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Human (I) (2015)
A stunningly beautiful love letter to empathy
26 January 2016
Learning, to me, goes beyond understanding the mechanics of our environment. It includes the development of habits, such as introspection, critical thinking, and empathy. The moment we came screaming into this world, our brains started making sense of things. What is love? What is trust? What are other people?

Some of these things we learn not just by words or imitation, but through systems in our brain that have evolved to respond to particular experiences: seeing faces, experiencing touch, hearing the heartbeat of our mothers.

But as in any other category, we may learn the wrong things. Abuse destroys trust. Negligence withholds love. Separation stifles empathy. And over time, we need to reinforce our knowledge of love, trust, and empathy – like any other thing we've learned.

Yann Arthus-Bertrand's "Human" is a tour de force in exercising our empathy. Filmed in 60 countries, it is the result of interviews with more than 2,000 people. It showcases not only the diversity of humanity, but also the beauty of our planet through stunning aerial photography.

This is an intense work. It requires setting aside time and mental energy to take in the stories, which are often heartbreaking. You will hear the stories of people living in abject poverty, people who have lost their entire families to war, women who have been raped, killers who have been forgiven, and humans of all ages who have endured shameful prejudice.

Tales of heroic endurance and the relentless pursuit of happiness, education, justice – those are the most uplifting moments in the film. A film like this might risk falling into a kind of moral relativism, a mere celebration of diversity. But "Human" returns to the call for justice throughout.

One Indian man tells the story of how the victims of water shortages are helping to construct a twin tower with 76 swimming pools to be enjoyed by the wealthy. He says he is furious because the connection between inequality and its effects is so apparent. A destitute old woman yells at the camera, calling us all to account for ignoring the suffering of the poor.

In another scene in between interviews, we see a vast array of skyscrapers lit at night. From afar, they look gorgeous, an incredible show of light and architecture. Then the camera zooms into one of the buildings, and we see office cubicles, lonely workers, a soulless, sterile environment.

"Human" does not give us an answer to injustice, inequality, poverty, waste, war. It reminds us powerfully that there is a question here: If we care about one another as human beings, what do we do now?
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The Martian (2015)
Great adaptation that misses a chance to be amazing
9 November 2015
I didn't think Ridley Scott had another great movie in him, but he proved me wrong. The Martian turned out to be visually powerful, well- paced and well-acted, and will likely be remembered as one of the best sci-fi movies of this decade.

Matt Damon does a great job with a challenging lead role, conveying both the desperation and witty resourcefulness that define Mark Watney. Among the support cast, Kate Mara shines and lets us experience the emotional journey of one of Watney's fellow crew members.

The movie lacked suspense in its last third, which in my view is because part of the story arc from the book has been omitted in favor of greater focus on the supporting characters. A more courageous choice might have been to go the opposite route: to focus almost completely on Watney's isolation.

We're left with a movie that feels ultimately bright and optimistic, and which is definitely very entertaining. Go see it.
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Crash (I) (2004)
Poorly constructed morality tale
14 March 2006
The film tells several extraordinary stories happening over the scope of a few days and connects them using implausible coincidences. This makes it difficult to suspend disbelief during the entire film. All the stories share the same motif: There is good and bad in all of us, and racism has complex causes. There is little variation and little originality in the presentation of this theme.

I think the makers of the film were aware of this, and tried to make the film more interesting by arranging it chronologically in such a way that the process of the different pieces of the puzzle coming together is meant to be interesting. Both the film title and the introductory dialogue allude to this, but to me it seemed like a poor excuse not to tell rich, conclusive and well-developed stories.

I do appreciate movies that do not follow a simplistic good/evil pattern; I would have liked to see a more developed and refined story of Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his interaction with Shaniqua and his father, for example. But there are too many plot lines to make any single one stand out, and as a consequence, the characters seem artificial rather than realistic. (As a European, I cannot judge whether the individual subcultures portrayed at all resemble reality.) The movie is not "trash" as some reviewers have called it, but it is forgettable and certainly not deserving of an Academy Award. As opposed to "Brokeback Mountain", I doubt anyone will talk much about "Crash" in 20 years.
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