The Wonders (2014)
In just her second film, Italian writer/director Alice Rohrwacher has fashioned a gem. Winner of the Grand Jury award at Cannes last year, it tells the story of a family of Tuscan beekeepers who are fighting to save their way of life. Living on the farm with her German father and French mother, the story is told through the eyes of young Gelsomina (the very name harkens back to the 1952 Fellini classic La Strada, another coming-of-age story that follows the transition into womanhood). The film is imbued with the wonderful energy of the great Italian filmmakers, and it follows in their footsteps.
The story is thin: the family ekes out a meager, simple existence, but they are on the verge of losing their farm unless they make state-mandated renovations. When a (ridiculous!) reality TV show named Countryside Wonders shows up in the town, Gelsomina is fascinated and longs to be on the show. Father Wolfgang will have none of it, even though their financial situation is dire. Gelsomina secretly submits an application, and the family gets accepted.
While the story is thin and the characters are frustratingly underdeveloped, the mood is the thing. The atmosphere is wonderfully set in both cool and warm colors, and Gelsomina’s burgeoning pre-teen spirit is expressionistically rendered in beautiful sequences. Cinematographer Hèléne Louvart moves between documentary-like realism and beautiful expressionism with the ease of a master, and the end result is a feast for the senses.
This is not necessarily a film for everyone—not everything is explained, there is a great deal of missing backstory, and relationships are oblique. But there is something alluring about the film, much like living off the grid may seem attractive to many. If you like wonderful performances (from cast and crew), films driven by images, and just the right mood for the material, then this film is for you.
You will like this film if you enjoyed The Hunt, Timbuktu, and/or Force Majeure.
Starts Dec. 4 at Chez Artiste.
The Man in the High Castle (2015)
Early on in the first episode of Amazon’s new original series The Man in the High Castle, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) gets a flat tire driving his truck through Colorado. With the Rockies as a backdrop, the setting is idyllic, even pastoral. A police officer stops to help Joe, and as they fix the tire and share a sandwich, ash rains down from the sky. “That’s the hospital,” the cop explains, “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. Drag on the state.”
Such is America, 1962, in a re-imagined world where the Allies lost WWII, the Germans rule the East Coast of America, and the Japanese rule the West Coast. There is a small neutral zone in the middle, marked by the Rockies. The series is based on a book by Philip K. Dick, the great sci-fi writer who gave us Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which Blade Runner was based. If you know his work, you know that Dick had a beautiful mind, and the series does the book and that mind justice.
The series is plot heavy: the main characters are part of a resistance, some on the East Coast and some on the West Coast. Joe Blake and Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) meet in the middle, trying to find the elusive man in the high castle, who supposedly runs the resistance and has distributed a film showing an alternate America—one in which the Allies won the war. The Nazis rule New York as they ruled Germany, and some live neatly tucked away in the Long Island suburbs. The big question: is it an alternate universe? Or are the films simply meant to inspire or even confuse the resistance?
With so much story to work through, the first few episodes are a bit slow to develop.
It is a daunting task, but the amount of action is just right, and the series picks up steam as it moves along. The series is produced by Ridley Scott (dir. Blade Runner and Alien) and Frank Spotnitz (The X Files), and the pilot is directed by Daniel Percival, a TV veteran. The steady hand shows up on screen, with high production values and excellent acting all around.
It is an ambitious project, and it works. Amazon seems to be catching up to Netflix in developing new series, and the long form canvas must be candy for filmmakers. Look for more filmmakers to make the jump to the original series format in the near future.
You will like this if you enjoyed Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and/or The Adjustment Bureau.
Now playing on Amazon.
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., teaches Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org