TESTAMENT OF YOUTH: the tragedy of war

Alicia Viksander in TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

Alicia Viksander bids farewell to Kit Harington in TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

In Testament of Youth, Alicia Viksander plays Vera, a gifted and determined young British woman who overcomes the conventions of the day and the objections of her father to attend Oxford in the 1910s. In 1914, Vera’s brother, fiance and closest male friends all enlist in Britain’s WW I army. No one at the time could have imagined the industrialized carnage that WW I would become, and it’s poignant when the young men say that the war will probably be over before they’ve completed their basic training. The war is, of course, an unspeakable horror. We don’t expect the young men to fare well in the War, and they don’t. Vera suspends her Oxford education to work as a nurse, first in Britain and later at the front. She is in position to observe the effects of war both at the front and on the home front, where her parents are especially impacted.

Testament of Youth is based on Vera Brittain’s popular and influential 1933 memoir of the same name, which is also an icon of feminist literature. Brittain became a pacifist leader.

This story follows a familiar arc, and I often ask “why did someone feel the need to make this movie?”. Testament of Youth, however, is fairly compelling. Credit goes to Viksander and to director James Kent, who somehow prevent the film from slipping into an unwatchable slog of grimness.

The most impressive element of Testament of Youth is the performance of Alicia Viksander as Vera Brittain. Viksander is onscreen in every scene, often in close-up and she carries the film with a flawless performance.  As good as she is here, Viksander is even better in this year’s sci-fi hit Ex Machina, where she plays a machine embedded with artificial intelligence. Ex Machina is the best American movie of the year so far.)

With Ex Machina, Viksander is exploding into cinema as a major star.  Most Americans first saw the 26-year-old Swede in two 2012 movies.  She played a key supporting role in Anna Karenina and a lead in the Mads Mikkelsen period drama A Royal Affair. Although I thought it too long, A Royal Affair won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.  Now she has five films completed or in post-production, including upcoming Derek Cianfrance film The Light Between the Oscars, co-starring Michael Fassbender, who she ihas been dating.  She also has the top credit in the upcoming The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which looks wretched from the trailer.  Plus, she slated to co-star with Matt Damon in the next Bourne movie.  It’s quite a career trajectory, and from what I’ve seen, richly deserved.

Americans will find this odd, but the Swedish Viksander reportedly had to struggle to learn Danish for A Royal Affair.  It seems especially odd, given that she speaks English with a perfect American accent in Ex Machina and perfect middle class British accent in Testament of Youth.

Back to Last Testament of Youth – it’s not a Must See, but it is a well-made and evocative treatment of the tragedy of war.

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Movies to See Right Now

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

This is as good as it gets until December – FOUR of my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far are playing in theaters:

Don’t miss Fabrice Luchini in the delightfully dark comedy Gemma Bovery. The coming of age comedy Dope is a nice little movie that trashes stereotypes.  This summer’s animated Pixar blockbuster Inside Out is very smart, but a little preachy, often very sad and underwhelming.  The Melissa McCarthy spy spoof Spy is a very funny diversion.  Mad Max: Fury Road is a rock ‘em sock ‘em action tour de force but ultimately empty-headed and empty-hearted.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the period thriller The Two Faces of January – a tale of dark hearts in sunny Greece. The Two Faces of January is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

Don’t forget that Turner Classic Movies is filling each June and July Friday with film noir in its Summer of Darkness series, hosted by Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller – the Czar of Noir. The series schedule includes several favorites of my Overlooked Noir.

On July 8, Turner Classic Movies will present The Leopard (Il gattopardo), an Italian period epic starring Burt Lancaster as a 19th century Sicilian prince who is trying to remain master of his changing time. Director Luchino Visconti came from Italian nobility himself. As befits an epic of this scope, it’s a sweeping 187 minutes long. One highlight is stunning entrance by 24-year-old Claudia Cardinale as the local mayor’s daughter, suddenly all grown up.

On July 10, TCM is playing Caged, the 1950 prototype for Orange Is the New Black; (I wrote the linked article for for the annual blogathon in celebration of Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscars). Sixty-five years later, Caged might still be the best women’s prison movie ever, and it features a rich female cast and two Oscar-nominated performances.

Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster in THE LEOPARD

Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster in THE LEOPARD

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DOPE: nice little movie

DOPE

DOPE

The appealing coming of age comedy Dope turns a well-worn plot into an engaging movie by juxtaposing stereotypes.  The conventional plot device is the Regular Guy Finds $100,000 of Drug Money In His Backpack.  The regular guy, however, is not just an African-American teen who lives in a nightmarish hood (Shameik Moore), but ALSO a nerdish brainiac who aspires to vault from Inglewood to Harvard.  Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa grew up in Inglewood, so the story and the characters ring true.

The cast is uniformly good.  Zoe Kravitz, who has been stuck in secondary roles in the Divergent movies and Mad Max: Fury Road, plays the mouth-watering love interest here, and she dominates the movie.  Gotta see more of her.  Veteran supporting actor Roger Guenveur Smith is especially good as the kid’s would-be gateway to the Ivy League; Smith’s 76 screen credits include American Gangster and a whole bunch of Spike Lee films.

It may not be life-transforming, but Dope is a smart, original and entertaining little movie.

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – mobile battles and little else

Charlize Theron in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Charlize Theron in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

For some reason, the critical consensus on Mad Max:Fury Road has been pretty favorable. It’s 120 minutes long, of which at least 105 minutes are chase scenes that are really mobile battles. They are remarkable battles, but they are just battles. Writer-director George Miller has produced an adrenaline-filled thrill ride with some unique elements. But there just really isn’t anything exceptional – characters, dialogue, plot, setting – besides the action.

Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy are just fine as the good guys. Poor Hardy has to wear a steel mask for a third of the movie like he did for the entire The Dark Knight Rises. Theron is a fantastic actress, but all she has to do here is glint over her shoulder a lot (and she’s looks great doing that). I really loved Nicholas Hoult, who was so engaging in Warm Bodies, here as a Takes A Licking But Keeps On Ticking pawn-of-the-villain.  Zoe Kravitz rides along with Theron and Hardy, looking adorable.

If you feel the need for a simplistic rock ‘em, sock’em action movie, this will fill the bill.  Don’t expect any more.

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INSIDE OUT: smart but not gripping

INSIDE OUT

INSIDE OUT

I’m a huge Pixar admirer, and I usually walk out of a Pixar movie THRILLED.  That didn’t happen with Inside Out, a smart and entertaining movie, but one that got more attention from my head than my heart.

Inside Out is the story of a well-adjusted girl named Riley, who is yanked out of her comfort zone when her Dad’s job suddenly takes the family to San Francisco.  The story is told from the perspective of her emotions, five characters (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust) who command her behavior from a Head-Quarters (get it?).   In watching what happens to Riley, kids in the audience get to understand how emotions are okay and how  even sadness is normal; that’s all fine, but, as The Wife reminded me, Inside Out, along with Pixar’s recent Up and Wall-E, is a little preachy.

As one would expect, the animation and the voice acting are top-rate.  Where writers-directors Pete Dockter and Ronaldo Del Carmen really excel, however, is in imagining and then depicting the mechanisms of human thinking and feeling: the Emotions, Islands of Personality, Core Memories, the Train of Thought and the Subconscious.  It’s very smart and original stuff.

The sad parts are very pronounced and, in my opinion, too slow and deeply sad.   As someone scarred by the death of Bambi’s mother,  I was distracted by worrying about the little kids in the theater.  That being said, I accompanied eight-year-old twins and a ten-year-old to Inside Out.  The eight-year-olds were engrossed, and afterwards didn’t mention being too scared or too sad.  The ten-year-old grunted apprehensively a few times during the movie, but afterwards resolutely denied that it was ever too scary.  So there.  But, still, it was too sad for ME in places.

None of the children at the screening got fidgety, despite there being far less than usual of the slapstick humor that kids favor.   Most of the humor seemed adult-centered, evoking lots of knowing chuckles from the grown-ups.  The end credits – with dog, and then cat, emotions – are hilarious.

After those meh comments, I need to draw attention to Lava, the Pixar animated short that precedes the feature.  It’s seven minutes of cinema magic by filmmaker James Ford Murphy.  It’s a musical love story between two Hawaiian volcanoes.  The volcanoes are named Uku and Lele, and the message is a simple and sentimental one (“I Lava You”), but Lava isn’t the least bit corny.  The story is told through song – just two voices accompanied by ukulele – by Hawaiian musicians Kuana Torres Kehele and Napua Greig.   For sheer beauty, it’s up there with the recording of Over the Rainbow by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.  I’m pretty jaded, but anyone too cynical to enjoy Lava should re-examine himself. Loved it.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY – dark hearts in sunny Greece

two faces of january2
The successful period thriller The Two Faces of January, set in gloriously bright Greek tourist destinations, may not have the shadowy look of a traditional film noir, but its story is fundamentally noirish. Viggo Mortenson and Kirsten Dunst play an affluent couple vacationing in Athens in the early 1960s. They meet a handsome young American expat (Oscar Isaacs from Inside Llewyn Davis) knocking around Greece. The husband quickly and accurately sizes up the younger man as a con man – “I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”. The central noir element is that NO ONE is as innocent as they seem, and the three become interlocked in a situation that becomes increasingly desperate for all three, culminating in a thrilling manhunt.

It’s the first feature directed by Hossein Amini, who adapted the screenplay for the markedly intense Drive, and he does a fine job here with a film that becomes more and more tense each time more information about the characters is revealed.

The Two Faces of January is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

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Movies to See Right Now

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL

This is as good as it gets until December – FOUR of my Best Movies of 2015 – So Far are playing in theaters:

Don’t miss Fabrice Luchini in the delightfully dark comedy Gemma Bovery. The Melissa McCarthy spy spoof Spy is a very funny diversion. Far from the Madding Crowd is a satisfying choice for those looking for a period bodice ripper. I also liked the two-in-one Swedish comedy The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, a rich mixture of absurdity and broad physical humor.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the savagely funny Argentine comedy Wild Tales. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

Don’t forget that Turner Classic Movies is filling each June and July Friday with film noir in its Summer of Darkness series, hosted by Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller – the Czar of Noir. The series schedule includes several favorites of my Overlooked Noir.

This week Turner Classic Movies is also bringing us some of the very best Westerns. On June 29, we can see the now-overlooked masterpiece The Emigrants (1971), depicting the journey of Swedish emigrants to frontier Minnesota. It is remarkably realistic and faithful to the historical period. The same cast (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman) continued the story in the sister film The New Land (1972). Both films were directed by Jan Troell and both were nominated for Oscars. It’s a Must See for anyone whose heritage includes 19th century European immigration to the prairie states.

Then on July, TCM shows Sydney Pollack’s under recognized 1972 masterpiece Jeremiah Johnson, which features a brilliantly understated but compelling performance by Robert Redford. If you want to understand why Redford is a movie star, watch this movie. It’s only 108 minutes long, and today’s filmmakers would bloat this epic tale to 40 minutes longer. (The same night, TCM is accompanying Jeremiah Johnson with with two other great Westerns, Little Big Man and The Searchers.)

Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman in THE EMIGRANTS

Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman in THE EMIGRANTS

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GEMMA BOVERY: jumping into the plot of a novel

Fabrice Luchini and Gemma Arterton in GEMMA BOVERY

Fabrice Luchini and Gemma Arterton in GEMMA BOVERY

In the delightful dark comedy Gemma Bovery, Fabrice Luchini plays a guy who has left his Type A job in Paris to take over his father’s bakery in a sleepy village in Normandy. He gets new neighbors when a young British couple named Bovery moves in. The young British woman (played by the delectable Gemma Arterton) is named Gemma Bovery, and only the baker notices the similarity to Emma Bovary. But, like the protagonist of Madame Bovary, the young British woman is also married to a Charles, becomes bored and restless and develops a wandering eye. The baker rapidly becomes obsessed with the Flaubert novel being re-enacted before his eyes and soon jumps into the plot himself. Gemma Bovery, which I saw at Cinequest 2015, is a French movie that is mostly in English.

Fabrice Luchini is a treasure of world cinema. No screen actor can deliver a funnier reaction than Luchini, and he’s the master of squeezing laughs out of an awkward moment. For me, his signature role is in the 2004 French Intimate Strangers, in which he plays a tax lawyer with a practice in a Parisian professional office building. A beautiful woman (Sandrine Bonnaire), mistakes Luchini’s office for that of her new shrink, plops herself down and, before he can interrupt, starts unloading her sexual issues. It quickly becomes awkward for him to tell her of the error, and he’s completely entranced with her revelations, so he keeps impersonating her shrink. As they move from appointment to appointment, their relationship takes some unusual twists. It’s a very funny movie, and a great performance.

Gemma Bovery is directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine (The Girl from Monaco, Coco Before Chanel). Fontaine has a taste for offbeat takes on female sexuality, which she aired in the very trashy Adore (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as Australian cougars who take on each other’s sons as lovers) and the much better Nathalie (wife pays prostitute to seduce her cheating hubby and report back on the details).

Gemma Bovery isn’t as Out There as Nathalie, but it’s just as good. The absurdity of the coincidences in Gemma Bovery makes for a funny situation, which Luchini elevates into a very funny movie.

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DVD/Stream of the Week: WILD TALES

WILD TALES

WILD TALES

Okay, here’s the first Must See of 2015 – the hilariously dark Argentine comedy Wild Tales. Writer-director Damián Szifron presents a series of individual stories about revenge. It’s now topping my list of Best Movies of 2015 – So Far.

We all feel aggrieved, and Wild Tales explores what happens when rage overcomes the restraints of social order. Think about how instantly angry you can become when some driver cuts you off on the highway – and then how you might fantasize avenging the slight. Indeed, there is story that has the most severe case road rage since Spielberg’s Duel in 1971. Now Wild Tales is dark, and you gotta go with it. The humor comes from the EXTREMES that someone’s resentment can lead to.

One key to the success of Wild Tales is that it is an anthology. In a very wise move, Szifron resisted any impulse to stretch one of the stories into a feature-length movie. Each of the stories is just the right length to extract every laugh and pack a punch. The funniest stories are the opening one set on an airplane and the final one about a wedding.

The acting is uniformly superb. In one story, Oscar Martínez plays a wealthy man in a desperate jam, who buys the help of his shady lawyer fixer (Osmar Núñez) and his longtime household retainer (Germán de Silva) – until their prices get just a little too high. The three actors take what looks like it’s going to a thriller and morph into a (very funny) psychological comedy with a very cynical view of human nature.

One of the middle episodes stars one of my favorite film actors, Ricardo Darín, who I see as the Argentine Joe Mantegna. I suggest that you watch Darín in the brilliant police procedural The Secrets in Their Eyes (on my top ten for 2010), the steamy and seamy Carancho and the wonderful con artist movie Nine Queens.

Wild Tales has been a festival hit (Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and Sundance) around the world and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar. I saw Wild Tales at Cinequest 2015. It’s now available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

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THE ROUTINE: wicked comment on technology

Today, in only 9 minutes and 35 seconds, we have a wickedly effective commentary on the limits of technology – the 2014 short film The Routine.  The actress Tara Price wrote, produced and stars in The Routine – and it’s quite a performance.  Directed by Brian Groh.  Here’s the entire film.

The Routine (short film) from Tara Price on Vimeo.

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