Monthly Archives: September 2016

Feminist Bookstore Slams ‘Portlandia’ And Says Show Can No Longer Film There


Fred Armisen performs as Candace and Carrie Brownstein as Toni in a Portlandia sketch about two feminist bookstore owners in Portland.

Augusta Quirk/IFC


hide caption

toggle caption

Augusta Quirk/IFC

Fred Armisen performs as Candace and Carrie Brownstein as Toni in a Portlandia sketch about two feminist bookstore owners in Portland.

Augusta Quirk/IFC

In the TV comedy version of Portland, Ore., the bookstore is called Women and Women First. In real life, it’s In Other Words — and the shop is using frank terms to say the Portlandia show is no longer welcome to film there. The feminist store and community center faults the show’s depiction of men dressing as women, its treatment of store staff, and its role in gentrification and race relations.

The staff of In Other Words made those claims in a blog post that shares its title with a sign that was placed in its window when the store’s relationship with the show soured. The title is straightforward: “F*** Portlandia” (asterisks ours).

The store’s staff say that by featuring Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen in a wig and a dress as Candace, one of the owners of Women and Women First, the show “throws trans femmes under the bus by holding up their gender presentation for mockery and ridicule.”

On TV, the bookstore is portrayed as a home for strident advocacy and outrage. In their blog post, the staff of In Other Words depict the IFC comedy as “diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize.”

We’ve asked the folks at IFC for their reaction and will update this post when they respond.

The tone of the store’s blog post is markedly different from 2012, when the comedian and Portlandia regular Kumail Nanjiani visited In Other Words and spoke to some of its board members for a short online video.

Asked whether they’d seen the feminist bookstore sketch, one board member (who wasn’t identified by name in the video) said, “It’s not like a lot of what happens here … but it’s funny.”

When Nanjiani asked about Armisen dressing as a woman for the sketches, a board member replied, “That’s called gender expression.”

In Other Words is a volunteer-run community center, according to its Facebook page. The store says that none of its current board and staff members were involved in the original decision to allow Portlandia to film inside the store six years ago, and that the “small flat fee per episode filmed” doesn’t cover its lost profits.

From its blog post:

“The additional exposure we have received from our time on Portlandia does not provide financial or political support of any kind: tourists and fans of the show come to our door to stand outside, take selfies, and then leave. The vast majority of them don’t come inside.”

The store also says it has undergone changes in the past two years, saying that it now hosts meetings of Portland’s Black Lives Matter group and that “the last time the show filmed in our space, the production crew asked to us to remove the Black Lives Matter sign on our window. We refused.”

In another passage, the store’s staff accuses Portlandia of essentially rolling out a red carpet of twee and whimsy “for the incoming technocrat hordes.”

In Other Words is located in a northeast Portland district called Albina — an area that has a rich history as a home for the city’s black residents. Responding to the store’s accusation that Portlandia contributes to gentrification and depicts an overly white Portland, at least two readers took the store to task.

“Are you serious? Your store itself is the epitome of gentrification to the actual displaced residents of NE Portland,” a reader named Xavier Woods wrote in a comment on the store’s blog post.

“This is 150% valid,” the store wrote in response. “Sorry doesn’t mean a thing when people are still actively being displaced but we are sorry and we are working every day to make sure we are a contribution to the neighborhood and that we are doing everything we can to build the power of the neighborhood.”

The store concluded its blog post by asking any readers that support its stance to donate or volunteer.

2 Stolen Van Goghs Recovered By Anti-Mafia Police In Italy


Vincent van Gogh’s Seascape at Scheveningen, 1882, was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002.

Van Gogh Museum


hide caption

toggle caption

Van Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh’s Seascape at Scheveningen, 1882, was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002.

Van Gogh Museum

Anti-mafia police in Naples, Italy, have recovered two paintings by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen from a museum in Amsterdam more than a decade ago.

The Van Gogh Museum announced Friday that a curator inspected the two works, at the request of Italian authorities, and “drew a firm conclusion: ‘They are the real paintings!’ “

The two canvases, a seascape and a painting of a church, were stolen from the museum in 2002 in a widely publicized heist. They’ve been missing ever since.

The director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger, said the museum owed a debt of gratitude to Dutch and Italian authorities.

“The paintings have been found!” he said in a statement. “That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.”

The Associated Press reports that the paintings were found during a raid of the Camorra crime clan as part of a crackdown targeting cocaine trafficking. The “priceless” paintings and tens of millions of euros worth of property were seized by police.

The paintings had suffered some damage but appear to be in “relatively good condition,” the Van Gogh Museum said.

The paintings were stolen in 2002. A report in London’s The Independent that week described a bold theft — burglars climbing a ladder to access the roof, smashing a reinforced glass window with a hammer or an ax and dropping into the heavily secured museum shortly before 8 a.m.

Vincent van Gogh’s Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884-1885, was one of two stolen Van Gogh paintings recovered by Italian anti-mafia police, the Van Gogh Museum announced Friday.

Van Gogh Museum


hide caption

toggle caption

Van Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh’s Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884-1885, was one of two stolen Van Gogh paintings recovered by Italian anti-mafia police, the Van Gogh Museum announced Friday.

Van Gogh Museum

An alarm went off as soon as the window was broken, but the thieves snagged the paintings and shimmied down a rope to the street before security could reach them.

Police had “no leads” at the time, the Independent reported. Investigators were “baffled” that the burglers evaded infrared systems and cameras to escape without a trace, the BBC said.

The paintings in question aren’t among Van Gogh’s most famous, but they have huge “art historical” value, the Van Gogh Museum says.

Seascape at Scheveningen, painted in 1882, is an early work and one of only two seascapes that Van Gogh painted while he was in The Hague, the museum says.

Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is the only painting in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection still in its “original stretcher frame,” which is covered in splashes of paint that appear to be from Van Gogh cleaning his brush. Van Gogh painted it in 1884 for his mother, and added churchgoers in mourning garb in 1885, after his father’s death.

“The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value,” the museum said.

It’s not clear what will happen to the canvases, but Rüger says he hopes they will eventually return to the museum in Amsterdam, after the Italian police investigation ends.

A Growing Champagne Trend Is Uncorking More Ways To Celebrate


Toasting with Champagne is not just for holidays and formal occasions.

Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/ Getty Images


hide caption

toggle caption

Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/ Getty Images

Toasting with Champagne is not just for holidays and formal occasions.

Viktoria Rodriguez/EyeEm/ Getty Images

When trying to demystify wine, one of the most misunderstood challenges for consumers can be the fizzy stuff.

There are all sorts of foreign names for what’s commonly known as sparkling wine: Cava (from Spain), Prosecco (from Italy), Crémant (from many different regions in France), Sekt (from Germany). But all too often if we see tiny bubbles racing to the top of a glass, our first assumption is Champagne.

But not all sparkling wines taste alike – or are made alike.

The French would sooner have our heads on a plate than hear us call all that bubbly Champagne. And that’s the first thing you need to know: Only wine made in the Champagne region of France (a province that lies about 100 miles east of Paris), can be called Champagne. There are strict laws about which grapes can be used and how to make the wine.

But while Champagne was once reserved in the popular imagination only for our finest occasions, that’s changing, says David White, author of the new book But First, Champagne.

“Celebrations – and Champagne – should not just come once a year,” White says. “From dinner with friends to a child’s laughter or a lover’s embrace, every day has moments worthy of a toast.”

He recently talked to me about sparkling wine— what makes one kind different from another, how to choose it, how to pair it with food and how small growers are changing the industry.

Here are highlights from that discussion:

How is Champagne different from other kinds of sparkling wines, like Cava or Prosecco? What makes the Champagne region a special place?

Champagne is special because of its terroir – that concept that great wines invariably express time and place. That terroir explains why Champagne tastes different from other sparkling wines. The region’s cool climate is quite rugged for wine growing. Grapes there ripen slowly, allowing concentration of flavor without reducing freshness. Its identity is also derived from deep chalk soils.

Other bubbles can be just as good, to be sure, but they’re different. Just as an apple grown in Virginia tastes different from an apple grown in Massachusetts, sparkling wines from say, Sonoma, Calif., will always taste different from Champagne.

Why is France so rigid about keeping the Champagne name only to wines produced in the Champagne region?

It’s easy to think that there’s something particularly French about saying Champagne is reserved only for wines from Champagne. But geographical indications have a long history: foodies know that Gorgonzola and Prosciutto di Parma come from specific regions in Italy.

With liquor, geographic indications began with Champagne. In the mid-19th century, after producers in the Loire Valley began co-opting the name “Champagne,” French courts began protecting the region’s wines. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, solidified trademark protection across the globe. But the United States didn’t sign the treaty – which is why American producers were allowed to label their sparklers as “Champagne.” The U.S. government finally agreed to end the use of “semi-generic” names like Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, in 2005, but many producers — think Korbel, Cook’s, and André — were disappointingly [for France] exempted by a grandfather provision.

It seems like more people are drinking Champagne casually now.

Inside Jacques Selosse’s cellars, one of the leading grower Champagnes, where many new producers have apprenticed.

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing


hide caption

toggle caption

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

Inside Jacques Selosse’s cellars, one of the leading grower Champagnes, where many new producers have apprenticed.

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

Champagne is absolutely becoming a more regular indulgence – and I’m thrilled about it. For starters, Americans are taking food more seriously than ever before – and Champagne is exceptionally food friendly.

Champagne and other sparkling wines deserve a spot at the dinner table all year long. Most sparklers are characterized by vibrant acidity and freshness, which help them cut through spicy meals, complement savory food, and elevate even the simplest of dishes. If a Champagne is particularly rich – think Krug Grand Cuvée — I love pairing it with a hamburger. For crisper, drier bubbly, nothing beats raw fish.

Sommeliers are also playing a more important role than ever before – and I’ve yet to meet a somm who dislikes Champagne. Social media has also played a role.

How is social media fueling Champagne’s popularity, and especially the trendy grower Champagnes discussed in your book?

Social media has played a huge role in Champagne’s surging popularity. Hashtags like #champagneeveryday are convincing consumers that every day is packed with moments that are worthy of a toast. When wine influencers – think hip sommeliers in New York, San Francisco and Paris – gush over new producers on Instagram and Facebook, wine enthusiasts take notice.

Your book has an entire chapter called the “Grower Revolution.” What are “grower Champagnes” and how are they different from the bigger and more well-known producers, like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug?

With most Champagne, the goal is consistency. Big Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot blend wines from different vintages and different vineyards to deliver a consistent experience to consumers each year. This isn’t a bad thing; there’s much to be said for consistent elegance.

But today, most conversation about Champagne is focused on the growers – those farmers who grow their own grapes and make their own wines.

Most of these growers, who only account for about 5 percent of overall Champagne sales, eschew consistency in favor of singularity.

The current generation of growers is taking the expression of terroir to its logical end point, offering single-vintage, single-vineyard, single-variety wines.

Antoine Coutier of R. H. Coutier Champagne prepares to tend his family’s vineyard in Ambonnay, one of the grand cru villages in Champagne. While some of the grapes are sold to big Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot, the family has also been bottling its own Champagnes since 1971.

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing


hide caption

toggle caption

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

Antoine Coutier of R. H. Coutier Champagne prepares to tend his family’s vineyard in Ambonnay, one of the grand cru villages in Champagne. While some of the grapes are sold to big Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot, the family has also been bottling its own Champagnes since 1971.

John Trinidad/Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing

Do grower Champagnes taste differently? Are they more or less expensive than other Champagnes?

Broadly speaking, grower Champagnes have more personality. And there’s something obviously and instinctively appealing about buying from a small grower. But small farming doesn’t always result in superior wines. Some crops, even though worked by a great winemaker, are better off in blends. Exceptional grapes are easily ruined by inexperienced winemakers.

Champagne is, unfortunately, expensive. It’s hard to find a bottle for less than $40. But that’s explained by economics. The wines are expensive to produce and supply is limited by the geographic boundaries of the region – fewer than 80,000 acres are under vine. Plus there’s quite a bit of demand.

Many grower Champagnes represent a good value, as they don’t have the high marketing expenses or bureaucratic overhead of large producers. On the other hand, they don’t benefit from any economies of scale. So all in all, the price difference is minor.

If I want to try or buy a grower Champagne, how can I find one?

Finding a grower Champagne is easy. Just look for the two letter code “RM” — which stands for récoltant-manipulant– on the bottom of a wine label. [Editor’s note: “Récoltant-manipulant” is the French term for growers who make their own wine]. That said, there are plenty of subpar grower Champagnes – and plenty of stunning bottles from big producers.

That’s why I always urge people to ask for advice. Most merchants and sommeliers are keen to help patrons find the perfect wine, regardless of the price. They are also interested in introducing new finds that will impress their customers. Some hot names right now include Jérôme Prévost, Cedric Bouchard and Ulysse Collin.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: ‘The Magnificent Seven’ And ‘Fleabag’


Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven.

Sony Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Sony Pictures

Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven.

Sony Pictures

[In case you haven’t heard, Pop Culture Happy Hour is about to embark on a West Coast tour. San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles are sold out — though we recently added an appearance (with Guy Branum!) at the Now Hear This podcast festival in Anaheim on Oct. 29 — but we’ll also be in Portland on Oct. 19 with our dear pal Audie Cornish. Tickets for that one are still available. Oh, and we’re fielding requests for pop-culture advice, so fill out this form to send us your questions. We might just answer them onstage.]

Our long, national, Linda Holmes-less nightmare is about to end, but we find a way to make due one more time this week: In this episode, Glen Weldon, Tanya Ballard and Chris Klimek join me to discuss the new remake of The Magnificent Seven (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), as well as a BBC Three comedy called Fleabag (available in the U.S. via Amazon) and What’s Making Us Happy this week.

First, the four of us offer up our thoughts on The Magnificent Seven — how it compares to its predecessor(s), how it differs from other modern Westerns, and how it uses its large cast (Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, et al), as well as its diversity, its body count and its genre’s many parallels to superhero myths.

Then it’s on to Fleabag, which — spoiler alert — is Glen’s favorite new TV show of 2016. Based on a one-woman show by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who stars in and writes the show, Fleabag gets us talking about its fourth-wall-breaking structure, its impeccable casting, its frank sexuality, and the ways it fits into a TV landscape that also includes You’re The Worst and Catastrophe.

Finally, as always, we close with What’s Making Us Happy this week. Glen, to make up for lost time, brings a “whistle-stop tour” of recommendations: He loves a film from this past summer, the voice actors in a new animated movie, a recent book of short stories, a forthcoming comic novel and a new mobile game. Tanya is excited about a hotly anticipated Netflix series and the new book by a favorite blogger. Chris praises a high-profile cover band that just played Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club. And I take a break from watching highly innovative television to enjoy a network TV drama that breaks none of the rules.

Find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: the show, me, Glen, Tanya, Chris, producer Jessica, and producer emeritus/music director/pal-for-life Mike.

A Swedish Curmudgeon Wins Hearts, On The Page, And Now On Screen


Rolf Lassgård, left, stars as a grouchy widower in A Man Called Ove, which opens Friday in U.S. theaters.

Music Box Films


hide caption

toggle caption

Music Box Films

Rolf Lassgård, left, stars as a grouchy widower in A Man Called Ove, which opens Friday in U.S. theaters.

Music Box Films

Step aside Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — a grumpy old man may soon be taking your place as America’s favorite fictional Swede. Ove — that’s pronounced Ooo-vah — is the lovable curmudgeon at the center of A Man Called Ove. The film, which opens in the U.S. on Friday, is based on a Swedish best-selling novel.

At first, when director Hannes Holm was offered the chance to direct A Man Called Ove he wasn’t interested — he was too afraid of the novel’s many, many fans. “If you’re going to shoot a best-seller you will have all these book lovers on your back all the time,” he says. So he said “Thanks, but no thanks.”

But after he said no, Holm sat down to read the book. He started it in the evening, and by the time the sun rose, he says, his pillow was wet with tears. So he called the film producer and told him he’d changed his mind.

Ove is the kind of guy most of us try to avoid; he picks fights with storekeepers and prowls his housing complex making sure gates are locked and garbage has been properly stowed. He loves to make sure people are following the rules — especially dog owners.

But it is the gradual unfolding of Ove’s life story that has made the novel by Fredrik Backman so popular. It was already a best-seller in Sweden when it landed on the desk of Peter Borland, editorial director at Atria Books.

“I’d never heard of it, I knew nothing about it,” Borland recalls. He took A Man Called Ove home to read over the weekend and fell in love with the novel.

“Ove is such a curmudgeon at the start of the book,” Borland says. “Then, as you gradually come to understand more about him, and learn his back story and figure out why he is the way he is, you just sort of melt.”

Even so, Borland didn’t have huge expectations for the book. Atria ordered a modest first printing of 6,600 copies. The book sold well in hardcover but really took off in paperback. Now, it’s a New York Times best-seller and there are about one million print and e-book copies in circulation. Borland gives much of the credit for its success to independent booksellers.

Nancy Usiak of the Book Bin in Northbrook, Ill., grabbed A Man Called Ove from the stacks of books that publishers send to her store — the title intrigued her and she liked the cover. Usiak read it, asked her staff to read it, and asked them: Listen, am I crazy or do you love this book?

“Very seldom does one book hit notes for everybody that’s in the store,” she says, “and this is one of those rare exceptions that everyone who read it said: This is an amazing book and I can’t wait to sell it.”

Usiak says she loved the friendship that formed between Ove and his new neighbor, Parveneh, a young Iranian mother who won’t be steamrolled by an old curmudgeon.

“He puts up such huge walls and here’s this woman who walks into his life and all of a sudden she realizes that there’s a lot of depth to him,” she says. “I would hope that if I met someone like that I would have the patience that she did, to embrace him and find what’s underneath all those layers.”

Of course, it is just this kind of devotion that first made Hannes Holm uncomfortable about taking on the adaptation of this novel. He knows that fans worry a book they love will be ruined, and he hates seeing good books “massacred” on the screen.

“The audience and the director must meet each other,” he says. “I think I must do a good job as a director and screenwriter to ‘steal’ the story out from the book — and then throw away the book.”

Read A Review

When Holm read the novel, he realized that the story he wanted to steal was not about a grumpy old man — it was a love story told in flashbacks. The novel reminded him of looking through old pictures in his parents’ photo albums. He remembers looking at black and white photos of his mom and dad before they had children — “I could see how much in love my parents were,” he says.

A Man Called Ove is Sweden’s official entry for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Borland, the editor who launched the book into the U.S. market, says you can’t really call it a “sleeper hit” anymore — it’s a full-on success story. But, he says, he is keeping his expectations low for the Oscar race.

“I’m trying not to think about it too much, but I will admit in the back of my head there is an idea that it’s going to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film,” he says with a laugh.

The question is: Can you catch lightening in a bottle more than once?

‘Danny Says’ Surprisingly Little: Documentary About Rock Manager Lacks Insight


Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Magnolia Pictures

Pristine Condition and Danny Fields in the documentary Danny Says.

Magnolia Pictures

Whether boosting or buffeting the careers of the Beatles, the Doors and the Stooges, Danny Fields was the man behind the curtain. He remains so in Danny Says, a candid yet unrevealing documentary named for a song the Ramones wrote about Fields.

The movie will be a revelation for some viewers, but that’s probably a small group: punk fans who know the music, but not Fields’ role in it. Those already familiar with many of these anecdotes — perhaps from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s 1997 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk — won’t learn much. Others may find the subject overly cultish, or simply too ancient.

Daniel Feinberg was born in Brooklyn in 1939, into a family he says was devoted to amphetamines. He identifies as gay but is equally taken with beauties of both sexes, and asserts he is attracted to intelligence. “Smart is sexy,” he announces.

Fields (the surname he adopted as a young adult) clearly was smart. He entered the University of Pennsylvania at 15, and Harvard Law at 19. But he dropped out of the latter, and at 76 he still doesn’t seem to have settled on a career.

That’s one of many narrative pieces director Brendan Toller never quite puts into place. Fields worked as a publicist and manager and was employed as “company freak” by Elektra Records. That label’s founder, Jac Holzman, explains that Fields was useful because “he stayed up later” than anyone else.

Periodically, Fields edited teen magazines, whose outlook he tried to subvert. During a 1966 stint at Datebook, he reprinted a British interview in which John Lennon casually opined that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. The subsequent furor nearly broke up the band.

Ironically, one of Fields’ longtime pals was rock photographer Linda Eastman, who a few years later married Paul McCartney.

The pop-savvy Beatles weren’t Fields’ idea of fun. He preferred the Rolling Stones and the Doors — although he and Jim Morrison didn’t get along — and later MC5 and the Stooges. At Andy Warhol’s Factory, Fields met Nico, Edie Sedgwick and the Velvet Underground. It’s no coincidence that MC5, Nico and the Stooges all signed to Elektra — or that the last two were produced by ex-Velvet John Cale.

Elektra made money on another Fields find, pro-pot troubadour David Peel. But MC5 and their White Panther Party proved too incendiary for the company, while Iggy Stooge (later Iggy Pop) and Nico both vanished into a heroin haze. “It’s the worst drug in the world,” says Fields.

Fired from Elektra, Fields returned to pop journalism before encountering the Ramones. He managed them for five years, a collaboration that was successful artistically but less so commercially. Since the band dumped him in 1980, Fields seems to have done very little, or at least very little this documentary finds noteworthy.

Long prized as a raconteur, Fields did interviews for the film over a long enough period that you can watch him age. Other notable interviewees include Holzman, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman and John Sinclair, the man behind what Fields calls MC5’s “amusing politics.” (Many of the other relevant figures are dead.) The 1960s and ’70s are represented mostly by still photos, although Toller uses animations to illustrate some incidents.

What’s missing is a sense of Fields’ inner life. He talks about sex a lot, but never mentions love. He acknowledges chronic financial distress — Fields’ mother paid for the Ramones’ first proper drum kit — yet never discusses the psychic toll of that struggle.

What Danny Says portrays, perhaps simply because it’s incomplete, is a man who existed only through others. It suggests that Fields had a lot of great adventures, yet never got a life.

A Grouch Gradually Grows Grudgingly Grateful In ‘A Man Called Ove’


Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures


hide caption

toggle caption

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

Ove (Rolf Lassgard), a bitter and reclusive widower, reluctantly finds friendship among his neighbors.

Johan Bergmark/Magnolia Pictures

The angry old gent at the heart of the Swedish film A Man Called Ove is the kind of man who puts on a suit and tie every time he tries to kill himself, which believe me is more than twice. He’s also the kind of man you’re likely to find in films submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So even though Ove, who’s played with firmly compressed lips by Rolf Lassgard, is a royal pain in the butt, the suicides are played for gentle laughs and it’s pretty clear from the get-go that things will pan out, in their deadpan Scandinavian way.

A Man Called Ove won’t win Best Foreign Film this year, nor should it, but it’s worth your time, and it’s easy to see why this proudly populist movie was a smash hit in Sweden. Men in white collars do not fare well here; the heroes are Everymen and -women who actually make things. But this modest dramedy, deftly directed by Hannes Holm from the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, is as sweetly sincere as it is market-driven, with gusts of saving black comedy rolling in to rescue it from excess goo.

In fact, Ove’s not that old. He’s only 59, but life has slapped him around a lot, especially lately. His beloved wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) recently died of cancer and the impertinent whippersnappers who now head the company he’s faithfully served for 43 years fire him with the most callous of golden handshakes. He’s alienated his best friend over a trifle, and now the friend is paralyzed by a stroke. Small wonder that Ove kicks other people’s pets, appoints himself the enforcer of regulations that neighbors on his provincial street never knew existed, and calls almost everyone he meets an idiot. It goes without saying that the neighbors we see scampering off his lawn, headed by a heavily pregnant, congenitally optimistic young Iranian named Parvaneh (a beguiling Bahar Pars), will gear up to give him reasons to live. There will be babysitting, and driving lessons, and hot meals on doorsteps, and lashings of amiable shtick before Ove gets with the program.

So far, so pleasantly familiar. The flashbacks that carry us through Ove’s past are consistently richer and deeper, in part because they take seriously his gains and losses — and his cascading grief, once he confronts it. The film observes his transformation from salt of the earth to embittered curmudgeon with intelligent sympathy. Like many adults who lost a parent early, Ove (played as a young man by Philip Berg) is awkward and childlike, but he’s a fixer who shows love and respect through building and repair, and we learn that he’s enough of a diamond in the rough to be plucked from bachelorhood by solid women like Sonja, who has cornflower-blue eyes and an enchanting overbite. In her absence, the exuberant Parvaneh steps in to heal the savage breast.

Much of this is pure corn, of course, but it’s sprightly, honorable corn. And A Man Called Ove doesn’t shy away from the darker insight that almost every life, at a certain point, becomes about incremental losses and about how we struggle to deal with them. Ove doesn’t achieve insight or even that mysterious, made-up thing we call closure. He gets busy caring for others, and then he grow attached, and then he rediscovers his own best self by other means. And then — well. You’ll have to see.

In ‘Deepwater Horizon,’ Oil And Water Don’t Make A Good Mix


Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate


hide caption

toggle caption

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

Mark Wahlberg in the film Deepwater Horizon.

Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be making a film about Sept. 11, the news alone felt like a startling provocation: Hollywood’s most political director, a man known for upending assumptions about America’s history and institutions, would be commenting on the formative tragedy of the early 21st century. Perhaps Stone would indulge in the type of leftist conspiracy theory that informed his JFK or, at a minimum, seize the opportunity to critique the drastic changes in domestic and foreign policy precipitated by the attacks.

Instead, Stone made World Trade Center, the single dullest film in a career that now spans three decades and counting. With only five years’ distance from Sept. 11, addressing the event head-on would be like staring into the sun, enough to turn the camera lens into a molten goo. So Stone and his screenwriters looked instead for a silver lining, opting for the story of two Port Authority officers who got trapped in the rubble trying to help the people fleeing the Towers. He paid tribute to the heroes of that terrible day and, for the first time ever, made a film no one would find objectionable.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 wasn’t Sept. 11, but it could fairly be called the formative ecological catastrophe of the early 21st century, a sea-floor gusher that lasted for 87 days and discharged 4.9 billion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Director Peter Berg doesn’t have to negotiate the same political minefield Stone did, yet Deepwater Horizon is equally craven in focusing on the event itself at the expense of the larger political and environmental picture. He’s made World Trade Center all over again, telling a story of bravery and self-sacrifice that tables a more contentious discussion.

On the other hand, the environmental implications of the oil spill were so enormous at the time that it was easy to forget that 11 men died on the rig before it went down. Deepwater Horizon does the service of remembering them while implicating the greed and carelessness that put them in harm’s way. The message gets lost in a towering inferno of gas explosions and other pyrotechnics, but there’s enough context for the audience to boo and hiss at the news that Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, two site managers charged with manslaughter for negligence, had the charges against them dropped. Every disaster movie needs its cardboard villains, after all.

The strongest section of Deepwater Horizon is the time before the blast, when tensions are mounting over a “negative pressure test” to determine whether the rig is safe to siphon its payload from three-and-a-half miles deep in the ocean. Already 43 days behind schedule, BP rep Vidrine (John Malkovich) pushes “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), the crew captain of the Transocean rig, and his chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), to look past readings of pressure on the line. As Jimmy is off getting an award for safety—and the screenwriters are collecting their award for irony—signs of trouble are ignored and “the well from hell” starts to blow.

That’s it for setup. Director Peter Berg spends some time with Williams and the obligatory wife-back-home (Kate Hudson) and shows a nice facility with working-class camaraderie and technical detail, but once things go haywire, Deepwater Horizon goes right along with it. The last two-thirds of the film are a series of explosions and acts of derring-do, with Wahlberg’s Williams hauling one wounded co-worker after another to the lifeboat as fire engulfs the rig. There’s some detailing of logistics, like marshaling the Coast Guard from 30 minutes away or attempting to seal the line before oil bursts through the breach. But mostly there’s shouting and flames, coalescing into the visual and aural white noise of human desperation.

Deepwater Horizon is undeniably rousing, but the distance between it and Berg’s last waterlogged blockbuster, Battleship, isn’t as great as it seems. The source material may be more prestigious—a New York Times feature rather than a Hasbro game—but it’s still a common disaster movie, with cardboard heroes and villains and an excess of Irwin Allen spectacle. Any sense of outrage goes up in smoke.

A Legend Of Creepy Hollows: ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children’


Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox


hide caption

toggle caption

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

Dame Judi Dench as the mysterious mentor Miss Avocet in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

When did our expectations for Tim Burton movies sink so precipitously? We ought to be able to forgive the guy who made Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow a Planet of the Apes now and then. Or even an Alice in Wonderland, so long as he keeps balancing mega-grossing mediocrities like that with heartfelt stuff like Frankenweenie, his delightful stop-motion ode to his dog. Any director who averages a studio feature every other year for three decades will have a stinker or two on his resume.

And yet somehow Burton’s stock feels low enough to make the spooky, visually ingenious, oft-incoherent-but-in-a-dreamlike-way Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feel like a win just because it isn’t dreadful. Burton stages two or three striking set pieces, and otherwise builds as much of the movie as he possibly can around Eva Green’s severe-but-solicitous performance as mysterious headmistress Miss Peregrine, a sort of hard-eyed Mary Poppins. Surely that’s fair freight for your $12.

Everything that predates Ms. Green’s arrival — even scenes featuring the great Terence Stamp, and, well, one scene with the great Allison Janney — is kind of a slog. The movie takes at least 15 minutes to get going, and its final third is as narratively opaque as any table-setting Marvel or DC flick.

But by then I didn’t care that I couldn’t tell you the stakes: Even before Burton dispatches a platoon of skeletons to fight a horde of eyeless, tentacle-tongued “hollowgasts” on a London pier — a clear homage to one of his heroes, pioneering stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen — I’d surrendered once again to his gifts as peddler of surreal imagery. Burton uses archaic stop-motion techniques in addition to untold petabyes (or exabytes) of CGI, and the movie is never more entrancing than when a creepy babydoll armed with a chef’s knife is fighting a crab. (To be fair, its two young human leads, Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell, are quite animated and capable, too.) If you were to strip Guillermo del Toro’s decade-old masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth of all its allegorical and emotional heft, Miss Peregrine‘s is more or less what you’d have left. Easy to watch, after that distended Floridian prologue, and easy to forget.

The movie is a liberal adaptation of a bestselling 2011 young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs, whose muse was a stack of “vernacular” (read: found) photos he’d collected at the monthly Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. Truly, the medium is the message: Jake, the 16-year-old hero of Riggs’ story (Butterfield in the movie), is likewise dispatched on a quest by collection of faded photos—portraits of, um, peculiar-looking children. These belonged to his grandfather (Stamp), who has been telling Jake stories about their odd subjects since Jake was a child. He’d once lived with these kids at an orphanage in Wales, he said. One was lighter than air and had to wear lead shoes to prevent herself from floating away like a balloon. One had a hive of bees inside his chest, which would escape when he opened his mouth to speak or eat. One could briefly reanimate the dead using animal hearts.

Naturally, Jake has become more skeptical of the old man’s fantastic claims as he has grown into adolescence. When he finds grandpa dead with his eyeballs missing, then catches a glimpse of a monster in the woods behind his house, his parents (Chris O’Dowd and the mighty Kim Dickens, who’s in the movie even less than Janney is) take him to licensed-and-bonded mental health professional C.J. Cregg — that is, Dr. Golan. The doc persuades Jake’s folks that a trip to Wales to try to find the old orphanage might help the boy to process his grief. O’Dowd, by the way, is 100 percent believable as the sort of impotent dad who would agree to this plan. He figures he’ll come along and get some birdwatching done while his son is busy moping. I don’t know enough about Wales or birds to know whether or not this is a joke, but I know Dickens, in her approximately 15 seconds onscreen, looks relieved to be rid of them both.

It’s when the scene shifts from flat, sunny Florida to cloudy, oppressive Wales that the movie brightens up. That’s Burton for you. Jake and his dad check into the one inn in town (it’s called The Priest Hole), and after some predictable complication Jake finds his way to the old manor among its occupants — as it, and they, existed in 1943. The place is basically Brigadoon crossed with Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters of X-Men lore, only the gifted not-so-youngsters in Miss Peregrine’s charge shall never grow up if she has anything to say about it. Her supernatural talent is the ability to create cul-de-sacs in time where she can keep her “peculiars” hidden from the vile Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson in milk-colored contact lenses), a kinda-sorta vampire who seeks immortality by… eating their eyes.

That’s not, I don’t believe, a spoiler, though I couldn’t swear I grokked the plot clearly enough to know which elements ought to be classified. Screenwriter Jane Goldman has plenty of experience translating dense mythologies born in prose and comics to the movies, having worked on the scrips for Stardust, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and a pair of the stronger X-Men movies, among others. The adaptation she’s delivered here borrows material from Riggs’ sequel novel Hollow City to permit an action-packed finale, but still manages to leave plenty of threads dangling after 122 increasingly chaotic minutes.

The result feels less like a thoughtfully-conceived franchise-starter than a picture that was rushed out of the editing suite prematurely. That makes it at once a minor disappointment and Burton’s most satisfying (mostly) live-action fantasy film in years. Too bad it probably won’t last ’til Halloween.