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Acclaimed physicist and cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking has devoted his
life to the study of space-time, black holes, and the origin of the
universe. Whether the universe is ultimately knowable through a series
of mathematical equations is as yet undetermined, but it forms the
basis of his lifelong goal of finding what he calls "the theory of
everything." Written by Anthony McCarten and based on the book by Jane
Hawking, James Marsh's film, also titled The Theory of Everything,
traces Hawking's life from his days at Cambridge University in the
1960s, his lifelong struggle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS),
and the ups and downs of his marriage to Jane Wilde.
The Theory of Everything begins with Hawking, in a masterful physical performance by Eddie Redmayne, as a young university physics student who impresses his professor, Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) and meets a more artistically-inclined student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), who is studying medieval Spanish poetry. We learn fairly quickly that they have a fundamental disagreement. She is religious while he is an atheist who tells her "I have a problem with the celestial dictator premise," though his atheism, for the most part, is glossed over in the film. Before their courtship gets off the ground, however, Hawking's problem with coordination becomes more and more obvious.
When he loses his balance and collapses on the pavement, he is taken to the hospital where he is told that he is suffering from a motor neuron disease, known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which will become progressively worse to the point where he will no longer be able to speak, swallow, function on his own, and even breathe. Despite his failing vision and the fact that he is given only two years to live, Hawking sets his mind to his doctoral thesis on the question of "Time" and receives his PhD while still in his twenties. Meanwhile his illness progresses to the point where he has to receive a tracheotomy to stay alive, even though it means he can no longer speak.
The worsening of his physical condition, however, only makes Jane's commitment to him that much stronger and they are soon married, a marriage that will last thirty years and produce three children. Fortunately, a computer program called Equalizer designed by Walter Woltosz, allows Hawking to "talk" by use of a speech synthesizer. Though he is now confined to a wheel chair and his body movements are almost completely constricted, he is able to deliver lectures on subjects he has devoted his life to with the use of the speech device.
Jane remains steadfast in her love and support over the years, but the burden of care eventually takes its toll and she is drawn to Jonathan (Charlie Cox), the director of the church choir, while Hawking develops a growing relationship with his nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake). Hawking's intellectual achievements are enormous given his physical condition, yet The Theory of Everything hardly lives up to his inspiration, maintaining a bland level of niceness throughout and providing only a superficial understanding of the main characters. It is a safe, standard-issue biopic that does not probe very deeply, smooths over conflicts and unpopular ideas, and stays away from any form of unpleasantness.
While the film covers a considerable length of time, the characters do not seem to age and the stresses and strains that led to the unraveling of Hawking's marriage are not depicted or explained. The film also glorifies the scientific model without questioning whether or not a so-called theory of everything can tell us anything about the underlying nature of reality. Though Redmayne disappears into his character, and captures Hawking's facial expressions and physical disabilities with amazing skill, Marsh's banal, worshipful biopic leaves a black hole where satisfaction ought to be.
In Dan Gilroy's powerful first feature Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake
Gyllenhaal) is a free-lance photographer who prowls the streets of Los
Angeles at night looking for disaster footage he can sell to TV news
networks looking for sensationalism to attract viewers. If you think
the film is a cautionary tale about the danger of disappearing ethical
standards in journalism, think again. While it has the look and feel of
a satire: exaggerated situations, overdrawn characters, and dark humor,
it is, unfortunately, more of a reality show than a satire. Not only an
indictment of the "fear porn" that dominates our news, it is also a
character study of a sociopathic personality who reflects its dubious
morality and of those whose viewing supports the ratings that keep it
Set in Los Angeles, Bloom is a petty thief who makes a living stealing and selling scrap metal. When he comes upon an accident on the freeway, he watches as an injured woman is pulled from the wreckage of a flaming car while a news van arrives on the scene. The van belongs to cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) who is first on the scene to shoot footage of the accident. As a "nightcrawler," his job is to provide film clips to be shown on the morning TV news show. Looking for a new career path, Lou decides that this is a job that he can also do. As his own self-evaluation proves, he is a fast learner. Learning to talk the language of corporate upspeak, outwardly he exhibits a smooth-talking sincerity, but can scarcely hide the hollowness of what lies underneath.
Picking up a police scanner and camcorder, Bloom hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), an unemployed and homeless young man for $30 a night to help him navigate his Dodge Challenger through L.A.'s mean streets. Though Rick needs a job badly and is mostly loyal to his boss, he never really buys into Bloom's modus operandi and becomes the only voice of humanity in the film. Both Lou and Rick find plenty of blood and gore to satisfy Nina Romina (a terrific Rene Russo), however. She is the news director at a struggling Los Angeles TV station who is willing to pay good money, even for the most horrific footage. As Nina tells it, her preference is for violence that takes place in the white suburbs with a black man as the perpetrator.
Her ideal footage is "a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut." She is also not above manipulating the news for the sake of ratings. Captured by cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Nightcrawler takes us to accidents, fires, police shootouts, and a multiple murder. In his uncontrollable desire for profit, Bloom's activity veers more and more into legally and morally questionable territory, tampering with evidence, breaking into crime scenes before the police arrive, and more, even though his actions are uncharacteristically overlooked by the police.
Nightcrawler is fast-paced, engaging entertainment that ranks as one of the best films of the year, yet it is mostly Jake Gyllenhaal's performance that keeps us riveted to the screen. Gyllenhaal disappears into his character in such a way that makes him truly scary. Unfortunately, however, in a society that elevates individuals without integrity into folk heroes, we admire people like Lou because he stands outside the system. Bloom teaches us that anyone can become successful regardless of their limitations if they provide a salable product without regard for its true value or for anyone that stands in their way. Without any scruples, like Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, he lifts criminality and moral blindness to the level of art.
Mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing experiences both triumph
and tragedy in Norwegian director Morton Tydlum's The Imitation Game,
the true story of a man whose help in breaking the Nazi's Engima Code
during World War II may have brought the war to an earlier end. Lauded
by Winston Churchill as being the man who made the greatest single
contribution to the war effort, the film is both a celebration of
Turing's life and an infuriating look at the circumstances that turned
him from a hero into a pariah. Based on the book Alan Turing: The
Enigma by Andrew Hodges with a screenplay by Graham Moore and a
haunting score by Alexandre Desplat's haunting score, the film unfolds
as both a biography and an intriguing adventure story with key moments
in his life depicted in flashbacks.
Shown are Turing's troubling days in boarding school, his time working for the British government at Bletchley Park during World War II as part of a team of code breakers, and the post-war years when Turing, a gay man, was investigated for what was then the crime of "gross indecency" by the police. Most of the film deals, however, with Turing's uphill struggle to break the Engima Code with altering ups and downs of excitement and disappointment. As brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch who brings richness and complexity to the role, Turing is a brilliant but highly eccentric individual whose aloof personality is off-putting to his superiors and his co-workers.
These include chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) as the team members. Only Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), whom Turing chooses by placing an ad in the newspapers, and Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), a high-level Intelligence operative, see Turing in a positive light with Knightley brightening up the film considerably with her warmth and general cheerfulness. Exasperated by the slowness of the effort to break the case, the military commander in charge of the operation (Charles Dance) is anxious to fire him. It is only when after Turing gets the go ahead from Churchill that he is provided funding for the machine he needs and is placed in charge of the project.
We do not find out why he names the machine "Christopher" until the film, in one of its best and most affecting sequences, revisits his days at boarding school in the 1920s. Bullied by his peers, the teenage Turing (Alex Lawther) develops a supportive relationship with classmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), also a brilliant mathematics student. Their close friendship is handled with exquisite sensitivity by Tydlum and the depiction of its ending is truly heartbreaking. After months of frustration and disappointment, the exhilaration is palpable when a breakthrough is achieved, but the celebration is short-lived when it is realized that it is necessary to be very selective in how they use the information in order to prevent the Germans from switching to a different code.
Sadly, in that process, they have to choose who lives and who dies, and the brother of Peter, the youngest member of the team, is one of those sacrificed. The final segment of the film returns to the police interrogation where Turing reveals to policeman (Rory Kinnear) his participation in the wartime effort which was classified for fifty years and asks him whether he is a war hero or a criminal. The response does not bring credit on the police, the law that was enforced, or the British government. Although Turing was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services in 1945 and was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth in 2013, The Imitation Game convincingly makes clear that an unjust law not only destroyed one of the best minds of the century, but damaged all of us.
While some may think a white child with a black parent is a rare
occurrence, a recent story revealed that the mother of six of Thomas
Jefferson's children was a black slave by the name of Sally Hemming.
Richard Pearce's A Family Thing is a modern day fictional example of
such racial mixing. The film is a comedy but has serious overtones in
its thoughtful look at America's racial divide. When 60-year-old Earl
Pilcher's elderly mother Carrie dies, she leaves him a letter that the
local pastor (Nathan Lee Lewis) delivers to him after her death. The
Arkansas equipment rental manager is shocked to read in the letter that
his real mother was Willa Mae (Patrice Pittman Quinn), an
African-American who was impregnated by his father (James N. Harrell).
"Nobody knew," the letter says, "because you came up white. Willie Mae died having you. I was right there." Needless to say, this piece of information does not sit well with Earl who was raised by the Pilchers and never questioned his heritage. To compound Earl's confusion and disbelief, he also finds out that he has an African-American brother, Ray Murdoch (James Earl Jones), who lives in Chicago. When Mrs. Pilcher implores Earl to find his brother, Piclher suddenly takes off to Chicago in his old pickup truck without telling his family the reason for his departure. In Chicago, he discovers that his brother Ray is a cop who works in the office of Chicago's mayor, that he knows all about him, and is not happy about seeing his brother again, blaming him for his mother's death.
Finding himself in a dangerous part of town, Earl is held up, mugged, and has his truck stolen. After getting out of the hospital and needing a place to stay, he is reluctantly put up by his brother who lives in a flat with his son Virgil (Michael Beach) and his elderly, blind Aunt T (Irma P. Hall) who brought him up. Even though Ray tries to convince her that Pilcher is an old Army friend, the wise old woman isn't buying. "Stop BS-ing me," she says "Earl Pilcher -- I know all about your sorry half-black a -- ." Once they get over the shock of recognition, the plot unfolds in a predictable but highly entertaining manner as the brothers discover they have more in common than they thought.
Earl gets drunk and winds up sleeping under a bridge. Virgil reveals that he had a serious leg injury that curtailed a promising football career and listens to some upbeat suggestions from his uncle. There is also a wonderful scene with Earl and his blind aunt shopping at a supermarket where she has memorized the inventory, and a moving flashback to Earl's birth. Though both Duvall and Jones are accomplished veteran actors, Hall steals the show and makes the film special. Old Aunt T. sums up the film's message when she says, "I don't have the blessing of being able to separate people out by looking at them no more." That kind of colorblindness is a blessing more people ought to have.
It is not hard to figure out where St. Vincent, the latest Bill Murray
vehicle for comic grouchiness, is headed but director Theodore Melfi
makes you want to jump aboard and go along for the ride anyway. Murray
isn't exactly cuddly but, you know, every saint has some sinner-like
traits. Murray, as Vincent, the next-door neighbor you love to hate,
has flaws by the bucketful. He's not only "Bad Santa," he's "Bad
Scrooge." A Vietnam veteran, he drinks, gambles, is heavily in debt,
dislikes people much, is loud and rude, but there's something about him
that is unique and free from hypocrisy and it is hard not to love him,
maybe because it may just be impossible not to love Bill Murray.
Murray also has the good fortune of being supported by an outstanding cast that includes comedienne Melisa McCarthy as a newly-divorced nurse in the middle of a custody battle, newcomer Jaeden Lieberher as a runt of a twelve-year-old named Oliver whose bond with Vincent is the heart of the film, and Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper, a bit of a stretch for Ms. Watts but she pulls it off (no, not her clothes). As the film begins, Vincent meets his new neighbor when her moving company carelessly backs their truck into his yard, destroying his fence and ripping part of the tree that grows in Brooklyn.
Though meeting the nasty new neighbor does not provide the welcoming that Maggie and her son Oliver quite expected, things brighten when the old man becomes a reluctant but respectably-paid baby-sitter. Vincent drops him off at Catholic School where Oliver tells the teacher, Brother Geraghty (a very funny Chris O'Dowd) with a straight face that he thinks he's Jewish. When he is bullied because of his size, Vincent trains him how to break a bully's nose which he soon puts into practice and, when he witnesses the boy being pushed around by bigger kids, he threatens to do to their mothers what they are doing to him.
While Vincent is sincere in his desire to protect Oliver, he also wants to keep doing what he's been doing. He takes him to the racetrack where they bet the Trifecta and to hang out at the local bar while Maggie's ex-husband secretly films them to collect information for his custody hearing. Needless to say, the information will not make a good impression on the judge. Though Vince becomes almost a substitute father, he is still the same irresponsible person who has to fend off debt collectors such as the threatening Zucko (Terrence Howard). When Zucko confronts him in his house, Vincent suffers a stroke and it takes a lot of work and patience to bring him back to his old ornery self.
We get an inkling as to where the film is headed when Brother Geraghty asks his class to report on a modern day saint, people who have not been canonized by the church, but whose lives are making a difference. Oliver, though he is young, is able to see beyond outward appearances and notices qualities in Vincent others may have overlooked, such as the love he has shown to his wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell) who has been in the hospital for many years. Although the theme has been done before, it has not been done better. There are times where St. Vincent feels contrived, yet it is hard to resist its many touching moments and the warmth and love it radiates.
Watching Siskel and Ebert on television during the 80s and 90s was an
important weekly event in my family. Their movie reviews, that included
clips from each film, was a learning experience that offered
entertaining and insightful opinions as to whether or not a film was
worth seeing. Gene Siskel's death in 1999 felt like a death in the
family. Based on Ebert's memoir of the same name, Steve James'
documentary Life Itself is a deeply moving celebration of Roger Ebert's
life, released just one year after his death in 2013 from cancer. It is
an honest portrayal that does not try to sugar coat or gloss over his
Using archival photos, Life Itself touches on all aspects of his life, from his beginning as a journalist in high school to the last years of his life when his jaw was surgically removed and he could not speak, eat, or drink. The film shows him as a working reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, winning the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, struggling with alcoholism, co-authoring the Russ Meyer film, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," and working on the television show with Gene Siskel that reached a nationwide audience and made him a household name. Also shown are outtakes of on and off-air bickering with Siskel, as well as anecdotes and testimonials from his friends, including some acid comments from Time Magazine Film Critic Richard Corliss and other reviewers.
Roger Simon, now with Politico, recalls how Ebert had the courage to stop the presses as an Editor-in-Chief for the Daily Illini when he thought something related to the Kennedy assassination was inappropriate. His drinking buddies at O'Rourke's tell of his "terrible taste in women." One of the funniest is a clip of Siskel and Ebert on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where Ebert criticizes the film "Three Amigos," while Chevy Chase makes funny faces in the background. Testimonials abound from filmmakers such as Steve James whose 1992 documentary "Hoop Dreams" was given a big boost by Roger, and from directors Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven"), Gregory Nava ("El Norte"), and Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart") whose films he also praised on his show.
The most moving remembrance is that of Martin Scorsese who says that Ebert not only saved his film career but also his life. A remarkable presence in the film is Ebert's wife Chaz who was there for him until the end, giving of herself each day in support. James' filming began when Ebert was already hospitalized and there are painful scenes showing the results of Ebert's several surgeries, including the excruciating procedure of draining a tube from his throat. Characteristically, Ebert continued working until the end writing his blog covering subjects in all areas of life whether or not they were movie-related. Life Itself (2014) by The Critical Movie Critics Siskel and Ebert at their best.
Life Itself is a tribute to an individual who touched so many lives. It is without pretensions, gritty and down-to-earth just like Roger who is shown as a man who could be egotistic, who loved to hobnob with celebrities at Cannes, but was also a warm and compassionate human being. What made Ebert such a great writer in my view is that he was one of the few important critics who was willing to introduce films of new or obscure filmmakers to the public and call attention to small, independent and foreign films that most people may have never discovered. For me, however, his greatest quality was that his reviews were written from the heart in an intimate and conversational tone, without condescension.
Even more than that, he could write. That may sound obvious when talking about a writer, but it is not always the case. His reviews were not esoteric exercises in intellectual showmanship but concise, emotionally expressive, meaningful observations that were beautifully written and always connected with his experience of the real world. Nothing could be more fitting than Chaz's description of Ebert's last days (not in the film). "Roger looked beautiful," she said, "He looked really beautiful. I don't know how to describe it, but he looked peaceful, and he looked young.
"The one thing people might be surprised about Roger said that he didn't know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts (. . .) That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating (. . .) He described it as a vastness that you can't even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
"It's hard to put it into words," she continued, "I just loved him. I loved him so much, I think I thought he was invincible. To tell you the truth, I'm still waiting for things to unfold. I have this feeling that we're not finished. Roger's not finished. To me, Roger was magic. He was just magic. And I still feel that magic. I talk to him, and he talks back." Life Itself gives us an experience of that magic.
In a world where idealism is a scarce commodity, Aaron Swartz stood
out. A computer programmer and political and social activist, Aaron had
a quaint goal to make the world a better place, to help us live our
lives so that they make a difference. Ultimately, however, though he
tried to save the world, he could not save himself. On January 11,
2013, Swartz, age 26, hanged himself in his New York apartment, after
having been vigorously pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice for
two years for hacking MIT's computer network and downloading 4.8
million documents from the JSTOR database, a private corporation that
charged exorbitant fees for non-subscribers to view online research.
Swartz's story is told in a deeply moving and very disturbing documentary The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, directed by Brian Knappenberger. The film traces Swartz' life from the time he was a three-year-old prodigy able to read a meeting notice posted on the refrigerator to his later years when he created the prototype for Wikipedia, helped start up RSS and Reddit and wrote specifications for Creative Commons, an organization devoted to enabling the free distribution of an otherwise copyrighted work. Wherever he was, however, he challenged the system and the corporate organizational structure whether it was in high school, Stanford University, or Silicon Valley.
Though the film does not break new ground stylistically, the interviews with Aaron's family, girlfriends, and friends such as Net activists Tim Berners-Lee who created the World Wide Web and author Cory Doctorow are illuminating and often inspiring. Some of the best scenes are Swartz's political campaign to defeat SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act introduced in Congress and expected to pass. He galvanized the opposition with creative use of the Internet to ultimately defeat a bill he thought would restrict Internet freedom. He also worked for now Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the few progressive voices in our politics.
Swartz defended his action in hacking MIT's computers in a manifesto that read in part, "Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier." In the tradition of Thoreau, he said, "There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture." While Aaron's decision to free scholarly works from MIT from private corporate control may have been ill-advised, the government's treatment of him as a dangerous criminal was unwarranted and out of proportion to the crime. Originally indicted on four counts, after his SOPA campaign was successful, Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the district of Massachusetts, upped the number of counts to thirteen to "send a message." She accused Swartz of violating Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which carries a maximum penalty of 50 years in jail and one million dollars in fines.
Ortiz who pursued the case even after JSTOR agreed to drop the charges, justified the indictment by saying, "stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars." Attorney General Eric Holder defended Ortiz's prosecution before the Senate Judiciary Committee, terming it, "a good use of prosecutorial discretion." After Swartz' death, Ortiz issued a statement saying that her office had never intended to seek maximum penalties against him, a small consolation to Swartz' family.
In contrast, the U.S. Department of Justice never intended to seek ANY penalties against those responsible for the financial manipulations and fraud that wiped out the jobs and living standards of millions of people. The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is not just an advocacy film, but a character study of a young man who was not afraid to challenge what he thought was an unjust system. A clip is shown of Swartz saying, "I think you should always be questioning, I take this very scientific attitude in which everything you've learned is just provisional, that it's always open to recantation, refutation I think the same thing applies to society." As a fitting epitaph to Aaron's life, author Justin Peters, recalled an event held one week after his death. A large banner was spread out on a table where people recorded memories of Aaron and messages of condolence. According to Peters, "near the end of the night, a slender boy in a plain sweatshirt who looked too young to be there came over to the table. He uncapped a marker. He wrote simply, 'We will continue.'"
Based on a true story that made headlines in the late 1990s, Bennett
Miller's Foxcatcher is a superb psychological drama that features
Oscar-worthy performances from Channing Tatum as an emotionally
repressed Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler, Mark Ruffalo as his
supportive brother, and a barely recognizable Steve Carell, playing a
scion of one of America's wealthiest families. With a screenplay by E.
Max Frye and Dan Futterman, the film brings to life the tragic
consequences of an emotionally dependent relationship built on
psychological control and delivers it with relentless tension.
Three years after winning a gold-medal in wrestling at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) has lost none of his physical attributes but much of his self esteem. Poor and unrecognized, he lives alone in an apartment, eats fast foods, and ekes out a living giving lectures to elementary grade school students. His brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion wrestler, has provided much of the emotional support Mark requires but now lives in Colorado with his wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and their two children, Danielle (Samara Lee) and Alexander (Jackson Fraser). Mark's life is rebooted, however, when he receives a call from John du Pont (Steve Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and a member of the one of the wealthiest families in America.
Du Pont asks Mark to come to his 800-acre estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania to train a wrestling team capable of winning gold at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The eccentric du Pont, who lost his parents at a young age, lives with his elderly mother (Vanessa Redgrave), a horse breeder who looks down at wrestling as a "low" activity. Convinced by the huge sum of money he is offered and eager to emerge from his brother's shadow, Mark readily agrees and is flown first class to Pennsylvania to help in his mentor's stated goal of training a winning Olympics wrestling team and maintaining America's prestige. Du Pont has something to prove to himself and tells Mark, "Coach is father. Coach is mentor. Coach has great power on an athlete's life." Though Mark is happy living in the estate's opulent guest house, he wants his brother to come to Pennsylvania and bring his family, but Dave is unwilling to uproot his family and break his commitment to his job. Asked to give John personal wrestling lessons and perhaps perform other duties that are hinted at but not mentioned, the relationship between the teacher and his student begins a downward spiral when Mark is offered and begins to use Cocaine. With a military tank on his estate for sport and a gun in his pocket that he fires into the ceiling during a practice session, to say that du Pont is strange is like saying vampires prefer their meat slightly undercooked.
As Mark's physical abilities on the mat begin to deteriorate, DuPont calls him an "ungrateful ape" slapping him across the face. Out of concern for his brother, Dave is enticed to come to the estate, but an undercurrent of suppressed emotion and resentment re-escalates the tension, leading to an unforeseen tragedy. Though understated and deliberately paced, Foxcatcher is a powerful experience that winds us in a knot then challenges us to make sense of what is left unsaid.
Though the film does not have an overt political agenda, it illuminates the consequences of distorted values arising from a feeling of entitlement. du Pont could easily stand for the mindset of the privileged few who think that power and love are commodities they can buy on the open market and expect the rest of us to defer to them obsequiously. Unfortunately, many do.
Big budgets, special effects, name actors are not required to produce a
film that is entertaining, wise, and full of humanity. If you doubt
that, I invite you to see Cynthia Scott's 1990 film The Company of
Strangers (aka Strangers in Good Company), produced by the National
Film Board of Canada. Seven non-professional actresses share stories
about their past, their fears, and their hopes in a deserted farmhouse
after their tour bus breaks down in an isolated rural area of Quebec.
While there is a screenplay, written by the late Gloria Demers, the
dialogue is mostly improvised and the actresses talk about real events
in their lives, the things that have meaning to them.
In a setting of rare natural beauty near Mont Tremblant, photographed by David de Volpi, the women do whatever it takes to stay alive until help comes. They dance, sing, play cards, exercise, and survive by eating frog legs, mushrooms, strawberries and the fish they catch with an improvised net. Catherine (Catherine Roche), a high-spirited nun tries to fix the bus, but eventually has to give up and walk twenty miles on feet wrecked by arthritis to seek help. Another energetic presence is Michelle (Michelle Sweeney), the young bus driver who twists her ankle and cannot get around very well to help out. While we do not learn much about her life, she keeps up the spirits of the group with her ingratiating personality and powerful singing voice.
The women turn to Alice (Alice Diabo), a Mohawk Indian whose techniques learned from her grandmother, help in the healing process. The group is complemented by Mary (Mary Meigs), a watercolor painter and self-described lesbian, Winnie (Winifred Holden), a dancer and born comedian, and Cissy (Cissy Meddings), an English immigrant who is a stroke survivor with a buoyant spirit. Not all, however, are full of joy, especially the 92-year-old Constance ( Constance Garneau) who is no longer able to hear the song of a sparrow and thinks that this would be a good place to die.
There is also Beth (Beth Webber), a still attractive 80-year-old who buttons her collar all the way up to the top, wears a wig, and still mourns for her son who died at an young age. Even if the characters may seem pre-selected for their balance The Company of Strangers is an intimate film that feels completely genuine and the conversations about love and loss, religion and death, family and marriage ring true. As the women talk about their lives, the director intersperses photographs of the women as children, teenagers, and adults. Though an inevitable sadness comes up, the inner strength of the women keep the mood from turning dark and allows us to reflect on our own life, its joys and its sorrows.
Actor James Newcomb said, "There are individuals who come along in
certain periods of time who advance the human spirit to the next
level." Such an individual was Polish violinist Bronsilaw Huberman,
recognized, alongside that of Heifetz, Szigetti, and Kreisler, as among
the great violin virtuosos of the twentieth century. What is not widely
known, however, is that Huberman was the driving force behind the
creation of the Palestine (now the Israeli) Symphony Orchestra and who,
in the process, rescued close to one thousand Jews from the Holocaust.
This story is brought to our attention by Oscar-nominated director Josh
Aronson (Sound and Fury) in the well-researched and often inspiring
documentary Orchestra of Exiles.
Shot in Germany, Poland, Israel, and New York, the film chronicles Huberman's life using clips from musical performances, dramatic reenactments, rare archival footage, and interviews with such artists as Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, and Pinchas Zukerman. A child prodigy who played Brahms Violin Concerto in front of the composer at the age of twelve, Huberman went from being a self-absorbed musician catering to high society to a man of humanity and political awareness after suspending his concerts, studying at the Sorbonne, and witnessing the calamity of World War I.
He said in a letter, "I had to descend into the furthest depths of my soul to find the hidden link between my impulse towards art and my impulse towards politics, and then I made a huge discovery. The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. He creates art for human beings. Humanity is the goal." Though he continued to perform, his life had taken on a new meaning. When Hitler began to weed out Jewish musicians from Germany's finest orchestras, Huberman took on the task of creating an orchestra in Palestine, then a British mandate, as a protest against Nazism that would be felt around the world.
For three years, utilizing the talent pool of the musicians that had been dismissed, Huberman conducted auditions with Jewish musicians in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, and Palestine to build a seventy-member orchestra. Sadly, he knew that those not selected might not survive. To support his dream, Huberman had to lobby for permanent certificates of emigration for the artists, a goal opposed by Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion who wanted the certificates to be reserved for workers that he thought would be more likely to remain in Palestine.
With the assistance of Chaim Weizmann, then President of the World Zionist Organization, the certificates were obtained and plans were made for an inaugural concert to be led by the world famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, a strong opponent of Fascism. Money needed for the orchestra was raised as a result of a concert tour in the U.S., ironically a country that refused Jewish immigration. There was also a large fundraising event in New York with a supportive appearance by theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, a civil rights activist, Zionist, and amateur violinist.
While the film documents an important chapter in the preservation of the Jews' cultural heritage, it is hampered by a hurried approach and dramatic reenactments that are, at best, stiff and distracting. While it is appropriate that the film stay away from politics given its 90-minute time frame, unfortunately, the issue of Arab resistance to both British colonial rule and Jewish immigration and the subsequent bloody uprising that resulted in the death of more than 5,000 Arabs, over 300 Jews, and 262 Britons from 1936-39 is glossed over as a series of "protests "or "riots." Despite its shortcomings, Orchestra of Exiles rightly celebrates the life of an artist who transcended his comfort zone to work tirelessly to preserve not only Jewish culture but a culture that belongs to the world. His legacy does not only rest in his saving of the lives of Jews and their families, nor even in the creation of one of the world's greatest orchestras, but in once again reaffirming the resilience of a people determined to overcome the hatred of their enemies and the crimes of their own leaders to transform the pain which cannot be forgotten.
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