Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Experiment


The Experiment is an American remake of a German film with the same name made in 2001, which was based on a real experiment conducted in California in 1971. I thought Das Experiment was a powerful and well-made film and assumed an American remake would be inferior. It was. I guess others agreed, as The Experiment didn’t even make it to theatres.


Written and directed by Paul Scheuring, and starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker, The Experiment tells the story of 24 men who volunteer (i.e. for the promise of $14,000 if they see it through) to be divided up into guards and inmates at a penitentiary for two weeks. The idea is to see what happens when some people (one-third) are given power while the majority are deprived of their civil rights. They are told that the experiment will end if anyone gets hurt - no violence is allowed. It does not, however, take long for all hell to break loose.


We are never given any information on the people conducting the experiment or why they let it get out of control and this is either a huge flaw in the film or a very deliberate omission. If the latter, more thought should have been given to the audience frustration caused by the lack of explanation for countless details in the film.


In the “making-of”, Brody says The Experiment shows how violence does not resolve conflicts, it only creates more violence. The film’s producer talks about how the the film helps people to think about themselves and the people around them in a more conscious way. Scheuring admits he’s not trying to change the world, but he hopes people will think about how the dynamics of power in a prison setting is a microcosm of the world (in any group of people, and in the world itself, there are those who will assume power and those who will be deprived of it) and that it will be seen as a humanizing film.


I agree that this is a very thought-provoking film. Indeed, that is why the German original got four stars from me. And I could be persuaded that the points made above could be drawn from The Experiment. But the central message of this film, to me, is that, when pushed hard enough, everyone will break in a matter of days, even committed pacifists. It's just human nature. I am not convinced that is true and this film did not do a credible job of convincing me. Whatever the German original was trying to do, it at least seemed more credible.


It doesn’t help that neither the characters nor the performances are very inspired. The simplistic screenplay is at least partly to blame for this. The Experiment feels at times like a mediocre made-for-network-TV film. Even worse, the average acting sometimes makes the film feel like a reality show. As a result, the psychological insights, which should be the film’s strong suit, are hard to find.


The Experiment succeeds only insofar as it creates an interesting premise that provides much food for discussion. As an inspired filming of the premise, it is a major disappointment and I recommend sticking to the German version. **+ My mug is facing the wrong way.

Monday, 30 May 2011

A Special Night in Winnipeg

Somehow a prairie town like Winnipeg seems an unusual and undeserving setting for the most elaborate concert set ever created and one of the best concerts the world has ever seen. But tonight it hosted both.


Yes, U2 came to Winnipeg and over 50,000 Winnipeggers came to see U2. It was a cold and windy evening and the only people who weren’t shivering were those who brought parkas. Bono shook off the cold with his arms outstreteched: “You’re Canadian, we’re Irish. What’s cold? We’re real men (and women).”


Cold breezes aside, it was a magical night and an overwhelming assault on the senses, with the elaborate 360 set producing a technological display that only U2 is capable of. Wow!


U2 somehow managed to play over half of my ten favourite U2 songs (some are relatively obscure so that is an achievement), doing a splendid job on favourites like Stay (Faraway, So Close), Pride (In the Name of Love), Miss Sarajevo and Sunday Bloody Sunday (which featured images of the 2009 election protests in Iran) before highlighting the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International by talking about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese women who won a presidential election and found herself in prison for most of the last twenty years. But sustained public pressure finally achieved her release. Walk On was the song used for this, followed by another favourite: One.


You can see more comments about U2 elsewhere on this blog. In my opinion, they are the best rock band ever and they put on another magnificent and inspiring show this evening. And for those of you living in New Brunswick, did you know that the 360 tour ends in Moncton on July 30? And I thought Winnipeg was small.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

White Material


Claire Denis’ White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as a French coffee plantation owner (Maria) caught in the midst of a civil war in a small African country. Filmed in Cameroon, it is actually based on recent events in Ivory Coast.


Maria is intent on getting her coffee harvested and ignores the warnings to flee for her life. With her son and her ex-husband, she stays behind while all the workers run. At the same time, the wounded rebel leader, known as The Boxer, takes refuge at the plantation. Nothing that follows is predictable. Nothing that follows is happy.


White Material is a dark, evocative and very intense film that relies on one great actress’s great performance to tell a story with few words. Huppert as Maria drives the entire film, though we are never sure why she does what she does. Is her determination a form of insanity (a word used more than once in the film)?


White Material moves back and forth in time, making it all the harder to follow the unfolding events, but this grim tale grabs hold of you anyway and keeps you anxious and engrossed throughout (though it is a very slow-moving film).


The violence in White Material is minimized and not graphic, but it is very effective, especially in a scene which shows what happens to the child soldiers who have joined the rebels. As the horror of the war plays in the background, there is a sense that Denis is sympathetic to the rebel cause. She grew up in that part of Africa and no doubt knows well the effects of French colonialism on the countries of West Africa.


Beautifully and carefully shot, White Material’s images and story will haunt me for some time. A very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Lebanon


If you thought watching an entire film from inside a coffin was claustrophobic, try watching an entire war film from inside a tank.


Lebanon is an Israeli anti-war film about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The entire film takes place in a tank, though we see things happening outside the tank through the tank’s telescopic gun sight. What we see, both inside and out, is horrific. The four men trapped inside the tank during those first 24 hours of the invasion are college-age boys who have no idea what they are doing there (they just want to be home with their families). As a result, it does not take long for them to crack, each in his own way, as the tank turns into a hot, stinking nightmarish cage surrounded by the enemy (the word ‘hell’ comes to mind). Few films so clearly depict the psychological impact of war.


Mesmerizing, terrifying, agonizing and incredibly intense, Lebanon uses one small window to reveal the destructive and dehumanizing power of war for soldiers and civilians on all sides. But there are moments of profound humanity. Indeed, the most profound scenes in the film are three long scenes of men peeing.


Lebanon would not have been near as powerful a film were it not for the stellar performances by the four key actors - truly amazing work.


Apparently, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon must have been a particularly traumatic experience for the soldiers who participated. Lebanon was written and directed by Samuel Maoz, who was himself inside that tank in 1982, and a few years ago we had Waltz With Bashir, also written and directed by a man who had been an Israeli soldier during the invasion (Ari Folman). Could it be that such former soldiers are not convinced the invasion was justified and are haunted by what they were asked to do? Will these films have an impact on a country constantly at ‘war’ with its neighbours (even those within its borders)? The fact that both of these films were made with the help of Israeli government funding suggests there is reason to hope.


Like Bashir, Lebanon gets ****. My mug is up.


Monday, 23 May 2011

The Illusionist


I just watched a French film without any subtitles. Either my ability to understand French has taken a sudden leap forward or I watched a film that had no dialogue. Sadly, the latter is the case. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, the director of Belleville Rendez-vous (Triplets of Belleville), The Illusionist is a gorgeous animated film with virtually no dialogue but with a wonderful score, written by Chomet.


The film itself was written by Jacques Tati, still making films almost thirty years after his death. Originally written as a live action film starring Tati (who made such classics as Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime), The Illusionist’s protagonist is drawn to look and act like Tati. This protagonist is a late middle-age magician named Tatischeff whose shows play to small disinterested crowds, forcing him to move from city to city in search of work. People want to see rock bands, not magicians. When his travels take him to Scotland, he befriends a young woman who idolizes him and allows her to follow him and eventually live with him in a small apartment in Edinburgh (he sleeping on the couch). Tatischeff does what he can for the woman but his prospects continue to decline.


The Illusionist can only be described as a melancholy film. Even the gorgeous animation has a melancholy feel throughout. For fans of Tati, it suggests that the days when people adored films like Mr. Hulot’s Holiday are, like the days of magicians and puppeteers, behind us. The fact that critics appreciate The Illusionist far more than average viewers supports such a conclusion. People like me who think The illusionist is a masterpiece that could not possibly be given less than **** therefore run the risk of being called elitist film snobs by their brothers. So be it.


If the idea of watching a gorgeous melancholy animated film with no dialogue appeals to you (and I know there are people who enjoy that kind of thing), don’t miss The Illusionist. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rabbit Hole


A young boy runs out into the street after his dog and is struck and killed by a car. He was the only child of Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Rabbit Hole begins eight months later. The situation is not original and neither are the marital struggles resulting from the boy’s death. Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, survives this lack of originality by giving us wonderful performances by Kidman and Eckhart (as well as Dianne Wiest as Nat, Becca’s mother), an intelligent screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his Pulitzer-prize-winning play), great cinematography and enough surprises, including the surprising presence of humour, to keep it from being predictable.


Anyone who has seen Mitchell’s previous films (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) will be amazed at how mainstream Rabbit Hole feels (the above-mentioned films are about as far from mainstream as you can get). Rabbit Hole almost qualifies as a family film. Ironically, it is precisely the understated mainstream reactions and decisions which come as a surprise, because one constantly expects all hell to break loose (especially if one has made the questionable decision to watch von Trier’s Antichrist, which deals with a very similar theme). Taking this non-sensationalist road probably would not work for a Hollywood film, but it works for Rabbit Hole thanks in large part to the quality of the writing and acting. It’s amazing (especially for Mitchell) how real one can make a film even without sex and foul language. While I am not offended by either one, I do hope other directors are taking note.


Perhaps the most original contribution Rabbit Hole makes to an old story is the role of Jason (newcomer Miles Teller), the teenage boy who was driving the car. Becca befriends Jason, who writes graphic novels, and Jason becomes a central plot device revealing how both Becca and Howie are dealing with their grief. That they are dealing with their grief differently goes without saying, but Rabbit Hole does an amazing job of not taking sides even as it focuses on Becca’s struggles. Becca’s family also contributes vital pieces to the plot and there are some marvellous scenes involving Nat.


One of those scenes is a telephone argument between Becca and Nat about God. Nat also lost a son and it was her belief in God which saw her through her grieving process. Nat wants Becca to see how such a belief might help her as well, but Becca cannot see how a loving God could allow such tragedies to occur. In the end, Becca must find some other belief which will allow her to set aside her hatred of God.


I won’t say how Rabbit Hole ends, but I will say that I found Rabbit Hole to be a surprisingly honest and wise film and I am eager to hear what Walter, with more experience and training in psychology, has to say about it (Walter, you need to put this on your list for Wild Goose, if it’s not there already). A very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Of Gods and Men


Like Bridesmaids, Of Gods and Men opened in Winnipeg this past weekend. But where 200 people ‘joined’ me at the cinema yesterday to see a silly comedy, only 15 people ‘joined’ me today to watch a profound and exquisite work of cinematic art. Was I surprised? Of course not. Sigh.


Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, tells the true story of nine French monks living in a monastery in the mountains of Algeria who get caught up in the Algerian Civil War in 1996. The monks have a very close relationship with their Arab neighbours and the local Muslim leaders. They provide medical help, supply needed clothing, and take part in Islamic worship. When the local village and monastery are threatened first by ‘terrorists’ and then by the Algerian army, the monks have to decide wether to stay and support their neighbours or take the safer path and return to France or move to another part of Africa.


Of Gods and Men does a marvelous job of conveying life in the monastery. The entire film is paced like that life. At first it is a slow relaxed pace, for it is a simple life of study, work and serving the poor among whom the monks live. The slow pace continues throughout the film but the relaxed atmosphere is soon replaced by one of constant tension, created by the escalating violence around the monks and the daily waiting and agonizing decision-making. In the midst of it all is one beautiful scene after another.


But what makes Of Gods and Men special is the way it depicts Christianity (and specifically Catholicism) in an almost entirely positive light. It does this by presenting a group of men whose idea of following Jesus is to serve others, help the poor and the sick, show compassion on all around them (whether they are considered friends or enemies), resist all offers of armed protection and forgive those who threaten their lives. No wonder such a Christianity is portrayed positively (a portrayal capable of winning awards at Cannes)! What kind of twisted perverted type of Christianity is this anyway??


Of Gods and Men nevertheless presents a very human portrait of the nine monks, with all their flaws exposed along with their profound love for each other and those around them. At the same time, the film goes so far as to humanize the Islamic extremists (‘terrorists’), partly through the humanizing actions of the monks towards them. And while the film centers entirely on the Catholic monks and their faith, it also shows a clear appreciation for Islam.


When the incredible rarity of the above is added to flawless acting (particularly by lead actors Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) and great cinematography, I am willing to forgive almost anything on the way to giving Of Gods and Men ****. What I am forgiving is the lack of depth to the dialogue and decision-making of the monks. But really, in a film in which about 90% of the dialogue is religious, how can I possibly complain about such a trivial detail. My mug is up and full of the finest java out there. Technically this is a 2010 film but given its May release in Winnipeg, I think I am justified in putting it in my top ten of 2011, which is assured.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Bridesmaids


Story time.


Thinking about popular films I should see before doing the film year in review at the Wild Goose Festival, I decided I needed to go to Bridesmaids, whether or not I had any interest in watching it. One newspaper described it as a women’s version of The Hangover. You all know how much I hated The Hangover (easily the worst critically-acclaimed film I have seen in the last decade), so this enthusiastic endorsement only served to severely lower my expectations for Bridesmaids (never a bad thing). That Bridesmaids was likewise getting critical acclaim made absolutely no positive impression on me this time, especially when the one brief line I read from Roger Ebert called it a cross between a Chick Flick and a Raunch Comedy. Oh joy!


Not having a wife around to cajole into joining me and unable to persuade my daughter to do so, I dared to enter a theatre full of women on my own. It being opening week of a popular film, there were about 200 people in the cinema; roughly ten of them were male: nine young men on dates and me. I have no idea what this crowd made of my presence and do not wish to think about it.


Bridesmaids started exactly where I expected it would, full of incredibly silly scenes which elicited endless laughter from the women surrounding me (I didn’t hear any male laughter, but maybe that wouldn’t have been possible) while barely drawing even a smile from me. The scenes were strung together in a haphazard way with no sense of one following the other and it felt like a bunch of long skits, few of which worked for me. One of these scenes, however, took place inside (and just outside) a bridal shop and I admit this scene was so …. (no word in the English language, that I know of, fits here) that, while I did not join in the uproarious laughter around me, I felt something - perhaps amazement at the daringness of what I was seeing, perhaps disgust, perhaps actually feeling wowed in some way.


At this point, I should mention that Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig, is about the adventures of a group of bridesmaids (duh!) and particularly about the maid of honour (played rather well, if occasionally way over the top, by Kristen Wiig), whose lifelong best friend is getting married while she is despairing of ever meeting the right man. When another of the bridesmaids turns out to be a competitor for the bride’s best friend status, the war is on.


About halfway through this rather long comedy, I was thinking that a comparison to The Hangover was fully warranted and that I had just thrown $10 away. But then all of a sudden Bridesmaids got serious, taking me completely by surprise. Not all of the serious stuff worked for me either but some did (especially the attempts at humanization), including a number of scenes involving a cop played by Chris O’Dowd, who was perfectly cast, and I found myself actually interested in the film for a while. The ending didn’t do anything for me, but I never expected it to.


When I left the cinema, I wondered whether one really had to be a woman to fully appreciate Bridesmaids (not that being a man helped me appreciate The Hangover). Many women were still laughing in the lobby as I walked out. Clearly they thought they had been watching an hilarious comedy. Even with the laughter all around me (how different this experience wold have been if I had been alone), I don’t believe I actually laughed more than two or three times. And yet, there was something about Bridesmaids (unlike The Hangover) which made me think I could be talked into watching it again. And on the way home, I drove over the Disraeli Bridge at precisely the moment when the giant almost-full orange moon rose over the Red River, which somehow vindicated my evening out. So I am forced to give Bridesmaids ***. My mug is up.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Buried


There are few situations I can imagine that are more terrifying than waking up to find yourself buried in a coffin. This situation has been used in some great films (e.g. Dutch version of The Vanishing) to potent effect. But can you make an entire film out of it? More specifically in this case, can you make a film in which every second takes place in the confines of a wooden coffin? I would not have believed it possible, but it apparently can be done, because that is what Buried does.


Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working in Iraq who is captured and put in a coffin with a cellphone so he can communicate with his captors and those who might pay the ransom. The incredible terror, anguish and frustration of this predicament is conveyed well by Reynolds and aided by the fact that the entire film focuses on him. And unless you suffer from claustrophobia (in which case you should not get anywhere near Buried), there is an appropriate level of claustrophobic tension generated throughout the film.


But something in Buried didn’t work for me. Perhaps it was the phone conversations, which occasionally didn’t feel real. Perhaps it was the kidnappers, whose actions (as conveyed over the phone) seemed to lack logic. Perhaps it was the feeling that it was a “gimmick” film (though it was certainly fascinating to watch how the filmmaker, Rodrigo Cortes, pulled it off).


Buried is the kind of film that should leave you numb for a while after watching, especially if it has an appropriate ending, which Buried has (for the most part). But I did not feel numb, which means the film did not engage with my mind at the required level. *** for effort. My mug is up but I won’t watch it again.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Generation Exile

The third of the films we will be screening at Wild Goose is Generation Exile, a documentary made by Rodrigo Dorfman, who lives very near to the festival site. It is the story of people, including Dorfman himself, who were forced to leave the land of their birth and ended up in North Carolina. All of them are still deeply affected by their exile and are drawn to a nearby Sufi community. There, they think they have found the paradise they have been seeking, but such is not the case.


Generation Exile is a well-made documentary and I’m very glad we will be screening it and that we’ll have a chance to talk with the director. Dorfman was born in Chile and I found his own story the most compelling.


As mentioned, Generation Exile begins with stories of exile and then goes somewhere very different. In doing so, it remains constantly fascinating, but the relationship between the two parts of the film (between exile and the Sufi community) is never clearly explained and the result is a conclusion that is not fully satisfying. Nevertheless, it is a film that speaks in some way to all of us in the rapidly-changing world of the 21st century. It is a time when many people are longing for the kind of community where they can truly feel at home. ***+. My mug is up.


The fourth film we are screening at Wild Goose is Insatiable Moon, made in New Zealand.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Little Town of Bethlehem


Little Town of Bethlehem is a unique and important 2010 documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, written and directed by Jim Hanon. It’s unique in various ways. For one thing, instead of focusing on the conflict itself, it focuses on nonviolent solutions. It does this by telling us the story of three men who grew up in Bethlehem: an Israeli Jew, a Palestinian Christian and a Palestinian Muslim. Coming from very different backgrounds and affected by the conflict in different ways, these three men nevertheless share a passion for finding a nonviolent way forward. Nonviolence itself is at the heart of the film and so Martin Luther King and Gandhi are also featured.


Little Town of Bethlehem is also unique stylistically; in fact, it is unlike any documentary I have ever seen. Fast-paced to a fault as it zips from one scene to the next, it is clearly aimed at a younger audience. That makes it ideal for something like the Wild Goose Festival (where we will be screening it), but it’s not always easy to follow the fascinating stories being told.


For decades now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lain at the very heart of the world’s violent struggles. Little Town of Bethlehem does not hide the issues involved, but it presents them in a way that diffuses tension. It is the way of humanization (in its telling of stories from three perspectives) and nonviolence (in its hopeful depiction of what nonviolence has accomplished and could yet accomplish). In the aftermath of the dehumanizing and violent killing of bin Laden, this is the message our world needs to hear.


Because I am not a fan of its style, I cannot give Little Town ****, but I will give it a solid ***+ and recommend it to all. My mug is up.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

That Evening Sun


It’s time to turn to highlighting the films we will be screening at the Wild Goose Festival.


That Evening Sun, a 2009 indie film directed by Scott Teems (who will be joining us for the festival) stars 85-year-old Hal Holbrook as Abner Meecham, a man who has had enough of life in a nursing home and returns to his Tennessee farm. Unfortunately, that farm has been leased by his son to Lonzo Choat, a man Abner does not like. Both men stubbornly claim their right to the property (both Holbrook and Ray McKinnon as Lonzo deliver great understated performances) and Abner takes up residence in a sharecropper cabin from which he watches the farmhouse he thinks is his. Sparks soon fly. Lonzo’s teenage daughter, played wonderfully by Mia Wasikowska (there she is again), tries to befriend Abner, with mixed results. Abner’s other support comes from his old friend and neighbour, Thurl, another great performance in a supporting role, this one by Barry Corbin.


As we get to know Abner, we realize there is more there than we first imagined and that Lonzo is not the only flawed character on the farm. Things get quite intense as the two men dance around each other, but nothing happens as one might expect, which is a rare treat.


Featuring great cinematography and a good score, That Evening Sun is a wonderful humanizing film about people trying to deal with their past and move on. It gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Hanna


Referring to my previous review, Hanna is proof that a bizarre film full of logical flaws can still make it big at the box office.


I knew just enough (which was still very little) about Hanna to have an instinctual feel that this would be a love-hate film for me. If I had known in advance that Hanna was a European film with a distinctly European feel, I would have guessed that this part of the filmmaking would fall into the love category. But I didn’t know that. Neither did I know that it would be a fairy tale, or that it would be such an odd film, which might fall into either love or hate. Or that the cinematography and score would be part of an overwhelming and unique stylistic vision, both of which fall generally into the love category, though in this case more because they wowed me than because they impressed me.


The mind-numbing, pounding loud music is clearly meant to make us feel small as we run away from the big bad wolf. There’s not much subtlety in Hanna, though some of the fairy tale allusions are more obvious than others (if you can imagine, it starts off as the story of a girl (Hanna) growing up with her father in a fairy tale house in the midst of a dark forest, utterly isolated from the rest of the world and its technological achievements, including electricity). As someone who grew up with the old German fairy tales and with countless nightmares about witches and wolves, Hanna felt to me like I was literally watching a nightmare. When, after the end credits, a voice announces “schlaf weiter” (sleep on), it blew me away (I thought I was the only one having a nightmare). Believe it or not, all of this also falls into the love category. As does the acting by all concerned (the big bad wolf is played by Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana is the father, and Hanna was impressively done by Saoirse Ronan).


So what is Hanna about, anyway, you ask? That would be telling. But any film depicting the story of a man training his 13-year-old daughter to be a lethal revenge machine, which then tries to convince us that this man loves his daughter and is somehow doing it for her own good, to protect her from the wolf (“one of you must die”) is in trouble from the start. And the end is worse than the beginning, though there is a brief illogical scene near the end in which Hanna says she is tired of hurting people or some such thing. It’s a very confusing sentiment under the circumstances (and given her training) and it is immediately belied, so I have no idea what to make of it.


Hanna is definitely a “Wow” film, and that’s a big plus, but it’s also a very violent film, as I suspected it would be, and that never impresses me. It impresses me even less when the most violent person in the film is a girl. From Mulan to the ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ to Hanna, we are being shown that young women can fight just as well as men. Oh joy! What an achievement for gender equality! What I want to see is more films about young men who learn what most women know more instinctively than men: that fighting is pointless and achieves nothing of lasting value.


Hanna is the kind of film that deserves an even longer analysis (perhaps for a periodical), but I do not have the time for that this month. In the meantime, I am going to give Hanna a somewhat surprising ***+ for wowing me and freaking me out. My mug is up, but I’m not even going to glance inside.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Youth Without Youth


I generally stay away from films which are panned by the critics. Life’s too short to waste on mediocre films (unless you are paid to review them). But Youth Without Youth intrigued me for many reasons, among which were the facts that it was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and that it was filmed mostly in Romania, a country I visited in 1994 because it was the setting for a novel I was writing at the time; a country that has always fascinated me. Until last week, I had never heard of Youth Without Youth, which was made in 2007, so its release was obviously not widely publicized.


One advantage in watching a critically-panned film is that one goes in with low expectations. And so not only was I not disappointed with the film, I was quite impressed with what it had to offer.


Youth Without Youth is a gorgeous film to look at, with old-fashioned cinematography at its finest (including minimal camera movement) and all the better for its beautiful Romanian locations. It also has a great score. The acting is not what I would call outstanding, but it is more than adequate. Tim Roth was generally convincing as Dominic, the protagonist, a man struck by lightning at age 70 who is only 35 or so when he recovers. Not only is he aging backwards, he is able to do amazing things with his brain, including reading books without even opening them and forcing an enemy to turn his gun on himself. And he has a weird double who does or does not exist on his own and with whom he discusses philosophy. If that sounds a little bizarre, it’s because this is one very bizarre film. But I like bizarre films which regularly surprise me. I can forgive much of such films.


Bruno Ganz plays the doctor who first treats Dominic and tries to protect him from the Nazis (the lightning strike happens in 1938) who want to do experiments on Dominic in order to duplicate his achievement. Alexandra Maria Lara plays Dominic’s first love, Laura, and then his second love, Veronica, who might have been Laura in a previous life but was certainly an Indian woman who lived centuries before and a woman in ancient Egypt, and so on (did I mention this was a bizarre film). And imagine my surprise to see Matt Damon make a cameo appearance.


Damon describes Youth Without Youth as an experimental film with noncommercial themes. Which probably explains why I had never heard of it. If I view the film as a dreamlike mystical poem (it is also very much about Dominic’s dreams, which are sometimes confused with reality), full of interesting ideas,I find it quite enjoyable. If, however, I try to make sense of what I am watching, I experience nothing but frustration. I had countless unanswered questions, like why are Dominic’s amazing powers of the mind never explored in any way and how much are those powers responsible for what happens to Veronica when she starts to age prematurely and so on. Nothing is satisfactorily explained and nothing comes together the way one would expect a conventional film to come together. But this is not a conventional film - it’s a beautiful eccentric mess which gets *** from me. My mug is up even if I’m not sure the stuff inside is safe to drink.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Broken Embraces


I’ve been waiting a long time to see Pedro Almodovar’s most recent film (Almodovar’s films are always so gorgeous that I try to catch them in the cinema, but I missed this one while in transition between continents). Almodovar is one of my favourite European directors and has made a couple of my top 100 films of the past decade (Talk to Her and Volver), so I was looking forward to this, perhaps a little too much (i.e. the ever-dangerous high expectations).


The opening scene immediately put me on the defensive and my expectations did not take long to begin their fall. In that opening scene, which takes place in Madrid, a middle-aged blind man seduces, and has sex with, a beautiful young woman whom he just met when she helped him cross the street in front of his home. Anyone see problems with this? Perhaps if I had known exactly how pervasive the film’s undercurrent of dark humour was supposed to be, my initial response of disgust would have been tempered, but even after the film was over, I didn’t know whether Broken Embraces was supposed to be a dark comedy or a drama or a Hitchcock-like thriller.


The blind man is Mateo, a film director, and as we get to know Mateo (played very well by Lluis Homar) we realize that he is not only literally blind, he is also blind to the truth behind many pieces of his past, good pieces and tragic pieces (much of the film takes place in the past). So one assumes Almodovar is making a number of points in the film with his choice of a blind protagonist who happens to be a film director. Perhaps he is saying that directors like himself are somewhat blind to what they are making until their film is finished and/or perhaps he is saying that we are all easily blinded to the truth of what is happening around us. These are interesting things to consider and make Broken Embraces sound like a profound work. And maybe it is.


Broken Embraces certainly has a lot going for it. As already mentioned, Almodovar’s films are always beautiful to watch, full of rich primary colours and old-fashioned cinematography. And the acting is superb. Penelope Cruz, as Mateo’s lover (and perhaps the film’s true protagonist) does a great job, as she usually does for Almodovar. And Blanca Portilla as Judit, Mateo’s long-time friend and assistant, is even better. And the film is full of wonderful scenes.


So what’s the problem? Well, for one thing, the whole does not feel as satisfying as the individual parts. The plot is melodramatic in a way that can only be excused by seeing Broken Embraces as primarily a comedy. And perhaps that is what it is and I should have been laughing uproariously at the melodrama instead of grimacing. Or maybe it’s a cultural thing and people in Spain view the film differently. Whichever, for me there was a superficial feel to the film that prevented the profound ideas from taking root.


I reacted to Almodovar’s critically-acclaimed All About My Mother in a similar way, so maybe it’s a matter of taste and personality. Of course, I am not saying Broken Embraces is a bad film or that I didn’t enjoy watching it. Far from it. I found it very entertaining and am giving it a solid ***+. I just wish it had met or even exceeded my expectations. My mug is up.


Thursday, 5 May 2011

Blue Valentine


Three works of art in a row. This one is a distinctly American indie film showing in Winnipeg for the first time. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a young couple who have fallen out of love. Gosling and Williams here accomplish something rare and special in the acting world: their acting is TOO good. It is so good that they succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable from beginning to end of what is generally a depressing film (sorry, Walter, you will probably want to miss this one).


Blue Valentine is a love story of a sort. But instead of showing the young couple falling in love and getting married and then gradually falling out of love, it begins where their love ends and then takes us back to where it started. This has the effect of making the initial romance rather bittersweet. Because the film bounces back and forth in time in a carefully edited way, we see the many ways these characters have changed over the intervening six or seven years. One of the characters has changed in a largely positive way and is on a path of growth, the other has gone in the opposite direction and has even lost sight of any dream he once had.


Blue Valentine is a profound depiction of one ordinary couple’s life and marriage, with all the stresses that the above-mentioned changes can cause. Cianfrance has managed to create an achingly honest and real film, which is why it is so difficult to watch. As I suggested, even the tender and joyful moments are sad to see when we know the many dark moments ahead.


While I think the camera work is mostly or entirely handheld, this is one of those films where it’s so much a part of the way the story is told that I barely noticed. Blue Valentine probably deserves four stars for the brilliant acting alone but that uncomfortable feeling I had throughout discourages me (I needed something more than that), so I’ll settle for ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Mademoiselle Chambon


Yet another work of cinematic art that I watched a few months ago and never had a chance to write about. This 2009 French film isn’t at the same level as Turtles Can Fly, but if you enjoy beautifully-acted slow-moving European romantic dramas, then you will certainly want to check this one out.


Mademoiselle Chambon stars Vincent Lindon, one of my favourite French actors, as Jean, a contractor and happily married man who falls in love with his young son’s teacher (and violinist), Veronique Chambon, brilliantly played by Sandrine Kiberlain. I have given away the entire plot but it doesn’t matter because we all know what’s coming from early on. Knowing it is part of what makes the film so breathtaking. The other part is watching the way these two actors interact with each other, conveying their growing feelings with very little dialogue. Perhaps this duet is so successful because the two actors were once married to each other (and then divorced). Both performances are what can only be called understated.


Veronique could not be more different from Jean’s wife, Anne-Marie (played well by Aure Atika) and obviously this is part of what attracts Jean to Veronique. But what are Jean and Veronique to do with their mutual attraction? Clearly they know the consequences of going too far, so… Well, I won’t give away the ending.


Stephane Brize’s direction is flawless, as is the cinematography. So why am I not giving Mademoiselle Chambon four stars? Well, some films are a little too slow even for me and the middle of this one took just a bit too long. And the latter part of the film did not entirely work for me, though others will no doubt see it differently. I do give it a very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Turtles Can Fly


Apparently I have never mentioned this masterpiece which would have been very high on my list of top 25 films of the past decade (available on this blog) if I had seen it prior to creating that list. It is also among my top 25 films of all time.


Turtles Can Fly is a 2005 Kurdish film made in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) by the acclaimed Iranian (Kurdish) director Bahman Ghobadi. The film takes place in a Kurdish refugee village just before the American invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 and uses humour and intense drama to convey a sense of life in Kurdistan at that time, especially as seen through the eyes of children.


In particular, we follow the exploits of an enterprising teenager called Satellite who hires children to disarm and collect mines which he then trades for useful things (like a giant satellite dish) at the local market. Among those working for him are a teenage girl and her brother, who has no arms. The boy with no arms carries around a young child (perhaps two or three years old) whom we are told (at first) is their younger brother. Satellite takes a keen interest in this orphaned family and develops a crush on the girl, with heart-rending results.


Using mostly non-actors, whose acting is incredibly natural, Ghobadi uses the story of a few days in the lives of these four young people to brilliantly depict the plight of the Kurdish people. Turtles Can Fly is not about the American invasion of Iraq or politics of any kind - it is a profoundly humanizing and moving tale about life in the villages of Kurdistan (where Kathy, my wife, is working as I write).


If this film has flaws, I didn’t notice them. It is a work of art in every way and should get the widest possible exposure. If you haven’t seen Turtles Can Fly and you’re on the lookout for one of the greatest films you’ve never seen, look no further. **** doesn’t seem like nearly enough for this gem. My mug is up and the stuff inside is magical.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Howl


Allen Ginsberg was one of the most important poets of the 20th century. As a beatnik of the 1950s, his controversial poems challenged conformity, industrialization and dehumanization way ahead of his time. Howl is the name of his most famous poem, published in 1955. Two years later, the publisher was taken to court for violating obscenity laws. Howl, the film, takes us through that famous trial while giving us an insight into Ginsberg and letting us hear Howl for ourselves.


I love poetry but I have never been at ease with it, mainly because I like to understand what I am reading and many poems make that a challenging process. There are parts of Howl, the poem, that are fairly easy to understand; other parts are very obscure. And that’s why I enjoyed Howl, the film, so much. As James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, reads pieces of the poem throughout the film, we are treated to marvellous animation sequences which help people like me, who are more visually-oriented (even though I’m a writer - go figure), get a stronger grasp on what we are hearing. Strangely enough, this aspect of the film is what critics liked the least.


I happen to love the animation, but not everything about Howl works as well for me. Howl is not a typical film, not even a typical indie film. The courtroom scenes are fairly straight forward and, while not outstanding, they are done well enough, with some good acting from a strong cast (Jon Hamm and David Strathairn play the opposing lawyers and Bob Balaban is the judge; witnesses include Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker). Then there is a documentary part of the film, with Franco being interviewed as Ginsberg at the time of the trial. That is my favourite part and where I think Franco does his best work. Another part has Ginsberg reading his poem to some young adults in a bar. That works less well for me. A final part shows Ginsberg in the process of writing Howl and introduces us to the men in his life (Ginsberg was gay). This also doesn’t work as well for me, leaving me somewhat bored and without a clear sense of Ginsberg’s life and loves. But these five parts are woven together in an original and generally entertaining fashion.


Howl was written, directed and produced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and they are to be commended for making such an original and imaginative film about an important man and an important poem, a poem that is all about being willing to express who we are, and what we want to say, openly and honestly. In many ways, thanks to people like Ginsberg, we’ve come a long way with this since 1955. But nowhere near far enough. Howl gets a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Greatest


This is an old-fashioned family drama, shot in a classical way, which would make one think first of Hollywood, but The Greatest is actually a low-budget indie film written and directed by first-timer Shana Feste. And it does feel like an indie film, for the most part.


The Greatest begins with the death of an eighteen-year-old boy (car crash) and then follows the grieving process of his parents, his younger brother and the girl he has just made love to (both were virgins at the time).


The critics weren’t impressed with The Greatest so I must confess that I almost certainly wouldn’t have watched it if it hadn’t been Carey Mulligan’s second film (filmed just after An Education). You’ve read my raves about this amazing young actress and she did not disappoint as Rose, the girl who finds herself pregnant and moves in with the grieving family. For that matter, all the acting was impressive. Susan Sarandon (always good) is flawless as the grieving mother and Pierce Brosnan gives one of his best performances as the father. Johnny Simmons as the brother also does well.


The cinematography is excellent and, while there’s not much music, what there is worked well. For a rookie, the writing and directing aren’t that bad either (the central theme of grieving is done well and feels real to me). But I did say “for a rookie”. There is at least one major hole in the plot, involving the mysterious background of Rose, some rather weakly written scenes, a general lack of originality throughout and and an ending that would certainly not impress the critics. I’m not a big fan of the ending either, but The Greatest was written and directed by a young woman and I think it’s clear she needed the film to end that way, so I can live with that. Personally, I’m thrilled that more and more women are making films.


While The Greatest may not have been the greatest, I was not at all disappointed that I watched it and give it ***. My mug is up.