Keeping The Faith

Ida is a film about the connection between two characters who are related; one has lost faith, and another drawn closer to her faith.

The story opens with a convent in Poland where Anna has been raised and is approaching the period for taking her vows. She is summoned by the Mother Superior and strongly urged to meet for the first time her aunt Wanda, as she represents the only surviving member of her family. Anna reluctantly agrees to visit her aunt, and upon arrival at her aunt’s apartment learns she was born to a Jewish couple that perished in the Holocaust. Curious about her parents, Wanda suggests they journey to the town of her birth to locate their family’s graves.

Wanda’s experience as prosecutor and judge are reflected in her questioning of the family that took possession and inhabits her parents’ farmhouse. Through guilt and shame, she is able to exact a concession of the location where her family’s bodies have been interred. During this process, Wanda reveals to Anna she left behind her young son in the care of these neighbors to hide him from the Nazis while Wanda joined the Resistance movement to fight.

Wanda and Anna’s journey serves two purposes; to understand the pain Wanda’s trying to mask and foster a sense of empathy about why she drinks, as well as an opportunity for Wanda to challenge Anna’s resolute devotion to religion and her commitment to abstaining from something she has never experienced, and in so doing, Wanda is in essence trying to question her faith.

Filming Ida in black and white was a smart choice. The interior scenes are shot in high contrast reminiscent of a style used in film noire, and many of the exterior scenes in snow and overcast skies are washed out long shots that create a silhouette effect, which compliments the mood and feel of the film. The nuns positioned at the very bottom of the frame in one of the opening scenes inside the convent’s dining hall creates an appearance similar to a Dutch masters painting. It serves as an example of Pawel Pawlikowski’s artistry.

Ida is sparing in its use of dialogue and combines interesting visuals to make a wonderful film that is well worth seeing.

Ida

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Landslide Will Bring It Down

Force Majeure is about a Swedish couple, Tomas and Ebba, and their young children, Vera and Harry, who are on a winter holiday at an alpine ski lodge. While taking a lunch break overlooking the mountain at a terrace restaurant, Harry becomes fixated by a massive wave of snow cascading down in the distance and forming an avalanche. Harry becomes unsettled as it picks up speed and approaches the lodge. When a wall of white spray begins to blanket the terrace, Tomas reaches for his phone and gloves in a moment of perilous panic and pushes past a nearby patron as he rushes for safety. Meanwhile Ebba grabs her children as she tries to protect them.

The white mist passes in less than a minute, and turns out to be nothing more than a spray caused by the snow that has come to rest well below the restaurant. Tomas returns to the table and acts as if he didn’t just abandon his family; stunned by his behavior they stare stone-faced and sit in silence.

There are three conversations that play a prominent role in shaping the story. Upon arrival, Ebba befriends another hotel guest who left her husband at home to watch over her children while she takes a vacation alone for some quality me-time. Ebba and Tomas run into her later with a random man she picked up that day, and after Ebba recounts what happened during the avalanche, Tomas refutes any notion he deserted his family. When Ebba runs into her newfound friend again, she questions how she’s able to have such casual affairs without thought or regard for her family. Days later after one of Tomas’s mates joins them along with his twenty-year old girlfriend, Ebba brings up the avalanche again and forces Tomas to acknowledge his shameful conduct, and Tomas alludes to other past indiscretions.

At the opening the film, the family goes everywhere together and functions as a unit. Ebba suddenly tells Tomas that she wants to spend the day skiing by herself, and leaves the kids with Tomas. It’s clear Ebba is searching for answers as she struggles with whether she should preserve her marriage for the sake of her family.

Force Majeure is a film with an interesting premise that doesn’t fulfill its potential. The family’s awkwardness is really well captured through its silence in the scene at the table immediately following the avalanche, but in the very next scene, there is a nervous smile in Ebba’s conversation with Tomas. Whether it’s something Lisa Loven Kongsli injected into Ebba’s character, or something she was directed to do, this sense of forgiveness or possibly meekness seems inappropriate for that particular moment.

Additionally, some of the background effects seem misplaced. Between certain scenes, portions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are used in a playful manner, which would work in a light-hearted movie, except here it only undermines the seriousness of what is weighing on Ebba. There is also a wide-shot of Tomas and Ebba talking outside their room from the perspective of the housekeeper that is intended to create a voyeuristic feel. It’s effective the first time it’s used, but it becomes a distraction after it’s repeated several times without contributing anything further to the story. There is also an impressive visual effect where Tomas is moving at normal film speed in the foreground while a crowd in the street starts running forward from the background at a much faster film speed. As the crowd runs past Tomas, it has no connection to the story other than a demonstration of one of the cinematographer’s really cool special effects.

Where Force Majeure falls short is following the avalanche, Ebba should have become the central figure as she contemplates what direction to take. If her dialogue with Tomas was more substantial and carried a greater weight, this could have been a much stronger film.

Force Majeure

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Through The Eyes Of A Child

Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a novel about the interplay of memory and imagination. The story is narrated by a granddaughter and opens with the patriarch who moved his family out west to Montana where he is killed riding a train that derails on a bridge and plunges into the depths of the frigid, wintery water. The middle daughter, and mother of the narrator, has two daughters herself and after a failed marriage suddenly drops off her two young daughters with her mother, whereupon she drives a borrowed car over a cliff to commit suicide.

The grandmother raises Ruthie, the narrator, and Lucille with unflinching and stoic determination until the time of her death when both sisters are still rather young. The free-spirited and transient aunt Sylvie is summoned to assume guardianship where she takes on the role of caretaker, although she lacks what the townspeople consider traditional maternal instincts.

One day the girls skip school and furtively follow Sylvie’s trail on one of her morning walks to see where she goes. After catching sight of her on a bridge walking along the train tracks, the girls call out fearful Sylvie will abandon them, too. Sylvie’s intentions are unclear in terms of whether she would have committed suicide, but in that moment, Sylvie recognizes a fear that their fate will be left in the hands of others yet again, and she comforts them and provides the reassurance they so desperately need.

As the pair start to mature, Ruthie is drawn nearer to Sylvie and Lucille grows apart when she becomes self-conscious of Sylvie’s unconventional style of a homemaker and seeks the shelter of a more nurturing adult figure.

Marilynne Robinson’s talent is evident in her creative descriptions used to portray physical spaces: properties of snow and ice, the colors of light in the water and sky, and the darkness of the forest. However, there is a sparseness when it comes to her characters conveying any feeling or emotion, which leaves the reader guessing about their motivations. Housekeeping captures the confusion of a child who does not understand the events unfolding in the adult world, and it would not be unusual for someone like Ruthie to turn her attention and imagination to things such as what lies beneath the water, or what’s in the forest. Although it might be part of the voice Marilynne Robinson uses for her narrative, it doesn’t lead to an understanding of Ruthie or Sylvie in any way, and therefore it’s a journey that somehow lacks a payoff.

HousekeepingNovel

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The Man Who Sold The World

Sway is Kat Spear’s debut novel about Jessie Alderman, a clever high school senior with a reputation around town as someone who can get things to satisfy the whims and desires of his clients. Through charm and cunning, Jessie gathers information and secrets on people as part of his strategy to persuade and manipulate others to grant his clients’ wishes.

For a fee of two hundred dollars, Jessie agrees to help Ken Foster, a clichéd brawny blockhead star quarterback, get a date with Bridget Smalley, an angelic down-to-earth beauty. Ken’s attraction to Bridget is purely based on the surface of her physical appearance, and to curry favor, Jessie needs Ken to appeal to Bridget’s kindness; she volunteers her time with special needs kids, frequently visits a senior center to see her grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, and has an overall interest in impressionist art. In the process, Jessie falls in love with Bridget and finds his perfect soul mate as he regrets wasting such a brilliant courtship for the purpose of putting words in the undeserving Ken’s mouth to get the girl.

Sway uses a first person narrative to capture a cynical teen that feels like he’s figured out his peers and adults alike, and is written in a refreshing witty voice. The suicide of Jessie’s mother serves as a device to help Jessie seem more sympathetic to Bridget and explain some of Jessie’s resentment toward his father; however, Jessie’s reluctance to talk about it was a lost opportunity for him to become a more rounded and complex character.

Sway is a delightful and thoroughly entertaining read.

Sway

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Illusions of Love

Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness is a wonderful collection of short stories featuring characters confronting destruction of their families, destruction of their marriages, illness, death, and guilt written in first and third person narratives. Marital infidelity and the feelings of humiliation and betrayal that flow from it is a common thread running through most of these stories; in some cases prominently and others less so where the characters unhappily tolerate or ignore the affair to preserve an illusion that things are fine.

Child’s Play is one story that showcases Munro’s talent where an act from the narrator’s youth carries through to adulthood, and a profound sense of guilt that weighs on the narrator’s camp buddy places the reader in a position to pass judgment as various pieces of the event are revealed until a clearer picture emerges.

Strangely, the weakest story is Too Much Happiness, the book’s title. Inspired by a female mathematician from the late 1800’s, the story skillfully captures obstacles a woman faces trying to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated environment in matters of love and career; however, the usage of multiple flashbacks blended with a scene imagined by the main character is confusing and serves as a distraction.

Nonetheless, Too Much Happiness is a well-written collection that is worth the read.

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Love Stinks

The Land of Love and Drowning is Tiphanie Yanique’s novel about being helplessly in love with the wrong person. It begins during a time when the United States purchases the Virgin Islands as a territory from Denmark, and follows the story across two generations from Owen Arthur, a ship’s captain, his daughters Eona and Annette, and Jacob Esau, a son from his mistress.   Eona has beguiling good looks and from an early age Owen begins an incestuous relationship with her that throughout her life serves as her true love.

There is a stark contrast between the sisters; Eona is refined with an air of sophistication befitting her finishing school training, and the younger Annette is impulsive and rambunctious. Owen Arthur’s shipwreck and the early death of his wife, Antoinette, leave’s Eona to raise Annette without the means they’d previously been accustomed to. Both sisters are wooed by romantic pursuits, yet Annette suppresses a genuine passion for her forbidden love to settle on a suitor who is a good family man, yet even with offspring happiness eludes Annette and Eona.

The trouble with the Land of Love and Drowning is Annette’s voice is written in a dialect where pronouns are misplaced and certain misconjugations work to portray Annette as a child, which distinguishes her from Eona’s educated and proper form of speech, but its continued use for Annette as an adult and history teacher seems disingenuous.

Also, throughout the story there are several passages that flash forward and describe the characters at a point in the future that doesn’t compliment the present-day narration of the story in any way. However, what Tiphanie Yanique captures really well is a sense of good feeling for Virgin Islanders becoming American and their subsequent disillusion with the arrival of tourists who are condescending and insensitive that instills resentment in the native population.

Despite some flaws, Land of Love and Drowning is an interesting and dramatic story.

Land of Love and Drowning

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A Legal Alien

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Disgraced is the Pulitzer-prize winning play about stereotypes harbored against Muslims. The play centers around a dinner between two couples who descend into a conversation about religion that causes cultural misconceptions to surface.

Amir is the son of Pakistani immigrants and an M&A lawyer, his wife Emily is a painter, Jori is Amir’s black co-worker whose husband Isaac is Jewish and a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To Amir, Emily and Isaac’s unease with criticizing Islam based on a principle that one shouldn’t criticize a religion is the result of a failure to having read and studied the Koran, which is naïve and patronizing.

In an exchange that serves as a foreshadow, Amir attempts to provoke Emily and Isaac into viewing Islam as being incompatible with their modern sensibilities by quoting the Koran about how a husband should handle a disobedient wife by suspending relations, and if that doesn’t work, beat her. As part of their discussion on religion, Amir insists that when you corner someone and put them on the defensive, their instinctive reaction will reflect their culture.

The dinner is ruined when Jori discovers that Isaac and Emily are having an affair, and Jori reveals she’s been chosen to make partner instead of Amir; the result of Emily’s persistence for Amir to meet with his nephew’s imam in detention due to accusations his charity is fundraising for a terrorist organization, and after the New York Times identifies Amir as the imam’s counsel, Amir’s firm whose founding partners have distinctly Jewish names are seeking a way to push him out. In his anger and frustration, after Isaac and Jori leave, Amir hits Emily.

Amir’s nephew pays him a visit in the final scene to inform him that he plans to return to Pakistan. Amir tries to convince him why this would be a mistake, because Amir knows something about Pakistan and how their parents left it for a better life in America. Amir’s nephew points out that Amir denied his religion and identity for the sake of fitting in, and in the end what good did it come to? He lost his job and his wife. To Amir’s nephew’s way of thinking, in a post- 9/11 world, Muslims would never be accepted in America.

Disgraced portrays the unfairness Muslims in America are subjected to as the result of stereotypes, but it does so in a contrived way. The events that precipitate the loss of Amir’s job would have been sufficient, and adding Emily and Isaac’s affair just seemed like piling on and overburdening Amir’s character to make a point. Someone familiar with the Koran might appreciate Amir’s critique of Islam, but without any knowledge of these verses, the citations sounded like an academic analysis rather than dialogue. And having Amir’s actions fulfill a stereotype in a weak moment only served to undercut the message Ayad Akhtar was trying to convey. A simpler storyline would have been more powerful.

It’s worth noting that Ayad Akhtar didn’t write Jori as a stereotypical black character, which was refreshing. Accept for a reference of the N-word thrown in by Amir, Jori came off as an intelligent professional focused on her career and family, and such black female characters are underrepresented in the arts.

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