Unto Themselves

There is a genre of films which consist of a small cast, confined to a limited space; we shake them up and see what happens. Archipelago is a successful film of this type.

A family assembles for summer vacation in a rental house on an island southwest of England: Patricia (Kate Fahy), the mother; Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), the older of her two adult children; and Edward (Tom Hiddleston), the younger. The father, who at one point may have promised to attend, is absent. There is also a local painter, Christopher (Christopher Baker), who instructs Patricia and Cynthia in watercolor; and there is the cook Rose (Amy Lloyd).

For much of the film, conversations are carried out quietly and politely, but gradually each family member’s discontents and insecurities are laid bare. Edward has committed to an extended stretch of volunteer service in Africa, which he doesn’t really seem prepared for. Cynthia is resentful of the family’s indulgence in Edward’s failure to grow up. Patricia is angry at her absent husband and misses social events back home. Eventually there are explosions, and in a clever bit of staging some of these are overheard but not seen.

The movie is slow-paced; some shots linger longer than they would in the hands of most filmmakers.

Patient viewers should enjoy the results.

Archipelago (reviews)
Directed and written by Joanna Hogg
Running time: 114 minutes
DVD release date: November 4, 2014

Snow White in the Bullring

It is peculiar when bullfighting, one of our more morally-suspect entertainments, is mixed in with the tale of Snow White. It’s even odder that the combination works.

Blancanieves succeeds, I think, because it tells its tale as a fantasy, a black-and-white silent film, far from the gory reality of the bullring. However, this telling veers away from a happy ending; this story is grimmer than Grimm. Carmen, the daughter of a famous matador, is treated harshly by her evil stepmother, who eventually sends her off to be killed. She is rescued by a troupe of dwarfs–not quite seven in number, as the film puckishly reminds us. This company tours the countryside, doing mock battle with a calf named Ferdinand, and Carmen soon becomes part of the act under the name of Blancanieves.

That’s a brief summary of the story (minus its conclusion), but the pleasure is in the cinematography and the performances, including Daniel Giménez Cacho as the matador, Sofía Oria as young Carmen, Macarena García as adult Carmen, and Maribel Verdú as the stepmother. Verdú is the standout as the foxy intersection of beauty, villainy, and kink. And the score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is astonishingly brilliant; it deserves a live-orchestra treatment by some enlightened major ensemble.

Blancanieves (reviews)
Directed and written by Pablo Berger, based the Brothers Grimm tale of Snow White
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: September 3, 2013

Love Story

Bridegroom tells a small story, no doubt repeated hundreds of times throughout twenty-first century America. I’m going to spoil the full story; the film fails or succeeds–I think it succeeds, mostly–based on how that story is told. Shane and Tom grow up in conservative American towns. Both are closeted homosexuals. As young adults, they meet in the big city (Los Angeles) and fall in love; they travel all over the world together. Before they can marry, Tom dies in a freak accident. By this time Shane’s family has accepted that he is gay; Tom’s family is not entirely on board. Shane is excluded from the memorial service for Tom back home, where his eulogizers mention nothing of his life in L.A. It’s a touching story, with a lot to say about where America is at this moment.

A year after Tom’s death, Shane decides Tom’s full story needs to be told. He posts a video on the Internet, and a Kickstarter campaign raises funds for a feature-length documentary (the film discussed here). Tom’s family refuses to participate.

Bridegroom could have told Tom’s story while shielding the identity of Tom’s family and home town. That would have been kind–maybe too kind–leaving Tom’s people back home at peace in their benighted state. Instead, the film makes it very clear who Tom’s family are and where they come from. I don’t really raise an objection to this, but, man! that feels passive-aggressive.

Bridegroom (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Linda Bloodworth Thompson
Running time: 79 minutes
DVD release date: November 19, 2013

Genocidaire Hunters

Watchers of the Sky is a documentary inspired by Samantha Power’s book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. (The title of the film comes from an anecdote told at the film’s end; I won’t spoil it.) The documentary gathers up a great deal of material and deftly weaves it around the story of Raphael Lemkin and his campaign to make deadly purges such as the Armenian genocide punishable under international law. A lot of this history is told by Power herself, starting with her own experience as a journalist in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time of the Sarajevo massacre. It was the Bosnian conflict that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher described as “a problem from hell”; in the Secretary’s simplistic view, the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians hated one another so murderously that there was little point in intervening.

Additional history is filled in by Benjamin Ferencz, a war crimes prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Supplementing interviews and archival footage, the film employs a bit of animation, showing rows of refugees lined up like burnt matchsticks–eloquent, but overused. A tinkly, somber score, heard throughout, also becomes a bit of an annoyance. Still, as a two-hour treatment of genocide, this film is both efficient and moving.

Watchers of the Sky (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Edet Belzberg
Running time: 121 minutes
DVD release date: February 24, 2015

Stars, Sand, and Wind

I have never read the novel The Little Prince, now adapted into an animated feature film on Netflix, though I have seen the splendid opera by Rachel Portman. Lovers of the book may not care for the film: The story has been abridged–I miss the lamplighter sequence, which was especially poignant in the opera–and surrounded by a “modern” framing story. Then again, the movie was a hit in France, where the book must have plenty of loyalists. As for me, I find the sections devoted to the original story delightful, and much of the framing story good enough, to overcome a regrettable third act.

So: In a suburb designed to look like a computer chip from the air, a mother designs a detailed plan to get her daughter into a prestigious neighborhood school, involving a micromanaged schedule of studies and other activies–which the daughter strays from when she finds an eccentric neighbor’s story–the novel proper, involving a boy visiting various asteroids and ending up in the Sahara Desert–more diverting. The mother-daughter stuff, using computer-generated animation, is often clever; but the story of the little prince, done in beautiful stop-motion, is the glorious heart of the film. The third act, involving a grown-up prince and an abominably overblown pixarfied chase, is best forgotten.

Familiar actors do the voices, including Rachel McAdams as the mother, Mackenzie Foy as the girl, Jeff Bridges as the neighbor, Paul Rudd as the adult prince, and such luminaries as Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Bud Cort, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks, and Paul Giamatti as characters from the novel.

The Little Prince (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Mark Osborne
Written by Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti, based on the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Running time: 106 minutes


Shape of the Moon, released a bit over a decade ago, depicts life in Jakarta and rural Java. The city is full of derelict shacks and general poverty. In the country, there is some sense of community, and … more poverty. Demonstrators in the city proclaim their support for the Muslim side in the world’s hotspots–Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Bands of religious zealots, dressed in white, search the neighborhood for violations of Islamic law.

The film spends some time with one extended Christian family, who get by by keeping a low profile … or converting. By the end, the Christians still dream of tolerance but accept the status quo.


Shape of the Moon (reviews)
Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich
Awarded the Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema–Documentary, at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival
Language: Indonesian
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: January 3, 2016

Body of Work

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present reviews the career of the groundbreaking performance artist, culminating in a three-month retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 2010. Her performances pieces often involve some physical contact with her person. In an early work, audience members were permitted to choose from a selection of objects and do to her as they chose. Another work involving her collaborator Ulay had the two of them repeatedly crashing their bodies into one another. The centerpiece of the MOMA retrospective had Abramović seated in a chair, facing another chair several feet away; one by one, audience members would seat themselves and interact silently with her.

This is a fine documentary about a forceful, charismatic figure in today’s art world.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre
Awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Arts & Culture Programming, 2013
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: October 16, 2012