… minority opinion? …
Some Kazakhs in Mongolia use eagles to hunt wild animals, who knew? i.e., the material is totally new to most of us so that’s what’s interesting. But it’s not really a good movie.
With Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, directed by James Marshal
The Theory of Everything is a “must see” but not a “rave.”
The true story of physicist Stephen Hawking is powerful and inspiring: he has overcome gruesome physical obstacles and beat seemingly impossible odds to lead a productive and creative career as a physicist, while enjoying a rich personal life and having three children. And Eddie Redmayne’s characterization of Hawking, a man brutally robbed by illness of motor control and speech, is beyond belief great. The disease that felled Hawking as a young man in college is ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), Lou Gherig’s disease: at the time he was stricken he was told he had two years to live but he’s alive today and in his early 70’s (which made me wonder about the diagnosis although I’m sure he’s been tested and re-tested and they must know).
The acting is magnificent but the script doesn’t convey the intellectual dimensions of Hawking’s work well, and also shows Hawking as a one-man creator of contemporary physics as if nobody else did anything. Science doesn’t work that way (while Hawking currently has more “name recognition” than any other contemporary physicist,brilliant physicists have won the Nobel Prize through the years, but not Hawking, though of course that’s just one gauge of significance). In his youth, his fellow physics students at Cambridge, who must have been quite smart, are shown in the film as dummies when it comes to answering test questions that only Hawking can solve. Whatever happened to them? one wonders. Did they make contributions to science? Did anybody, beside Stephen Hawking?
This, along with a lot of romance (from a funny looking Cambridge nerd through helpless in a wheelchair, he attracts women) and the constant references to Hawking’s fame without clarity about his ideas, make the film seem something of a puff piece. This may be because it’s based upon his first wife’s book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking.
And it is possible to convey physics in a film more successfully than in The Theory of Everything. A classic example is Madame Curie of 1943, with Greer Garson as Marie Curie and and Walter Pidgeon as her husband Pierre Curie — it gives a much better sense of what their physics meant, of how they did it, and of their intellectual activity and strength, as well as their family life and mutual love. In recent theater, see also Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA, and Isaac’s Eye about an experiment by Newton.
But back to Redmayne’s characterization: you see the distortions of Hawking’s body caused by his disastrous neurological disease, the contracted fingers, his head falling sideways, and you see him peering up from this distorted position -– teasing, knowing, enjoying, thinking, catching on — whether to intimate interactions or cosmic mysteries. I found the joie de vivre of this man suffering from such profound physical limitations totally believable and something to think about.
Redmayne’s Hawking ranks among some unforgettable dramatic impersonations in film including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child, David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth.* I expect he’ll win the Academy Award. Stephen Hawking said on facebook that watching Redmayne, he felt he was watching himself, and I believe it.
* Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (2005), Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady (2011) and as Julia Child, Julie & Julia (2009), David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth, The Queen (2006).
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Kon-Tiki is one of the world’s great stories — not so well told in this movie BUT the story is SO good it’s worth seeing the movie anyhow.
It's an astonishingly audacious adventure. The Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 crossed the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia in a raft to prove a scientific point.
Heyerdahl, who had done field work in Polynesia believed that compelling cultural similarities between South America and Polynesia indicated that Polynesia had originally been populated by migrants from Peru. This countered prevailing scientific opinion that Polynesia had been populated from Asia: after all, it seemed impossible for early people with primitive technology to travel the 5,000 miles across the Pacific it takes to get from Peru to Polynesia. Any cultural similarities between South America and Polynesia were written off as the result of independent inventions in Peru and Polynesia.
Heyerdah saw a way to prove his point: he’d make the journey. So, with his crew of six, he built a primitive balsa wood raft, no modern materials, and, trusting on the currents to carry them there, drifted motorless from Peru to Polynesia.
A tiny raft in the Pacific ocean for a little over three months — the journey was fraught with difficulty. The balsa wood began to get soggy, the raft lay lower and lower in the water, storms, high waves, sharks, whales, exposure all took their toll. And when they did sight land, a razor edged reef nearly finished them off. The movie gives dramatic coverage to all these threats to their lives and obstacles and to their triumphant arrival in Polynesia.
So what, then, is wrong with the movie — outside of the fact that Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen lacks Heyerdahl’s grit , though other actors come across convincingly as outdoorsmen and adventurers?
It is episodic and not smoothly continuous. On the current-driven raft, the big threats – men overboard, whales, sharks, powerful thunder and lightening storms, towering waves — appear like vignettes in a Disneyworld tracked boat ride – there they are, now they’re past, what’s ahead? The time in between – daily tasks, food limitations, exposure, and boredom – are referred to but not shown. For example, after one crisis Heyerdahl tells the crew to get back to their tasks: what are they? What do you need to do daily on a drifting balsa raft? A lot? or not much?
The film shows what happens consecutively but is skimpy on how it happens. There are views of the raft being built in Peru but we don’t get the sense of the mechanics of it, the how. Raising money for the project is referred to but how did he succeed? These kinds of nitty-gritty which make Heyerdahl’s book of 1950, Kon-Tiki: Six Men Cross the Pacific on a Raft, so compelling, are not made vivid. When a storm arises, we see its bigness, men clinging to posts, water washing over everything, but we don’t get the narrative of a storm with the clarity the movies usually give such scenes.
The film short-changes Heyerdahl’s intellectual purpose. I found this truly beyond annoying. In the early scenes, the Heyerdahl character states clearly his scientific purpose to prove that humans could have rafted from Peru to Polynesia, but by the end the importance of the Kon-Tiki expedition is related to its inspirational effect on future explorations, sending men into space, etc. Irrelevant. Heyerdahl didn’t prove that Polynesia was populated from Peru, but he did prove that contact between them was possible.
He broke through the fixed idea that there was no contact between the Americas and Polynesia, and showed that the cultural similarities may be the result of the movement of humans and the ideas they carry with them. He provided a new lens to view all scientific information touching on these regions, and that, as he thought, for early humans, water was a road, not a barrier.
Not that is was ever an easy trip!
So should you see the movie? Yes. Heyerdah’s proving his point is one of the great adventure stories of all time – physical and intellectual, and here’s a chance to know about it.
And if you have a chance, read the book.
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. . . not a dragon tattoo but a . . .
Simon and the Oaks is about two families with characters so vivid, attractive and complex that one becomes totally absorbed in them, worries for the obstacles they face and cares to the very end about how things work out for them.
Two families, very much opposite, are drawn tightly together on the eve of World War II: the rural, home-grown Swedish Larssons and the urban, well-to-do, Jewish Lentovs who are in Sweden as fugitives from Nazi Germany. Each family has one son, who feels alienated from the expectations of his own family and, friends in school, the boys Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov are each powerfully drawn to something in the other’s family.
We meet Simon as a dreamy boy reading in an oak tree that has become so magical it speaks to him. Finding a real friend in Isak is a step in his maturity, and in the Lentov’s home he glimpses a world of art, culture, wealth and glistening chandeliers that he feels is somehow his own. But Isak, who’d been brutally savaged by Nazis in Germany when he was four years old, now experiences intense anti-semitism in school, and, as the Nazi presence extends in Sweden, witnesses his terrified mother’s murderous/suicidal breakdown that sends her to a mental hospital.
For these reasons, by the time his father, Ruben Lentov, arranges for Isak to live with the warm, welcoming Larssons, Isak has become withdrawn, unresponsive, near to catatonic. It’s not the tenderness of the loving Larsson mother, Karin, nor the friendly loyalty of Simon, but the understanding of the demanding, down-to-earth work-oriented father, Erik Larsson, who engages Isak in his carpentry, that pulls the boy out of his shell, and ultimately saves him.
So, as they grow to maturity, Isak loves building with wood; Simon loves music. Each boy disappoints his own father and finds a spiritual kinship with the father of his friend.
It’s engrossing to watch this extended family whose members we have come to know and like so well, and that like most families includes a good admixture of conflict, jealousies, frightening illnesses, and lots of love — all, and especially the love, beautifully conveyed in this movie. The family is far more complex than it at first seems: and the film tells us that just as a child can have more than one “father,” he or she can have more than “mother.” As the boys become men, the family grows to include romantic false starts, the women they love, and a first grandchild — a Lentov, but she belongs to all of them.
There’s a fascinating connection between this film and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , millenium trilogy — I haven’t noticed the point made though I’d guess it’s very well known in Sweden where the novel Simon and the Oaksis, like Stieg Larsson’s books, a best seller. And so, it’s not for nothing that the Erik, Karin and Simon’s family name is Larsson.
Like Larsson’s stories, Simon and the Oaks pushes aside the idyllic view of Sweden as an enlightened nation to reveal its flaws, including class divisions, xenophobia and anti-semitism.
And Simon and the Oaks has its own girl with a tattoo — but the tattoo of numbers worn by Ruben Lentov’s niece, Iza, is chillingly different from Lisbeth Salander’s dragon. We first meet Iza at the end of World War II, when she has just been liberated from Buchenwald, and she’s a skinny, high cheek boned, suspicious, ironic, frenetic man-eater (Katharina Schuttler) who looks just like Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the “Tattoo” film. But though her hair’s cut close to her head like Lisbeth Salander’s, for Iza it’s not about style or affect: her hair was shaved off by the Nazis in the Buchenwald and has only just begun to grow back, a gauge of how recently she was a prisoner. Lisbeth Salander’s world-famous tattoo expresses her rebelliousness, savage temperament, alienation: Iza’s tattoo is not a personal “statement”, but a row of numbers tattooed against her will into the young girl’s forearm in Buchenwald.
There are many Biblical allusions in Simon and the Oaks— so many, and I’ll only mention a few, that they weigh down the movie. But of particular interest for a film about a family of Christians and a familoy of Jews who become one family, many of the Biblical allusions involve reconciling the Old and New Testaments, Christians and Jews. Erik Larsson is a divine-like figure: he’s way bigger than everybody else, inspires absolute confidence and is projected as having a particular power: when Simon asks Ruben if he is having an affair with Karin, Ruben answers that no man can match Erik.
Erik is a stern father, like the God of the Old Testament, but — as if we’re watching the New Testament coming into being — he is persuaded, to let Simon go to his chosen school, for example, like the merciful God of the New Testament. Like the earthly father of Jesus, Erik is a carpenter and he and Isak focus in on building the best boat, symbol of salvation. Some of these Biblical allusions seem forced: for example, when Simon wants to go to the “fancy” school that Erik distrusts, Erik resists, than yields by saying Simon can go to school on one condition, if Isak wrestle with his father: watching this odd match, one thinks “Jacob Wrestling With The Angel.” The episode seems forced.
There’s a pure mother — virgin-like in that she’s never had a child — and a fallen woman, a Magdalene. Isak tells two jokes that underline the religious associations, though he doesn’t seem to be a boy to tell jokes.
Several writers have commented that Simon and the Oaks is weighed down with too many incidents and turns of plot — a common problem in movies made from big novels. I think it’s not the richness of events and characters that weigh the movie down, but the not fully integrated symbolism that doesn’t emerge naturally but seems impressed on the film. Ultimately Ruben, the Jewish father, does prove a match for Erik, the Christian father — besting him for once in what we take it to be an ongoing hand-wrestle challenge: happy families, but I didn’t believe it for a moment.
So Simon and the Oaks may try to do too much: tell an intensely human family saga with many family characters over time and against the historical background of World War II, and bringing out the horrors of Nazism, and probing into negative aspects of Swedish society, and carrying on a conversation with the Stieg Larsson books, and creating a metaphorical structure that reconciles the Old and the New Testaments. It’s a little heavi handed, that last point but in all those other ways Simon is fully successful. Quite an achievement! See Simon and the Oaks — it’s compelling, illuminating, and filled with a sense of human truths.
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For a thoroughly enjoyable time, go see The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys at 59E59.
Here’s how it goes: it’s not a theater, for the time being, but a nightclub from the 1920’s or ‘30’s, think speakeasy, draped in red with little round candle-lit tables instead of regular audience seating – if you like you can bring a drink you’ve picked up at the Mezzanine bar down below. Settle yourself in and listen to six wonderful musicians play jazz like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, interspersed with hilarious clips from the 1947 film about the Dorsey brothers in which the Dorseys played themselves – how fascinating — and it gives you just enough of the story line of their lives for fun and interest without taking away from the great jazz the band is playing.
There’s another marvelous film insert I’ll leave for you to discover – but what a laugh!
Flanking the group the twins, Pete and Will – two players both accomplished on the saxophone, clarinet and flute (a little amazing!) — whip through their changes of instruments, solos, ensembles and improvisations. They're more or less look-alikes though not identical and it's fun to watch their individuality — musical as well as in personality. Between them is Jon-Erik Kellso on the trumpet, Ehud Asherie’s on the piano at right, and behind are Dave Baron on bass and Kevin Dorn on drums – what a feast!
One wonderful jazz piece after another, from “Tangerine” to “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” from ensemble to solo, the fast-paced jazz lifts the spirit. Among favorites … Kellso's thrilling solos … Asherie dazzling picking up from where (filmed) Art Tatum left off … Will Anderson's virtuoso tour de force playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” – what an enchanting piece of music. And, yes, you hear the bee. But these are six outstanding musicians in a jazz fest filled with favorites!
Go! You’ll have a great time – and come out of the theater with a big happy smile.
The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through October 7. For information and tickets, click on live link of title.
… keep laughing,Clown …
With breathtakingly beautiful photography – and the people are as fascinating to see as the city – Woody Allen weaves together stories of lovers, Romans and visitors against the background of Rome. As Allen, who acts in the film, tells us — along with a few other things he wants us to know – it's colored with a sweet nostalgia.
A young architect at the start of is career and his life of love, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is torn between his beautiful normal girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), a baby-faced over wise package of seduction who looks cute and talks dirty-suggestive. Alec Baldwin is on hand as an architect in mid life, John, who retraces his own youthful time in Rome looking over Jack’s shoulder – warning him of pitfalls and amused by the human comedy, with the delicious back-to-the past mystery and flavor of Midnight in Paris.
Talk about fantasy – Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary man swept up for no particular reason into a world of fame and glamour – a hilarious study of media celebrity make-or-break. Out of the blue, he walks the red carpet at movie premiers, effortlessly gets impossible to get reservations at fancy restaurants, has gorgeous women throwing themselves at him, and is interviewed on tv, his every choice, every detail of his existence – does he shave before or after breakfast? does he wear boxers or briefs — a national mania, that is, until someone else gets “picked”. It’s a wonderful if outlandish satire played straight – everyman down-to-earth and vulnerable – by Benigni. Life dishes out heartaches to everybody – celebrities and unknowns – Leopoldo’s erstwhile chauffeur tells him when the glory is over, but being a celebrity is better. Thank you, Woody, for that info.
A newly married couple, Antonio and Milly, arrive in Rome but chance separates them and sets powerful temptation in their way – and what seductions these are. Antonio wins a pre-paid prize – Penelope Cruz as Anna, a call girl — simply gorgeous in a red dress, and with wonderful comic timing in the part. Cruz is great. Milly – well it’s a little complicated – is romanced by a famous movie star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) from whom we learn that you don’t have to be handsome to be incredibly seductive (and it’s in himself, not just his fame and power). It’s not how things turn out for her, though – what happens is even funnier.
A pretty young American girl, Hayley (Alison Pill), looking for street directions, is aided by a handsome young Italian, named, of course, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) who offers to take her to her destination – and that’s not much fantasy except here they get engaged! For me, the sheer side-splitting laughs of the film spin out of their story. Jerry (Woody Allen), Hayley’s father, an opera director fighting retirement, age and death – Allen all the way — arriving with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to “meet the family,” shakes hands with Michelangelo’s father, a hard-working undertaker Giancarlo (the great tenor Fabio Armiliato) and from there we go to sheer wild hilarity. Because Jerry discovers that Giancarlo has a great voice but only under very specific circumstances — he has to be singing in the shower* — which the entrepreneurial Jerry manages to reproduce at La Scala. There Giancarlo sings Pagliacci, who clowns through his grief — a glancing Woody Allen self-portrait. And the great singing that fills the screen and the theater – that’s part of the thrill of the movie too. Wow!
Leaving the theater, I heard people say, “Well, it’s entertaining,” in a sort of downplaying way. Maybe so. I thought the sheer intensity of the fantasy and abundance of its fulfillment, rooted in truly observed characters and satire, sends the film soaring. This film casts humor into sheer joy.
* Quiz: In what other theatrical story does a character sing onstage in the shower? (And is that where Woody got the idea?) For answer — to the first question — click here.
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… opposites attract …
This movie is a delight. The Intouchables is about a hugely rich French man who became paraplegic in an accident and hires against the odds a big Black man originally from Senegal to be his caregiving man — his arms and legs essentially and to take care of him in every way — and the liberation they each bring to each other in their different ways. It's a comedy, with lots of joyous laughs and continually interesting characters. The photography is stunning, with the contrast between the totally gorgeous rich house, and the child-crammed chaotic apartment in the housing projects of the Paris suburbs where the Black man's family lives powerfully well described.
The contrasts between the two men are fully drawn: Philippe, in late middle age, is a lover of classical music and literature and an art collector. He’s The Establishment, living in his luxurious, serene mansion filled with a sense of hereditary and current imnportance — but he’s physically helpless. Far from The Establishment, Driss is a petty thief, Black and poor, with a brutal rupture in his past: as a boy, he was sent by his parents from his home in Senegal to Paris to live with an Aunt and, as the movie begins, Driss’s Aunt, having given up on him, throws the big, muscular, unruly guy out of her apartment.
He only interviews for the position of Philippe's caregiver because he needs a signature to verify he’s looked for work in order to qualify for his government “benefit”. But in the face of the more apparently qualified candidates who line up for the job, Philippe hires him. Improbable, yet all the more wonderful because we know that this film is based on a true story. Philippe recognizes Driss's outstanding vitality: not only his exceptional physical strength – the very opposite of his own limp limbs and useless back — but also his originality and emotional daring, a dynamism that was once his own but is now largely sapped by his incapacity.
They have a lot to offer each other. Rambunctious Driss pulls Philippe out of himself, caring for him in the bodily sense, but also driving him to new adventures which Philippe can enjoy with the wonderfully strong surrogate arms and legs of Driss always there to protect him – except for occasional distractions. Philippe has a few adventures to show Driss, too. And Driss, though stricken by an evening of 4 hours ahead of German opera, absorbs a great deal not only about art and literature but about a mode of being in which one can work toward what one wants, and control a measure of ones existence.
And eventually Driss engineers a romantic interest for Philippe – and for the housekeepr Yvonne. In fact, great, big, unangelic Driss is a sort of Cupid in this movie.
Francois Cluzet as Philippe is elegant, sophisticated, and — seeking a way beyond his incapacity — is ready to seize the day: his subtely allows us to understand the suffering his paralysis causes him, and there’s also great appeal in his readiness to enjoy – and all that money has a charisma of its own, which helps him get the girl. Omar Sy as Driss is so big, his physical power, his know-how, his fast learning curve, and fundamental ethical quality inspire so much confidence, that you have to love him just as Philippe does. This down and out ex-con is a man who, it turns out, is truly one who takes good care … of Philippe and others. It’s a funny, unexpected and inspiring character beautifully acted by Sy.
The Intouchables is very much like the movie The King’s Speech. In both, a funcctional incapacity in someone at the top, Philippe’s paralysis, the King of England’s stutter, catalyzes a meeting with an aide far down the social and economic scale – Driss; George VI’s speech therapist. The unlikely connection, loaded with incongruities ripe for laughter and touching moments, develops into a deep friendship. And all the better in this type of film, neither of these is fiction: both of these profound relationship are based on real life, and, in fact, lasted beyond the time frame of the movie, for the rest of all the characters’ lives. In this way, both films project a gratifying sense of some fundamental unity of our society, and the resolution of class conflicts – of racial conflict as well in The Intouchables. Both films leave us feeling that we’re all in it together and that our common humanity transcends class, economic disparities, and contrasts in opportunity. It’s a spurious sense of unity – and one of the reasons we go to the movies. You’re filled with a happy glow while applauding the film with every one else in the audience, while leaving the theater, and beyond. No wonder these are both, as The Intouchables describes itself, “crowd pleasers.” And. yes, I still feel the glow.
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There's one reason to see this film: Meryl Streep. The Iron Lady follows Britain’s Margaret Thatcher from aspiring politician to political powerhouse, from loving wife to grieving widow. Streep brings to this range of life experience her power to move one with the slightest tilt of her head, to convey inner experience with the minuscule shift of the direction of her eyes. By the end of the film, one feels one has been enlarged and touched by the depth with which one has shared the full life of another human being from the inside. We feel we know what it felt like. That makes the movie a great pleasure to experience.
The story's told through Thatcher’s mental world in old age as it flows between past and present, and between what’s actually happening in her life and what’s illusory — particularly the hallucinatory and “alive” presence and companionship of her beloved husband, Denis Thatcher, who often settles in with her for a chat across the dining room table, on the sofa, and in bed, but who — as she at the same time knows well — had died a few years earlier. It's a compelling, and genuinely interesting coda to a moving love story.
Thatcher's against-all-odds climb to the pinnacle of power as Prime Minister of England is Horatio Alger-like (though her father did own two grocery stores). The film sees a relationship between her arch conservatism, especially her focus on individuals as responsible agents, and disdain for government solutions for people’s problems, to her own relatively humble beginnings and tough uphill battle. She remembers herself as a girl working in her father’s grocery store, through her early grasps at political office and her marriage with the wealthy businessman, Denis, to her rise as a national political figure. Along the way she has to overcome, and often overlook, sexism and snobbery (the grocer’s daughter in Parliament — you can imagine!).
In its treatment of her long tenure as Prime Minister, the film gives glimpses of positive and negative aspects of the tough-minded and at times brutally enforced conservative policy of the "Iron Lady", and takes us through to her eventual defeat as head of the Conservative Party.
But for all of Thatcher’s central, and continuing, political significance, these are background to what the film focuses on and does well: the inner life of this strong and independent-minded woman, now diminished in strength, and with her independence challenged in even the smallest everyday matters – like going out on her own to buy a carton of milk. This is an imagined telling of her toughest battles: lost love and old age.
It’s not possible to know how much the subjectively presented film reflects that “real” Margaret Thatcher. Are these really her thoughts? Streep sounds like and looks very like Thatcher but, in the scenes of Thatcher's mid-years, a little softer and prettier, with Streep’s characteristic girlish underlay (she managed to avoid this, however, in her astonishingly convincing portrayal of Julia Child in Julia and Julia). But never mind physical vanity: in the showdown – old age – Streep gives all to expressiveness. During one scene in which she’s still really good looking, it takes a long time to sew on a bodice button, with Streep’s impressive décolleté spotlighted all the while. I thought, she likes to allure, but she likes even more to be a great actor. There’s nothing’s left of handsome — or glamorous or graceful — in the old, red eyed, bulky, wispy haired, and often frightened Mrs. Thatcher.
But personality persists. This Margaret Thatcher maintains her full self in the face of the frailties of age, grief and hallucinatory confusion. We know about these, since the movie let’s us see her at her weakest, but the rest of the world doesn’t have to know! Interacting with others – with a doctor, or at a dinner party — she drifts off. But she realizes it. And will not tolerate condescension. How shall she retrieve her dignity? Characteristically, of course, by a rousing political statement, on the spot, articulate and vigorous. She rouses herself with a jolt, I'm still Margaret Thatcher. These are some of my favorites scenes in the movie.
Alexandra Roach is charming, feisty, looks the part, and in all ways creates an affect consistent with the mature Margaret portrayed by Streep, and Harry Loyd brings an erotic chemistry to their romance that effectively warms the movie. Olivia Colman as their daughter Carol portrays the conflicted but loving relationship with her extraordinary mother.
But how did the grocer’s daughter become Prime Minister of England anyhow? We get glimpses of what she did but no insight into how. Surely Thatcher didn’t climb the slippery slope just by being a peppery young woman. She couldn’t have maintained power and forced through her policies without manipulations, accommodations, negotiations and alliances within alliances, but these are barely hinted at, and the film leaves one wondering about the mechanisms of her success. There’s another movie to be made about Margaret Thatcher. But this one is compelling in human terms, a most public woman in her private life, a most powerful woman struggling with the weaknesses of old age, illumined by a remarkable actress.
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This is as good a movie as I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see. And it’s such a surprise.
It’s filmed in black and white and as a silent film, about a silent film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose name suggests Valentino and who looks enough like Douglas Fairbanks to pass as Zorro – the first Zorro — in a film clip. It’s not totally silent, though, and the occasional break-throughs to sound are so clever and witty you could squeeze them tight with happy gratitude. And then there's the brilliant use here and there of silent film captions like the one where … well, you'll have to see it to believe it.
In 1927, Valentin, at the cusp of his fame in silent films but at the brink of the talkies meets a young actress/dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a nobody who – even as they fall in love, though in keeping with the theme it's never said aloud — parlays their fortuitous meeting into stardom – in the new talkies. Valentin, rich, confident, used to the power of his stardom, refuses to make the bridge to the talkies.
Thus Peppy’s arc rises and his falls. She soars to the top while he, uncompromising in his artistic pride, refuses to talk for the movies. With the kind of marvelous play on words this “silent” movie abounds in, when his wife, on the brink of leaving him, comes up with the familiar “We have to talk,” he refuses, blows her off. So she blows him off … and keeps the mansion, the jewelry, the objets d'art …
He descends, he pawns his tuxedo, he drinks, he let’s his loyal, unpaid butler go, giving him the car which is all he has left, and he hits bottom. Well, he has one other thing left, his totally marvelous dog (if there were no other reason to see the movie, the dog would be enough).
The titles of the movies these two stars make echo where they are in their personal story. Leaving the studio, he loses huge sums of money in his self-funded silent film fiasco in which we see him drowning in quicksand at “The End.” The rest of his money goes in the 1929 crash. While Peppy, in her new stardom, makes Guardian Angel, and she is his guardian angel, or tries to be, but he resists all help because of pride. Valentin has another guardian angel, though, the dog – like him a genius at wordless communication.
How to find a way around Valentin’s pride – without making him talk in the movies? There is a way, and … you will leave this movie smiling broadly, deeply, warmly.
Dujardin is marvelous as the silent film star with his dark good looks and that smoothed back hair. The scene in which he – for several film retakes – winds his face up into the inhibited smile/sneer of a German officer is funny and fascinating for the sheer artistry . In the quietest moments of introspection his face reflects the parade of thoughts, memories and emotions that cross the mind in his fall from greatness. And he’s an outstanding, charismatic dancer.
Bejo, with her large dark eyes and mobile face, is entrancing as the dynamic talent, out for herself but – here’s the strength of her character — not only for herself. In a world of glitter and make believe, she truly loves him and she proves it; the more obvious ways she tries are touching for the film goer but leave him unmoved, so she strains to find a way, in harmony with his artistic pride, not to restore him – her first thought — but to enable him to restore himself.
Everything about this movie is in fact intelligent, witty and great – including the musical score, which, along with the screen play and the film as a whole is Academy Award worthy. It couldn’t be more vibrant, compelling, funny, touching or memorable.
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Reviewed by guest author John Buscarello
… against the current …
Undertow, a wonderful simple film, focuses on a modest townwhere a modern perspective starts to crack open a closed village society. I came across this film, knowing nothing about it, on HBO’s On Demand, and found myself swept up in its direct beauty.
Charmingly photographed in a tiny Northern Peruvian coastal town, Cabo Blanco, Undertow draws one in, as surely as the ocean’s tide. As the movie begins we watch a seaside burial. It’s a fishing village and traditions run deep. According to custom, the spirit of the newly deceased must be buried properly at sea. Miguel (Cristian Mercado) has the magical touch that will allow the deceased’s spirit to be free from the bondage of our world, and thus we follow Miguel out to sea where the body is cast off into the ocean.
Back in town life goes on – simple lives, fishermen, their wives or girl friends, tavern owners, a local market… a close-knit town for sure, obviously there for decades. Yet, oddly the town has been invaded by a photographer, Santiago (Manolo Cardona); he drifts about, always an onlooker, documenting the town with his camera, clearly an outsider and different in his ways. The movie intercuts between the town’s people and Santiago and, as we discover in time, Santiago and Miguel are lovers. The director gives us hints that ghosts may inhabit the town and all may not be as rosy as we think, through the abandoned buildings where the lovers meet.
Miguel’s problem is he’s married and his wife is about 7 months pregnant. Santiago adores Miguel who, to him, is as beautiful and tranquil as the town. Santiago is an artist – a painter as well as photographer – and he’s truly come to town because of Miguel. Ah but Miguel, in spite of his enjoyment of his erotic time with Santiago, believes that he’s truly a man in the conventional sense the village would understand, and he loves his wife too.
Alas after one of their erotic encounters Santiago has an accident. He slips on his boat and is drowned. Not being buried properly as tradition dictates – his body is at the bottom of the ocean – his spirit is trapped at the seaside town. Magical happening abound between Miguel and Santiago to both men’s delight and fears. Thus, reality and the supernatural intermix in this beguiling story, as the town is dragged into the fray. Miguel is confronted with his true self and must come to terms with it, as difficult as it will be for himself and his family. Will these simple seaside villagers be able to accept gay men in their midst?
I was surprised by the film’s unpretentious charms, yet deep devotion to explore majestic themes. The photography made one long for a mythical seaside existence where life seemed simpler.
As the riveting story takes a number of twists and turns, each complicating matters (I will not reveal its secrets
.), we see that the human spirit can soar and adjust to life’s most difficult challenges. The film builds ever more surely to a beautiful, teary-eyed ending. I loved the film.
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