Wednesday, 25 April 2012

In Darkness

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that after spending almost two and a half hours watching In Darkness, I felt as if I had just spent fourteen months living in the sewers under Lvov, Poland, just like the Jews in the film, who were hiding from the Germans during WWII? It certainly points to the effective way sewer life was filmed: the claustrophobic feel, the darkness, the echoing sounds of squealing rats, the darkness. Did I mention the darkness? It also helps that above ground, the world is not much brighter. Throughout the ordeal faced by these eleven Jews, the world above is depicted as a colourless, cold, dangerous and violent place. Only when the Russians “liberate” Lvov does colour return. 
In Darkness, directed by Agnieszka Holland, is based on a true story, of course, which adds the necessary gravitas to the experience of watching these very real and flawed individuals suffer. And the actors playing the Jews are more than up to the task of conveying the horror of their situation. It’s almost beyond comprehension that people could survive such an ordeal. And yet, as real as it felt, the story of the Jews does not make the film stand out in any way. Fortunately, In Darkness is not so much the story of the Jews and their plight as it is the story of the Polish man who keeps them alive. In Darkness is really his story. 
Robert Wieckiewicz plays Socha, a man whose job it is to maintain the sewers. He seizes an opportunity to make some serious cash by offering to help the Jews (providing food and making sure they remain hidden). But as he gets to know the Jews he is protecting, they become not only human but like an extended family - they are his Jews. This leads him to take ever greater risks on their behalf, including the risk of losing not only his closest friend but also his wife and daughter. The transition is not made easily and Wieckiewicz does an incredible job of expressing all the complex emotions of his tortuous personal journey.
In Darkness takes great pains to make sure everyone understands that Jesus was a Jew, as if making a profound revelation: Jesus - a Jew? Never! I suppose it is a sad thing that Christians could ever forget such an obvious fact. The film also flags up Matthew 25’s “And all the people said, His blood shall be on us and our children,” as a key foundation for two millennia of anti-semitism. Far too little attention is paid to why Matthew is the only gospel writer who makes such a bizarre statement. I will leave it at that for now.
In Darkness does not compare favourably to a film like Schindler’s List, but the story of Socha lifts what would have been a standard *** film just into the ***+ range. My mug is up. 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who has made a couple of my favourite films (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), the classic My Life as a Dog and a couple of films I believe to be hugely underrated (The Shipping News, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Since I tend to appreciate all of Hallstrom’s films more than the average critic, the mediocre critical response to Salmon Fishing did not deter me.

But by showtime, I had begun to reconsider. There were approximately 100 people in the theatre with me. I counted six men among them, all accompanied by a woman. Not since Bridesmaids have I felt so conspicuous and alone. So I revved up my “feminine side” and settled in for what I now assumed must be a “chick flick”.

Good thing, because Salmon Fishing works primarily as a quirky romance and not very well as a political satire. With my feminine side revved up, I found myself falling in love with both of the main charcters. I have, in the past, made some unflattering comments about Ewan McGregor’s acting ability, but it’s time to admit that I may have been mistaken. McGregor has starred in two of my top ten films of the past two years (The Ghost Writer, Beginners) and I thought his performance in Salmon Fishing was spot-on (as it was in those two films). As for Emily Blunt, whom I have always considered a fine actor, there is something about her that I find particularly appealing (I last saw her teamed up with another appealing actor, Matt Damon, in the underrated The Adjustment Bureau), making her one of those actors I will go out of my way to watch (she needs to be added to my list from February, 2010). I am even considering going to see The Five-Year Engagement when it comes out (whoa! time to get that feminine side under control).

The romance in Salmon Fishing works because the chemistry between these protagonists (and between the actors playing them) is so much stronger than the chemistry between each of them and their “partners”. It also works because they do not even kiss in the film, let alone have sex. That is remarkable for a 21st-century film and I found myself wondering whether the women surrounding me (in the theatre) were likewise impressed or whether they were disappointed.

As for the background plot of Salmon Fishing, which concerns a very wealthy Yemenese sheik and his attempt to introduce salmon to his country (with the help of our crazy protagonists), it fails at various levels. The quirky comedy (especially involving Kristen Scott Thomas’s character as the British press secretary) sometimes works and sometimes falls flat. That’s okay. What isn’t okay is the lost opportunities for insightful political commentary (even worse than in The Hunger Games) and for humanization. The Yemenese sheik keeps talking about the poor in his country, but we don’t get to see them (filming in Morocco instead of Yemen doesn’t help). The sheik is obsessed with salmon fishing but tells Dr. Jones (McGregor) that introducing salmon to Yemen is not really about fishing but about helping the poor and about helping the rich and poor in Yemen stop being afraid of each other. Laudable sentiments, but they never become anything more than words (perhaps, as in The Hunger Games, the book does more) and the sheik comes across as patronizing at best.

There is a subplot about faith which is likewise not developed enough to be profound, though I appreciated the effort (sometimes you need to do things on faith).

All in all, I did, as with other Hallstrom films, enjoy Salmon Fishing more than the average critic (primarily because of Blunt and McGregor) and I will give it a solid *** in spite of the disappointments. It’s a family-friendly film, so recommended to all, and I believe I enjoyed it more than War Horse (at least it didn’t grate on me quite as much). My mug is up.

Monday, 2 April 2012

War Horse

With War Horse now in the cheap theatre, I finally gave in and went to see it. I got my money’s worth.

Steven Spielberg is one of my all-time favourite directors (with more films in my top 150 than any other director). Even so, there is often a superficial simplicity to his films that usually disappoints me. War Horse is another example of this. It’s advertised as the story of a boy’s beloved horse that ends up in the front lines of WWI. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was much more the story of the people who, however briefly, found themselves in possession of the horse. These stories were often compelling, but they were generally too short, too sentimental, too simple and too superficial.

But let’s start with the good news. War Horse is an old-fashioned epic of the kind that are rarely made anymore. I appreciate that. It humanizes both sides of the war in a way that makes no one the “bad guy”. I very much appreciate that. It makes the war look pretty stupid. Also appreciated (especially the scene where a German soldier and an English soldier join forces to rescue the horse). It provides a fascinating frame for the heart of its story by showing how the boy loses the horse to a nice man and then gets it back from a nice man. Those two scenes are among my favourite in the film. The cinematography is stunning and John Williams’ music is appropriate. The acting is not particularly outstanding, but it’s solid.

Now for the bad news, which may refer more to the story or the play than to the film. Since I haven’t seen the play or read the book, I cannot say. The biggest flaw in War Horse is the many contrived melodramatic (and often far too coincidental) scenes that made me cringe. Just one example: A wounded horse is about to be shot. A young wounded soldier, with eyes bandaged, cups his hand to make a special sound. The horse looks up. The soldiers part in awe. The soldier claims the horse belongs to him. When he describes the horse as having white feet and a white mark on its head, he doesn’t realize that those parts of the horse have been conveniently covered with black mud. As a result, the officer doesn’t believe the horse is his. In an overly melodramatic way, another soldier sees the mud and washes it off. Ouch! And this kind of thing happens again and again. Sorry, whoever is responsible, but this kind of scene usually doesn’t work for me (the ‘frame’ scenes described above notwithstanding). I suppose I should forgive an old-fashioned family epic for including such scenes, but they really drained my enjoyment of the film.

In the end, War Horse was, for me, a would-be grand epic with numerous precious moments that ultimately failed to impress me. It gets *** for effort. My mug is up, but keep your expectations under control.