they were always understandable and consistent – characteristics that are missing in “Your Name”.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


The Girl on the Train

Rachel Watson is a divorced, unemployed alcoholic living in a London suburb with a flat-mate. During her daily trips to London and back, she observes what she believes to be an ideal couple (Scott and Megan Hipwell) living a few doors from her former home – a home that is still occupied by her ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna. After someone in the neighbourhood goes missing, Rachel believes she has clues that might solve the mystery.

The story is told by three narrators: Rachel (the main narrator) and Anna narrate in current time while the beginning of Megan’s story is narrated about ten months earlier. All three narrators (and most of the other characters) are the kind of people we would rather avoid in life. Rachel is an active alcoholic and a compulsive liar who has frequent blackouts and many resolutions to stop drinking – resolutions that fail as often as they are made. Megan is an insecure serial adulteress. Anna is vain about her beauty, marital status, and motherhood; she also relishes the fact that she stole Rachel’s husband from her. In summary, Anna is a bitch.

It is, indeed, a drawback to have so many unlikeable characters especially when they include the main one. But “The Girl on the Train” makes the reader as compulsive for reading as Rachel is for drinking. The use of differing timelines is also intriguing especially when the Megan story repeats what was told in the Rachel story but with a different perspective. By the end, some of Rachel’s perceived flaws may not be as solid as others had thought.

The climactic scene is heart-pounding but not totally free of criticism. It begins due to a stupid and unnecessary action of one character and ends with a somewhat unbelievable action by another one. (This is code talk to those who have read the book while avoiding spoilers to those who have not.) But it’s still a fine ending to a great mystery and all of the clues and red herrings that brought us there. And even if the characters are repugnant, Hawkins is accurate in describing people who resemble the many lost souls in our world.

The last book I read so quickly was “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. Like that book, “The Girl on the Train” was very intriguing as well as entertaining.

RATING: * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Beauty and the Beast; Citizen Jane; I, Daniel Blake; Opera: Medea

Recent Movies

Beauty and the Beast

A live-action/CGI remake of the 1991 animated musical: Belle (Emma Watson) is an intelligent outcast in her provincial town, pursued by the egomaniacal Gaston (Luke Evans). Across the dangerous woods is a beast (Dan Stevens) who lives in a castle in which he used to be a prince.

Speaking of outcasts, I feel like one myself in my assessments of this modern film and its predecessor. I believe the current film is superior to the earlier one. I found the animated version admirable but over-rated. This goes against the consensus on two counts.

One of the improvements in the current version is in the characterization of LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s sidekick. Much is made of the fact that the modern LeFou is gay and infatuated with Gaston. While this bold move is admirable enough, the better move is erasing the plight of the older version of LeFou who was sadistically used as a punching bag for the bullying (and much bigger) Gaston. The previous use of schadenfreude doesn’t quite appeal to an audience’s better instincts.

Director Bill Condon clearly knows how to make musicals great. (The superb “Dreamgirls” (2006) is evidence of this.) Even while being fully aware of the storyline, there is still an excitement and energy for the viewer in this film. Condon has been blessed with a great team particularly those involved with the set design, make-up, visual effects, cinematography, and costumes. In addition, a few new songs have been added to the great ones of the original.

Condon is also blessed with a great cast. Stevens does a fine job conveying the beast’s rage as well as the inner-torment hiding behind it. Watson is good too though she could have shown more expression during the film’s climax. Even in a small role, Emma Thompson still manages to raise the bar – this time as a talking teapot.

The exciting finale is so joyous, it can lift anyone to the clouds. No wonder this movie is such a box-office blockbuster.

RATING (out of four stars): * * * 1/2


Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Writer/Journalist/Urban Activist: Jane Jacobs is the main subject of this documentary as it focuses on her battles against rapid redevelopment headed by urban planner Robert Moses in her home city of New York during the 1950s and 1960s.

This film ably conveys Jacobs’ intelligence in various ways: her unusual yet fascinating observations on how cities truly work (there is order within the ‘chaos’); and her abilities to organize activist responses to proposals that negate city living. Her views and philosophies are expressed in various ways. They include audio and televised footage as well as the narration (by Marisa Tomei) from Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961).

The viewer could end up feeling a mixture of optimism as well as pessimism from the history exposed in this film. On the one hand, Jacobs’ victories (with much help) give hope. But there is despair after viewing the chronicling of “slum” neighbourhoods with vibrant communities being destroyed and replaced with housing projects that caused more problems than they solved. One feels grief not only for the loss of vibrant communities but also for the historical buildings that were destroyed – and replaced with bland ones.

Jacobs moved to Toronto (where I’ve lived for over twenty years) in 1968 and was involved in a successful campaign to stop an expressway being built in the downtown area in the early 1970s. One can only wonder (and shudder) what she would think of the current state of this city since her passing in 2006 at the age of eighty-nine.

She believed in progress as long as it mixed the old with the new and kept street life active. Downtown Toronto is losing many small shops, restaurants, and bars as they are being torn down for more and more massive glass condos. (It’s strange to think that such blandness will be considered ‘historical architecture’ in the future.) During this process, sidewalks adjacent to the future condo sites have been reduced. So much for encouraging the street life so well lauded in this documentary. Also, in regard to condo buildings that have shops at ground level, they seem to have very little activity within them. (A similar point is made in “Citizen Jane” about parks near housing projects that were frequently empty.)

Director Matt Tyrnauer has used the right mix of interviews, old footage, and music to make a fine film even for those of us who have minimal knowledge of urban issues. The footage of street life goes back to earlier decades – even as far back as the 1930s. The music by Jane Antonia Cornish has an edge that is usually used in thrillers. Perhaps, this is to imply that the monstrous mindset of the 50s and 60s has an equally evil grandchild (condo-ization aka vulgarization) in our current times that is taking over our lives today…..and we’re all in that scary movie!

In any case, this movie is encouraging me to read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. From the quotes in this movie, the book still sounds relevant today – more than half a century since it was published.

RATING: * * *


I, Daniel Blake

In Newcastle, England, the title character (played by Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter in his late fifties who is on the mend from a heart attack. In trying to get benefits for time off work (as recommended by his doctor), he gets stuck in a quagmire of bureaucracy. During one bad visit at a government office, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), an unemployed, single mother of two young children who has also been mistreated by government workers.

“I, Daniel Blake” is another courageous film by the team of director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty that focuses, in a realistic way, on the downtrodden who are too often ignored. While this is praiseworthy, the downturn is that the overall effect can be depressing and frustrating. While the last half hour was moving in a different direction, a final plot twist thwarted this – therefore preventing the story from adding more richness to its depth.

Johns and Squires are terrific in their performances as two society-rejects trying to get by and helping each other out when they can. Despite their hardships, they continue to maintain as much of their humanity as they can. Johns’ appeal goes further in scenes when Daniel pokes fun at humourless nincompoops on power trips.

The film has some telling (and harsh) statements of modern society and bureaucracy. There is a very noticeable contrast in how kindly the poor are treated at a food bank (run by volunteers) vs. the despicable way they are treated by government departments (run by taxpayer-funded employees). The movie has been criticized for its depiction of government employees. Among this group, there is one such character who seems to stand out as she has more soul and humanity than her peers. The film might have achieved greater depth if it had delved more into her personal story.

In any case, this movie is likely to be understood by anyone has ever experienced hard times; anyone who has ever felt empathy for anyone who has experienced hard times; or anyone has ever experienced an overwhelming desire to throttle someone who is an insensitive, incompetent, arrogant, ignorant, overpaid, bureaucratic miscreant.

RATING: * * *


Opera

“Medea” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier at the Opera Atelier, Toronto

The title character (played by Peggy Kriha Dye) is in danger of losing her lover Jason (Colin Ainsworth) in a marriage of convenience to Princess Créuse (Mireille Asselin). Unlike most spurned lovers, Medea has supernatural powers to match her desire for revenge.

For many opera productions, the stories can be minimal while the main draws are the music and the singing. “Medea”s story is actually above par (hell hath no fury like a sorceress scorned) while the music and the singing are well above par. All performers are great but Dye stands out ably expressing the rage and fury of someone with dangerous powers. The final scene between Ainsworth and Asselin is also deeply moving.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has collaborated with many great artists to create a superb production with a feast for all senses. One of the unique assets of Opera Atelier productions is their choice of producing older operas which give the audience not only beautiful singing and orchestrations but also ballet sequences that are part of the story as well. The dance sequences in “Medea”, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, are superb.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sets, costumes and lighting take this grand production even further especially during the scenes that take place in Hell.

If only one word could summarize this production, it would be one that was likely used more often during the time of this opera’s creation than today: splendid.

RATING: * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Kedi; Personal Shopper; I Called Him Morgan

Recent Movies

Kedi

This documentary pays tribute to the many stray cats of Istanbul as well as the humans who love them, take care of them, and are inspired by them.

There is superb camera work that follows the felines in their daily adventures in the city. The cameras are always low and the camera people use clever devices that can keep up with the cats thus allowing the viewer to better see their activities some of which are fascinating.

Even more inspiring are the interviews with the people who voluntarily help and observe the cats. Some find it therapeutic. Some are even spiritually inspired. One woman compares them to aliens from another planet with a different kind of intelligence. The interviewees, like the cats, come off as very likeable.

There are about seven cats who each have a special segment in “Kedi”. This is like the musical “Cats” in which each musical number told the story of one of its cat characters before moving on to the next one. While all creatures in this film (biped as well as quadriped) exude charm and warmth, interest wanes a little by the end. But it’s still fun to watch the cats and humans connect so nicely. It helps one recall one’s own favourite feline memories.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


 Personal Shopper

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris whose job is to buy clothes for a wealthy supermodel. Maureen’s twin brother has recently died and she attempts to connect with his spirit in the large house on the outskirts of Paris where he lived before his death.

Stewart’s natural talent and presence are a great aid to this film. She’s at her best during a scene involving a police interrogation. But too much of the film focuses only on Maureen when she is alone. This includes an unbearably long sequence that involved her exchanging text messages with a mysterious stranger. Stewart’s talents can alleviate this movie’s flaws but only up to a point.

The movie also suffers from having too many sub-stories none of which seem to meet their potential. The “ghost story” has some mysterious moments but ends with too much unresolved mystery. The narrative involving Maureen’s relationship with her mostly absent boss (Nora von Waldstatten) could have benefited the movie overall with more time and exploration. The boss shows up in one scene which is almost comical. She is an obsessive egomaniac who multi-tasks while bullying someone on a conference call as she is trying to save gorillas. The final narrative involves a murder mystery whose impact seems to disappear once the mystery is solved.

Considering the film’s unearned acclaim – plus the fact that it was made by the talented creator (Olivier Assayas) of such great films as “Irma Vep”, “Summer Hours” and “Carlos”, this movie is sadly disappointing.

RATING:   * *


 I Called Him Morgan

The focus of this documentary is renowned American jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938 – 1972) as well as his common-law wife Helen More who restored and saved Lee’s life during a time of serious drug addiction only to end it later on.

The movie’s directing style, by Kasper Collin, reflects the beauty and mood of the jazz music it portrays. A very clever bonus is the use of coloured footage of people walking about the streets of New York in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. This helps greatly in recalling moods and styles of eras that are long gone.

The main narration of this film is an audio recording of More in 1996. While it is mostly insightful, it is occasionally difficult to understand as More had an unusual accent that is not always easy to comprehend. Collin ought to have used subtitles during these segments.

With many magnificent still photos, TV footage, and interviews with Morgan’s past bend members, it was unfortunate that only a brief audio recording of Morgan could be found as evidence of the man himself offstage. But the music – highlighted by Morgan’s brilliant artistry as a trumpet player – more than makes up for this gap.

RATING: * * *

Recent Movies: I Am Not Your Negro; Hidden Figures; A Man Called Ove

Recent Movies

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin and his views of racism in the U.S. are the main focus of this documentary with special attention on the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The film includes live footage of Baldwin in the 1960s (on the Dick Cavett Show and at a lecture at Cambridge University) and readings (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) from his unfinished manuscript “Remember this House”.

From the start, it is clear that Baldwin had an intellect and outlook that were far superior to the average person – not just during his life (he died in 1987) but even more so today. He is very eloquent in expressing the repugnance of an evil whose effects continue to resonate today. He is even more so when he describes theories that racism is a result of a deeper problem in the soul and collective mindset of the U.S. One such malaise is the quest for an unattainable ideal of “purity” and the inevitable self-loathing that follows this self-delusional pursuit. Other such problems include materialism.

Baldwin’s mind is so much above that of the average viewer that there is a slightly mixed result. At times, one feels distant – and possibly inferior – to the mindset being expressed but overall, the viewer is rewarded with insight that is rare in other sources.

Considering the rich history of this film, it is disappointing that some information was excluded. Baldwin had two prejudices against him. In addition to being black, he was also gay. This fact is alluded to only briefly during the film. There are also surprising negative comments he made against Bobby Kennedy. Research after the film revealed that Baldwin and Kennedy did not get along despite supporting a similar cause. The film might have been more rewarding had it explored more on both of these topics.

The footage is brilliant and shocking at the same time. After this movie, one is left with many uncomfortable feelings that lead to a lot of thinking – a sign it has fulfilled its purpose.

RATING:   * * *


 Hidden Figures

 Based on a true story: In 1961, three black women are friends who work at a research center for NASA in the state of Virginia. All are brilliant mathematicians and  have greater qualifications that would exceed those of their current jobs. They include Katherine (Goble) Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a genius mathematician, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a computer expert and aspiring supervisor. “Hidden Figures” is based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterley.

This movie is an entertaining piece of NASA history (including John Glenn’s first launch into space) with a special focus. It is occasionally jingoistic (‘we gotta beat those Russians in the space race’) and with occasional cheesy music to underline a budding romance which is easily foreseen. But it is ultimately a fine story that very ably highlights the stresses and frustrations of regular working life with the added humiliation of segregation in the workplace.

Indeed, some of the people in the film were composite characters from the book and there were some incidents in the film that didn’t actually happen. One of the most over-the-top “Hollywood” scenes is one where Kevin Costner (as Katherine’s boss) is wielding a pick axe (those who’ve seen the movie will know what I mean). Despite these liberties with the truth, the scenes of segregation still had the right effect of outraging the viewer. The highlight is a scene in which Katherine, who had been timid up to a point, has a perfect meltdown scene (Hanson’s best moment in a fine performance). Part of this build-up included the stress of having a very annoying senior peer (played by Jim Parsons) who knows he is less smart than she is and tries to dominate her as much as he can. (Incidentally, “Loving”, another movie released in late 2016 also highlighted racist laws in Virginia during the same time period.)

The directing by Theodore Melfi is rather conventional in a Hollywood way yet the effect worked by the end as I wanted to stand up and cheer during the closing credits. After the film, I pondered the question: how many other hidden histories are waiting to be told?

RATING:   * * *


 A Man Called Ove

In a Swedish townhouse community, Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a long-time resident who is recently widowed. His grief only adds to his grouchy attitudes toward people who don’t follow his standards of community living. His new neighbours are a young mixed-race family co-lead by Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a very pregnant immigrant from Iran.

Some of the best scenes in the film are those told in flashback as they explain how Ove developed such a negative attitude. The story (screenplay by Hannes Holm based on the book by Fredrik Backman) has a clever way of making us curious about finding the pieces of the past with various hints in the current story; and then satisfying our curiosity once such events are revealed in the parallel flashback story.

Parvaneh’s character is a bit of an anomaly. She can sometimes be annoying and take Ove for granted. Yet, the story seems to imply that she is there to “humanize” him. This might have worked better if her character had been more developed. Instead, too much time is spent on other subplots, sideshows and other characters that end up overcrowding the narrative. Some of the subplots also seem to be resolved unusually quickly.

There seem to be messages like “you can’t go through life alone” and themes of ‘community values’ which may be noble but their repetitions become didactic and annoyingly obvious and sentimental. Other themes work better such as the recurrence of administrators-from-hell (“whiteshirts” as Ove calls them), the insensitive bureaucrats that we can all recognize: Satan in multiple human forms.

The conclusion is touching as it makes us have a better understanding about people who appear grouchy. Also, Lassgard gives a fine performance. But overall, the movie was rather mixed. The dramatic scenes are much better than the comedy scenes. Call me old-fashioned but I just don’t find humour in repeatedly thwarted suicide attempts.

RATING:   * * 1/2

Best Movies of 2016

Here is my rather belated list as it took so long to see all the movies released at the end of 2016. As always, this is the time when the awards-worthy films are all bunched together.

My merit system is different. Instead of guaranteeing a winner in each category, I only give praise to those who truly deserve it. Some categories have ties.

As opposed to a limited list (like five or ten), the best films of 2016 are rated using the Olympic medal systems, depending on how much I liked them.

For the list below, the movies in each category are listed in the chronological order in which I saw them:

 

Best Movies

 

Gold Medals:  none

Silver Medals:

  1. Eye in the Sky  (U.K.)
  2. The Red Turtle  (Japan/France/Belgium – animated)
  3. La La Land  (U.S.A. – Hollywood)
  4. The Salesman  (Iran)

 

Bronze Medals:

  1. Where to Invade Next  (U.S.A. – Documentary)
  2. The Innocents  (Poland/France/Belgium)
  3. Tower  (U.S.A. – Documentary)
  4. Lion  (Australia/India)

 

Best Directing:  Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Best Screenplay:

  1. Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky)
  2. Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman)

 

Best Acting:  Emma Stone (La La Land)

Best Film Music:

  1. Laurent Perez del Mar (The Red Turtle)
  2. Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)

 

Best Animation:  the team behind “The Red Turtle”

 

Best Old Movies Seen for the First Time in 2016:

  1. The Last Detail (1973 – U.S.A.)
  2. Only Yesterday (1991 – Japan – animated)
  3. Panique (1947 – France)
  4. Jeanne Dielman, 23 rue du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975 – Belgium)
  5. Le Beau Mariage (1982 – France)
  6. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980 – West Germany – mini-series)
  7. Veronika Voss (1981 – West Germany)

 

Best Old Movies Seen Again in 2016:

  1. Stagecoach (1939 – U.S.A.)
  2. Chinatown (1974 – U.S.A.)
  3. The Manchurian Candidate (1962 – U.S.A.)
  4. Romeo and Juliet (1968 – U.K.)
  5. Ran (1985- Japan)
  6. North by Northwest (1959 – U.S.A.)
  7. The Piano (1993 – New Zealand)
  8. A Woman Under the Influence (1974 – U.S.A)
  9. Taxi Driver (1976 – U.S.A.)
  10. The Blue Angel (1930 – Germany)

 

Thanks for checking in and I hope you continue enjoy the movies in 2017.

Dennis Bowman

Recent Movies: 20th Century Women; Paterson; The Salesman; Books: An American Tragedy

Recent Movies

20th Century Women

In Santa Barbara, California during the late 1970s, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is an unconventional single mother in her fifties raising a pre-teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in a household that seems to contain a makeshift family which includes two single tenants (Great Gerwig and Billy Crudup) and a girl next door (Elle Fanning) who is two years older than Jamie.

It’s rather easy for the viewer to feel comfort around the folks in this commune-like home especially with Bening playing the head of the house. She exudes charm, warmth, and humour – especially in a scene when she is trying to understand the appeal of modern (at the time) punk rock music. The characters also bring us down memory lane when feminism was in its early stages. We see both the fascinating side of this movement and some of the absurd side.

[SPOILER ALERT] The decision to show what happened to each character’s future at the end might not have been necessary with the exception of Dorothea’s. The fate of the other characters seemed ordinary and conventional considering the unique experiences they shared in the 70s.  However, this might be the point. Perhaps, this was a way of expressing grief for a period (the 1970s in this case though it could also be appended with the 1960s) when self-exploration and self-expression were much more attainable than in the decades that followed with mega-greed and less economic freedom for the average person.

“20th Century Women” could have been cut by twenty minutes or so but it was a nostalgia journey well worth traveling.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Paterson

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a local bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. The viewer witnesses a week in the life of Paterson including his domestic life with his common-law partner Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their dog; his work-life; and his social life in the evenings as he visits a local bar. He also expresses his creative side writing poetry.

The daily routine, especially the work days, have a similar pattern but they are never repetitious. Within the daily structure, there is always something new and different happening, The various characters are intriguing as well especially a hard-done-by co-worker and various dramas (some of them comical) that take place at the bar.

Most amazing is a plot twist that happens near the end. To most, such an event would be an annoyance in daily domestic life yet here, its context leaves a very strong emotional impact.

The directing by Jim Jarmusch is the movie’s main strength as he pays such kind attention to the daily life of people that might be considered average. Paterson is a soft-spoken introvert and Laura is very tender-hearted though sometimes in a naive way. Driver and Farahani each do a great job in bringing these characters to life. Jarmusch adds to the movie’s sweet charms by emphasizing the town’s beautiful old buildings and its nearby serene waterfalls.

A bonus, at least for folks like me: the main character refuses to own a mobile phone as he believes life was perfectly fine in the past without them. At least in fiction, it’s nice to know there’s someone else who feels this way.

RATING:   * * *


The Salesman

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are a couple living in Tehran who work in theatre (currently performing in “Death of a Salesman”). In their newly acquired apartment, Rana is assaulted by a stranger and suffers post-traumatic stress. Emad vows revenge.

A major event in the movie’s first half takes place off-screen. This leaves the viewer in the position of judge rather than witness as we can only surmise events from what others have told. The movie’s first half is good though relatively plain. But, as the viewer learns later, it is a build-up to an unforgettable second half. This is a wonderful contrast to the many films where the opposite is true. When a movie’s second half is the better one, the viewer is given an unofficial extension of the movie as its impact continues well after the ending.

Director/writer Asghar Farhadi brings to “The Salesman” similar themes (and greatness) as he did with “A Separation” (2011) and “The Past” (2013). Among the various characters, we in the audience can understand why some would hate others but, by the end, we have compassion for every single one of them especially after we learn more information about the “villain”. In this way, Farhadi is not just a great storyteller but a fine humanitarian as well. By giving all viewpoints sincerely, he challenges viewers to not only do reconsider anger in our personal lives but possibly in how we look at the world as well. This is noble considering the current state of our world.

Hosseini and Alidoosti are quite good in their performances but the standout performance comes from Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as a character who enters the picture only in the second half and leaves the most impact in the movie.

Like “A Separation” and “The Past”, “The Salesman” is food for the soul and it confirms Farhadi as one of the best movie-makers in the 2010s.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:  Screenplay by Asghar Farhadi


Books

“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser

******  THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS  ******

Clyde Griffiths is a young ambitious man who grew up in a poor, religious family in Kansas City. Through various mishaps, he ends up working at a rich uncle’s factory in upstate New York. Once there, he becomes involved in a love triangle, firstly with Roberta Alden who is also from a poor family like Clyde (and also his subordinate at work) and later with Sondra Finchley, a glamorous socialite from a wealthy family. The love triangle leads to the tragedy of the book’s title.

“An American Tragedy” was written in 1925 and based on true events in the early 1900s. It was also the source for the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, and Elizabeth Taylor.

One of the sidebars of the main story is a wicked social class structure and the attempts of many to climb further in the hierarchy no matter how futile it may seem. It even causes tension for those at the top as they seem obligated to keep their inner social circles as exclusive as possible. Those in the upper-class are also vulnerable as they could lose their status with the slightest association with a scandal even if they themselves have done no harm. This causes them to be as minimally helpful as possible to their relations and others who are less fortunate.

This exposure of class hierarchies is enhanced as the writing gets into the thoughts of all characters including their desires for a better social position.  It also includes thoughts of the despicable, spoiled brats who believe they are superior by luck of birth only. Another highlighted hierarchy is that of physical attractiveness. Clyde, Roberta, and Sondra are all very attractive but only Sondra has the extra advantage of being wealthy as well. She is also one of the very few rich characters who is also beautiful. Clyde happens to resemble his wealthy cousin Gilbert but Clyde, it turns out, is more attractive and taller – a fact that irks Gilbert.

In reading a book written over ninety years old, I expected challenges in the language but thankfully, there were few. The word ‘gay’ was frequently used but not in a way it would have been used in current times. Some expressions were easy to decipher even if not used today. The only time I had to use Google was to understand the term “four-flusher”. The writing is also, for its time, reasonably frank about sex but the word “abortion” was never written even though it was very clear that this was the main subject in a few successive chapters. Words like “procedure” and “help” were often used as substitutes. (This was also the case in the film version “A Place in the Sun”.) Discussions of religion were also quite interesting. At times, religious viewpoints seemed harshly judgmental but at other times, they seemed to be a welcome spiritual relief to the difficulties of living in a harsh world.

The book is divided into three sections. They include Clyde’s childhood and adolescence in Kansas City; his upward mobility in New York state – up to and including the tragedy of the title; and the fallout the follows the tragedy. The transitions between sections were brilliantly written. Each finished with a shocking cliffhanger and the following section began by introducing new and interesting characters well before bringing us back to the main one (Clyde).

At over eight-hundred and fifty pages, “An American Tragedy” certainly provides a great level of detail. For the most part, this works and works very well at that. One highlight is a scene in a death-row prison where a “newcomer” must witness, for the first time, a fellow prisoner walking down a hallway toward the electric chair. After the door is closed, the other prisoners know what is happening when the lights in their unit are getting dimmer. The only times that seemed long were the romance between Clyde and Roberta as well as the trial that takes place in the third section.

Speaking of the trial section, most of it is fascinating at its level of detail including the dirty politicking of both lawyers in how they used the case for personal purposes. The author also seemed to know what to include in detail and what to summarize. But nearing the end of this section, it seemed too long.

During the last part of the second section, the reader is dragged into the mind of someone planning a murder. It is here where Dreiser can be credited for an accuracy that goes to some very nasty places. This is apparent in the extreme discomfort of reading this section. On the one hand, we can be fascinated; on the other, we can hardly wait for it to end as we seem to be in the presence of an evil mind.

By the end, the reader is left with more than a few things to ponder. One character is widely considered by others to be a martyr by the end. The irony is that, had she not met such a tragic fate, she would likely have been considered a pariah by the same people for her life situation that lead to the tragedy. The main issue to ponder is whether another character was truly guilty of a crime. While there is some leeway to consider innocence, guilt seems to be the right verdict overall.

But most readers might come to a similar conclusion regarding another evil: class prejudice. Whether it be in the time and place of this great book, our current times in our “globalized economy” (pardon my language), and all times between, before, and after, “An American Tragedy” exposes the underbelly of this societal repugnance while giving us a damned good story as well.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Lion; Toni Erdmann; La La Land

Recent Movies

Lion

Based on a true story: In rural India in the 1980s, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a five year-old boy from a poor family. After being separated from his family in a bizarre incident, he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). During his adult life in Melbourne (portrayed by Dev Patel at this point), a flashback memory gives him the urge to find his birth family despite very difficult odds.

In the movie’s first section in India, director Garth Davis collaborates perfectly with young actor Pawar as they take the viewer down the memory lane of childhood. While Saroo’s plight is more severe than most of us have ever experienced, these early scenes can easily recall one’s own childhood experience of the vulnerability of being separate from loved ones and surrounded by strangers. In the portrayal of Saroo as a young boy, Pawar is easily loveable as he brings the perfect mix of innocence and vulnerability plus wisdom and courage beyond his years. It would be proven later that Saroo’s inner-strength was exceptional compared to other children who shared his fate.

Most of the movie’s second half has less impact than the earlier scenes. Patel’s performance is good enough but it has less depth than that of Pawar in the continuation of the main role. It’s like a relay race in which the first runner is way ahead in the race but when he passes the baton to the second runner, the team starts falling behind. It doesn’t help that Rooney Mara, who plays Saroo’s girlfriend, is equally lacking in depth. The scenes between Patel and Mara are the movie’s weakest moments.

But there are some blessings in the second half. Kidman lights up the screen every time she’s on it. Sadly though, like the Michelle Williams role in the recent “Manchester by the Sea”, Kidman’s role is too small.

The biggest saving grace for the second half is its final scene which is truly magical. There’s also a bonus in how the viewer learns how this movie got its title.

“Lion” can be placed in the same category of “Philomena” among rich films based on adopted children trying to find their biological families.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


Toni Erdmann

Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is a young German globalist consultant living in Bucharest, Romania. Her job is to assist large corporations to outsource jobs and reduce their labour costs. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is Ines’ father who is near retirement and concerned about how distant and workaholic his daughter has become. To relieve his distress, he “visits” her in Bucharest and plays pranks by showing up at Ines’ business functions dressed in a bizarre wig and claiming to be “Toni Erdmann, life coach”.

“Toni Erdmann” is yet another film where I liked the first half better than the second. The beginning section has many genuine moments of social awkwardness and it is candid about our modern times as it exposes the foils of workaholism and the deviousness of globalization. In a few scenes, director/writer Maren Ade cleverly juxtaposes the wealth of the globalist foreigners with the poor living circumstances of average Romanians. One scene amazes in showing how the poor can still be generous despite their circumstances.

The latter half is filled with buffoonery with occasional laughs (a bizarre birthday brunch was the highlight) but some of the comedy seems silly and inconsistent with the rest of the story. For example, how could “Toni” have shown up at Ines’ after-work events before she does without any indication she told him where she was going to be?

Huller gives a fine performance of a complex, inner-conflicted character. She portrays what could be called a villain: a despised, modern archetype – someone who advances her/his own career while casually destroying the livelihoods of others who are less well-off. Yet, she manages, with the help of Ade, to humanize the role without being apologetic for the career choice. The universal theme of “lost childhood” is also well portrayed here in Ines’ relationship with Winfried. We get glimpses that she used to be as prankish with him in her early years.

Overall, “Toni Erdmann” is a good film despite its flaws and its excessive length. Like the recent “Moonlight”, it is a highly acclaimed film that, for me, reaches much of its potential but not all of it.

 RATING:   * * *


La La Land

The main characters in this Los Angeles romantic musical are Mia (Emma Stone), a coffee-shop employee with dreams of being an actress; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who aspires to open his own club that plays jazz like it was played in the good old days.

At long last: a movie released during the 2016 awards season that actually lives up to the hype!

Early in the film, there are two superb group musical numbers. The numbers that follow are more low-key relating only to the main characters but they are still well performed and executed.

The stories of career struggle within the broader narrative are very believable. They include the hell of auditioning to people who are too busy plus the desire to maintain the purity of a great music genre (jazz) while too often being told it is “a dying art”.

Gosling takes a while to break into the role particularly where the singing is concerned but it’s not long before he fits into the part quite nicely. Stone is superb throughout the film. She is even spot-on as an actress giving mediocre auditions. She’s given a full range – and not just as a triple threat – and she fully lives up to the expectations especially during the song “Audition” near the end.

There is something uniquely enjoyable about Hollywood portraying itself. The movie also gives nods to great classic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” all the while being unique and standing out on its own. In addition, the set designs and photography add further to the film’s greatness.

The reference to “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” comes through strongly in the movie’s final number. This scene is probably the best scene of any movie in 2016. It leaves one with so many mixed emotions and extreme on either side. The production number is magnificent while its mood is melancholy.

The teaming of director/writer Damien Chazelle with musical composer Justin Hurwitz is one of the best matches since Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand in the 1960s.

RATING:   * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1)       Directing by Damien Chazelle

2)      Acting by Emma Stone

3)      Music by Justin Hurwitz