Saturday, 26 May 2012

Last Train Home

Lixin Fan, a young Chinese filmmaker now living in Montreal, has made an extraordinary documentary, one of those documentaries which feels like a scripted work of fiction, perhaps based on a true story, rather than a documentary about the changing way of life in China. Last Train Home is an incredibly powerful film providing a profound glimpse into a country which now manufactures most of our consumer goods.
More than 130 million migrant workers, living in China’s huge cities and working in factories that probably manufactured half (or all) of the clothes you are wearing at this moment, travel back to their rural homes every year for Chinese new year. For most of these workers, it is the only time of the year in which they will see their families.
Made in 2009 (released in 2010), Last Train Home tells the story of one of these families over a three-year period and shows the impact of this increasingly-common lifestyle on families and on the future of life in China. Changhua and Suqin left for the city when their oldest child, Qin, was only one year old. They left to raise the money required to provide schooling for their children, so that their children would have a chance at greater success in life. But the children, growing up under the care of grandparents, are neither grateful nor impressed. Their parents are basically strangers who nag them about their school accomplishments once a year.
Qin, now in high school, sees school as a cage and wants freedom. She thinks going out one her own and working in a factory like her parents will provide that freedom, but she quickly runs into a reality check.
I’ll leave the story there. You can already tell that this is not a typical documentary, where I would not be worried about giving away too much of the plot. 
Last Train Home is in every way a brilliant documentary, with superb cinematography, perfect editing and a haunting look at life in China today, life that we in the ‘north’ contribute to every time we go shopping for something other than groceries. Based on this film, most Chinese view their gorgeous countryside as a place of poverty and their ugly cities as the land of opportunity. But watching the factory workers hunched over their sewing machines and sleeping in dormitories does not make you think that life in China is headed in the right direction. 
I have heard much about how we in North America are falling behind China economically because the Chinese work and study ethic is so much stronger. Last Train Home reveals that Chinese children, no doubt influenced by American TV, may not be prepared to continue down that road. But what will happen then?
As you will have guessed from the first word of my review, Last Train Home gets an easy ****. This is a must-see documentary. My mug is up.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Yesterday, Kathy and I caught the Winnipeg opening of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a delightful old-fashioned comedy drama featuring a wonderful cast of British veterans (who are largely responsible for the heartfelt charming nature of the film).
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tells the story of seven British retirees who, for various reasons, want to escape the pressure and expense of their lives in the UK and are seduced by an advertisement for a free flight to Udaipur, India and a stay at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. What they don’t know is that they are the hotel’s first guests in a very long time and that the hotel is not exactly as advertised.
For me, the first twenty minutes, summarized above, were the weakest part of the film. With one or two exceptions, I had no clear sense of what was motivating these people to take such a drastic step. I would have appreciated substantially more background story about their lives in the UK rather than the kind of brief glimpse you get into the lives of the survivors in a disaster flick. When, after a long and complicated journey to the hotel, our protagonists arrive to find the chaos that is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its well-meaning but incompetent young owner (Sonny, played well by Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel), and realize that they have been deceived, there is almost no reaction. After some initial shock and mandatory complaints, they all end up settling in to the hotel with minimal fuss. That did not make sense to me, at least not as it was presented, and left me feeling frustrated and with the sense that I was watching a “lite” film which could have benefitted from the addition of a few more calories.
Once in India, however, the lives of our protagonists get much more interesting and I began to enjoy the film much more, aided by the remarkable (though hardly unexpected) outstanding performances by the likes of Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith, all of whom are an absolute joy to watch. Their power is matched, though, by the work of the cinematographer, who has created a masterpiece in the filming of life in India, balancing the rich colours of the hectic market with the soft pastels of the quiet and rundown parts of the city. With the help of a fine score by Thomas Newman, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel succeeds in feeling exotic (a requirement for such a film).
Directed by John Madden and written by Ol Parker (based on the novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, which Kathy had read), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a gently humanizing if somewhat predictable story of the transforming power of community, relationships and new experiences. The ending, which I will not describe, may disappoint some, but if you are looking for a comedy drama which is a step above the usual Hollywood fare, this film is for you. I am even going to give it ***+. My mug is up.
And no, despite the fact that Kathy and I were the youngest people in the theatre, this is not just for those over sixty.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Avengers - Walter's View

Flying mechanical reptiles? Really? Vic mentioned the mindless action and lack of imagination and the these reptiles symbolized this for me. Surely one might imagine a better alien attack than this. I mentioned this to someone who suggested the movie was simply being true to the comic books, but then my critique is towards the thin imagination of the comic book creators. The entire last half hour or more of the film is all kinds of silly (and utterly pointless). 

Apart from the humour and witty banter, the strength lies in the incredibly diverse mix of superheroes. I thought this would be a weakness. How could the Hulk and Thor and Iron Man etc. all work in the same movie? (I'll admit that I have little background in either the comic or movie versions of these kinds of gatherings.) But they did seem to work because there was just (barely) enough insightful character development for them all to represent interesting dynamics from passionate mythic responsibility (Thor) to self-centred scientific genius (Ironman) to anguished psychological dynamics (The Hulk) to old-fashioned, compassionate heroism (Captain America). I couldn't believe I liked Captain America, but I did. Go figure. This mixture of archetypes could make for a fascinating and rich movie if only they spent less time in silly fight scenes. 

The film also seemed to run out of time developing some characters. Whedon tried to develop the Black Widow but it didn't work for me - maybe because my lack of knowing the back story made me think her only super power was looking good (and she fights incredibly well while tied to a chair). I give Whedon points for mocking this element himself by having her arm herself with a little pistol when facing down the climactic arrival of the gigantic flying mechanical reptile.  

But as I said earlier, Whedon is at his best in adding a light touch and a witty energy to all the interactions. This clearly is what makes the movie worth watching. And if you like mindless action too - well, you're all set. *** from me too.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Avengers

Walter was in town this week so of course we sought out some obscure indie film to watch together and found something called The Avengers. It being opening week and free popcorn and pop night, we had the theatre largely to ourselves (well, us and a few hundred others). Estimates suggest that over one billion people will watch The Avengers in the first few weeks of its release. That is mind-blowing to consider. 
What, exactly, is so special about this film? The answer is a combination of two factors: brilliant marketing strategy, in which previous films hint at the upcoming Avengers, and an almost insatiable demand for superhero films (Batman and Spiderman are coming back again this summer and will no doubt also be huge blockbusters). I am working on a presentation aimed at analyzing that demand. To hear more, join me at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina from June 21-24 ( or at the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Vancouver from July 12-15. 
In the meantime, was The Avengers worth all the hype? You know the answer: Not a chance. The Avengers was written and directed by Joss Whedon, who now must have more than enough cash in his pocket to bring back Firefly (as he has long desired to do). Whedon is a clever writer, especially good at creating characters who draw out humorous comments from each other on a regular basis. When The Avengers highlights the differences between its superheroes and allows them to talk to each other, it is a very funny and entertaining film. Unfortunately, far too much of the film is mindless action, highlighting special effects while apparently giving fans what they want. Well, you must know by now what I think about mindless action (yawn). 
The plot (such as it is) involves aliens taking over the earth. Our Avengers are all that stands in their way. I found nothing original in the story (apart from the strange collection of superheroes and their interaction with each other) and so the action was almost meaningless to me (and was frequently inconsistent, as in the behaviour of the Hulk). That The Avengers is full of redemptive violence goes without saying, but since the violence is all aimed at “evil” aliens, no one will notice and it’s hard to take the violence too seriously (which does not mean you should take children to see it, as some did).
The acting was more than acceptable and the cinematography and score were strong. In many ways, The Avengers was a well-made film. Because of the witty character interaction, I will give it a solid ***. My mug is up, but don’t expect great things unless you love action.