Ali & Nino (2016)

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Ali (Adam Bakri) and Nino (Maria Valvarde) share a picnic on a hill.

[1] We get a rare glimpse into an era at the onset of the formation of the Soviet Union. Also, the interaction between two religions, Islam and Christianity, is carefully portrayed and interesting to observe for that time period and location.

[2] The culture of the East was well-depicted… revolution and fight for independence scenes, despite of low budget [$20 million], are well executed- impressive and tragic, as they should be. 

[3] My only concern is that movie is really short- only 1.5 hours. Way too little to show such a complicated time period of Azerbaijani history… You just cannot help but wish for story to slow down and take its time to show more details…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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Bakri and Valvarde with director Asif Kapadia.

This little gem of a film is now streaming (Netflix). If you liked The Promise, or are interested in some of its themes, then you will enjoy this (smaller, yet well-done) love story. The director is British Asian (or South Asian, as we say in US) and a recent Oscar winner- Asif Kapadia. Amy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015; it focuses on the troubled life of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. The film was an international box office hit and is the highest grossing UK documentary of all time. 

There is only one word to describe the cinematography and music- AMAZING! The composer is Italian- Dario Marianelli; he worked on some very good films, including: V for Vendetta, Atonement, and Pride and Prejudice (2005 big screen version). The screenplay writer (Christopher Hampton) may also be familiar; he worked on Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Quiet American, Atonement, and A Dangerous Method. Hampton adapted Kurban Said’s book Ali and Nino, which I had come across MANY years ago, BUT haven’t read. (There is a VERY interesting story re: the author of the book, too, if you want to look that up.)

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Ali (Bakri) and Nino (Valvarde) dancing at a ball after a graduation.

The desert doesn’t ask for anything, doesn’t give anything and doesn’t promise anything. -Ali explains why he loves the desert landscape 

The cast here is multi-national and multi-ethnic: Adam Bakri (who is a Palestinian Arab) plays Ali Khan (meaning: ruler) Shirvanshir, the handsome/cultured son of a Muslim nobleman. Maria Valverde (who hails from Spain) is Nino, the petite/wide-eyed princess from a Georgian Orthodox Christian family. Nino’s father is played by American film/stage actor Mandy Patinkin. Ali’s father is Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi; he can be seen in The Kite Runner and The Queen. These veterans lend gravitas to the film, along w/ strong supporting characters (several of whom hail from Turkey, as does the cinematographer).

Ali’s father laments that though his family has been here for hundreds of years and is well-respected, they have no political authority (Russia was in charge). Though Ali and Nino have different religions and backgrounds, they move in the same small circle of upper-class society in Baku, Azerbaijan (an area rich w/ oil). Nino’s family is originally from Tblisi, Georgia; her father is in Baku on business. 

 

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The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017) starring Jessica Chastain & Daniel Bruhl

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film (now playing widely in U.S. theaters).

Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book was greatly inspired by the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinska and Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. The book was published in 2007. While the real life events occurred in Warsaw, the movie was filmed entirely in Prague (w/ real baby lion cubs). This film also has a woman director (Niki Caro) and woman adapter (Angela Workman). 

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[1] It is still possible to find love and comfort in the darkest of times. Love is all around us. We must be the vessel through which hope and love spreads. Antonina believed this with her whole heart which is why she and Jan did what they did. There are brave people all around us: fighting for our rights, fighting for theirs, their family, their country – bravery comes in so many forms. This film reflects this: there is bravery in combat and ‘silent’ bravery. One is not greater than the other.

[2] One of the key messages seems to come from an early monologue delivered by Antonina where she compares the purity of animals (their eyes tell you everything) with the propensity to deceive and commonplace of ulterior motives in humans.

[3] Caro is able to reflect humanity, sincerity and earnestness in her films, which captivates and entangles the viewer. Caro’s directing prowess brings to mind the ideology of the male gaze vs. the female gaze in films… I feel as though I’m witnessing a life lived, purely, rather than someone’s perspective of that life. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

We first see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as a happy figure riding her bike through a zoo with a young camel trotting beside her. She helps rescue a newborn elephant, interrupting  a dinner party. But soon German bombs begin dropping on her city (Warsaw) and this zoo she runs w/ her zoologist husband, Jan (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh). 

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…she is undeniably captivating as the eponymous lead, channeling grit and vulnerability in equal measure as she fleshes out her character’s fears, anxieties and convictions. Among the supporting actors, Bruhl and Haas [the teenaged Israeli actress who plays a pivotal role] are the standouts, the former exercising admirable restraint in what could have been a traditionally villainous act, while the latter surprisingly nuanced in her portrayal…

-Excerpt from IMDB review

The scenes between Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) and Antonina are tense; as he disarms her with his affinity/experience w/ of animals, BUT later scares her (and us) with his unwanted advances and desire to cross-breed animals in hopes of creating a new type of bison/bull (superior beast). 

The Brothers Karamazov (1958) starring Yul Brynner, Lee J. Cobb, & William Shatner

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A poster for the film.

Alexi was the young monk who personified what it means to be a generous and forgiving Christian; Ivan the spiritually conflicted and deeply honest man of science; Dmitri the tortured deeply human soul who takes on suffering…

I just happened upon this film- had never seen it before. William Shatner is VERY young (and cute) here; he plays Alexi, the youngest brother in the family who is a monk. This film is about money (particularly inheritance), sibling rivalries (and alliances), forbidden love, and honor. Yul Brynner is perfectly cast as Dmitri, the oldest brother in the dysfunctional family. He is a Lt. in the Russian Army whose favorite hobby is gambling. Of the two female leads, Claire Bloom (Katya) and Maria Schell (Grushenka), I thought Bloom are more effective.

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Alexi (William Shatner) and his father Fyodor (Lee J. Cobb) have a serious talk.

Brynner is very charismatic and gives the right emotional intensity and vulnerability, while Cobb gives his patriarchal role so much juice and life, his demeanour sometimes even quite intimidating (the role is a problematic one due to being one that could easily fall into overacted caricature, Cobb admittedly does overact but enjoyably and the character still felt real). Richard Basehart brings many layers and nuances to Ivan… William Shatner does suffer from a greatly reduced (in terms of how he’s written) character, but surprisingly this is Shatner at his most subdued and moving, most of the time in his acting for personal tastes he’s the opposite.

-Excerpts from IMDB review

At the start of the film, Alexi convinces their wealthy father, Fyodor (Lee J. Cobb) to give him some money to pay off debts run up by Dmitri (Brynner). Fyodor is reluctant, knowing of Dmitiri’s irresponsible spending; he is also tyrannical and lecherous. Dmitri should be getting some money (which comes from his deceased mother’s side). 

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The brothers is the Karamazov family with their father.

Alexi is in the role of peacemaker in the family; while Dmitri is the “black sheep.” These two brothers are tight, though they have opposite personalities. The other brothers are Ivan (Richard Basehart), an atheist writer and Fyodor’s unclaimed bastard/servant, Smerdjakov (Albert Salmi). 

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Katya (Claire Bloom) is engaged to Dmitri- he’s NOT that into her though!

The daughter of Dmitri’s captain, Katya (Bloom), falls deeply in love w/ him after he helps her father out of a difficult situation. Dmitri admits that he wanted Katya, BUT didn’t love her. She explains that she doesn’t mind that. Some time later, when she becomes an heiress (thanks to a grandmother), she proposes that they get engaged. Dmitri agrees to it; after all, she is a beautiful, respectable, and wealthy woman. Katya goes to his town and meets his family, impressing them w/ all her charms. She and Ivan spend a LOT of time together; he falls in love w/ Katya, BUT she only sees him as a friend (and future brother-in-law).  

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Fyodor (Lee J. Cobb) has dinner with his mistress, Grushenka (Maria Schell).

So, why is this engagement taking SO long? Dmitri stays away (gambling and drinking), so there is no time to get to know and (maybe) fall in love w/ Katya. Back at home, Ivan and Smerdjakov are getting impatient to inherit; they’re waiting for their father to die. Fyodor shows no signs of slowing down; he has a young/blonde mistress, Grushenka. Though he’s NOT the sentimental type, Fyodor proposes marriage. 

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Dmitri (Yul Brynner) plays a song for Grushenka (Maria Schell).

For anyone interested in family dynamics and love relationships “Brothers” presents a web of triangulated rivalries and unrequited, seething passions — fiction that rings powerfully true.

I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t read this great novel — although the movie makes me want to — so I wasn’t familiar with the story. 

-Excerpt from IMDB review

Grushenka, who owns a tavern and has made some money of her own, buys Dmitri’s debts (on behalf of Fyodor). When Dmitri learns of this occurrence, he insults her servant (a former soldier), and then sets out to find the mysterious woman. He sees Grushenka at a skating pond (where she is having fun w/ another man, not Fyodor). It’s basically love at first sight (at least on his side); Dmitri is a VERY passionate man after all. Grushenka seems VERY taken w/ him, too, BUT she is also a professional (who knows how to survive in a man’s world). Check out this film to find out what happens next!