28 February 2010

Review: "Man on Wire"

I did it! I accomplished a goal, of sorts. One week after watching The Cove and vowing to watch more documentaries I have watched another! The documentary I am referring to is Man on Wire, the colossally entertaining film chronicling Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The film uses recent interviews with the parties involved, reenactments of the events, and also rare footage and photographs from the events leading up August 7, 1974. The film was directed by James Marsh, who may be known in some small film circles for his 2005 film The King, which starred Gael Garcia Bernal. Man on Wire was screened at various film festivals, including the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury and Audience awards. It was released to critical acclaim in 2008, and currently holds a 100% rating on RottenTomatoes, where it is currently the website's second-best reviewed film, behind only Toy Story 2. Man on Wire is exhilarating and intense, filmed like a crime thriller, and is a film worthy of its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film presents the events leading up to Philippe Petit's daring high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. In interviews with Petit, his former friends and accomplices and his girlfriend, we learn that Petit had hatched the idea when he had first learned of the two towers. He believed that the towers were built for him to complete the stunt. We watch Petit complete a similar student in New Zealand -- albeit not as high up in the air! Philippe Petit and his team spent a considerable amount of time practicing and preparing. They were required to sneak into the World Trade Center with all their equipment and be able to set up without attracting attention from the security guards. At one point the team even returned to France, believing that their plan had not yet been perfected. Everyone is aware that Petit accomplished his task, and the film's poster even depicts him walking between the two towers, but the film is not about whether or not he is successful but how he reached that point.

Man on Wire is absolutely a thrilling film worthy of all its accolades. I was obviously swayed by its Academy Award victory -- though it is not easy finding obscure documentaries in Blockbuster. This is why I would love for Netflix to be available in Canada! My only complaint is that the reenactments often felt too fake and I did not quite feel the tension that would have existed. Philippe Petit is quite an interesting man, and I am still unsure of whether he understood or not that his actions were illegal. Regardless, the film presented the events with a chilling sense of suspense which made me wish I had witnessed it with my own eyes.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "Coraline"

I have probably mentioned many times that I am not the biggest fan of animated films, though I gave in and watched Coraline. The film is directed by Henry Selick, who is best known for directing the Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and less notably James and the Giant Peach. The film is based on a 2002 graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, whose previous novel, Stardust, was adapted into a feature length film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Unlike many recent animated films, Coraline does not have the star power in terms of voice actors. The film uses the vocal talents of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman (most recognizable for personifying PC in the Apple commercials). Coraline is an enjoyable film that hinges on the audience empathizing with its heroine, the young Coraline. It does not bring anything new to the world of animated films, but its dark themes and imagery make Coraline a deserving nominee for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.

The young Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved to the Pink Palace Apartments with her withdrawn parents.
The other two apartments are inhabited by two former actresses (voiced by comedy duo Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and a one-time Russian acrobat (voiced by Ian MacShane). Her mother Mel (Teri Hatcher) and father Charlie (John Hodgman) are consumed by writing a gardening catalog and pay little attention to their daughter. She is encouraged to explore their new home and discovers a small locked door in their living room. When she convinces her mother to unlock it she only finds a brick wall. Later that night she is awoken by a mouse that leads her to the door that now leads her to the Other World. In this alternate universe she finds Other Mother and Other Father that are adoring parents who dote on their daughter. She wants to stay in this new world, but a talking cat (voiced by Keith David, in a role that reminds me of the Cheshire Cat) tells her that her own world is better and safer. The Other Mother and Other Father have buttons for eyes, and they tell Coraline that she will have to give up her eyes to remain with them.

Roger Ebert suggested, in his three star review of Coraline, that "Coraline is an unpleasant little girl. It would be cruel to send Pippi Longstocking down that tunnel, but Coraline deserves it." Maybe I misunderstood the film, but I only found her to be a neglected child looking for attention from her parents. The climax of the films reminds me of Beetlejuice, which seems apt considering how closely Henry Selick has worked with Tim Burton in the past. The film does wrap up far too neatly, which bothers me, though I understand the necessity, owing to the fact that animated films are most aimed at younger audiences. Overall Coraline is better than some animated films that I have seen this year, though it does not come close to Fantastic Mr. Fox in my opinion.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

27 February 2010

Review: "The White Ribbon"

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) is a 2009 German film directed by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Michael Haneke is probably most well known to North American audiences for the film Funny Games (2008), which is a remake of his original film from 1997. He also wrote and directed the film Caché (a critically successful film which I did not enjoy). The White Ribbon has become a critical success throughout the world. It premiered at Cannes in 2009 and won the coveted Palme d'Or, and has garnered a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and an Academy Award nomination. Haneke has revealed through numerous interviews that the film is about the origins of terrorism. The film is set in a small German town prior to World War I. The film, shot entirely in black and white, is reminiscent of older films with beautiful cinematography and a beautifully inspired soundtrack. I was under the impression, for some unknown reason, that the film was about the Nazi regime during World War II, though this may be due to the heavy theme of terrorism present in the film. The White Ribbon is a beautifully shot film, though unfortunately I had trouble connecting emotionally with the characters.

The White Ribbon is set in between the summers of 1913 and 1914 in Eichwald, a ficticious Protestant town in Germany. The film is narrated by Ernst Jacobi, who voices the older version of Christian Friedel, who stars as a young school teacher. There are many interwoven plots in the film, including the school teacher's blossoming relationship with Eva. The town is ruled by the pastor, doctor and baron. The pastor abuses his children physically and emotionally. He forces his children to wear white ribbons on their arms to remind them that they have strayed from innocence and purity. The doctor victimizes his housekeeper and her son, and sexually abuses his own daughter. The baron controls most of the land in the town and acts as a moral authority. Soon strange events begin to happen in the small town: the doctor's horse trips over a wire hung between two trees that leaves the doctor hospitalized for a long period, the baron's cabbages are destroyed, one of the baron's sons is found with hands and feet bound with severe lashes to his body, and a barn is belong to the baron is set on fire. The town does not know who to blame for the crimes, and only the schoolteacher seems concerned by the unruly behaviour of his pupils.

The White Ribbon unfolds very slowly and deliberately, sometimes frustratingly so. The film, at 144 minutes, is very long with a few unnecessary scenes. There are a great number of characters in the film and it is sometimes confusing to remember which child belongs to which character. I often had trouble reading the white fond of the subtitles because it was offset by the black and white of the film. T One of the most harrowing thoughts after viewing the film is the realization that these children grew up to become adults in the time before World War II.
he film is beautifully shot and directed, and although I had trouble with some of the actors, The White Ribbon is one of the must-see foreign films of the year, though I would rank it second behind Un Prophète.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "London to Brighton"

I apologize in advance, I have seen a fair deal of films in the past week!

London to Brighton is an independent British film that was released in 2006. I consider myself a real fan of world cinema, but I had not heard of this film until I saw it on the shelf. I passed it up one weekend, and then felt compelled to give it a chance. London to Brighton is the first feature film by Paul Andrew Williams. His first short film, Royalty (2001), is said to inspire this film. It is a fairly short film, at only 85 minutes, but it is an adequate length for a film that deals with child prostitution. It is not an easy film to watch, and although most of the graphic elements are not shown on screen, London to Brighton is compelling, though awkwardly paced at times. The film stars Lorraine Stanley, who is best known to British audience for her role on the soap opera EastEnders, which she has held since 2000. Not to be outdone, the young star of the film, Georgia Groome, is captivating as the young girl thrust into the world of prostitution. Even more amazing, it is her film film role (after a couple television credits), and she was only 14 when the film was made. London to Brighton was moderately successful at a few smaller film festivals and won British Independent Film Award for Best Film Production.

The film begins wildly at 3:07 in the morning. Joanne (Groome) is screaming and crying in a public toilet. Kelly's (Stanley) is badly bruised, and she realizes that she needs money to escape. When Kelly returns with a few crumpled bills the two money leave with just enough money to purchase train tickets. The film then reverts back to before this incident and we discover that Kelly earns a living as a prostitute and Joanne has just run away from home. Kelly's pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) has a client who has a predilection for young girls and asks Kelly if she can find a suitable candidate. Stuart Allen (Sam Spruell) is a wealthy man who can afford the extreme whose son Duncan (Alexander Morton) is prone to violent outbursts. Kelly, knowing that she will benefit from helping Derek, coerces Joanne into agreeing to visit Stuart. It is an obvious no-win situation which leads Joanne and Kelly to a dirty restroom stall, with a compelling climax that reminds me of Tilda Swinton in Julia.

The film proceeds from the opening moments with an uneasy sense of tragedy. Kelly is no longer a young woman and her life has disappeared before her eyes and it is apparent that she is unable to escape. While she is ultimately protective of Joanne, she is self serving. The film is as grim as Leaving Las Vegas, and I admire the director for the film's ending. I think it has been well established that I am not a fan of films with "Hollywood endings." The acting was superb, especially from Lorraine Stanley and Georgia Groome, but I felt that the characters remained too one-dimensional. This may be due to the short length. London to Brighton is not for everyone and its subject may be hard to stomach, but it is a gripping film that holds your attention from beginning to end.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

26 February 2010

Review: "Il Divo"

Not to be confused with the operatic pop singing group created by Simon Cowell, Il Divo is a 2008 Italian film based on the life of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Prix du Jury, the third most prestigious honour awarded at the festival, behind the Palme d'Or and the Grand Prix. I have not seen very many Italian films and am feeling incapable of even relating one title that I have seen. Although I have a very minimal understanding of Italian (having taken two university courses), I find that native speakers talk far too quickly for me to even begin to follow. The film was directed by Paolo Sorrentino, a young Italian filmmaker whose films have not garnered much international attention. His next effort with be an English-language film that stars reigning Best Actor winner Sean Penn. I remember seeing a trailer for the film during the summer and being very interested, though I imagined it to be more satirical and less focused on relating fact. I enjoyed the film, but I did struggle to follow a lot of the details -- which RottenTomatoes.com highlights. Giulio Andreotti was a seven-time elected Prime Minister of Italy, and Il Divo concentrates on the time period in 1992 when it was suspected that he had ties to the Mafia.

The film begins by highlighting various members of the Italian government and media that had been killed. This was one of the most stylistically brilliant parts of the film, and unfortunately it was ruined by the English-language subtitles that were required to understand the positions held by these men. Toni Servillo (who also starred in Gomorrah, a 2008 Italian film that was featured on many top ten lists) stars as Giulio Andreotti who was the leader of the Christian Democratic party, a political party that often blurred the lines between the government and the Mafia. The film highlights Andreotti's relationships with the members of his staff, his wife and family, and members of the Italian government. It seems evident throughout the film that Andreotti is in collusion with the Mafia, though there may be a lot of artistic license being used. The film is mainly driven by the kidnapping and death of Aldo Moro in 1978. Moro was Andreotti's chief rival, and it is assumed that Andreotti benefited from his untimely death. Unfortunately the film starts to lag about halfway through and the charm and humour seems to dissipate.

Il Divo has been praised for its originality and styling. Aesthetically I found the film to be very original, certainly at the beginning and throughout many other important scenes. My chief complaint is that I do not believe the film works for foreign viewers. There are times when the subtitles are unable (or unwilling) to translate the professions of certain characters on screen because there is dialogue appearing on screen. Toni Servillo was captivating as Giulio Andreotti and the film does belong to him. It is wonderful to watch him emote through his facial expressions. Obviously it is very hard for an outsider to watch the film without having any prior knowledge of Italian politics. Maybe this is why I did not enjoy the film as much as I had hoped. I found it to be a mostly dry and boring biopic when I had envisioned a much more intelligent satire.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

Review: "Un Prophète"

Un Prophète is a French crime drama directed by Jacques Audiard. Audiard is not well known outside of French (at least not by me), though he has won César Awards for Best First Film for Regarde les hommes tombés (See How They Fall, 1994) and Best Film for De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005). Un Prophète has been chosen as France's official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The film was also nominated at the 2010 Golden Globe Awards in the same category, where it lost to the German film The White Ribbon. It recently won a BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language. The idea for the film stems from Audiard screening his César-winning film to a prison cinema club. The film focuses on racial relations within the prison, dealing with a lot of Arabophobia. Un Prophète stars Tahar Rahim as a newly incarcerated young man and Niels Arestrup (who may look familiar from his role in The Bourne Ultimatum) as a Corsican crime boss. The film has an uneasy sense of realism, and with terrific acting from the whole cast Un Prophète is an incredibly compelling and engrossing film.

Malik El Djebena (Rahim) is nineteen and has been sentenced to six years in prison for violence against a police officer. Malik denies this, and it would be easy to believe that he was only found guilty because of his race. Though, in France you are guilty until proven innocent. Malik has North African ancestry but is estranged from the Muslim community. He is illiterate and has been offered protection by Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), the kingpin of the ruling Corsican gang. Malik is expected to do what Luciani asks, including killing another inmate in the film's most violent and disturbing scene. This event does have one positive consequence; it prompts Malik to begin going to classes in the prison. He rises up in the gang, though many within the Corsican gang only see him as a leech. Luciani has so much power and control in the prison and this begins to benefit Malik. Malik starts to receive day passes, and while he is on the outside he performs tasks for Luciani and gets paid for it. With the help of a recently released inmate, Ryad (Adel Bencherif), Malik realizes that he can benefit from Luciani's trust.

Un Prophète is the type of film that seems to be filmed without a filter. The images appear on screen in a rough and often too-realistic manner. It reminded me of the film Down to the Bone (2005) which starred Vera Farmiga. The aforementioned violent scene is also reminiscent of another film, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol 1. Not to be outdone, I also see parallels to another recent French film, Entre les Murs. The two films give realistic looks at two very racially diverse communities and how they interact within the confines of four walls. Overall I quite enjoyed the film and found myself emotionally invested in Malik's future, though the film was not without its faults. The pacing was sometimes awkward and the film felt a little too long at 150 minutes. The acting was superb and the director paid obvious attention to important details. Having lived in France I have seen the negative effects of Arabophobia and Islamophobia, and I think that it is an important piece of filmmaking that does fulfill Audiard's goal of "creating icons, images for people who don't have images, Arabs in France."

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

EDIT Un Prophète has won just won César awards for Best Film, Director, Actor (Rahim), Supporting Actor (Arestrup), Cinematography, and Original Writing, among their nine awards.

20 February 2010

Review: "Departures"

I have been on a DVD rental kick in the past couple weeks, and I have taken some titles from Blockbuster's Critics Picks section. I have had some real success, having rented The Class and The Cove. I am a huge fan of foreign films, though unfortunately my interests rarely extend beyond French and Spanish films. This is probably due to the fact that I have studied both French and Spanish and have an understanding of both languages. I did see an Icelandic film called The Sea (2002), and though I had no understanding of the language I completely enjoyed the film. Departures is a 2008 Japanese film directed by Yojiro Tokita. It won a richly deserved Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards. This film has redeemed Japan cinematically, after seeing the horrors of The Cove. It took Yojiro Tokita and Masahiro Motoki, the film's star, over a decade to bring the film to life. Departures is a beautiful film that lives and breathes in the quiet moments.

Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) is a concert cellist whose orchestra has been disbanded. His devoted wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) has agreed to move from Tokyo to Sakata, Daigo's hometown. He sees a classifieds ad for "assisting departures for an NK agency" and when he arrives for his interview he is told that there was a misprint. The job is for assisting in encoffinment ceremonies. The job pays extremely well, but as death is a very taboo subject in Japan, he is too embarrassed to reveal to Mika the details of his employment. Daigo has a very uneasy time with his job, finding it hard to even look at food when he returns home from work. He develops a bond with his boss (Tsutomu Yamakazi), and discovers that he quite enjoys his work. Mika, upon finding out the details of her husband's job, feels that Daigo must choose between her and his work. There is also a parallel story that involves Daigo's estranged father, who left and never returned when he was six.

Departures is the first Japanese film I have ever seen and while I often found myself stuck reading the subtitles instead of watching the action, there were many silent moments in the film that exist without dialogue. These scenes were some of the most beautiful that I have seen in recent memory. The film does this through the symbolism of the cello, which Daigo studied at a young age because of his father's wishes. My only complaint is that the music is sometimes too loud and overpowering, and it begins to compete with the events on screen. I also have issues with the film's poster, which I think wrongly shies away from the theme of death in the film. Overall it is an incredibly well made film and I am thankful that this type of film is accessible outside of Japan. The acting was superb and the pacing was excellent. Departures is a fantastic film that left me feeling hopeful.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

18 February 2010

Review: "The Cove"

I remember first seeing a preview for The Cove and thinking that it was going to be a frightening suspense film. I eventually realized it was a documentary, and after viewing the film I found it to be both frightening and suspenseful. The film follows Ric O'Barry (who originally trained the dolphins on television's Flipper) as he and his team try to uncover the truth about dolphin killings in a restricted cove in Taiji, Japan. The film is directed by Louie Psihoyos, a former photographer for National Geographic. The Cove won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It is a must-see film that is provoking and disturbing. It left me with feelings of guilt, but it gives me tremendous hope that there are people in the world that are willing to fight against this injustice.

While the film is decidedly biased, it highlights some disturbing facts that the Japanese government refuses to acknowledge. The film states that 23 000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in Japan every year. In Taiji the fisherman lure the dolphins to the bay and set up nets to prevent them from escaping. In the morning there are buyers from aquariums across the world that come to purchase dolphins for as much as $150 000. The unsold dolphins are led to a secluded cove where they are killed and sold as meat. This cove is made inaccessible by gates and security guards. Ric O'Barry and his team devote an incredible amount of time and money to exposing Taiji's dolphin killings.

The Cove is a powerful film that acts like a spy thriller at times. It is engrossing from beginning to end, and while some of the scenes are difficult to watch, they are nonetheless crucial to the film's message. It is hard to believe that these fisherman are able to get away killing dolphins and that the town officials and Japanese government do nothing. The horror extends far beyond the dolphin killings because the dolphin meat that is sold contains a severely toxic amount of mercury. I have never been a huge fan of documentary films, and after watching The Cove I have decided that I need to explore this overlooked genre.

Any suggestions?

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "The Class" (Entre les Murs)

When I first heard about The Class I thought that it was a documentary about an inner city school in Paris. It turns out that the film is based on the real life accounts of François Bégaudeau, a language and literature teacher. The film premiered at Cannes in 2008 to critical acclaim, and became the first French film in 21 years to win the coveted Palme d'Or. It was then nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards - losing to Departures from Japan. On a side note, I think that Best Foreign Language Film is a poor choice of words, and prefer the BAFTA's choice, Best Film Not in the English Language. The Class, based on Bégaudeau's 2006 novel, is directed by Laurent Cantet, whose work I had not seen before. The film looks at one teacher's interactions with his homeroom class, which include a diverse range of personalities and backgrounds. The film does not show the characters beyond the walls of the school and, although we know little about the characters, the film is engrossing and provoking.

François Bégaudeau is entering his fourth year at an inner city school in Paris. He knows most of his students from the previous year, and he appears to be a devoted teacher. His class includes many problem students, which include Esmerelda, Khoumba and Souleymane, but there are also hardworking students like Wei and Louise. The Class unfolds over the course of a school year and we witness the highs of lows of the class atmosphere. The major events of the film take place inside the four walls of the classroom, hence the original French title Entre les Murs (Between the Walls). It is also interesting to watch how François interacts with colleagues and how their views of the students differ. One of the most powerful scenes in the film for me was watching the parent-teacher conferences. It is a wonderful film that invites you into a brief moment in the students' lives and leaves you craving more.

As a new teacher I found the film fascinating and it made me feel hopeful. There are a considerable number of heartbreaking scenes that left me feeling devastated, but I know that a teacher only plays a small role in a student's life. The Class belongs to the young group of students, whose tremendous talent create a wonderfully vibrant and diverse classroom. I have always loved French films, but I was still amazed by how much I loved this film. I was engrossed from beginning to end and recommend it to anyone and everyone!

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.