June 18th, 2015 — 6:22pm
Jimmy’s Hall – sp
This is a touching film made by veteran director, Ken Loach who is mostly known for his acclaimed work in Europe, with a screenplay by Paul Laverty. It deals with an important part of Irish history with which most Americans are not very familar. It is based on a real character, Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) who was an idealistic Irish leader whose main claim to fame, was running Jimmy’s Hall in an obscure Irish town, first in the 1920s and then 10 years later, in the 1930s. In this hall, (which was really a home or a cabin) men, women and children would gather to sing the popular music of the time and likewise do the popular dances, children would also sing and dance and learn history and some of the older boys would learn how to box. There would be lively discussions and a good time would be had by all. So what is wrong with this? Where is the conflict and where is the story? While we are not intimately familiar with Irish history and the film does not spell everything out to be crystal clear, we do know there was great turmoil in Ireland during this time period. In particular, the Catholic Church vividly depicted by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) did not like the idea that people would dance and sing or even learn outside the auspices of the church. There was also a great economic and social upheaval notably between Ireland and Great Britain during this time as well as class warfare between the prosperous landowners and the workers. There was great dislike by many for socialism and of course for communism when that became an important issue. Jimmy was an idealist who spoke his mind which led to him being deported from Ireland without a trial or even any hearing. There is a sad love element as when Jimmy first returned, he is reunited with his old girlfriend, Oonagh (Simone Kirby) who is now happily married with children but still shares her simmering love for her old boyfriend. That is really the theme of the movie – so many unhappy people who are dealing with political and social issues which were much bigger than all of them. This is a well-done film but it never really breaks out. (2015)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Foreign, History
March 14th, 2015 — 5:32am
Desert Dancer sp
Although Iran is known to have a repressive government, it still has one of the highest percentage of educated people in the world as well as having 60% of its 73 million people under the age of 30. Therefore, it would still seem surprising that any kind of dancing in Iran is forbidden. This movie shows the true story of a student at the University of Tehran who five years ago with the few other students began to secretly learn how to dance in order to express their emotions. They gathered at a deserted basement and studied forbidden YouTube videos. They knew that they could be beaten and even killed if discovered as had happened to many other young people who flaunted the authority of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his paid thugs.
First time British director, Richard Raymond, read a newspaper article about Afshin Ghaffarian, who led this group of dancers as they practiced and put on a performance in the desert for a small gathering of students who were secretly brought to this hidden recital. Ghaffarian’s life was threatened and he eventually made it out of Iran to Europe where he told this story. He then received further dance training and ultimately formed his own dance company, performing throughout the world.
Thanks to this film, the true story of the suppression of art and dance in Iran is told. It is also a metaphor for what is being done to the human spirit that is being highlighted here. Mr. Raymond put together a multi national cast of actors who were then taught to dance by Okram Khan, the choreographer of the opening night of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Although their names are not known to American audiences, their dedication to this story deserves to be recognized. Afshin Ghaffarian was played by Reece Ritchie. The other actors were Nazanin Boniadi, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Makram J. Khoury, Marama Corlett and Daniel Bass. You probably won’t remember their names but you will remember this film. It will touch you and remind you how sad it is when the creative expression inside of us is not allowed to come out and how glorious it can be when it becomes free. (2015)
Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, History
February 5th, 2015 — 8:22pm
The Red Army-sp The Red Army is a film about hockey, except that it isn’t! We agreed with several people in the audience, with whom we saw this film, who stated that they had not been looking forward to this documentary about the national hockey team of the Soviet Union. However, we, like they, were entirely captivated by this incredibly well executed documentary written, directed and produced by the young filmmaker, Gabe Polsky. While much of the film showed actual footage of hockey games played by this extraordinary team, the scenes were beautifully put together between photos of early years of some of the players, magnificent interviews with a wide range of people and footage of life in the soviet union over the years. Mr. Polsky created a film that was enlightening, poignant and engaging by focusing mainly on one player, Viacheslav (Slava) Festinov and telling his story. By doing that, he told the story of the proud Russian people and their culture. He was able to explicate the determination and love of country, even in the face of adversity and lack of freedom that existed. Festinov as a young boy was like millions of other youths who wanted to play hockey and dreamt of being on his national team. Because of his skills he became part of the national hockey-training program that selects the best and vigorously trains them for several years. Through carefully constructed and interwoven interviews and film clips we come to see the total dedication to the game that these young men developed. We are introduced to the coaches who revolutionized the game by treating it on the level of complex ballet and complicated chess games, both of which the Russians had been known to be masters. We also see the unrelenting, even cruel training techniques that required total dedication and the total power that a coach with support of the government could have over the players. The film shows the fascinating years of the amazing world wide successes, then the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in which the United States Olympic hockey team upset the Soviet Union and went on to win the Gold Medal at Lake Placid and the redoubled efforts following that loss which created a whole new “must win” era in the Soviet Union. The events that then occurred with all the twists and turns of a “must see” thriller are captured in the film keeping the viewer totally engaged. The events in Festinov’s life as well as the changes in the Soviet Union are compelling. With hockey as a platform, it is what happens in the lives of the people in this space that makes for a film that compels you to become involved. It is the best of what a good documentary does. You see, you learn and most of all you care. (2014)
Comment » | 5 Stars, Documentary, History, Sport
February 5th, 2015 — 8:10pm
Timbuktu sp- “Timbuktu” is widely used to describe a place extremely far away and regarded by many as a myth. In reality it’s a city in Mali, West Africa. It is situated on the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert. This film although named Timbuktu was actually filmed in Mauritania, a country a little to the north and deemed a little safer for the French and African crew and cast that made this highly charged political film. This movie was produced and directed by Ahderrahmane Sissaki who also co-wrote the screenplay. It is the first film from Mauritania and one of the very few from Africa to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It attempts to show how the Jihadists, who are contemporary armed Islamic fundamentalists, attempt to impose their values on other Islamic people who don’t hold their extreme beliefs. The setting is the beautiful African dessert where some animals run wild and others are herded by local people many of whom are religious but don’t hold the extreme beliefs of the Jihadists. This leads to horrific scenes, which include a young couple being stoned to death for having a sexual relationship and not being married. Others are given painful 40 lashes for singing and enjoying music. Women are also forbidden from even showing their hands and must wear gloves. The actors are quite good and very believable in their roles although most have not acted before. Some of the actors, we learned, have performed as musicians. The storyline is more a tableaux of scenes woven together to achieve the message that the filmmaker clearly wishes to make. It has relevancy to the world situation as the news is filled with stories about terrorism by various extremist Islamic groups, such as ISIS, al Qaeda and others as they spread their influence throughout the world. A movie such as this one that attempts to show extremism and oppression of people becomes even more effective than political speeches and news reports to educate the public. We understand that already the movie is showing strong box office appeal in various parts of Africa as well as in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. However, as an enjoyable, absorbing well done film we can’t put it near the top of our list. Granted the photography is quite beautiful and did capture the texture and ambience of the land. However there is no real storyline. There is no character development and we really know very little about the background of any of the people that we meet. Since they mostly walk around with some type of cloth around their faces (men and women), at times we didn’t even know who was who. Some of the scenes were drawn out too long in our opinion. We had the opportunity to question the filmmaker about some of the fine points of the movie that we did not comprehend. Although that helped to understand what had occurred, regular movie goers will not have that added help. The overall message was fairly clear but we found the movie which was 97 minutes, to feel much longer. In sum, the political value trumps the cinematic value. We hope it makes a difference but we can’t recommend it as a must see film.(2015)
Comment » | 2 Stars, Drama, History
December 20th, 2014 — 11:47pm
Selma sp- It is hard to believe that this is the first docudrama about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. who is played by David Oyelowo. The screenplay by Paul Webb and superb directing by Ava DuVernay chose to examine one specific event in the historic 13 year career of this civil rights icon and that is the March from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery, which took place in 1965. The first steps towards desegregation had occurred 10 years earlier when Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in front of a bus which led to the Montgomery bus boycott, coordinated by Martin Luther King Jr. Blacks had the right to vote but were blocked by the local registrars using tactics dramatically shown when Annie Lee Cooper, magnificently played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts to register to vote. As is clearly explained in this film, this denial based on racial discrimination was not only illegal in and of itself but it was further compounded by allowing juries to be all white since proof of voter registration was required to serve on juries in the South. It also kept the biased white politicians in their leadership positions. This state of affairs led to a first futile attempt to peacefully march to the courthouse steps by King and his followers, which is brutally disbanded by the local police. There were very revealing depictions of the behind the scenes discussions of King and his associates who included Rev. Abernathy, John Lewis and many others. The film showed those favoring a more violent confrontation such as the leaders of SNCC as well as interactions between King and Malcolm X. There are also several scenes between King and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) where Johnson expects King to delay his demonstration for a year or two so the President, elected by a landslide a year earlier, could pursue other agendas including programs within his “war on poverty.” As shown in this movie, it is not one of Johnson’s finest moments. King does not take no for an answer and we see the results as thousands of people including many whites, especially clergy in all denominations descend on Selma. The reliving the historic march from Selma to Montgomery sent chills up our spines as we were captivated by the visual effects including black and white clips of the actual event which took place almost 50 years ago. So often Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed by new generations as an almost mythical person. He has a national holiday named after him, streets have his name and it is is said in the same breath as other great Americans such as George Washington and Abe Lincoln. In this film he is shown to be a real person who at times seems anxious and scared and even has his human foibles as we see in a dramatic confrontational interaction with his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo). Other very fine actors in this movie include Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth and Martin Sheen. King comes alive with a tremendous performance by David Oyelowo who is a Shakespearean actor by training and an experienced film actor. Producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner who we met at our screening related how Oyelowo was drawn to his part with an almost mystical destiny. He gained 30 pounds to resemble King and his oration of King’s words knocked it out of the ball park and could not have been better. This movie took us back in time and allowed us to experience one of the great moments in American history with all the fear, pain and tragedy, yet ultimate triumph of that march from Selma to Montgomery. (2014)
1 comment » | 5 Stars, Biography, Drama, History
November 24th, 2014 — 6:39am
Foxcatcher rm– Steve Carell establishes himself as a serious actor as he plays John Dupont, one of the wealthy children of the Dupont family. He seems filled with his own narcissism but yet insecure and desperate to prove to his mother and the world that he is a wonderful, worthwhile person. He is going to try to do this by investing in his great passion and that is wrestling. He envisions himself as a wrestling coach and father figure to what he hopes will be the US championship team of the 1988 Olympics. This film is based on a true story with a screenplay by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye and is directed by Bennett Miller. It is mainly about three characters, Dupont, Mark Schultz ( Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) The latter two are brothers who have already won Olympic Gold Medals in wrestling. Mark comes across as quite introverted, islolated pliable and almost too wooden as he quickly agrees to move to the the Dupont estate and train for the next Olympics. It is hard to say if his rather blunted personality is what was intended by the story or perhaps it is some underacting by Tatum. David, the older brother and already a family man with a wife and two kids is also in a coaching mode, exudes warmth and relatedness, all of which is projected quite well by Ruffalo. He ultimately decides to bring his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids to join the US wrestling team on the Dupont estate under the irrational auspicious of John Dupont. The ambivalent relationship and tension between the two brothers is subtle and interesting to ponder. Vanessa Redgrave has a brief role as the Dupont mother who loves valuable horses and doesn’t think very highly of wrestling much to the despair of her son John. If you were into high school or college wrestling you may appreciate all the wrestling moves in the various scenes on the mats. The plot is also interesting to grapple with in this sad but very interesting story. (2014)
Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History, Sport
November 16th, 2014 — 7:46pm
Rosewater-rm Before we discuss this movie, we should try to answer the question of why would Jon Stewart, the host of the Daily Show, on the Comedy Central Network, want to make his debut as a feature film director in a movie about the 2009 Presidential election in Iran. That was the election where incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated Houssein Mousavi. This election sparked mass demonstrations in the street, which were harshly put down by the government. The defeated candidate was put on house arrest which we believe is still current and he was among many people imprisoned including a a journalist working for Newsweek magazine by the name of Maziar Behari. Behari had appeared in a clearly satirical piece for the Stewart show where it was jokingly mentioned that he could have been been a spy. Thus the connection that must have sparked Stewarts interest which ultimately led him to be a first time director of this movie for which he also wrote the screenplay. It is all about Maziar Behari who was ripped away from his mother’s house with whom he was staying while covering the election, while his pregnant wife was in London. Gael Garcia Bernal, an accomplished Mexican actor, does a great job playing Behari. The film provides an insight into the valiant but futile protests that were made of this election after the hopes of the opposition were dashed. Behari appeared to become a symbol of the masses who try to rise up when they feel they are treated unfairly especially when they are offered an election that they came to feel was fraudulent. He also reminds us of generations of young people who develop values that lead them to fight for what they believe even though it appears that they will be defeated. In this case we learn that Behari’s father and sister both were imprisoned at various times by the reigning Iranian governments and both died in jail at different times. Behari is tortured with the goal of making him confess to being a spy for the West so he can be televised making a confession. The interaction between him and his interrogator who was well played by Kim Badnia is one of the higlights of the movie. In this regard Stewart was able to work in a subtle satirical element, which mocked the prison officials who worked on Behari while still taking seriously the oppressive threat of the tyrannical government. One of us felt that the movie dragged at times but in the end we were well informed and its message was quite clear. (2014)
Comment » | 4 Stars, History
November 14th, 2014 — 6:00am
The Imitation Game- sp The Turing Test is a method that is supposed to help determine if artificial intelligence built into a modern computer is indistinguishable from the human mind. There was only an indirect subtle reference to this test in this movie, which however, was all about the complicated yet very human mind of Alan Turing. This is a Bio-Pic with a screenplay by Graham Moore adapted from a biography by Andrew Hughes as well as other books written about this man. It is produced by Graham Moore, Nina Grossman and Teddy Schwarzman who shepherded it through a few incarnations where it was almost made by a major studio but ultimately ended up as an independent production in the hands of the Norwegian film director Morten Tyldum (known for The Headhunters) starring Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Alan Turing. The movie dramatically reminds us of horrendous threat of Nazi Germany to the world during WWII and introduces us to the team led by Turing that is working in Bletchley Park in England trying to break the German Enigma code which could give the allies the edge to win the war. One of the team members is a woman by the name of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) whose great intelligence stands out and gets the attention of the leader who becomes very close to her. Alan Turing is shown to us as a brilliant young man with a personality often shown to be associated with Asperger’s Syndrome. It turns out Turing also is homosexual which he had to keep as a deep secret as during those times because it was a crime itself punished at best with chemicals (hormonal castration). Mixed into the film is a touch of espionage where you least expected it to be. Breaking the Nazi code would mean the saving of millions of lives and the defeat of Germany. Yet it must be a gigantic secret because if it were known, the Germans might change the code. Recounting how all of this done was a great cinematic accomplishment led by a sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance by Cumberbatch who is certain to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. In addition to Knightley there are excellent supporting performances by Mathew Goode (who may be recognized as recently playing The Good Wife’s opposing attorney in that TV series), Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear and Charles Dance. In the end this is the story of a tragic hero who saved many millions of lives and who is probably the father or the grandfather of the modern day computer but yet was never truly appreciated during his life. This movie, which was made by a dedicated team that wanted to rectify this situation, deserves to be credited as one of the outstanding movies of the year (2014)
2 comments » | 5 Stars, Biography, Drama, History
August 21st, 2014 — 7:00pm
Last Days in Vietnam-sp– Even if you were around in 1975 during the U.S pullout from South Vietnam, the true story of how it went down is probably not the way you remember it. Even that iconic photograph of people climbing up a ladder into a helicopter from what you thought was the U.S Embassy was not the U.S. Embassy. Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of the late Robert Kennedy is a documentary filmmaker who realized that there was an interesting story here to be told. Together with her co-producer Keven McAlester and their team she researched the subject, dug out archive documents and film footage, followed leads, set up interviews with former CIA agents, American soldiers, as well as Vietnamese who got out and some that didn’t. She also was able to interview one of the key surviving players who surrounded and advised President Ford during those final days. That was none other than Henry Kissinger who had been Secretary of State for both Ford and President Nixon. Nixon actually looks quite good in the view of the historical circumstances, which are presented here. It was under his watch that the peace accord of !973 was signed which was followed by the withdrawal of US Troops. We are then shown in 1975 shortly after Nixon resigned from office that the North Vietnam troops began the march towards Saigon. The implication was clearly stated that they would have been afraid to do so if Nixon were in office. We then see how President Ford was not able to get Congress to raise money to support any effort to stop this new aggression.
The real story here was the denial by U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin of the threatening attack that was underway, spilling down towards Saigon with the ultimate evacuation of all the Americans and the desperate attempt to get out bythe South Vietnamese who were connected to the Americans. Rather than use an authoritative narrator, the filmmakers chose to use the faces and the voices of the Americans and Vietnamese who lived through those harrowing days who told their own stories. The latter group knew that if they did not get out, they stood a good chance of being killed or severely punished. In fact in the final credits we learn that some of these narrators subsequently spent years in “ reeducation camps” before making their way to the United States. We learn that the final dramatic evacuation was not only by helicopter but also by sea. The helicopters flew out thousands of evacuees to a flotilla of ships led by the USS Kirk.
A good documentary often relies on some fresh views of the historical event. In this case, that was not only provided by American and Vietnamese survivors of this unusual evacuation telling their tales but also by the discovery of a box full of 8mm movie film taken by one of the sailors aboard the USS Kirk almost 40 years ago. These movies provided a vivid picture of the thousands of civilians packed aboard these ships as they attempted to get to Manila. They also showed a never to be forgotten sequence of movie scenes of a gigantic Chinook helicopter that was too large and heavy to land on the US ship. Instead the Vietnamese pilot who was trying to save his family and others had to do a remarkable maneuver where he hovered so his young children could be dropped and caught by the sailors below. He then did what experts feel was an extremely difficult task of climbing out of his pilot gear, ditching his gigantic helicopter into the sea with its spinning blades disintegrating, while he jumped out into the water and swam to safety of the nearby vessel. This amazing accomplishment was narrated by his now grown son who had been seen as one of the young children being dropped out of the Chinook.
There were several moral questions raised by this film. The big question was did the U.S. have a commitment to its ally, South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese broke the Paris Peace Accord and invaded South Vietnam. What was the meaning of the refusal of Congress to provide funds and the failure of the President to send troops back there? Did the U.S have a commitment to the many civilians and their families who had worked for the US and would be targets if they were not evacuated? Were several U.S. officers within the embassy wrong when they disobeyed orders and organized secret “ black opps” plans for evacuating civilians when the Ambassador had not authorized this to be done.? There also was a promise to all those Vietnamese who were allowed to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds for evacuation, that they would definitely be rescued. However once the Ambassador left, after most of the people were evacuated, there were 420 Vietnamese left behind who had been promised evacuation. Finally, is there any lesson here that we can glean that can be applied to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. has left and now the situation is deteriorating?
When a documentary film can prevent a fresh view of history and stir up new questions, which even pertain to our current time, we have to view it as a successful endeavor that should be seen.(2014)
1 comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, History, War
August 1st, 2014 — 6:53pm
The Queen-nf- As Americans we never quite understood how and why the British people hold their royal family in such esteem. Also, while being full grown adult at the time of the auto accident that claimed the life of Princess Diana, who was by then divorced from Prince Charles, we never understood why there was such a big deal about her funeral. Well, this more or less docudrama focuses on both of these subjects. Thanks to the screenplay by Peter Morgan and the direction David Frears, plus the outstanding acting by Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Michael Sheen, as newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, we are treated to a sophisticated exploration of inner workings of the royal court and what is purported be an accurate rendition of the complicated feeling of all the players in this drama. A fascinating story unravels, which shows the Queen and the royal family with the exception of Prince Charles, reluctant to make a big deal, a royal funeral or any public statements about the sudden tragic death of Diana. Whereas the people of Great Britain and eventually people around the world who were taken up with her life style and her many charitable good deeds were very much affected and were drawn to follow her funeral and participate in the grieving, the royal family felt that she was no longer royalty and there should be just a private funeral. Actual film clips of the large numbers of tearful people in the streets and many inundating the outside of Buckingham Palace with flowers were shown. Blair appreciates the importance to the British people to grieve this loss and realized the mistake that the Queen was making by staying in her country home, not returning to Buckingham Palace and raising the flag at half mast. At one point he even detected a growing sentiment that could lead to the British people wanting to perhaps even remove the monarchy, which they had revered for hundred of years. He tried to counsel the Queen and she responds. In another source we found information that reported that the writer Peter Morgan reconstructed the events of the week after the death of Princess Diana through extensive interviews with many unnamed sources close to the real Prime Minister and the royal family. Many of these sources were able to corroborate the accounts of others, giving Morgan enough information to imagine the intervening scenes, which were portrayed in the movie. Helen Mirren was at her best in this film and won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. The film itself won the most coveted award of an Academy Award Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year. But perhaps the highest compliment for Ms. Mirren was the observation by the writer Mr. Morgan that, by the end of production, crewmembers who had been accustomed to slouching or relaxing when they addressed her were standing straight up and respectfully folding their hands behind their backs. She was the Queen. (2006)
Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, History