The Butler -- A Crash-Course on the US Civil Rights Movement


                                  Lee Daniels was known for his non-subtle, straightforward storytelling technique. His previous movies “Precious” and “The Paper Boy” had its share of blunt, clunky moments and few unintended laughs. Once again he aims high with his “The Butler” (2013), to take the viewer through the 20th century domestic racism in America. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the end the film comes off as a bit over ambitious in trying to encompass a large history within too narrow a framework. However, this is a rare mainstream multigenerational saga set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and is also rare in a way, where a bunch of white actors act only in the distractive cameos.

                               “The Butler” is loosely based on the life of a black White House butler named Eugene Allen, who died in 2010. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is the fictionalized version of Eugene, who at the start, recalls his childhood in the 1920s Georgia, USA. Field workers in the cotton fields were only technically ‘free’ in those areas. Their white bosses still toil them with low wages and mistreatment. The plantation owner’s psychopathic son rapes Cecil’s mother and later guns down the father. The old matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) of the house pities Cecil and invites him to work inside the house as domestic servant.  The qualities Cecil gains as a servant helps him to head north and find work as a waiter in a posh Washington, D.C., hotel. As a butler, at an early age, Cecil has learned the importance of silence and serves the customer right. This polished professionalism attracts a White-house staffer.


                             Gaines soon gets a call from White House and earns a slot as the butler. He was also coldly informed by the head butler that “we have no tolerance for politics in the White House.” After joining the staff, Cecil begins to work his way through the ranks and serves eight American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). The loyal White House employee’s home life is somehow filled with dissension. Cecil’s prideful wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) becomes an alcoholic as she is mostly left to her choices to raise the two sons alone. The elder son Louis (David Oyelowo) is the first one to go to college but later joins radical groups like ‘Black Panthers’ and resents his father’s status as servant in the White establishment.

                           The script written by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong totally dramatizes Eugene Allen’s personal life, but they have stated (in interviews) that the events and conversations depicted inside the White House have actually happened. Nonetheless, the White House scenes are not as good as the portrayal of relationship between Cecil and Louis. The speed with which the politics unfolds inside White House makes you wish that it could have been great if “Butler” was developed into mini TV series (like “Roots”). Truman, Ford and Carter don’t even get a scene as they are seen only in news footage. The other five presidents are portrayed by well known actors, who kind of become a distraction. The script also isn’t interested in exploring the intricacies of Cecil. The direction is imbued with a desire to deliver Oscar-worthy shots, even though there is no denying that some moments are really heartfelt, honest and moving.


                         Forest Whitaker gives another dignified performance, who takes the risk of underplaying a main character, which could have easily milked audiences’ tears with a broad-stroked performance. The faces he shows to his employers and family is an effective showcasing of Whitaker’s talents. Oprah Winfrey breaks her image by effectively playing an alcoholic wife. David Oyelow is another scene-stealer, who ages up from 17 to 60, perfectly capturing the anger and idealism of a black youth without making the character, a cliché. Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, John Cusack and Jane Fonda are buried under makeup to play the half-hearted White House scenes.  However, “The Butler” creates a lot of space for talented black actors than what they usually get in Hollywood. Cuba GoodingJr., Terrence Howard and Lenny Kravitz are uniformly excellent.


                        Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” is made for awards and manipulatively tries to create the ‘Big Movie’ feel. Nonetheless, the performance from the main cast keeps the movie grounded and gives it an irrefutable emotional power. 

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Rated PG-13 for some violence, disturbing images, language, sexual material and thematic elements.

Aki Kaurismaki -- Prolific Proletariat Film-Maker


                               Aki Kaurismaki is the best known Scandinavian dark humorist. His works have taken Finnish cinema outside Finland. He actively organizes Midnight Sun Film Festival with his brother, Mika – also a film-maker. They produce other Finnish films through their company, ‘Villealfa’, whose productions are known for its breathtaking speed. In a field characterized by time-consuming funding applications and well-made literary, prestige productions, the Kaurismaki brothers have proved that it was possible to produce movies for relatively little money in a short time period (within 50 days).

                            In World War II, Finland allied with Nazi Germany to fight the Russians and eventually lost. After that it tried to appease its powerful neighbor, Russia through the Cold War foreign policy. This situation gave undignified labels and did much damage to Finland’s national pride. However, Kaurismaki’s movies are not about restoring the pride. He tries to probe beneath the surface illusion of Finland’s affluent society, exploring the lives of those disadvantaged by Finland’s transition from traditional heavy industry to a high-tech information and consumer economy. So, many of his films begin with a description, a montage from a workplace such as a factory, a truck depot, or a mine.


                          Kaurismaki’s protagonists are drifters, alcoholics, blue-collar workers and deadbeats – different kinds of peoples from the working class. The reticent characters of Kaurismaki drawn on and parody Finnish stereotypes: shyness, reclusiveness and quirkiness – characteristics thought to be bred by Finnish people’s seclusion on Arctic stretches. In Aki’s shots of the city, central perspective street sights dominate; and his archetypal landscape is a cafeteria. Understood as a sign, a remainder for post-war Finnish audiences of the shared past, its design signals a period of transition from agrarian (rural) to city life. Cafeterias were characteristic of small Finnish communities and working-class quarters of the cities where the Kaurismaki’s grew up. These pleasantly anonymous cafes became meeting places for post-war teenagers.

                       Finnish or Scandinavian cinema is generally oriented towards naturalism. By contrast, Kaurismaki’s films give priority to external realism through ascetic settings, but indulge in fanciful turns, especially through music – Finnish tango – a crucial element of Finnish popular culture. As seen in his film, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989), rock and roll is another influence in Finnish culture. Aki expresses characters’ melancholia and utopian dreams in a deliberately kitsch fashion in this movie. He also combines social realism with stylized comedy filled with pastiches of popular genre: road movie, gangster film and film noir. Understatement is his key technique, supporting minimal dialogue and deadpan acting.

Matti Pellonpaa and Kati Outinen

                       Matti Pellonpaa is the actor who best personifies the gloom of a Kaurismaki protagonist (especially in “Ariel” and “Take Care of your Scarf, Tatjana”). Pellonpaa won the European Felix prize for Best European actor in 1991. Kati Outinnen, another Kaurismaki’s favorite, specializes in the female version of despondency. She won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role in Aki’s “Man without a Past” (2002).

                       The best of Kaurismaki’s work is the ‘new Finland trilogy.’ The first installment “Drifting Clouds” (1996) shows ordinary Helsinki workers persisting with quiet determination while their routine lives are shattered by wider economic trends – high unemployment and multinational takeovers of local businesses. “Man Without a Past”, the second installment articulates the social problem of homelessness -- another overlooked aspect of contemporary Finland. Here, a nameless protagonist travels to Helsinki is search of work, is robbed and beaten up, loses his memory and begins a new life among the city’s homeless who live in Helsinki dock containers – a virtual collection of Kaurismaki’s earlier films, where the city is invariably a hostile place, full of crooks and hoodlums.


                      Aki’s films both derive and comment on classical melodrama. What may be called the commonsensical mechanisms of melodrama -- repetition, proverbial sayings, clichés, its employment of history and memory – involve a stylized and natural commitment to past actions and behavior. The story often holds a secondary place to cinematic space. In fact it is constructed as critical space allowing the interrogation of political, social and economic power structures. The orchestration of the narrative, the emphasis on muteness and the excessive use of music refer to the commonsensical functions of the melodrama though in a self-conscious way. For instance, the excesses in “Match Factory Girl” (1990) (belongs to proletariat trilogy) are an exposure of abundance and it presents a mise-en-scene which is highly stylized, archaic and minimalist.


                      In Kaurismaki’s films, the difficulties in expressing feelings do not indicate their absence: the obvious lack of eloquent verbal expression in the Kaurismaki films only proclaims that they are to be found elsewhere. Desire is omnipresent, only it is sealed in the evasive gazes and in the music. “The Match Factory Girl”, for instance, a film that contains only twenty-four lines of dialogue presents a well-known Finnish tango from the first bar to the last: Iris, the central character, visits a dance hall, where the camera is placed in the doorway and registers the band in three steady takes. The melody sung in this film tells of the singer’s yearning for the land beyond the vast sea: where warm wind sweeps over sunny beaches. The singer is lamenting because he is ‘a prisoner of the earth, without wings.’ The words create a stunning discrepancy with the rigidity of the dance hall. In this scene, the musical performance becomes an expression for both the singer and Iris’s feelings and their inability to assert them.

                    “American cinema is dead! The European one is dying and I’m not feeling particularly well either”, said Kaurismaki in an interview (two decades back), which shows his public persona in line with his cinematic universe. His movies are less sophisticated but are often straight to the point. He has consistently sabotaged any proposal of meaning or intent behind his work. He often contradicts with his statements and mostly finishes an explanation with: “I don’t know who cares?” As a cinephile, you can either join in his pragmatic quest for political, national and gendered values or can just ask ‘why bother?’ and return to more conventional films. 


Out of the Furnace -- A Worn-out Story in an Unfamiliar Landscape


                                Director Scott Cooper made “Crazy Heart” in 2009, starring show-stealer Jeff Bridges in an Oscar winning performance. It was a story about lone-wolf country singer, which turned out to be one of its kind explorations of American masculinity. Now he is back with an unapologetically melodramatic tale, set in a rusted-out post-industrial America. Aptly named “Out of the Furnace” (2013), the movie shows smokestacks of old industry are exhaling their grey breaths and focuses on the spewed out soldiers, returning home. The film reverberates many of the themes from Michael Cimino’s post-Vietnam war drama, “The Deer Hunter (1978).”

                              The film is set in Braddock, Pennsylvania. It’s a typical small town, where generations of fathers and sons have worked at local steel mill factory. The job is mundane and highly unsatisfying but it pays enough to cover the monthly bills. Russell Baze (Christian Bale), the sunken-eyed protagonist works in this searing heat and cares for his aging father at home. But, the film actually opens with a menacing force called Harlen DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). The hillbilly gangster brutally beats his date and an innocent bystander at a drive-in theatre. That vile scene shows a guy, who is going to wreck lives around him.


                            Russell’s younger brother Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) hates to work at steel mills and so enlists in army and has served three tours of duty in Iraq. He is a damaged but a bright-spirited guy, who is looking forward to return to the battlefield. Rodney also likes to gamble. He borrows money from a bookie and local gangster John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and later loses the money in a horse race. Russell, who is living with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) now, tries to clean up his brother’s messes. One day, Russell drinks heavily in a local bar and smashes his vehicle into a car backing out. Russell gets jail sentence for accidentally killing two people.

                         After getting released, he sees his girlfriend living with the town's sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). His father is dead and the damaged Rodney participates in illegal bare-knuckle fights for cash, with Petty as his sponsor. Rodney looks for higher-stakes matches, which brings him in contact with an out-of-control Harlan. The treacherous plan of Harlan crumbles Russell’s life, who ultimately becomes a remnant of the once-thriving town.


                        Director Cooper effortlessly drags a viewer into the Rust-coated town and cannily makes his visual imagery to do the talking. We see that Rodney is ex-military but we don’t know which war he is fighting. Later, we see news broadcast show in the background, where a guy endorses Obama's first election. Similarly, the accident which results in the imprisonment of Russell is unveiled through little series of shots. After the accident, Cooper directly cuts to Russell, shown toiling in a mill-like factory. But, he is actually working inside the prison. It implicitly depicts that Russell daily life has no big difference, whether behind bars or outside of them. The script written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby explores the shortcomings of a society, which hinders the rehabilitation of damned men. The dilapidated houses and drab industries and dirty fight clubs – the geographical truth – serves as the perfect backdrop to pursue the lives of men, who are constantly pushing themselves in search of catharsis and wealth.


                        Cooper’s finale consists of a lengthy shot of crosscutting, which depicts the roles of predator and prey, but betrays the previous subtexts with an obvious manipulation. He relies on many archetypal plot devices but at the same time brings out the old-fashioned emotional sincerity from the characters. Cooper is blessed with a very strong cast and there’s not a single bad performance, although we get a feeling that the cast’s talents were not fully used. As an emotionally wounded soldier, Casey gives one of his career-best performances. Christian Bale’s non-showy master class acting heightens the sense of authenticity. Harrelson’s astute psychopath brings out an animal energy which majestically rises out of the sad barrooms and rusted factories.


                       The storyline of “Out of the Furnace” (115 mins) is numbingly familiar, but its searing portrait of disenfranchised men brings in great pleasure and tension. The slow pace and inevitable bleakness may not be appreciated by all, but this exacting work might remain as a good sign of where Scott Cooper is headed. 

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Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale -- Creepy Santa's Wicked Treat


                                  Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s feature film debut “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” (2010) explores the origins of Joulupukki (Finnish Santa). This Santa is not the gleeful geezer who drops in gifts through the chimney. He is exactly the opposite. This wizened supernatural creature chews off ears, spanks kids into pieces and also has an acquaintance in the form of a demon minion, who kidnaps innocent children. “Rare Exports” is drawn from ancient Scandinavian mythology. It blends in wonders of a fairy tale, action movie heroics and the dark humor to a satisfying effect. The eerie snow bounded atmosphere might look similar to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), although the film is filled with whimsies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”). 

                                It is Christmas Eve in the Korvatunturi Mountains of northern Finland. Young Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa) are watching over a US archaeological team digging deep into the mountain. The drilling operation excavates something frozen in a huge block of ice. A gigantic pair of horns sprouts out of the ice block. Pietari believes that the buried possession coveted by Americans is the Santa Claus – the Finnish evil version, who boils naughty children and tans their hides down to the bone. At home, the intrepid and intelligent Pietari looks over ancient lore books and convinces himself. He lives with widowed father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), an operator of reindeer slaughterhouse. Soon, reindeers lay dead all over the field.


                              The butcher father and his friends blame the wolves for the death, but Pietari knows that there’s a more sinister force at work. On the following day, the town’s children disappear one by one. Obviously no one believes Pietari’s theories. However, the suspicions of the boy heighten when boney bearded old man (Peeter Jakobi) is caught in one of his father’s wolf traps. The gaunt man seems to have died of injuries. Revealing what happens next would spoil the "fun" that ensues, although you could predict what might happen in the end.

                            Director Helander has previously made a series of successful short films about the alternate history of Father Christmas. “Rare Exports” is a sort of a prequel to those shorts. The shorts reflected on the subject of how wild Santas were trapped and later domesticated to export them to the Christmas markets worldwide. He stretched that premise and makes more fun of the commercialization of Christmas. The ultra-serious tones of the horror genre, the stereotypes are all parodied along with a genuine creepiness. In terms of aesthetics, Helander and his D.P. Mika Orasmaa have captured the sense of unseen terror shrouded inside the imposing backdrop of snowy mountains. The adolescent fears and father-son relationship makes us recall the Spielberg of 70’s and 80’s.


                           The script retains the core humanism among the loads of high-spirited violence and dead pan humor. Helander paints the main characters in clean broad strokes, which refuses to caricaturing or to make them the object of ridicule. However, the action and fun dips a little in the middle section of script. Once that bearded guy is captured, the film sort of stumbles around before drumming up for the decorous climax. The production values and special effects have the top notch quality of Hollywood adventure thrillers. Helander has retained most of the cast acted in his shorts. Onni Tommilla flawlessly depicts Pietari – a kid who is yearning for his father’s love. The boy brings out the embrace and rejection of childhood, within the running time. Jakobi looks perfect for the part of disturbing Santa.


                          The copious amount of nudity and violence ensure that the kid audiences should be kept away from Christmas tale, but the adults might enjoy the deadpan humor and pagan images. “Rare Exports” (80 mins.) is a mischievous dark tale and an imaginative revival of Santa mythology. It’s a breather from Hollywood’s maudlin Christmas flicks. 

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Rated R for nudity and language

Fruitvale Station -- A Pointless Act of Violence


                                   What’s the value of a young African-American? The question has been repeatedly asked many times in movies, although the answer has been never settled. Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” (2013) once again poses the same inquiry using a fly-on-the-wall approach and without getting preachy. As a film student, Coogler started writing the script for this movie. He mixes aesthetical sensibilities and inerrant ethical stance into the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year old African-American, who was shot and killed by a transit policeman in Fruitvale Station, Oakland. This detailed somber urban drama won big awards in Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals.

                                 On New Year’s Day 2009, in Bay Area Rapid Transit stop, Officer Johannes Mehserle, pulled out his gun, believing he had taken his taser, shot it at the back of cuffed and prone Oscar Grant.  The officer served 11 months on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. The incident was captured by many in the station on cell phones. This chaotic incident later went viral and provoked community and international outrage. The film starts with the actual footage of events, which ends with a sharp sound of the bullet and an anguished cry from witnesses. Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is not a model citizen. He has served time in prison for selling drugs. He is casually adrift and dreams about getting his act together. The film only chronicles the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life, in which he is trying to get a legitimate job. His girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), lovely 5 year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and the sorely exhausted mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer) are the ones who can lift up his moral with even an impish smile.


                               
                              Oscar tries to persuade his old supermarket boss to rehire him. But the guy coldly explains he has hired somebody else. He later calls his old friend to sell the old stash of drugs. However, at the last minute, he changes his mind and drops the stash into the sea. Later, he picks up his girlfriend and daughter to celebrate his mother’s birthday. Then late at night, the couple gets out with friends to watch the fireworks. Oscar listens to his mother’s words to take the train rather than car, since both of them were drinking. Slowly the night surges toward the moment on platform, where the grander hopes of a young man were cut out.

                            Coogler, in 2011, approached Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker with an idea for this story. Whitaker took over the project immediately and the film was made under a million dollars. The director has not just dramatized the life of Oscar to make him an over-idealized protagonist. He introduces a human being (dangerously impulsive as well as warm and tender) to the viewer, not reiterates the headlines of American media. The mobile phone showed the atrocity to the world, so, Coogler user cell phone to frame different elements of Oscar’s life. The display of texts and phone calls punctuates the little natural proceedings that play a big role in his death. Snap decision to ditch the drugs and encountering an injured stray dog seems like over-dramatized events, but those occurrences adds an undercurrent of inescapable sadness to the final outcome.


                             The flashback scene, where she visits Oscar in prison is one of the film’s most well acted and honest scenes. A moment she sits talking with her solicitous son, the next moment, things turn volatile and he is exchanging profanities with a foe. That scene shows the wounded feelings of a mother watching her incarcerated love and also points out the character nature of Oscar. Michael B. Jordan serves the impossibly flawed, complicated character very well. With a dazzling smile Jordan glides us through Oscar’s life with complete assurance. Melonie Diaz brings out the sharp edges of a young woman, who patiently for her man to catch-up. Octavia Spencer, with her big eyes and commanding voice gives a solid performance as the mother.

                            Coogler, himself is a young African-American (living in Oakland), so it could have been easier to take the documentary route. That way, he could have repeatedly highlighted the appalling circumstances of Oscar's death. However, he chooses independent cinema to explore the essence of American life for the blacks and certainly brings out with a dazzling distinction. “Fruitvale Station” is eventually is a character study of a man and his gloomy atmosphere, like that of 70’s Cassavetes or Scorsese films--  where the circumstances teases a morally wounded man with more aggression. Coogler’s handheld camera brings a roughness to the proceedings. The little pauses in his script haunt us with the moment of unemphatic sweetness and shock.


                          “Fruitvale Station” (85 mins.) is one of the best Independent movies of 2013. It can spark discussions on topics which are continuing to lurk in the cultural background of America. This compelling homegrown tale should be seen as a cruel act committed to human being no matter what the person's gender, party association, religion or race might be. 

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Rated R for some violence and language throughout

The Great Beauty -- A Cultural Journey Well Worth Experiencing


                                    European film-makers often make movies that define itself self-consciously, and storms our senses with a mystical beauty. These films show the way of the contemporary people and becomes a part of film history in the process. The legendary Italian auteur Federico Fellini is known for making such social-fabric portraits. He romantically showed the tediousness among the sophisticated classes, who has the leisure to spend time with artifice and superficiality. He constantly took a plunge into Rome’s emotionally void chattering class. Between the fools’ parades and galvanizing melancholy, you can find the spiritual void and the slumbering state of intellectual paralysis. Like those five decade old Fellini’s masterpieces, Italy’s impressive contemporary director Paolo Sorrentino has conjured up a Roman sensualist named ‘Jep’, who walks us through the decadence of modern life, with minimal exaggeration.

                                  Ten minutes after the starting of “The Great Beauty” (2013) – after the beautiful montages and fashion-show surrealism – we have the first glance at Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) (celebrating his 65th birthday). As he explains the big question, which was asked when he was young, one can feel that this guy has a lot of sensibility and expresses himself so good that he should be a writer. Jep is indeed a writer – an aging journalist -- whose one novel “The Human Apparatus” constantly agitates him about his unrealized promise. It’s been a long time since he received accolades for his novel; however, he now leads a wealthy life with a less challenging work. Jep lives in an attractive terrace opposite the Colosseum, in which he entertains the upper bourgeoisie people. 


                                 
                             The people, who attend Jep’s parties, are mix of business associates, neurotic wives, washed up royals and wannabe authors. Jep himself wears an impeccably tailored suit and often rotates his cast of lovers. In short, Jep lives a life for which many of us would desire, but he looks exhausted by the all-night parties and art galleries. One day he learns about the death of his first love from her husband. They weep together and Jep remembers memories of a seaside idyll with the girl. As Jep wanders throughout the movie around Rome, these memories hover above him. Later, he bumps into a old friend, whose daughter Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) is still stripping at an age of 42. He gets acquainted with her and drags her into high society overindulgences. All these experiences give half-awakens Jep from the dormant state. When a 104 year old Saint, Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner) visits him he eventually feels the spiritual awakening, the power of love and even the hunger for writing.


                                Sorrentino and his co-writer Umberto Contarello have perfectly created a portrait of a city and a suave man. "I didn't want to simply be a socialite; I wanted to become the king of socialites. And I succeeded. I didn't just want to attend parties. I wanted the power to make them fail." says Jep in a voice-over and it is visible -- from the first party set-piece of – how immensely he had succeeded, yet continuing to experience the pull of his accustomed world. Just like the whole country, Jep is in between the abundant riches of the past and an uncertain global future. Cynicism and humor are the inherent part of the script. Jep’s interviews – the loosely connected episodes of the movie – wades us through scammers, wastrels, aristo-narcissists and sad people conciliating with a ceremonial botox-injection party. The high-spirited buffoonery and self-possessed absurdity of these individuals are the laugh-out loud moments. Another humorous occasion is Jep’s meeting with the cardinal, who is rumored to be the next pope. The cardinal brushes away the spiritual questions, only to gleefully ramble on about ‘how to cook a duck.’ Death is also a constant force in Jep’s life (as two people younger than him die). He has one rule for funerals: not to cry. However, he breaks his own rule and cries aloud than the bereaved mother, when carrying the coffin. He doesn’t care much about the man inside the coffin, but the death itself wrings tears out of the old man.


                                 Director Sorrentino has made several high-profile mediocre flicks (“This Must be the Place”, “Il Divo”). But, with this ageless social dissolution, he extraordinarily combines major topics with minute details. A more familiar cineaste could recall the individual flavors of his direction by looking through the great Italian Cinema of the past. Sorrentino and D.P. Luca Bigazzi hyperactive camera moves gracefully among the piazzas, statues and streets, constantly capturing their haunting beauties. Flamingos flying over the city at dawn and the final breathtaking shots of Rome show us what the future holds for the city or an individual. Another key element to Sorrentino’s vision is the inevitable mix of profane and sanctified music. Toni Servillo’s sad-glazed eyes ably convey Jep’s waste of a promising intellect. Even the smile that pours from his lips is coated with world-weariness. Getting the right tone for a character like Jep is pretty hard, although Servillo neatly hits the spot with a cool depth.

                               “The Great Beauty” (140 mins.) is one of the significant and best movies of 2013. It is hard to get this densely packed film in one sitting (may discover new levels of emotions in repeated viewings), but it will definitely entrap a patient viewer just like the residents of this existential city. Among all this bombast and excesses, you can feel the heightened frustration and sadness. 

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Contains lot of nudity

 

Little Women -- A Tale of Love, Self-Esteem and Moral Courage


                               Gillian Armstrong is an intelligible Australian director. She belongs to the same generation of film-makers like Jane Campion (“The Piano”). She made an excellent movie named “My Brilliant Career” in 1979 about an outcast woman, who aspires to be a writer. In 1993, she and screen writer Robin Swicord made an attempt to adapt the 1868 novella, which was already made two times (in 1933 and 1949) and thought it could still register more pertinent meanings to contemporary women. The literary classic “Little Women” was written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868. The novella was largely considered as an autobiographical story and a sentimental girly story. The former part is true; however the later statement is an assumed one. “Little Women” (1994), directed by Gillian Armstrong and originally written by May Alcott is a wonderful epic tale about familial love, where men too play an important role. In fact, this movie is full of heartfelt emotion, without any of the Hollywood studio’s easy manipulation.

                           The 1868 novel takes place in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the American Civil War. The film starts in 1864. Mr. March Orchard House is away, fighting at war. His wife, the matriarchal head of the family, Marmee (Susan Sarandon) takes care of the four independent daughters with differing temperaments. The eldest one is Meg (Trini Alvarado), a sophisticated girl and wants a wealthy man to marry her, but falls in love with a good-hearted tutor (Eric Stoltz). The next one is Jo (Winona Ryder), an imaginative and volatile girl. May Alcott, associate herself with this character.  Jo aspires to be a writer and churns out crime or melodramatic love stories. She also makes her sisters to participate in the plays. She is enchanted by a lonely boy next door named Laurie (Christian Bale). He also takes a liking to her. Laurie has a passion for music, while his rich grandfather wants him to take over his business.


                         The compassionate Beth (Claire Danes) is the third one. She bravely faces sickly diseases and remains angelic even when she is confined to the bed. The wide-eyed, dreamy girl Amy (as a girl by Kirsten Dunst; as younger woman by Samantha Mathis) is the youngest one. The eccentric and charismatic girl becomes a more sedate lady as she studies art in Europe. The girls have an inseparable bond between them, even as time and fate plays with their lives. They all their own secret desires for fine dresses, money, pickled limes and other materialistic possessions, but their genial mother have taught them that moral courage and self-esteem is the valuable wealth one can possess.


                        
                            The 1933 George Cukor’s adaptation was blessed with Katherine Hepburn’s heartbreaking performance as Jo. Of the three versions, Hepburn and Winona Ryder gently power their role with an exuberant acting. Winona Ryder, like in Martin Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence” and “Reality Bites” successfully brings up a character on-screen, whose intelligence and toughness deeply masks emotional vulnerability. Armstrong’s inflected direction helps Ryder to effectively convey her restlessness. Susan Sarandon shines in a role, which is full of wisdom and kindness. Marmee is ahead of her times with feministic views. She encourages them to embrace liberty, while consistently reminding them to be a model of composure. Christian Bale – one of our generation’s great actor – suffered from some extremely weak performances in movies like “Newsies” and "Swing Kids.” So, his solid performance as Laurie made him once again a recognizable talent (after Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”). Claire Danes’s dry-eyed Beth is a little ineffectual character, but her acting might wring some tears, by the time when a viewer bids her farewell. The book itself has some hiccups: the sudden, unbelievable transformation of Amy and the thankless, underwritten role of Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne). Since these are the non-autobiographical elements, one might find it odd or tedious. 


                          Director Armstrong paces her scene slowly and it is better in terms of emotional resonance. The slow pace doesn’t manipulate viewers for exhibiting sentiment. They are rather attracted by the integrity of the characters and were not unnaturally imposed by standard views. Through Jo, Robin Swicord makes us see the unfair world in which men are encouraged to pursue their dreams and be creative, whereas, women are advised to woo a wealthy man and expected to immerse herself into the domestic duties. The novelist vividly captures the various emotional dimensions of a family, where the members honor each others idiosyncrasies and rally together in times of need. Alcott subtly states that woman have a greater vision of what is right and wrong, and can ably handle anything the world (of men) throws at them.  In short she says Women are the soul center of a family.

                         “Little Women” is so engrossing, since it was made with an obvious affection for the original material. Some of the book’s views may be considered old-fashioned, but anyhow it’s a fine break to see a functional family on-screen rather than the heaps of movies about dysfunctional families.

Memorable Quotes:

“Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.”

“I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.”

"Some books are so familiar reading them is like being home again."

 Trailer




Rated PG for some mild language