W

waitress adrienne shellyWaitress

Funny, touching, tough: three words that truly describe this vastly underrated 2007 comedy-drama, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  Starring Keri Russell as a pie baker in a terrible marriage, this film is really about standing up for yourself and what is important in your life.


WARM-BODIES_510x317Warm Bodies

There are few films that boast a truly original premise, but Warm Bodies is one of them.  What genre is it?  Well, it’s the only zombie romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.  Written and directed by Jonathon Levine, it stars Nicholas Hoult as a zombie boy who falls in love with a human girl, played by Theresa Palmer.  Great fun!


we_bought_a_zoo_pWe Bought a Zoo!

We Bought A Zoo! is a friendly little movie released in 2011, based on the memoirs of the same title by Benjamin Mee, who bought his own zoo in England.  Starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson as Benjamin and his Zookeeper, the movie features an amazingly cute performance by Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin’s daughter Rosie.


Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheWords and Pictures

Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.


Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures Clive-Owen Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches writing at Croyden, a high end  preparatory school in Maine.  A professional writer himself, Jack is flirting with losing his job because of functional alcoholism and a lapse of productivity, having failed to publish in quite a few years.  In addition, the school literary magazine which he edits has gone downhill, producing flat, uninspired writing and nothing original from him.  His principal, Rashid (Navid Negahban), confers with head of the governing board, Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) about Jack’s conduct and they give him a warning that his status will be reviewed at the next meeting.

Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheThe new Honors Art teacher, well-known painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the aid of a cane, challenges her students to go beyond themselves to create better art.  Using the old phrase “a picture is worth a thousands words” she tells her students that words are cheap and useless, thus fueling the “war” between the two arts at the school and inspiring the students to achieve more.

Drinking heavily and fighting to keep his job, Jack tries to write something new and inspiring, but all he can create is insipid, so he steals a poem that his son wrote and publishes it in the literary magazine as his own.  It is so good that Dina uses it to inspire her students to make drawings and painting based on it.  Three students figure prominently in this battle of the arts: Emily (Valerie Tian) an Asian painter, Cole (Josh Ssettuba) an African-American graphic artist, and Swint (Adam DiMarco), a writer and would-be cartoonist.  Swint, a show-off has a crush on shy Emily and he begins to harass her, eventually going so far as to distribute an obscene cartoon of her throughout the school.  Jack has defended Swint, but when he discovers the cartoon in Swint’s sketchbook, he turns the boy in and Swint is expelled.

When Dina gives terrific testimony of Jack’s behalf at the board meeting, his job is saved.  He brings her flowers and they consummate their simmering love, but Jack gets up in the night, finds a bottle of vodka in her refrigerator and proceeds to get drunk.  He tells her about plagiarizing the poem from his son and then, losing his balance, he falls into Dina’s most important painting, smearing it.  She throws him out and Jack must begin to confront his own problems for the first time, facing his alcoholism and trying to redeem his own spirit.

Obviously, in a movie like this, the writing is paramount and I give extremely high marks to Gerald DiPego for his literate and organic script.  Director Fred Schepisi thought his words were important enough that he was kept on the set during the filming in order to make changes himself, rather than bringing in any other writers.  But even though writing is important, this film also stands or falls based on its art and Juliette Binoche, doing her own painting, brought a sense of legitimacy by creating terrific paintings and drawings all her own.

Of course, there is no real battle between art and literature.  They are two completely different and equally valid arts.  On the surface, they would appear to be complete opposites, but, as with all creation, the goal should be the same: to touch the human heart.  This movie does that, in part, due to the organic nature of the writing and the painting that fills it.  When I say that a work of art is organic, I mean that it grows naturally out of its components.  The story in Words and Pictures has more to do with Jack’s own frailty and his dependence on alcohol.  It is that dependence that brings his life into complete disarray, despite his other endearing qualities, and it is his control of that weakness that allows him to become a complete person again.  The same is true of Delsanto’s art.  Like, Jack, she has floundered for many years, not because of a lack of inspiration, but because her own degenerating body has had her full attention.  She needed something to wake her up and Jack’s challenge is what brings her back to life creatively.  Her art grows beyond her own injured body to become something beyond what she had been capable of.

Writing an organic script that is completely natural is not an easy process, but DiPego has created a real beauty here.

Clive Owen drives the film with his performance.  The center of the film, he is realistic in every way as an American teacher.  His control of the language, his phrasing, and his maniacal love of good writing is infectious and he seems to be a terrific teacher.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance as Delsanto, nuanced, layered, and impressive.

This film has a strange, emotional power that elevates in the same way that Stand and Deliver moves one to aspire.  Immensely satisfying! I highly recommend this movie!

C

 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


 Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-CapoteCapote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.


Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford.  Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America.


 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.


 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.


Chocolat

Chocolat VienneMost things that give enjoyment are not bad. In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are entirely without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.

My review contains information about the story, so if you haven’t seen the movie, beware. Reading this review may spoil the ending for you!

It is 1959, in a French village surrounded by a wall and a river, barricaded from the world as if it hadn’t changed since the Renaissance. On a Sunday morning when everyone is at church, a woman, Vianne (Juliette Binoche), and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), trudge through the wind and snow to open a chocolaterie. Vianne is destined to wander from town to town, as her mother did, dispensing the joy of chocolate.  She carries her mother’s ashes with her and she knows that Anouk will also be destined for the same fate.

 The mayor, Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) finds it sinful to open such a business during Lent and he encourages the villagers to boycott it and their young priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor) to preach sermons against it.  When he discovers that Anouk is an illegitimate child and that Vianne will not attend mass, he becomes even more consumed with driving her out of business.  He has his own problems: his wife has gone to Italy and it looks like she isn’t coming back and he is also struggling with his own desires for food as he starves himself in his sorrow.

chocolat anoukIn order to coax the villagers to buy her chocolate, Vianne gives away free samples, winning over Guillaume Blerot (John Wood), an older man whose little dog Charlie likes the treats. Blerot pines after a WWI widow, Madame Audel (Leslie Caron) and he wins her over with little chocolate treats.  Vianne’s first real friend comes in the form of her landlady, Armande (Judi Dench), who also doesn’t go to church.  She is estranged from her daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), who works for the Comte and keeps her son, Luc (Aurélien Parent-Koenig), away from his grandmother. Vianne arranged for Luc to spend some time with Armande at the chocolaterie under the pretense of his drawing a portrait of her.  Vianne wins another friend when the owner of the café, Serge (Peter Stormare) beats his wife Josephine (Lena Olin) who runs to the chocolaterie for sanctuary.  She stays and becomes Vianne’s assistant.  The Comte attempts to force Serge to get himself together, making him abstain from alchohol, teaching him manners, sending him to catechism classes.

The town is thrown into chaos when a band of gypsies arrives by boat, docking along the river front. Led by a charismatic young man, Roux (Johnny Depp), the gypsies want nothing more than to trade, but the Comte forbids it and mounts a campaign to have the villagers boycott the gypsies.  Of course, Vianne is intrigued and makes friends with Roux.  When Serge assaults the chocolaterie in a drunken rage, breaking open the door, the women fight him off and Josephine knocks him out with a skillet. Roux volunteers to repair Vianne’s door and she agrees to hire him, thus breaking the boycott.  The Comte takes his fight with her to a new level as he tells all of the villagers that to consort with her is to consort with the devil and he makes Pere Henri do the same thing from the pulpit.

Vianne feels that the whole world is against her and considers leaving, but Armande requests that she throw her a party for her 70th birthday.  Vianne also has planned a Festival for Easter Sunday. Most of Vianne’s friends attend, including Luc and Roux, but dessert is to be served on Roux’s boat and they all retire there to dance and enjoy the evening.  Caroline comes in search of Luc, but when she sees him dancing with his grandmother, she doesn’t interfere.  However, Serge brings the Comte to see the party and the mayor tells him, “Something must be done.”  When the party winds down, a fire erupts on the boats.  Seeing the damage, Vianne decides that it is time to leave, so she packs, over Josephine’s pleas that she stay, and forces to Anouk to join her, but they fight and her mother’s ashes are spilled.  There is laughter and she looks into her kitchen to find Josephine leading the villagers in the preparation for the Easter Festival.  She abandons her plans to leave.

On the night before Easter, Serge confesses to the Comte that he started the boat fire because the Comte had told him that “something must be done.” In a fit of rage, the Comte banishes Serge from the village, then goes to pray, confessing that he is so starved and so weak of spirit that he must do something.  Taking up a knife, he breaks into the chocolaterie to destroy the confections in the window display, but a bit of chocolate splashes onto his lip and he licks it up. In one moment, he loses his composure and begins to eat every bit of chocolate he can get his hands on.  The next morning, Pere Henri sees the mayor passed out in the window display, covered in chocolate.

It’s hard to imagine anyone crusty enough not to love Chocolat.  It is a wonderful movie, beautifully and movingly directed by Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director who also gave us The Cider House Rules (and, by the way, Lena Olin’s husband).  The music by Rachel Portman, part gypsy, part Hispanic, part French, is absolutely perfect for every scene in the film.  Adapted by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs from the novel by Joanne Harris, the story is strong and true, moving, funny, and uplifting.

All of the actors are wonderful and it would be hard to single out one performance that stands out above the other, but I must mention that Judi Dench is amazing as Armande and that Johnny Depp’s guitar adds a great deal to the fun. Binoche is lovely as Vianne and it is good to see her teamed with Lena Olin, the first time the two women have worked together since The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

This is an incandescent story of freedom. No matter how firm oppression may seem, if you are good and true and give love back to the world, the world will eventually come to you.