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Recent Movies: Night Train to Lisbon; Snowpiercer; The Grand Seduction; Old Movies: Distant Thunder

August 14, 2014

Recent Movies:

Night Train to Lisbon

In Bern , Switzerland , a professor (Jeremy Irons) has a chance encounter that lures him to temporarily abandon his life and take the mode of transportation from the film’s title.  Once in Lisbon , he researches the life of an author whose book intrigued him so much to encourage him to take this adventure.  The book’s author had been involved in the Portuguese resistance movement against the country’s dictatorship in the early 1970s.  Much of the story of the past is told in flashback.

“Night Train to Lisbon ” falls into the category of ‘Euro pudding’.  It takes place in Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain; it was directed by a Dane (Bille August), It was produced by three countries (Germany, Portugal, and Switzerland); and has actors from all of those countries as well as Great Britain, France, and Sweden, all speaking English – most of them doing so in a Portuguese accent.  While this may seem inauthentic, the plus-side is the collection of many renowned European actors of long-time experience appear in this film including Irons, Martina Gedeck, Bruno Ganz, Christopher Lee, Lena Olin, Tom Courtenay, and Charlotte Rampling.

The film has many good points including the cast.  The on-location shooting in Lisbon is beautiful and an intriguing setback for the two stories.  There is also a good lesson in Portuguese history that is rarely told in film.

The best part of the film is the modern story between the professor and an optician (Gedeck) he meets when he needs new eyeglasses.  Their conversations reflect the human need to find something deeper in the day-to-day modern life.  There are also many beautiful quotations from the book that reflect this.

The story of the past is good too but it loses traction once there is adultery and betrayal among the revolutionaries.  There is a feeling this has been done before.  At this point, the film is starting to feel too long and the fine style exceeds the substance.

It might have been more interesting to have had more of the story of between the professor and the optician and their reflections of the lives that have brought them to their current situation.  At the very least, the wonderfully ambiguous ending between these two is a delight.

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

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Snowpiercer

In a near dystopian future, the world is in another ice age.  The few survivors all exist on a constantly moving train that moves all around the world.  There is an extremely unjust class system on the train with the very poor and oppressed in the tail cars and the pampered rich in the front.  A revolution is inevitable.

The first hour includes much gratuitous gang violence, some of it quite in-your-face.  This concept and style have been done in many films so there’s nothing new here.  Admittedly though, the action scenes are well executed.  The storyline is also fascinating much of the time especially in the revelation of each train car and how it shows the extreme class separations.   The production and set designs are among the movie’s strongest assets.

The theme of class oppression is a worthy one especially considering our current global economic system which gets worse each year.  “Snowpiercer” takes on this theme well but there are some scenes which seem bizarre and out of place thus making the film incoherent at times.  Therefore, it was a mixed result.

RATING:   * * 1/2

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The Grand Seduction

A small harbour community in the Canadian province of Newfoundland once had an active fishing economy but now most residents are on welfare.  There is a possibility of opening a factory in the region but one of the conditions is that the community must have a resident physician.  When a city doctor must spend a month in the community, the residents do all they can to “seduce” the doctor into staying even if that means lying through their teeth.

This film is a remake from a Quebec French-language comedy, “Seducing Dr. Lewis” in 2003.  Having seen the first film, the surprise element was missing for me for some parts of the story but this current version is as warm and charming as the original.  The story is very far-fetched especially the ending but within its own content, it strangely comes off as believable.

There was a missed opportunity for more exposure of one character: an attractive, lone-wolf postmistress who is better off than those around her due to her government salary and benefits.  In one scene, her position of relative privilege causes her to be unintentionally indifferent to the plight of those around her.  Had this element been expanded, it would have been very relevant in our current times.  Instead, the character, whose appearances are rare, was used by other residents as a “pretty girly-girl” to be one of the ways to seduce the doctor.

Despite this misgiving, this film, like the original version, has many enjoyable moments.  The characters are quirky but likeable and there is never an attitude of condescension toward them.  It’s also pleasant but rare to see stories of rural people doing their best to live well within their means.  And the landscapes of coastal Newfoundland are truly breathtaking.

RATING:   * * *

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Great Old Films Seen for the First Time

Distant Thunder  (1973 – India)

During World War II, the price of rice rose to unattainable levels in Bengal thus causing a famine that killed millions in 1943.  This fictional film focuses on how the famine affected a small village as seen through the eyes of a privileged Brahmin couple who have recently moved there.

I felt bored during the first twenty minutes of this film wondering where it was going.  Once the story-line picked up, I was truly mesmerized.

Of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen, this must be the first one I’ve seen whose main subject is famine and starvation.  With various stories within the broader one, it was shocking to see what some people did in desperate circumstances thus causing the audience to question what we might do if the same thing were happening to us.  Such situations include the poor asking those better off for more and more charity while the more privileged are concerned about lack if their supplies run dry.  The compassion and subtlety of the directing (by Satyajit Ray) and the acting leaves the audience able to see both sides.

While beautiful sunshine vistas juxtapose the tragedy of the people in their midst, “Distant Thunder” builds and builds to a conclusion that is heart-wrenching and stays that way well until after the final credits are complete.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievement:   Directing by Satyajit Ray

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– Dennis Bowman

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