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Queen of Katwe (2016)
Fails to realize its potential.
This is the story of Phiona Mutesi, an accomplished young Ugandan chess player. The story follows the standard script of inspiring sports story where the underdog meets competition and succeeds, but not without overcoming many obstacles. One of the biggest obstacles Phiona had to overcome, and what makes this a remarkable story, is her having been born and raised in Katwe, a slum in the City of Kampala.
The dialog offers little by way of surprise. After Phiona loses a crucial match she expresses self-doubt and questions whether she should go on. Interacting with her coach after the loss, in a scene with a strong emotional buildup, her coach delivers the tired line, "You must never surrender."
I appreciated this having been filmed on location in Uganda. The bright colors are a delight to the eye. The costumes make a vivid impression, from the women's dresses to the more subtle intricate designs and colors of the men's shirts. The little insight into what life looks like in a Kampala slum is something I would never otherwise have gotten. I would like to have seen more of the daily life in Katwe.
Using non-professional actors for many of the roles worked two ways for me, it added authenticity at the expense of stilted acting.
In all movies "based on a true story" I always have a question as to just how many liberties were taken for audience appeal. This movie may have pushed the envelop--it tries to extract every last drop of emotion. The overt attempt to manipulate drains the true emotional content. A little research reveals that Mutesi's chess playing is not of the prodigy caliber as portrayed; her ranking by the World Chess Federation among active players is around 90,000. Her apparent financial success, as represented by her buying a nice house for her mother, could not have come from her chess wins, since any major money from tournament wins is awarded only to the very top players. The celebration of her last win make it look like it was for a national holiday. Is chess really that popular in Uganda? All of the exaggeration is not to take away from Mutesi's achievements that are extraordinary given her background and living conditions.
There are lots of chess-related movies out there (Google "chess movies") and, of the half dozen or so I have seen, my favorite is "Searching for Bobby Fischer."
A nagy füzet (2013)
A well told story, a well made film
(Spoilers) After a couple of brief flashbacks, the story begins in Hungary in August, 1944. To wait out the war in a safer environment, twelve-year-old twin brothers have been sent from a comfortable urban apartment to their grandmother's farm on the Austrian border. Harsh would be a kind description of granny--on their first night the boys are left outside in the cold until they work around the farm to earn any privileges, like being inside.
This is not a war movie as such, but rather about the effects war has on people and the parlous moral climate that prevails. While there are some brief war-related scenes, like Jews being marched out of town and there being a nearby concentration camp, the emphasis is on what the boys are experiencing and how they react. During the course of the film, seeing what is going on around them, the boys implement a survivalist strategy by trying to toughen themselves physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Blackmail, theft, lying, and violent revenge are in their repertoire. War has turned decent, happy boys into amoral survivalists--their gradual transformation is skillfully presented.
One cavil: the boys' physical appearance does not deteriorate as much as it would have in the time frame before they meet the priest's helper who helps care for them--they are never what one would call scruffy. If the movie could have provided smells it would have been distinctly more unpleasant than it is.
Attention is paid to the complexity of human behavior. Stereotypes are avoided. The story goes in unexpected directions. Not all affirmative feeling is drained from the boys, they respond warmly to a Jewish cobbler who gives them a pair of shoes, and they befriend a neighbor girl, whom they call Harelip, who teaches them about theft. The boys participate in one instance of assisted suicide, out of compassion, and another that is problematic. By the end we see that the boys are capable of pretty much anything. The betrayal of the father in the final act is shocking. Or, given the rotten emotional and physical shape the father is in, as well as his status as an ex-soldier, was their act one of mercy?
One of the most sympathetic characters is a German SS officer who takes to the boys, there being more than a hint of a sexual undercurrent in his liking of them. This officer runs counter to any preconceived image. He wears a neck brace that prevents him from turning his head. The officer's relationship with the boys is presented in a positive light--in fact he saves the boys from being beaten in an attack that could have resulted in their death. Is pedophilia always bad? Is what the officer did to stop the attack condemnable? An example of how the movie poses moral dilemmas.
I confess that my knowledge of Hungarian history during the was is a little weak. I understood that Hungary fought on the side of the axis powers, so I was confused by how the Nazis were clearly an occupying force. A brief reading of Wikipedia on the matter is clarifying. One of the most poignant scenes has Harelip waving to the Russian "liberators" as they approach the village; they pick her up on their tank. This scene is brilliantly filmed as the tanks are initially seen in the distance and gradually approach the happy girl in real time. Later we see what the Russians did to Harelip.
Independent of its absorbing story I was struck by what an accomplished piece of film making this is. I found the two boys (twins in real life) to be believable. Piroska Molnár as the grandmother, is perfectly cast. High production values prevail. I found the spare, edgy score to be highly effective.
This movie had me questioning the morality of almost all actions. Viewed from one angle I could understand the motivations and even sympathize with what transpired. On the other hand, in a non-war setting the behaviors would be considered reprehensible. War complicates moral judgments. The use of atomic weapons at the end of WWII is still being debated over seventy years later.
The twins are presented as being inseparable from birth, so I was puzzled by their decision to part ways at the end of the movie. They could see what was happening around them, for example having suffered a physical beating that no amount of their training could have prepared them for. Their father wanted out, so why didn't both boys decide to leave the country? I would like to see two sequels to this movie, movies that follow each of the two boys in the years after the war.
Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
Given the premise of this story I think most people could come up with a script to equal or surpass the one in this movie. The premise has a boss of seventeen blue-collar employees present them with the decision to forgo their bonuses in favor of not laying off a particular woman. That woman is Sandra (Marion Cotillard) whom we get to know throughout the movie. Sandra is recovering from an episode of depression and is just coming back to work, only to find out about the vote where the majority of employees voted to keep their bonuses. That would send most any person into a depression, so Sandra is indeed in a tough situation, given her already delicate emotional state. Also, she has a husband and two young children and losing her job would have a devastating effect on the family.
Feeling that her foreman had biased the vote by telling people that even if Sandra were saved, someone else would be fired, Sandra appeals to the big boss for a re-vote, and that is granted. From there the movie slips into low gear as Sandra tracks down her fellow employees and tries to convince them to vote in her favor. One after another we see her finding out where her colleagues live and going to their homes. She is seen, in *long* takes, walking, riding the bus, and being driven by her husband to the homes. What develops is pretty predictable. Some workers are swayed and some just feel that, given their situation, they cannot give up the bonuses they had worked for. We see how lower middle class people have a hard time of it and how varied their situations are.
I guess that there are some bosses dumb enough to set up a situation like the one portrayed here. The way these decisions are usually handled is to make the proposition of forfeiting bonuses, or raises, in favor of keeping all the staff on board, rather than signaling out a specific employee. Some things did point to why Sandra might have been singled out though. She had been on sick leave for depression with her ability to function in question, and the remaining employees could take up the slack in her absence. I got the feeling that Sandra was not particularly well liked and was surprised by how little she knew about her fellow employees, particularly given there were only sixteen others for her to know. It's not surprising that this situation produced a lot of strong emotional reactions--jobs and money strike at the heart of people's lives.
I like Marion Cotillard and feel she was good in this difficult role. Given that she is portraying a woman recovering from depression she has few highly dramatic scenes, so to appreciate her performance you have to key on her subtle reactions. The movie illustrates the difficulty in dealing with a depressed person and I vacillated between being irritated with Sandra's husband and his apparent insensitivity by goading his wife into painful situations that could easily send her back into full-scale depression. But then I had to realize what a delicate situation he was dealing with and moderated my opinion.
Getting through this was a bit of a slog. I found my attention had to be restrained from wandering.
Triumph of the pedestrian
This follows a week in the life of a Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver, coincidentally named Paterson. One criterion that separates the best movies from the rest for me is whether I lose track of time while watching. That did not happen for me with this movie. One theme, a theme that is true for much of the time for a lot of our lives, is that every day is the same but every day is different. There was too much weight given to "everyday is the same" in this movie.
Paterson writes poems and records his poems in a notebook. Given that poetry plays a central role in Patterson's life, it plays a central role in the movie. Unfortunately it did not capture my imagination, since Paterson's poetry was as pedestrian as his life. The poetry for the movie was written by New York poet Ron Padgett. The problem I have had with Padgett's poetry is that he takes a common everyday experience, writes a brief prose summary of the event, and calls it poetry. For example, consider the poem that begins:
We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
If that stirs your soul, then you will be much more engaged with this movie than I was. I suppose that Padgett was a good choice for the role of putting the words on the screen, since they make it believable that Paterson, an ordinary person, could have written them.
I appreciate the risk that Jarmusch is taking in making a movie like this. I just wish it had been more engaging. I did like the later scene that recounted a random meeting between Paterson and a Japanese poet whom he encounters on a public park bench. But the Japanese man intuits that Paterson is a poet? Really? Introducing the Japanese poet was only an artifice to help bring the story to a conclusion with the gift of the blank notebook.
Given that a "dog ate my homework" scene is the emotional peak, be prepared for somewhat of a slog to get through this. It seems that an attempt was made to drain this of anything that might move it beyond the pedestrian: the camera work, the music, the acting, the color palette, the story--all pedestrian.
The Stranger (1946)
Interesting filming techniques, story has some weaknesses
Orson Welles plays Charles Rankin, a history teacher in a school for boys in small town Harper, Connecticut. Rankin is actually ex-Nazi Franz Kindler, who was in control of German concentration camps; in fact it was said that Kindler conceived the theory of genocide. I wish that this story could have been played in a lower key. While some ex-Nazis did enter the U.S. after the war (see the book "The Nazis Next Door") it is improbable that such a high level Nazi could have slipped in, untracked, to become an upstanding citizen so quickly after the war (this movie was released less than a year after the end of WWII). And how was it that he had no trace of a German accent? He was engaged to be married to a local woman who was the daughter of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice no less. I doubt that at a dinner party Kindler would have been so willing to provide the somewhat sympathetic analysis that Germans saw themselves as innocent victims of world envy and hatred, conspired against and set upon by inferior peoples and and inferior nations. It would have been more believable to me to have had Kindler be a lower level Nazi scheduled to marry a middle class American housewife who was not the daughter of a nationally-known father. Surely a person as high-profile as Kindler would have been a candidate for the Nuremberg Trials.
If you accept the setup, then the movie has things to offer. As you might expect from any movie that Orson Welles is involved with would have interesting filming techniques. This movie is in the film noir style--unusual camera angles, high contrast black and white, much use of shadows, and thriller aspects building to fantastic final scenes.
Unfortunately it is easy to remember Welles as the overweight pitch man for merchandise on TV, most notably Paul Masson wine, but it is good to be reminded here that the young Welles was an attractive man and a decent actor. It was an unusual choice to have Loretta Young play Kindler's fiancée, but I thought she was well cast and carried the part well. Edward G. Robinson plays the agent trying to track down Kindler's whereabouts and, as always, Edward G. Robinson plays Edward G. Robinson.
There is some archival footage of concentration camp horrors. No matter how often I have seen such it is always shocking and sickening to see it. I can remember that the first time I had seen such footage was in "Judgment at Nuremberg." I can only imagine that this footage was especially hard to digest by audiences in 1946.
If you are like me who did not know that paper chase was a game, you will see such a game played here.
A straight story detailing how a German war criminal could wind up getting into the U.S. and settling down would be interesting.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
Good to see this excellent film is now on a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray disc.
This reaches a level of realism rarely seen. The story revolves around Jo, a lower class young girl in Manchester, England in the early 1960s. In the beginning Jo lives with her alcoholic mother Helen in a run-down flat and, when her mother takes up with a loser, Jo gets a gut load and moves out on her own and finds a job in a shoe store. She becomes romantically involved with Jimmy, a black ship's cook. She gets pregnant, only to have Jimmy ship out and leave her to deal with the situation alone. Along the way Jo meets Geoffrey, a young man who moves in with her. If this all sounds a bit too downbeat for you, be aware that this film has a lot of qualities that make it worth seeing.
Both Rita Tushingham, as Jo, and Murray Melvin, as Geoffrey, won best actor awards at Cannes in 1962. These were well deserved in my opinion. I was taken with Tushingham. She has an interesting face and, in her first film roll here, she is able to express a lot with facial expressions. Frequently filming her in close up is effective. The relationship between Jo and Geoffrey is played with some tenderness. I found Geoffrey's sexuality to be ambiguous. In one scene he tries to kiss Jo and offers to marry her. This she rejects. While Geoffrey does have some stereotypical behavior patterns associated with gays, I found that there was only one scene that more than hints at Geoffrey's homosexuality, and that is when Jo's mother's mate comes into Jo's flat, sees that Jo is pregnant, looks at Geoffrey and says, "Whose this, the father?" and, after looking at Geoffrey says, "Oh, dear, no." Since homosexual acts were illegal in England until 1967, portraying overt homosexuality on screen in this movie would have been controversial.
There is some sharp dialog, especially between Jo and her mother. When Helen announces the she is going to get married, Jo asks, "You're not getting married in a church are you?" to which Helen answers, "Why? You coming to throw bricks at us?" When Helen puts on a fur and asks, "Jo, how do you like this?" Jo responds, "Bet somebody's missing their cat."
Walter Lassally's black-and-white cinematography is to be savored-- he understands that art form. There are some scenes that are powerful in black and white that would be unremarkable in color. I am thinking in particular of one scene that has Jimmy walking across a bridge that has him in black against a bright background. This scene emphasizes the sadness of his leaving. Many scenes, like the last scene with the sparklers, are so well lighted that they last in memory. Lassally also knows how to get the most out of Tushingham's close ups.
Director Richardson, who was nominated for best director at Cannes for this movie, was on a real roll at this time in his career. Consider: Tom Jones (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), A Taste of Honey (1961), Sanctuary (1961), The Entertainer (1960), Look Back in Anger (1959). He also worked with some of the best actors of his generation, like Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Albert Finney.
Some of the themes treated, like interracial relationships and hints at homosexuality were daring at the time. You would think that this would make the movie dated, but it is not like those issues have been totally resolved some sixty years later.
The one negative for me was the score--it would be more appropriate for a lighthearted Cary Grant, Kathryn Hepburn comedy. "A Taste of Honey" is a serious look at a time and place. It does have some humor, but much of that comes from sarcastic dialog. There are vestiges of this having been a stage play, particularly in the final scenes, but the filming makes this a work of cinema, especially by filming using outdoor locations.
The Criterion Collection DVD contains interviews with Tushingham and Melvin (filmed in 2016), and Lassally (filmed in 1998). I usually find such interviews a bit of a bore where the actors praise everyone, but these interviews I thought were interesting. Tushingham had things to say about working with Richardson. The interview with Melvin is fantastic--he in one interesting dude. I liked his comments, "I was the start of gay pride of 1958. It's all down to me, honey. It's on my shoulders, and I'm very proud of it." The interview with Lassally shows that he was very concerned with film quality and how much he thought about the filming. Some of his work here was pioneering in the use of low light photography, hand held cameras, and different film stocks. He was so interested in getting contrasts right that in the scene with Jo and Geoffrey under the arch he actually put some sand in a field in the background so that he could get Jo in well-defined silhouette.
Little Men (2016)
The joys and perils of an adolescent friendship
In the first scene 13-year-old Jake learns that his grandfather Sal has died. Jake and his parents, Brian and Kathy, subsequently move into Sal's 2nd story Brooklyn apartment. Below the apartment is a dress shop that is a one-person show run by seamstress Leonor Calvelli.
A close friendship develops between Leonor's son Tony and Jake. Michael Barbieri's performance as Tony is captivating-- who wouldn't like this boisterous and guileless youth? Jake is more reserved and quiet. Bonding between complimentary personality types can be intense, particularly between young teens like Tony and Jake. There are some wonderful scenes that show how Jake and Tony delight in just being together, like a scene that follows them along a sidewalk with Jake on skates and Tony on a bicycle. That scene is augmented by a score that perfectly captures the carefree emotion.
Relationships like Jake and Tony's are more common than are treated in film and literature I think, particularly between boys. Two examples that come to mind are the relationship between Jean and Julien in the movie "Au Revoir Les Enfants" and between Gene and Phineas in the novel "A Separate Peace."
Just following the interactions of these young boys would probably not provide enough drama to sustain a full length movie, but I do wish that there had been more time devoted to their endearing relationship before the drama came from the interactions between the adults. Brian's sister Audrey was set on getting more rent money from Leonor and Audrey and Kathy put the heat on Brian to deal with Leonor on the matter. Leonor is just barely making it and would be forced out of her shop, and likely winding up in a sweatshop, if having to fork over more rent. When Jake and Tony understand what is going on they see that their friendship is threatened. Brian is squeezed from four directions--his wife, his sister, his renter, and his son. This is one of those situations that make you ask what you would have done in his situation. I came to view Brian as a wimp, since I think there were options where all the emotional damage could have been avoided. Instead of being dismissed out of hand, Jake made a suggestion that I thought should have been seriously considered. As is, there will be a permanent rift between Brian, his sister, his wife, and his son.
I am not sure whether there was any intended implication that Jake may be gay, but the scene at the dance where Tony pursued a girl while Jake withdrew to himself would hint at that. Also when some of Tony's friends taunted him about his relationship with Jake not being strictly platonic, Tony went on the attack.
There are lots of themes that bubble up in this seemingly simple movie-- class, race, family dynamics, the downside of capitalism, and not taking the thoughts and emotions of young adults as seriously as deserved. A final scene that has Jake looking across an atrium to see Tony, without any attempt to connect, is symbolic of the divide that separated them. But I was disappointed that Jake did not have the courage to take an opportunity to reconnect with Tony. I could see no reason why the two boys could not renew their friendship after the storm had blown over.
Sometimes big things come in small packages
In watching this it occurred to me how undeliberative I have become in accepting quality movie workmanship. This small movie illustrates the point--it is so well done that I came to appreciate its technical qualities
only when I tried to come up with any negative comments.
The movie details an event in the life of a Keld, a Danish plumber. That event is set in motion when Keld's wife leaves him. Keld is more of a reactive person than an active one and that is probably a reason his wife left him, although we don't get too many details on that.
Bjarne Henriksen plays Keld with grace and gentleness in a captivating and nuanced performance--he can say a lot with facial expressions. I imagine that it is harder to play everyday people like Keld than bigger-than-life characters having big, dramatic scenes.
Keld reacts to his new bachelorhood by frequenting a Chinese restaurant on a daily basis where he gets to know Feng, the owner (Lin Kun Wu). There is subtle humor--after running through all of the 21 selections on the menu in numeric order, Feng asks Keld what should be done next and, after some hesitation, Keld decides to start over. Feng, sensing that Keld is a kindly soul, asks him for a big favor--to marry is younger sister Ling (Vivian Wu) so that she can get Danish citizenship. The marriage is to be "pro forma," but in a sequence of beautifully filmed scenes, what does start out as "pro forma" turns into a delicate love. Maybe this story line is a bit predictable, but the relationship between Ling and Keld is developed so believably that it's hard not to be taken up with it. However, the ending is not predictable.
When Keld's wife wants to come back, she is led to understand the meaning of the idiom, "Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true." She got her wished-for divorce, but that led to her being cut off from Keld later when she wanted him.
The relationships between Feng and his son, and Keld and his son, offer commentary on the changing cultural dynamics of such relationships as experienced in a Chinese family contrasted with a Danish family. It is interesting to see the difference between Feng's extended family and Keld's rather lonely life.
The score, while engaging, often seemed more lighthearted than what the story-line would call for.
There are no villains in this vary human tale.
Huppert's performance was the only redeeming value for me
Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle, the woman referenced in the title. Some reviewers have remarked on there being humor in this, but I would not advise anyone to go to this expecting any knee slappers. The opening scene features a brutal rape that makes it hard to imagine its being filmed more graphically. That scene sets the tone. If you are looking for sadomasochism, infidelity, lesbianism, and masturbation, you will find it here. Mix in some repugnant scenes from a video game being developed by Michèle's company, a car crash, and Michele's detailing the exploits of the mass killings of her father and you have a movie that is difficult to watch.
Maybe the humor is to view this as a satire on a certain segment of upscale, tech-savvy French society, but if that was the intended takeaway, it flew over my head.
Huppert gives a strong, nuanced performance and that was pretty much the only thing I could appreciate. Michèle is a woman who, after the initial rape, picks up the phone and, instead of calling the police, orders out. That certainly turns the current attitude toward rape on its head, until you understand that Michèle has some private reasons for not going public. But the scene does alert the audience of Michèle's being a strong-willed force of nature. I can't think of any admirable male character in this. Is part of the message, "Men bad?"
In sitting through a difficult movie like this, I hope for some compensatory reward, but this movie did not pay off for me.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Deserves its awards
The main attraction is Casey Affleck's Oscar-winning performance.
When we meet Lee Chandler (Affleck) he is personally closed down, working as a handyman for an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is rude to some of his clients, exhibiting a latent anger. In an early flashback Lee is seen affectionately playing with his nephew Patrick aboard the family's lobster boat. For the first part of the movie I was left to wonder what caused the personality shift, that was a hook that kept my interest until the causative tragic event is revealed in a flashback. Credit has to be given to Affleck since he plays two different characters, the Lee before the event and the Lee afterward.
As the story develops the focus is on the relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick. Lucas Hedges is surprisingly good as the teen-aged Patrick, earning an Oscar nomination. Michele Williams, as Lee's wife Randi, also earned an Oscar nomination; the acting carries this movie a long way. But wait, there is more (as the TV commercials say)--an Oscar win for Kenneth Lonergan's original screenplay and an Oscar nomination for him as best director.
There is much more to be appreciated beyond the fine acting and powerful story. Filming the movie in Manchester-by-the-Sea makes that setting an additional character. The environment is often used as counterpoint to some of the emotional scenes--a quick cut to an ocean-scape or the serenity of the small New England town allows for digesting what has gone before. The scenes in local bars add a feeling of authenticity. The light Boston accents ground this in the local environment so that it is hard to picture how the story would play out in a different setting.
The cinematography does not call attention to itself beyond being professionally done. On second viewing I paid more attention to the lighting and realized that care had been taken with this, particularly in some of the closeups of faces. The score ranges from Handel and Albinoni to popular. The classical pieces provide counterpoint to some of the more emotional scenes in much the same way that the location shots do.
There is no sugarcoating in the portrayal of the effect that tragedy has on Lee's life. Each person deals with grief in his or her own way and I found Lee's behavior believable and understandable. One of the beauties of the story is how subtle hints are given as to potential hope for Lee. The first time he smiles, later in the movie, is a breakthrough. An affectionate pat on Patrick's shoulder signals a minor thawing of Lee's chilly isolation. But the story does not reach any expected conclusion. It is heartbreaking when Lee says to Patrick, "I can't beat it."