The trailer and premise of the movie Puzzle might lead potential audiences to think this is a typical, predictable romantic tale of an unlikely and forbidden pairing, but Puzzle, a feature directorial debut for Marc Turtletaub who is known for producing Little Miss Sunshine and Loving is neither typical or predictable. It is, however, simple, nuanced, with just the right amount of romance. It is a gentle character study of Agnes, an achingly shy woman who in her early 40s is, unbeknownst to herself, at a crossroads in life. She’s a wife to Louie - a hard working, blue collar mechanic who loves his simple life and routines- and mother to two older teen sons. One is college bound and thinks more highly of himself than he should while the other more elder son, is overlooked, feeling trapped in dead end job working alongside his father.
The opening scene carefully sets the stage of this quiet housewife who has been content to put her family’s wants and needs above her own. Agnes tends to a family birthday gathering at their modest Upstate New York house in which she alone acts as cook, caterer and cleaner. All would appear normal except that she is actually the guest of honor, adorning her own cake and interacting with no one. Louie loves Agnes and depends on her greatly. He isn’t cruel, but he is selfish and neglectful. His expectations for Agnes are simple but firm to maintain the status quo of housework, grocery shopping and occasional accounting for the family business. They both assume she wants the same until one fateful day, Agnes samples one of her birthday gifts of a 1,000 piece puzzle. Finishing in record time, this ignites a passion and reveals a skill she never knew existed. It also unleashes a series of disruptions in the family’s routine. Soon, and with much trepidation, she embarks down a path of unchartered territory that includes covert weekly trips to Manhattan and partnering with Robert, a competitive puzzler.
While Robert, portrayed soulfully by Irrfan Khan, is independently wealthy and recently divorced, is impressed with Agnes’ natural talent and intrigued by her sanguine demeanor, he is kept at arms length. Despite that, he is determined to charm and befriend her, and when the international puzzle championship. Although all of the above creates change in Agnes, making her take stock of her life and future, it does so very quietly and subtly. As was the case with characters and situations in Loving, Turtletaub treads lightly, crafting his protagonist through the lens of loving observation. Kelly Macdonald is perfectly cast as Agnes. The same quiet confidence she has brought to other notable supporting roles such as No Country for Old Men and Gosford Park, comes through superbly in this rare leading role. She’s taking what could be a cliche character and making her complex.
The film’s metaphor is obvious- in mastering the art of puzzling Agnes is putting the pieces together of what could be her new life. Despite the heavy handed metaphor use, the not as obvious journey getting there is sweet and worthwhile. In Agnes’ seemingly insignificant world, she’s making a stand and claiming a victory ... piece by piece.
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Writers: Polly Mann, Oren Moverman
Stars: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 103 min
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Long before she became the pop icon and darling of millennials that she is and known as the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was quietly creating a legal legacy and effecting change. At 84 she is a living legend as a pioneer for women and minorities rights. Not only is she one of the few women who have ever been appointed to the Supreme Court, she is also one of the most blatantly liberal and vocal justices, taking her descents to an art form. Despite her impressive resume and interesting life, her journey to the high court has never been exhaustively documented with a definitive biography. With the recent release of the documentary, “RBG”, by directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, that’s all changed.
Bypassing traditional documentary feature methods of incorporating a heavy handed use of talking heads or linear story telling, the filmmakers present an engaging, exhaustive profile piece, with affection and humor. This is a complex character that on one hand works until the wee hours of the night, but on the other, is passionate about attending the opera while also having a great sense of humor about herself and new celebrity persona. She’s a pint size dynamo that does exhaustive regular gym workouts putting those half her age to shame. The filmmakers successfully portray all sides of their subject. They deftly combine Ginsburg’s personal and professional life through the perspective of key relationships, like her late husband and her granddaughter who recently graduated from law school, along with touchstone cases that make up her career. While promoting the film in San Francisco, I got the opportunity to discuss the project with West and Cohen. Here is some of our conversation.
PF: How did you come to the conclusion that this was the project you wanted to take on, and did you know from the start that you would get the necessary access?
Cohen: No to the second question! We decided to make a film of this subject matter based on things we had done in the past. Betsy and I had each interviewed Justice Ginsburg for separate projects in 2011 and 2013. Soon after, Ginsburg’s star was on the rise on the internet, becoming Notorious RBG. That led us to think that there ought to be a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and why not us?
West: Regarding access - In January 2015, we wrote her a letter explaining our desire to do a documentary about her life. We quickly got a response, basically saying, “Not yet.” Initially we were discouraged, but then realized that she didn’t say no or never, so we started talking to a few of her colleagues and friends. Then we wrote her again, with a different request, saying we’d still like to do the documentary but we don’t have to talk to you right away. We also submitted to her a list of who we’d like to interview for now, making it comprehensive and serious. We got an answer back from her, saying, “I wouldn’t be ready for two years.”
From there, Ms. Ginsburg made several interview suggestions, leading West and Cohen to believe that on some level, she was on board. That led to the filmmakers securing producing partner CNN Film. From there, they began to shoot interviews and other footage for the project. At that point they even received lists of Ginsburg’s appearance schedule from her staff.
PF: Did the unusual shooting schedule you ended up having, as in not getting access to your subject right away, informing the style you took of weaving in her significant cases, etc.?
Cohen: Absolutely. We had the thought all along that we wanted to make this a combination of her legal legacy, which involved getting into some real nitty gritty of some cases she argued and won, but also show who she is as a woman and a human being. We wanted to learn about her childhood and her extraordinary marriage, one of the great feminist love stories of all time.
PF: Given her age, it seems a bit unusual that she would decide to do the documentary, but put you off for two years. Did you ever find out why Ginsburg initially preferred to hold off participating in the project?
West: We never found out definitively, but speculated that it was her way of gauge how serious we were about the endeavor. It helped us because although two years seemed like a long time, we did so much work before we interviewed her, that by the time we actually talked to her we had a rough cut. It turned out to be excellent to do it the way we did.
As Ginsburg nears the end of her career and life, many wonder if the liberal justice considered retiring while President Obama was in office. The filmmakers never specifically addressed that in film, they speculate the issue based on other topics Ginsburg discussed.
Cohen: Ginsburg said that she philosophically disagrees with the idea that a supreme court Justice should leave with the party of the president that put them in there. She believes this is a lifetime appointment and that she should do it as long as she’s capable.
West: There’s also a personal component of this where Ginsburg loves working. It’s hard for her to envision what her life would be if she wasn’t throwing her time into what is now the main love of her life, especially since Marty is gone.
PF: Did anything about her surprise you or especially delight you?
Cohen: One surprise was her reaction to the whole late-in-life celebrity that she’s attained. Not that she’s become a social media maven. She’s not initiating anything, but she’s tickled by it and is embracing it. We showed her the SNL parody of herself, which she had never seen, and once she realized what it was, she couldn’t stop laughing.
In addition to portraying Ginsburg’s love for the law and legal institutions, it lovingly highlights the personal relationships that brought so much purpose to her life. She and Justice Antonin Scalia could not have been more different from a legal perspective, but thrived as friends, sharing a love for the opera. Her late husband, Marty who was known for his outgoing personality and fun sense of humor, was a constant source of
joy and support.
West: The friendship of Ginsburg and Scalia is a great example of two people with very different philosophical differences who respected each other and were able to talk in a civil manner about those differences within the context of our democracy. It’s a testament to both of them and should be something that we all aspire to.
Throughout, the filmmakers carefully craft elements of their subject’s personal life, personality, along with Ginsburg’s professional agenda.
Cohen: There are two legacies. One is enshrining a whole rule of law where the genders are equal under the 14th Amendment. For example, as an attorney, it was her legal strategy and ultimately decision she made in the U.S. vs Virginia Military Institute case, really made that happen. That’s in the law now because of her. Then there’s a current legacy presented by her current descents. How that will impact future laws is yet to be seen.
“RBG” is a unique and enjoyable character exploration in part because who Ginsburg is, but also how the filmmakers approached and present the film. With it, Cohen and West have created a well rounded portrait of someone who is undeniably an important historical figure, but also very much alive and present who oddly enough is coming into her greatest fame at the age of 84.
Review by Paula Farmer
Back to Burgundy by Cedrick Klapisch Offers a Feast of Wine, France & Family Drama
For those more accustomed to the light touch and whimsical ways of director Cédric Kaplisch (“L’auberge Espagnole” and “Russian Dolls”), which is attributed to a big portion of his body of work, his latest film, “Back to Burgundy”, may seem a bit of a departure. But for the true fan familiar with his entire repertoire, then “Back to Burgundy” won’t be a complete surprise, reflecting aspects of films such as “Paris.” These two outliers have more emphasis on drama and family than comedy, fast edits and quirky characters. Distinguishing this current release even from “Paris” is the noticeable absence of his trademark intersecting characters and lives. For Burgundy, it’s all in the family. Three siblings are reunited when the youngest brother, Jean (Pio Marmai), returns home to the family vineyard in Burgundy to visit his ailing father. He left several years earlier, wanting nothing to do with the family business or with his father. Over the years, he instigated little contact with anyone, even opting not to return for his mother’s funeral. In his absence, his brother and sister worked side by side with their father to maintain the vineyards, producing quality wine with every vintage in their father’s tradition.
Soon after Jean visits his father at the hospital, the family patriarch dies, and it is unclear as to whether or not Jean got to say his goodbyes, make peace and get personal closure. What is clear is that although he misses his young son, he is not necessarily eager to return to his girlfriend who is running a vineyard in Australia. As a result, he stays for the next year in Burgundy, mending his fractured relationship with his siblings, Juliette (Anna Girardot) and Jeremie (Francois Civil), and helping to navigate lofty financial decisions regarding the family estate hit hard with inheritance taxes. Along the way, viewers get to experience the evolution of the sibling’s strained relationship, their adjustment to loss, and four seasons and two harvests on the vineyard. All could be a recipe for one depressing scene after another or a string of heated discussions, debating love, loss and money. Instead, Klapisch weaves a tight drama with touching scenes, lovingly laced with humor. He does so without getting melodramatic or sappy and he makes good use of the picturesque Burgundy landscape as backdrop. It is both rich and rugged, aptly portraying rolling hillsides dotted with vines and stone houses.
While the film’s premise of siblings struggling through estate issues after suffering the loss of a parent, may sound similar to another French drama in recent years - “Summer Hours” by Olivier Assayas - the comparisons end there. This is a smaller, more intimate drama, and although it is enjoyable and a laudable inclusion in Klapisch’s cannon, it’s not the masterpiece that “Summer Hours” is. That being said, this is a warm and beautiful must-see for fans of Klapisch, France and wine.
Director: Cédric Klapisch
Writers: Cédric Klapisch, Santiago Amigorena
Stars: Pio Marmai, Ana Girardot, Francois Civill
Language: French, English
Runtime: 113 min.
It's the day before the Oscars and I'm hearing rumblings of a possible upset in a few key categories. Yep, the year's most creative and enticing film that took the movie industry by storm, Get Out, is said to have gotten last minute momentum among Oscar voters, and has won audience polls worldwide. Although on one hand I'd like to submit my ballot with selections of what I'd like to win or what should win, I'm weak (and broke), voting instead with my money and picking what I believe probably will take Oscar gold.
That having been said, I did happily, yet somewhat torn, check the box for Jordan Peele/Get Out for Best Original Script. Because of the Me Too movement guaranteeing a female win in some behind the scenes category, coupled with the impressive directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, I thought she and Lady Bird a lock in this category, but alas it will be Peele and his creative brilliance to prevail at least here. Also, expect this little film that could to take center stage at the Film Independent Spirit Awards the night before. And I am glad!
Loveless & Childless in Russia
As the title would suggest, this is a cold, somewhat hard-to-watch film in which the two main characters are bitter and selfish people. Zhenya and Boris are at the tail end of a vicious divorce, with both determined to hurt each other as much as possible, and leaving their 12 year old son, Alyosha, as collateral damage. Boris is portrayed as quiet, brooding and preoccupied. A keg ready to explode. He is clearly fed up with his soon to be ex-wife, and out of touch with his son. Zhenya is a scorned woman who came from a rough background. She is full of rage and resentment, lashing out at both Boris and Alyosha whenever possible. She is a hateful mother, with borderline abusive tendencies. Boris has cheated on his wife and is starting a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, while Zhenya is focused on a serious new relationship of her own. As they aggressively push their marriage over the finish line, they put their apartment in Russia on the market and pack things up, mentally as well as physically. Throughout the process, they make it clear that neither of them has room for their son in the next phase of their lives.
In a particularly pivotal scene, Boris has come home late from work and the two fall into what is obviously an all too familiar routine of arguing vehemently while they assume Alyosha is sleeping. As the fighting ensues, they debate who should take custody, with neither wanting to assume responsibility. Unbeknownst to them, he is in the next room quietly sobbing, ravaged by rejection, fear and depression. Sometime at the end of next work day, Boris and Zhenya stay overnight with their new lovers, but thinking the other is at home. It is only upon Zhenya’s return well over 24 hours later, that she realizes Alyosha has not been at school or home the whole time. Unloved and unwanted, Alyosha has vanished from the town and their lives. Is this a matter of a runaway child, or foul play? The contentious couple are forced together to help in the search that has already started two days too late. Delaying the search and seemingly making matters worse, is an uncaring police officer who is dismissive of the child’s disappearance and refers them to a specialist.
Although the unfortunate circumstances has made the couple face some inner demons, they are not rebuked or punished for their sin of neglect, and you want them to be. There are no true revelations nor seemingly lessons learned. Although on one hand filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan” 2014) excelled at showing the raw realism of the disintegration of a marriage that should have never been, on the other he seemingly, missed opportunities to create a grittier mystery and develop intrigue and deeper character development. Being the brilliant director that he is, one can assume this is by design. Hauntingly shot in blue and grey tones, “Loveless” is a stark, taut, uniquely interesting drama filled with soul-less personas. This could possibly be appropriate to the particular community and to these specific characters than would be elsewhere, but at times feels a bit too alienating. Perhaps this contribute to what many say makes it “very Russian” and why it has deservedly earned a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. At its core, we are given the only one sympathetic character, and he is gone early on. Instead, you are left with Boris and Zhenya. They are like the horrific car accident you should but can’t turn away from.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Adrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin
Actors: Maryanna Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 127 min.
Review by Paula Farmer
This stunning drama from the Middle East could have been titled A Simple Apology, with the conflict, the story’s entire premise resolved quickly and easily with those two ever elusive words, “I’m sorry.” Instead it proves there would be nothing simple about an apology as there’s nothing simple about this film. It’s achingly complex and speaks volumes about what it means to be a victim, a refugee, and who bears the burden of a nation’s past sins. A spark turns into a flame of ethnic tension when a minor incident and misunderstanding between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee embroils the two in a lawsuit. Along the way, families feud and communities and cultures collide. With this seemingly simple premise, Beirut native, director Ziad Doueiri (“Lila Says” and “West Bierut”) has woven a complex drama touching on several social issues and leaving audiences both aghast and moved. By the film’s conclusion, it’s obvious why it has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film (and will probably win).
Palestinian general contractor Yasser Salameh, is overseeing a pivotal project in a Beirut neighborhood. While canvassing the project’s progress, he notices a damaged gutter coming from one of the resident’s houses. When he approaches the owner, Tony Hannah, offering to fix it, he is met with disgust, disdain and a resounding no to his offer. When the gutter’s issue persists and Tony manages to land a bucketful of water Yasser’s way, understandable cursing ensues and hostility between the two ignite. After a series of events, The hot tempered, seemingly easily offended Tony insists on an apology from Yasser. Although the promise of an apology is extended by the company he works for, and Yasser is poised to relent, things instead take a turn for the worse. In the face of Yasser’s pride sucking moment, Tony hurls an insult that encompasses Yasser’s entire nation. Instead of an apology, Tony gets two broken ribs.
The matter quickly escalates from the hospital to the courtroom, with both parties easily lawyered up because of the social significance of their case. Their war of words result in a two month trial and a media frenzy that divide the country and drudge up deep wounds that go far beyond slander and offense exchanged between a resident and a refugee. The communities on both sides of the political divide are swept up in the emotional battle that the tense legal drama has unleashed. Things take an unexpected turn when true motives are unearthed and the plaintiff’s traumatic family history revealed. We’ve long been aware of the victimization of Palestinians, but the trial raises questions as to who really is the victim, or are they both? Are they martyrs of insults and punches, or politics, war, ethnic cleansing and stolen childhoods? Will this trial just settle a dispute over a gutter or a grudge, or could it set a precedent by examining old war wounds?
Doueiri proves graceful and adept at navigating the obvious, as well as introducing the complex and profound. His main characters, portrayed fantastically by Adel Karam and Kamel El Basha, go from seemingly one dimensional to multi-layered. The film’s pitch perfect pacing and the superbly written political drama, coupled with its humanitarian factor, make it not only one of the best foreign films of 2017, but one of the best films of the year.
Movie graphic design by Yama Rahimi
The film awards season has officially gotten underway, with “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Mo.” and “Lady Bird” snatching up Golden Globes already. Despite that and with a couple of exceptions, I don’t think its necessarily a clear path to Oscar gold. The contenders of 2017 are feeling very different than those of 2016. From the first press screening I saw of “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” I knew it would be one of the two to win all the awards (ok, truth be told, I assumed it would be La La Land). It was very obvious that those were extraordinary films bound for much acclaim, and in the case of “La La Land,” popular appeal. For last year’s films, there were several good ones, exceptional even, but I don’t feel that there are one or two absolute standouts. And in the case of “Three Billboards,” I believe it is getting more credit than deserved. While all the performances are outstanding (Frances McDormand is a lock), and the premise is creative and laudable, the writing and directing were lacking. It’s a great idea, with questionable execution. It feels like a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, or unwilling to commit to a genre. If you’re going to be a drama, be a drama; if a black comedy (one of the hardest to pull off), be a black comedy. There is too much going with little being followed through on, but I digress.
The comedy category Golden Globe winner, “Lady Bird” is a wonder of a debut and beyond pleasant surprise. Who knew writer-actor Gretta Gerwig had a penchant for directing. This was a modest movie with a touching coming-of-age story and believable characters at its core. The main character, “Lady Bird,” played effectively by Saoirse Ronan is vulnerable, complex and likable. She’s surrounded by an equally talented cast, including Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Letts. Although a small movie, it packed a tremendous impact, universally loved and rightfully so.
One of the stand outs of 2017, if not thee best documentary is Ai Wei Wei’s powerful and stunning documentary “Human Flow.” The renowned artist and activist turns his camera to the plight of refugees throughout the world. Covering migrants in 23 countries over a year’s time, he captures the unique challenges facing millions of people fleeing their homeland in hopes of security and a better life. This is both a large story of political and social crises, as well as personal stories of human dignity.
Director Luca Guadagnino weaves another mesmerizing and sensual tale in his latest film, “Call Me By Your Name.” It’s the summer of 1983 when American graduate student Oliver stays with his professor and his family at their vacation home in Northern Italy. It eventually becomes a summer of love as the professor’s young son, Elio, becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, who soon takes notice. This is new territory for Elio, new to sex and any kind of love, let alone with a man. Every performance in this film is captivating, and the story is sweet and pure, but there is one specific scene/dialogue towards the end, that alone is worth the price of admission. Does “Call Me By Your Name” achieve masterpiece status that Guadagnino’s debut film, “I am Love” did? Maybe not quite, but it sure is close.
With “Molly’s Game," Aaron Sorkin proves just as adept at directing as writing. No doubt, this will be one of “thee” hot tickets this year at the box office, and an Oscar contender for writing and acting categories. The movie is based on the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic competitive downhill skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high stakes private poker games then got entangled in a legal web. Jessica Chastain embodies the role of Bloom, and she along with Idras Elba who plays her attorney, handle Sorkin’s dense, rapid fire dialogue with aplomb. The movie is fast paced, going from Molly’s past, including childhood, athletic life and poker career, to the present in which she is dealing with her case. This is a gripping drama, with moments of humor and featuring an unlikely, but undeniable heroine.
From the mind and mastery that gave us “Pan’s Labyrinth,”Devil’s Backbone” and “Hellboy,” comes “The Shape of Water” starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Sencer and Michael Shannon. Director Guillermo del Toro weaves a bizarre, yet charming fairy tale set in early 60s post war era. Hawkins plays a sweet, lonely woman who does custodial work in a government laboratory. Her life changes when she stumbles upon a top secret “asset” being held captive. This is not your typical prisoner-turn love interest, but then again, this is not your typical writer/director. Think “Amalie” meets “Creature from the Black Lagoon” ... sort of.
Moving quickly from the big screen to the small screen is Netflix’s bid for Oscar gold in “Mudbound.” This is a rare example of the movie adaptation proving just as good as the book by Hillary Jordan. It’s a drama filled period piece taking place in rural Mississippi toward the end of WWII and just after. It poignantly portrays the struggles of a poor white family and a black family sharing harsh farm land. The film also highlights the relationship between two men, from both families, who return home from war to work on the farm only to deal with demons within themselves and throughout their community. They are forced to contend with racism as well as adjusting to life after war.
With "Get Out," what's left to be said that already hasn't? Jordan Peele took his directorial debut to put a new spin on a genre that's been over done and often poorly done. He took all the classic elements of a horror film, but with race and racism as its backbone ... something that shockingly, has never been done! It is scary, suspenseful and humorous, all while being socially relevant and stickin' it to the man. On top of all that, it was a super low budget project that took the film world by storm, racking up a well deserved tremendous profit and nearly 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes (had it not been for the infuriating slight by Armond White, its critical perfection would have been assured)
Also in my TOP TEN are ...
- I, Tonya
- Blade Runner 2049
The graphic above by my friend, Yama Rahimi, depicts my TOP TEN, but below belongs to a few that just missed placement. For them, it's an HONORABLE MENTION ...
- The Big Sick
- All the Money in the World
Reviewed by: Paula Farmer
Young Love and the Summer of ’83
Italian director Luca Guadagnino who has quickly and deservedly achieved much acclaim and auteur status after just two films, is releasing his third, with much anticipation. His debut feature-length narrative that put him on the map, and may be his masterpiece, was the 2009 drama of a May-December romance called “I Am Love.” It stars Tilda Swinton in a stunning performance as a once poor Russian native-turned stifled housewife of a wealthy industrial tycoon in Milan. It was meditative and intoxicating film that earned an Oscar nomination. His follow-up to that was the 2015 “Bigger Splash,” which took place in Spain. It also stars Swinton, this time as a rock star on vacation juggling a lover from her past and a current one. While this was shot just as beautifully as “I Am Love,” and its always a pleasure to watch Swinton perform, especially along side Ralphe Fiennes, it wasn’t in the same league as his debut.
For Guadagnino’s latest installment, like his first, he weaves yet another mesmerizing and sensual tale. “Call Me By Your Name” is a languid and beautiful period piece, taking Guadagnino fans back to Italy but this time featuring two young men in love. It’s the summer of 1983 when American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) stays with his professor and his family at their vacation home in Northern Italy. It eventually becomes a summer of love as the professor’s young son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, who soon takes notice. This is unchartered territory for Elio. He is new to sex and any kind of love, let alone with a man. While he courts a local girl and experiences sex, he actually discovers love with Oliver. They cannot proclaim their attraction, so instead they sneak to one another’s room in the night, or share a cigarette and side brushes on the balcony in the wee hours of the mornings while also keeping up appearances of summer flings with young women.
In the hands of Guadagnino and his talented cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, each scene is like a precious portrait. This is also in part due to the setting of a lusciously shabby chic stone estate in the Italian countryside. There are meals outside at long wood tables surrounded by gardens and ponds. Intellectual conversations abound with this family of academics and their equally enlightened guests. All for Oliver and Elio while sipping wine and exchanging loving glances. Every performance in this film is captivating, and the story is sweet and pure, but there is one specific scene/dialogue towards the end between Elio and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), that alone is worth the price of admission and that should garner Stuhlbarg a Best Supporting Actor nod. The other key performances too are stellar. Armie Hammer gives a head-turning, confident portrayal as the older, brash and dashing American grad student ultimately confined to social norms of the time and unable to take his love for Elio to the next level. Equally, Chalamet gives a charmed and seamless performance as the awakened to love teen. He is beyond believable as an intelligent somewhat awkward young man who is trying to come to grips with feelings versus reality. In a word, he is a revelation. Does “Call Me By Your Name” achieve masterpiece status that Guadagnino’s debut film, “I am Love” did? Maybe not quite, but it sure is close.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: James Ivory (screenplay), Andre Aciman (based on novel by)
Stars: Armie Hammer, Timothee Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg
Language: English, Italian
Running Time: 132
Becoming Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall has long been admired for her tireless work on behalf of animal conservation in general, and specifically for chimpanzees. It is largely because of her that any of us know what we know about the primates, their behavior, their plight at the hands of poachers, and their link to humans. Because Goodall has always put her studies, subject and causes in the forefront, we have had little insight into her personally or how her work commenced. Thanks to the recently released film, “Jane” and its treasure trove of never-before-seen video footage, audiences have a luscious glimpse into what makes this champion of animal behavioral research and nature who she is today and how she began her crusade. Writer-director Brett Morgen in conjunction with National Geographic explore Goodall’s early field work in Gombe, Africa with chimpanzees in 1960. She was one of the first to ever have close contact of the kind, and thee first with such groundbreaking observations. Just as revelatory is the fact that she was a mere 26-years-old at the time and with no college degree. Furthermore, not only were there few people working in such specialized profession, but there were virtually no women.
“Jane” is also a deeply personal portrait, giving insights into Goodall’s childhood, marriage and eventual divorce. Working in nature, with animals and in Africa was a life long passion. She was determined to navigate her way there no matter what, and navigate she did. The world is better for it. The film is not a “talking heads” documentary, or merely photos with voice over, this is a surprisingly active film, capitalizing on National Geographic archival video, coupled with newly found footage from Goodall’s early field work days and underscored by the resonating sounds of original music from Phillip Glass.
Goodall’s initial assignment was solo, but soon financial backers gave her the support of a videographer, Hugo van Lawick. The two hit it off professionally, discovering a shared passion for nature, Africa and the chimps. Their shared work interests grew to a personal connection and love. The results were hundreds of hours of footage in the jungle, marriage and a family. Although over the years, their love could not withstand their work conflicts and long separations, the partnership proved invaluable in the lens of history.
Proving to be a “must see” movie for 2017, “Jane” works on several levels as a nature documentary and a character study.
A Stunning Examination of the World’s Migrant/Refugee Crisis
This is the most important movie you’ll see this year. It may also be one of the best you’ll see, as it is a documentary that is both insightful and informative, and beautiful and poignant. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei went to 23 countries over 1 year to document the plight of refugees around the world. The film successfully captures the enormity of the human migration crisis that includes 65 million people worldwide, while managing to convey the situation with personalized stories. Refugees by definition are those who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, famine and other natural disasters. For example, as pointed out in the film, Burma is pursuing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, according to a UN official. As a result, 500,000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. About 1.3 million Syrians have crossed into Jordan seeking shelter from the Syrian war. In a cry for help, African refugees say Syrians are not the only ones in need of help. More than 210,000 African refugees arrived in Italy since 2015. All of their epic journeys from one place to another, from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey is what makes “Human Flow.”
The film opens with migrants from Afghanistan making their way to Southern Greece on small boats. They are greeted by volunteers and coast guards who help them off their boats and to temporary safety. Ai is also there, with warm tea to hand out and a consoling presence. It is clear from the start, that this project is personal as well as professional. This group of migrants eventually make their way from one end of Greece to the Northern border, on foot. It is there that they expect to cross the European border, with hopes of accessing Germany since Angela Merkel has offered her country as a safe haven. When they arrive at the border, a fence has been put up and the gates are closed at the Greece/Turkey border. Although Germany is willing to take the migrants in, other European countries are unwilling to have them sojourn through their land. They are stuck for weeks on end without shelter, food and other necessities. “Migrant chaos mounts while a divided Europe stumbles for a response.” (New York Times)
Later, in a refugee camp elsewhere, a middle-aged father who has lost several family members in their flight from their country, recounts the horror of burying loved ones, and the guilt of surviving. He breaks down in tears when describing the attitudes of others towards displaced refugees. They are victims of disdain, considered less than. Like him, your heart breaks. You want to look away, but it is impossible. Mr. Ai has drawn you in with facts and figures, wide-sweeping shots of beautiful, yet harsh lands, lingering, unflinching close-up shots on refugee after refugee, heart-wrenching stories of love of country and family and loss, abject poverty, squaller, but on the other hand, hope, determination and the human spirit. The camera work is superb, with aerial and wide shots of both rugged topography and beautiful seas and skies.
Intermixed throughout the film are interviews with refugees, camp guards and politicians, including Dr. Dana Ashrawi, head of the PLO department of Culture and Information. Her pointed comments on the status of refugees capsulize their plight. “Being a refugee is much more than just a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being by depriving the person of all forms of security.”
In “Human Flow” filmmaker, artist, activist, Ai has not only once again given us art to appreciate, but a shrinking world to think about. You may be tempted to avoid such bracing reality altogether or look away when confronted, but do not do so. Look, embrace, ponder and maybe even act upon what is presented.