Posts Tagged ‘film review’

Denial

October 19th, 2016 | Film | 0 Comments

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I saw the trailer for Mike Jackson’s excellent film Denial as a preview before a YouTube video. I remember thinking immediately that I had to see it. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I wanted to know the (true) story of historian Debra Lipstadt, and how the facts of the Holocaust could possibly be debated in a courtroom setting. I am glad to say that Jackson’s film does a fine job of conveying the story, ably covering the nuanced difficulties of arguing a case like the one Lipstadt was involved in. Rachel Weisz also gives an excellent performance as Lipstadt.

In 1996, British historian David Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher for defamation. He claimed that Lipstadt, in her book Denying the Holocaust, wrongly accused him of Holocaust denial. She fought the case in Britain and eventually won, with the presiding judge declaring her innocent of defamation, as Irving intentionally distorted the facts of the Holocaust to mislead others (basically, he lied).

Jackson’s film is ultimately a courtroom drama, not a Holocaust film, that nonetheless tries to convey the emotional weight of the trial, not just as felt by Lipstadt, but also by her legal team and Holocaust survivors following the trial. The film shows how the legal team made certain strategic decisions to win the case, even if those decisions – such as not allowing survivors or Lipstadt to testify – were perceived as objectionable by many.

Denial serves as a great testament to Lipstadt and her legal team, but it also serves as a potent reminder of the failures of humanity. The Holocaust showcased some of the worst aspects of humanity – indeed, perhaps the worst – but as is all too clear, these aspects did not cease to exist after the end of the war. As the world enters a era in which facts appear more and more negotiable, Denial reminds us that fighting for the truth is often difficult, but necessary.

Anomalisa

January 15th, 2016 | Film | 0 Comments

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Charlie Kaufman‘s films are not happy movies. Neither is Anomalisa. The “most human film of the year” blurb and uplifting trailer music are deceiving. This is a depressing movie. It might be Kaufman’s most depressing movie.

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a depressed, middle-aged family man in an unhappy marriage. He lives in LA with his wife and son. He flies to Cleveland to deliver a speech about customer service, as he is something of a celebrity in the industry for writing a popular book on the subject. At the hotel where he stays for the night, he meets two women (presumably in their early-mid 30s) who drove from their small midwestern city to see him speak, and are very excited to meet him. Stone ends up taking a liking to one named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). He especially likes her voice and face, as they are unique, whereas everyone else looks and sounds the same [all the other voices in the film are provided by Tom Noonan]. He invites her back to his room for the night and she accepts. The next morning though, the magic begins to wear off…

Unlike Kaufman’s other directorial effort – the epic, complex Synecdoche, New York – Anomalisa is small and simple. Like a good essay, it’s concise and makes a strong point. But like the prim and proper top of the class, Anomalisa is a little boring and predictable. Perhaps that’s the idea, though: this is, after all, a movie about boring people.

While characters in Kaufman’s other films are usually eccentric artistic types, Anomalisa‘s characters are boring customer service people. Stone’s perception of the monotony and homogeny of the world reflect his jaded reality, but it may also reflect his own inner boringness. He is not an intellectual. He is not an artist. He does not have anything really interesting to say. He is a prisoner of corporate philosophy and middle-of-the-road living. He’s full of frustration but can find no way to channel it into anything productive. Even when he starts cracking at the end, all he can do is lash out at the world in the most predictable of ways (“America is going down the tubes”). And Lisa, for all her fascination with being an ‘anomaly’, is also boring, timid, self-pitying, passive, and typical.

To his credit, Kaufman treats these characters with compassion and understanding, rather than derision and superiority. One of the most beautiful moments of the film is when Lisa sings Cyndi Lauper‘s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. Surprisingly, the lyric’s of the 80s radio staple, sung acapella, are quite poignant. Rather than the carefree anthem suggested by the chorus, the verses reveal a bittersweet, yearning reflection on the American female experience. Lisa’s connection to the song’s lyrics reveal a hidden depth and soulfulness to her character; the tragedy is that she has been so limited by her midwestern, working class circumstances that this aspect of her character seeps out only on rare occasion. And now fate is about to deal her another cruel little knock in the form of Stone.

Compassionate, however, is the best the intellectual Kaufman can be for “normal” characters like Stone and Lisa. Clearly unfamiliar with these worlds – suburban LA and corporate Ohio – Kaufman only presents a passenger window view of them. He lacks the familiarity or true interest to explore the humanity of these worlds in detail (for example, compare Kaufman’s depiction of the midwest in Anomalisa to something like Mark Kozelek‘s depiction of it on the Sun Kil Moon album Benji). As such, Anomalisa is an interesting, even efficient experiment that matches a Kaufman script with Duke Johnson‘s eerie stop motion animation. But not much more.

Montage Of Heck

June 12th, 2015 | Film | 0 Comments

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The Kurt Cobain doc Montage of Heck may have been “90% bullshit“, but in any case, it wasn’t all bullshit. There was a Kurt Cobain. He was born in Aberdeen, Washington. He had a nice childhood, apparently. His parents divorced. His adolescence was difficult. He moved to Olympia with his girlfriend at the time. He made music. He started a band called Nirvana. They got famous. He met and married Courtney Love. They had a kid. He committed suicide in 1994 (or did he?). This much is true, it seems.

Montage of Heck works best when it acts like a straight documentary with talking heads, pictures, and home movies detailing Cobain’s childhood and adolescence. But Montage of Heck isn’t a straight doc, replete as it is with animated sequences often narrated by what at least seems to be Cobain’s own voice. If the episodes he details in these sequences are true, they offer some of the most interesting and shocking insight into Cobain’s world and personality. Even if they’re just fictional Cobain stories, they serve a similar function, and provide some fascinating insight about what went on inside Cobain’s mind when he wasn’t writing songs.

Sometimes the intermingling of this animated footage with the talking heads and home movies – all spliced together in spastic, 90’s MTV fashion – is pretty neat. But it gets a little tiring. And it perhaps doesn’t add up to the stylish, grand testament to Cobain’s life that the filmmakers and viewers want it to be. The doc feels a little odd-bodied, with the back-end dominated by home movies and Nirvana footage, lacking the talking heads commentary that provided such interesting context to the childhood and adolescent portion of the movie. As much as Montage focused on Cobain and Love’s love and marriage, it felt like there was still more to them left unexplored. Both were such odd, interesting characters – and the film’s home movies vividly display that – was there not more to say about their relationship? More analysis to be given? Outside perspectives, rather than just Love’s and Krist Novoselic‘s?

Strangely, I came away from the film liking Cobain less. Not even because of things like the ‘sex with the slow girl’ scene, but maybe because he seemed less interest, weighty than I wanted him to. I liked the Cobain I met in AJ Schnack‘s 2006 doc Kurt Cobain: About A Son, which featured no footage of Nirvana at all. I remember seeing it in Toronto at The Royal, with author Michael Azzerad (Come As You Are, Our Band Could Be Your Life) – who conducted the interviews that the film basically just provides visual accompaniment for – in the theatre, introducing the film and doing a Q&A after. I remember him saying something like, “When I started talking to Kurt, I thought, “I know this guy.” This wasn’t Kurt Cobain: rock star, drug addict, tortured artist. This was a real person.” Watching Montage Of Heck, I wanted that feeling again, of meeting the man behind the myth. But Montage Of Heck doesn’t quite manage to pin ‘Cobain: the man’ down to the extent I would have liked it to.

Appropriate Behaviour

January 19th, 2015 | Film | 0 Comments

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Appropriate Behaviour is the witty, sexy, Brooklyn-y feature debut of Iranian-American writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan. Yes, to make the inevitable comparison, the film is Akhavan’s Tiny Furniture, and the analogy is hardly limited to Akhavan’s triple-threat credits. Like Dunham’s breakout work, Appropriate Behaviour is a complex and remarkably assured film in which a young woman navigates all the things being a young person in the modern world entails: sex, family, friends, work, etc. Also like Dunham, its star is on HBO’s Girls; Akhavan appeared for the first time on last night’s episode as a goth-y MFA student. But for the most part, that’s where the comparisons end and Akhavan’s own personal issues arise, namely how to please one’s beloved Iranian parents when you’re bisexual and in love with another woman.

The film’s loose plot revolves around Shirin’s (Akhavan) breakup with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and her subsequent attempts to get back at or over her by way of random, often clumsy and unsuccessful pansexual hookups. And when Shirin’s not messing up threesomes or searching OkCupid for quick lays, she ‘teaches’ a class of five-year-olds how to make movies, resulting in a wonderful short film about farts and zombies. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to Shirin and Maxine’s relationship, showing us how it all started, what went right, and what went wrong, leading everyone to where they are now.

Akhavan proves herself more than capable of handling the triple work load. The script in particular deserves the accolades it’s getting, juicing Brooklyn’s near absurd and inescapable social progressivism for fair-trade, vegan, organic comedic gold, but that’s not to say Akhavan’s acting and assured directing don’t also astound.

2015 has just begun, but Appropriate Behaviour will undoubtedly be recognized as one of the best films of the year come December. And more than that, it’s something special; that rare unfiltered artistry that Orson Welles and Woody Allen proved is so much more than narcissism if you’ve really got the skills. And with Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan proves she clearly does.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

March 10th, 2014 | Film | 0 Comments

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Last night some groups at University of Toronto held a free screening of the critically lauded French film Blue Is The Warmest Colour at Innis Town Hall, the film department’s main theatre. I was lucky enough to catch it. Director Abdellatif Kechiche‘s lesbian love story (based on Julie Maroh‘s graphic novel of the same name) of two young French women, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux), Blue Is The Warmest Colour was one of the most sensual films I’ve ever seen, also managing to be fairly intelligent, subtle, realistic, and touching.

The film is told from the perspective of Adele, an intelligent, beautiful young woman in high school who loves to read and wants to become a teacher. A little emotionally empty and confused, she sees Emma in the street one day – very noticeable because of her dyed-blue hair – and eventually meets her and begins a long, fulfilling romance with her. Emma is older, an artist well-connected with the local artistic community. She is also more confident than Adele, sure of who she is and what she’s about. When the two first meet and talk, Adele is naturally drawn to Emma’s intelligence and knowledge of art and culture, while Emma finds in Adele the more passive, motherly personality to match her intensity.

For the most part they have a very beautiful, unproblematic relationship. They don’t fight or argue or misunderstand eachother, but even so, Kechiche subtly implies throughout the film that this relationship is threatened by outside forces and the flaws in the two lead characters that might eventually tear them apart.

I don’t want to give away too much about what exactly happens, but I do want to comment on one thing I felt the film did really well, which is start with Adele’s brief relationship with a boy at her school. Though she finds him physically attractive – or so it seems – when they talk, they have little connection or chemistry: she loves reading and he has never really finished a book in his life; she seems deep and emotional while he seems like a nice guy but, otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be all that much to him. Soon after they have sex, Adele breaks up with him.

When Adele meets Emma and they start talking, the contrast is like black and white: immediately we feel the pieces falling into place and the magnetism between them that is intellectual, emotional, and physical.

At three hours long, Blue Is The Warmest Colour can sometimes require a bit of patience from the viewer, and there came a point where I wondered if I really needed another lesbian sex scene – though admittedly, all of them were shot and played incredibly well – but as with another French-language masterpiece about an atypical relationship, Laurence Anyways – the length was well used to convey the epic feel of a perhaps once-in-a-life-time affair. While I’d still consider The Great Beauty the best foreign film of 2013, Blue Is The Warmest Colour would probably come in at a very respectable second.