A Man Called Ove returns to community

A- Comic drama

Written by Hannes Holm, from a novel by Fredrik Backman

Directed by Hannes Holm

Even the most warn-out, commercial plots can work when the filmmakers do something original with them. And that’s very much the case with this dramatic comedy from Sweden.

Consider the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, until good-hearted people melt his resistance and remind him what love and community are all about. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this overused device new again by adding a very real sense of darkness, and a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life.

He also makes the film, when appropriate, very funny.

When we first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgård), he lives by himself in a condominium within a gated community. He boils with anger at every minor transgression of the community’s rules. He threatens cats and small dogs.

He shows tenderness only to the dead. He visits his wife’s grave every day.

He’s already mad at the world when, early in the film, something happens that gives him something to be mad about. He’s fired from his job after decades of service.

With apparently nothing else to look forward to, he attempts suicide. Several times. But every time he tries, something–usually other people–interferes. He finds himself reluctantly helping them instead.

These suicide attempts also launch many of the film’s several flashbacks. Holm and cinematographer Göran Hallberg bathe these scenes of Ove’s youth in a nostalgic glow, and show much of what had been wonderful in his life. His widowed and working-class father loved him and taught him not only a sense of right and wrong, but also the mechanical and carpentry skills that would serve Ove throughout his life. He had a long and very happy marriage to a wonderful and generous woman who loved him deeply.

But the flashbacks also showed the many losses in his life. Tragedy, in the form of horrible accidents, destroyed much of his happiness. And as a builder who could work wonders with his own hands, he learned to hate the “white shirts” who always found ways to take away what he had created.

When he’s not remembering the past or trying to kill himself, he’s reluctantly spending time with other people in his community–especially the family that just moved in. It’s a mixed-race family, with a white husband, an Iranian wife, and two adorable daughters. Another child is on the way.

The very pregnant mother, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), becomes the major force to bringing Ove back into the human race. She’s open, friendly, and cheerful. After her husband is injured in a domestic accident, she keeps coming to Ove for help, and much to his surprise, he provides it. Much against Ove’s own wishes, the kids bond with him.

The concept of modern Sweden as a melting pot is a minor theme here. Grumpy as he is, Ove never once uses a racist slur. He reluctantly takes in a young, brown-skinned gay man who has been thrown out by his homophobic father.

The best feel-good movies have a dark and disturbing core. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life. A Man Called Ove, with its disappointing ending, doesn’t reach the magic of Frank Capra’s masterpiece. But the film shows us the inevitable tragedy of human life and the ability to heal–and all done with good, dark humor.

The Lovers and The Despot

B- Documentary

Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam

I don’t think you could find a stranger story in the history of cinema. Shin Sang-ok was one of South Korea’s top filmmakers–a respected director married to movie star Choi Eun-hee. They disappeared in 1978, and five years later turned up making movies in North Korea.

Rob Cannan and Ross Adam tell Shin and Choi’s story in this entertaining documentary, but their own storytelling capabilities leave something to be desired. While the narrative and interviews were always clear, I often found myself wondering what I was looking at and why it was being shown.

They certainly had a good story to work with. Shin had been a top director, and Choi a top star, throughout the 50s and 60s. Shin had his own production company, and the glamorous couple won prizes and attended international film festivals.

In the 1970s, Kim Jong-il–then North Korea’s heir apparent and now the deceased father of current North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un–took notice of Shin’s work. Wanting to improve North Korean movies, he kidnapped first Choi and then Shin in 1978. After five years in prison, they agreed to make movies for the dictator-in-training.

As their North Korean films gained recognition, they were occasionally allowed to attend international film festivals. In 1986, while attending one in Vienna, they escaped their handlers, ran to the American embassy, and defected.

Not everyone in South Korea believes the kidnapping story. By the mid-70s, financial and political problems had destroyed Shin’s career. The Kim Jong il gave him a studio, huge budgets, and a surprising amount of artistic freedom.

On the other hand, the couple secretly recorded their discussions with Kim. Those tapes make it completely clear that they didn’t willingly move North.

The Lovers and The Despot tells its story through interviews with the people involved–primarily Choi Eun-hee (Shin Sang-ok died in 2006). Other interview subjects include their son (still in South Korea) and US government officials involved in the case. Occasional intertitles fill in more information.

To keep The Lovers and The Despot visually interesting, the filmmakers use clips from Korean films–presumably those made by Shin–and what I assume are reenactments for the camera. But I can’t be sure. I often found myself wondering what I was actually looking at–not a good feeling when watching a documentary. A few words at the bottom of the screen would have solved this problem.

It’s impossible to not be intrigued by the story of Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and the future dictator that controlled their lives for many years. But I would have liked some more information.

For the Love of Spock (and Leonard Nimoy)

B+ Documentary

Directed by Adam Nimoy

When Leonard Nimoy died earlier this year, he was working with his son Adam on a documentary about the character that made the elder Nimoy famous–Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. After his father’s death, Adam changed his mind and made the film about both Spock and the actor who played him. He also used it to explore the sometimes troubled, sometimes loving relationship he had with his father.

When Star Trek premiered in 1966, NBC didn’t like Spock, and worried about “the Martian” on their new show. Yes, that seems laughable in retrospect. The pointed-eared alien holding his emotions in check became a sensation, and made the show a hit. Fifty years later (almost to the day), he’s still an iconic figure in our culture.

Spock represents much of what’s best in a human being–even if he isn’t one. A scientist, he’s rational and logical. He puts what’s best for everyone above what’s best for himself. He’s not quite a pacifist, but he abhors violence.

He’s also a deeply lonely individual. Half human and half Vulcan, Spock doesn’t quite fit in either culture. Like a good Vulcan, he tries to master his emotions, but the human side of him makes that difficult.

Adam Nimoy paints his father as a hard worker and a practical man. Born to Orthodox Jewish parents early in the great depression, he learned to do things for himself. He was the sort of father who could repair your bike or build a brick fence around the house.

He also believed in the importance of finding your passion and pursuing it. His parents didn’t approve of his decision to study acting, and refused to pay his way through college unless he picked a more practical major. So he left home and worked his way through acting school. And he struggled for years in menial jobs between bit parts to support his family until Star Trek changed his life.

The documentary doesn’t entirely paint Leonard as the perfect father. He was often away, and had a drinking problem. Father and son became estranged for several years. Eventually they reconciled.

Adam managed to get a fair amount of interview footage of his father before Leonard died. Other interview subjects include the remaining four surviving members of the original cast, stars of the new Star Trek reboot movies (new actors playing the original characters), friends and relatives, and famous people who just love Star Trek (Jason Alexander does a great Shatner impression). We learn about other roles Leonard played in movies, TV, and the live theater, but the film doesn’t even mention Zombies of the Stratosphere, a laughably bad 1952 serial where Nimoy first played an alien (if you’re curious, it’s on Fandor).

Breezy and enjoyable, For the Love of Spock provides a loving view of the man behind the Vulcan, and the character that launched a still-loved franchise. It also tells us quite a bit about Adam Nimoy himself.

Love, romance, and a whole lot of problems bubble up in The Intervention

B+ Comedy-drama, but mostly drama

Written and directed by Clea DuVall

All romantic relationships have problems, and those problems provide fodder for this very funny relationship drama (or maybe it’s a very serious comedy). But according to Annie (Melanie Lynskey), only one couple is supposed to have problems here, and everyone else is supposed to be on the same page about the only conceivable solution: divorce.

Annie knows with absolute certainty that her married friends, Ruby and Peter (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza), need to go their separate ways. And when we first meet the unhappy couple, we understand her certainty. They treat each other with behavior so passive aggressive that it’s just one step away from aggressive aggressive. So Annie organized this big weekend shindig so that she and other friends of Ruby and Peter can help them see the light.

But Annie’s pretty messed up herself. Engaged to Matt (Jason Ritter), she keeps postponing their wedding. What’s more, she has a very serious drinking problem. (Actually, everyone drinks pretty heavily here, but Annie’s problem is considerably worse than the others.)

Also in attendance is Ruby’s sister Jessie (Clea DuVall, who also wrote and directed) and her girlfriend Sarah (Natasha Lyonne). Sarah worries that Jessie is a little too interested in younger women.

And speaking of younger women, Jack (a friend of Peter’s played by Ben Schwartz) arrives with a new and barely legal girlfriend oozing sexuality in everyone’s direction (Alia Shawkat). Her name is Lola; no screenwriter gives a character that name without a good reason.

As everyone tries to solve Ruby and Peter’s relationship problems, their own complications bubble to the top. And people are soon getting angry with their partners and hitting on other members of the gang.

Almost the entire film is set in an extremely large and expensive mansion and estate in the south. Ruby and Jessie apparently came from a very wealthy family. For what it’s worth, everyone here is white, and everyone except Sarah has dark hair. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional.

Don’t expect a laugh fest, but don’t expect a tragedy, either. Most of the characters are likeable, and all ring true. The Intervention isn’t trying teach a lesson; or if it is, the lesson is to be tolerant of your lover’s faults.

Not sage advice, but worth knowing.

Before the White House: My review of Southside with You

C Romantic meander

Written and directed by Richard Tanne

The movie starts like a commercial. The camera moves smoothly over an impossibly clean residential street filled with smiling people. Upbeat, happy music plays over the opening credits. The message is clear: This is going to be a feel-good movie about two people falling in love.

Southside with You plays out as yet another variation on Before Sunrise. Two attractive people who barely know each other walk through a city, talking, doing fun and meaningful things, and getting to know each other, while the audience wonders whether they’re going to fall in love.

But there’s no romantic suspense. Everyone in the audience knows that this couple will eventually marry and create a family. Then they’ll become the first family.

The couple, of course, are Barak Obama and Michelle Robinson.

It’s the summer of 1989, and Barak (Parker Sawyers) is a law student at Harvard, back in his chosen home of Chicago doing a summer internship at a corporate law firm. Michelle is a low-level attorney at the same law firm. She is, in fact, Barak’s immediate superior. It’s her job to evaluate his work. He thinks otherwise.

According to what he said before the movie started, he’s to pick her up and take her to a community meeting that she might find interesting. But he has other plans. They go to a museum. They have lunch in the park. They go see the new movie that everyone is talking about–Do the Right Thing. And yes, they go to that meeting, where we get a glimpse of the great orator and pragmatic politician that Barak will become.

For Michelle, this isn’t a smooth ride to true love. He lied to her about the time of the meeting. He’s a bit too smooth. He smokes. He used to smoke marijuana (she pronounces the full, four-syllable word with distain). Tika Sumpter plays Michelle a bit stuck up. Proud of her no-nonsense work ethic, she feels superior to this laid-back dude from Hawaii.

And in a literal sense, she is superior. She’s his boss. For her to get romantically involved with him would be a significant conflict of interest.

And yet she can’t help feeling attracted to him.

We know that that attraction will lead to the White House. But as a movie, Southside with You feels just a little bit too sweet for its own good. My vote for this film is pretty much on the fence.

Lo and Behold! Werner Herzog brings us the Internet


Directed by Werner Herzog

Even those of us who grew up, married, and had kids before dial-up modems were common now take the Internet for granted. We socialize, work, play, read, find restaurants, and enjoy movies and music through this decentralized network.

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in providing an overview of the technical and sociological entity that has pretty much taken over civilization. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, Lo and Behold starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future.

For the first half hour or so, Lo and Behold feels like a puff piece. Everything about the Internet seems wonderful. In the most upbeat moment, a medical researcher describes how the behavior of certain molecules–needed to be understood for medical purposes–were cracked by thousands of gamers.

But then we come to a chapter called “The Dark Side.” We meet a family that lost a daughter in a traffic accident. Photos of the beheaded girl went viral, and people of the worst sort emailed them to her parents with insulting messages. When the mother calls the Internet “the Anti-Christ,” you may not agree, but you’ll certainly understand her feelings.

Herzog rightfully spares us the gory pictures in that sequence, but in other scenes I wished he used more pictorial aids. Visually, Lo and Behold relies heavily on people talking. Many of the concepts they discuss would have been easier to understand with simple animation.

And sometimes I wished he would dig deeper into the research. One sequence involves people living away from the Internet–and not always by choice. These folks explain to Herzog’s camera that they’re sensitive to the electro-magnetic waves emitted from all of our technology. Their suffering is clearly real, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was psychosomatic. An interview with a doctor or two would have helped.

Of course Herzog covers security concerns, centering on hacking the big fish–government and corporations. He covers the very real threat of cyber warfare (which strikes me as less scary than the real thing). He points out that the weak point in any system will almost certainly be a human, not a piece of technology. In one amazing sequence, a hacker explains how a few phone calls got him some very important corporate code.

Oddly, he barely scrapes into issues of personal privacy. He doesn’t seem worried that corporations and governments know a frightening amount of information about us. One person he never interviews, or even mentions, is Edward Snowden.

Yet he examines some technologies that are only vaguely involved with the Internet, but are still fascinating. These include robots, Elon Musk‘s plans for Martian colonies, and driverless cars (which really need their own feature-length documentary).

There’s very little in Lo and Behold that I didn’t already know. But then, I’ve been writing about the Internet since it first became a thing. People who merely use it may find the movie much more informative.

Coming of age in a sad, sad world in James Schamus’ touching Indignation

A Coming of age drama

Written and directed by James Schamus

From the novel by Philip Roth

Most coming of age movies leave you feeling optimistic. No matter what horrible things happen to the protagonist, you know that everything will come out alright.

Not this time.

In James Schamus’ directorial debut, you slowly begin to realize that Marcus (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil.

Marcus, the son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, is the first member of his family to go to college. Aside from learning and finding a good career, he has another very good reason for embracing higher education. Indignation is set in 1951, and a college deferment will keep him out of the draft and thus out of Korea.

His stellular grades have gotten him a scholarship for the last college you would expect to find a boy of his background–an very Christian college in Ohio. He’s not the only Jew on the campus–there’s even a Jewish fraternity–but even with Jewish dorm mates he still feels like an outsider. Every student is required to attend regular chapel services.

Marcus is an exceptional student, but he doesn’t play well with others. He studies, he works in the library, and he considers himself too busy to have a social life. He refuses to join the Jewish fraternity, and he doesn’t get along with his Jewish roommates.

In one amazing, powerful, and very funny scene, Marcus and the deeply religious dean go at it, arguing about compromising, socializing, and faith. Marcus isn’t just a Jew; he’s an atheist; Bertrand Russell is his hero. The dean is horrified.

Despite his hermit-like tendencies, he manages to get the notice–and then the affection–of the very beautiful, blonde, and experienced Olivia. At first glance, she’s the cliché of the gorgeous shiksa that every Jewish man of that generation wanted. But she turns into someone far more interesting. She’s a troubled soul with a history of drinking. And when he avoids her, she understands what’s going on in his head before he does.

Two paragraphs back, I describes a scene as “very funny.” For a tragedy, Indignation provides a surprising amount of laughs. This doesn’t break the films overall sadness; it deepens it.

James Schamus is one of the most interesting unsung people in the American cinema today. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of James Schamus–even if you don’t know it. He wrote and produced most of Lee’s films. He ran Focus Films and turned it into one of the best arthouse distributors in the country (and then he was fired). Now he’s finally helming his own films.

Judging from his first try, this 57-year-old first timer has a promising career ahead of him.