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Testament of Youth (2014)
could have been so much better
A coming-of-age story needs a good dramatic contrast of before/after. Unfortunately, there's not nearly enough in this film. For all the beautiful detail (wonderful locations, costumes, interiors, etc.), the film feels flat. This Vera Brittain is angry and miserable at the beginning, angry and miserable in the middle, and angry and miserable at the end.
It would have helped a lot if there had been more warmth, idealism, and happiness in the "before" sections. The male characters manage this, but Vikander fell flat, for me. For viewers to care about Vera, she needs to be somewhat likable and sympathetic. Instead she seems to have a chip on her shoulder throughout. I would have been more engaged in the story if there had been some range in her acting.
stays with me
I saw this movie at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007. I didn't expect it to stay with me, but it has. It recreates the experiences of a young Chinese woman who pays a human trafficker to get her into England, where she can earn money to send home. The film tells the story of her six-month journey to England and what her life was like after she arrived there, which is, in essence, invisible, undocumented slavery. The title of the film is problematic; many people probably expect a paranormal thriller. But I understand why the filmmaker chose it. Ghosts are beings who live among us but are invisible. Like two parallel universes, two different realities living layered together but separate and invisible.
(Spoiler ahead) The film's climax comes the day she and her fellow workers are driven out onto a huge flat beach to dig for cockles. The hours go by, and they keep digging. Finally the water is coming up around their ankles and they must go. But they realize they have no idea which way to go. In all directions, miles of empty sand beaches stretch out as far as the eye can see, and they've lost their bearings. Their van is soon swamped. The woman ends up standing on top of the van with the others in utter darkness, trying to call her mother so she can hear her son's voice one last time. Thankfully, someone got through to some emergency services and they were found and saved, but not before 23 people drowned. The young woman survived. This happened on Feb. 5, 2004.
Recently I ran across a reference to Morecambe Bay in Lancashire emphasizing how dangerous it is, and realized this had to be the location from that movie. Indeed, it was. Morecambe Bay lies on Britain's west coast, halfway up the side. It is actually an estuary, the mouth of five major rivers and their peninsulas along with seven islands. It is the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats and sand in the UK, covering 120 square miles. At low tide, you can walk between the islands and far out onto the sands, but the bay is notorious for its quicksand and fast-moving tides. It is said that the tide comes in "as fast as a horse can run." For centuries, there have been royally appointed local guides called "Queen's Guide to the Sands" to take people across safely. The Chinese boss probably did not know this.
When I saw this film, I had a hard time understanding how these people could become so lost out on the sands. I'd always imagined the tide coming in like you see in movies. Nice big waves coming from one direction, in toward land in other words, with a discernible direction. But I know now that in mudflats, the water just seeps in around you. And with 120 miles of sand, there's plenty of ways to lose your bearings.
The overall tone of the film reflects that disorientation very well. The action may seem mundane, but the sense of disconnectedness is powerful and memorable. The Chinese woman is helpless, powerless, lost, like being in suspended animation. Time loses all meaning except for your work shift. There is no context, no cushioning reality outside your own. Psychologically, the woman is utterly alone.
"Ghosts" is an ultra-low-budget film with amateur actors, nearly all the dialogue ad-libbed there is nothing particularly memorable about the film as such. And yet it comes back to me when I see video of desperate Syrians carrying only a water bottle, telling about loved ones lost in the water in the dark. I remember that Chinese woman, how alone she was, how powerless, how disconnected. Europe is full of people like her, and probably so is the US. When you take them as a group, you see the bigger political picture, the logistics, the impossible problems. But when you take them as individuals, you see a human being who needs help. In that regard, I have to say, eight years after seeing this film, "Ghosts" stays with me.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Lifetime Channel version of History Lite
If you forget these are historical figures and just take it as a movie about two sisters competing for a king, it's mildly entertaining, mostly a bodice-ripper with A-list actors and very elaborate costumes. Has pretty much NOTHING to do with the real people other than names, making only a glancing effort at historical accuracy, not just with actual events but with all the little details. I expected to see someone chewing gum.
Has very little in common with the book, which at least made an effort at historical accuracy.
What I don't understand is this: if you just want to make a movie about two sisters competing for a king, why pretend it's about Henry VIII and the Boleyns? Just call them King Rodney and the Watson sisters or whatever. I felt sorry for the actors. I bet they thought this might be a good movie.
Silent Hill (2006)
a video game on the big screen *maybe spoilerish*
I made it about 40 minutes before giving up. It's not really a movie in the way we understand movies to be. It might be something else altogether, in which case it should be judged on those merits. But until that kind of film exists as a genre (and I believe it will), I can only judge it as a movie, and as a movie, it was absolutely awful. From the moment the mother gunned the car to outrun the cop, I was rolling my eyes. Watching a character run around randomly fighting bad guys is not fun to me, which is why these games bore me. It's one dimensional and flat. The upside? The visuals are fun. The bad guys are neat-o cool-o to look at, in the way small children enjoy ugly insects. That's about it. The huge number of reviews here and the high score must be a reflection of the enthusiasm of the game's fans because I don't believe movie fans would enjoy Silent Hill.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
victims of their own success, i guess
This happens all the time. Someone strikes it rich and makes a big hit, and then forever after, everybody acts like they're geniuses and gives them carte blanche, expecting more hits.
This might have been a decent movie if:
1. They'd cut least an hour out. At least. WAY WAY too much everything.
2. They'd eliminated the flash-forwards (or whatever they were) from the opening, and jumped straight into some coherent narrative. Does every film need to feed us a preview of the climax to convince us to pay attention to that pesky exposition? Can we treat viewers like someone with an attention span?
3. They'd used subtitles for the "After The Fall" section. Or made characters speak normal English. I understood about 10% of what Halle Berry and Tom Hanks said.
4. They'd used different actors for different roles. Sorry, but this thing of using the same actor for different roles just made it confusing. The makeup was distracting and silly.
5. They'd constructed the story the way it was in the book. All this jumping around from one storyline to another is so overused. It screams of lazy writing. Especially the creation of "matching" climaxes. Yawn.
There's also a lot of good stuff going on too, but I'm still going with one star cuz 1) the source material was so fantastic and they really made a mess of it, and 2) this was an incredibly talented group of people with plenty of money and time to do it right. Very disappointed.
Also known as "Que Vivent Les Femmes" and "That The Women Live"
I saw this film at its American premier in 2001 at the Seattle International Film Festival. It concerns a safe house or halfway house for women and their children who survived the Bosnian War. These women were displaced from their homes and many witnessed the murder of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Most had never worked outside the home and so were unable to provide for themselves and their remaining children. Some had had children as a result of rapes during war-time. I'm sure they all had very bad PTSD. The center gave them a safe place to live, shelter, food, care for their children, medical care, practical help, and therapy.
The filmmaker accompanies some of the women on a trip back to their home village. It's very painful for the women to see their former homes and remember the horrors they experienced there.
This was a very memorable film for me. I had forgotten the title and had trouble finding any information about it because it has been known under so many different names. I did find an update about the group responsible for this safe house, called Vive Zene. This group continues to provide support for the women and children of this area but has expanded it to include issues such as domestic violence. The wounds from such an enormous tragedy never really go away and often transmute into other problems.
There is one scene that stayed with me. The women staying in the safe house were required to get a massage once a week. They were reluctant. The idea seemed foreign to them. For many, the last time they'd been touched (other than their kids) had been their dead husbands or a rapist. The cameras were not allowed inside that room, so we see a woman go into the room, and then later come out. The difference is so dramatic. When she goes in, her face is guarded and withdrawn, like always. When she comes out, her face is soft and open, her voice is soft and open, and she actually smiles. It's like a tiny miracle happened in there, for a few minutes. The simplest kindnesses can make so much difference.
The film provides a valuable glimpse into the ways ordinary people can help in the aftermath of a devastating war.
visual feast, confusing story, abysmal subtitles
I saw this film at the Seattle International Film Festival last year. I know a little bit about Russian history and had even read a biography of Ivan the Terrible years ago. Even so, I was a little lost as the story went on. Eventually I could see that this film covers a very short period in the middle of Ivan's reign, where he contends with his hand-chosen Metropolitan (church leader guy) Philip, a la Henry II-versus-Thomas a Becket. Ivan wants a rubber stamp for his brutal goings-on, Philip refuses. It doesn't end well, as you can imagine.
Script-wise, some action was mystifying and inexplicable. Just a little more explanation would have helped a lot. I had to go home and look up the deal about Ivan's use of whipped virgins to do his cleaning, for example.
There was not as much blood and guts as there could have been. Compared to what's on TV these days, it wasn't bad.
Whoever translated the subtitles must have been drunk. They're awful.
Where this film SHINES and is WELL WORTH your time and money is with the visuals: the setting, the costumes, the cinematography in general. I couldn't take my eyes off the colorful, detailed costumes. Those crazy hats! That gorgeous embossing and embroidering! And though I deplore the use of animal skins as garments, all that fur was just gorgeous.
The film's lighting is brilliant. The play of light and dark is artful: glowing candlelit icons, flickering torches in the night, warm summer afternoons on the golden steppes. A cold bluish light on Ivan's face when he is raving, transmuting him into a madman.
There is a wonderful opening sequence where Ivan is praying in his bare, ascetic cell wearing only a plain shift, like a penniless monk. But then he must go out to greet his people, and as he strides along the corridors, men step forward to adorn him with magnificent robes and jewelry. The further he gets from his cell, the more he looks like a tsar. It's a nifty visual analogy for his mental state.
I really enjoyed seeing the mostly wooden structures they lived in -- basically log cabins with Russian ornamentation. Those Russian forests provided wood aplenty: we see huge palisades, bridges, magnificent sleds and sleighs. They did a great job of recreating the look without having original locations to use.
It's got a lot of great "look and feel" details too: poor dental hygiene, smoky interiors, people who look like they bathe twice a year.
Very few characters emerge as much more than placeholders, but the actors playing Ivan and Philip are both very good. We get no real insight into either man, though.
So while it's not a great film, those interested in Russian history will enjoy aspects of it. When it comes out on DVD, I will probably buy it because I enjoyed the look of it so much.
The Haunting (1963)
beautifully directed, truly haunting
*May contain spoilers* The first time I saw this movie was in 1965 when I was 8 years old. It was shown on TV, and I remember watching it with my siblings absolutely spellbound, glued to the tube. For many years afterwards, I would not fall asleep with a hand outside the covers, thanks to Eleanor's terrifying experience.
Seeing it again recently was a vivid reminder of just how scary this movie is -- it is deeply and satisfyingly creepy. And of course, it's a brilliant testimonial to the fact that one needs no (or few) special effects to create very real terror.
There are two things I want to talk about: 1) Robert Wise's direction and 2) Eleanor's character and Julie Harris' Oscar-worthy performance of her.
1. Everybody loves Robert Wise cuz of The Sound of Music and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Not to take away anything from those movies, but if I was teaching a film class, I'd make my students do a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene deconstruction of this film to teach them how to make every shot count. There is not one single frame of this movie that's careless. You can dress up the best sets, you can prop up the best actors with a nifty story, but that won't guarantee diddly. Silly shooting diffuses energy. Deliberate direction can, step-by-step, stretch and strain the viewer's nerves with careful precision. Wise made this movie with all the care of a mosaic artist. The camera conspires with the music to push in, pull out, tilt, back off, show us the house gloating in the moonlight, bring us inside poor Eleanor's head, til we don't know what's real and what's not.
I can't say enough, too, about the wonderfully effective music in this movie by a guy named Humphrey Searle.
2. The scariest part of the show isn't the house, it's the character of Eleanor Lance. She is a plain woman who has been taking care of her invalid mother all her adult life. She has no friends and nowhere to go when her mother dies, no money, no means of supporting herself. She lives with her snotty sister, sleeping on their couch, feeling in the way, being condescended to, treated as a fifth wheel. She's overjoyed when she is invited to participate in the study at Hill House. Someone *wants* her.
Eleanor's need to be liked and to be included is heartbreaking. She warms and purrs under Dr. Markway's praise. She blooms as her new pal Theo teases her into little girly bonding rituals like toenail-painting or a new hair-doo. You can see her thinking as she sits at the dinner table, making witty remarks, included in the lighthearted banter, "Look at me, I have friends, I can do this. I am included."
Eleanor may not be the brightest or shiniest, but she has the benefit of self-knowledge. She's not afraid of a haunted house, she tells us; she's always been more afraid of things like being left alone or left out. How chilling. She sleeps on her left side because she read somewhere it weakens the heart. For some reason, this line stayed with me as much as any of the others in this movie in the years to come. The haunting image of a woman who deliberately chooses to shorten her own life. Why?
Julie Harris' face is a mirror of all the naked emotion inside Eleanor. Her trembling desire for romance with Markway, her disdain for Luke's roughness, her attraction to Theo... She is little by little seduced by the house as it singles her out. This is what makes me special, then. I am wanted by the house. How quickly she seizes on this: I am needed. Someone or something wants me. When Markway's wife arrives, we share her anguish as her little romantic fantasy evaporates -- but it's not just that. Mrs. Markway usurps her place not only as the focus of the doctor's attention, but also that of the house.
We never know whether the house kills Eleanor or not. The stubborn ambiguities remain. Is it a murderous house intent on adding to the roll call of the dead? Or is is an unhappy place that preys upon susceptible minds, drives them past reason with isolation, doubt, fear? As I grew up, I can see now, I carried Eleanor Lance inside me. I recognized her. I too was afraid of being left out, of being abandoned, far more than I feared the dark corner behind the furnace. This was what I feared most: being insignificant, invisible, having no one, no connections, nothing to tie me to others. Being plain, the object of scorn, pity. Nameless regrets. Being dull, having nothing of value to offer.
Eleanor's desperate loneliness is far more terrifying than the haunting of Hill House.
Black Widow (1987)
*possible spoilers so proceed with care* There are plenty of plot summaries here, so let's concentrate on a few specifics.
-- Colors. Pay attention to who is wearing red and who is wearing blue or green. The green painted window behind Winger's boss's desk, the green painted windows of the PI in Hawaii. I'm sure there's more going on with this, but I'll have to see it again to pick it up.
-- Just for fun, watch this movie pretending Winger's character is male. The whole movie hangs together just fine with very few exceptions. Her name is even androgynous.
-- For the people who were unhappy with the ending, I'd like to suggest this: They went ahead with the faked death in order to give Winger a chance to get a confession to the other murders, to satisfy her curiosity. This movie was made back in the days when something like this wasn't beyond the realm of possibility, let's say less improbable than it is today. It may have been something that suffered in the editing. All it would take is a very quick scene with that Hawaiian cop talking to Winger:
Cop: "You were right, Alex, we found the poison in the brandy. We could arrest her now, but we're not going to. We're going to play out this little charade idea of yours, mainly to give her time to break the will, which will further incriminate her as part of her past pattern. I know you're afraid she'll pretend this murder was a once-off thing, that she was wild with jealousy about Paul sleeping with you, and so we need time to fly Aunt Sarah out from the east coast to confirm her identity for that other murder. I know it's important to you that we convict her for those other men too, especially the one you met in Seattle whose death you feel responsible for."
That would have solved the whole problem.
-- There are a whole slew of really entertaining supporting roles in this movie, which to me is a mark of a well-made film. Check out that hostile cop in Seattle who is having a very bad hair day. The Hawaiian private investigator I remember so well from Blade Runner. That babe in the tanning bed is Diane Lane.
This is one of those movies that's often shown on TV badly edited to make it fit between the commercials in the proper time slot -- which cuts out a lot of the "smaller" scenes. So that's where you saw this movie, you missed a lot. Rent the uncut version. A much richer, better developed story.
the story of a real hero
*spoilers in here* "Shake Hands With The Devil" reviews the experiences of Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was head of the UN troops in Rwanda in 1994, while filming his return to Rwanda for the 10th anniversary of the genocide in 2004. Dallaire's small UN peacekeeping force was sent in to help protect the fragile truce in Rwanda's civil war, and as such was unable to interfere in any way. In April of 1994, all hell broke loose as extremists assassinated Rwanda's president and staged a coup, pretending a "third force" was at fault. High-level military commanders joined forces with the "Hutu power" extremists and quickly killed all the moderate leaders in the first few hours after the assassination, so there was no one left to oppose them as they set in motion a carefully planned genocide. Foreign nationals fled the country and the UN pulled out everyone except a minimal force. Only 270 soldiers were allowed to remain, paralyzed by the restraints of their mission's parameters. They could shelter as many Tutsis as possible in a handful of UN-protected sites, but apart from that, they were made to be bystanders.
The UN's ambivalence hamstrung every operational aspect of the mission. Dallaire had to beg for even the most basic supplies -- I'm talking about paper and pencils here, not guns or jeeps. He spent most of his time during the genocide jumping through the most insane administrative hoops, filing reports, writing assessments, trying everything to convince his bosses at the UN. It was plain that the higher-up hoped if they stalled long enough, it would all just go away.
Finally after 3 months of unrestrained killing, the rebel troops were able to move in and halt the genocide. By then 800,000 people were dead.
As you can imagine, Dallaire was devastated by this experience. In the years afterwards, he had an emotional breakdown and attempted suicide twice. He was haunted with guilt and remorse, certain the a minimal force of 5,000 could have stopped or even prevented the genocide. He sees this as his own personal failure, as it was his inability to convince his higher-ups to intervene which cost so many lives.
But instead of succumbing to despair, with the help of his family and loved ones, he eventually pulled himself together. He laid some of the worst demons to rest by writing a book about his experience. The movie takes its title from the name of his book.
Dallaire has returned to Africa to testify in the war crimes trials, but until the 10th anniversary, he had not gone back to Rwanda. As he revisited the scenes of his experiences in 1994, the filmmakers came with him, sometimes jumping back to archive footage of the genocide, so that we could see what Dallaire saw in his mind's eye as he contrasted past to present.
There in the midst of those tormented memories, Dallaire's compassion for the survivors he meets overpowers his sadness and remorse. Each individual matters to him. And some places bring a wistful smile to his face. He is reunited with several people he worked with in 1994, and they greet one another with great affection. The film intersperses interviews with of some of those people, who fill in other details in the story.
Dallaire reminds me of the heroes of classic mythology, like one of Joseph Campbell's stories, built from deep archetypes. He shook hands with evil incarnate, he was transformed by his horrific experience, he endured, he survived, and has passed back into the land of the living, wearing the scars of his ordeal like a scarlet letter or a mark of Cain. He is a modern day Cassandra, condemned to tell the truth no one wants to hear. Not surprisingly, Dallaire has been pressured to quit pointing fingers and keep his mouth shut. He refuses. Like the ancient mariner, he tells his tale because he must. He bears witness to that Hell on Earth. We need to listen to him, and this movie helps bring us his message.
I would also like to respond to the review of May 16, 2005. This viewer was unhappy that the film was critical of the US, but I think he misunderstood. Although Dallaire has plenty of gripes with the US, the movie's main target for criticism is the UN. Yes, the US naturally comes under heavier scrutiny than other member nations because we have so much more to offer and have so much more influence. But the UN is the one who blew it in a big way here. The UN's scope reaches far beyond that of individual member nations. The Rwandan cease fire in early 1994 was exactly the type of situation the UN was meant to help with. In this case, the only thing the UN and the US succeeded in was in looking like racist hypocrites.
This reviewer contends that none of us would be willing to sacrifice an American life to save a Rwandan, but I don't agree. I think American soldiers have a sense of honor, and would not want to stand by and watch a child hacked to death in front of the parents. Being a world leader is more than just getting to be first in line at the feed trough. Our great wealth, our powerful military, and our extraordinarily rich resources enable us to lend a hand to others who need help. International law was broken. We (the US AND the UN) promised to uphold that law and we (the US AND the UN) had a duty to stand by our word.