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After seeing Please Give, my friend Liz asked an almost impossible question: is there any good in this world?

This documentary offers an answer that yes, there is some good in this world.

Hilde Back, a Jewish woman living in Sweden after fleeing Germany during the start of World War II, makes a small monthly donation through a program at the elementary school she teaches at to a student in Kenya, Chris Mburu. Chris is at the top of his class, but he can’t attend secondary school on a regular basis because his family is too poor to send him there. The money – only $15 a month – got Chris through school and off to university. He gets his law degree in Kenya.  He goes to Harvard and gets his masters.  He works for the United Nations. He goes back home and decides to start a fund to help other kids to get through school.  The fund would become the Hilde Back Education Fund.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t heard from her in the form of donations in over twenty years.  He decides to track her down through the help of the United Nations.  She is flown to Chris’ home village and a day is dedicated to her.  She is speechless and amazed.

The scholarship fund is awarded to gifted individuals in Kenya in order for them to attend secondary school.  A $40 scholarship, as explained, would be enough for a year of school.  If the the students can get to secondary school, they’re almost guaranteed to get to a university (the University of Nairobi, at least when Chris went to college, was free), but if not, the chances of them being able to escape the poverty they live in becomes almost nothing.  Boys become drug runners and guerrilla soldiers.  Girls are married off and are have an average of 3-4 children, with no possible way to be able to feed so many mouths.  Lack of education would only add to the vicious cycle of violence and poverty, and Chris looks to change that, at least for as many as he can.

The documentary follows three kids: Kiami, Ruth and Caroline.  All three live in poor conditions.  Caroline seems to have it the worst, simply because her family lives on the school property (she is constantly ridiculed for her family having no land).  All three though are brilliant, constantly in the top three of their class, hardly letting their poverty bring them down.  They have nothing, and yet, they have everything.

Their ranking, it would seem, wouldn’t matter when it came to the national achievement tests.  Chris uses a high standard – 380 marks – to determine who would receive the scholarship.  The year will be difficult: presidential elections are looming, and tensions are high between ethnic groups.  The tests look impossible: some of the questions, a mix of English, math, history, and geography, confused me greatly.  Yet this kids are required to know them at twelve and thirteen years old.

Every person in this film touched me in some profound way.  Hilde gave her money (and at 85 years old, continues to do so).  Chris contributed his efforts to bring peace, not just to Kenya, but to everyone around the world.  The kids saddened me, and yet made me hopeful in their drive to succeed.  I won’t give away the ending to the documentary, but is again both sad and hopeful in the same perspective: there is not enough money to send kids to secondary school, but even a small amount will help in getting more and more students the education they need.

This documentary proves the obvious: a small and simple act can have the greatest of consequences for many people.

(While writing this review, I went through the Kristof and Wu Dunn book “Half the Sky” to see if they had anything regarding the Hilde Back Fund.  They didn’t, I would think because of everything else they had to put in their book.  I do plan on sending a tweet to Kristof about this film – hopefully he’ll get it – and he can spread the word to get other people to watch this film (currently on HBO On Demand through September I believe), more so than I can with the few people who read/listen to me.  In the meantime, I found the fund online – http://www.hildebackeducationfund.com/about-us.html – so you can go there and decide for yourself what you want to do.)

This film is deserving of a long review. Unfortunately, every attempt to write about this film ends in failure.

So I will simply say this: see it. See it now. The story is about a young woman who is forced to look for her father. He cooks crystal meth, and proceeded to jump bail. The bail bond is the house. It’s the woman, her two younger siblings, and her mentally lame mother who stand to lose the house and property. No one is giving her answers. Not her father’s brother Teardrop (an angry sort of fellow), not her neighbors or the people who she thinks her father associated with. All of them turn out, in some form or another, to be family, mainly cousins, though the blood relations are never clearly defined.  They don’t have to be. The setting of the movie, the Ozark Mountain range, plays as much a prominent role in the film as the cast of characters.

Suffice to say, the film is brilliant, with a subtle tension that lasts throughout the film and an excellent, breakthrough performance by Jennifer Lawrence (she’s been cast as Mystique in the upcoming X-Men: First Class movie).

A

I had a feeling that, as soon as the Universal title opened, redone in 8-bit graphics and MIDI-file orchestra, this movie would be an epic.

It did not disappoint.

Credit Edgar Wright, no doubt.  He’s got to be some sort of creative genius, pulling together everything in the graphic novels that made them quite popular (which, by the way, I still need to read), and mashing them together in this film.  From what I understand as I listened to my friends talk afterward, it followed the plot of the novels quite well, with various lines utilized throughout.  Some lines were missing, but some they got, they enjoyed hilariously.

Yes, I have some catching up to do.

But this is a movie, and as a movie, it was an exciting spectacle.  Sure, the movie drags after a while (how many ways can you have a fight scene anyway?), and the filming, strangely, gets a bit lazy towards the end (the first entrance into Gideon’s lair, for instance).  The feel of this movie though – the mix of a general slacker/gamer induced madness with the comic book geekiness – is what drives this film, and it doesn’t let it.  It doesn’t get old too.  The novelty that you’d expect to wear off after the first five minutes doesn’t do so at all.  Each fight scene – from Patel all the way to Gideon – is manically different every time.  The results are the same, no doubt (this is Scott Pilgrim fighting the League of Evil Exes (“seven evil boyfriends?” “seven evil exes”), so you’d hope he comes out on top), but how Pilgrim responds to each of them is crafty.  The special effects in the movie too – the endless word pop ups, the ringing points totals, the movement effects, hell, everything – is excellent.

An epic of epic epicness.  Okay, the story is as you would expect it, and there is a somewhat morally uplifting ending about learning self-respect, but this is ADHD-induced glee from start to finish.

What more can you ask for?  See it.

B+

Dear I Am Love,

I don’t know what to write about you.  I started earlier this week and gave up.  I started again now, gave up, and resorted to writing you (a movie of all things) a letter.

For starters, you don’t make any sense for the first hour, but you do.  You have multiple characters, all within the same family.  There are five family members, all but one get significant screen time.

Let’s start with Tancredi, who is the easiest in some regards, mostly because he doesn’t get much screen time.  He’s the son of an ailing textile factory owner and comes into inheritance of said factory at the opening dinner party (dinner parties are prominent throughout the film, as is the food that’s cooked by just about everyone).  He’s excited, but completely downcast when he learns that he’s set to run the company with his son, Eduardo Jr.  And then… well, he’s the man of the family.  He’s Italian – Catholic Italian presumably.  That’s all you need to know.

Elisabetta is the daughter of Tancredi and Emma (more on her later), who goes to school in London.  She’s an art student.  She’s with a man at the beginning of the film, but as she’s in London, she discovers she’s gay (a secret only known to Emma).  She has a girlfriend.  She’s an art student, and at some point along the way, trying to put together an art show.  She’s trying to find some sort of acceptance, which is hard to come by in general (again, only from Emma).  Again, that’s all you need to know.

Eduardo Jr. is the eldest son, and unexpectedly picked to run the company with his father.  He’s a runner – he loses on the day of the first dinner to a chef – the chef, Antonio, delivers a cake, and they become friends, at least months later.  They plan a restaurant together.  He brings a woman to the party, Eva, whom he eventually marries.  He’s not very forward thinking, deciding to run the company in the image of his dearly departed grandfather, though given the forces of globalization, that’s not going to happen.  And, once again, that’s all you need to know.

Lastly, there’s Emma.  She’s a native Russian, often stuck in the role of matriarch to a family that has grown up and moved on.  She’s drawn to Antonio, first to his cooking, and then to him.  Her decisions bring calamity to the family, which I won’t divulge here, but they’re very important to the outcome of the film.

That occurs during the second half of the film, when it settles around Emma, Eduardo Jr, and Antonio.  It’s becomes more coherent then, and, sadly, almost predictable in its outcome.  I only say that because the first half, both in its frustration and its excellence, refuses to follow the demands of conventional film making.  The film requires a focused mind from start to finish, but especially in the first half.  It’s deliberately patient, and the reward is a quality film, if you can get through it.

That’s not to say it’s the best film by any means (I’m referring to you, I Am Love… yes, I haven’t forgotten about you).  The second half, like I said, gains a coherency that borders on predictability.  And the first half is truly frustrating at times: what exactly is the point anyway?  The acting is brave and bold on all fronts though, especially by Tilda Swinton, who at nearly 50 still refuses to be defined by any convention.  There’s a ten minute sequence of her making love to Antonio at least twice, and most of it she spends in the nude.  Her Italian (and Russian for that matter) are damn near perfect.  She’s always completely captivating when she comes on the screen.

Oh, and I Am Love, the scenery is beautiful.  If there is something that rivals Tilda Swinton, it’s the various picturesque views of Italy, from Milan to Sanremo, and off in London as well.  Every place is captured marvelously, through each changing season too.

In short, a difficult, complex, and patient film.  Hard to get through, but it’ll be worth it.

B

I need to learn to write reviews sooner, like, right after I see them, and not a week after the fact.

Anyway, brief synopsis of Countdown. It’s primarily a documentary about the history of the nuclear bomb, from inception to modern day, where currently 23,000 bombs are thought to exist in some form. The movie, for the first three quarters at least, presents itself based on a speech President Kennedy gave to the United Nations back in the early 1960s about the proliferation of the weapons and the danger posed by various groups of people or instances: mad men, rogue nations, accidental push of the buttons, etc.

The documentary succeeds in scaring the audience quite effectively: most noteworthy is the fact that a developed cylinder of plutonium or uranium can be shipped in a package of cat litter, on a freighter, without detection. Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of any human reaction or interaction: interviews are conducted on the street with regular people (who basically just respond to the questions asked them), an imprisoned man who was convicted of selling stolen uranium offers his own views, and various unrecognizable people give a voice over explaining the consequences of a detonation in a modern society (the consequences of which could cause the complete collapse of a major industrialized society). Everyone that offers facts is either a scientist or a government agent (a politician, for example). The solutions at the end flash by far too quickly too; there is brief moment showing the recent disarmament signing between Obama and Medvedev, but different ideas and solutions are practically spewed out without pause.

In the end, it’s well made, effective, and downright scary at times, but lacking a human voice to it. Your standard documentary, but still an important one.

B-