Lucy Popescu

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Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Film Review – That Good Night

Posted by lucypopescu on May 12, 2018

 

There is the uncanny sense of art imitating life in Eric Styles’ poignant, end of life drama, featuring John Hurt’s swansong. That Good Night is about a man dealing with his impending death and Hurt was himself terminally ill when the film was shot.

Ralph Maitland (Hurt), an egotistical screenwriter in his seventies, enjoys a comfortable existence in Portugal with is loving younger wife, and former nurse, Anna (Sofia Helin, The Bridge). When Ralph discovers he has only a few months to live he attempts to reconnect with Michael (Max Brown), his estranged son from an earlier marriage, and put his affairs in order. Ralph expects his family to drop everything when he wants them to and they generally oblige. But when Michael, also a writer, arrives in Portugal with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), Ralph sees her presence as an intrusion and a threat to the already fragile bond with his son. Bristling with impotent rage, Ralph repeatedly snubs her. Wrapped up in each other, Michael and Cassie try to take Ralph’s rudeness in their stride but inevitably tempers fray and emotions come to a head.

Unbeknown to his family, Ralph hires “the visitor” (Charles Dance), an enigmatic Englishman dressed in a white linen suit, who appears to represent a euthanasia organisation. Ralph wants him to ease his way “into that good night”, the film’s leitmotif inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem, but the visitor has other ideas. The most affecting scenes involve the interactions between these two fine actors – Dance, still full of vigour; Hurt, gaunt and frail.

Charles Savage’s script, adapted from the stage play by N. J. Crisp, is hampered by a weak, predictable storyline. The main conflict That Good Night turns on is whether Ralph will be able to resolve things with Michael before he dies. We are not surprised when Michael reminds Ralph that he has never been a good parent, nor when they start writing together. This lacklustre emphasis on Ralph’s reconciliation with Michael, and the fact that Cassie holds the key, swiftly deflates our interest. Euthanasia and Anna’s enforced childlessness are provocative subjects and more could have been made of them. But the men’s troubled relationship takes centre stage and Helin and Dance are frustratingly underused.

There is the inevitable pleasure to be had in Hurt’s charismatic screen presence, but Ralph is two dimensional and we never get a real sense of his kinder, more sympathetic side. This is hinted at in his exchanges with his maid’s son Ronlodo (Noah Jupe), who cleans the pool and yearns to be a writer, but most of the time Ralph is so curmudgeonly towards his nearest and dearest that he quickly loses our respect. The picturesque backdrop is beautifully shot by DP Richard Stoddard, but Thomas’s poem, full of passionate intensity, advocated raging against death, against “the dying of the light”. If Styles’ had focused on Ralph’s battle within himself, his fury as he is forced to withdraw from life, it would have made a more engaging subject.

Review originally published by cine-vue.com

 

 

 

 

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Film Review – Custody

Posted by lucypopescu on April 21, 2018

 

In France, a woman dies every two and a half days as a result of domestic violence. Xavier Legrand’s feature debut, Custody, a hard-hitting social drama and winner of the Silver Lion, attempts to raise awareness of this harrowing subject through the powerful medium of cinema.

Legrand builds on his Oscar nominated short Just Before Losing Everything (2013) and features the same characters. Custody begins with a claustrophobic scene between divorced couple Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet). Miriam is seeking sole custody of their young son Julien (an astonishing debut from Thomas Gioria) and claims that Antoine is violent. This is backed up by Julien’s written testimony. Filmed in real time, the tension between the pair is palpable. Drucker, in particular, is adept at conveying the turmoil of her emotions – she looks stoical but her wary eyes betray her fear. Antoine is persuasive as the wronged father. Legrand’s tight framing ensures that the spectator’s perspective is that of the judge for the duration of the hearing.

The magistrate’s decision is conveyed a few days later and Antoine is awarded joint custody. His student daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) is old enough to make her own choice and she steers clear of him. Although convincing in the courtroom, Antoine drops all pretence when he starts picking up his son for weekend visits. His bullying leaves Julien frequently distraught and it soon becomes clear that Antoine wants only to know where Miriam has moved to. His obsession knows no bounds and he is increasingly unable to contain his emotions. After he falls out with his father – both men display formidable tempers – Legrand ratchets up the tension with devastating consequences for Miriam and Julien.

The children respond in different ways to their parents’ breakup. Joséphine is in love with her boyfriend Samuel and wants to abandon her studies and escape the family tensions while Julien is relentlessly anxious. Legrand seamlessly shifts mood and register between the two. He is almost playful in a terrific scene where Joséphine carries out a pregnancy test and we discover the result without ever seeing her face or the kit. Her yearning to escape with Samuel is in sharp contrast to her brother’s distress, which is often unbearable to watch. While Joséphine is intent on fleeing her dysfunctional family (in order to prematurely begin her own), Julien cannot leave and feels obliged to try and protect his mother.

The psychology of fear is Legrand’s main thrust in Custody although he claims that three films guided his writing: Kramer Versus Kramer, Night of the Hunter and The Shining. Dread dominates his final scenes – Legrand substitutes Hitchcock’s shower and knife wielding psychopath with a bathtub and a gun-toting maniac to great effect. Claustrophobic and brutal, this is an impressive debut and heralds Legrand as a major talent to watch.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

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Film Review – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Posted by lucypopescu on October 20, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is a big hearted tale of a dysfunctional family and features a star-studded cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson.

Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) a once famous sculptor-artist, is a domineering and cantankerous patriarch. He is begrudging in his affection towards his children and prone to egotistical tantrums. Siblings Danny (Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and their half-brother Matthew (Stiller) all harbour varying degrees of resentment towards Harold and each other. It soon becomes clear that their various neuroses are a direct result of their father’s self-absorption and negative parenting. His only commitment, it seems, was to his art, and there is some doubt as to whether he was actually ever that great. Harold is on his fourth marriage to Maureen (Emma Thompson). While he rages at the lack of recognition for his work, she copes with his moods by hitting the bottle.

Danny is a musician and house-husband in the process of separating from his wife. He has never pursued a musical career and thinks of himself as a failure. He is keenly aware that his father always appears proudest of Matthew, now a successful wealth manager living in LA, and even named one of his sculptures after him. However, Matthew hates being the object of Harold’s favouritism and has physically removed himself from his father’s orbit. Mousy Jean says little but nurses are own heartache from the past. The only Meyerowitz who appears unscathed is Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She embraces Harold’s reputation in the art world and follows in his footsteps making provocatively erotic films at the college where he once taught.

Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early films, the family’s various stories are revealed through an engaging series of vignettes. Baumbach’s opening of each chapter with captions, together with the film’s extended title, seem rather redundant, but his attention to detail pays off elsewhere. Status and recognition, or the lack of it, are major themes. In one scene, Danny and Harold turn up at an exhibition opening at MoMA in hired tuxedos while everyone else (including Sigourney Weaver) are dressed casually. In another, Harold ruins lunch out with Matthew because he is driven to paroxysms of rage by a fellow diner’s inconsiderate behaviour. Harold erroneously accuses him of taking his jacket, much to Matthew’s exasperation, and father and son end up going hungry.

Harold is hospitalised and the siblings reunite in New York City. Inevitably, childhood rivalries threaten to fatally rupture an already fragile rapprochement. Baumbach blends humour and pathos to terrific effect. The siblings’ obsession over which nurse will be responsible for Harold’s care is poignant while their farcical response to the end of life counselling that they receive over their dad’s hospital bed is priceless. There are strong performances from all. Hoffman and Thompson, in particular, are a delight. Although less focus is given to Jean’s story, Marvel’s understated performance shines through and there are two memorable cameos from Candice Bergman and Adam Driver.

 

 

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Film Review – Hotel Salvation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 31, 2017

Set in Varanasi, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s remarkably assured debut feature, starring Lalit Behl and Adil Hussain, has already won plaudits and awards on the festival circuit. Shot when he was just 23, Hotel Salvation is a bittersweet meditation on life, death and salvation, focusing on a father-son relationship.  Haunted by a recurring dream, seventy-seven-year old Daya (Behl) is convinced it is time to die. Following tradition, he donates a cow to the temple, before persuading his stressed, overworked son Rajiv (Hussain), to accompany him to the holy city of Varanasi. Hindus believe that people who die there, after bathing in the River Ganges, escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth and achieve salvation. The pair check into ‘Mukti Bhawan’ (Hotel Salvation) where residents are offered just two weeks accommodation. At first Rajiv is beset by work calls and is desperate to return to the city. It is only his sense of filial duty to his father that keeps him there. While Daya accepts his impending death almost gleefully, Rajiv is torn between feelings of impotence, guilt and impatience. Slowly, though, father and son reconnect and begin to enjoy each other’s company.

Daya embraces his new environment and makes friends with the other residents, in particular Vimla (Navnindra Behi) a kindly widow who has been there for years – the hotel manager changes the name in the register of any resident who lasts longer than a fortnight. The inhabitants live in simple rooms, complete with peeling walls and mice. They watch their favourite TV series, sing hymns together and freely discuss death and the best way to go. When one of their number passes away, they all participate in the funeral rituals, reciting mantras, shrouding and garlanding the corpse and finally cremating the deceased on the River Ganges.

Rajiv is clearly out of touch with his emotions, his country’s spiritual heritage and changing mores. Rajiv and his wife Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) want their daughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh) to marry a man of their choice and settle down. But Sunita is happy with her work and doesn’t want to give up her independence. Certain traditions, Bhutiani suggests, are outdated. Michael Mcsweeney and David Huwiler’s terrific camerawork emphasises the stark divide between Rajiv’s hectic working life and the more measured pace in Varanasi; the transcendent over the corporal.  Rajiv’s restrictive domestic sphere is conveyed through shots of cramped, shadowed rooms, contrasted with stunning tableaux of the Ganges, Varanasi’s ghats and temples.

As Rajiv resolves his differences with his father he recognises his own suppressed desires and the sacrifices he has made for his work. Towards the end of Hotel Salvation we suspect it has been more about Rajiv’s liberation than Daya’s. Rajiv’s spiritual side (his love of writing poetry) has been reawakened and he has learned the importance of accepting his family’s different needs. Bhutaini demonstrates an impressive maturity in his snapshots of life’s joys, pains and sorrows, order and chaos and allows us to see what Daya has understood all along – with death comes peace. For its UK release, Hotel Salvation is prefaced by the BFI’s 90 second film of Varanasi’s ghats by the River Ganges (1899), believed to be the earliest footage of India. It serves to illustrate the city’s timelessness and beautifully complements Bhutaini’s feature.

 

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

 

 

 

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Film Review – Land of Mine

Posted by lucypopescu on August 4, 2017

 

Inspired by real events in 1945, Martin Zandvliet’s powerful film about Denmark’s treatment of German prisoners demonstrates that war’s aftermath can be just as brutal as the conflict itself. Fearful of an allied invasion, Nazi forces left behind two million landmines on Denmark’s Western coast and German prisoners of war were forced to defuse and clear the mines in violation of the 1929 Convention relating to the treatment of PoW.  Even more shocking, many of these prisoners were inexperienced youths who had seen little of war, some as young as thirteen.

Land of Mine opens with a brutal scene, which sets the tone for its first half.  Danish veteran Sergeant, Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) picks on a German solider and smashes his face in because he is carrying a Danish flag. His hatred and contempt is palpable. Accompanied everywhere by his beloved dog Otto, whose company he evidently prefers to human contact, Rasmussen is initially sadistic and cruel towards the captives, denying them food, taunting and beating them. But it is a rite of passage for the sergeant. Gradually he softens towards the boys, finds them food at the risk of his reputation, and even plays football with then on a rare day off. Rasmussen promises them their freedom and release back to Germany after they have cleared all the mines, but another officer, Lieutenant Ebbe Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), has different ideas. Things come to a head between the two men when Ebbe refuses to release the survivors.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards, Land of Mine is not your average war film. While there is impressive attention to historical detail, and plenty of action, it is the quieter moments that remain with you. Zandvliet focuses on the harrowing experiences of the young prisoners and their shared humanity. The boys’ terror, combined with their hope for a better future, is heartbreakingly sad and the inevitable scenes of bloodshed and violence are sometimes unbearable to watch. Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s cinematography is remarkable. Picturesque shots of the coast line and scenes of stark natural beauty are in sharp contrast to the appalling conditions endured by the POWs and the shots of abrupt explosions that sever limbs and lives.

The two Danish leads are terrific and there are some equally great performances from the German camp. Particularly memorable are Louis Hoffman who plays Sebastian, the de facto leader of the captives, Joel Basman as the hot headed Helmut and Emil and Oskar Belton as the two youngest members of the group, twin brothers Ernst and Werner, who can’t function without each other. Land of Mine serves as a poignant reminder that revenge destroys more than it satisfies and compassion aids the healing process.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

 

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Film Review – Lost in Lebanon

Posted by lucypopescu on May 28, 2017

 

This heart breaking film  by Sophia and Georgia Scott follows four Syrian refugees as they struggle to rebuild their lives in Lebanon. Syria’s neighbour has had to cope with a massive influx of refugees – Lebanon’s population is 4.4 million and 1.5 million Syrians have flooded into the country since the beginning of the conflict. Lost in Lebanon was shot in Beirut and on the Syrian border between 2014 and 2016. During this time, Lebanon was forced to restrict its open door policy for Syrian refugees and imposed various visa restrictions aimed at discouraging Syrians from entering or staying. As the film makes clear, the result has been devastating for many refugees who have nowhere else to go and fear for their lives if they are forcibly returned to Syria.

Sheikh Abdo manages a refugee camp just five kilometres from the Syrian border. Abdo takes his responsibilities seriously and works tirelessly for his fellow refugees. Nemr is a 19-year-old high-school student who fled forced military recruitment: “My destiny would have been to become a killer or a victim.” He volunteers in the camp’s school but dreams of a better future. Reem is a former architect who now helps in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. As a refugee she is not supposed to work but spends her time trying to help those worse off than herself. Mwafak is a 26-year-old artist, also based in Beirut. Mwafak never stops giggling, but then we realise his humour is a defence mechanism, a means of survival, he is laughing at his own plight. He is proud; not wanting to be labelled a refugee he refuses to register with the UNRHC until he is forced to. Mwafak is driven by his imagination, his need to create art, and his talent. He also volunteers, teaching art to children in another refugee camp.

All four show similar commitment to the health and education of Syrian children, however rudimentary. They recognise the importance of educating the next generation and that their homeland will need to be rebuilt with love and creativity rather than hate and violence. They exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship but the relentless fear of deportation impacts on them all with devastating consequences. Both Nemr and Mwafak consider attempting the perilous journey by sea. Nemr ponders why anyone would want to risk their lives and concludes “they’re willing to drown just to live as humans.” Lost in Lebanon contains many such shocking soundbites. At a meeting organised by Reem, one man remarks on the hell they find themselves in: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”

If you have ever wondered what life is like for a refugee then see this film. No one should have to endure this degree of psychological torture and the West needs to demonstrate compassion rather than prejudice or indifference. Sophia Scott’s beautiful cinematography opens in a long dark tunnel with blinding light at the end and the joyous sound of children playing, calling out the name of their homeland; it ends in the same tunnel but the camera is travelling in the opposite direction with the light receding. Birds also feature; just as they are free to travel over land and sea, refugees are not. The refusal of these men, women and children to give up offers a ray of hope. A remarkable and humane film that never strikes a false note.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

 

 

 

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Film Review – I Am Not Your Negro

Posted by lucypopescu on April 10, 2017

 

 

Raoul Peck’s provocative and timely documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is an incisive meditation on America’s black civil rights movement told through the eyes of the late novelist James Baldwin. Peck’s Oscar-nominated film focuses on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, about the lives and murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Baldwin, who was remarkably fortune to escape assassination himself, was friends with all three and their deaths were to have a profound effect on his life and work.

Interspersed with Baldwin’s reflections, narrated by Samuel L Jackson, is footage of various civil rights demonstrations from the 50s and 60s, together with recordings of Baldwin’s lectures, debates and TV appearances. He is an arresting, articulate figure with an incredible ability to summarise racial and cultural politics. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin once remarked. Peck underlines the continuing truth of this statement by juxtaposing past brutality – against civil-rights protesters in Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s – with more recent racism such as the violent assault of Rodney King by Los Angeles police filmed by a bystander in 1991. As Peck demonstrates, appalling inequality and racist attitudes prevail today.

In one essay, Baldwin described how mainstream cinema has helped fuel race divisions by presenting the differences between good and evil in black and white terms. Peck bring this vividly to life with scenes from popular American films dating from the 1930s. John Wayne’s cowboys, for example, were always on the side of right, and the native Indians were always the baddies – leaving the spectator to presume that they deserved to be massacred. In the 50s, blond bombshell Doris Day exemplified the perfect American wife while in early Hollywood films, black actors only featured as lackeys and servents serving to consolidate specific racial imagery.

Although past and current race relations are starkly drawn, Peck’s film never feels bleak. This is mainly due to Baldwin’s charismatic screen presence, his passion for reasoned argument and the power of his rhetoric.  As he claimed in one television interview: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.”  It’s this resolute defiance that sets the tone for Peck’s film. Baldwin died in 1987 but I Am Not Your Negro serves to resurrect his indomitable spirit as well as introducing this great writer and social critic to new audiences.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

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Film review – A Quiet Passion

Posted by lucypopescu on April 10, 2017

 

Terence Davies is no stranger to biographical film, having mined his own life story to great effect in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes.  The overall tone of his sensitive Emily Dickenson biopic mirrors the great American poet’s contemplative style. The languorous pace may divide audiences, despite some strong performances and memorable camerawork.

A Quite Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon, opens in 1848 with Dickinson’s family rescuing her from the evangelical Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She had been considered something of an outsider and was chastised for her lack of religious conviction – something she wrestled with for many years. Dickinson returns to her Amherst home with her beloved family, and there she remains for the rest of her life and the film’s duration.

Dickinson never ventured far from her Massachusetts home, apparently she never found a reason to leave, and so Davies focuses on her relationship with her family – the occasional power struggles with her stern father (Keith Carradine), her love for her supportive sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), affection for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and despondency over her ailing, bedbound mother Emily (Joanna Bacon) as well as an ardent friendship with the feisty Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey).

Dickinson has to ask the permission of her father in order to write poetry and letters during the night and she proves a prolific correspondent. However, most of her letters were destroyed after her death and only a few poems were published in her life time. She never married and, considering herself unattractive, became increasingly reclusive and embittered in her final years. She died young, aged just fifty-five, never suspecting that she was to become one of American’s best known and loved poets. Davies matches Dickinson’s reflective nature with some ponderous takes – especially when the family are in the drawing room reading or crocheting. He admirably succeeds in conveying Dickinson’s stoicism and her frequent internalisation of emotional pain but, at times, A Quiet Passion feels desperately slow.

Although the sisters find succour in their affection for one another, their observance of familial duty is oppressive. Following the strict social mores of the time, they both quietly accept their formal, cloistered existence, rather than attempting to forge a life outside. It is no surprise that Lavinia also remained a spinster.  Nixon gives a hugely sympathetic performance and portrays Dickinson’s mental and physical decline with real conviction. She stands out from her fellow actresses, some of whom appear to have graduated from the same school of acting – there are a lot of stoical smiles and eyes brimming with tears. The men’s exuberant hair, admittedly true to the period, also proves something of a distraction.

Dickinson’s life, like many of her poems, was suffused with melancholy. Davies suggests her sole infatuation was with a rather dull, married clergyman who admires her poetry. It’s only fleetingly touched upon in the film and Dickinson’s obsession appears to come out of nowhere. Similarly, Austin’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellens), who was to posthumously publish Dickinson’s poems, is barely explored and yet it almost destroyed the siblings’ relationship. While Davies vividly captures the period’s austerity and Dickinson’s despair at being misunderstood, there are a few too many scenes of repressed emotion followed by wild outbursts of grief. A Quiet Passion would have benefited from a subtler lightening of the shadows, if only to better appreciate the darkness which was to gradually engulf the reclusive but prolific poet.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

 

 

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Film review – Denial

Posted by lucypopescu on January 29, 2017

denialMick Jackson’s court room drama, Denial, focuses on the 1996 British libel suit brought by David Irving (Timothy Spall), the infamous Holocaust denier, against American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her publisher Penguin Books. Based on Lipstadt’s book, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, and adapted for screen by David Hare, Denial offers some fascinating insights into Irving’s twisted logic and the intricacies of British law.

When Irving claims that Lipstadt’s book had attempted to destroy his reputation as a historian, Lipstadt is shocked to discover that the burden of proof is on the defendant. She is forced to come to London to argue her case with the help of British solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), a rising star after having represented Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles. Irving’s claims are outrageous – that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were not used to kill Jews (according to Irving they were built to kill lice) and that Hitler had in fact opposed the murder of European Jewry. Because there is no photographic evidence of the actual genocide, these claims have to be tested in a court of law. More worryingly, Lipstadt’s representatives have to prove that Irving intentionally lied about the Holocaust and isn’t just effectively in denial.

Lipstadt has a formidable team working for her, including leading libel barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), while Irving chooses to represent himself in the hope of gaining public sympathy for what he refers to as a “David vs. Goliath” conflict. Even if one doesn’t already know the outcome of this renowned legal case, it’s pretty obvious who is going to triumph from the outset and this drains a degree of tension from the judge’s deliberations. Wisely, Hare’s screenplay focuses on Lipstadt’s conflicts with her legal team’s strategies and their refusal to allow her or any Holocaust survivors to take the stand. They argue that Irving, rather than the Holocaust, should be on trial. Lipstadt believes that survivors should not be denied a voice.

Apart from shots of Lipstadt’s seminars with her students, her morning runs, meetings with lawyers and a poignant visit to the remains of Auschwitz with Rampton, Denial is set largely in and around the court room. There are some excellent performances – in particular from Spall as the slippery and odious denier and Wilkinson as the wine-loving barrister who proves disconcertingly sharp-witted. Given the alarming rise of far right xenophobia, a film that portrays this memorable defence against fascism and the rewriting of history, feels exceptionally timely. There are more than a few parallels to be drawn between the swagger and deviousness of Irving and another well known falsifier, President Trump.

Originally published by Cine-Vue.com

 

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Film Review – Little Men

Posted by lucypopescu on September 25, 2016

imgresThe final film in a trilogy focusing on New York City, Ira Sachs’ lates feature, Little Men (2016), starring Jennifer Ehle and Greg Kinnear, follows the rites of passage of two thirteen-year-old boys Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake is a sensitive loner whose artistic talents are derided by his school teacher and initially ignored by his parents. By contrast, Tony, an aspiring actor, is confident, well-liked, and effortlessly connects with both adults and kids his own age.

They meet after Jake’s grandfather, Max, dies. Jake’s parents, Brain (Kinnear) and Kathy (Ehle), inherit Max’s Brooklyn apartment and the store below. This is rented by Tony’s Chilean mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia), a seamstress who sells handmade clothes. Brian is an actor and not having had a properly paid job for some time, lives off his wife’s earnings as a psychotherapist. He comes under pressure from his sister (Talia Balsam) to substantially increase the rent on the store with disastrous implications for Tony’s mum. As Leonor is quick to point out, Max had been a friend, was supportive of her work and wanted her to stay after his death. She’s also not above reminding Brian that he rarely visited his father and so is unaware of the attachment they formed in his final years.

Meanwhile, Tony has taken the awkward Jake under his wing and gets him to join the local drama group. As the adults’ relationship deteriorates, their friendship blossoms. Tony gives Jake the encouragement he lacks from his parents and suggests that they both join the same high school specialising in the arts. They watch video-games together and share their aspirations. When the adults’ tensions becomes apparent they decide to give them the silent treatment. But their friendship is sorely tested when Jake’s parents begin eviction proceedings against Tony’s mother.

Little Men is a tender portrait of two boys on the cusp of adulthood. Part of the film’s power resides in the emotional minutiae captured by the camera: Jake’s flicker of pain when he discovers his father has thrown out many of his drawings in the move from Manhattan to Brooklyn; Tony’s fleeting misapprehension as he attempts to comfort his mother. Sachs is also strong on the psychological complexity of familial relations. One of the most moving moments in the film comes when Jake breaks his silence with his father after seeing him perform in Chekhov’s The Seagull. In floods of tears he tells him how much they had admired his performance in the desperate hope that it might soften his hardline stance towards Leonor.

Barbieri and Taplitz give stunning performances, Ehle and Kinnear make convincing New Yorkers, and Sachs proves that extraordinary films can be made about ordinary lives. The eponymous little men are given a harsh induction into the world of adults and the film is tinged with regret. But, as Sachs demonstrates, the adaptability of teenagers, as opposed to the intransigence of adults, helps them to weather life’s storms.

Originally published by Cine-vue.com

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