“Testament Of Youth”

What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long, British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is  young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.

There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother, provincial parents,tantrums, tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.

Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children, and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.

The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.

“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.

Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”

Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.

Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts; she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.

Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.

Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it, but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.

“Amy”

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on British jazz singer Amy Winehouse is heartbreakingly powerful. Seeing such talent consumed by bad choices and bad circumstances moves one to tears. Whether Winehouse is belting out tunes,licking lollipops or hazed in cigarette smoke,her fixations make one wish to set her straight. At least straight out of the arms of creepy boyfriend and later husband,Blake Fielder. Their three-year marriage was a disaster, as were the outfits he encouraged Amy to prance around in. One wants to shout into the screen “lose the loser” even as one views the footage of their marriage soiled in heroin and crack cocaine.

The documentary does a great job of meshing celebrity culture with its hanger-ons, greedy family members, and retreating friends. Amy with her ugly tats and blond streak in her dark hair is reckless and tasteless,vulnerable yet mouthy.  Shown as “a force of nature” with lots of attitude and charisma, she is fun to be around, but snarky and cutting when she needs attention. An over abundance of headshots shows her in back seats, under pink kitty-printed blankets and being interviewed on late night tv. Such raw talent, sincere and sultry is what moves us. Seeing her slide into bulimia and drugs is painful. This viewer kept mouthing the words: “somebody help her!” Having a daughter born just three months before Amy in 1983, I was more than touched that Amy did not live long enough to make it to her twenty-eighth birthday. If Winehouse was an “old soul” with her jazz phrasing and soulful rasp, she was a toddler in playing with risky choices. The need for direction was not there from her parents,her Jewish religion or her more loyal friends. Michael Jackson was her brother-in-death.

Born in 1983, dead in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, Amy Winehouse’s story is a celebration of her big, tempestuous sound. Listen to her North London “Moon River” and be astounded. Amy’s story is beautifully structured through her own lyrics. Having her words on-screen is moving and enlightening.You want to immediately download her  “I can still taste better days” so it will  not leave you. “Rehab”, “Stronger Than Me”, “You Know I’m No Good”,and “Back To Black”,a slang term for heroin, moves listeners emotionally. The documentary lifts Amy Winehouse out of the muck and stills the late night jokes. It makes you want to hug James Taylor, Carole King and Tony Bennett. Amy, your story makes us what to bring out the strings.

“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” and “The Fault In Our Stars”

Last year on June 6th, 2014, opening night, I saw John Greene’s film adaptation of “The Fault In Our Stars” with my husband, and two-hundred high school girls all in short-shorts. Evidentially, short-shorts are the “new thing” again, though I surmise their rise saves fabric for the industry as the one button cardigan saved money for the industry a few years back.

Greene’s book was better, deeper, and more literary with its Emily Dickinson allusions and major philosophical glimmerings than the film, but the second half of the adaptation is worth seeing. The first twenty minutes is slow with too much time given to Hazel’s early diagnosis and treatment, but once Hazel and Augustus hit Amsterdam,you remember first love.

Ansel Elgort (Augustus) is wonderful in his ability to show facial emotion, and Shailene Woodley is earnest and so believable as one of the dying teens. I liked Wilhem Defoe in an author’s role~here crazed and egotistical. I wish more time was spent on why Hazel so admired his book. I missed parent’s roles in the film, especially the warmth that the families showed in everyday dialogue. Laura Dern ,as Hazel’s mother, was well-portrayed as the mother who would come running sodden from her shower if need be. Gus’ parents were not given much play in the script. This is a shame because Greene developed these characters so well that Hazel and Gus’ story became their story,too.

This year’s piggyback film, “Me, Earl,and The Dying Girl” is more flawed, and certainly not an improvement on “The Fault In Our Stars”. With my own mother, a dear neighbor’s daughter, and a former student’s child all suffering from blood diseases, I was not in a hurry to be reminded that blood is life’s flow. With dire warnings of depression, nausea, and general hopelessness, I made my way to Director Alphonso Gomez-Regon’s “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” classic story start. From the general info of “this is what high school is like” with its tribes and nations (what we called “cliques” )the filmgoer is goosed with claymation-like mini-figures of a moose and a chipmunk. These animals and their interplay are supposed to conceptualize our protagonist’s fears when approached by an attractive female classmate.

In fact, crafts play a big part in “Me, Earl, And The Dying Girl”. The lovely and expressive Olivia Cooke (Rachel) scissors vignettes from the middle of her absent father’s favorite books, Earl (R.J.Cyler) slices red felt into hemoglobin cell props for a film gift to Rachel, and Greg ( Thomas Mann) uses self-created miniatures to depict his voice overs and his film parodies. The film parodies are some of the funniest moments as button-faced socks and orange juice become “Sock Work Orange” instead of “Clockwork Orange”, and “Eyes Wide Butt” becomes “Eyes Wide Shut”. “Breathe Less” for “Breathless” and “Rosemary Baby Carrots”, “2:48 Cowboy”, and “The 400 Bros” are a few others.

If Greg is “invisible, self-hating and detached” as Rachel at one time sums up his character. He is also bright and funny in his self-deprecation. The narcissism of emerging adults is well shown. “It’s me, in convenient gel form.” Greg announces to the drug -dosed patient. Later, Greg offers a strong dose of “gregitol”. Placing Rachel in the “boring, Jewish girls sub.group 2A ” further makes Greg seem like he is daily having lunch in Kandahar.

I have not read the Jesse Andrews book, but I did not like the adult depictions in his screenplay. Unlike John Greene’s depictions, Andrews shows well-meaning,but dysfunctional parents. Nick Offerman as Greg’s father is always in his bathrobe,sometimes leather belted,always holding his Persian cat, always eating gourmet entries and talking about his on-going academic thesis. Greg’s mother (Connie Britton)is always pushing and gently nagging,yet she does not seem to be aware that Greg is failing the last semester of his senior year. In one rather funny scene,Britton’s yammering,her non-stop word stream,turns Greg into a swirming worm on his bedroom floor. Her son calls his mother the Le Bron James of nagging. No teacher,not even the favored history/counselor Mr. McCarthy calls or effectively intervenes: all easy support with no effective outcome. Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) drinks to numb her pain and “comes on” to the boys for some inappropriate succor. Offering teens alcohol is her added recipe for pain release. Even the “adult” limo driver for the senior prom is an real clown. Rachel’s father primarily talked to her by counting squirrels on their walks. Adults don’t fair well in this film.

Greg offers a few silly ,laughter-causing remedies for Rachel:”Enter a sub-human state” or “pretend you are dead”. The latter he apologizes for,for its insensitivity. Screen headings like “Day One Of A Doomed Relationship” remind us that this is Greg’s journey in befriending a mortality -challenged girl. Rachel is in stage four cancer,yet she helps Greg write his personal essay for his college app. and later sends an excuse for his lack of diligence.We know she is his real mentor for his future. I think this last awakening is the reason for the Sundance  Audience Award. Learning how to keep learning about a lost one is a conscious force of will. Skimming the surface of a person is a poor substitute for diving in. Greg returning to Rachel’s room and finding squirrels among the treed wall paper is one of my favorite scenes.

Brian Endo does a beautiful job with the original score. The cinematography is stifling indoors, but an attempt is made to use stairways and narrow, sky-lit pathways to elevate the horizon. Overall, I preferred the romantic treatment of “The Fault In Our Stars” to the awkward push/ pull friendships in “Me”. And “Dope”, previously reviewed, is a better coming of age film,yet.

“Gemma Bovery”

French film rarely disappoints me, and this “reworking” of art mirroring life as life mirroring art is a gem! In a Normandy village near Rouen, Gustave Flaubert penned the novel “Madame Bovary”. In this same village our imaginative baker,Martin Joubert, (Fabrice Lucheni) takes over. His balanced and peaceful life is made dramatic and intense with the coming of new British neighbors, Gemma and Charlie.

The film begins with a flashback of Charles (Jason Flamyng) burning Gemma’s things. We see lingerie,furniture, and magazines hit the flames of a front yard bonfire. The lovely Gemma’s diary is saved by our baker. The backstory of her marriage and the bothersome calls from Charlie’s ex-wife are briefly chronicled. The tear-stained pages are difficult to read,but we learn that Charles wished for a radical new start in the French countryside.

Back to the present we encounter Gus, the baker’s dog, hot in pursuit of Carrington,Gemma’s pooch. This animalistic and humorous symbolism continues throughout the movie. Our baker’s yeasty risings are paired with those of his mongrel’s. Martin tells us that “ten years of sexual tranquility” is up-ended as he watches Gemma smell his loaves and gather cosmos into bouquets. In one scene, Gemma is stung by a bee. Martin is asked to remove her dress and suck out the bee’s venom. Anaphylactic shock has the gorgeous Gemma ( Gemma Arterton) meet yet another admirer. This young law student lives  with his countess mother, and he provides the sexiest scenes.

The twenty-nine-year-old British Arterton is lovely whether exercising, painting or conjugating French verbs. Her up-turned upper lip is photographed in rain-hazed windows and in music-box-like dancing in a cathedral setting. Yet, heels and trench coat out fit her with the tools of seduction. Her printed cotton dresses do the trick,too. Love sick eyes are everywhere, even when her dastardly ex-boyfriend Patrick (Mel Raido) re-emerges to cause more harm. The blond curls and youth of Herve (Niels Schneider), the countess’ s son, only bring about adultery and ugly neck marks in comparison.

But this film is really, Martin’s story. And his tale is a surprising one. Only the French can make a romantic film “romantic” while making fun of romance,too. The French can celebrate life’s tragedies with a joy in life’s craziness. Director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer turned a graphic novel by Posey Simmonds into a refreshing,playful and thoughtful film.

Enjoy Martin’s brief socialist/capitalistic harangue, and his admonishment to his smirking son:” I’d rather you took drugs than talk crap.” Martin’s re-reading of Flaubert’s “….she was waiting for something to happen..” is wonderful and entrancing. Film viewers may rediscover the novel. If you wish to see bread kneaded seductively, beautiful bodies in lust,and a fanciful watcher trying to save the day, see this film as the French “staff of life”. Somehow the French “get it” with cupids and croissants and death and irony. I am joyful that a sequel called “Anna Karenina” may soon follow.

“Inside Out”

My favorite line in the Pixar-Disney Animated Studio’s new summer release is the off-hand lament : “Facts and opinions look so similar.” This remark should not be surprising since five core emotions rage on screen: Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness. Abstract thought is waiting in the wings as the inner workings of a child’s developing mind is awash in these emotions characterized and animated in colors and duties. Another favorite tossed off truism is “Emotions can’t quit, genius!”

This inventive film uses French fry forests,a bag of yellow joy balls, a Brazilian helicopter pilot,caramel corn curls and flowing ice-skating sequences to entrance and delight. Emotional intelligence has never been so teachable. Emotions work together. It is evident that psychologists were consulted as the mind’s interior workings are illustrated in the development of baby Riley. The storyboard takes us to Riley’s eleventh year as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her “train of thought” is a train. Her personality aspects are “islands”,for instance,Goofball Island and Honesty Island. Memories go “long term” during sleep. We stack memories and have to work on keeping them with us as “core memories”. Memories fade to the “dump” when we don’t take care of them. The “mind library” is made concrete. And in terms of technology,one wants Joy to be in control of our “console”.

Core emotions tussle. Anger yells “the foot is down”,and imagination as an amalgam of animals is named Bing Bong. He has adorable heart-shaped nostrils and saves Joy with a Radio-Flyer rocket transport. The co-directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen are also the writers and they keep the voices of Amy Poehler (Joy) and Diane Ladd (Riley’s mother) especially strong.

The labyrinthine mazes in getting back to headquarters were hard to “find the fun” in,just like in real circumstances, but the suggestion that we “could cry until we can’t breathe” was presented as a silly option. The fact was stated and shown that Sadness is needed to return to Joy. As we grow our “console” expands and we even incur a “curse word library”.

No cursing will be done in viewing this sweet celebration of our emotional workings. Take a youngster and find that talking about feelings need not be a subconscious fear. I am certain that a sequel is in the offing. The pin-ball like gaming and the air transport tubes may have a drone or two added as those brain fragmentations and incidents of déjà vu present themselves.

“Dope”

What former inner-city English teacher wouldn’t love a film that begins with three disparate definitions for one word and then showcases a brilliant adolescent ? Yet, celebrating not fitting into the stereotyped role gets complex when Malcolm ( Shameik Moore) finds himself caught with one-hundred thousand dollars worth of drugs. This coming-of-age film is clever,funny and full of hip-hop music, which is integral to the message of making the right choices responsibly. “My fault-my weight to carry” are Malcolm’s words. The fact is that students in the inner-city have too much weight to carry given the crazy circumstances they can encounter so innocently.

The three definitions for “dope” outline the journey of our protagonist: an illegal substance,a stupid person,and excellent. Malcolm and his two buddies are like the three Musketeers,Mickey-Mouse-style. They are “geeky”,BMX bike-riding students,who get their shoes stolen and start up a punk band called “Oreo”. These three,one a lesbian, love the 90’s and hip-hop music in general. The fact that Sean Combs and Forest Whitaker are the co- producers and that Pharrell Williams scored the music may have nothing to do with this,but one of the best scenes is on a city bus with every rider bobbing his and her head to the beat of their music. The use of abrupt slow-motion is delightful and speaks to the power of beat and lyrics joined and joining.

“Dope” was written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa. I loved the metaphor of “the slippery slope” and how it was used both comedically and as a thematic metaphor. So many of life’s ironies were touched upon: “the pray away the gay”, the male dominance “pissing contests”,the use of technology for good and for evil. I enjoyed the Tolkienesque “Return To The Kings” t-shirt and the drug lord’s son, who could not rap, and the laughing Hispanic maid.The drug use always was portrayed as humiliating,  be it in vomit or public urination.One scene at a Starbucks-like facility drew one of my favorite lines. After the drug dealer and respected CEO’s daughter was arrested, the  black patron who called the police was interviewed. “How am I supposed to eat my pound cake ( we don’t eat scones,you know) and drink my vanilla chai latte with that hoe peeing in the bushes right next to me.” Stereotypes again turned on their respective heads.

A chain of events like tutoring a love interest,being tempted with playing sexualized “Mother May I”, and shakily aiming a gun at a gang member’s face,all lead to a more normal Six Flag outing and a college admission letter.Shameik Moore, at twenty,was amazing in his flat-topped brilliance. The fact that he so resembled a former student by the name of Darryl R. made this film all the more delightful in its truth-seeking. The cliche “Don’t sell yourself short” applies here. See this movie.

“Saint Laurent”

“Yves St. Laurent Slips Away” may have been the headline in Paris’s “Le Monde” in 1977, but in this 2014 biopic, it is St. Laurent’s character that slides. The self-destructive couturier and self-indulgent 33 year old is superbly played by actor Pierre Niney. Niney looks like YSL and has his mannerisms,as well as,actually dressing in his clothes and luxuriating in Yves St. Laurent’s apartments. We learn of St.Laurent’s work rituals like his wearing of white lab coats and his penchant for classical music. We also learn of his substance abuse and his passion for risky sex and chocolate mousse. The film makes it clear that he was the artistic genius who had no interest in the scheduling or in the business transactions. As his assistant prattles on about the day’s line-up of appointments,he rebuffs her with,”Let me listen to my music,please.” As he draws and sketches,selects fabrics and models,and attends fittings,his partner Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne) runs the fashion house’s financial side. Laurent complains of Pierre to his girl pals Lou Lou and Betty,”You can vanish here–only power and money interest him,the monster!”

Berge was more than cooperative in getting the film “St. Laurent” made. He comes off as the stabilizing factor in Yves’ life. He puts up with temper tantrums,infidelity, boozy clubbing,and St. Laurent’s easy boredom. We,in turn, see Laurent locked in his quarters and managed like a child. Laurent’s own mother tells her son that he has”left the world” and can not change a light bulb. Pierre can and will was his response. It is Pierre that picks up Yves passed out and dumped body at a construction site. It is Pierre who tries to avert a scandal by halting an interview from being published. And it is Pierre Berge who amassed 350 million dollars after St. Laurent’s death. More than Michael Jackson’s or Elvis Presley’s estates earned by comparison.

One scene has a drug addled YSL pick up a Roman bust and attempt to smash Berge’s head in as he slept. Most of this drama stems from the real villain of the film,the debauched socialite,Jacques de Bascher. Introduced to St.Laurent by fashion rival Karl Langerfeld,Jacques (Xavier Lafitte)has no limits on kinky sex or on heavy acid dropping. His most yucky line is ,”why not step into the bushes?” With Jacques,fear and ugliness enter like the cobras YSL hallucinates. Still in this eighteen year relationship with Laurent,Berge begs “Don’t let him destroy us.” St. Laurent responded with,”I love bodies without souls.” Berge later gives St.Laurent a painting of Proust’s bedroom,staid and 19thc safe.

The film’s director Jalil Lespert uses flashbacks inordinately. Beginning in 1974 where YSL books a Parisian room under the name Mr.Swann (a toast to Proust, maybe) to the Algerian home where he dresses dolls for his sisters,the scenes and atmospheres jump back and forth.This is effective for the “untold story”, but not so much for the actual factual one. One really needs to already know that St. Laurent was the first living artist to have a solo exhibit at the Met. or that he ushered in “men’s clothing for women” in the form of tuxedos and trousers, and that he pushed the borders of couture  with the sheer blouse. That he was a protégée of Christian Dior or the that he retired in Marrakesh was not broached. What was shown was his love of music,Maria Callas in particular. His goals of art acquisitions like Matisse, Mondrian and Rothko;his wish to please his mother,his early hobby of collecting y- shaped sticks for good luck,his cameo collection in later life and his Buddha altar were all interesting.

I enjoyed seeing the actual seamstress work and appreciated the pressure they were often under. “Tell Mr. Laurent that I am not Houdini’s wife” was a telling line. How to keep satin-backed organza simple was refreshing, as was watching gigantic scissors slicing through patterns. The collections and the runway shows entranced. The scenes with girl pals Lou Lou and model Betty were fun. My favorite line being St. Laurent’s, “Let’s go in disguise and terrorize everyone” would have a different take today.

I did not enjoy the 1971 disco clubbing or the four year old French bulldog Moujik’s demise from spilled pills. The fancy granite headstone and box of white lilies hardly made up for the pet’s panting,drooling and suffering. I disliked the pseudo-frontal nudity and the genital jewelry. Somehow,”you dress the world” does not include these. The film left me feeling sad for YSL’s shallowness. His “fashion passes like a train” will be want I hope to remember.