At the end of the nineteenth century, widowed, illiterate, and destitute, Lasse Karlsson travels with his son Pelle (as it's pronounced in the film) from Sweden to Stengarden, Denmark. In a stratified Baltic island society with workers firmly on the bottom rung, life is difficult, and punctuated only infrequently with celebrations in the ironically titled Pelle the Conqueror (1987).

Based on Martin Andersen Nexo's novel, director and co-screenwriter Bille August uses his two and a half hours to let characters' exhausting, work-filled days that unfold through the seasons. As Lasse, Max von Sydow brings his supremely accomplished acting to the role. Lasse so wants to impress Pelle that it's heartbreaking to watch him cower before a despicable young boss who has humiliated Pelle. He describes himself as "poor and wretched, a plucked chicken in the dung." When Lasse does get Pelle a present, Lasse's joy is rapturous. Von Sydow is an open book of pain and desperation, resilience and love. His complex, inner world is revealed in his face and posture.

As the boy Pelle, Pelle Hvenegaard is wide eyed and wonderful. As our surrogate, he reacts to tragedy understandably, and sometimes bravely, as fellow schoolmates and supervising adults display some of the best and some of the worst of human nature, in just about equal measure. Tragedy strikes and some endure, but there is nothing easy about eking out a living or merely surviving.

Cinematographer Jörgen Persson composes with an artist's eye and a feel for the landscape -- the sea and the fields. Lasse's and Pelle's squalid living quarters, tattered clothes, and dirty appearance project their poverty. Seldom has a nineteenth century world felt so lived-in, grimy and grim while shots of waves and harvesting resemble gorgeous paintings come to life.

Pelle the Conqueror received the 1989 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature Film. In Danish and Swedish with English subtitles, Pelle the Conqueror screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium from Friday, April 28 through Sunday, April 30 at 7:30 each evening. 

 

 

The history of golf offers a fascinating study of human aspiration, conflict, and determination as dramatically illustrated in director Jason Connery's Tommy's Honour, documenting golf's early days. In the 1870s, St. Andrews, Scotland, Tom Morris Sr. encourages Tommy Junior's golf talent but also cautions him that it isn't a financially sound career. Tommy asserts and proves it is.

He also accurately assesses the game, saying, "What I like about golf, you see it's impossible but put everything into it." And Tommy does with astonishing success, though he maintains equilibrium, demonstrating formidable backbone and admirable character, in his love life as well. Through multiple father-son conflicts, Tommy asserts, "Golf is your god, dad, but it's not mine." Greens-keeper at legendary St. Andrews, Tom Senior, who made their golf clubs and balls, loved the game. 

Both father and son were inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame. Tom is regarded as the founding father of the modern game, competing until he was 75 and the oldest at 46 to win the Open Championship which he originated in 1860, along with 18 holes per round. Tommy developed new clubs, used more than others in the 19th century, and started carrying them in an arrow quiver. But it's the spirit and immersion in the competition and the gambling that supported it that dominates Tommy's Honour

Cinematographer Gary Shaw begins the film using drone photography for gorgeous, sweeping shots of Scotland's coast. The Scottish locations forcefully communicate the weather—the wind and the chilly temperaturesduring the matches. In addition, the judicious use of close-ups highlights facial expressions, emphasizing emotional interaction. Optimizing use of natural light, Shaw balances an impressive blend of character and environmentthe golf challenges plus individual struggles. As Tom Senior, Peter Mullen is wonderful, but it's Jack Lowden as Tommy who steals the film with his impish charm. The superb acting saves the plot which revolves around familiar themes: father-son discord, an unconventional romantic partner, and issues of class. Its quality makes it appealing to more than golf lovers.  

Tommy's Honour won the BAFTA Scotland Award, the British equivalent of our Oscar. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema

 

 

The voice-over intones, "Life was good. Life was perfect." Life for this voice of a seven-year-old will change the minute the baby arrives. This baby shows up, not in a onesie, but in a suit and carrying a briefcase. Suddenly, life is not so good.

Well, not for a boy named Tim, a boy with a wildly wonderful imagination, a boy used to being an only child, loved all over by his mom and dad. And then the new baby arrives to boss the family with demands to be fed and changed and entertained. Sibling rivalry is common, yes, but siblings where the baby is more grown up than the big brother? Where the baby has a mission? 

The babe in the suit has been sent to deal with the dastardly actions of the Puppy Co. CEO, out to steal the hearts and minds of the innocent in the age-old popularity battle between puppies and babies. 

The wondrously silly plot is based on a book by Marla Frazee in a script by Michael McCullers, with credits on Austin Powers films. The writers are responsible for the dialogue between the baby and his brother, lines that play on the old reversal of babies demanding decent sushi in a very adult, even Mafia-like bossy voice.

That's the real voice of Alec Baldwin, the actor who used his gravel to animate the boss on 30 Rock. Playing the enemy voice to perfection is Steve Buscemi. Included in the voice cast are also Jimmy Kimmel as Tim's dad and Lisa Kudrow as his mom. Tobey McGuire is the voice of adult Tim, and the boy Tim is voiced by Miles Bakshi, the grandson of animator Ralph Bakshi.

The admirable animation is by DreamWorks Animation. The Boss Baby dandily delights kiddo's and adulties alike.

 

 

Gifted could have arisen from the sentimental slough of Hollywood films. That it does not, that it has moments of sterling silver among the nods to craven consumerism are testaments to the reins of its writer, Tom Flynn, and director, Marc Webb, who also directed 500 Days of Summer.

Gifted is not just the glory story of a child lifted out of the ordinary. It is, instead, a debate over providing a real childhood to a math genius, who, at 7, has a mouth on her as well as a brain. Mary Adler is the daughter and the granddaughter of math geniuses, who suffered for their intellect. Grandmother Evelyn gave up success when she married; mother Diane could not take the pressure from her mother, gave up study of a Millennial Problem known by Navier-Stokes and took her life.

She left her child to her brother Frank, who gave up his life as a philosophy professor to raise this child as normally as possible, including moving to Florida and accommodating palmetto bugs. The film opens as Mary moves from being home-schooled to being public-schooled. She is not one bit happy about that. She is less happy when her grandmother Evelyn re-enters the picture and sues for custody.

Much of Gifted takes place in a courtroom, off-shoot of the subplot concerning Mother v. Son. One scene with them highlights Flynn's good writing. Here's a hint: Evelyn's corporate second husband left her to ride horses in Montana, and Evelyn says, "He's the man who shot Liberty Mutual."

Chris Evans, his muscles barely shirted, models Frank, and the estimable Lindsay Duncan plays the British grandmother. Jenny Slate is the understanding first-grade teacher, and Octavia Spencer well plays the stereotyped wise black woman. Gifted depends on the skill of Mckenna Grace to perform as the little math genius with sass. She and the film succeed admirably.

 

Writer/director Werner Herzog has amassed an impressive body of fiction and nonfiction work stretching back to the 1960s. Just released, his 2015 Queen of the Desert will not rank among his best biographical profiles, though, as usual, he's drawn to an individual challenging conventional morés. In this case, it's Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary, late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century woman.

An accomplished writer and linguist who traveled extensively through what we'd now call the Arab world and the Middle East, Bell also showed expertise in archeology and cartography, influencing some troubled borders that still exist today. She knew T.E. Lawrence and important representatives of the British Empire to whom she was political advisor during and after WWI, including Winston Churchill. From encounters with Bedouins and Druse tribal leaders, among others, she brought unique insight and analysis.

However, Queen of the Desert fails to do her justice. Typical of films focused on women, it dwells too much on her romantic involvements rather than the complexity and significance of her intellectual and emotional achievements. Her striking photographs flash much too quickly, with time spent on spurious threats that build and dissipate. With a surprising lack of unity, Bell's point of view is abandoned in a late scene though she's anchored the film until then. More annoying, swelling music, which often hearkens back to "Lawrence of Arabia," accompanies numerous scenes. Salvaging some of its two hours and characteristic of Herzog, time lapse shots (of clouds, in particular) and footage of the Nefud Desert environment are breathtaking.  

Herzog also scores points for casting Arabs in those roles. But as much as I like Nicole Kidman, as Bell she's too delicately presented and Damian Lewis looks a bit at loose ends as love interest Charles Doughty-Wylie. James Franco as Henry Cadogan and Robert Pattinson as Colonel T.E. Lawrence are acceptable without impressing. There's a great film waiting to be made about Gertrude Bell, a unique, multitalented individual not adequately captured in Queen of the Desert. Primarily in English with some Arabic with English subtitles. Check local cinema listings.

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