'Memphis' musical at Fox

'Comedy of Errors' at Rep Theater

'Invisible Hand' at Rep Theater

'West Side Story' musical revival at Fox Theater

'Addams Family' musical at Fox Theater

'Adventures of Tom Sawyer' at Rep

'All That Tap' at Touhill

'Billy Elliot' at Fox

'Circle Mirror Transformation' at Rep

Circus Flora 'Vagabond Adventures'

'God of Carnage' at Rep

'Jersey Boys' at Fox theater review

'Next to Normal' at Fox theater review

'Beehive: The '60s Musical' at Rep theater review

'In The Next Room' at Rep theater review

Alvin Ailey Dance at Fox review

'Marriage of Figaro: Sliced and Diced' at Touhill opera review

'Macbeth' at Rep theater review

'9 to 5: The Musical' at Fox theater review

'Fall of Heaven' theater review

'Wizard of Oz' at Fox theater review

'South Pacific' musical at Fox Theater review

- scroll down for  theater reviews, news & interviews



127 Hours


Adjustment Bureau

Ahead of Time (JFF 2011)

Anita (JFF 2011)

Another Earth

The Art Of Getting By

The Artist



Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

A Better Life

Barney's Version

Berlin 36 (JFF 2011)


Black Swan

Blue Valentine

Bride Flight


Casino Jack


City of Life and Death

Le Concert

The Conspirator


Cowboys and Aliens

A Dangerous Method

The Debt

The Eagle

Fair Game

The Fairy

A Film Unfinished

First Position

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Habermann (JFF 2011)


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Human Resources Manager


Inside Job

Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray (JFF 2011)

'King's Speech'

'The Matchmaker' (JFF 2011)

Monte Carlo

Le Quarttro Volte

Names of Love

One Day

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Point Blank

Our Idiot Brother

The Raven

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rum Diary

A Separation

Social Network

A Somewhat Gentle Man


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Troll Hunter

True Grit


Water for Elephants

The Way Back

Where Do We Go Now

Winter in Wartime

        Film and Theater Reviews, plus Interviews, News & More by Cate 'Movie' Marquis
       (member St. Louis Film Critics professional association)
Movie Marquee Film Reviews

* new reviews weekly
* film, theater & DVD reviews, interviews, news, & more
* scroll down for more reviews
* website best viewed using Mozilla Firefox browser

Oscar nominees for 2013 announced

Click here to read more

St. Louis Film Critics Awards 2012 winners announced

Click here to read more


 'This Must Be The Place' stars Sean Penn as aging rocker turned Nazi hunter in dryly comic yet surprisingly thoughtful indie film

By Cate Marquis

"This Must Be The Place" is a dry, tongue-in-cheek comedy that is also an unexpectedly touching exploration of identity and the father-son relationship.

Cheyenne (Sean Penn) plays a 50-year-old former hard-rock star, a sort of Ozzie Osborne type, now living on his royalties in a big house in Ireland. Nicknamed Chey, pronounced "shy," by his patient, doting, no-nonsense wife of thirty-years (Frances McDormand), the retired rocker still wears mascara and dresses goth as if he is going on stage at any minute. The nickname actually suits this low-energy, surprisingly sweet odd-ball character, for Chey is a kind, gentle man whose life is restricted by old habits and eccentric fears. Cheyenne goes about his quirky daily routine of grocery shopping, lunch at the mall and handball in his empty pool with his firefighter wife, all the while dragging along a little shop cart, like an eccentric old lady despite his vampire-ish appearance.

A call from a cousin back home in New York forces Cheyenne out of his comfortable world by telling his his father is dying. Despite his fear of flying and the fact that father and son have been estranged for thirty years, he travels to New York. Once he arrives, we suddenly learn that Chey's family is Jewish and that he is too late for a hoped for reconciliation. His family sitting shiva and some of his Orthodox relatives direct hard stares at Cheyenne in his goth rocker attire.

As Cheyenne looks at the number tattooed on his dead father's arm, we glimpse his grief for the father he has hardly spoke to since he was a teen. After the father's funeral, his cousin reveals Cheyenne's father's life-long obsession, tracking a Nazi guard who was especially cruel to him in Auschwitz, and asks the son to continue his father's quest. Dutiful but dazed, the rocker son sets out to find the Nazi, a physical and emotional journey of self discovery, identity and father and son connections.

The above might sound like drama but it is presented with a biting, sardonic wit, which is both funny and thought-provoking, a comic tone that suggests the Coen Brothers. Turning Nazi hunter, Chey does nothing to alter his rock star appearance nor his sad, gentle demeanor but the journey does uncover long buried aspects of who he is.

The film co-stars Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson, Kerry Condon, Harry Dean Stanton, Joyce Van Patten and real musician David Byrne, as himself. The film won six David di Donatello Awards, Italy's Oscars, but the film is in English, despite having an Italian director and being an Italian/French/Irish production.

Director Paolo Sorrentino, who also helmed the impressive "Il Divo," uses a dryly comic, tongue-in-cheek style that evokes American films such as "About Schmitt" as well as the Coens' films. But unlike the Jack Nicholson character in that film, Sean Penn's Cheyenne is a sympathetic character and we see his emotional journey through his eyes. This story has surprising depth, aided in great part by Penn's remarkable performance, and there are many layers in its theme of reconnecting with his father, his identity and undiscovered or forgotten aspects of his own self.

The cast is superb and the film is shot with a gorgeous cinematic style, that gives it a sense of magic and epic. Credit both Sean Penn and director Paolo Sorrentino for the film's thoughtful and warm current under the comic surface. The film often focuses on Penn's still, slightly sad face and his brilliant blue eyes, highlighted by his mascara, pale make-up and black shaggy hair. Habit-bound Cheyenne dresses in black leather no matter what the occasion or temperature and the shopping cart he drags behind him everywhere he goes at home is replaced by his rolling suitcase on his travels. The rocker's low energy persona is punctuated by occasional outbursts of frustration, grief and even rage on his journey. Penn's performance is moving, subtle and the warm heart of this remarkable film. He takes us on a journey that is at once uniquely personal and universal.

Penn's splendid performance is aided greatly by rest of the wonderful cast. Judd Hirsch plays a famous Nazi hunter that the rocker tries at first to recruit do the job for him. But the Nazi hunter tartly informs him he has bigger projects and Hirsh is particularly funny in assessing Cheyenne's familial concerns with a barrage of disdainful humor. Harry Dean Stanton plays a memorable, pivotal character the rocker meets on his quest and McDormand as the long-time wife. each character has layers of depth, as does the story itself.

"This Must Be The Place" may not be the must-see film of 2012 but this dryly comic yet unexpectedly thoughtful film is worth the time.

© St. Louis Jewish Light


So many films, so little time: SLIFF races into second week

Laura Linney and Bill Murray, as FDR, star in HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, one of the films featured in the second week of the St. Louis International Film Festival. Photo credit: Nicola Dove. (c) Focus Features.

by Cate Marquis

The St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) opened last Thursday, and film addicts are already running hard to make it to all the important films making all-too-brief appearances here.

The second week sees more films getting awards and buzz on the festival circuit, Oscar-hopefuls and some more previews of big Hollywood prestige films, although with a wide sampling of shorts and documentaries. The second weekend sees the announcements of awards and the Closing Night party as well.

Hollywood films with name stars getting an early showing last week included Silver Linings Playbook, A Late Quartet and Stand Up Guys. This week, we get an early peek at "Hyde Park on Hudson," in which Bill Murray stars as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosting a visit from the British royal couple before the war, and "Quartet," Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut in a British film about a retired opera quarter starring Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey).

Other high-profile films are "Rust and Bone," a French film that created a lot of buzz at Cannes and directed by Jacques Audiard who did “A Prophet” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” and "The Sapphires," set in 1968 about a real Australian Aboriginal singing group billed as that country's answer to The Supremes.

This past weekend saw a screening of "Spanish Lake" (see accompanying review) but this second week is a great chance to catch some documentaries with a St. Louis or Missouri connection. There are a pair of documentaries on the Joplin tornado, "Joplin, Missouri: A Tornado Story" and "Deadline in Disaster."

Illinoisans might want to catch "Between Two Rivers," a documentary about historic Cairo, Illinois which was threatened by flooding this spring. The screening also includes Carbondale’s Stace England and the Salt Kings performing their concept album “Welcome to Cairo, Ill.”

Two famous St. Louisans, Josephine Baker and Al Hirschfeld, get the spotlight in a pair of programs. There is a Josephine Baker double feature, with her silent film "Siren of the Tropics," with live musical accompaniment by The Poor People of Paris, and "The Other Josephine" a documentary film about the singer/dancer/actress/philanthropist/civil right activist co-written by her son. There is also a free screening of "The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story," about the legendary St. Louis-born artist whose celebrity caricatures are world famous.

Two other films with local interests - ragtime and baseball - are "The Entertainers," which focuses on Peoria, Illinois' annual "World’s Greatest Old-Time Piano Player" competition and will include live ragtime performances, and "Knuckleball," about the two pitchers who specialized in that unusual throw in 2011, whose directors are this year's Women in Film Award honorees.

Art and artists are sort of a theme this year. Other hot-ticket films include "Beauty Is Embarrassing" and It's Such A Beautiful Day." "Beauty Is Embarrassing" is described as a "hilarious, irreverent, joyful and inspiring" documentary about a significant American artist, Wayne White, who was also a creative force behind "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." The film is getting a lot of attention and White himself will attend the screening. For "It’s Such A Beautiful Day," Oscar-nominated cult-fav animator Don Hertzfeldt combined three earlier films about character named Bill to create his longest film, mixing experimental optical effects and trick photography with traditional animation.

Go deeper into art with the surreal "Floating Oceans" will be presented with live performance by animator/composer Alexis Gideon. The film is the third in his multi-media opera series. "The Nine Muses," a meditation on fate and chance inspired by the Odyssey, will be shown free at the Contemporary Art Museum in Grand Center.

If fiction films are more your taste, there are plenty of good ones. Several country's official Oscar entries are featured in the fest. Among these are "Barbara," a taut drama set in '80s East Germany, "Caesar Must Die," an Italian film that is a mix of documentary and drama about prison inmates staging Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and dark crime thriller "Headshot" from Thailand. Others include "Sister" a Swiss drama about a family struggling to survive, "A Trip" a Slovenian film about three friends whose lives are headed in different directions and "War Witch, a Congolese film about a female child soldier.

The film fest is organized in sidebars, and if you have a particular interest, this can be a good approach to picking films to see. Sidebars are themes that link groups of films. If you want to see African or African American themed film, there's a sidebar for that. If you want to see the art themed or animated films, there's a sidebar for that. Many sidebars focus on national cinema or world regions. Other sidebars spotlight children's films or comedies. Pick up a copy of the program or go to SLIFF presenter Cinema St. Louis website to download at copy of the program.

(c) Cate Marquis / The Current


St. Louis International Film Festival 2012:
Jewish Sidebar Best Bets capsule film review

Here are three short reviews of recommended films in the SLIFF 2012 Jewish Sidebar:

"Orchestra of Exiles"

Sunday, November 11, at 4 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater

St. Louis native Josh Aronson directs this polished and powerful documentary about Polish violin prodigy Bronislaw Huberman, who founded the orchestra that became the Israeli Philharmonic. Huberman had been focused on his own career, whose rocketing success is covering in the film, until the rise of Hitler and his antisemitic policies drove Huberman in a new direction. By assembling some of the best Jewish musicians in Europe into his orchestra in the then-Palestine, Huberman was able to rescue a host of musicians and their families from the Shoah and build an artistic gem for the new nation of Israel. Aronson, who was previously nominated for an Oscar for his film "Sound and Fury," offers a masterful film with a pleasing cinematic style, combining interviews with notables such as Zubin Mehta and Joshua Bell, archival footage, photo stills with actors recreations to create a documentary film that is both artistic and engrossing. The film follows not only Huberman's efforts to both build the best orchestra he could and rescue as many gifted Jewish musicians as possible, but that narrative is set against the back drop of the struggles of Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany, who were banned from orchestras and efforts of other Jewish musicians to counter that by forming Jewish orchestras within Germany, and against the backdrop of the developing nation of Israel. The English-language film is inspiring and moving, a must-see for music lovers but a crowd-pleaser recommended for all.

"Off-White Lies" (Orhim le-rega)

Friday, November 9, at 4 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac Cinema and Sunday, November 11, at 4:15 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. In Hebrew with English subtitles.

With an appealing visual style, this Israeli film straddles the line of comedy and drama and tell a tale of father and daughter. After years living with her mother in California, young teen Libby (Elya Inbar) is sent to live with her father Shaul (Gur Bentvich) in Israel.

While delighted to see his daughter, Shaul also seems unprepared. Picking her up at the airport, he announces that instead of going to his apartment they are taking a trip up north, to see some of the countryside. Actually, Libby's penniless inventor father is planning to stay with a friend. Libby catches on to her father's lack of truthfulness but Shaul calls his stretching the truth "white lies," although his daughter calls them "off-white lies." Unfortunately, their visit coincides with the start of the second Lebannon war and missile attacks send them to a shelter and then back south. Posing as refugees from the war, father and daughter find shelter with a wealthy family and begin to bond as they struggle to get on their feet.

Fine acting and a deft comedic touch are among the highlights of director Maya Kenig's film. Both young Inbar and Bentvich create appealing performances and the chemistry of emotionally hot-and-cold adolescence is just right too. Kenig skillfully mixes off-beat comedy, teen rebellion and touching family drama but the film also features some lovely photography, polished editing and near-perfect pacing. The 2011 film has been nominated for several awards. Gur Bentvich won a Best Actor award at the Jerusalem Film Festival and the film played the Toronto and Berlin film festivals.

"Oma & Bella"

Monday, November 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. In German with English subtitles.

Grandmas and cooking - what's not to like? In this charming, touching documentary, director Alexa Karolinski spotlights a delightful pair of old friends, elderly Jewish women with sparkling personalities living in Berlin, who cook their way through everything. "You remember it so vividly when you cook," says Bella, about her childhood in Poland. Her friend Regina, the director's grandmother, her Oma, grew up in Lithuania. Bella came to live with her in 2007, to help her long-time friend through hip replacement, but never left.

"And if one of the grandchildren thinks to come to visit, there is always something to eat," Bella says of their well-stocked kitchen.

Director/writing/cinematographer Karolinski uses a simple, straight-forward approach of essentially just pointing the camera at the two friends and letting them take it from there. While the cinematography is plain, the resulting film is fascinating nonetheless, thanks to the appeal of their friendship and personalities.

Bella tells us she only eats "Jewish foods," foods she grew up with, but then cooks pig's feet. She dismisses the modern trend to "eat everything." Oma playfully teases about Bella's picky eating.

The two friends speak in German but they grew up speaking Yiddish. They learned German in the camps and picked up some Russian as well. They tell us, bit by bit, about their backgrounds, a little about their families, their wartime experiences in the camps and their post-war life but audiences might be left wanting a bit more. As they move about, we get snippets and passing remarks, about how young they were and how they made up for their lost youth in the post-war era, about their loves and heartbreaks. Generally the director is comfortable with just letting their conversation flow. Periodically, Oma urges her grand-daughter the director/photographer to eat something.

The documentary follows them as they go about their daily lives, shopping for groceries, playing cards with friends, but their underlying strength from all they survived surfaces again and again in discussions. Oma and Bella are always well-dressed when they go out and one gets a sense of their beauty and style in their youth.

At one point Bella, who is a bit older, talks about her work with the partisans, the resistance, in Poland. "We would say 'Before they kill us, we will kill them," she says with coolness, revealing an inner steel under the facade of a warm, elegant little old lady. Generally they have positive attitudes but occasionally, memories move them to sorrow.

The result is a warm, personal slice-of-life film that is haunting as well, focused on two remarkable women survivors.

(c) St. Louis Jewish Light / Cate Marquis



Shirley MacLaine delights as meanest woman in town, in fact-inspired dark comedy 'Bernie'

Bernie (Jack Black) helps Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) with some shopping, in the dark comedy BERNIE. Image courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.

by Cate Marquis

Shirley MacLaine is truly delicious as the meanest, richest woman in a small East Texas town, in director Richard Linklater's quirky true-story based "Bernie." Better yet, MacLaine is teamed with Jack Black, in an unexpected role as a sweet-natured, gospel-singing undertaker, whose acts of kindness towards MacLaine's bitter character exacts a steep price.

"You can't make this stuff up" is the phrase that springs to mind for "Bernie," a delightfully twisted comedy, based on a real-life small town crime, that has been playing at the Tivoli Theater. Director Richard Linklater grew up in a small town in East Texas, which allows him to nail perfectly the quirkiness of the unique region.

Black is a delight in what is perhaps his best performance yet. This quirky, dark comedy is further buoyed by Matthew McConaughey as a slick, cowboy-hatted prosecuting attorney who is determined to get to the bottom of things, with an eye to winning re-election, plus a cast of real-life local characters.

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a conservatively-dressed, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly assistant undertaker who becomes the most beloved resident in tiny Carthage, Texas. Despite some describing him as being "light in his loafers," Bernie wins hearts around his adopted hometown for his caring manner with widows needing his services, his golden voice in the church choir, his devotion to Sunday teaching, his organizing of the community theater and his all-around generosity and kindness.

But sweet Bernie meets a real challenge when Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) loses her husband. Not even her grandchildren want to be around the demanding, difficult curmudgeon despite her piles of money. Yet the crusty tyrant eventually succumbs to Bernie's sweet, solicitous manner and Bernie becomes her traveling companion, confidant and personal assistant. Her increasing demands and possessiveness begin to wear on social butterfly Bernie. When the old recluse becomes more reclusive, scandal emerges and smiling, glad-handing local prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) steps in, seeing a chance to boost his campaign for re-election.

Casting Jack Black as Bernie was a brilliant move. The against-type casting of the loud, raucous Black was a stroke of counter-intuitive genius, as he is fabulous in the role. Black, who really does have a golden voice, sings a number of gospel standards in the film and even without being a fan of gospel music, a description that fits this writer, audiences will be enthralled by his voice and warm to the unlikely character. Black plays Bernie with remarkable restraint, making the role a showcase for his hidden acting talents.

As good as Black is, Shirley MacLaine steals every scene they share, as the remarkably nasty, rich and anti-social Mrs. Nugent. She sneers, derides and dismisses with a restrained style that is gut-busting funny as well as unforgettable. McConaughey also delivers a sharp and winning performance as the popular, cowboy-hatted, politically savvy Danny Buck, who is more politician than prosecutor. The role continues a string of more interesting performances by the actor than we have seen from him in years.

Director Linklater, who co-wrote the script, captures the unique character of this part of Texas, which has more in common with the Deep South than the dry, tumbleweed ranches of West Texas. The director cleverly mixes documentary and narrative film techniques, framing the film's fictionalized story like a documentary, with real-life residents of the little town speaking about the real Bernie and the events that transpired. Linklater returns to these interviews periodically, cleverly keeping to audience aware that this strange story is fact, not fiction. The result is a quirky dark comedy that entertains, amazes and amuses, while reminding us both of the the Americana and sometime strangeness of small-town life.

Besides the film's clever structure, it always keeps us guessing about what will happen next. None of the characters are standard-issue Hollywood types and everything has a twist.

The truth-stranger-than-fiction tale is a complete delight, filled with twists and surprises and one wonderful character after another. "Bernie" is your best comedy bet for summer, providing one's tastes run to the ironic.

© Cate Marquis


In serio-comic 'Where Do We Go Now?' women use belly-dancers as weapon of mass distraction to prevent war

Nadine Labaki as Amale in 'WHERE DO WE GO NOW.' Photo by Rudy Bou Chebel ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

by Cate Marquis

The comic/dramatic film "Where Do We Go Now?" opens with two enterprising teen boys bringing a satellite TV dish to their remote mountain village, which is half Muslim and half Christian. But when the new TV reception and contact with the outside world brings news of renewed religion-fueled violence in another village, all the women, Muslim and Christian, join forces to prevent their men from resuming the fighting too, by concealing the news from them and devising a number of diversions, including a ruse involving a troupe of belly-dancers.

This sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking film, is in Arabic, Russian and English with English subtitles, and is now playing at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

Director Nadine Labaki, who also stars in the film, never says exactly where this story takes place. It could be in her native Lebanon but it could just as easily be set in Eastern Europe. That choice makes the film more universal. The film is alternately a touching plea for peace and a ironic and clever farce comedy. The combination works better than expected, thanks to the director's strong hand and use of strong imagery. The cinematography is surprisingly lush despite the little village's realistic worn-down look.

Although the idea of women joining together to force their men to stop waging war dates back to ancient Greece, this is not a re-telling of Aristophane's "Lysistrata" and its war between the sexes. These women are more stealthy in their methods, doing far more to keep their men off-balance and struggling to figure out what is going on. Only once do the women take a more direct approach, leaving the men puzzling about what is up with their wives, sweethearts and mothers. But when the women confer with each other, the serious side and the potential for tragedy surfaces.

The acting is good overall, particularly the beautiful Labaki as Amale, who owns the village cafe and has an ongoing flirtation with house painter Rabih (Julien Farhat). Rabih is clearly smitten with her but seems to hold back, perhaps because she is Christian and he's Muslim. Generally the two groups mingle freely and without problems, which is what the women want to preserve. Another strong performance comes from actress Claude Baz Moussawbaa as Takla, the mother of one of the enterprising boys.

The strong women characters and the plea for peace plot might suggest a chic flick but the moving theme of the story, its appealing visual style and attractive cast, particularly Labaki, offers something for male audience members too.

"Where Do We Go Now?" is a worthy film, a sincere film, but it is not a flawless film. The pace is often slow, and the film can even seem rambling and then suddenly punctuated by a burst of activity. Sometimes the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy does not work, generally because the tragic portion is just too raw to make the mental shift.

The film has some elements that likely will make it seem exotic to American audiences. There are several scenes involving singing and dancing sprinkled throughout, not just when the belly-dancers put on their show. Director Labaki said that she was inspired by childhood memories of watching American musicals and Disney animation on TV, which she watched when the war made it too dangerous to play outside. Those scenes are intended to lighten the mood, and keep the more serious sections from making it more a political movie.

There are also some hauntingly beautiful, slightly surreal scenes, symbolizing the depth of the women's longing for peace and their heartbreak over the sons, fathers, husbands and brothers already lost to previous wars. Neither are typical of American films but are more effective than one might expect.

Still, this film is a powerful plea for peace. "Where Do We Go Now?" is generally worth the effort for its moving, cleverly presented message.

© Cate Marquis


St. Louis Jewish Film Festival 2012
Sunday, June 10 through Thursday, June 14
at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Click here to read reviews of festival films and more

Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) and Baya (Sara Forestier), with Arthur's parents (Jacques Boudet and Michèle Moretti) in the foreground, in the French romantic comedy NAMES OF LOVE, one of the films in this year's St. Louis Jewish Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.


'First Position' documentary is on point breaking stereotypes about kids and ballet

Gaya Bommer and Aran Bell in FIRST POSITION, directed by Bess Kargman. Photo Credit: Bess Kargman. A Sundance Selects Release

by Cate Marquis

The kids in the dance documentary "First Position" are nothing like you expect. The documentary follows seven kids, ages 10 to 17, as they prepare for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world's biggest ballet competition awarding scholarships and positions in ballet companies. Unlike many competition films, this one does not focus on backstage rivalries or scary stage mothers but on the great variety of hard-working kids draws to this physically demanding discipline.

"First Position," now playing at Plaza Frontenac Cinema, is not a film just for fans of ballet. It is a warm and surprising story of some remarkable children. The crowd-pleasing documentary debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and has garnered numerous awards for first-time director Bess Kargman. Kargman grew up studying ballet and, although she chose journalism as her career, she remains fond of dance . She felt the art form had never been accurately portrayed in film, so she pick it for her first film.

This polished, well-made documentary follows the seven talented kids over a year, and across the globe, as they prepare for the competition. Unlike some competition films. "First Position" focuses on their unique personal stories and families rather than backstage drama, dispelling myths about ballet and dancers. The approach makes the film both heart-warming and eye-opening.

One of the most striking things about the film is how international this group of kids are. The children featured, all extremely talented, are a diverse group. They include Gaya Bommer Yemini, age 11, who is Israeli, and her friend Aran Bell, also age 11, who is American. Aran's father is in the military, meaning they move frequently, but were based in Italy when the film was made. Aran is all-boy, an rambunctious sports jock, who regards dance, which he loves, as just another sport. Through a mutual love of physical challenge, Aran connects with inventive, playful Gaya, despite the language barrier.

Miko Fogarty, age 12 and her brother Jules Jarvis Fogarty, age 10, were born in London to a British father and Japanese mother but now live in Californian suburbia. Rebecca Houseknecht, age 17, is the picture of the blonde-haired All-American teen girl, looking like the ideal cheerleader, which she is in addition to studying ballet.

One of the most striking stories is that of Michaela DePrince, age 14. Orphaned as a small girl, Michaela was adopted, along with her sister, from a war-torn region of Africa by American parents. Tall and athletic, Michaela now is defying stereotypes about black ballerinas. Joan (pronounced Jo-han) Sebastian Zamora, age 16, left his home in South America to study ballet in New York with his mentor.

Kargman follows each dancer as they prepare for the competition, capturing the intensity of their focus and the all-consuming discipline it requires. The film underscores the degree to which the dancers, like athletes preparing for the Olympics, are competing against themselves more than each other, and captures the backstage camaraderie of the dancers. Parents are their as backup and support to these internally-driven kids

Of course, there are twists, reverses, disappointments and triumphs but the real focus is on the kids themselves. Kargman chose her subjects carefully, to highlight remarkably talented children and to focus on an range of individuals who could represent the international and cross-class nature of the dance world. The film also highlights the heartbreak and intensity of competition for spots in dance troupes, especially since the economic downturn. Sometimes, hundreds of gifted dancers travel to try out, only to be told that only one will be awarded a spot in the professional company.

In a recent phone interview, the director said she meant to make a film that "really takes you inside the ballet world and challenges a lot of the common stereotypes about ballet." The film succeeds admirably in doing just that, making it a warmly human, entertaining and engrossing glimpse into the lives of these young dancers.

Cate Marquis 2012


 Charming 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is booked up with five-star British veteran stars

Judi Dench as “Evelyn” and Celia Imrie as “Madge” star in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Photo by Ishika Mohan

by Cate Marquis

Grown-ups deserve movies too, don't they? Anyone who got hooked on Maggie Smith as the feisty dowager countess in "Downton Abbey," or was impressed by the stellar line-up of veteran British stars sprinkled throughout the various Harry Potter films, needs to check into "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) directs this charming ensemble film, which is humorous, romantic and touching. Partially shot on location in India, it features a sterling cast of British veteran actors, in a surprising, hopeful story about exploring new possibilities.

Seven British retirees seeking bargain-priced luxury retirement abroad are pulled by the allure and romance of India, and the glossy brochure of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel presents a pretty picture of retirement resort living, like the south Florida coast "but with more elephants," as a couple of characters put it.

All these retirees are pinched by finances, so bargain-priced resort life sounds good. Maggie Smith plays Muriel, who is only there for a quicker, cheaper hip replacement and recovery, followed by a rapid exit. The rest planned to stay permanently.

Judi Dench plays Evelyn, a newly-widowed retiree who discovered her late husband left too little for the retirement she envisioned. Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton are Douglas and Jean, a long-married couple facing recent financial reversals that have altered their retirement plans. For the three of them, India offers an escape to a higher standard of living. Tom Wilkinson plays Graham, a retired judge returning to the country of his youth. Aging beauty Celia Imrie as Madge is on the prowl for her next rich husband, while Ronald Pickup as smooth-talking Norman is looking for greener hunting grounds for the next accommodating widow or divorcee willing to take him in.

Arriving in Jaipur in Northern India, the seven find the once-elegant grand hotel is not quite as advertised, lacking such amenities as phones and even a door for every room. But its irrepressibly optimistic young hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire") assures them all improvements are on the way and persuades them to stay. Not that they have much choice, since most of them spent a good chuck of their funds getting there.

Sonny's plan is to turn the old hotel into a place where the British can outsource retirement. They outsource everything else, so why not retirement, he reasons. That a group of new retirees would uproot themselves from familiar homes to travel so far to retire seems unlikely, yet relocating in retirement happens all the time. What's more, India holds a special, magical place in the British imagination.

With a cast like this, little can go wrong and the film is as charming as advertised. The film does draws from the audience's imagination and memories the performers' long careers, to flesh out the story's various characters. Maggie Smith's tart-tongued Muriel, Dench's sweet Evelyn, Wilkinson's no-nonsense Graham, even Dev Patel's unreasonably positive Sonny Kapoor all draw on earlier work. Besides Maggie Smith from the aforementioned "Downton Abbey" and "Harry Potter" series, fans of PBS' Masterpiece Theater and numerous British film imports will recognize Wilkinson, Dench and Wilton but even fans of Hollywood fare will recognize Bill Nighy from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series (and "Shaun of the Dead") and Wilkinson from "Michael Clayton" and countless supporting roles. The young proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has a familiar face too - Dev Patel, the star of "Slumdog Millionaire," playing a part that seems familiar.

Shooting on location in India was the film's second brilliant choice after this cast. Street scenes are sun-drenched, flower-strewn and exude a mix of heat, crowding and the exotic to create a sense of place that could not be recreated somewhere else. The North Indian locale lets the film tap into the special place India holds in the British imagination, as a strange, beautiful place of legends and exotic riches, where anything is possible, while still showing the dust, the confusion and mix of old and modern in the real place.

Unlike the hotel, "The Exotic Best Marigold Hotel" movie delivers what it promises - humor, romance, human warmth and new beginnings. The exotic locale becomes a metaphor for the confusing life-changes facing these retirees, a new place that is frightening but full of promise, strange yet familiar.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is a charmer with more surprises that one expects, with winning performances by a storied cast, set in a seductive, exotic locale, making it a perfect summer escape for the grown-up crowd.

© Cate Marquis 2012


 'The Fairy' brings magic to the big screen

Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel in The Fairy, directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy.

by Cate Marquis

Grade: A

If you love absurd, magical, visual comedy, run now to see "The Fairy" at Plaza Frontenac Cinema, while you still can.

"The Fairy" delightfully combines clever visual humor a la Buster Keaton with a dry, absurd wit to create a confection that is at once magical, funny and sweetly romantic. If you like the outsider humor of last year's "Micmacs" or even the sillier side of the Coen Brothers, you will love this cinematic treat.

It all begins when a night clerk at a tiny hotel in La Harve, a down-on-his-luck fellow named Dom (Dominique Abel). Dom gets a visit from a strange, very thin woman named Fiona (Fiona Gordon) who says she is a fairy and offers to grant him three wishes. What happens after that is nothing you expect but it is a pure delight.

"The Fairy" was an audience favorite and critics' award winner at last fall's St. Louis International Film Festival. The film is back for a too brief run here.

Although this Belgian comedy is in French, there are so many sight gags that little dialog is needed. The film is nearly a silent comedy anyway, with its stars, former circus-performers, stylishly recreating many Keatoneque stunts, with the same blend of comedy and amazement. This film is a charmer - hilarious, magical and packed with visual comedy, while also being surprisingly sweet and romantic.

The film is the creation of Belgian-based trio of Dominque Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, who wrote and directed it, besides performing in this absurdist comedy inspired by Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Abel and Gordon play the lead characters, while Romy is the legally-blind owner/bartender of a bar called Love Is Blurred, where they meet for a date. In many ways, it is a two-person show but entertain us they do, with fantasy sequences and playfulness, with a sad-sack, oddball supporting cast to keep them on the run.

The story goes in surprising directions. When Fiona the fairy offers Dom three wishes, he does not go for unlimited wealth or great power. No, he wishes for a motor scooter to replace his rickety old bicycle. And what would you want with that? Well, a supply of gasoline, of course. Fiona delivers, although the way in which she does keeps one foot in reality, sharpening the comedy and the film's charm.

The visual elements are a delight, turning a run-down street scene into a candy-colored fairy-tale landscape. Dinah Washington singing "What a Difference a Day Makes" is the musical theme, a prefect tune that pops up throughout the film.

If you like visual humor and whimsy, quirky down-and-out characters and magical stories, the delightful comic fantasy "The Fairy" is just the ticket.

© Cate Marquis / The Current

 'Raven' fails to live up to promise despite Cusack's strong performance

John Cusack stars in Relativity Media's stylish gothic thriller THE RAVEN. Photo: Larry Horricks © Relativity Media.

by Cate Marquis

A historical fiction film about Edgar Allen Poe and starring John Cusack sounded like an idea with some promise. Poe, the inventor of the mystery story, would seem to offer some ripe material for historical fiction film film that draws on the author's works and tragic life. Casting Cusack as Poe seemed like a good fit as well. As a fan of both Poe and Cusack, this reviewer had high hopes.

Cusack gives it a valiant try but despite his best efforts, and those of a supporting cast that includes Brendon Gleeson and some lush, atmospheric photography by Danny Ruhlmann, "The Raven" is a rather dull story with little to no suspense, a story that goes nowhere.

"The Raven" takes the last few days of Poe's life and some elements of his best stories to create a pale imitation of "Seven" but without the suspense. "The Raven" does have blood and gore but without the suspense, it is just not enough.

It starts out with promise. The film has a stylish look and loads of atmosphere. The tale is set in the last days of Poe's life in his hometown of Baltimore. The heavy-drinking poet and author is in desperate circumstances, broke, barely able to sell a book review to the local paper that once serialized his works. His alcoholism raging and fame and talents fading, Poe is clearly near the end.

When Baltimore police detective Fields (Luke Evans) investigates a gruesome double murder, something about the crime seems familiar. The detective soon recognizes details from the crime mimic one of Poe's famous suspense stories. The detective brings Poe in for questioning but another bloody crime reveals that a serial killer is at work, taking his victims using techniques lifted from Poe's stories. The detective pressed the author to help.

Poe is reluctant to become involved in something that will distract him from his drinking and efforts to make a little money. Despite his situation, Poe is engaged to well-to-do young Emily (Alice Eve) but her father Captain Hamilton's (Brendon Gleeson) disapproval means they have to keep the engagement secret.

Yet, this is the kind of film one keeps pulling for, hoping it will finally come together. Part of the reason for that is Cusack's fine performance. There is one scene where Cusack's Poe reads from his poem "The Raven" before a rapt audience of formal corseted ladies. His efforts are rewarded with applause but the gifted, often arrogant author is then expected to politely offer poetry writing advice to the refined ladies paying for his time. The scene echoes any earlier one where the poet tries to cage drinks in a tavern, relying on patrons who can quote the same poem. Cusack rings every drop from each scene.

Another reason is that the film gets so many visual elements right, presenting a haunting, beautiful, eerie setting for the tale. The problem lies with the movie's underwrittten script and director who cannot transcend it. Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are to blame, aided and abetted by director James McTeigue.

There is a bit of quirky in Cusack's Poe but the script can hardly decide it is wants to imitate "Seven" or "Sherlock Holmes," so it does little. Dialog is dull at best and there seem to be about four scenes where the detective apologizes to Poe for one thing or another. This is one thing the film gets right - someone does owe Poe (and for that matter Cusack) an apology.

These filmmakers owe Edgar Allen Poe and John Cusack an apology because both deserved better.

© Cate Marquis/The Current 2012


Fine photography, strong storytelling are highlights of nature documentary "Chimpanzee"

Oscar eating honeycomb. Photo: Martyn Colbeck. © Disney

by Cate Marquis

A baby chimpanzee named Oscar is the focus of visually-impressive, heart-touching "Chimpanzee," a family-friendly nature documentary from Disney, which opened just in time for Earth Day, April 22.

No company consistently does this kind of family nature film as well as the Disney company. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield exceed high expectations particularly in its astounding photography. The filmmakers get very up-close with the chimps and their world, which draws us into their lives and the drama of what happens to little Oscar and his group. There is also some breath-taking, remarkable time-lapse photography of plants, fungi and insects that are both impressive and beautiful.

Narration by Tim Allen adds both a clear storyline and a good dose of humor. Following a playful baby chimp, scampering and tumbling with other youngsters, pestering adults, leaning and exploring his world where all is new to him, offers plenty of opportunity for comic and dramatic moments. When the the ape family moves to the nut grove at the center of their territory to crack some nuts, Allen cracks jokes about power tools, referring to the heavy rocks the experienced adults use to crack nuts. As Oscar and the other young chimps mimic the adults, their less-successful, sometimes finger-smashing efforts often plenty of slapstick, while also describing how chimps use tools and teach that to there young.

There is a skillful balance between entertainment and education in this polished, well-edited film. The filmmakers get amazingly close to their subjects, often inspiring us to wonder how they accomplished this feat. Getting close like this, and the well-crafted narrative structure, allows audiences to see striking parallels between chimp and human. This is especially so when the film hones in a neighboring troupe of chimpanzees, who are threatening to move in on Oscar's family's territory. Close-ups on faces of the invading apes as they wait for a chance to attack, or size up the relative strength of their own leader capture expressions and nuances of emotion that would fit right in a political thriller. The humanness of expressions is remarkable, even disturbing.

The film focus on a narrative about Oscar and his group, a dramatic, touching story that is uplifting. While there is plenty of pure fun, there is realism too. There are moments of dramatic tension, some sad events but all is handled with sensitivity and comes out alright in the end. We never see people, only animals, in their world and the film says nothing overtly about the challenges chimpanzees face from habitat destruction, leaving all that to the imaginations of the viewers.

Besides the intimate look at the chimp's lives and personalities that dramatizes their story, photographers Martyn Colbeck, Bill Wallauer and Warwick Sloss give us a wondrous sense of the natural world around them. Aerial Photography by Michael Kelem adds a spectacular big picture look. Tim Shepherd's time-lapse sequences of twisting vines, the darkness giving way to daylight, of mushrooms sprouting and later of a mold spreading over the aging mushrooms, all give a sense of the pulse of life in their jungle habitat. Towards the film's end there is a brief making-of sequence, in which these talented nature filmmakers talk about some of the challenges of making the film.

The film is short, dramatic, entertaining and uplifting, with a little education and pure beauty thrown in. All of which makes "Chimpanzee" an excellent family film.

© Cate Marquis/The Current 2012

 Audience-pleasing drama 'In Darkness' highlights true story of survival in wartime Poland

Left to Right: Milla Bańkowicz as Krystyna Chiger and Robert Więckiewicz as Leopold Socha, in IN DARKNESS. Photo by Jasmin Marla Dichant, © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

By Cate Marquis

Grade: B+

The best stories are often true ones, and such is the case with “In Darkness,” the drama from Polish director Agnieszka Holland. The film tells the story of an unexpected partnership between Polish Jewish families hiding in sewers under a Nazi-occupied town and a non-Jewish thief who helps them.

“In Darkness” was the audience favorite at last fall's St. Louis International Film Festival, where is won the Audience Choice award, and was nominated for an Academy Award.

The movie depicts events in Nazi-occupied Lvov, Poland during the war. A sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who moonlights as a thief, agrees to hide some Jewish families, trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto, in the sewers under town, not because it is the right thing to do but for the money.

Socha is a born hustler, always thinking and in relentless pursuit of every financial opportunity. This unsentimental opportunist is the last person one expects to rise to a heroic challenge. Nonetheless, he keeps his illegal activities secret from his beloved wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter.

The arrangement hiding the families is supposed to be brief but instead they find themselves trapped in the dank tunnels for months. Socha's intimate knowledge of the sewers and resourcefulness prove essential. During the long dark ordeal, things begin to change for Socha and the families in many ways.

It is a story rich with drama. Agnieszka Holland is a legendary director and her film is moving and grippingly tense. Like all dramas about the Shoah, it is hard to watch at times but that it is a tale of survival, and of the human spirit, makes the film inspiring and worth the effort. It is a story of human nature, of both frailties and courage. Life in a sewer is not pleasant even briefly but this long ordeal in darkness is coupled with the difficulties of any kind of survival under brutal Nazi rule and the constant threat of discovery.

It is the characters and their individual stories that warm our hearts. The acting is powerful and stirring. Benno Furman plays Mundek, a con man above ground who becomes a leader below. In hiding, Mundek falls for Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), who is desperately worried for her sister left behind in the ghetto, in one of two tales of love woven into the story.

In their desperate situation, social conventions are up-ended, with Mundek coming to the fore and pillars of the community, like the wealthy Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), now depending on a thief likely to have robbed him. Maria Schrader as Paulina Chiger and Marcin Bosak as Yanek Grossmann also play critical roles. Some of the most moving scenes involve the children and those of parents' self sacrifice. As the months of hiding drag on, relationships shift and simple survival becomes increasingly difficult.

Almost all of the story takes place underground in the lightless sewer, which creates some challenges for the visual medium of cinema. Despite the claustrophobic setting, the film is visually polished, with masterful direction.

Scenes have a gritty realism, in which life in the sewer includes dirty clothes and faces, encounters with rats and the perpetual darkness and filthy water. The director's aim was to make the audience themselves experience life in the sewer. Light itself, so rare in this shadowy world, is transformed into a symbol of hope and transcendence, and the dark, harsh labyrinth of the sewers becomes a metaphor for what is happening to Jews everywhere during the Shoah. However, the director is careful to keep the focus on the characters and their relationships, and not distract too much with cinematic artistry.

If the film has a flaw, it is perhaps that, at two and half hours, it is a bit too long. There are several scenes in total darkness, where the audience can see nothing, not even shadows, and hears only the splashing of water or a snatch of dialog, which seem to run too long. A scene or two like this is all that is needed to establish the circumstances and overlong sequences like this add little for the audience. Still, it is a little thing is an otherwise stellar film.

All in all, it is a worthy, moving film well worth one's time. “In Darkness,” in Polish, Yiddish, Ukrainian and German with English subtitles, opens Friday. March 16, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema for an exclusive run.

© St. Louis Jewish Light

 'The Lorax' adapts Dr. Seuss classic for the big screen into best kind of kids' movie

(L to R) The Lorax (DANNY DEVITO) argues with the Once-ler (ED HELMS) in "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax", a 3D-CG adventure from the creators of "Despicable Me" and the imagination of Dr. Seuss. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment. © 2012 Universal Pictures.


by Cate Marquis

Grade: A

What makes a great kid's film? A good story with a message and values parents can embrace? Good story that engages and enchants kids while entertaining adults with lots of laughs? Wonderful, entertaining animation? Appealing characters voiced by talented, well-cast voice actors? A classic children's story as the basis? How about all of the above?

The audience-pleasing “The Lorax” is that whole package, the perfect combination of affectionate adaptation of Dr. Seuss' beloved children's classic and a truly entertaining, fun film with a positive message built in, not grafted on. That the 3D film debuted on Dr. Seuss' birthday and the day chosen for a national reading event focused on this beloved book makes it all the sweeter.

A sassy Danny DeVito is the perfect choice for the Lorax, the grumpy magical creature that “speaks for the trees.” Zac Efron plays Ted, a 13-year-old boy who wants to impress a girl, the tree-loving Audrey (Taylor Swift), by getting her a real tree. But there are no real trees in their all-plastic town (“and they like it that way”) of Thneedville. To find a real tree, Ted's Grandma Norma (Betty White) tells him he must seek out the reclusive Once-Ler (Ed Helms), who knows what happened to all the trees, because he is responsible for their loss. The story ends on a hopeful note, with a seed and a message favoring sustainable use of natural resources over mindless greed.

“The Lorax” is funny and entertaining, capturing the appeal of the book and adding some director Chris Renaud's “Despicable Me's” playfulness as well, while also expanding on the book's environmental message. Zac Efron's character builds on the boy in the book who goes to hear the Once-Ler's tale of the Lorax and the trees. This new character allows the story to be more fully told and the framing of the tale in his suburbanite town of Thneedville helps bring it home for a young audience.

The 3D animated film adaptation includes songs and a little of Dr. Seuss' rhyming but just enough to evoke the classic book. The animation captures the Seuss book's drawings best in the Lorax and the forest animals, especially the book's cutely funny-looking humming fish. The golden fish are particularly humorous, going beyond humming to providing a harmonizing, falsetto chorus to comically back up the tale.

One of the film's two best songs is its first one, in which the people of the all-plastic town of Thneedville sings about their artificial all-electric trees and how they solved the air pollution problem by buying “bottled air.” But the film's strongest song is sung by the Once-Ler, the likeable and ambitious young man who makes his invention, the multi-purpose Thneed, from the trees he cuts down, never noticing that they are disappearing. As he sings the chorus “what's wrong with that,” its meaning changes from an innocent plea for making a living, to justifying making a fortune, and then turning ironic when it comes to cutting down the last trees.

Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggles), a little guy with a funny-looking haircut, is Thneedville's fabulous wealthy purveyor of bottled air, and serves as the film's villain. Since trees that make fresh air for free, a tree is the last thing O'Hare wants to see in Thneedville. The Seuss book's story is mixed with this whole new cast of characters surrounding Ted's lively adventure evading the greedy O'Hare to win the girl and bring back a tree.

“The Lorax” is pure delight, and the kind of movie parent can feel good about taking their kids to see, a pretty rare commodity these days, almost as scarce as trees in Thneedville.

© The Current / Cate Marquis

 Oscar winner 'A Separation' compels with dramatic tale of family breakup in modern Iran

Left to Right: Leila Hatami as Simin and Peyman Moadi as Nader, in A SEPARATION. Photo by Habib Madjidi ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

by Cate Marquis

Grade: A

One of the best films of 2011 has finally arrived here. The Oscar-nominated drama “A Separation” is a near-perfect script, brilliantly edited and acted, in a drama that resonates everywhere - the issues surrounding the breakup of a marriage.

This Iranian drama won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. It previously won four awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, including the Golden Bear for Best Film.

“A Separation” has a story that is both universal and specific to modern Iran. A well-educated middle-class couple struggle with the breakup of their marriage, as well as the feelings of their conflicted young teen daughter, the challenges of finding home care for the husband's confused, partially-disabled elderly father. On top of that, there are the issues of dealing with the legal system. The family issues and heartbreak are universal but the film gives a remarkable glimpse inside life in modern Iran.

Those who have seen Iranian films are aware of their surprising high quality. Beside top-rate production values, Iranian films frequently display amazing fearlessness in tackling difficult topics impacting their nation, despite being made in a nation with a tightly-controlling religion-based government. In fact, Iran has a long history of this kind of polished, accessible even Western style film-making.

“A Separation” begins, and ends, with a couple going before a judge to ask for a divorce. The well-educated wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), is frustrated by the lack of opportunity for women in her country. Further, she is hoping to take her daughter Terman (Sarina Farhadi) with her when she emigrates. Her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) seems not a bad person but he is angry with his wife's decision and fearful of losing his daughter. He refuses to leave their apartment where they have been caring for his elderly father, who suffers from dementia, which complicates the divorce under Iranian law. Their daughter is conflicted, torn between loyalty to both her parents and not fully comprehending what leaving the country could mean for her opportunities.

In a culture where wives care for elderly relatives at home, hiring someone, particularly a woman, to care for a older man in a home where there is no wife is fraught with dangers regarding Islamic law, some with serious consequences. This change is not easy for anyone.

The script that pulls all these elements together and places them in both personal dramatic and socially insightful frames can only be described as a work of genius.

It is an involving story but also is filled with appealing characters we care about. The personal emotional context is never lost yet the story makes hard-hitting observations on the challenges of living under the Iranian legal system. Many challenges are universal in modern life, but not all - some are unique to Iran's Islamic style of government.

None of this would work without excellent acting. Leila Hatami is wonderful as Simin, who seems wistful about leaving her husband but focused on her daughter's future. Likewise, Peyman Moadi's Nader seems like a man who is just trying to make his family life work but angry at what he sees as his wife's selfishness. There are no good guys and bad guys, just people trying to live their lives. If there is a villain, it is the inflexible Iranian system, which complicates their personal lives on many levels. Even the young woman Nader hires to help with his father, who lies to him about her situation and puts him in danger, does so out of desperation in her own circumstances, due in part to her country's laws towards women.

The film offers up no pat answers and ends with an open-ended situation, where the audience must make up their own mind about which way the characters are going to go. Simply put, this is an excellent drama, with heartbreaking, tension-filled story and appealing characters, well worth the effort to read subtitles.

“A Separation,” in Farsi with English subtitles, is now playing at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

© Cate Marquis / The Current 2012

 Parents' wage war for love in French film 'Declaration of War'

By Cate Marquis

Grade: B+

A baby diagnosed with a brain tumor launches a young couple on an all-out war for his survival, and their own, in “Declaration of War.”

Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim co-wrote this French film, and also star as the young parents, named Romeo and Juliette. The unlikely names are a hint that humor and romance are part of this tale about facing something very scary, just as they can be in real life. Donzelli also directs the film, which makes it a sort of artistic tour-de-force.

Few things are harder for a parent to hear than a serious diagnosis like cancer but a brain tumor is particularly difficult. The symptoms are vague at first, easy to miss. Often things are attributed to emotional issues. Parents sense something is wrong with their child but pinpointing exactly what is difficult.

“Declaration of War” debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and was France's official submission to the Oscars. Despite the subject, the film is filled with exuberance as the couple not only try to face down cancer but hold onto their own love for each other. It comes as no surprise that this deeply-moving film was inspired by the co-writers/co-stars' own experiences.

The film has plenty of realism yet is suffused with humor. The couple meet in a dance club, are immediately drawn to each other, and we are off and running, as a playful sequence of running through streets serves to recap their romance. A voice-over narration, in the humorous style of “Amelie,” describes their two families - his free-spirited single mother, her more affluent and conventional family. The couple have a baby and go through the usual early parenting challenges of late-night crying and spit-ups.

But by the time baby Adam passes his first birthday, the young parents know something is wrong. Soon the doctor sees it too.

Music is used to great effect in this film, particularly in the scene where Juliette has to call family and friends to tell them the diagnosis. The film is visually inventive, with appealing, clever photographic effects, especially in use of double exposure. It is low-tech but effective and moving.

Running is a, ahem, a sort of running theme in this film, where crisis often sends one parent or the other on the run - running away from the bad news, running towards hope, running together against the bad twist life has dealt them. There are references to racing toward cures, to treatment as a marathon, yet all the metaphors seem to work.

Treatment brings ups and downs but touches of humor help lighten the tone. There are the couple's arguing parents, absurd discussions with nurses, but also love and support of family and friends. They visit their son at the hospital every day but also break the tension by partying with friends.

The combination of cancer and humor draws parallels with last fall's “50/50” but this film is sometimes more real, and certainly more heart-stirring, because it is a child who is sick. However, the film focuses on the parents' ordeal more than the child's, which could get too intense too quickly.

The actors have undeniable charm, and their love story is sweet and touching. Their story draws one into their ordinary world of facing an extraordinary challenge. The realism is undeniable, and scenes will be recognizable to those who have gone through a bout of cancer with someone. In fact, the hospital scenes were shot in real hospitals, with a cast that included both actors and real hospital staff. It is the realism of life as it is really lived, rather than pat sentiments and movie conventions.

This hopeful, uplifting, well-acted film is worth the effort, a rewarding slice-of-life experience and a more appealing film that one might expect given the subject. “Declaration of War,” in French with English subtitles, is playing exclusively at the Tivoli Theater.

© Cate Marquis / The Current

 Fassbender, Knightley, Mortensen light up Cronenberg's Freud, Jung tale, 'A Dangerous Method'

Left to Right: Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. Photo by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

by Cate Marquis

Grade: A

Rising-star Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley deliver powerful acting performances in “A Dangerous Method, ” director David Cronenberg's suspenseful and visually-beautiful historical drama about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and lesser-known early psychotherapist, Sabina Spielrein.

There is nothing staid about this fact-based film, which features a raw depiction of mental illness and some steamy scenes of sadomasochism. “A Dangerous Method” is a passionate tale of ambition and deceit amid intellectual explorations and sexual deviations.

In 1904, a 29-year-old Swiss doctor a Zurich hospital, Carl Jung (Fassbender), is treating a challenging new patient. Beautiful 18-year-old Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is brilliant, Russian-born and Jewish but also violently unpredictable. Jung decides to try the new “talking cure,” developed by Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud (Mortensen).

The patient responds so well to psychotherapy, she is able to enroll in medical school. Jung and Freud correspond and collaborate on her treatment, and eventually a kind of intellectual triangle forms with Freud, Jung and Spielrein. Eventually, the young, wealthy Jung travels to Vienna to meet with his older, middle-classs mentor Freud, building on a friendship growing out of their professional relationship.

The film is based on the play “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton. Hampton wrote this screenplay as well as the screen adaptation of “Atonement.” The play was inspired by a book, “A Most Dangerous Method,” based on information that came to light with the discovery of Spielrein's diary and letters to Freud and Jung.

This historical film even lifts some dialog from letters between these giants of early psychoanalysis. Although Freud and Jung discuss theories, the film focuses on personal conflict while offering a glimpse into pre-World War I attitudes on women, anti-Semitism and class divisions.

Director Cronenberg is known for skillfully-made, intelligent, edgy films like “Crash” and “A History of Violence.” The director brings these historical figures to life. The film was a hit on the film festival circuit, generating awards buzz.

The acting is brilliant, with Fassbender, Mortensen and Knightley all crafting unforgettable characters. Knightley gives a startling portrayal of mental illness in a fearless performance. Fassbender, a rising British actor who has been in a slew of films recently, gives one of his best performances in this film.

Fassbender maintains a cool and analytical facade as he and Mortensen engage in intellectual maneuverings. Mortensen even studied Freud's personal mannerisms for his role. Although based on real people, there is nothing academic about them. The director maintains a tone of calm reserve above roiling waters.

Vincent Cassel is also excellent as another patient, Otto Gross, a fellow psychologist gripped by sexual addiction and a nihilistic world view, an echo of Fassbender's role in “Shame.” Sarah Gadon plays Jung's lovely but socially-conventional wife Emma with a sad gentleness.

The look of the film is gorgeous, filmed on location at Jung's hospital in Zurich and at Freud's home in Vienna. The photography, sets and costumes are beautiful in this film, giving a dreamy air to its intellectual discussions and emotional fireworks.

As the story unfolds, its focus shifts from psychotherapy. Jung's privileged background makes it difficult for him to grasp issues obvious to Freud. Jung's elegant, coolly aristocratic Zurich mansion, with its manicured lawn and graceful sailboats, contrasts sharply with Freud's cramped middle-class home and office, with its cozy family atmosphere. Ultimately, Jung's growing interest in mysticism and Freud's rigid adherence to his views on sex, plus their differences on Jung's relationship with Spielrein, help splinter their partnership.

A powerful, well-acted, worthy film, “A Dangerous Method” opens Friday, January 20, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

© The Current / Cate Marquis


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