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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Best of Youth; Cloud Atlas; Quartet; A Separation; Towards Zero; Twin Sisters; and Won’t Back Down

The Best of Youth   2003  367 minutes  (Yes 6 hours and 7 minutes)  Take two really handsome Italian guys and put them on screen with Rome, Turin and Florence and other sites in Italy as a backdrop along with a sojourn in northern Norway and you have a formula that will keep you watching, even though it may take two or three evenings.  The film tracks two brothers from the 1960s into this century.  One becomes a psychiatrist and the other a rather brutal national policeman.   The psychiatrist’s wife is a member of a violent communist cell and leaves him when she is given an assassination assignment.  She’s caught and imprisoned and refuses to see her husband and their daughter.  The notes stress the political differences between the brothers but I felt it was more psychological.  It’s worth 367 minutes.

Cloud Atlas   2012  172 minutes   It’s hard to know how to deal with this.  Six stories ranging in time from the 19th C to two different places in the future are woven together and told in alternating bits and pieces. The story that was most telling for me was an Orwellian society in the future in Korea, where young women are cloned to be workers in a fast food restaurant and then, after 12 years on the job, were destroyed and recycled as food for the next generation of clones.   I guess the message is human endurance and dignity.  Along the way Tom Hanks plays at least seven different roles and Halle Berry probably as many.  Jim Broadbent has at least three roles and is incredibly different in each.  The same goes for Hugh Grant and others.   This is fun to watch despite the totally different approach to narrative.

Quartet   2012   99 minutes   Maggie Smith leads a list of accomplished actors in the principal roles and a supporting cast of aging professional musicians.  The setting is a musicians’ retirement home in a beautiful English country house.  It’s in financial trouble and depends on the success of its annual gala performance to make ends meet.  Maggie playing Jean Horton arrives to take up residence just a few weeks before the gala.  She’s unhappy, curmudgeonly and broke but considers herself superior to any and all of the residents.  Some of them conceive the idea of recreating the quartet from Rigoletto, which Jean had sung with three of the residents many years before.  All had been opera stars.  Perhaps Jean had been the most celebrated.  Initially she refuses, and the rest of the story relates why and then why she changed her mind and why her first ex-husband changed his mind about her.  My first reaction was:  Why do I want to look at all these wrinkles for 99 minutes?  I’m glad I did.  This film is a knockout that has much to say about aging and fame and the power of music.  Dustin Hoffman directed and the actors loved him.

A Separation   2011  123 minutes   An Iranian husband and his wife split up over his decision to stay and care for his aging father instead of leaving the country with his family.  The father is deep into Alzheimer’s and incontinent.  The Netflix notes promise unexpected consequences from the father’s decision to hire a stranger to take care of his father, but I found the husband and the situation so repulsive that I couldn’t stay around to see what happened.

Towards Zero   2007   104 minutes   I googled  Inspector Martin Bataille to see if he is a big deal in Agatha Christie’s repertoire, but apparently not.  In any event he is brilliant in solving the murders in this film.  The murderer tries to incriminate himself in order to rule himself out as a suspect and put the blame on his ex-wife.  Bataille tells a little white lie to trap him.  The mystery and its solution were what you would expect from Agatha Christie.  The murderer has a wild and crazy and young new wife who keeps things interesting.  I started to write “What’s the female form for gigolo?” and then remembered that all people who act are now actors, etc. so she’s a gigolo.

Twin Sisters   2002  118 minutes   When twins Anna and Lotte are orphaned in 1920s Germany, Lotte is sent to live with relatives who are farmers and Anna, who has consumption,  to live with rich and cultured relatives in Holland.  Over the years Anna keeps writing to Lotte but the family doesn’t mail the letters.  Meanwhile Lotte, who could already read well when she was six, is denied a chance to go to school, exploited and abused, and certified as mentally incompetent so that she can’t escape the farm.  The farmer’s wife tells her that they don’t know Anna’s address so there is no point in trying to write to her.  By the time they do meet as young adults, Lotte is working for a prominent German countess and Nazi Party member and pretty well indoctrinated into Nazism.  Anna is engaged to a young Jewish guy, and Lotte notes her surprise when she sees his picture.  They are separated again and don’t meet until they both visit a spa as very old women.  Anna, whose fiancé died in Auschwitz  wants nothing to do with Lotte, but eventually they reconcile and Anna dies.  This is sad all the way through, but the film does a very good job of dramatizing the cruelties of society and the insidious spread of Nazism among people who should never have succumbed to its evil doctrines.

Won’t Back Down  2012   121 minutes    Once in a while a film comes along which takes on a real issue, in this case failing schools.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a dyslexic mom with a dyslexic daughter who “conspires” with a dissatisfied teacher played brilliantly by Viola Davis to take over a grammar school, something the law allows but the school board and the teachers’ union do everything in their power to prevent.  It is a story well told and worth telling because it may stimulate some real interest in improving our schools.  Unfortunately, the union and the school board come off more as villains rather than well intentioned bureaucrats trying but failing to do the right thing.  It’s incredible to see someone as charming and innately goofy as Gyllenhaal play a serious role in a serious film about a serious issue.

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