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Le château de ma mère (1990)
Dissection of turn of the century French childhood hits the mark and proves superior to Part 1
"My Mother's Castle," also known in French as "Le Château de ma mère, is the sequel to a two-part series of films based on famed playwright, novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol's childhood memoirs set in turn of the century France. "My Mother's Castle," is a continuation of the story of Marcel, Pagnol's protagonist, a young boy who grows up under the tutelage of his father, Joseph, a public school teacher in Marseilles. Unlike the first film, "My Father's Glory," the sequel focuses more on Marcel, instead of the uninspiring conflict between father Joseph and Uncle Jules, one a confirmed atheist and the other, a devoted Catholic. Of the two films, I found "My Mother's Castle" superior to "My Father's Glory," not only because it moves at a brisker pace, but there are more interesting things happening to Marcel and his family (instead of the long-winded tale involving hunting).
We find out first that the family's trip to the country home outside Marseilles takes place mostly on foot. This becomes an important piece of information later on which will be discussed in a moment. Marcel soon becomes smitten with an eccentric young girl, Isabelle, who orders him to dress up in different outfits. Isabelle's parents are as eccentric as she is, and soon the children's relationship ends when Joseph decries that Marcel isn't allowed to see them again. Interestingly enough, the family is forced to give up their expensive digs after the father, a newspaper columnist, insults his boss and is presumably let go.
The encounter with Bouzigue, Joseph's former pupil, leads to some even more interesting complications. Bouzigue is a canal worker, who offers a key to Joseph, that opens various doors along the path next to the canal; this allows the family to take a shortcut and save them hours of traveling to the country home. The only problem is that while taking the shortcut, the family ends up trespassing on the private property of various noblemen who own houses along the waterway. At first, Joseph refuses to even consider the idea, but wife Augustine persuades him to take the shortcut, as it enables the family to make the trip to the country house every week.
Joseph ends up rationalizing his decision to accept Bouzigue's offer but deep down knows he's going up against his moral code. It's a fascinating quandary Joseph finds himself in, and I'm sure Joseph's decision will remind most of us that we've occasionally been guilty of an ethical lapse or two in our lives. The family's encounter with the first property owner ends up quite benign as the man turns out to be a thoroughly gracious and helpful fellow. A groundskeeper on another estate allows the family to pass through unimpeded.
On the family's second trip, things go completely awry as they find the last door padlocked, and a surly caretaker at the last estate threatens to write an official report that could lead to Joseph being fired and losing his pension. Unlike the first film, there's a real dark moment here, and it's nicely resolved in the third act when Bouzique and his co-workers get the caretaker to tear up his report by threatening him with violating the canal company's rules about padlocking their doors.
The story also takes us back to Marseilles where Marcel must pass a big exam to obtain a scholarship at the most prestigious school in the country. Marcel's Mom has a little more to do here than in the first film where she plays the part of a stay at home Mom.
"My Mother's Castle" ends on a sad note. We learn that Augustine dies five years later and leaves Joseph bereft. Marcel's childhood friend from the countryside, Lili, dies in World War I and brother Paul not long afterward, at the young age of 31. Marcel eventually becomes a film director, and while checking out an old house his company has bought for a film studio, he discovers it's the very same house where his family met the unpleasant caretaker and almost ended Joseph's career.
"My Mother's Castle" is a wistful remembrance of the childhood of author Pagnol. If we think back, I'm sure there are a few extraordinary tales we can recall about our childhood. The narrative is put together in such a way that it reminds us of how impressionable we can be as children and that the events of those times leave a lasting impression that can never be forgotten, even when one reaches the last days of old age.
La gloire de mon père (1990)
Charming but long-winded remembrance of childhood in turn of the century France, is not as good as the sequel
"My Father's Glory," also known in French as "La Gloire de mon père," is the first of a two part series of films based on famed playwright, novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol's childhood memoirs set in turn of the century France. The sequel, "My Mother's Castle," is a continuation of the story of Marcel, Pagnol's protagonist, a young boy who grows up under the tutelage of his father, Joseph, a public school teacher in Marseilles.
The story is narrated by an adult Marcel who comments on his own foibles along with his father, a confirmed atheist who is always getting into heated discussions with Uncle Jules, a feisty civil servant and religious Catholic who is initially seen courting and eventually marrying Marcel's Aunt Rose. Lost in the mix is Marcel's angelic mother, Augustine, a seamstress, who has little to do in either film (although she is slightly more prominent in the sequel). In addition to Marcel's younger brother, Paul, Marcel befriends a country boy, Lili, once the family begins making frequent pilgrimages up to their rented villa in the Provence countryside.
Vincent Canby, in the original NY Times review, notes there are no harsh realities in Marcel's idyllic world: "Because it evokes a world from which all dread has been removed, it passes beyond the sentimental into the realm of mythic happiness. It doesn't avoid or soften harsh realities: they simply don't exist." While Canby is correct that "My Father's Glory" is "lightweight," this doesn't apply to the sequel, which I would say is considerably darker than "Act I."
While charming, "My Father's Glory" goes on for way too long. Simply put, the sequences involving Joseph and Jules as they attempt to prove their prowess as hunters, is a big bore. Scenes of Marcel's sojourn in the countryside with buddy Lili, also could have been cut considerably.
The film's stretched out climax, when Marcel leaves a note for his parents that he plans to run away, and then changes his mind, suggests to me that director Robert could have taken the highlights from the first part and combined it with the more compelling sequel and ended up with a very nice 2 ½ hour movie.
If you have the patience to get through Part 1, you'll still be impressed by the charming characters, all portrayed by a coterie of highly professional actors.
Testament of Youth (2014)
Moving chronicle of woman's self-sacrifice during World War I is undermined by naive, pacifist stance
I had never heard of Vera Brittain until I saw "Testament of Youth," based on her anti-war memoir which was published in 1933. "Testament" is a beautifully mounted period piece which highlights the sufferings of Ms. Brittain who lost both her brother and fiancé in World War I.
After watching "Testament of Youth" you will indeed feel a great deal of sympathy for Ms. Brittain, played with a quiet intensity by the up and coming Swedish star, Alicia Vikander. Nonetheless, the first half of the film is an extremely slow slog. At first, it appears the narrative is going to be about Brittain's rebelliousness as she is dead set in opposing her father, who doesn't want her to attend Somerville College, the woman's branch at Oxford (instead he prefers that she play the piano and find a husband). Nonetheless, she convinces daddy that sitting for the entrance exams is a good thing. She's almost tripped up when part of the exam features a Latin essay which she wasn't aware of and ends up translating it into German instead. Lucky for her, she still makes a good impression with the headmistress and she ends up being admitted.
The rest of the first half is taken up with Vera's burgeoning romance with Roland Leighton and relationship with her brother, Edward, and a couple of their friends. Just before Roland leaves for military service, the passion between the two is ramped up, as they often try to run off and canoodle, despite being hampered under the watchful eye of a chaperone (in this case, Vera's portly aunt). Just keep in mind, the lugubrious touch of James Kent's direction and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi's decision to focus on Roland and Vera's infatuation, makes for some rather dull goings-on.
Soon, the presence of newspaper headlinesnotably the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wifeis a portent for more lively and intense things to come. Vera leaves college and becomes a Voluntary Aid Detachment, first at a hospital run by nuns in London. There the nuns give her a hard time as she's perceived as being an upper class snob.
When Roland comes back from the front on a furlough, it becomes obvious right away that he's been psychically damaged by what he's witnessed. You know this right away when he punches Vera in her side and she falls to the ground. Some tender loving care however, gets him to feel his "humanity" again, and he promises to marry Vera on his next leave. Of course that never happens when at the very moment she's celebrating with her family due to the upcoming nuptials, she receives word that Roland was killed by a sniper. She's not content to hear the sanitized army version of his death and seeks out a colleague who provides a more upsetting narrative.
Soon afterward, Vera falls completely into full-fledged self-sacrificing mode. She pledges to take care of a former friend who's been blinded during combat. But unfortunately he doesn't make it and propels her to as close to the front lines as she can get, by working at a field hospital in France. Here the narrative becomes the most gripping, where first she attends to a dying German soldier, who mistakes her for his beloved (Vera's knowledge of German comes in handy as she's able to comfort the dying Hun, pretending to be the woman he left behind). Then she's informed there's a badly wounded soldier who apparently was calling for hersure enough it's brother Edward; and using all her nursing skills, she saves her dying sibling. Unfortunately, after being summoned home due to her mother's sudden attack of dementia, she spies a postman ringing the front doorbell and hearing the sobbing reaction of her father, we learn that Edward didn't make itdespite her earlier successful efforts to save him!
Armistice Day is not a time for celebration for Vera, who is shattered by the tragic effects of World War I on herself and her family. The denouement is perhaps the weakest part of the film. Vera now becomes a full-fledged pacifist. She argues with fellow Britons, bent on revenge against the Germans and cites her experience in tending to the dying German back at the French field hospital. While the "War to end all Wars" was probably as pointless a war as you could ever get, the subsequent rise of Nazism and World War II itself, proved Ms. Brittain's pacifistic stance to be decidedly quite hollow. Michael Phillips writing in "The Chicago Tribune" was correct in stating that Ms. Brittain's star had faded by the time she died in 1970. This is because Hitler proved war IS necessary, in order to defeat evil!
I don't wish to diminish the personal suffering of the film's protagonist nor cast doubts about the nobility of her self-sacrificing actions during World War I. That said, it appears that the trauma she experienced during those dark days, eventually clouded her judgment concerning the nature of evil in this world. The defeat of Nazism exposed the views of the pacifists as being wholly naïve, proving that isolationism and passivity were no solution to a nation of crazed nationalists devoted to fulfilling their barbaric Weltanschauung.
Woman in Gold (2015)
Critics with mixed and negative reviews have underrated this fascinating tale of art restitution and the Holocaust
"Woman in Gold" chronicles the efforts of a Viennese-born Jewish woman, Maria Altmann, to recover her family's artwork stolen by the Nazis. What sets this apart from many of these art restitution cases, is that the main painting in question, a portrait of Altmann's aunt by the famed painter Gustav Klimt, came to be considered a national treasure in Austria.
The film received mixed reviews for various reasons but in my estimation, a good number of those negative and mixed reviews clearly underrated the film. Part of the problem is that the bulk of the action concerns itself with a series of legal dramas, which is not always conducive toward the stuff of great cinema (perhaps better suited to theater, with all the attendant legal dialogue and maneuvers). Nonetheless, the story is so fascinating, that one can ignore the occasional lack of arresting visuals.
The drama begins with Maria Altmann conscripting a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (who happens to be the grandson of the famous composer, Arnold Schoenberg) and also the son of a good friend of hers, to represent her case in Austria. Initially it appears that the painting was ceded to an Austrian gallery by Altmann's aunt. With the help of an Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin, he manages to obtain documents from the national archives (in an unlikely scene involving a mole) and it's soon discovered that the painting was not owned by the aunt but by her husband, whose plans to give it to the Austrian gallery after his death, was cut short after it was stolen by the Nazis.
Part One of the legal saga ends when the Austrian Art Restitution Board rules against Schoenberg and Altmann. Part two involves Schoenberg's appeal to the US Supreme Court who rules that Altmann is permitted to sue Austria for the return of the painting. With this ruling, Austria agrees to arbitration before a new panel at the Art Restitution Board.
Before the climactic decision involving the painting, Altmann and Schoenberg have a falling out over Altmann's decision not to return to Austria a second time. Schoenberg decides to argue the case in Austria by himself. But in a dramatic moment, Altmann changes her mind and shows up at the final hearing.
A number of critics found the Austrian characters to be stereotypical bad guys but the truth of the matter is that Altmann offered to let the Austrians keep the painting if they simply acknowledged that her claim was legitimate. They refused to do so. When she won the painting back, her decision to sell it to Ronald Lauder for $135 million resulted in cries that Altmann all along was simply in it for the money. My feeling is that Altmann owned the painting and she could do whatever she wanted with itespecially in light of Austria's obstinacy in acknowledging that she was the legitimate owner.
"Woman in Gold" also features flashbacks to Altmann's life as a young woman, just as the Nazis occupied Austria. Tatiana Maslany plays the young Maria with aplomb and rivals Helen Mirren (who plays the elderly Altmann), in acting chops. The flashbacks notably feature a hard to believe chase of Altmann and her new husband by the Nazis, obviously created to pump up the film's action quotient. Some additional scenes of mistreatment of Jews on the streets of Vienna are a powerful reminder of what actually occurred but by the same token, these are scenes we've seen before in other Holocaust-themed films, such as "Schindler's List."
While a good deal of what transpires in "Woman in Gold," actually happened, I did wonder how Schoenberg supported himself and his family while taking on the Austrian government. The film's scenarist failed to include information that Schoenberg was hired by another law firm and was allowed to pursue his case against the Austrian government, while in their employ!
By no means is "Woman in Gold," a complete masterpiece, but it's a solid, fascinating story that needs telling. The film not only sheds light on a particular aspect of the Holocaust but it also chronicles the presence of reactionary elements in Austria in recent times.
"Dorothy" spends more time in "Kansas" than the "Emerald City" as Clooney does his best channeling "Doc Brown"
"Tomorrowland" has been one of Disney's futuristic theme land concepts featured at five different Disney theme parks throughout the world over the years. The film is an attempt to mine that concept and begins with young inventor, Frank Walker, visiting the 1964 World's Fair to show off his jet pack invention to David Nix, a renowned inventor who is awarding cash prizes for new inventions. Frank's invention is a dud; upon demonstration he is unable to make it fly and is dragged around on the ground after starting up the ineffective jet packs. That opening sequence is designed to be humorous but is too far-fetched to be taken seriously (yes "Tomorrowland" is supposed to be a fantasy but it starts out in the real-life context of the '64 World's Fair).
Soon, much like the classic "Wizard of Oz," Frank finds himself transported to a fantastic world, "Tomorrowland," after following a spunky young girl, a Brit by the name of "Athena," who beckons him to take a ride boat into the "It's a Small World" exhibit. The ride leads him to somehow be transported via a space pod to the futuristic "Tomorrowland," which bears a striking resemblance to one of Disney's futuristic theme lands.
Cut to the film's protagonist, Casey Newton, whose father is a NASA engineer. While attempting to sabotage machines that will take down the launch platform (the space program at Cape Canaveral is being shut down due to a lack of funding), Casey is arrested but bailed out by her father. Athena manages to leave a "lapel pin" which enables her to be transported to "Tomorrowland" when she touches it. This is perhaps the neatest cinematic bit in the entire film as Casey finds herself flipping back and forth between two worlds in an instant, simply by touching the pin.
You would think that the bulk of "Tomorrowland" is set in the futuristic city but you'll soon discover that the bulk of Act 2 machinations occurs on earth. It's as if "Dorothy" spent more time in "Kansas", than the "Emerald City." Act 2 is very much a string of derivative chase sequences. First, Casey ends up at a science-fiction memorabilia retailer in Houston who she discovers is looking for the magical lapel pin. Athena must save her from the two proprietors who turn out to be robots, looking to destroy Athena (who also turns out to be a robot).
The chase continues when men who claim to be Secret Service agents try to kill Casey and destroy Athena. These agents are also robots and resemble characters from "Men in Black." Athena deposits Casey at the home of the now grown Frank Walker, who lives as a recluse in upstate New York. Frank is played by George Clooney and attempts to play a "Doc Brown" kind of part from "Back to the Future." Unfortunately, Clooney is too identified as a heartthrob or suave criminal and does not have the acting chops to pull off the part of an eccentric scientist.
Clooney manages to dispatch the "Men in Black" robots mainly by activating various booby-traps in his house. Before you know it, Casey, Frank and Athena are magically transported via a teleportation machine to France where they take off in a rocket ensconced inside the Eiffel Tower. Before launching, Frank explains that the four mannequins of Edison, Tesla, Verne and Eiffel honor those four inventors who started a secret group, Plus Ultra, who discovered the dimension which eventually led to the founding of "Tomorrowland."
The third act finally brings us back to the "Emerald City," so to speak. What originally seems like a flick for teenagers morphs into a convoluted sci-fi story, designed for adults. It turns out that Nix is now the governor and has been broadcasting "warnings" to people on earth about a future apocalypse. Nix soon realizes that his "warnings" are not being heeded and said messages are actually becoming a self- fulfilling prophecy that will end in the actual destruction of earth in 58 days, more or less.
The next sequence of events are difficult to follow. Suffice it to say that the "tachyons," which enable a glimpse into the future, are utilized by Athena to save the day (reminiscent of another glimpse-into- the-future-save-the-day moment in the sci-fi dramedy, "Galaxy Quest") as well as Athena's self-sacrifice in blowing up the big power source (check I, Robot for another nice cutting-off-the-power-at the-source implosion).
Once the evil Nix is dispatched, it's time for director Brad Bird's "Kumbaya" moment. New Athena-like robots are sent to earth to give a gaggle of cool recruits (most probably culled from the ranks of young UNICEF workers) those cool lapel pins so they can catch a glimpse of the good things to come at "Tomorrowland."
Now that the UN has taken over "Tomorrowland," singing "We are the World," we'll all be quite comforted to know that all is right with Walt Disney, Sleeping Beauty, his Seven Dwarfs and theme rides at Disney theme parks worldwide.
Danish director's meditation on vigilante justice is well taken but feel-good denouement doesn't quite ring true
"In a Better World," the Academy's 2011 Best Foreign Film winner, is Danish director Susanne Bier's meditation on vigilante justice. The focus is on two children, Elias and Christian, who develop anti-social tendencies due to problems going on with troubled parents at home.
Elias's father, Anton, a Swedish doctor, is separated from his mother, Marianne, after she discovers he's been having an affair with another woman. Anton spends a good deal of time working as a physician in a Doctors Without Borders refugee camp in Sudan. Christian's father, Claus, has just moved the family back to Denmark from London following the death of his wife. Christian blames Claus for lying to him that his mother would get well and also accuses him of wishing that she would die in the later stages of her illness.
The bulk of the plot involves Christian befriending Elias at the local school, after Elias is subject to severe bullying by classmates, particularly one Sofus, Elias's main tormentor. Christian metes out vigilante justice to Sofus, beating him with a pipe and putting a knife to his throat. Christian clearly realizes the school authorities will do nothing to stop the bullies under their charge and their impotence is reflected in Marianne's complaints to the school administrators, who she blames for doing nothing to stop the violence. Biers asks at this point, should we admire Christian for taking the law into his own hands to prevent further violence, or is his use of a knife a troubling portent of things to come?
Sure enough, a second incident leads to escalating tension and violence. When Anton separates his younger son from another bullying child in a playground, the bullying child's father, a gruff car mechanic, threatens Anton, upset that Elias' father touched his son, in his effort to separate the two brawling children. Anton won't take the bait and get into a physical confrontation with the car mechanic. Christian convinces Elias that his father is a "wimp" for not physically confronting the car mechanic and in a more sinister turn, hatches a plot to blow up the car mechanic's van with a pipe bomb.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Beer's narrative is the portrait of the more than troubled Christian, whose demeanor rivals older individuals, who engage in psychopathic behavior. Indeed, the steely Christian (played by an excellent William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), truly comes off as a despicable and scary youngster, reminiscent of some of the sinister characters hatched in American high schools, responsible for mass killings.
When Elias is hurt during the pipe bomb blast of the car mechanic's car, Christian's outlook takes an unlikely turn where he blames himself for his friend's injury, to the point where he's on the verge of suicide (it takes some quick thinking on Anton's part, to find the boy and save him).
Meanwhile, back at the refugee camp, Beers argues that there are limits to pacifism. A local warlord, blamed for a slew of atrocities amongst the populace, shows up with his machine gun toting thugs, and demand that Anton treat a severe case of gangrene which has affected his leg. When the warlord claims responsibility for sexually abusing one of the women whom Anton has been treating in his make-shift hospital, Anton has had enough, drags the man outside where a mob of local villagers, beat him to death. The scene doesn't quite work as the warlord's confederates seem to shrink away and allow the angry mob to do their boss in.
While Ms. Beers' nuanced exploration of vigilantism may lead one down a path of troubling cognitive dissonance for the viewer, her decision to tie the overall narrative up with an unlikely happy ending is not a good one. Indeed, I had a hard time buying that Christian would suddenly become a respectable member of the community, given the slippery slope he had already gone down. Are psychopaths so easily redeemed? I think not. And some of the other "feel-good" resolutions also felt a little too pat (Elias' miracle recovery and the reconciliation between Anton and Marianne).
"In a Better World" raises troubling questions about vigilante justice and features some excellent performances, particularly from the two child protagonists. Nonetheless, director Beers' denouement unfortunately is not consistent with her earlier tale of alarming psychopathy run amok.
Ex Machina (2015)
Boorish antagonist and lack of suspense sinks newbie writer/director's sci-fi indie "thriller"
"Ex Machina" is by newbie writer/director Alex Garland. I refuse to get involved in evaluating Mr. Garland's talents as a director but may I jump in and offer an opinion as to his talents as a writer? Unfortunately, you might already guess that my opinion as to Mr. Garland's talent as a screenwriter, is not very high.
The problem with "Ex Machina" plain and simple, is that it lacks suspense. The protagonist is one Caleb, a computer programmer who works for "Bluebook," the world's popular search engine which presumably has replaced Google in the future. Caleb is invited by Nathan, the firm's CEO, to his secluded, "hi-tech" mountain retreat where he is asked to perform a "Turing test," on Nathan's sexy (CGI altered) android, Ava. The test involves determining whether the android's "artificial intelligence" is so advanced, that Caleb is unable to distinguish human from non-human responses.
You would think that Oscar Isaac who plays Nathan would be some kind of cool, Steve Jobs character with a touch of Machiavelli. But unfortunately Issac plays Nathan as a bully without a trace of subtlety. Is it Garland's lack of talent as a screenwriter or Issac's own boorish performance that brands Isaac as one of the worst actors of the year?
You'll probably guess that the one-note Nathan plans to wipe Ava's memory clean and Caleb will try to help escape from the sealed-in compound. Caleb also discovers that Nathan's personal assistant, Kyoto, is also an android and he also has her "confined to base."
At a certain point, Nathan learns of his collusion with Ava and warns Caleb that her plans to "spring the joint" will not involve him. But somehow Caleb anticipates Nathan's uncovering of their plot and disables the compound's security system. Part of the climax is predictable: Nathan further shows off his bad guy credentials by killing Kyoto and ripping Ava's arm off, in an attempt to kill her. But of course the robot is too smart for the bully and stabs him to death.
The only twist is that Nathan was right: Ava somehow escapes the retreat and leaves poor schnook Caleb, to die, locked inside Nathan's "campus."
As Porky Pig would say, "That's it, folks!" If your thing is one dimensional villains, then "Ex Machina" is for you. Even the twist of a sexy but unfeeling android, who leaves an undeserved protagonist to "twist in the wind," is hardly much of a "deus ex machina," to get excited about!
Among the Believers (2015)
Brilliant, fascinating exposé of radical Islamic seminaries in Pakistan
We read about the trouble Pakistan has had over the years dealing with extremist elements in its population. Now because of the phenomenal documentary, "Among the Believers," one can really get a behind-the-scenes understanding of what really has been going on there.
The documentary truly represents an international collaboration. Co-director Hemal Trivedi, an Indian filmmaker, tried to make sense of a friend's death in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. She channeled her anger by hooking up with Pakistani co-director Mohammed Naqvi who was able to obtain unprecedented access to Maulana Aziz, the controversial Pakistani cleric who is head of the fundamentalist Red Mosque in the capital city of Islamabad.
The Red Mosque has thousands of Madrassas, Islamic seminaries, spread throughout Pakistan. There they take young children and brainwash them with their radical jihadist philosophy along with the emphasis on complete devotion to Sharia law. The boys spend the entire day memorizing verses from the Koran but without any understanding as to their meaning. In one very disturbing scene at the beginning of the documentary, a very young boy, angrily chants a refrain that is inculcated into these young minds over and over again: "death to the infidels." The boys of course would rather be outside playing soccer or cricket and a few express their disappointment in not pursuing the normal activities that young boys should be pursuing. But typical of many of the madrassa students is Talha, who maintains a radical stance despite proving to be a poor student (at one point he fails a Koran recital examination and buries his head in his hands).
One of the reasons the Red Mosque is so successful in their recruitment efforts is because they are able to fill the void in providing basic services to an overwhelmingly impoverished population. In contrast, the filmmakers also focus on a private, progressive Pakistani school which is temporarily closed down during filming, due to threats from extremists. In a telling scene, the owner of the private school is unable to convince village elders to send their children to his schoolthey point out that the madrassas are free and with his school, they simply don't have the money to pay the fees.
Perhaps the most interesting character is the Red Mosque leader, Maulana Aziz. Despite the fundamentalists' disdain for western culture, they are not adverse in utilizing the internet to recruit potential converts into the fold. Aziz, the narcissist he is, appears on television to debate nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani spokesman against religious extremism. Aziz ignores Hoodbhoy's protestations that he encourages violence by having goons posted at the madrassas carrying huge machine guns. The clever Aziz curries favor with the local populace by doling out small amounts of cash to indigent supplicants who are ignored by the regular government.
"Among the Believers" also covers some of the recent history of the conflict between the government and the Red Mosque movement. In 2007, President Musharraf attempted to shut down the madrassas but was unsuccessful after Red Mosque followers engaged in violent protests including book and DVD burnings in prominent public places. The more recent massacre of over 150 students in Peshawar by the Taliban (who are affiliated with the Red Mosque) appears to have galvanized the nation, resulting in protests amongst thousands of freedom seeking Pakistanis.
The fate of women at the hands of the extremists is explored. Of the young girls who attend the madrassas, they're always covered in burkas from head to toe. It appears they're not fed as well as the boys and are unhappy at being confined in such a punitive atmosphere. The documentarians focus on one particular girl, Zarina, who escaped from a madrassa and hoped to pursue a professional career. But after the private school we saw earlier was closed down, her family had no choice to marry her off to a local man. Despite her disappointment in not pursuing her education, she ended up having children and appeared to be coping decently at film's end.
"Among the Believers" is one of those rare documentaries that provides the perfect well balanced perspective on the problem of religious extremism. Without proper education, children will continue to be brainwashed in the Islamic world by dangerous radicals who seek to enslave others with an intolerant, scary Weltanschauung.
Danny Collins (2015)
Predictable and sentimental tale of washed up rocker, still occasionally pulls at the heart strings
Steve Tilston, a British folk musician, gave an interview in 1971, in which he worried whether money would affect his career as a songwriter. John Lennon read the article and sent him a letter telling him not to worry and also gave him his phone number, inviting the unknown musician to call him. Tilston's interaction with Lennon was never to be since the letter was sent care of a magazine and someone there selfishly kept it, without passing it on to Tilston. He ended up hearing about it 34 years later when a private collector, who had it in his possession, told him about it.
Screenwriter/director Dan Fogelman uses this interesting tidbit of a story to add a little flavor to his portrait of an aging (fictional) musician, "Danny Collins," played by Al Pacino. Collins's debut album back in the early 70s featured some sensitive folk tunes in the vein of Cat Stevens. But we're informed that Collins decided to use other composers' material and ended up regurgitating those pop hits before an adoring cadre of senior citizens who know all the words to his hits, especially his biggest hit of all, "Hey, Baby Doll (the song sounds suspiciously like Neil Diamond's biggest hit, "Sweet Caroline.") Collins, still indulging in booze and drugs, drives around in a large tour bus, and plays before large capacity concert venues. He has a much younger bimbo of a girlfriend but isn't upset at all when he catches her cheating on him, one night after returning from one of his concerts.
Some critics couldn't believe that Collins would suddenly tell his manager (played by a not completely believable Christopher Plummer) that he was canceling the rest of his touring schedule and moving to New Jersey, in an attempt to connect with his construction worker son he's never known. Collins' desire to clean up his act might be a little hard to believe, but note that later on he has a big drug and alcohol relapse which suggests that he was never really serious about cleaning up his act completely.
What I found a bit difficult to believe was the idea that years ago, the young mother of Collins' son, was much more concerned with her own personal sense of integrity than ensuring that she and her newborn would be handsomely taken of. Usually in cases such as this, the mother is quite insistent about making the celebrity pay for the upkeep of a child born out of a wedlock, until his adulthood. But no, the mother rips up the checks Collins sends her and son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), later follows in his mother's footsteps, and vows to have nothing to do with the errant father.
Tom insists that his father can't make up for the time lost, especially by lavishing the family with material blandishments. But as it turns out, that's exactly what Collins doeshe pays for a special school for his granddaughter who suffers from hyperactivity.
Gradually Tom warms up to his father especially after the revelation that he has cancer and must go for a special treatment that may or may not work. Collins is there for Tom and this is what endears the son to the father. But due to the aforementioned relapse (the crisis at the end of the Second Act), it appears that Collins is unable to nullify a life-long pattern of self-sabotage that leads again to the estrangement between the two.
A sub-plot involving Collins' flirtation with the manager at the Hilton, Mary Sinclair, played by the enormously talented Annette Benning , helps lighten up some of the more "heavy" proceedings involving the father-son interactions.
The rather predictable trope of a family member felled by cancer and the positive outcome is what we expect. But Fogelman neatly wraps things up by not allowing the audience to see the doctor come in the room with the good news. Rather, due to Collins' powers of observation, it's an audio cue that tips the audience off to an optimistic conclusion.
"Danny Collins" is rather predictable and sentimental but at the same time manages to occasionally pull at the heartstrings.
3 coeurs (2014)
Only fanatic Francophiles will find this "passionfest" compelling!
Like a number of "typically" French films I see, Benoit Jacquot's "3 Hearts," is no different. When questioned after watching such films, I invariably remark, "that was very French!" While I realize that stereotyping is not a very admirable pursuit, I still must argue that there is a certain percentage of French people (don't ask me what the percentage is)whom continue to embrace the apparent national pastimeand that of course is the pursuit of "passion."
Every few minutes we're reminded (through its galling overuse of a few measures of its repetitious soundtrack) that the film is supposed to be some kind of thriller. The main character is Marc, a government tax inspector, who occasionally must take the train to provincial towns near Paris, to perform audits. One night, after missing his train, he meets on the streets, Sylvie, an attractive woman trapped in an unhappy marriage. Perhaps it's their mutual love for nicotine or simply an unconscious recognition that they're both lonely hearts, that the two make such an immediate connection.
Unfortunately, after they agree to meet at a park in Paris the next day, Marc has a panic attack and gets there two hours late, a few minutes after Sylvie has left. Sylvie ends up agreeing to go with her husband to Minneapolis but the story hasn't ended. Through the greatest of coincidences, Marc runs into Sylvie's sister, Sophie, who's having trouble with the books to the family antique business. Just like Sylvie, I found it difficult to understand why the sister now falls for the nondescript Marc. Funny how Marc doesn't look at the top of the stairs on the walls at Sophie and Sylvie's house since he would have easily deducted that Sophie was Sylvie's sister. It's only after an engagement that he stumbles on Sophie's computer where he comes face to face with Sylvie, who is trying to connect with her sister, via a Skype session.
The rest of the tedious "3 Hearts" depicts the arrival of Sylvie for Marc and Sophie's wedding. Wouldn't you know it, but Marc and Sylvie end up hooking up for some passionate goings on. But that's all you get: passion and nothing else. Not one iota of character development involving any of the principals. Director Jacquot is simply content to smugly ask for gold stars due to the intensity of Marc and Sylvie's desire to copulate like enraptured bunny rabbits in heat. And to emphasize how "passionate" these neurotic lovers are, instead of going back to his wife and child, Marc walks off into the sunset with Sylvie!
I forgot to mention there is a sub-plot: Marc discovers that the mayor of the provincial town he's been auditing has been cooking the books. There is some indication that the powerful man may try and retaliate against Marc, but he doesn't seem to care (due to his obsession with Sylvie). The sub-plot goes nowhere when the whole issue of the Mayor's criminality, never resolved.
"3 Hearts" keeps your interest only insofar as to how the love triangle will resolve. When we find out next to nothing about Marc and Sylvie after they resume their passionate canoodling, one realizes that only the most passionate of Francophiles will find this "passionfest" something quite compelling. For others such as myself, the pursuit of passion as only a means to an end, is no substitute for true intellectual enlightenment.