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Good people trying to make the best of a bad situation, 24 May 2015

According to a 2013 census, 20.7% of Israel's population are Israeli Arabs, citizens of Israel who consider themselves Palestinian by nationality. The problems that arise from these conflicting allegiances are dramatized in Avram Riklis'("Zaytoun") film Dancing Arabs, a title that denotes those who have to straddle two cultures and "dance at two weddings." Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Sayed Kashua (who also wrote the script), Dancing Arabs, known also as "A Borrowed Identity," was the opening film of the Jerusalem Film Festival in July 2014 and was scheduled to be released immediately, but was held back until now because of the war in Gaza.

The film, however, is not designed to stir up ethnic animosity but is rather a heartfelt coming-of-age story that transcends cultural barriers. Set in Tira, a predominantly Arab city in the Southern Triangle near the West Bank, the film begins in the 1980s. Eyad (Razi Gabareen), a brilliant young boy is praised by his father Salah (Ali Suliman, "Flying Home") who recognizes his potential to achieve more than he did in his life. Salah himself attended university in Jerusalem but, after serving jail time because of political activity supporting the Arab cause, now works as a fruit picker.

When the class is asked in school what their fathers do for a living, Eyad says repeatedly that his father is a terrorist and refuses to change his mind even when he is hit repeatedly on the hands by the teacher, demanding he say that he is a fruit picker. When Eyad (now played by Tawfeek Barhom, "Farewell Bagdhad") is of age he is sent to a Jerusalem boarding school where his experience of trying to fit in becomes the centerpiece of the film. As the only Arab among Jews, he is an outsider who must learn to speak a new language, study a curriculum weighted against the Arab point of view, and put up with teasing by bullies.

His difficulty with language is suggested by a scene in which Eyad pronounces the name of a rock band "Deeb Burble," because, unlike in Hebrew, there's no "p" in Arabic. As time passes, things begin to improve. One of the best scenes in the film is Eyad's eloquence in a literature class, angrily pointing out Israeli literature's inherent bias toward Arab characters, a courageous statement that even wins the plaudits of some Jewish classmates. Further, when an attractive, free-spirited classmate, Naomi (Daniel Kitsis, "S#x Acts"), takes an interest in him, they begin a relationship that grows deeper in spite of its being frowned on by society and both sets of parents.

As part of Eyad's community service requirement, he works with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov, "Policeman") a wheel-chair bound victim of Muscular Dystrophy who loves alternative rock and has a wicked sense of humor. Yonatan's mother Edna (Yael Abecassis, "That Lovely Girl") welcomes Eyad into her home not only for her Yonatan's benefit but because she genuinely likes him. Yonatan can relate to Eyad's feeling of being separate and apart from others, though the reason is very different. "Sometimes I forget you're an Arab," Yonatan says. "Me too," replies Eyad. "Don't worry," his friend responds. "Someone will always remind you."

Dancing Arabs is not a political film and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains marginal, only occasionally referred to when Eyad's family, mother (Laetitia Eido, "Article 23") and grandmother's (Marlene Bajali, "The Syrian Bride") instinctively pull for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War until they realize what he is up against. The film is basically about good people trying to make the most of a bad situation and the fact that they are so alienated from each other because of cultural and ethnic differences is a sad commentary on the lack of political will on both sides.

While people may expect violence in a film that deals with ethnic conflict, here there are no grand dramatic gestures that turn children into martyrs, only constant reminders of everyday barriers to a sense of belonging. Even when Eyad learns the language, repeats the Jewish version of history in school, and strives to become a model Arab Israeli citizen, he is reminded every day at checkpoints and roadblocks of his being different. The political situation in Israel has deep-seated roots and we know not to expect the issues raised in the film to easily resolve themselves, yet Riklis leaves several threads hanging and insists on a forced resolution that does not ring true. While this is a regrettable choice, it does not detract from a truly fine effort.

Boys will be boys, 17 May 2015

In Takeshi Kitano's 1996 semi-autobiographical film Kids Return, his first since a motorcycle accident (suicide attempt) in 1995 left him close to death, the Japanese education system comes in for a thrashing. Masaru (Kenichi Kaneko) and his buddy, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) know how to have a good time. Not to be bothered with such fruitless endeavors like going to school and learning something useful, they would rather clown around, harass teachers, bully younger students and shake them down for money, sneak into porn theatres, perform stand-up comedy (manzai) routines, or set fire to a teacher's brand new car - just good, clean fun.

As they say in the vernacular "what goes around comes around" and the coming around this time is in the form of a friend of one of the bullied students who unfortunately for the boys is a skilled street fighter. Their encounter turns their attention to a boxing gym where they give up on school and train for revenge against the oppressor. Unfortunately, Shinji is the only one who shows any talent for boxing and he begins to climb in the estimation of "The President." Masura, on the other hand, gives up and joins a menacing yazuka gang. Shinji passively follows an older, cynical boxer who teaches him some illegal tricks to succeed in the ring as well as some strange ways to lose weight.

Things work well for a time until both of the lads crash and burn and realize how much better it is just to hang out and be happy than actually do something constructive. Meanwhile, a gentle boy named Reiko (Atsuki Ueda), marries his perennial sweetheart Sachiko (Yuko Daike) but decides to pass on college. He gets a job in a corporation which doesn't work out and he is soon eking out a living as a taxi driver, a depressing sequence which seems to be in the film for no reason other than to show us how the education system failed again.

Kids Return is a very well done film with some excellent boxing scenes and a few good laughs, but there does not seem to be any lessons learned here. While we have to cut Shinji and Masura some slack because, after all, they are just kids and they may be a tongue-in-cheek stand-in for Kitano's own adolescence, what Kids Return is trying to say with all of this is a head-scratcher – maybe it's just that boys will be boys.

One of the most enchanting films of the year, 17 May 2015

Set in fictional Wessex County in south-west England in the 1870s, Thomas Vinterberg's ("The Hunt") adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd chronicles the ups and downs of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, "Inside Llewyn Davis"), a smart, headstrong woman who is fiercely proud of her independence when it comes to choosing suitors. Far from being a stodgy period piece, this fourth film adaptation of the Hardy classic is one of the most enchanting films of the year, alive with the spirit of a woman of uncommon strength and the beauty of the English countryside captured by the stunning cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen ("The Hunt"). Though marred by an often overly-insistent musical score, it is well-balanced by some authentic English folk songs and dances.

The film, which could have been called "The Story of Three Loves," works as well as it does because of the very real chemistry that exists between Bathsheba and her suitors. They are Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, "Rust and Bone") a sheep farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous middle-aged landowner, and Francis Troy (Peter Sturridge, "Effie Gray"), a handsome swashbuckling Sergeant. While staying with her aunt, the beautiful Bathsheba first meets Gabriel, the owner of a nearby sheep farm, and she has him at hello. As performed by Schoenaerts, Gabriel is soft-spoken and unassuming but a man of quiet strength and dignity. Without any game-playing or what might be the nineteenth century equivalent of a dinner date, he wastes no time in asking her to marry him.

Bathsheba tells Farmer Oak, however, that she has no interest in being someone's wife, saying "I don't want a husband. I'd hate to be somebody's property." As so often happens in life and at the movies, however, the unexpected occurs and their fortunes are suddenly reversed. Gabriel loses his farm when his sheep are accidentally destroyed while Bathsheba, after receiving an inheritance from her uncle, becomes the mistress of the large Weatherbury farm at a comparably young age. Not cowed by the challenges, she tells her employees on payday, "I shall astonish you all." When Bathsheba learns about Gabriel's misfortune, she hires him as a simple shepherd and an unspoken bond between them begins to grow.

Her life starts to get more complicated, however, when she impulsively sends a Valentine's card to her neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, "Kill the Messenger") as a prank. The prosperous but lonely bachelor misinterprets her card as meaning something more than intended. Boldwood, however, is emboldened enough to propose marriage. He may not be seeking romantic love as we envision it, however, but promises Bathsheba that he will protect and care for her the rest of her life, seeming to need in Carl Sandburg's poem, "a voice to speak to me in the day end, a hand to touch me in the dark room, breaking the long loneliness."

Saddened by Bathsheba's rejection, he is still determined to continue his pursuit and is content for now to wait in the wings. When Gabriel tells his boss what he thinks of her treatment of Boldwood, she immediately fires him, but swallows her pride and hires him back when her sheep become ill and she needs an expert to restore their health. Tired of her role at the farm, Bathsheba falls for the overtures of Frank Troy, a handsome young sergeant whose gallant nature and bright red uniform becomes part of the seduction process. Unfortunately, Sturridge's performance is not strong enough to allow us to easily buy into the idea that she could be swept off her feet that suddenly, given her recent history.

Unaware that her Troy is still in love with Fannie Robbin (Juno Temple, "Maleficent"), a young woman who stood him up at the altar on their wedding day, they are soon married and Bathsheba has to learn a very costly lesson about the limitations of outward appearances. While it is difficult it is to condense a long Victorian novel into a modern two-hour film with wide audience appeal, Vinterberg pulls it off brilliantly with the aid of a fine screenplay by David Nicholls ("Great Expectations") and a great performance by Carey Mulligan.

On the surface, Bathsheba is mercurial and vain but Mulligan captures a deeper emotional level of her personality that balances her vanity with a sweet innocence. "It is difficult", she says, "for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs." Perhaps Far from the Madding Crowd's greatest achievement is allowing us to see who Bathsheba is through her own eyes, not through those who define her.

Ex Machina (2015)
11 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
A riveting, intelligent, and thought-provoking film, 10 May 2015

Is consciousness simply a name we use to group together the brain's activities under a general and abstract heading, or is it something independent of its functionality?" Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick reflects the scientific consensus when he says that a "person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make up and influence them." Others question, however, whether the brain actually produces consciousness or simply reflects the source from which it springs. British director Alex Garland raises the issue of the nature of consciousness and whether or not it can be created artificially in the science-fiction thriller Ex Machina, his first feature film.

The title reflects the Latin phrase deus ex machina, which refers to the idea of man playing God (or perhaps just being himself). In the film, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the CEO of Blue Book, the world's largest search engine, has created an operational female robot known as Ava (Alicia Vikander). With a sleek, mechanical body fitted with transparent wires, Ava is possessed of an all too human face marked by a graceful beauty. When Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a highly intelligent Blue Book programmer ostensibly wins a lottery at his job, he is invited to spend a week at Nathan's isolated Alaskan research facility without a clear understanding of the purpose. When he arrives, he is met by a bearded, slightly sinister-looking man going through his workouts with a punching bag.

The facility is a complex maze of mirrors, doors that look like bank vaults, and the overall feel of a claustrophobic military compound which Nathan says contains "enough fiber optic cable to go to the moon and lasso it." After telling Caleb to consider him his friend not his boss and calling him "dude," Nathan tells him that he will be the first outside visitor that Ava has interacted with. His task will be to administer the "Turing Test" to Ava to determine whether or not she can think and feel with real emotions. Issues such as whether AIs can have an actual experience of awareness or just talk about it are not raised. Neither are the questions: If Ava passes the Turing Test, will she be aware that she has passed the test, and is self-awareness the same as answering questions intelligently? The conversations between human and machine are the defining moments of the film. As the interviews begin, Ava is in a glass-walled observation room that Nathan can witness via closed circuit cameras. One of the first things she says is, "You can see that I am a machine," something he did not need to be convinced of. As they proceed with the interviews, it becomes less and less certain as to who is the one being tested. As Ava appears to become more and more human with each session, Caleb is not immune to her charms, especially when Nathan tells him she is capable of having sex.

A shadow of mistrust falls between him and Nathan, however, when Caleb learns that he was preselected for the job instead of being chosen in a lottery and senses that his host may have a hidden agenda. This uneasiness is reinforced when he watches the intimidating Nathan abusing Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), a servant whom Nathan has suggested is silent but who understands his commands. When there is a power outage and they believe that he can no longer overhear their conversations, Ava tells Caleb not to trust Nathan, that he is "not your friend," a piece of information that ups the tension and suggests Ava has fears for her survival, an all-too-human trait.

Superbly rendered by cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby, and supported by an unsettling score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, Ex Machina is a riveting, intelligent, and thought-provoking film that plays on both our hopes for the evolution of mankind and our deepest fears. Though Garland does not see the film as a cautionary tale, it does suggest that, regardless of our cutting-edge technology, if we are still bound by ego-driven patriarchal power games that lack a moral imperative, the achievement could be counter-productive. While the film rightly suggests that we can envision a future where intelligent machines with a capacity for reason can reshape the world as we know it, it may behoove us to first understand what consciousness really is before trying to induce it.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Strikes a universal chord, 3 May 2015

"Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes" - Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth

In 1915, Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) soldiers formed part of the expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in order to open the Dardanelles to the allies with the ultimate objective of capturing Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. It was a campaign in which over 50,000 allied troops were killed including 8,000 Australians. Directed by Russell Crowe from a screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, The Water Diviner, an Australian-Turkish co-production, was released in conjunction with the 100-year anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli which is celebrated in Australia as an event of national pride even though it led to a military defeat.

The Water Diviner focuses on Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe, "Noah"), an Australian farmer who uses his skills as a dowser or water diviner to attempt to find his three sons who were reported killed at Gallipoli. Without any historical or background information to guide us, the film thrusts us directly in the battlefield where Turkish troops wait in the trenches, ready to advance to positions that have been abandoned by Anzac soldiers. It then shifts to a time before the war when Joshua, his wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie, "Beneath Hill 60") and three sons, Art (Ryan Corr, "Wolf Creek 2"), Edward (James Fraser, "Sleeping Beauty"), and Henry (Ben O'Toole) are enjoying life at Connor's farm in Victoria. It is before the boys, encouraged by their father, leave to join the Australian army out of a sense of patriotic duty.

Fast forward four years to 1919 where we watch as Joshua successfully finds a water well on his arid land using his skill as a dowser, a centuries old practice that uses a divining rod or other device to point towards an area where there is water or other objects. It is a skill that requires psychic ability as well as a strong knowledge of topography. Sadly, we soon learn that Connor and his wife are mourning the loss of their three boys, missing and presumed dead in the war. In a poignant scene, Joshua, on his wife's urging, agrees to read the book Arabian Nights to the boys, but all we see is Joshua speaking to three empty beds.

After a further tragedy strikes the family, a heartbroken Connor leaves Australia for Turkey where he hopes to use his intuitive powers to locate his sons' bodies at Gallipoli and bring them home for a consecrated burial. When he arrives in Istanbul, he is met by a precocious ten-year-old boy, Orhan, wonderfully performed by young Melbourne actor, Dylan Georgiades. The boy dutifully steals his luggage and leads Joshua to a hotel where he is reluctantly given lodgings by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko, "To the Wonder"), a widowed Turkish innkeeper who still views Australians as the enemy.

When Ayshe sees that her son relates to Joshua better than he does his overbearing uncle Omer (Steve Bastoni, "Drift"), she warms up to him and good chemistry begins to develop. Though told by the occupying British officers that he is not allowed to visit the battlefield, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia") and Sergeant Cemal (Cem Yilmaz, "Coming Soon"), leaders of the Turkish army helping the ANZAC "Grave Unit" find missing soldiers, military officers, smooth the way for Joshua to go to the restricted zone. It is there that he makes a surprising and life-changing discovery.

Bolstered by the vivid cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Oscar winner for his work in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and a frequent collaborator with Peter Jackson), The Water Diviner is an honest and heartfelt effort that shows in human terms the futility of war and the devastating effects it has on families. It is marked by outstanding performances by Yilmaz Erdogan, Olga Kurylenko, and especially by Russell Crowe, who, in an understated way, carries the burden of every father who has lost children in war.

Though the film develops complex characters such as Major Hasan, it also contains some unfortunate stereotypes such as the Turks as noble and heroic, the British as pompous and arrogant, and the Greeks as merciless, marauding bandits. In spite of its tendency towards oversimplification, however, the heart of the film is the simple and personal story of a father's love for his sons. It is a story that is not afraid to show a connection between former enemies, a connection that strikes a universal chord in those who long for peace.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Fails to stir any deep emotions, 26 April 2015

During World War II, the Nazis plundered an estimated 750,000 artworks from European countries including priceless paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, Vermeer, and Michelangelo. Though many paintings and other significant cultural artifacts were recovered by the "Monuments Men," many were destroyed or auctioned off at extremely low prices. Today, there are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. In Woman in Gold, British director Simon Curtis ("My Week With Marilyn") explores the fate of one of the paintings, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, which was seized by the Nazis from its owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

The painting, an oil and gold on canvas, ended up in Vienna's Belvedere Palace and became a popular tourist attraction, referred to as Austria's "Mona Lisa." Sadly, its original title denoting its Jewish heritage was replaced with the generic "Woman in Gold." Based on a true story, the film depicts the seven-year legal fight of Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, "Hitchcock"), a Jewish refugee and Los Angeles shop keeper, to reclaim her family's collection of Klimt paintings from the Austrian government. To assist her in her fight, Maria is helped by a friend's son, Randol Schoenberg (a bland and miscast Ryan Reynolds, "The Captive"), grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg has just started working for a big law firm and has no experience in the world of art collection, but Maria is confident in his ability to persuade the Austrian authorities to return the painting, whose worth was estimated at $135 million dollars. After overcoming her reluctance to return to the country in which her family perished, Maria and her young attorney (with apologizes to his pregnant wife, Pam (Katie Holmes, "The Giver"), travel to Vienna where flashbacks to Maria's life as a little girl (Tatiana Maslany, "The Vow") in a comfortable middle-class home provide a background for the painting's creation.

Distressing scenes of the Anschluss in Austria in 1938 are shown where Nazi soldiers are greeted by cheering crowds and Maria witnesses the humiliation of Jews forced to clean sidewalks and have their facial hair removed. In a tense sequence, Maria and her husband Fritz's (Max Irons, "The Host") narrowly escape pursuing German officers in their attempt to leave Austria and fly to Cologne, then to London. Back in present time, Maria and Randol are assisted by Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl, "A Most Wanted Man"), as they try to convince a newly formed committee on art reclamation that the stolen Klimt paintings are rightfully and legally hers.

In her will, Adele, who died at an early age, asked her husband to leave the paintings to the Austrian State Gallery upon her death, but whether or not this is legally binding is a key subject in the case. Eventually the case will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court in a rare instance of a U.S. citizen suing a foreign government. Woman in Gold tackles a great many weighty themes such as Austria's unwillingness to confront their World War II collaboration with the Nazis and the lurking rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, shown in a confrontation with a passerby who tells them that "Not everything is about the Holocaust." Unfortunately, however, the film takes on too much and lacks a clear focus. Characters are presented in broad strokes that fail to do justice to their humanity, depicting them more as symbols for a cause than as real human beings. Though Schoenberg discovers a connection with his grandfather, the famed twelve-tone composer that he never knew, the matter is barely touched on. Woman in Gold is to be commended for its attempt to increase awareness of a little known aspect of the Nazi atrocity, yet with its tepid direction and over reliance on sentimentality and clichés, it fails to truly stir any deep emotions.

Chef (2014)
An enjoyable, market-tested contrivance, 22 April 2015

Anticipating the appearance of Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), a prominent food critic, Carl Jasper (Jon Favreau), a respected chef at a popular restaurant in Los Angeles, wants to add some innovations to the restaurant's tried and true menu. Riva, the bistro owner, (Dustin Hoffman), however, tells him to stick to what has always worked, a conflict that is unresolved until the chef decides to utilize more of his creative skills somewhere else. Written and directed by Jon Favreau and featuring cameos by Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, Chef is an entertaining film that keeps the blood moving with a very loud Latino soundtrack selected by music supervisor Mathieu Schreyer (bring ear plugs), but never really rings true as anything more than an enjoyable, market-tested contrivance.

The story takes shape after Ramsay writes a negative review of the restaurant causing Carl to respond online, a tweet that gets wide circulation and a return visit by Michel. Without taking responsibility or looking with objectivity at the points made in the review, Carl goes into a paroxysm of rage, venting his anger not only at Michel but at all critics whose opinion ends up really hurting people, (nothing personal with Favreau, of course). As a result of this somewhat implausible blasting of a food critic in a public setting, Carl is (you guessed it) fired.

Though his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) is none too pleased, she sees it as an opportunity for Carl to spend some more time with his ten-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony), who seems to have the makings of a good relationship with his dad but wants more of him than just going to the movies once in a while. Taking off for Miami with Inez and Percy, they meet Inez' ex-husband Marvin (Robert Downey, Jr.) who convinces Carl to become an independent entrepreneur, refurbishing an old truck and setting up a mobile restaurant serving Cuban sandwiches and Yucca fries, not exactly nouvelle cuisine.

It is then that Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl's old cook from Los Angeles, happens to show up to join the sandwich truck, while son Percy has clean-up duties and helps out with the cooking. Almost immediately and without any trial and error, the venture achieves success and they set out for Los Angeles with stops along the way in New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Percy has the chance to go to Disney World, but what ten-year-old wouldn't rather go to New Orleans to sample the food? Along the way, their trip becomes one long commercial for Twitter with Percy teaching his dad how to use social media to promote the business, treating it like he is unveiling a brand new invention.

Taking advantage of the commercial success of television food shows, the star of the film, of course, is the food which is displayed in tantalizing bits and pieces like models for a fashion show. With the food presentation so appealing, the audience could be seen whispering to each other – boy, doesn't that look good. What we do not see, however, is the artistry (and hard work) that goes into cooking anything, only the hungry customers standing in long lines.

Of course, the subject of whether or not the food being served is healthy is not discussed, but one can definitely form their own opinion. Chef is a crowd pleaser that will satisfy a mild hunger but leaves you wanting more substantial fare. What does work is the bonding between father and son and the message that your work should be something you are, rather than something you do.

Pass the chili peppers.

6 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Does not add up to an experience that feels real, 12 April 2015

Now 44, childless, arthritic, and stuck in career limbo, Josh Svebnick (Ben Stiller, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") has the good sense to realize that life is passing him by. Though Josh and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts, "St. Vincent") are okay with not having children (after several miscarriages), they feel disconnected from their friends who have kids. Set in Brooklyn, New York, While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's ("Frances Ha") latest bittersweet comedy is less abrasive than his previous films, but far from being a tribute to the human condition. Though not as angry and unpleasant as Roger Greenberg in Baumbach's 2010 film "Greenberg," Ben Stiller's Josh is hardly the picture of aliveness.

His self-esteem, shaky to begin with, takes a further hit when his filmmaker father-in-law Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin, "The Humbling") criticizes a six-and-a-half-hour documentary that he has been trying to finish for ten years. Breitbart tells him that it's "a six-and-a-half-hour film that's seven hours too long," leaving Josh to complain that the only emotions he has left are "wistful and disdainful." Josh and Cornelia, however, see in Jamie Massy (Adam Driver, "Tracks") and his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried, "Les Misérables"), a young couple that embodies the youthful energy that eludes them.

Josh's relationship with Jamie begins promisingly. Feeling flattered by Jamie labeling everything he says as "beautiful," Josh agrees to help him with the documentary he is making, a decision he comes to rue. Jamie seems to fit Baumbach's picture of what "hipsterism" should look like. He uses a manual typewriter, collects vinyl records, rides his bike all over the city, disdains technology and social media, and talks in hipster lingo. To feel like one of the in-crowd, Josh wears a hat and rides a bike, while Cornelia does her part with dancing and exercising to rap music.

The hipster thing goes overboard, however, when Josh and Cornelia agree to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony led by an alleged shaman. Baumbach's view of these proceedings seems to be that vomiting is the most important part of the process. Needless to say, there is no hint as to what the experience may really be like beyond the media-driven "Me generation" stereotypes. Josh's partnership with Jamie soon begins to show strains, when Josh learns that Jamie used his film subjects - father-in-law Breitbart and History Professor Ira Mandelstam (Peter Yarrow) for his own personal film project. Josh views this, not as simple ambition or opportunism but as an example of the moral bankruptcy of today's youth.

At a Lincoln Center dinner honoring Breitbart, the film brings up the issue of how documentaries have manipulated the truth to enhance their entertainment value, but it goes off on a tangent that ultimately conveys contradictory messages and a contrived ending. Without doubt, While We're Young is a very entertaining film. As in the typical Baumbach experience, there is an abundance of irritating characters, the requisite number of clever one-liners (some even funny), snippets of redundant baroque music, and extensive use of foul language.

Unfortunately, however, this time it does not add up to an experience that feels real. While we all deal with the loss of our youth differently, the film's facile conflict between middle-age and youth is overly calculated and is not illuminated by the suggestion that energy and enthusiasm are a function of age rather than of taking responsibility for our life and using our power to transform it – at any moment in time.

Boyhood (2014/I)
Never reaches the heights of inspiration it strives for, 9 April 2015

Stet, a troubled and angry Texas boy of eleven lives on the less affluent side of the tracks in Boychoir, Quebecois director François Girard's ("The Red Violin") feel-good story about a musically talented boy's climb from adversity to self-acceptance. Written by Ben Ripley ("Source Code"), Girard's first film in seven years boasts an outstanding cast that includes Dustin Hoffman ("Chef") as Anton Carvelle, choirmaster at the prestigious Boychoir National Academy, Kathy Bates ("Tammy") as Justine, the school's feisty headmistress, and newcomer Garrett Wareing as Stet, a young student with loads of talent and plenty of attitude.

In constant trouble at school, Stet returns home each day to clean up after his alcoholic mother and perform household duties normally handled by adults. Nurtured for his precocious singing talent by the principal at Stet's school in Odessa, Texas, Ms. Steel (Debra Winger, "Lola Versus"), the boy is granted a private audition with Master Carvelle (Hoffman) through her efforts but, not knowing who he is, Stet abruptly walks out. When a family tragedy strikes, Steel finds Stet's absent father (Josh Lucas, "The Mend") and persuades him to reject foster care and apply for the boy's admission to the Boychoir in New York, a nationally recognized singing group with its own boarding school.

Stet, however, is rejected because of his attitude and lack of discipline, that is, until his father, relieved to keep the knowledge of his secret son from his wife and children, smooths the way with a large undisclosed "contribution. Unsurprisingly, the boy has trouble adjusting to his new situation, getting into fights with his over-privileged classmates, breaking windows, raiding the candy machine, and being generally withdrawn and uncooperative. His extraordinary singing ability is recognized, however, by both Wooly (Kevin McHale), an academy teacher who has faith in Stet and Drake (Eddie Izzard, "Castles in the Sky"), the assistant choirmaster who is impatiently waiting for Carvelle to retire.

Unable at first to read music, Stet is tutored by a fellow student and nurtured by Carvelle, a strict but compassionate disciplinarian whose own ambition for a career as a concert pianist was ended abruptly by a rejecting teacher. In a moving scene that takes place on a basketball court, Carvelle uses "ruthless compassion" to tell Stet, "All you need to do is quit since it is obvious that music means nothing to you." But Stet, with a new-found determination, refuses to quit. However, when a nasty confrontation arises with Devon (Joe West), another talented singer who insists on getting all the solos, Seth has to do all he can to survive a disciplinary hearing and prepare for a concert in New York, one that may be the most important in the school's history and in his own life. It is a concert in which all parents are invited.

Boychoir has a story that keeps us engaged but, if the film is remembered for anything, it will be for its music. Angelic is the best way to describe the American Boychoir's performance of choral works such as Tallis' Spem in Alium, the Balulalow from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Handel's Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne and Hallelujah chorus from The Messiah, and especially the exquisite Pie Jesu from Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, a chance for Stet to demonstrate his unique talents as a soloist. While the potential is present for a great film and the film's conclusion is extremely moving, its potential is unrealized mostly because of its headlong rush to keep the plot moving and stir the emotions at the expense of credibility, freshness and originality, and character development.

Excellent performances by the always reliable Hoffman and Bates keep the film afloat, but the dialogue, when delivered by other than Hoffman or Bates, feels strained and wooden and the film never reaches the heights of inspiration it strives for. Eventually, Stet must confront the reality that his voice is changing and that his time as a boy soprano is limited. When he asks his young teacher what the point of all the music lessons is when a singer's time in the choir is so limited, the answer goes beyond music to reflect on the impermanence of all living things, a fundamental truth of our existence. It is the film's most authentic moment.

Pretty Woman, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 29 March 2015

Welcome to Hollywood! What's your dream? Everyone has a dream. Without doubt Pretty Woman is a product of the Hollywood dream factory where you can imagine yourself being Cinderella, or anyone else in the world for that matter, for two hours plus pop corn. Having said that, unless you take Hollywood fantasies soooo seriously you're ready to throw something at the screen, Pretty Woman is one of the sweetest, most enchanting movies imaginable, a drama about sex (very little shown) and over-the-top consumption that, after 25 years, has taken on iconic, if not classic status and is now the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time.

The terrific performances of Julia Roberts (nominated for an Oscar), Richard Gere, and Jason Alexander is the main factor that makes the film so special, but it also contains memorable lines, a relationship with believable chemistry, and a satiric portrait of the excesses of consumer spending and elitism. It is after all, a comedy and the film does not attempt to explore the dark corners of Hollywood, though there is talk that originally the ending was much different. While there is talk of a crack addict being pulled out of the dumpster and drug dealers hounding Vivian (Roberts), we never really find out what in Vivian's background led her to the choice she made or really learn what turned Edward (Richard Gere) into a cold and calculating money grubber.

The characters that we do see, however, are authentic. They are fragile individuals who have the ability to see possibilities beyond their self-defeating cynicism. Those who think that Pretty Woman glamorizes a sordid profession are quiet when it comes to the high-priced call girls in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Verdi's La Traviata (an opera the film pays homage to), or to Don Giovanni which depicts a compulsive seducer who cannot see past his own sense of entitlement. It is no revelation to say that Pretty Woman is unrealistic and lacks character depth but, in its own way, it is a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity for transformation. If you close your eyes and think hard enough, maybe even your dream can come true.

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