Flight_film_poster_convertedNetflixed this 2012 movie (trailer) on the recommendation of a friend, and she was right that Denzel Washington gives a strong, persuasive performance as the alcohol- and drug-addicted airline pilot, Whip Whitaker. The first half-hour of the film, when his airliner gets in trouble, is “the finest and most terrifying plane crash sequence ever committed to film,” says The Atlantic (you can see the crash scene here).

John Goodman, as Whitaker’s dealer, is congenially over-the-top as only Goodman can do it. Just a bit obvious when he sashays in with the Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” in the background. Excellent performances also by Kelly Reilly, as Whitaker’s drug-addict girlfriend, Bruce Greenwood as the airline pilots’ union rep, and Don Cheadle as the lawyer the union hires.

Thankfully, director Robert Zemeckis and writer John Gatins chose not to include a lengthy and harrowing detox segment, which movies about addiction so often include (Ray, for example). I especially liked the solid contributions from the supporting cast—Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, and Brian Geraghty, in particular.

Real pilots, of course, find much to quarrel with—or laugh at—in the flying sequences, but they are not the point of the movie, anyway. They’re there to get your attention. If you’ve seen the movie, you might find this pilot’s assessment amusing (contains spoilers). The Atlantic piece objects to the theme that “a miracle” landed the plane, but I understood that it was Whitaker’s creativity, skill and nerve, even when impaired, that accomplished it. What other characters thought was what they thought. And, yes, some people do talk about miracles and “God’s hand,” because that’s the way they see the world.

If you missed this movie the first time around, for fine acting and an engaging plot, it’s worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%; audience ratings 75%.

The Names of Love

Sara Forestier, Jacques Gamblin, The Names of Love

Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin in The Names of Love

I must have watched a French comedy and put the titles of all the films previewed on my Netflix list, because they keep coming. Bienvenue! This 2010 film (trailer) from France is the latest—a pleasant farce directed by Michel Leclerc and written by him and Baya Kasmi. It won three César Awards in 2011, including for best writing.

The story is about a young woman who uses sex as a weapon to persuade conservative politicians—men whom she considers “right-wing” in general—to embrace more liberal attitudes. From this comes some satirical moments, too, touching on the impermanence of supposed firmly held beliefs and the stereotyping of ethnic and religious groups based simply on how they look or what their names are.

Half-Algerian, the young woman’s name is Baya Benmahmoud, and she says, “no one in France has that name.” But she tackles one person too many when she confronts Arthur Martin—“15,207 people in France have the same name,” he tells us—a middle-aged scientist who does necropsies on dead birds, in order to detect possible human illnesses. Why are you scaring people? she demands to know at their first confrontational meeting.

The free spirit and the buttoned-up scientist are, of course, destined to fall for each other. The filmmakers show us how the two protagonists do not escape their childhoods, and we see them as children, as children commenting on their adult selves, and the fireworks when their polar opposite families, alas, meet.

In his New York Times review, Stephen Holden says the movie “has the tone and structure of early-to-middle Woody Allen, but infused with a dose of Gallic identity politics.” Sara Forestier is charming as the irrepressible extrovert Baya (she also snagged a César), and Jacques Gamblin is a persuasive match. A fun movie when you just want to be happily entertained (note: nudity)

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 73%; audiences, 79%. RogerEbert.com gives it 3 stars.

Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd, Carey MulliganPeople who love the classics, 19th century romance, the beauty of rural England, and juicy costume dramas should be lining up to see the new movie version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd (trailer), starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, and Michael Sheen. The casting is practically perfect, especially Mulligan in the lead and Sheen as the frustrated middle-aged suitor William Boldwood. Sturridge may be a little too pretty as the dashing Sergeant Troy, though many of Troy’s best scenes have been truncated, denying him the opportunity to become a more fully realized character.

As you may recall, in Hardy’s novel, Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is a headstrong young woman with a habit of rejecting marriage proposals: “What do I need a husband for?” She inherits a large farm and sets about managing her fields, animals, and workers. One of these is Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), who, as Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review notes, “is as unfellable as his name suggests” and saves Bathsheba’s bacon—or mutton—on more than one occasion.

But the course of true love never runs smooth and whom she will pick to marry is a lingering question that held my interest throughout, despite having read the book and having seen two previous dramatizations (the classic 1967 film with Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, and Alan Bates and the 1998 Granada Television one). Kudos to Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls for preserving the best of Hardy.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 79%.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino, Doug Jones, La Gueule

Doug Jones and Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

This 2010 biopic—directed by comic book artist Joann Sfar, who wrote the script with Isabel Ribis based on Sfar’s graphic novel—came across every bit as messy and undisciplined as its subject (trailer). Serge Gainsbourg (played beautifully by Eric Elmosnino) was a French painter and highly successful musician and songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, who is considered a leading, if occasionally scandalizing, figure in French pop music.

Sfar gives Gainsbourg an imaginary alter-ego (La Gueule, played in a cartoonish mask by Doug Jones) who at first is his cheerleader, encouraging him to create and perform, but who comes to be a darker force, egging on his bad behavior. (It’s somewhat reminiscent of how Michael Keaton was dogged by his former self in Birdman.) Meanwhile, Gainsbourg bounces from one love affair to another and in and out of marriage, having notable liaisons with Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, and a ten-year relationship with British actress Jane Birkin. His time is spent at the piano writing songs for his lovers and smoking thousands of cigarettes.

The movie credits are charming and undoubtedly reflected the talents and eye of Sfar, and the early scenes of the movie about Gainsbourg when he was a precocious young boy (before he changed his name from Lucien Ginsburg), defiantly wearing his yellow star, are charming. But, in a rare concession to boredom, I abandoned the movie after an hour and a half, missing the artist’s final downward spiral and his popular reggae period, too. Not to mention the heroic of the film’s title.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 73%; audiences: 68%.

Lore (2013)

Lore, movie, NaziThe eponymous heroine of the movie Lore (trailer) is 14-year-old Hannalore. Her parents have been staunch National Socialists, and at the end of the war both have disappeared, and the only sure thing about their fates is that they are not coming back. Lore, her younger sister, twin brothers, and baby brother are alone in a cabin in the Black Forest with no food. The neighbors know whose children they are and want them out.

To find refuge, they must attempt to traverse the length of a ravaged Germany to their grandmother’s home in the north. Without papers, crossing from the American to the Russian to the British Zone is chancy and requires night travel. And the Russians hate them on sight. Along their laborious way, they encounter many unspeakable results of war, but little food, and Lore gradually depletes the cache of her mother’s jewelry for an egg or a little milk for the baby.

Gradually, Lore sees the consequences of her parents’ politics. In one town, she studies the photos posted of the death camps. Other people attempt to explain away how such pictures could come to be, but Lore sees something they do not—the SS officer managing the disposition of the prisoners is her father.

They meet a young Jewish man who turns out to be a useful guide, protector, and scavenger for food. But Lore cannot overcome the anti-Semitism drilled into her, and her relationship with him is both tense and confused, mixing repulsion and desire. The younger children recognize him for what he is: a friend.

Australian director Cate Shortland cast newcomer Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, and the young actress does a remarkable job, as do all the children (the baby was certainly an enthusiastic crier!). The film builds in power as the revelations of this difficult journey affect Lore, and she too faces moral choices and their consequences. “We know where this is going pretty early on,” says reviewer Steven Boone for Roger Ebert.com, “but that doesn’t prevent Lore from being riveting stuff, start to finish.”

Little Women Dream Cast

Little Women, Alcott

(photo: Karen Cox, Creative Commons license)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, originally published in two volumes almost 150 years ago—and readable here (if “your” copy got lost)—has been a staple of schoolgirl reading ever since. “Like every other girl who ever read Louisa May Alcott’s novel, I wanted to be Jo: creative, strong-minded and independent,” says NPR’s Lynn Neary, going on to wonder whether Jo sets too high a standard. (And I ask, what are standards for, if not to be aspirational?)

Adult re-readers may want to reexamine their assumptions about this work and may find darker commentary underlying the surface action. “Little Women is brutal, a ferocious wolf dressed up in the curly white sermons and sentimental homilies of children’s stories, says Deborah Weisgall in The American Prospect, and its larger themes of thwarted ambition, not fitting in, and family rivalries make it “an enduring model for women’s stories, but it is rarely considered literature itself. It should be.”

The archetypical sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and their travails during the Civil War were based largely on Alcott’s life with three sisters. Almost inevitably, Hollywood has produced five movies, including two silent films of the March sisters’ story. News that a new version of the film is in the works has prompted speculation about which actors might play the leads, and “dream casts” have been proposed by both Entertainment Weekly and the website Book Riot, which proposes an especially bold choice for Professor Bhaer, the portly German who ends up marrying you-know-who (and would finally make that outcome rather palatable).

In 1933, the sisters were played by Frances Dee (Meg), Katharine Hepburn (perfect as Jo), Jane Parker (Beth), and Joan Bennett (Amy), with neighbor and love interest Laurence, called Laurie, played by Douglass Montgomery. The 1949 cast—a real dream cast—included Janet Leigh (Meg), June Allyson (Jo), Beth Margaret O’Brien (Beth), and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy). Peter Lawford played Laurie. Most recently, in 1994 (trailer), Trini Alvarado (Meg), Winona Ryder (Jo), Claire Danes (Beth), Kirsten Dunst (Amy), and Christian Bale (Laurie) led the cast.

For generations, young readers have been heartbroken—me included—that conniving Amy, not wonderful Jo, ends up with Laurie. Fan fiction has finally provided the sought-after happy ending. FanFiction.net has a sizable Little Women fandom, and the fic I glanced at was totally PG, though I did not review all 316 entries. Here’s a sweet one. Pretend you’re twelve years old again and swoon.

In the Crosswind

In the Crosswind, Martti Heide, Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song

Laura Peterson & Tarmo Song, In the Crosswind

If ever a movie deserved to be called an art film, this 2014 Estonian film is it (trailer). Director Martti Heide’s full-length debut chronicles Stalin’s 1941 sudden overnight deportation of 40,000 citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to forced labor camps in Siberia. Families were separated, people worked in slave-labor conditions, food was minimal, and many starved. No food was provided for children.

The story, based on a real-life diary, follows the experiences of Erna, a young wife and mother (played by Laura Peterson) desperate to reunite with her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song) and return home. While the story is perhaps typical for people in such brutal circumstances, the way of filming it is not. Heide took months sometimes to set up his shots, which are filmed in long, unedited, silent takes (with a soundtrack of gunshots, trains, creaking cartwheels, and so on added later). But the people do not move. Nor is there dialog. Peterson narrates in voice-over the entries from Erna’s diary, as a series of letters to Heldur.

Instead of action, the camera weaves among the actors, as they stand frozen in position. In an early scene, it circles Erna and Heldur embracing among the passengers waiting to be herded aboard a train, then moves on through the crowd. Then it finds Erna again, leaning out of the cattle car door, looking for Heldur, who stands in the distance. Watching this movie is like examining a series of richly detailed still photographs. Remarkable.

The technique symbolically mimics the way life stood still for the refugees. While it results in a slowly unfolding story, for me, the film was very powerful. Only when Erna is at home, in the beginning scenes and in reverie, do people move in a conventional way. To paraphrase what one refugee said, the Soviet Union might have my body, but my heart (what animates me) is still in Estonia.

IMDb reviewers give it a 7.9 out of 10.0 rating. It was a selection of the Trenton International Film Festival.

Woman in Gold

Klimt, Woman in Gold

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (photo: wikimedia)

In Woman in Gold (trailer), Helen Mirren, chameleon-like, inhabits the body and personality of Maria Altmann, niece and heir of a prominent Jewish family in pre-WWII Vienna. The family’s best-known member today is Maria’s aunt Adele, whose portrait Gustav Klimt painted in 1907.

The painting was appropriated during the Nazi era and for many years hung in the Austrian state’s famous Belvedere Gallery, as “the Mona Lisa of Vienna.”

After her sister’s death, Maria finds correspondence suggesting the painting was perhaps not left to the government of Austria in her aunt’s will, as it claimed, and therefore not rightfully Austrian property. She hires a family friend’s son, Randol Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), a young down-on-his-luck Los Angeles attorney, to look into the matter. Schoenberg, grandson of the composer—another refugee from Nazified Austria—is out of touch with his family’s past and slow to recognize the significance of Maria’s quest.

Initially unwilling to take on the case, he is gradually drawn into it. Their bureaucratic battles with stonewalling Austrian officials soon unite the pair, and they are joined by a crusading Austrian journalist, Hubertus Czernin. Formidable legal and bureaucratic hurdles stand in the way of Maria being reuniting with the painting—“When you look at this painting, you see a work of art,” Marie tells a reunification commission, “I see my aunt.”

The story is another in a long line of mostly not happy stories of stolen art works in World War II, brought to renewed public awareness by movies and books like The Monuments Men and Pictures at an Exhibition. The opportunity to reunite beloved works of art and their owners is rapidly disappearing, yet this beautifully filmed movie, directed by Simon Curtis, shows the importance of continuing these efforts.

Because this film is based on a true story, and I for one remembered how it ends, a certain inevitability about the outcome guides the plot. Perhaps this is what has caused reviewers (not me!) to find it dull, though they find the actors captivating. The movie’s Rotten Tomatoes critics rating is a paltry 49%, but audiences were more in my camp, giving a rating of 88%. As a result of the audience reception, the film’s distributor announced yesterday that it will greatly expand its national distribution. If you like stories that touch on beauty, truth, and justice, you will like it, too!

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett, Israel

Ronit Elkabetz and cast in Gett.

The Israeli movie Gett (trailer) is the story of Viviane Amsalem and her five-year struggle to obtain a divorce (gett) through Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical courts. The only roadblock: her husband says “no,” and under Jewish religious law, a divorce cannot be granted unless the husband agrees. The entire movie takes place in the courtroom and just outside it, as witnesses come and go and the couple and their lawyers face off, in confrontations that rapidly switch between absurdity and tragedy.

This may sound as if there’s not much action, but there is plenty going on emotionally. Except for the lawyers’ confrontations, much of the power of the film comes from the way feelings simmer (mostly) below the surface, through the outstanding performances by the wife (played by Ronit Elkabetz) and husband (Simon Abkarian). He is torturing her in front of the three rabbis who serve as judges, who alternately don’t see it, don’t acknowledge it, and don’t act when they do. This also makes the film a cautionary tale about the difficulties of male-dominated religious courts, intent on shoring up a patriarchic system and oblivious to individual and women’s rights.

Not surprisingly, in real life, Israel’s rabbinic judges claim the movie misrepresents them, which, as Israel’s oldest daily newspaper Haaretz says, “misses the underlying point: that the rabbinical courts will not approve a divorce unless the man agrees to it,” citing a 2013 survey that one in three women seeking divorce in Israel is “subject to financial or other extortion by her husband.” The term for these truly “desperate housewives” is “chained women.”

Lest you think the problems of chained women are confined to the Jewish State, in 2013 in New York, criminal prosecutions resulted when rabbis kidnapped and tortured several estranged husbands to persuade them to approve their divorces. (Although the United States regulates marriage, divorce, and remarriage through the secular laws, for these proceedings to be religiously recognized, Orthodox Jews must also have them approved in rabbinical courts.)

Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi directed the film, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards and won the Israeli Film Academy Ophir Award for Best Picture. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it 100% positive ratings (47 critics), and audience approval was 87%.

Wild Tales

Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Érica Rivas in Wild Tales

This 2015 Argentinian film (trailer), directed by Damián Szifron, is a collection of six unconnected short stories, with both comic and catastrophic elements and carrying the tagline “we can all lose control.” The six very different stories describe “how I would extract my revenge if only I had the nerve.”

The excellent ensemble cast keeps the unexpected happening . . . as people go to the surreal brink of absurdity and tragedy—and keep going. They carry out the vengeful urges we all feel in moments of betrayal, in flashes of road rage, facing overwhelming temptation, or confronting mindless bureaucracy.

The first very short tale involves a casual conversation between two airplane passengers, strangers to each other, who happen to discover they both know a would-be musician named G– Pasternak. One is a woman who once broke up with him and the other, a classical music critic who savaged Pasternak’s early work. A passenger sitting in front of them turns around, saying, “Pasternak?” She was his elementary school teacher, and says he certainly had problems. After a few more people who’ve wronged poor Pasternak pipe up, the music critic stands and asks, “Is there anybody on this plane who does not know Pasternak? And who paid for their own ticket?” There is not. I leave the rest to your imagination. And his.

The funniest story involves an explosives expert trying to reason with the local parking authority, and one of the most satisfying has a bride take her revenge on the groom who cheated on her. It’s a wedding no one will ever forget! Said Eric Kohn in indieWIRE, “While adhering to an internal logic that makes each punchline land with a satisfying burst of glee, the movie nevertheless stems from genuine fury aimed a broken world.”

Be sure to catch the opening credits, where the names of key cast and production crew members are shown with photos of wild animals reflecting on their personas. The director, I noted, was a fox.

An Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film last year, this is one of those rare movies where Rotten Tomatoes critics and audiences are in perfect agreement: 93%.