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Falls short of being a truly powerful experience, 26 June 2016

The father of former San Francisco Mayor Jack Shelley once told him, "The day you forget where you came from, you won't belong where you are." This advice is not lost on Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn, "Clash of the Titans"), a young woman coming of age in Terence Davies' ("The Deep Blue Sea") Sunset Song. Adapted from the 1932 novel of Lewis Grassic Gibbon and set in Scotland in the early 1900s, the film is more than a song of sunset, it is a symphony of the fields and lakes and distant mountains of Aberdeenshire and a young woman devoted to the land, harvesting the wheat, lying in the sun, wrapping herself in "the old star-eaten blanket of the sky." Talking of herself in voice-over, she says, "Nothing endured but the land. Sea, sky and the folk who lived there were but a breath. But the land endured…she was the land."

The gorgeous painterly views photographed by cinematographer Michael McDonough ("Winter's Bone"), however, does not conceal the isolation felt by those coming up against a system that ostracizes anyone standing against the town's social and religious conformity. Women especially are at a disadvantage. They have to endure sex without contraception, painful and often fatal childbirth, and marital beatings and rapes that are considered part of the marriage vow, "for better or worse." The film traces Chris' growth from an intelligent but passive student to an adult both willing and able to stand up for herself. At first she is seen in school where she is admired for her excellent French pronunciation.

At home things are different, however. The Guthrie farm is run by the patriarch, John (Peter Mullan, "Tyrannosaur"), a sadistic bully who beats his son Will (Jack Greenlees) for minor infractions such as naming his horse "Jehovah," and forces his wife Jean (Daniela Nardini) into repeated pregnancies. Both Will and Jean find a way out in vastly different ways, but Chris, having given up any hopes of becoming a teacher, endures her brutal father until he is felled by a stroke. Fortunately, her paternal aunt Janet (Linda Duncan McLaughlin) and Uncle Tam (Ron Donachie, "Filth") arrive to take her younger brothers back to raise in Aberdeen but Chris carries on at Blawearie, running the farm herself.

As Ma Joad said in "The Grapes of Wrath," "With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream - little eddies and waterfalls - but the river, it goes right on." Like the strong-willed Bathsheba of Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd," Chris never succumbs to her mother's cynicism about men, falling in love with and marrying a local farmer Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie). The scenes where the Ewan and Chris find happiness in marriage and childbirth are the most joyous of the film, especially when Chris sings "The Flowers of the Forest" at their wedding, but, there are signs that it cannot last. When World War I is declared, anyone who doesn't enlist is labeled a coward, accused of refusing to fight for God, King, and country.

Succumbing to threats from Reverend Gibbon (Jack Bonnar), Ewan enlists but the war will change him forever and make him unrecognizable to those who are closest to him. Chris bears her fate in poetic terms, saying, "There are lovely things in the world, lovely, that do not endure, and they're lovelier for that," but her positive feelings soon turn to denial. Sunset Song is a beautiful film and a tribute to those who have the courage and patience to endure pain. Though there are many moments when we know that we are in the hands of a master but the film, in spite of its physical beauty and compelling message, never reaches the emotional depth necessary for a truly powerful experience and the haunting music of a bagpipe at the end only suggests the great film it might have been.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A flurry of exuberance that has a Shakespearean quality, 6 June 2016

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale, "Absolutely Anything"), the main protagonist of Whit Stillman's ("Damsels in Distress") period comedy Love & Friendship is determined to get what she wants without any pretense of hiding her ambitions. With a bow to Machiavelli, she has perfected the skill of turning evidence directed at her back towards her accusers, declaring "Facts are horrid things." Based on Jane Austen's novella "Lady Susan" written in 1794 but not published until 1867, the story revolves around the recently widowed socialite, Lady Susan, whose reputation as "the most accomplished flirt in England" follows her from London to the home of her in-laws at Churchill Estate.

In Austen's day, an unmarried woman had few prospects for financial stability and Susan's not-so-secret dalliance with the married Lord Manawaring, the owner of the Langford estate, does not work in her favor. Though we are aware of her tendency to scheme, we only get a hint of what she's up to when her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark, "Madame Bovary") arrives at Churchill after running away from school. Stillman introduces us to each character with a descriptive caption (though it is hardly possible to remember who's who). Lord Manawaring, (Lochlann O'Meárain, "Poison Pen") is called "a divinely attractive man," Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), who plays Federica's suitor, is described as "a bit of a rattle" which in commonly understood terms means a simple-minded buffoon.

Lady Susan nonetheless intends for her daughter to marry Sir James, noting that he is "vastly rich, rather simple, ideal." Intending to enhance her relationships with her late husband's family, Susan charms her brother-in-law, the young bachelor Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel, "Frankenstein") who takes the bait, much to the chagrin of his sister (Emma Greenwell, "Dare to be Wild"). Susan has an ally, however, in her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny, "#Horror"), her secret confidante. Married to a much older man (Stephen Fry, "The Man Who Knew Infinity"), Alicia is threatened by her husband to be sent to Connecticut if her friendship with Susan continues (sounds good to me). "Let Mr. Johnson's next gouty attack end more favorably," Lady Susan says to her friend. On another occasion, she laments that Mr. Johnson is "too old to be governable, too young to die." Kate Beckinsale's performance as the cunning Lady Susan can only be described as delightful. She is thoroughly believable as the powerless woman who gains strength through her ability to bend others to her will, though her accent and rapid delivery can render some of the best lines unintelligible. Another vibrant performance is that of Bennett who has great comic timing as the inane Sir James who discovers that there are only Ten Commandments, not twelve, and that those little round green things on his plate are called peas. As the plot thickens, the film turns up its snarky wit and the time whisks by in a flurry of exuberance that lends a Shakespearean quality to the unpredictable ending.

Mustang (2015)
Displays an intimacy that breathes love and affection, 6 June 2016

"I feel the air flowing for life's in full swing, so tell me why I cannot breathe" – Kate Rusby, Fallin' Since the dawn of human history, men's ability to suppress the rights of women has been a measure of their power. Despite our social advances, even today women are often put into categories such as, as author Estela Welldon describes it, "Mother, Madonna, or Whore." Accusations of being either cold and prudish or seductive and manipulative obscure the fact that sex for women is as natural and healthy a form of self expression as it is for men. Unfolding against a backdrop of adolescent sexual repression, rebellion, and loss of innocence, Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven's magical first feature Mustang tackles the issue of gender inequality that women all over the world have to confront, the title symbolizing their strength and untamed spirit.

Co-written by the director and Alice Winocour, the film is set in a rural Turkish village near the Black Sea, and takes place in a conservative patriarchal culture that discourages the expression of femininity other than in fulfilling traditional gender roles. Though Mustang is filmed in Turkey and spoken in Turkish, because France is the director's adopted country, it was France's entry for the Oscars Best Foreign Language Film award in 2016. In the film, five orphaned teenage sisters, Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) are being raised in the countryside by their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan, "Winter Sleep") and their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas, "Kuma"). Though sad that their favorite teacher (Bahar Karimoglu) is going to Istanbul, the girls enjoy the final day of their school year, engaging in horseplay with local boys in waist-deep water.

Their joyous exuberance is turned into something dirty, however, by a local gossip who accuses them of sexually touching themselves against the boys' necks and, of course, it is the girls who must pay the price. As an innocent game becomes the catalyst for intimidation, the girls are taken one by one by grandma to check their virginity and are subject to beatings from their overbearing uncle. Anything potentially corrupting is taken away such as their cell phones and computers along with their makeup. Expressive, often skimpy outfits are substituted with ugly, shapeless, colorless dresses that destroy their vibrancy.

The restrictions become even more blatant after they sneak away to attend a soccer match, even though the crowd is all female (men have been refused entry after a riot). Though Erol didn't see them at the game thanks to a relative who sabotages the electricity to the entire village, their act of rebellion is the last straw for the grandmother. The house becomes a prison as bars are put on the windows and a group of local women arrive to teach the girls cooking and housekeeping in preparation for their preordained role in life as wives and mothers. The situation is promptly described by the feisty Lale who asserts that their home has become a "wife factory," and that their key function will be to produce children.

Even sadder, there are darker things going on which are not shown but are implied when we see Uncle Erol going into Nur's room at night, after which the grandmother hides the sheets. Most likely aware of what's going on but powerless to prevent it, she begins to arrange marriages for each one of them. Sonay rebels and insists that she will only marry her boyfriend Ekin (Enes Surum) which is agreed to. Selma, however, is not so fortunate. After her marriage to a boring partner, she is forced to undergo a gynecological examination when there's no blood on the sheets, despite her repeated and truthful assertions that she is a virgin. While the forced marriage plan is partially successful, it leads to tragedy that we are totally unprepared for.

Anticipating that she may need to escape this prison before she is also ground down into the passive, compliant woman the family desires, Lale is secretly taught how to drive by Yasin (Burak Yigit, "Victoria"), a friendly neighborhood truck driver and her thoughts turn to other possibilities. Mustang is marked by outstanding performances by the five sisters who display an intimacy that breathes love and affection. Though the film deals with disturbing subject matter, it is not a depressing film. The remarkable performances by these outstanding young women and the connection they have with each other is exhilarating as is their willingness to assert their individuality and their humanity in the face of ignorance masked by good intentions.

Dheepan (2015)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Reminds us of the connection we have with people around the world, 15 May 2016

The 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka (1983-2009), a conflict between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamil minority in which 200,000 people were killed, including tens of thousands of Tamil civilians forms the backdrop for French director Jacques Audiard's searing refugee drama Dheepan. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, it is the story of three Tamil immigrants from Sri Lanka newly settled in Paris, their adjustment to an often unwelcoming environment, and the bond they form based on mutual need and acceptance of the others pain.

Like Audiard's previous film, Rust and Bone, it is raw and visceral, yet also a film of lyricism and sensitivity. Though the film seems to draw a parallel between the war in Sri Lanka and social unrest in France, it is a fictional film and, according to Audiard, is not intended to mirror the actual conditions of refugees in France which he believes has been mostly welcoming. Written by Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré and photographed by Eponine Momenceau, the film opens in Sri Lanka as the Tamil fighter Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a novelist and a former Tamil Tiger himself), whose cause faces defeat, lays palm leaves across the corpses on a funeral pyre before burning his own military fatigues.

The scene shifts to Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), a young woman attempting to ensure her passage out of the country by finding a young girl to pose as her daughter, She finds Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), a girl who can pass for nine, and takes her to where Dheepan (an assumed name) is being given the passports of three dead people. Assuming new identities, the three pretend to be a family escaping persecution in Sri Lanka and are relocated to France where they are employed as caretakers of a housing project in the Paris suburbs. It is a locale reminiscent of the projects in Mathieu Kassovitz', La Haine, where drug dealing and urban decay are pervasive.

Their guide Youssouf (Marc Zinga) gives them a tour but the instructions, in a language they do not understand, do not register. Youssouf skirts around the problem of the drug dealers who congregate in another block across the courtyard, only telling him to wait until they leave before beginning to clean. As Illayal goes to school to learn French and Yalini is assigned to cook and clean for an elderly man whose nephew Brahim (Vincent Rottiers) is one of the local gang leaders, the film traces the gradual assimilation of the family, their overriding desire for connection, not only to the language and customs, but to each other. Though the film is restrained with moments of tenderness and humor as well as anger and frustration, underneath there is a growing tension.

Violence erupts when Dheepan, who suffers from PTSD, draws a white line across the courtyard that they are not to cross and it has a jarring effect though, to me, not out of sync with the film's setup and exploration of its characters. Though Audiard claims that Dheepan is not intended to be political, given the real-life nature of the circumstances, it cannot help but be just that. He said that he wanted "to give the faceless a name, a face, a shape," a story of their own and he has succeeded. In making a human document, he reminds us of the connection we have with people around the world whose voices we cannot hear, whose faces we cannot see, and whose hands we may never touch.

Finch's performance makes Johnnie a person we can relate to, 8 May 2016

Johnnie Byrne (Peter Finch) is a British Labor party back bencher whose ambition overrides his principles and ultimately his humanity in Ralph Thomas' political drama No Love for Johnnie. Written by Nicholas Phipps' and Mordecai Richler's from a novel by Wilfred Fienburgh, the film is similar in theme to Room at the Top with its unlikable status-seeking protagonist. Unlike the Laurence Harvey, Simone Signoret classic, however, No Love for Johnnie never found its audience, though Finch's performance won him a BAFTA Award for Best Actor.

Just re-elected to Parliament from the working-class constituency of Earnley, the 42-year-old Byrne is not exactly a charmer, something his wife Alice (Rosalie Crutchley), an active CP member. notes as she decides to leave him. Passed over for a cabinet position by the Labor Prime Minister Reginald Stevens (Geoffrey Keen), Byrne schemes with a more radical faction of the Party to ask embarrassing questions of the Prime Minister during a parliamentary debate but, after some quiet reassurances from Stevens, he decides to skip the Q and A. Notable here are Stanley Holloway, Geoffrey Keen, Donald Pleasence and Mervyn Johns as nondescript British politicians but it is always Finch who dominates the screen.

The plot, however, turns away from jealousy, ambition, and back stabbing long enough to generate a romance. Johnnie's upstairs neighbor, Mary (Billie Whitelaw) invites him to a party where he meets a 20-year-old model, Pauline West (Mary Peach), and begins a close relationship that ultimately becomes too involving for the much younger woman to handle. Spurned by his own Party, given a vote of no-confidence by his constituency, and unsuccessful in his relationships, Byrne's downfall is pitiable, but the striking authenticity of Finch's performance makes him a person we can relate to and even sympathize with. In today's politics, however, where cynicism has become even more prevalent, a politician who puts ambition above principle would hardly warrant such attention.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Holds up a mirror and lets us see our reflection, 17 April 2016

The premise of Yorgos Lanthimos' latest absurdist film (or should we simply say "absurd") The Lobster is that those who are unmarried have forty five days to choose a mate or are turned into animals. This is something my mother might have said but even she would have offered the possibility of clemency. Co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, the film continues the same style as Dogtooth with wooden characters that are tight-lipped, undeveloped emotionally and uncertain about how to handle their desire for companionship. Like those in Charlie Kaufman's animated satire Anomalisa, everyone has the same robotic presence, perhaps a commentary on the way people relate to each other these days.

The film stars Colin Farrell as David, a dumpy-looking middle aged man whose wife thought better of their relationship and split. In the world he finds himself in, hopefully sometime far in the future or on another planet, it is against the law to be single, though we don't learn whether it is a felony or a misdemeanor. In any event, David is checked into a hotel with other unfortunates who must choose to register as either hetero or homosexual and must decide on the kind of animal they would like to become if they cannot find a match. It is a serviceable place to spend one's last days as a human, but it is not the Grand Budapest.

Unlike most who choose to become a dog, David wants to be a lobster because they live one hundred years and remain fertile, though that's really not an asset when you are thrown into boiling hot water, but I guess if you like water, why not? The people are friendly sorts but are not big on warmth or caring. The hotel manager (Olivia Coleman) and her husband (Garry Mountaine) are likable enough as is the maid (Ariane Labed) but David hits it off mostly with two hotel guests, "the limping man" (Ben Whishaw) and "the lisping man" (John C. Reilly). The drive is to find a match, someone who shares the same physical characteristics with you, such as a bloody nose or a hatred for other people such as one known as "The Heartless Woman" (Angeliki Papoulia). She's a real sweetheart.

Naturally, you may have to work at being heartless to gain her approval, though many people already have considerable experience. Aside from Las Vegas type galas with the manager and her husband providing the entertainment, the only approved playtime activity is to go hunting in the nearby forest to subdue and capture those poor souls designated as the "Loners." These are the dreaded single people, those without a partner that they can spend their lives fighting with. Neither the Loners nor the hotel hotties are big on sex but talking to each other is okay, at least if you don't call for a political revolution which seems to be in the air these days. Since masturbation is frowned upon and is rewarded by having your hands stuck in a toaster, there is little else to do but talk.

To the ominous strains of an original score by Johnnie Burn, David finally says enough is enough with this rot and escapes into the woods where he joins up with the Loners but finds out that they have rules which are just as rigid. Guided by their uptight leader (Lea Seydoux), who is so cold that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, they go to the opposite extreme, prohibiting any attempt at a love relationship. When David meets Rachel Weisz, however, the first sign of something positive emerges but their forbidden relationship takes the film into even more difficult and disturbing territory, not recommended for small children.

Lanthimos' first English-language film evokes strong reactions from viewers by simply holding up a mirror and letting us see our reflection or, perhaps even more disturbing, sense the direction in which we are headed. It is not a pretty sight and The Lobster is not a pleasant experience unless you are a blind man looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn't there. While "dystopian" films such as this can be looked upon as a warning or cautionary tale, the question must be asked whether, in relentlessly envisioning the future as taking place in a bleak and lifeless world, they might actually be helping to create it.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Reaching to worlds beyond our power to grasp, 10 April 2016

Named after an old chain-gang work song about the light of a passing train being a symbol of redemption, Jeff Nichols ("Mud") Midnight Special is an enigmatic science-fiction thriller about a boy with special powers and his parents whose bridge of love between them knows no worldly boundaries. Set in the American South, the film pays homage to popular sci-fi movies of the late 70s and early 80s, but never reaches the heights of their enchantment. Opening in a dark motel room with windows boarded shut, an Amber Alert is announced on an old tube television, telling us that an eight-year-old boy has been kidnapped. In the room, the slight boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, "St. Vincent's") sits between two beds wearing night-vision goggles but shows no emotion as he is abruptly put in the back seat of a 1972 Chevelle by two older men who look like kidnappers in a big hurry.

We soon learn that the two men are Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon, "Take Shelter"), Alton's biological father and Roy's close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton, "Black Mass"), a State Trooper he has known since childhood. We shift to a Texas religious community known as the Third Heaven Ranch, where we learn that the boy was raised by the Ranch's charismatic leader, Calvin Meyer, (Sam Shepard, "August, Osage County"). Entranced by the streams of blue light that radiate from the boys' eyes, Meyer and his flock believe that Alton is a spiritual being, a savior who can lead the world to a spiritual renaissance.

As the FBI suddenly storms into the church, asking everyone in attendance to submit to questioning because of a sudden large purchase of guns, it is clear that the FBI, the local police, and NSA operatives, because of his ability to read secret codes and coordinates, see the boy not as a savior but as a security threat. On the run, Roy and Lucas are soon joined by the boy's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, "The Two Faces of January") who is thrilled to see her son again. Looking at comic books in the back seat, Alton is wearing goggles to control the beams of blinding light that emanate from his eyes when he is upset and headphones to drown out the radio and satellite transmissions he hears in his head.

Pursued by federal agents, as well as by NSA operative Sevier (Adam Driver), Roy will stop at nothing to deliver his son to his destination. Cinematographer Adam Stone fully captures the mood of the lonely back roads of the South where they drive, seeking a location known only to Alton. His health is failing and there is little time left to fulfill his destiny. According to Nichols, "They're on the run, they're being hunted and, at the same time, they're racing towards something important, though we don't immediately know what it is." It may also be that we are not supposed to know but must simply surrender to the unknown and unknowable nature of the world we find ourselves in.

Assisted by a powerful original score by David Wingo, as the tension increases, our understanding expands little by little, but there are always more questions than answers. In a masterful set-piece, as they stop for gas, Alton gets out of the car against Roy's instructions beams of light from his eyes cause a satellite to explode doing massive damage to the gas station. Midnight Special is a chase movie, a family drama, and a story of reaching to worlds beyond our power to grasp. While it bravely suggests that we can evolve and be greater than we are now, questions come to mind about whether Alton's special powers could have been used to benefit people on Earth, end sickness, wars, and hatred or prepare people on Earth for the next step in evolution which he represents.

Nichols respects his audience and does not spoon feed us with voice-overs or emotional cues, yet we never really get to know any of the characters to the point that we care about them and the film's deliberate obscurity keeps us more distracted than involved. Marred by a derivative and too literal ending, Midnight Special strives for profundity but lacks the emotional resonance that makes for a truly profound experience.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Left me with a feeling of joy and transcendence, 3 April 2016

Terence Malick's Knight of Cups has the familiar Malickian stamp. It is rambling, unstructured, often indecipherable and filled with barely audible voice-overs that come close to self parody, yet, for me, no present American or perhaps even international director can match Malick's self-reflective poetry or his ability to capture the essence of man's spiritual nature.

The film is no more penetrable than James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake, but its meaning is there if you are willing to pierce its elliptical style, even though ultimately the message may be different for everyone. Set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, like actor Johnny Marco in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter, seems to wander through life emotionally numb. He is surrounded by all the amenities anyone could possibly desire including available women, an upscale life style, and good looks.

It is almost La Dolce Vita but something is missing, something fundamental perhaps – purpose, connection, engagement, and being able to love and be loved. "Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream," Rick is Christian in John Bunyan's Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, whose opening lines are directly quoted in the film by Sir John Gielgud. Rick's quest for redemption and expiation of his sins unfolds like Christian's journey "wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country." Unlike Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick turns away from Judeo-Christian references to embrace the symbolic language of the Tarot. Divided into chapters, each having the title of a Tarot card : The Hermit, The Hanged Man, The Fool, The Tower, and Death, the Knight of Cups represents romance, charm, and purity, the proverbial "knight in shining armor." Reversed, it is the failure to achieve spiritual purity as a result of jealousy, moodiness, and unrealistic aspirations. Its symbolic meaning, according to author Sylvie Simon is, "a wandering lover, messenger of hidden or repressed desires, and violent passions," all traits of the main character. After a gorgeous Malickian view from space of the Aurora Borealis, photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, another narrator tells the story (taken from the Gnostics' "Acts of Thomas") of a knight sent to Egypt by his father to retrieve a pearl from a serpent but who loses his way until a messenger brings redemption. It is a motif that is repeated several times throughout the movie but the pearl remains elusive.

There is very little dialogue in the film and it could almost be retitled "Goodbye to Language, Part Two." Without a linear narrative, the film moves from image to image, dreamlike and surreal, from lonely stretches of desert and stunning mountainous vistas to scenes of urban decay, homeless men sleeping on the streets juxtaposed with Beverly Hills mansions, Hollywood studio back lots, and beach apartments, brought to life by a soundtrack that features an original score by Canadian composer Hanan Townshend and classical music by Wojciech Kilar, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Arvo Part, and others. Through it all there is an indescribable feeling of emptiness.

Drifting through each day alienated and disconnected from his emotions, Rick is haunted by thoughts of his overbearing father (Brian Dennehy), his unstable brother Barry (Wes Bentley) who the film soon introduces, and another brother whose suicide gives us the only clue to Rick's alienation and possibly Malick's as well. Women drift in and out of Rick's life, his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a guilt-filled married woman with whom he had an affair and who became pregnant.

There are also fleeting affairs with Della (Imogen Poots), Helen (Freida Pinto), an alluring model, Karen (Teresa Palmer), a night-club stripper whom he takes to Las Vegas until he gets tired of the scene, Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a blonde he meets at the beach while engaged in his many walks along the surf, and there are others. While none of these women are ciphers, they are unable to fulfill his need for love. Nothing shakes Rick's emotional numbness, not even an earthquake that rattles his apartment.

Knight of Cups is definitely not an easy film to love as many critics will not hesitate to tell you, yet it is a physically beautiful, spiritually literate, experimental film that is miles above what the majority of movies offer today. Rather than adhering to the contemporary materialist paradigm that denies our true power, Malick directs us towards a deeper reality. Rick's priest (Armin Mueller-Stahl) speaks a universal truth when he says "When you see someone beautiful, that's your soul remembering the beauty it used to know in heaven," and that suffering takes us "higher – out of ourselves" where we can recognize the order of the universe. Rick is also guided by a teacher of Zen (Peter Matthiessen) who suggests being in the moment. "Everything is there," he says, "perfect and complete." Knight of Cups is not for everyone, but it has something to say and says it well and left me with a feeling of joy and transcendence.

26 out of 32 people found the following review useful:
American exceptionalism may not be as exceptional as people think, 4 March 2016

If you are at all interested in six weeks of paid vacation, an extra month's salary and a two-hour lunch break, you just might have to go to Italy to find it. Filmmaker Michael Moore ("Capitalism: A Love Story," "Sicko"), a welcome voice for sanity, returns to the big screen in his first film in seven years to tell us that perks like this exist, just not in the United States. His latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, is a satiric look at what much of the world has to offer that is not available here. Underneath all the wit, however, the film has a serious purpose, calling our attention to what works and what doesn't work in society, regardless of what may be considered the "right" thing to do and the label you might put on it. In simple terms, so-called American exceptionalism is often not as exceptional as most people think.

Though the title of the film may suggest an exposé of the government's penchant for endless war, Moore has something else in mind. His intention is to show how other nations treat their citizens in the workplace, schools, and prisons, including their attitudes towards women and sex, leaving it to the viewer to make comparisons. In the opening scene, a tongue-in-cheek Moore is summoned to appear before the Joint Chiefs of Staff to offer his advice on how to stop losing wars. His suggestion is to allow him to conduct the invasions from now on, pledging to do better. Taking his camera crew to Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Tunisia, Portugal, Iceland, and Germany, he interviews workers, teachers, students, CEOs, government officials, and ordinary folks who tell him about the advantages they have.

When he departs the country, he makes sure to plant the American flag to signal his success in stealing its ideas. Though Moore's bewildered, "are you kidding me?" shtick becomes a bit tiresome by the end, it mostly suits the "wow" nature of what he uncovers. In Italy, the wide-eyed director can only shrug his shoulders when he hears from young workers that they have thirty to thirty-five paid vacation days a year, not including holidays, paid maternity leave, or a paid honeymoon. Seeking an explanation for this, he turns to the CEO of a motorcycle company who tells him that the happier the workers are, the more production they achieve and hence the more profits for the company, though Moore does not discuss the overall economic problems of the country.

In France, Moore teases us by taking us to what he calls a gourmet five-star restaurant in Normandy only to reveal, much to our calculated astonishment, that we are in a typical school cafeteria that serves five-course meals, planned each month by the school and city representatives. Eating with the students, he offers one girl a can of coke but is summarily rebuffed. In looking at Finland's school system, Moore discovers that students have no homework and more free time to socialize and enjoy time with their families. He learns that Finland has no private schools so that the community is dedicated to making the public schools work.

According to Moore, Finland's school system has risen from the depths to become number one in the world.

From there we travel to Slovenia (not to be confused with Slovakia) which has a free university system, especially inviting for foreign students, to Germany where factory workers toil 36 hours a week while being paid for 40 hours. Oh, yes — if they get too stressed, they can go to a spa at company expense to work it all out. Pausing for a serious look at how one country deals with its unpleasant past, Moore explores how educators and students confront the Holocaust in Germany, even though it is uncomfortable to face.

In Norway, we see how prisoners are treated as human beings, even mass murderers like Anders Breivik, even though Breivik has threatened to go on a hunger strike because of what he claims are "deteriorating" living conditions — isolation from the other inmates and allowing only contact being with health care workers and guards. While the energy sags a bit in the last two segments in Portugal and Iceland, Where to Invade Next delivers a sharp, meaningful message though not as impactful as Moore's earlier work. Contrary to his critics, however, it does not disparage America, but suggests that a great people can be even greater if they are willing to learn from others.

Güeros (2014)
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Healing through movement, 28 February 2016

Set in 1999 against a backdrop of student protests, Güeros is a road movie that becomes a voyage of discovery for three rootless young people seeking to bridge the gap between aimlessness and social purpose. The debut feature film by Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios received twelve nominations at the 57th Ariel Awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars, winning five of them including Best Film, Best Director, Best First Film, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography (Damian Garcia). Shot in black-and-white, the film is evocative of the French New Wave, balancing highly structured sequences with segments of spontaneous and playful improvisation.

In the film, Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre), a disruptive pre-teen in Veracruz is sent by his overburdened mom to Mexico City to live with his brother Federico (Tenoch Huerta), a slacker college student known as Sombra because of his dark skin. Tomas is called a "güeros" because of his lighter complexion underscoring an element of racial conflict in Mexican society. Living with his similarly uninvolved roommate, Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in an apartment complex in Copilco that looks as if it's next on the waiting list for demolition, Sombra's position on the student strike is firmly in the middle, saying that he is "on strike against the strike." His daily activity consists of …well, nothing much. He and Santos sit around watching TV by borrowing an electrical cord from a little girl downstairs, an action that does not sit too well with the girl's father.

Bored, Tomas decides that a little adventure never hurt anyone and comes up with a plan to find Epigmiento Cruz in order to have him sign their well-worn cassette tape. An enigmatic folk singer from the sixties who their father loved, Cruz is a symbol of something bigger than them,a larger than life hero who can make them see what's behind things. As Sombra says, "If you can see behind things, the only thing they can't take away from you is that feeling."

Though the singer is rumored to be sick or dying, little güerito tells Fede that Cruz "once made Bob Dylan cry," presumably an accomplishment worthy of a place in the hall of fame. The trip, according to Ruizpalacios, was inspired by Bob Dylan's journey to visit an ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital during the late 50s. Shrugging off a panic attack which is carefully explained to him at the hospital, Sombra visits the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where students are on strike to show their disagreement with the administration's decision to instate an enrollment fee even though the University had always been free.

Sombra, Santos, and Tomas walk into an auditorium overflowing with protesters listening to Sombra's former girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas) speaking in front of the room. The scene is filled with shouting and confrontation, a chaotic depiction not to the liking of some former protesters who complained about the unserious tone of the segment. As Ana joins the trio to look for Cruz, their quest leads them to a pool party where well-to-do intellectuals muse about the sorry state of Mexican cinema.

Here the film engages in a sort of self-parody as one director complains that all Mexican movies deliver a picture of impoverished beggars to satisfy Western audiences at film festivals. Sombra also chimes in, saying that Mexicans are often portrayed as cheaters, atheists, prostitutes and alcoholics. Güeros ultimately takes many detours and shifts of perspective but, though it is episodic in structure, never loses its footing as the search for the legendary Epigmiento allows the seekers to move from a place of apathy to one of self-acceptance and commitment.

Ruizpalacios describes the film's central theme as "the change from being static to being in movement. Healing through movement." However you interpret Güeros' message, the film has an invigorating appeal: fresh, playful, and meaningful, even suggesting at one point that the seeming randomness of life is guided by divine purpose. Sombra says at one point that "If the world is a train station and the people are the passengers, those who stay at the station and watch the trains go by are the poets, the ones who come and won't go." Tomas is one who watches the trains depart, seeing as we all have once with the innocent eyes of discovery as the city unfolds before his eyes with all its massive contradictions, encompassing the best and worst of humanity.

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