Claire Danes gives a convincing performance as Temple Grandin, the autistic engineer who created groundbreaking designs in animal husbandry, particularly in the humane treatment of animals in slaughterhouses. Grandin’s life story is a remarkable one and I was riveted to this film. I think Danes doesn’t get enough credit for the talented actress that she is. It was difficult to watch the slaughterhouse scenes, but I got through it because I was so pleased with Grandin’s ability to see the whole process from the cows’ perspective. Kudos to Danes for a fine performance, and to HBO for telling this inspiring story. I give it 3.5 artichokes.
Set in Israel, two young women with very different backgrounds and personalities meet in seminary school. Their joint project of helping a terminally ill ex-convict find redemption and salvation also serves to help them discover themselves and each other. This was a beautiful and moving film. It was full of rich cultural detail. I was surprised by the level of female oppression in the highly religious Jewish culture. It also worked well as a love story (and I’m not a particular fan of romance films). The acting was solid. I particularly liked Ania Bukstein’s performance as Naomi. I give Ha Sadot 3.5 artichokes.
Tolan gives a sweeping history of the birth of Israel, the displacement of the Palestinians and the constant struggle that ensued (and continues) for decades afterwards. Tolan focuses the history around two people, Dalia, a Jew and Bashir, an Arab who at different times occupied the same house in al-Ramla. This story was originally a piece for NPR’s Fresh Air, and eventually evolved into this book. The book is extremely thorough, well researched, well written and presents a politically balanced view of the history and conflict. The personal stories of Dalia and Bashir are intriguing. Unfortunately, the historical detail is so complex that I found myself getting bogged down and sort of slogging through the mire of time. It is definitely not a page turner, but it is a very important story, told very well. It is the current selection for Bridgewater’s One Book One Community program: http://www.bridgew.edu/UCP/onebook.cfm I’m looking forward to the opportunity to hear the author speak later this month. I enjoyed the opening event in which we all got a belly dancing lesson at the Bridgewater Public Library: http://www.wickedlocal.com/bridgewater/news/x1831582079/One-Book-One-Community-has-fruitful-discussion-in-Bridgewater?img=2#axzz2B11P1PNb (yes, that’s me teetering around behind the beautiful belly dancer). I’m not going to give the book an artichoke rating (I find it hard to rate non-fiction), but I do recommend it.
And my choice for best foreign film of 2012 is…
This French-Canadian film centers around an elementary school that is struck by a great tragedy- a beloved teacher who hangs herself…in the classroom. Bachir Lazhar is an Algerian immigrant looking for a job and takes over as teacher of the grieving class. Lazhar’s past is also not without tragedy, and his past becomes an impediment to his future at the school…just as he is reaching the children and helping them heal. Mohamed Felleg gives a strong performance, and the cast of child actors were equally strong. I found this movie very moving and beautiful. The cinematography is well done, especially the lovely images of the children playing in the snowy playground. This movie falls into the “must see” category. I give it 4 artichokes.
Maria Bello and Michael Sheen play Kate and Bill, a couple with marital troubles and a distant relationship with their college age son, Sammy. When news hits that Sammy’s school has experienced a shooting and not only is Sammy dead, but he is the shooter, Kate & Bill’s lives are turned upside down. The shooting happens early in the film, so the main focus is the slow unraveling of the aftermath. Kate and Bill struggle with their marriage, their grief, and their guilt. I thought it was interesting to get the school shooting story from the perspective of the parents of the shooters. When these tragedies happen in real life, the killer’s family are often not considered victims, and yet they suffer as much as all the other victims’ families. I thought Sheen was convincing as an aloof, emotionally absent father. Bello was less convincing in her role, but the performance was decent. Kyle Gallner’s performance as Sammy is very brief but memorable. Although slow moving, I did find the movie captivating. I give it 3 artichokes.
Wilson, a renowned conservationist and entomologist, has deviated from previous Pulitzer prize winning non-fiction works to write this novel (about conservation and entomology…surprise, surprise). Raff Cody is the main character who grows up in the South, exploring nearby Nokobee swampland, and developing a love and curiosity about nature and the environment. The mid-section of the novel describes the lives and times of the ant colonies in great detail and somewhat anthropomorphized terms. The last section of the book resumes Raff’s story, now a college student studying ecology and law and scheming on how to save the endangered Nokobee tract. I give this novel credit for it’s unique approach to telling the story of the Nokobee area, through both human and ant perspectives. While I found the ant section fascinating at first, it began to drag after a while. Raff was a sympathetic character, however he had one huge unexplained deviation from his persona. At some point in his childhood, after initially rejecting his father’s efforts to get him to hunt, Raff discovers a love of shooting and killing small animals in Nokobee. This experience is perhaps autobiographical (I’m just guessing here), so maybe the author understands this motivation, but as the reader I was in the dark and found it was completely out of character for Raff and very unsettling. I had trouble reconnecting with the character after that. The ending was a bit loopy too. So, all in all, Anthill is an interesting novel full of rich formicidae detail, but flawed in other ways. I give it a medium size anthill, or 3 artichokes.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a defense attorney who struggles to defend Mary Surratt, a boarding house owner charged as a conspirator in the plot to assasinate Abraham Lincoln. Aiken wrestles with his loyalties, but finally submits to his moral imperative to ensure that Surratt receives a fair trial and a proper defense. McAvoy gives a strong performance, and is believable as a devastatingly handsome civil war era professional. I found the story interesting, because I had no idea that there was any type of conspiracy involved in Lincoln’s assassination. It’s sad that I get my history lessons from movies! Robin Wright’s performance as Surratt was not as nuanced as McAvoy’s. The other performances were mediocre as well. All in all, I found the movie (directed by Robert Redford) gripping but not particularly high quality. I give it a so-so three artichokes.
In this French film Sandrine Bonnaire plays Helene, a cleaning woman and housewife who discovers chess and becomes enamored, and then obsessed with it. She begins to question the mediocracy of her life and marriage as well. Keven Kline (who knew he was bilingual/French?) plays Dr. Kroger who becomes her mentor in elite chess playing. I liked this film pretty well for someone who doesn’t like chess at all (except for the beautiful pieces). I thought Bonnaire and Kline’s performances were strong. The movie was ultimately not that memorable, but it was certainly entertaining and nicely done. I give it 3.5 artichokes.
Wonderstruck is the newest genius graphic novel by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a four-artichoke book!) that Rosalynn and I read together. In Wonderstruck, young Ben of Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, is left parentless after the death of his mother. He never knew who his father was. He finds a clue that entices him to New York in the hopes of finding his father. He finds mystery, intrigue, and friendship along the way. Parallel to the story of Ben, Selznick tells the story of Rose, a girl growing up in the 1920s. The story of Rose is told solely by illustrations until the point when she becomes a part of Ben’s story (which is of course inevitable, and is fun to guess along the way what the connection will be- I guessed early on, but Rosalynn only guessed when it was very close to being revealed, so I think the author knows his audience well!). I love how Selznick makes his child characters intelligent, inquisitive and imaginative. His stories are exciting to child and adult alike. I loved this novel! I give it 4.5 artichokes (yes, slightly better than The Invention of Hugo Cabret). Selznick is a real master of storytelling for older children and children at heart. Here’s a nice article about Wonderstruck by NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/09/13/140403979/wonderstruck-a-novel-approach-to-picture-books
This French film from 1988 should not be confused with the more well known French film by the same name from 2000. This film focuses on the experience of a young girl named France growing up in Cameroon. Her parents were part of the local aristocracy, but the main character is Protee, played by Isaach De Bankole, the main household servant in their estate. The film reveals the harsh separation of the races and the complicated relationship between Protee and his white “masters.” I liked De Bankole’s performance (although I wish we had gotten to know him better as an individual, apart from his role as servant), and the rich cultural backdrop. The plot was a bit thin. Giulia Boschi plays Aimee, Frances mother and portrays snooty upper class beautifully. However, I did not believe her attraction to Protee. There was no hint of her feelings in her eyes or face so when she finally makes a move (sorry…spoiler!) I found it not believable. This was an interesting film but not a must-see. I give it 3 artichokes.
Although Goya is played by Stellan Skarsgard, the real star of this movie is Javier Bardem who plays Lorenzo, a diabolic priest in the Spanish Inquisition who becomes a French revolutionary. One of Goya’s models, played by Natalie Portman, becomes a victim of the Inquisition and someone of interest to Lorenzo. The plot was gruesome. It boggles the mind to think how people treat each other, often in the name of a God or a national cause. The story line was interesting, and Bardem’s acting was maliciously irresistable. The rest of the performances weren’t that strong, and the plot could have been more rounded out. I wanted to know more about Goya as an artist, and I wanted more detail about the Inquistion. This movie rates a so-so 2.5 artichokes.
In this Pulitzer prize winning novel, Russo brings to life a small town in Maine which is stagnating after the closure of previously vital paper and textile mills. Miles Roby is a mild mannered middle age man, running a diner and going through a divorce. His soon-to-be ex-wife has taken up with an obnoxious gym owner, and his intelligent and lovable daughter is stuck in the awkwardness of adolescence. His grubby elderly father wants only to bum money off his son and drink it away. The town is powered by Mrs. Whiting, a Miss Havishamesque character. Although the concept of a book about the lives of “townies” doesn’t sound that appealing, Russo crafts the story so well that the reader feels instantly immersed in Empire Falls and connected to the characters. I really enjoyed his writing. The only thing I didn’t like was that there were a couple of “big reveals” that were completely obvious to me early on. I’m not sure if he meant them as “gotchas” to the reader, in which he failed, or perhaps he was letting the reader in on some secrets that the characters were blind to, which would be a legitimate writing device. Whereas most of the characters were compelling and engaging, Janine, the ex-wife did not ring true to me. I couldn’t understand her motivations and she didn’t feel like a real person. The rest of the characters were incredibly believable. I found this book hard to put down and I miss the characters already. Apparently the novel inspired a HBO miniseries…I’ll have to check it out on DVD. I give Empire Falls 4 artichokes.
This Iranian film won the Oscar for best foreign film. What begins as a “simple” tale of a wife, Simin (played by Leila Hatami), wishing to divorce her husband, Nader (played by Peyman Moadi), becomes a complicated story of family, faith, culture, and morality. In some ways the story was completely universal and without cultural boundaries, as in Nader’s struggle to care for his father who has alzheimer’s disease, or the anguish that the pre-adolescent child goes through as she watches her parents split apart. In other ways, the Iranian culture added a distinct lens on the story. It’s amazing how much the characters’ faith dictated every move they made where a moral dilemma was implied. This tale was well spun, well acted and left me sympathizing with all the characters despite their flaws. I haven’t seen all the foreign film nominees yet, but I’m not surprised this one won. I’d be surprised if the remaining nominees that I haven’t seen are as high quality as this one. I give Jodaeiye Nader az Simin 4 artichokes.
This quirky film from Israel focuses on the father and son relationship of Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, two Talmud scholars. Eliezer spent decades of study, only to have his findings usurped by another scholar, and lives with the sadness of the lack of nrecognition of his life’s work. His son, however, is up and coming in his field and is receiving the attention he deserves. This puts a strain on their relationship, and I found the film heartbreaking on both sides. While the son attempts to help his father gain some prestige and recognition, the father is simultaneously degrading his son’s work. I think the depth of the relationship explored was well done. What I didn’t like about the movie was a bit of quirky filmmaking in which some of the characters back stories are told as if one is watching it on microfiche. It was visually repelling (too much whirring) and seemed kind of silly and an unnecessary device. This film received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. I’ll have to see the rest of the movies in that category before I decide if I think it should have been the winner or not. I give it 3.5 artichokes.
Okay, I have FINALLY seen all the contenders in this year’s Oscar race, so I can now announce who I would have picked for the winner. The academy selected The Artist as the winner, but I did not. Here are the nominees, in ascending order from worst to best with my ratings:
The Tree of Life- 2 artichokes
Moneyball- 2.5 artichokes
Midnight in Paris- 3 artichokes
And the winner (according to Sonia) is…Hugo! Hugo was such a delightful movie, based on an even more delightful book. It was a clear winner to me! What would your pick have been?
This film based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo was nominated for best picture, cinematography, art direction, music (original score), sound editing, sound mixing. Phew, that’s a lot of nominations, but no wins. Jeremy Irvine plays Albert, a young man who raises a thoroughbred horse to do farm work and they develop a special bond. The horse eventually is sold off to the war cause (World War I) and continues to be a remarkable creature. I can sum up this movie by saying beautiful horse, nice idea, and too much war scenes. The acting was unremarkable, with the exception of Emily Watson as Jeremy’s mother. She is a lovely actress who is always convincing in her roles. I enjoyed watching Watson and watching the horses, but otherwise I could have skipped this film. I really don’t get how it ended up nominated for best picture. I give it 2.5 artichokes.
Keira Knightley stars as Sabina Spielrein in the story of how she was treated by both Jung and Freud, had an affair with Jung and also became a psychotherapist in her own right. The film is based on a true story, although I think it probably took quite a few liberties. Michael Fassbender plays Jung and gives a decent performance although I didn’t feel like I got much insight in to Jung’s fabulous mind. Viggo Mortensen plays Freud, and makes him seem a lot less weird than I imagine him. This was not the greatest film. The repeated masochistic delights of Spielrein were gratuitous and the film only scratched the surface on both Freud and Jung. I was disappointed. I give it 2 artichokes and a spanking!
Having never read this classic as a child, I was delighted to discover it for the first time now. Most of you are familiar with the basic story line, Huck Finn, a young scrappy boy, runs away and ends up helping an escaped slave, Jim, to run away as well. And there are MANY adventures along the way! This book was delightful and I hated to put it down. Huck charmed me instantly and I felt like I experienced his adventures with him. Now I know why children have loved this book throughout the ages. However, it would be challenging for today’s child to read due to the constant use of racial slurs and the deeply held racism pervasive in the characters. Twain does a spectacular job of showing how racism is taught…when Huck struggles with his own morality he is concerned that he is an evil boy for stealing someone’s slave. His heart tells him he must do it, but he doesn’t see it as the correct or moral action. The way Twain lets us in on Huck’s thoughts like this is beautiful. The version of the novel that I read included passages that Twain edited out of the original manuscript and therefore remained unknown until his original manuscript was discovered in 1990. I was so caught up in the flow of the novel that I missed the indications that a passage was from the original draft, so I don’t really know what was old and what was new, but it was all wonderful! There was one passage that was referred to in the preface so when I got to it I knew that it was one of the edited out passages. It was Jim telling a story of when he was made to go to the morgue to warm up a cadaver in preparation for an autopsy. It was a compelling passage, so I’m not sure why Twain dropped it but I’m glad to have had the chance to read it. Tom Sawyer figures into this story, but only at the beginning and end. His character is also intriguing. His imaginative life is rich and he hasn’t yet reached the age where he can restrain his actions, but rather acts out his flights of fancy with passion. The illustrations by E.W. Kemble were wonderful and added a whimsical dimension to the tale. What a joy this novel is, if you’ve never read it you must RUN to your local library and read it right away! I give Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 4.5 artichokes (a near perfect score!)