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La La Land (2016/I)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
An enchanting, joy-filled experience, 22 January 2017

I've always assumed that referring to Los Angeles as "La La Land" was a put down, a pejorative description of the city as the home of illusion and fantasy. Damian Chazelle in his film titled La La Land, however, sees it as the home of a different sort of make-believe – an enchanting, joy-filled arena where singing and dancing about life is as authentic as living it. Here Los Angeles plays itself with a mixture of fantasy and reality and a nod to films such as Jacques Demy's musicals of the French New Wave, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Reinventing the genre for a new generation, La La Land offers a delightful combo of jazz, pop songs, dance routines, and two people in love dreaming under the stars. It's enough to make you think that our current political scene may only reflect temporary insanity.

In the film, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), an aspiring jazz pianist, and Mia (Emma Stone), a promising actress, come to Hollywood to fulfill their dreams, but find that dreamers are not always in vogue. The now well-known opening scene is shot on the L.A. Freeway, but those who drive it every day probably wouldn't have noticed much difference in the volume of noise, wall-to-wall cars, and people acting out. Here, though the acting out is – really acting, though the commuters seem as agitated as always. The fake traffic jam, however, is much more entertaining than the real one as a chorus bursts out with the song "Another Day of Sun," written by Justin Hurwitz with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and you forget that you will be very late for work.

The story itself is bittersweet though it always has an air of innocence. Mia works behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio lot but still makes time for auditions that may only last thirty seconds or less. Seb dreams of owning his own jazz club but is forced to play Christmas music at a lounge by his boss (J.K. Simmons), a little less overbearing than in Whiplash, but still ornery enough to fire him when he stops playing Jingle Bells. Mia wants to meet the fired pianist after his doomed gig but he rudely brushes right past her – no meet cute, there. Of course, we all know they are going to be a couple eventually and when they do come together romantically, they are a charming pair who exude chemistry as they make their way through some of Los Angeles' notable tourist attractions such as Griffith Park Observatory where they fly halfway to the stars.

Though Gosling and Stone are no Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire, they are good enough to elevate our spirits as they sing and dance to the strains of songs such as "City of Stars," a tune that you may even remember after you go home. Although she is not a big fan of jazz, Mia and Seb do have a love of music in common but their relationship becomes complicated when he joins a band led by John Legend and commits himself to going on tour. Mia has put her hopes in performing a one-woman play but it fails to attract an audience, and she is back to square one. Nonetheless, La La Land works hard from beginning to end to make its point that if you stick to your guns, work hard enough and don't give up, things will eventually work out. That, however, may be its most gravity-defying trick of all.

Neruda (2016)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Dark and soulful poetry, 15 January 2017

"I am convinced there will be mutual understanding among human beings . . . in spite of all the suffering, the blood, the broken glass" - Pablo Neruda, Memoirs If the genre known as bio-pic has evolved into a predictable linear account of a well-known person's life, Chilean director Pablo Larraín has turned the genre on its head in Neruda, his impressionist and surreal examination of one year in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Written by Guillermo Calderón, the film continues Larrain's exploration of recent Chilean history, following on the heels of "Tony Manero" (2008), "Post Mortem" (2010), and "No" (2012), works concerned with the effects of U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet. Neruda centers on the period 1948-49 after President Gonzalez Videla (Alberto Castro, "The Club") banned communism from Chile and issued a warrant for Neruda's arrest after he publicly protested the government's imprisonment of Communist mine workers.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Neruda, called "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language" by author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a member of the Chilean Communist Party and served as a Senator as well as in several diplomatic posts. Luis Gnecco ("Much Ado About Nothing") portrays Neruda as a corpulent middle-aged man full of contradictions – hero of the Communist working class and an admirer of Joseph Stalin, an outspoken enemy of the state and a man of exuberance and love of life, given to attending orgies, hanging out in brothels, and reciting his poetry to prostitutes and drag queens. In one telling scene, Neruda is dressed up as Lawrence of Arabia, reciting "Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines," one of his most popular poems.

In the film's flamboyant opening, attacks on Neruda by his colleagues in the Senate are delivered in a spacious Senate chamber which doubles as a men's bathroom, suggesting that the rest of the film should not be taken literally. Referred to as "Emperor Caligula," he is told that "Communists hate to work. They'd rather burn churches. It makes them feel alive," Neruda defiantly fends off attacks. The film is narrated by a disembodied voice that we later learn is that of mustachioed police detective Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal, "No"), the son of a prostitute, ordered by his superiors to apprehend Neruda and humiliate him. As the poet moves around with the assistance of Communist friends, he leaves behind pulp detective novels for Oscar to find, a mocking trail of clues that somehow forge an unspoken bond between the hunter and the hunted.

As it unfolds, the film is as much about the policeman as it is about Neruda, both of whose lives are linked by a dark and soulful poetry. Neruda's wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán, "Chiametemi Francesco – Il Papa della gente"), tells the inspector that he exists solely as a supporting character in one of Pablo's stories: "He created you as the guard of an imaginary border. He thinks about you thinking about him." This does not sit well with Oscar who pictures himself as a central character in the nation's history, not playing a secondary role in a fictional story. Hidden for months in the basement of a house in Valparaiso, Pablo is turned back when he and his wife attempt to cross the border into Argentina because his name does not match the birth name on his passport, Ricardo Reyes Basoalto.

Protected by friends from the pursuing police, the couple is forced to move into a small apartment where Delia, a well-to-do Argentinean, complains about having to clean. When someone gives her rubber gloves; she asserts that, "hygiene is a bourgeois value." Though confined under the watchful eye of Jara (Michael Silva), a Communist Party member who becomes one of Neruda's primary handlers, Neruda still manages to sneak out to a brothel dressed as a priest and presents himself in drag at a later visit after Peluchonneau searches the premises in vain. To put events in context, Larraín shows us leftists being rounded up and sent to a prison camp run by a young military officer named Augusto Pinochet. There is also a memorable scene in which Neruda dresses in a white suit and hat pretending to be a Central American visitor.

Neruda shows his connection to ordinary Chileans as he hugs a street beggar and gives her his white jacket and also reassures a hotel maid that the revolution will end her long hours of hard work and low pay. The final phase of the film is the most revealing as Neruda attempts to escape from Chile on horseback over a mountain pass in the Andes near Maihue Lake into Argentina. Still being pursued on motorcycle by the determined, almost comical, police inspector, whose love-hate relationship with his prey has become obsessive, Neruda must call upon all of his inner resources to keep going to freedom. As Oscar's motorcycle runs out of gas, the illusion that will die on the mountain is reborn as poetic truth.

Silence (2016/I)
36 out of 62 people found the following review useful:
Shines a light on the inadequacy of both secular materialism and fundamentalist religion, 15 January 2017

Christianity came to Western Japan in 1542 by way of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal who brought gunpowder and religion. They were welcomed mostly for the weapons they brought and their religion was allowed to be practiced openly. Christianity was banned, however, after reports circulated of missionary intolerance towards the Shinto and Buddhist religions, and there were rumors of the sale of Japanese into overseas slavery. It wasn't until the late 1630s, however, that a complete ban on Christianity was declared and enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate and persecutions, torture, and murders were relentlessly pursued.

Based on Shusaku Endo Edo's 1966 historical novel culled from the oral histories of Japanese Catholics, Martin Scorsese's masterful film Silence brings us face to face with the repression faced by the early missionaries. While the film does not condone the subjugation of religious minorities, it examines the advisability of attempting to convert a country's population without a deep understanding of their beliefs and traditions. The film opens in 1635 as two Jesuit priests, Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, "Hacksaw Ridge") and Francesco Garrpe (Adam Driver, "Paterson"), request permission from their superior Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds, "Bleed for This") to go to Japan to discover the fate of their mentor, Father Cistavio Ferreira (Liam Neeson, "A Monster Calls"), rumored to have renounced his faith and to be living with a Japanese wife.

The missionaries are not unaware of the persecution and murder of thousands of peasants and priests who have converted to Christianity, yet they are anxious to undertake their dangerous mission to support the local Christians and to find out the truth about Father Ferreira. When they arrive in Japan they are greeted by a group of "hidden Christians" known as "kakure kirishitan" who have been compelled to publicly renounce their faith and go into hiding to practice their faith in secret, knowing that anyone can earn 100 pieces of silver for turning in a Christian to the authorities and 300 pieces for surrendering a priest. Here, the two priests hear confessions and give baptisms and say mass in the middle of the night In order to avoid capture.

Working with such past collaborators as Editor Thelma Schoonmaker ("Learning to Drive"), Production Designer Dante Ferretti ("Cinderella"), and Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), Scorsese does not hold back in showing the graphic nature of the torture that those who are arrested must endure. This includes beheadings, being wrapped in straw and burned alive or thrown into the sea. Some are mounted on a cross and placed in the sea until death comes mercifully after repeated pounding of the waves against them. For some, to die a martyr is a high calling, one which will be rewarded in the afterlife and they accept their fate willingly similar to today's Islamic suicide bombers.

Rodrigues, however, now separated from Garrpe, takes on a Christ-like appearance and begins to see himself as the personification of Jesus. He now must choose between rigidly maintaining his religious beliefs or saving the lives of innocent villagers by surrendering to the audacious Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) by placing his foot on a carved Christian icon known as a fumie, an act tantamount to renouncing his faith. In doing so, Rodrigues thinks about Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka, "Deadman Inferno"), a convert who continually begs for the Sacrament of Penance after he apostasizes again and again. The issues are further crystallized when Rodrigues confronts the truth about Father Ferreira.

While Silence does not fully achieve the transcendence of a true spiritual epic, Scorsese should be acknowledged for opening up the space for a meaningful inquiry into a subject that has perplexed countless philosophers and students of religions for centuries. Perhaps inadvertently, the film, however, does shine a light on the inadequacy of both secular materialism and fundamentalist religion to satisfy our true spiritual needs and answer the overriding question of the film. This must be answered by each person through their own direct experience. For me, to know God is to embrace the silence, to live in it, and know that it is the "source of all sound."

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Funny, entertaining, and sincere, 1 January 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins singing voice was flat and off-key, yet her generosity to others, friendship with music greats such as Arturo Toscanini, and love of music brought happiness to many during the dark days of World War II. Labeled by some intemperate critics as "the worst singer in the world," Jenkins is given something of a tribute in Stephen Frears' ("Philomena") film bearing her name. Produced by Tracey Seaward ("War Horse") and Michael Kuhn ("Being John Malkovich") and written by Jonathan Martin, the film stars Meryl Streep ("Suffragette") as the singer whose vocal talent reached everything except the notes. Not surprisingly, Streep is marvelous as the charming socialite as is her husband St Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") in what may be a career-redeeming performance.

Though Jenkins was not a world-class opera singer by any stretch of the imagination, she had a devoted following who flocked to her concerts and helped her records become collector's items. Having contracted syphilis from her first husband at the age of 18, Jenkins spent a lifetime battling the disease and lived to the age of 76, kept alive by her devotion to opera and the love of her second husband. Bayfield arranged her performances, bribed critics to give her good reviews, and made sure her performances were only attended by her fans. Though the film makes clear his love for Florence, it also shows him living with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson, "Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation") in a separate apartment.

We first see Florence in a series of performances at the Verdi Club which she founded where her outlandish costumes and over-the-top theatrical performances provide much entertainment to her followers. With Bayfield's help, she takes singing lessons from Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and enlists a young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, "The Big Bang Theory," TV show) to provide her accompaniment. Helberg is terrific as the flabbergasted pianist whose expression when he first hears Jenkins sing is priceless. Despite his reservations about what his attachment to Jenkins will do to his career, he sticks with her despite his reservations and continually grows fonder of her.

Jenkins' dream was to sing at Carnegie Hall and she accomplishes this late in her life, performing to a group of soldiers given free tickets as a tribute to their service. The film in lesser hands could have become a mockery but Frears balanced presentation, though still an odd mixture of comedy and tragedy, is always respectful, showing the singer's desire to spread joy in spite of her limitations. Though the film leaves open the question of whether or not Jenkins was aware of her lack of ability or was simply delusional perhaps due to her illness, it is mostly irrelevant. Florence Foster Jenkins is funny, entertaining, and sincere, providing moments of tenderness and an atmosphere of purity and innocence that leaves cynicism at the front door.

Fences (2016)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Filled with both humor and sadness, 1 January 2017

"Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner," Troy Maxson Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, Denzel Washington brings to the screen his 2010 Tony Award winning performance of 53-year-old Troy Maxson in August Wilson's powerful play, Fences, one of a cycle of his plays that depict the African-American experience in America. The illiterate Troy is a sanitation worker who is fond of telling stories about his brutal childhood when he left home at the age of 14, the years he spent in prison for robbery and murder, and his stint as a Negro League baseball player where his skills were not recognized. Married for 18 years to his devoted wife Rose (Viola Davis), Troy is a man full of both humor and sadness who blames racism for his past failures.

The opening scene sets the stage for the relationships that continue throughout the film. Troy is seen after a day's work with bantering with his close friend and fellow worker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), talking about his work ethic, bragging about his sports prowess and blustering about other subjects of which he is guaranteed to have an opinion as Rose looks on and smiles. With Bono, he is funny and charming but another side of him, a hurtful side, does not take long to emerge. Maxson is building a fence to keep folks like the devil and death on the other side, but, of course, fences are no barrier to them. Though Rose suggests that getting rid of the bottle might serve the purpose better than a fence, he won't listen as he declares "I ain't going easy." Central to the film is the contentious father-son relationship between dad Troy and his teenage son Cory (newcomer Jovan Adepo). Cory is a boy with big ideas and football plays a major role in them. A skilled high school athlete, he has been recruited for a scholarship to college and a recruiter is coming to their house to have Troy sign the papers, but Troy is not supportive. Because of his own failed dreams of becoming a major league baseball player, he tells Cory that it is more important for him to work at the super market than play football, "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway," he says. The end result, however, is to permanently damage their relationship.

Desperate for his father's affection, Cory asks him whether or not he likes him but the answer is not what he wants to hear. "Does the law say I have to like you?" Troy asks him, saying that he is only responsible for his son's material needs: food, clothing and shelter and that's it, making fatherhood sound like a burdensome responsibility rather than an act of love. In a later confrontation, Adepo's strength and steely determination comes close to stealing the show from its star. Other players are also important to the story. Besides Rose and Cory, his son Lyons (Russell Hornby) from a former marriage, an unemployed musician, shows up usually on payday to ask to borrow some money which always gives dad an opportunity to tell him how worthless he is.

Troy's brother Gabriel (Mikelti Williamson), a mentally damaged war veteran with a metal plate in his head is a frequent visitor. Like the archangel of the same name, he carries a trumpet and thinks he is the messenger of God. Though Troy, to his credit, treats Gabe with respect, it is partially out of guilt feelings that his brother's disability check allowed him to buy his house. Troy saves his final hurt for Rose, however, a woman who has given him eighteen years of his life. Rose emerges from the shadows towards the latter part of the film to dominate the drama and her words to her husband say it all. What about my life?, she asks. With tears streaming down her face, she says, "I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom." It is one of the most moving scenes in the film.

Troy is an embittered character who is reminiscent of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," another tired and aging worker who realizes how little satisfaction his life has brought. It is a different time, however, and some of his attitudes and resentments are understandable in that context as is his surprise and joy when he becomes the first black driver. Fences is a powerhouse drama delivered with passion that provides one of the few depictions in American cinema of the African-American working class. Though it is basically a filmed play shot mainly in the backyard of Maxson's house, the soaring poetry of the language and the superb quality of the acting more than compensates for its cinematic limitations. It is not an easily forgettable experience.

Lion (2016)
3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Respects the humanity of its characters, 25 December 2016

Whether Harvey Weinstein's purpose in producing Lion was to add to his collection of Oscars or just to tell a sweet, heartfelt story about a lost boy searching for his home, the result is that he has probably accomplished both. Directed by Garth Davis ("Top of the Lake," TV Series) the film tells the moving story of Saroo Brierley, a boy seeking to find his way back to India after having lived in Australia for 25 years, a country 5,000 miles away. Written by Luke Davies ("Life") and based on Brierley's memoir, A Long Way Home, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is an impoverished 5-year-old boy from the village of Ganesh Talai in the Khandwr Province of India. Insisting that he go to work at night with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), he falls asleep at the train station and becomes separated from Guddu.

Frightened, he boards an empty train and ends up in Calcutta, almost 1000 miles away from Guddu, his sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki), and his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose, "Half Ticket"). Saroo is a strong little boy, yet the fact that he cannot remember his mother's name or the name of his village and cannot speak Bengali makes him prey for predators. Confused and afraid, he seeks the help of strangers, looks for places to sleep, and has to escape from a threatening situation. When he ends up at the police station, he is sent to a crowded and oppressive orphanage where, with the help of a compassionate social worker, he is fortunate enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, "Secret in Their Eyes" and David Wenham, "Goldstone"), a loving family in Hobart, Tasmania.

Here he must forget about his old family and adjust to a new home and a new country. A year later, the Brierley's adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), but this time they are not as fortunate as Mantosh has both physical and mental problems. Jumping ahead twenty five years, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel, "The Man Who Knew Infinity") has gone to Melbourne to study Hotel Management but his memories are reactivated when the Indian food served at a party thrown by his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, "Carol") bring back thoughts of his family in India. It is now 2008 and the introduction of new Internet technology such as Google Earth allows him to believe that he might, after all these years, be able to find his way back home.

Grateful to his new mom and dad who raised him, he has not told them of his background for fear of hurting them. Now that he can see a path back to his roots, his conflicting emotions make it doubly hard for him to communicate. When Sue finds out about his past, however, she is happy for him and wants his real mother to know how well he has turned out. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Sue tells Saroo about a vision she had when she was younger that led her to adopt children rather than have her own. It is a moment of pure transcendence.

The story that eventually takes us back to Ganesh Talai might seem far-fetched and manipulative if it were not for the fact that it actually happened. Though Lion has its flaws and is hindered by a failure to probe deeply into the inner life of its characters, the performances, especially those of Pawar and Patel, are so convincing that the narrative comes across as completely believable. While the film has emotional highs and lows that may induce copious tears, a fact that some of our more cynical critics will not hesitate to point out, Davis trusts his audience enough to keep the manipulative aspects of the film to a minimum and respect the humanity of its characters.

Jackie (2016/V)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Somber, impressionistic portrait, 19 December 2016

"Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." – Alan Jay Lerner

While the presidency of John F. Kennedy is known for its strong leadership in civil rights and in furthering the cause of peace, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the elegant, graceful widow of the President said that "People like to believe in fairy tales," and she did her part in propagating the myth of the brief shining moment in American history that came to be known as Camelot. The many contradictions of Mrs. Kennedy are brought to the screen by Chilean director Pablo Larraín ("No") in his somber, impressionistic portrait of the First Lady known simply as Jackie.

Notably performed by Natalie Portman ("A Tale of Love and Darkness"), Mrs. Kennedy was seen as a tower of strength by a nation in mourning following her husband's assassination in Dallas in November, 1963, but beneath the steely facade, the film shows a woman in considerable psychological distress who was given to bitterness, drinking, sleepless nights wracked by nightmares, and thoughts of suicide. She herself said that she was "not in any condition to make much sense of anything," but still had to take care of two young children, plan for the funeral procession, and be ready to move out of the White House.

The film takes us into the mind of the First Lady, providing a haunting portrayal of a woman in conflict with herself and the usurpers of her husband's legacy. Jackie's guilt feelings about how she could have saved her husband (Caspar Phillipson, "Love and Other Catastrophes") from the assassin's bullet, prevent her from feeling like a heroine, yet she is expected to show emotional control and magical powers of inner strength at a time of overwhelming national trauma. Written by Noah Oppenheim ("Allegiant") and photographed by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine ("Captain Fantastic"), close-ups of her troubled face bring the viewer closer to her feelings of isolation, the mood of disconnect enhanced by the dissonant score of Mica Levi ("Under the Skin").

The film moves back and forth between events, opening with an interview with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, "Spotlight") modeled after Theodore White. It is the first time we see Jackie asserting control over what history will record. When asked how she would like her husband to be remembered, she pointedly tells him, "You understand that I will be editing this conversation just in case I don't say exactly what I mean." The film also depicts her televised tour of the White House in 1961, her talks with a priest (John Hurt, "The Journey") who offers her some unpriest-like comments, and her participation in planning the state funeral, modeled on the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Though conflicts arise because of security concerns, Jackie insists that her two children, Carolyn (Sunni Pelant) and John John (Aiden and Brody Weinberg), be at her side during the procession to emphasize the scope of her loss. Through it all the myth of the JFK years begins to take shape and still dominates after more than fifty years. Though Jackie is in every frame, also featured in the film are Peter Sarsgaard ("The Magnificent Seven") as Robert Kennedy, Greta Gerwig ("Maggie's Plan") as Jackie's personal secretary, and John Carroll Lynch (The Architect") as the new President, Lyndon Johnson, whose interaction with Mrs. Kennedy is notable for its coolness.

Jackie is a compelling film that provides an insight into Jackie Kennedy's state of mind and events that are not generally well known, yet does not always reach us on an emotional level. Though Portman delivers a strong performance, perfectly recreating the inflections in Jackie's voice and conveying the elegance of her demeanor, it is often mannered and her authenticity only shows up sporadically. Ultimately, the human being behind the icon remains elusive.

6 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Gets under your skin, 11 December 2016

Based on the 1993 novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is a gorgeous looking film that has style by the bucketful. The images that open the film provide an immediate sense of its flamboyant style and also its interpretative quagmire. Obese women, naked except for an outfit consisting of little more than sparklers and confetti, dance in slow motion to introduce the opening of a new video installation by Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). While Susan labels the art "junk," it soon becomes clear that without it, her elite lifestyle, characterized by Ford as shallow and charmless, would be in jeopardy given that her second husband Hutton's (Armie Hammer) business is floundering.

The fact that their marriage is also in trouble because of his philandering suggests that Susan's choice of looking good over being true to herself did not work out too well and has left her childless, dispirited and unable to sleep. One day she receives a package from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing his unpublished novel titled "Nocturnal Animals," a book that is dedicated to Susan and bears the same title as that of a snarky nickname he gave her many years ago. The receipt of the book only serves to remind her of the man she rejected nineteen years ago as being a weak and ineffective provider, something her mother (Laura Linney) could have told her before she got married and in fact did.

The novel, that might be interpreted as depicting the disconnect between the elite world of culture and the down and dirty folks in the hinterland becomes a film within a film. The novel turns out to be an ultra-violent story of revenge that occupies most of the remainder of the movie except for flashes between the reality of Susan's life and the book's narrative. In the book, Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), decides to drive all night on a lonely desert road in the Texas panhandle with his wife Laura performed by Amy Adams lookalike Isla Fisher and their daughter India (Elle Bamber). The dark aspects of the story begin to emerge as their car is forced off the road by three local good ol' boy stereotypes led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Terrorized by the lowlifes who alternate kindness with brutality as do all good psychopaths, the husband is abandoned on a desert road while his wife and daughter meet a grisly fate. Their bodies are discovered by the retiring detective assigned to the case, the cowboy-hatted Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) whose laid back West Texas charm reveals the most vividly drawn character in the film. When the thugs are located and cornered, the Texas lawman, who is dying of lung cancer and has nothing left to lose, abandons the oath he took to uphold law and order and invites Tony to help him administer instant justice, one the macho-challenged Tony cannot refuse.

The novel, nineteen years in the making, leaves Susan recoiling in horror as she remembers her beginnings as an artist and the values she turned her back on, and speculates whether Edward may be thinking of something other than artistic criticism. Written and directed by Ford, a famous fashion designer whose 2009 film A Single Man received much critical acclaim, Nocturnal Animals gets under your skin and is hard to shake. It's unclear, however, what the film is trying to say other than that it may not be healthy to let your blood boil for twenty years before saying something about it.

About the importance of loving yourself before you can love others, 10 December 2016

Set in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, first-time director Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl looks at life from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old girl growing up absurd in an environment that provides little to no emotional support or guidance. Written by the director and based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, the film was the winner of the Grand Prix (Generation 14plus) at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Minnie, in a remarkable performance by British actress Bel Powley ("A Royal Night Out"), is a confused and troubled teenager who lives with her divorced mother Charlotte (Kristin Wiig, "Welcome to Me") and her younger sister Gretel (Abby Wait).

It is an environment that seems to be modeled after media notions of the San Francisco hip culture of the sixties, though, in reality, there was very little counter-culture left in San Francisco by the mid-seventies. Powley captures Minnie's innocence and personal appeal as well as her more manipulative moments, and manages to portray her as likable in a sea of unsympathetic characters. A talented comic book artist, Minnie speaks into a tape recorder in her room to journal her quest for a meaningful relationship, but the tapes are filled with self doubt and feelings of isolation that threaten to morph into self-loathing.

The film opens when Minnie proudly announces that she's just had sex for the first time. Her sex partner, however, is her mother's 35-year-old boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard, "The Giver"), who freely enters into the relationship with the teenager, mindless of any ethical or legal concerns. Minnie is definitely not an innocent victim and Monroe is not a predator, but both act like emotional adolescents who are caught up in the moment and seem powerless to extricate themselves. Minnie's continued sexual relationship with Monroe enhances her self esteem and she has a stake in keeping it going regardless of the danger that her mother will find out.

The only real friend she has is Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) who brags of many sexual conquests herself and Minnie feels comfortable in confiding in her details about her affair with Monroe and other experiments that include different types of relationships with both men and women involving drugs and prostitution. Unfortunately, Minnie keeps coming back to Monroe who has by now become a sad character. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an honest film that presents the characters and situations as they are without judgment or evaluation.

Yet while it does not judge its characters, it closes its eyes to morally dubious behavior, not commenting on Charlotte's outrageous invasion of her daughter's privacy when she listens to her private tape recordings which reveal the extent of her relationship with Monroe, or addressing the question of a parent's responsibility to provide emotional support for a an emotionally fragile teenager, regardless of the environment in which they are living.

While Minnie and Monroe go through the motions of self-reflection, ultimately there is little substance to their quest for self understanding. There is only an emptiness inside that the film touches on but hardly explores and leaves us with a sense of unfulfillment. Minnie tells her friend that Monroe has gone to participate in the EST Training in Sacramento which she describes as a self-improvement seminar. That is the last we hear of it, however, and we never see any positive results from Monroe's experience or that it in any way had touched his life. The only results that Monroe reports are that during the weekend he was arrested for drunk driving.

The message of the film is about the importance of loving yourself before you can love others and Minnie takes a long road towards that goal but female empowerment should not only be about sexual awakening but about integrity, taking responsibility for your life, awakening to the beauty and mystery of life, becoming involved in things larger than yourself. Given the emotional vacuum in which Minnie lives, there is nothing to indicate that any lessons have been learned. Ultimately, this is a film that displays the forms of self-awareness but lacks its substance.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Does not promote any serious reflection, 5 December 2016

In Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic a family has opted for a simple life in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, turning their backs on what they consider to be a corrupt system that supports an inauthentic way of being in the world. The children, Bodevan (George MacKay), Kieyler (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell) are united in their disdain for consumer culture and the quest for status. They are well versed in philosophy, history and quantum theory, and can hunt for food and show impressive physical skills. Their politics are decidedly outside of the mainstream.

Instead of celebrating Christmas, they pay homage to progressive author Noam Chomsky on his birthday, while 18-year-old Bo, the oldest son, proclaims he is neither a Trotsky-ist or a Trotsky-ite but a Maoist. The superhero Captain Fantastic in this scenario is father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) who assists the family in developing survival skills, leading the children in exercises worthy of marine boot camp. At night, to their credit, they sit around the campfire at night reading classic literature and discuss weighty topics such as capitalism and how they see the world. Apparently they have little use for religion, especially Christians and Christianity, but do have a fondness for Buddhism, a religion in vogue right now.

The clan is shaken to its core when Ben tells the family without sugar coating it that their mother Leslie, a victim of bipolar disease, has committed suicide. Though she has been hospitalized for three months, nothing is said about anyone in the family visiting her in the hospital, not an example of Buddhist compassion. According to Leslie's will, she requested to be cremated and Ben intends to carry out her wishes in spite of strong opposition from Leslie's wealthy father (Frank Langella) who organizes a Christian funeral service for his daughter. Ben and the children pile into their rickety school bus and head to New Mexico determined to rescue their mother from the grave and the film suddenly becomes a high energy road trip with a few challenging adventures along the way.

Mortensen is impressive in the role of Ben as are the actors who play his children and, as usual, Langella is convincing in his role as a wealthy man who is seemingly the epitome of unrestrained capitalist excess. While Ben is a loving father who eventually entertains the strange notion of compromise, he is basically little more than a caricature, an idealized fantasy figure who creates what the director must think a sixties commune must have been like. Ben is raising his children to be independent thinkers but does not create any space for them to question his authority, and the semi-robotic kids mouth their father's ideas rather than their own thoughts (Lolita notwithstanding).

What is unfortunate is that these ideas do have meaning. In the proper context, "Power to the people" is much more than a mindless slogan. While the children are home schooled and appear to be very well educated, they do not seem to have the skills to engage in the world outside of their enclave. Bodevan, for example, accepted in some of the top colleges and adept enough to kill a deer singlehandedly, cannot bring himself to talk to a girl without immediately proposing to her. While the ideals that the film espouses are important, here they are trivialized to the point of seeming shallow and phony and there is no discussion of what the word integrity means.

Killing an animal is a pathway to manhood? Robbing a supermarket is "sticking it to the man?" Tolerance is another casualty. "We don't laugh at people…" Ben tells the children during the road trip "…except Christians." While there is a legitimate discussion about conventional and unconventional ways to raise children, Captain Fantastic does not promote any serious reflection. Perhaps if this holier than thou family would come out of the wilderness and participate in making a difference in the real world we could be getting someplace.

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