Quick Picks

Here’s a quick list of interesting smaller movies that I can recommend.

Comedies

France

L’Auberge Espagnole: International students in Barcelona; Audrey Tatou has a small role.

US

To Rome with Love: Three separate stories of life in Rome, with mostly Italian actors and a few American ones (Alec Baldwin); directed by Woody Allen.  (And, of course, there’s also Midnight in Paris, Allen’s ode to Paris which is wonderful.)

The Tourist: Sad sack American teacher (Johnny Depp) falls for Angelina Jolie in Paris, follows her to Venice; supposedly a thriller, but it’s so ridiculous it operates as a comedy; great photography.  Full capsule review here.

Heart-warming RomComs

France

Chocolat: Single mother with interesting talents opens a chocolate shop in small town in France; with Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin and Johnny Depp; obviously inspired by Like Water for Chocolate.

Italy

Bread and Tulips: Italian housewife gets abandoned in restroom on family trip, decides to hitchhike to Venice.

L’Ultimo Bacio (Last Kiss): Young Italian men go for one last fling before they settle down; the American remake with Zach Braff is not bad

Germany

Soul Kitchen: Young restaurant owner in Hamburg tries to revamp his restaurant. Full capsule here.

Mostly Martha: Hard-driving German chef suddenly finds herself responsible for her 9-year old niece when her sister, the girl’s mother, is killed in a car accident; don’t get the horrible American remake with Catherine Zeta-Jones, No Reservations.

India

Bride and Prejudice: Jane Austen meets Bollywood; better than it sounds.

Mexico

Like Water for Chocolate: Mexican woman discovers her cooking can transmit the emotions she felt while making them

UK

Love Actually: Ensemble comedy about love at Christmastime; has just about every British actor not otherwise occupied in a Harry Potter film (Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, …)

Possession: American literature professor discovers long-lost love letters of supposedly stuffy Victorian poet; the modern love story (Aaron Eckart/Gwyneth Paltrow) plays off nicely against the 19th C one. (Jeremy Northam / Jennifer Ehle)

One Day: Young English couple are drawn to each other, but decide to stay just friends and meet once a year; Anne Hathaway is pretty good, despite her dreadful British accent

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Yemeni prince wants to fish for salmon in the desert; Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor want to help; more of a fable than a real-life story, but charming nevertheless; look for Conleth Hill (GOT’s Varys) as McGregor’s work colleague – with hair.

Taiwan

The Wedding Banquet: When gay Chinese man living in New York learns his parents are coming to visit, he asks a female friend to pose as his fiancée; early Ang Lee

Interesting Foreign Movies

France

I’ve Loved You So Long: Kristen Scott Thomas as woman released from prison after serving time for murder tries to rebuild her life; more life-affirming than it sounds

My Fathers Glory/My Mother’s Castle: Provencal family saga from the early 20th C to current day; based on stories of Marcel Pagnol; casts Provence in a romantic light

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring: Provencal family saga from the early 20th C to current day; based on stories of Marcel Pagnol; covers similar ground to Fathers Glory/Mothers Castle, but darker view of life

A Very Long Engagement: Audrey Tatou as woman who loses her boyfriend in WWI, but becomes convinced that her fiancé is still alive, suffering from amnesia

Bob le Flambeur: Dapper gambler gathers a group of 11 guys to raid a casino for one last score; if it sounds like Ocean’s 11, that’s because that both US films were based (very loosely) on this 1956 French original; in black-and-white

Persepolis: Animated film about a young girl growing up in Iran during the revolution; she escapes to Paris and tries to rebuild her life; in black-and-white

Ridicule: Brilliant 18th C social satire masquerading as comedy; with Fanny Ardant

Canada

Monsieur Lazhar (in French): Algerian refugee in Montreal becomes a substitute teacher for a 4th grade class

Germany

The Lives of Others: Stasi agent wiretaps successful East German author, begins to identify with him

Spain (Almodovar)

All About My Mother: Woman wants to meet theater actress she idolizes; wonderful shots of Barcelona

Volver: Woman who discovers her husband is a jerk takes matters into her own hands; with Penelope Cruz

[many more Almodovar if you like these]

Italy

Best of Youth: TV miniseries which follows several young Italian men from their college days in the 1960s to the current day; 40 years of Italian social history

UK

Dirty Pretty Things: Strange goings on in London hotel; staff, mostly illegal immigrants, struggle with whether to go to police; Audrey Tatou has a small role

Czechoslovakia

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Womanizing Czech doctor becomes political dissident after Russian invasion of 1968; Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin before they were famous

Taiwan

Eat Drink Man Woman: Widowered master chef communicates with his three grown daughters by cooking for them; early Ang Lee, with great cooking scenes

Israel

Lemon Tree: Palestinian widow on the West Bank makes a modest living selling her lemons until the Israeli defense minister moves in next door and wants to cut down her trees; a metaphor for the last 40 years of Israeli-Palestinian relations

India

The Namesake: Young Indian-American tried to discover his roots; with Kal Penn

Gritty Foreign Films

France

Battle of Algiers: Classic film about attempts by the French to fight terrorists in Algeria

Le Prophete: Young Muslim Frenchman in French prison

Widow of St. Pierre: A man commits a murder in a remote French-owned island off the coast of Canada in the mid-19th C; while they’re waiting for a guillotine to be delivered, the townspeople form a relationship with the murderer; based on a true story; with Juliette Binoche

Israel

Waltz with Bashir: Animated film about a guy who wants to discover the truth about the Sabra/Shatila refugee camp massacres

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Cinderella

An excellent palate cleanser after Tomorrowland, this is that rare fantasy film aimed at children which can be enjoyed by adults as a simple, good-hearted entertainment.  This live-action remake of Disney’s animated version is directed by Kenneth Branagh, and features a number of high-quality actors having a wonderful time chewing scenery.  Standouts include Cate Blanchett, who plays the evil stepmother as a 19th C version of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity; Helena Bonham-Carter as the wonderfully ditzy fairy godmother, and Derek Jacobi (!) as the king.  Lily James (Rose in Downtown Abbey) and Richard Madden (Robb Stark) have wonderful chemistry together, which I defy you to resist.  (Even Blanchett has a hint of a smile in the ballroom scene.)  Cinderella’s 40-layer dress is a wonder in itself — I understand several copies were made at different lengths, depending on how much running Cinderella had to do in various scenes.  Cinematography is also top-notch — some scenes were shot at Blenheim Palace, home of the Churchill family and one of the grandest country homes in England.  And there’s a minimum of Disney kitsch, although the studio’s considerable experience with animatronic animals is used to good effect.

No violence, but plenty of ugly stepsister cackling and bad guy mustache-twirling.  No sex, unless you count the skintight pants worn by many of the male characters.  No fart jokes.

Fun fact:  Richard Madden and Lily James, this film’s protagonists, are scheduled to play Romeo and Juliet in an upcoming theatrical production directed by Branagh.  Could be good.

Tomorrowland

I really wanted to like this movie.  Stories with at least notionally positive views of the future are few and far between.  But I didn’t.

The movie starts well with enough, with a prologue at the NY Worlds Fair of 1964-65.  The early scenes of Tomorrowland are quite well done, and there is a wonderful little scene involving the Eiffel Tower (relic of another Worlds Fair) about half way through.  The film is full of visual references to classic fantasy films, like The Wizard of Oz and Field of Dreams, as well as science fiction of all types (Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lost in Space, not to mention the Jetsons).  There’s even a minor character named Hugo Gernsback, a shout-out to the sci-fi editor for whom the Hugo awards are named.  But these isolated vignettes seem to be part of another, much better movie — not the one on the screen.  The actual movie loses its way about half way through — plot threads go nowhere, Checkhovian count-down clocks never get to zero, and the storyline dissolves into a hopeless muddle.  The principal screenwriting credit goes to Damon Lindelof, best known for Lost — I can only conslude that the storytelling murkiness is intentional.  George Clooney, normally an entertaining actor even in substandard films, is unaccountably annoying here, although the irritation factor really goes off the scales whenever Hugh Laurie is on the screen, as the Big Bad Villain who unaccountably speaks Etonian. Even the ending, which I’m sure was intended to be positive, was kind of creepy — more zombie apocalypse than the world reborn.

Save your money.

Fun fact:  The Disney company, which produced this movie, actually worked on several exhibits at the NY Worlds’ Fair.  Some of the rides developed for the Fair later became rides at Disney theme parks, including the one originally designed for Pepsico — “It’s a Small World After All.”  You have been warned.

Testament of Youth

This remarkably affecting film is a dramatization of Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I.  The story begins in the spring of 1914, when Vera’s biggest worry is whether she will be able to join her brother and his friends at Oxford in the fall. (She is smart enough to get in, but her father worries that too much education will make her unmarriageable.)  A few months later, WWI begins, and everyone’s life dramatically changes.  The young men go off to war. Vera volunteers as an army nurse, and the young woman who wasn’t permitted to see a young man without a chaperone is suddenly washing the horribly wounded bodies of other young men.  Vera eventually volunteers to work in France, near the front line. After the war, she (and everyone else) need to learn to live with their ghosts — the flower of a generation gone.  That’s the origin of the book.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the horror that the war quickly became with admirable restraint.  Instead of showing us stacks of bodies, the astonishing casualty rate is demonstrated by lists of names in the newspaper, which go on and on.  The English countryside and Oxford’s dreaming spires seem like a fantasyland compared to the moonscape the Western Front soon became.  There are some intense scenes (this is WWI, after all), but their impact is all the stronger because there are so few of them.

With Alicia Vikander (the scheming AI in Ex Machina) as Vera, and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) as the young man she falls in love with.

Highly recommended.  The book, written in 1933 and still in print, is also worth your time.

Fun fact:  Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, served in the British Cabinet in the 1970s, and was one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic party.

The Martian

Astronaut Mark Watney, part of a 6-man mission to Mars, is caught in a terrible storm and left for dead by his fleeing colleagues.  Some time later, he wakes up and finds himself alone on an alien planet.  Uh-oh.

Doesn’t sound very promising, does it?  But this is a terrific movie, one of the best I have seen in a very long time.

One of this movie’s most absorbing features is its approach to problem-solving.  We keep waiting for our intrepid left behind astronaut to panic or give in to despair.  Instead, he looks at his survival as a complex problem to be first unpacked and then solved in stages.  Deal with the most urgent needs first (oxygen – check; stop bleeding from stomach – check) before moving on to figuring out how much food and water you have, and how much you are going to need to survive for several years.  Work that out, and pretty soon, you’re devoting time to figuring out how to transport yourself halfway across the planet, when your only vehicle is a rover powered by a battery with a range of 35 miles. It’s fascinating watching Watney working out answers to each of these problems in turn, particularly since most his solutions are essentially low-tech (no deus ex replicators here).

Eventually (spoiler alert) Watney makes contact with NASA, and then the focus of the action changes to organizing a potential rescue.  Geeks at JPL construct a replica of Watney’s rover, and together they try to figure out how to jury-rig it for a long journey.  But even here, the best engineers are still working mostly with hammers and nails.  Only the astrophysicists use “modern” technology to work out rescue routes — and it’s none too certain.

Matt Damon is terrific as Watney, playing him with just the right balance of sardonic gallows humor and hard-headed science geekery.  The rest of the cast is full of big-ticket actors largely wasted in small roles, although rarely have scientists, engineers and yes, even government bureaucrats been portrayed so sympathetically.  Jessica Chastain is a standout as a mission commander who works by the “feminine” method of consensus, but whose leadership in making the hard calls is unquestioned.  The guy who plays the head JPL geek — large, unkempt and brilliant – is great too.

The cinematography is, as you might expect, outstanding.   I don’t know where they shot this movie (Utah?  Arizona?) but wherever it “really” is, it sure looks like something that might be Mars.

This  movie is almost 2 1/2 hours long, and for most of that time, all you see is one guy on screen talking to himself.  I didn’t look at my watch once.  It’s even a good choice for family viewing — any 8-year old will be able to figure out what is going on, and will probably enjoy the poop jokes more than you.

Run, don’t walk.