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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

In a crisp, neo-noir style that includes inspired cinematography, Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]) bravely draws you into abandoned alleys of wrenching human worriments. Rest assured, there are no clear exits or easy answers.

In The Third Murder, Shigemori is a young lawyer called upon to represent a convicted killer who, after serving 30 years in prison, confesses to a new slaying. As Shigemori and his colleagues scheme to save Misumi from the death penalty, facts arise and stories change. Is the goal to find a resolution satisfactory to both the defendant and the plaintiff, or is it to find the truth?

The Japanese writer-director—in perhaps the film’s overarching theme—asks what the differences really are between the everyday imprisonments of life and the literal incarcerations of prison. Just how free are we? How just is it that we’re not totally free? And, as societal norms increasingly encroach on our liberties—especially under authoritarian power—at what point do hard-case individuals simply decide they would rather live behind bars?

So, Kore-eda’s biggest triumph in The Third Murder is his courageously mining the depths of the murderer Misumi’s motives. This mirrors attorney Shigemori’s tenacity and openness in seeking the truth. As you might expect, performances from all involved excel, with the co-leads particularly nuanced and engaging.

Takimoto Mikiya, who has worked with the director twice before, delivers cinematography with flashes of brilliance again here, and again empowers the story through well-imagined visual emphasis on the writer’s themes. Particularly effective and intriguing are the Misumi-Shigemori shots at the jail, where the actors’ kinetic reflections in the protective glass between them evoke the characters’ moods, comparing and contrasting. Images of their faces interact and overlap, sometimes overlaid nearly to the point of becoming one.

However, Kore-eda and Takimoto’s collaboration here feels less organic and viscerally thrilling than their work on Like Father, Like Son. There, they reached a higher level of visual storytelling, with the director displaying uncanny skills in blocking and timing, and the cinematographer capturing sublime images seemingly effortlessly.

This time around we have a film that’s not as tidy in its narrative flow. Certain symbols, such as crucifixes and a girl who is lame of a foot, come and go without much relevance or development.

The Third Murder sees Kore-eda Hirokazu expanding his cinematic language and drawing from new muses. We miss the tenderness of his deeply felt films on family. Already a qualified success with this courtroom-crime effort, though, his turn bodes well for future works, where we’re likely to witness his mastery in a greater variety of settings. And we won’t have to wait long; His Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (2017) is scheduled for theatrical exhibition in Miami Beach this winter.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is based on cartoonist John Callahan’s autobiography of the same name. Directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s known for indie films such as My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989), we get what feels like an indie/documentary-style film that doesn’t quite reach the level to which it aspires. Van Sant’s style of storytelling focuses on the humanistic side of life; the ordinary individual struggling with inner demons while trying to find their way through life.

The film starts out promising enough. Van Sant utilizes tight close up shots, “rack focus” (going in and out of focus) and that grainy look that makes you think he is actually shooting on film. This gives the audience that sense of his indie/documentary style, but as the film progresses and our protagonist begins to evolve, the film takes a turn into the long, boring fare of the type you might find in your dad’s 1970s VHS collection. I have to say though that the writing, the dialogue, and the cast of actors are superb.

Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan plays the quadriplegic cartoonist flawlessly. Phoenix takes his method acting to a new level, diving into the role with such finesse that you forget the actor is bipedal. But Van Sant must have lost interest in his own film somewhere along the way, and Phoenix loses some of his finesse when his character finally reaches an emotional climax towards the end of the film. Phoenix falls completely flat, as John finally understands the reason for his drinking. Flat to the point that I was unable to connect with his performance at that point.

It’s a shame because right around then, Jonah Hill who plays Donnie, a rich homosexual alcoholic and John’s sponsor, gives a performance that has never before been seen in Hill. Jonah reaches deep for this scene, when he tells John why he stopped drinking. It is at this moment that the audience finally gets a feel for his character that has been one dimensional right up to this point. It is a breath of fresh air to know that Jonah Hill’s acting has matured and he has finally outgrown his former dumb-witted characters.

The movie doesn’t lack for intrigue. If you like humanistic films, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is one you’ll enjoy: the true story of John Callahan, Portland-based musician and cartoonist who overcame his drinking after his life altering experience that left him paralyzed and unable to fend for himself.

Jack Black plays Dexter; His performance is mediocre at best. His character, though important to the storyline, is forgettable. Rooney Mara plays Annu, a character who’s also forgettable, as Van Sant breezes through John’s life in snippets. The remainder of the cast includes Udo Kier as Hans, Ronnie Adrien as Martingale, and Kim Gordon (bassist and singer for the rock group Sonic Youth) as Corky. Beth Ditto as Reba, despite minimal lines, gives the best performance of the bunch.

My only real dislikes here are that the running time is just too long, and you lose interest near the end.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Day After (Geu-hu)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then [2015]) lays out, in his latest work, an enjoyably jumbled art piece that blends recent past, uncertain present, and relative future free of any flashback or flash-forward devices.

Bongwan is a 50-something owner of a small publishing house. Of late, he has taken to rising before dawn, but the nature of his sudden-onset insomnia is unclear at first. His wife is perplexed, while he seems to be taking it in stride.

The Day After incisively, insightfully deconstructs the love relationship, the sexual relationship, and the relationship of mere romantic intrigue, and Hong places these puzzle pieces side by side and interlocking. However, the resulting picture is no static image with all its parts in predictably proper order.

It’s more like a Picasso sketch in motion. Emotions are (sometimes hilariously) exaggerated. Characterizations twist and flow to and fro. Dialogue repeats and scenes feel out of sequence. Thus does the director perform the important artistic task of disorientation. He wants to keep the viewer off balance and wondering when, relative to previous scenes, the action is taking place.

But, while the filmmaker has created a playfully, pleasantly disarranged artwok, that is not the end, but the means. His fractured mirror here draws us in for a closer look. What sense can we make of these proceedings? What sense do they make to these characters? Doesn’t this all sound very familiar? These questions constitute the sweetspot Hong hits in this quasi-surreal story of love and quasi-love. Why are the questions that he asks us to ask so spot-on? Because, who among us— while experiencing relationships comparable to those of these characters—hasn’t asked themselves the very same things?

Hong brings to mind Luis Buñuel’s vanguard, thoroughly thought-provoking works. Black & white photography, repetition, discontinuous editing, and (to a lesser degree) characters who “inexplicably” remain in uncomfortable situations are all hallmarks of Buñuel’s magnificent masterpiece The Exterminating Angel (1962).

Black & white, of course, gives a film a more iconic, universal feel, while suggesting a certain timelessness in the story’s themes. In a movie like The Day After, color would bring unnecessary distractions to the eye and thus the mind. Parallels to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) also exist here, including the bumbling of an older man who has gotten in over his head with a younger woman.

Which brings us back to Buñuel and elements of his 1977 classic That Obscure Object Of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir). The director, of necessity, after an actress abandoned the project mid-production, cast a different actress in the same role and continued. The rare move turned out to be a brilliant one, as the “different person in the same role” effect substantially enhanced the film’s theme of repetitive, apparently masochistic behavior in a person’s romantic choices. Similarly, we see Bongwan having sometimes identical dialogues with his wife and with Changsook and Areum, two women who have worked for him. It’s the ages-old question: Do we keep dating (even marrying?) “the same person” over and over again?

In Bongwan’s behavior as a boss, there’s also more than a hint of the underhandedness which brought about the popular #MeToo movement. In such a context, Hong’s movie would have to be one of the most intriguing and wild commentaries on the topic.

This type of small-scale filmmaking fascinates as much as it satisfies, which is to say greatly. Credited cast and crew total only 11 people. So, The Day After is a shining example of quality over quantity, brains over brawn. It helps that the work is front-loaded with astounding talent in Hong and the lead actors Kim Min-hee (Areum) and Kwon Hae-hyo (Bongwan).

Kim’s range of emotions and the heights of intensity which she gamely scales provide not only ballast and momentum, but also many of the picture’s laughs and thrills. Kwon is similarly versatile, though his character is more staid, if confused and easily swayed. His performance is arguably as note-perfect as Kim’s, and I find myself champing at the bit to see them together again.

Fortunately, Hong has already directed the duo twice before (in Yourself & Yours [2016] and On The Beach At Night Alone [2017]). Having these two superb actors available to him must make the director’s life much easier. The trio’s collaborations in recent years—including The Day After which well rewards multiple viewings—offer plenty of plainly thrilling film art in small packages.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day)

"Flowers are born in the desert today; Which is stained by our tears, by our blood; Our pain, our sweat; This cold that burns is freezing my cry." -Zenen Zeferino Huervo, from his song "Flores en el desierto."

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Realist writer-director Jim McKay (Everyday People [2004]) delivers a delicious dish of a film in En El Séptimo Día (On The Seventh Day). The U.S.-based filmmaker with deep roots in the American South brings his community sensibilities to a charming, penetrating, and simple story set in present-day Brooklyn, New York.

José (Fernando Cardona) is a Mexican-American man in his twenties who came to the United States, it appears, not more than a decade ago. A bicycle deliveryman for a popular restaurant, he lives in a small apartment with several compatriots from the Mexican mountain town of Puebla.

Top of their agendas is keeping jobs to pay the bills, improve their lives, and perhaps bring a loved one or two up to the “promised land.” McKay makes it crystal clear that, to that end, they work their asses off six days a week. On the proverbial, titular seventh day, they don their Puebla jerseys and set off to Sunset Park for spirited contests in the world’s most popular sport: futból.

That En El Séptimo Día credits no production designer or art director hints at the type of film artist Jim McKay is. His narrative work is often described as having a “documentary feel,” and to a small degree that’s true here.

The director and his cinematographer Charles Libin (Remote Control [2013]) have made sure, though, that this film is a pleasure to look at. Beautifully composed shots of Brooklyn streets fade in often and provide contrast to the more purposeful angles in and around the restaurant kitchen and views of the city’s less picturesque locales. One gorgeous wide angle in particular—at dusk from the top of a hill, depicting a twinkling Manhattan skyline in the distance—will leave anyone with an appreciation for photography shaking their head in awe.

The writer-director began his career in the Athens, Georgia art and music scene that gave us visual artists including Jem Cohen (Museum Hours [2013]) and Jim Herbert, as well as The B-52’s and R.E.M.

Combined, Cohen and Herbert directed 15 videos for what would become the rock-n-roll cash cow R.E.M., led by Michael Stipe, their visual-arts-loving singer. For his part, McKay directed the concert documentary Tourfilm: R.E.M. (1990) and the music videos “Half A World Away” (1991) and “Every Day Is Yours To Win” (2011).

The band didn’t mind spreading its wealth and also made videos with future feature directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris and Spike Jonze, among others. Its emphasis on  preserving its small-town character, a tradition of strong community participation, and the incredible talent per capita continue to make Athens a fascinating and supportive breeding ground for the arts.

In keeping with McKay’s experience in, and vision of, integrated community, he respectfully subtitled both the Spanish and English dialogue here, thus creating something rare: a bilingual film that non-Spanish-speakers and non-English-speakers can experience together. The superior writing and natural dialogue are bolstered by faithful translations.

En El Séptimo Día doesn’t shy away from commenting on the plight of immigrants in the U.S. in the 21st Century. In fact, it does so in an unusually subdued way that’s thus more subversive. The movie makes you feel the verve with which these men have taken to their adopted country, rat-race and all. But it also bracingly burrows into the business machinations and personal workplace dynamics ever at play across our nation. The ones that, if we’re not careful, turn us into 60-hours-per-week, workaday zombies; the real “walking dead”!

But McKay accomplishes this, masterfully, in an observational style that evokes calm atmospheres and mellow moods. A soccer match at Sunset Park sounds and feels like a pleasant, leisurely Sunday evening. Cutaways to non-actors in the periphery, from a little boy enjoying his paper cup of ice cream to elderly men gesturing casual disapproval of their preferred team’s play, show simply lovely moments in time.

The director indicates no interest in intensity of characters, of conflicts, or of plot. Instead, he opens his lens to a flow of relaxed, placid realism that’s no less impressive. This, combined with the aesthetically pleasing photography, might give rise to the question of whether this work is more idealistic than realistic. It’s a fair question, though a fairly cynical one.

McKay’s Mexican-American perspective on a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood isn’t idyllic. Instead, he shows us a picture of supportive cooperation among Americans of a hundred demographic categories. What we see is entirely feasible, and therefore realistic. If En El Séptimo Día betrays optimism in its creator, we can hardly fault him for that.

5 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Ava

“I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding–not even that–no.  Just for some recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.” -Tennessee Williams, from Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks / USA / 1962)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

The transcendent energy of Iranian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi’s first feature derives from her adroit use of composition, symbolism, and timing. More than a “coming of age” story, it’s an unsentimental, urgent song of youth, and it movingly shows (rather than tells) its themes of time, power, and rebellion.

Ava is a Tehrani high-schooler who, like most teens, goes on a rollercoaster ride of emotions as she experiments with tender love, learns the limits of peer loyalty, and tests the bounds of home and school rules. Foroughi wisely observed that a “troubled teen” story set in Tehran could illuminate myriad aspects of Iranian life. Going further, she gives us vast, universal sociological areas to explore.

The girl and her best friend Melody go to the same school, and both are music students. Ava is a talented violinist and Melody a burgeoning pianist and her friend’s rehearsal partner. For the director, the competitive cloister of classical music provides rich and subtle symbolism.

Early on, Ava’s reflection is framed in an oval mirror in her room. The teen merely tidies up her bed, putting her violin in its case and placing the cover on her tick-tocking metronome. The brief scene is entirely symbolic of the overarching themes: the girl stowing away her violin; stopping the movement and sound of the metronome and putting the cover over it; and, most foretelling, the pyramidal metronome at rest atop her bed, reflected in the mirror.

The symbolism continues throughout the titular character’s struggles, and one feels her soul is drawn taut like a violin string, longing for stimulation so it can sing. The youngster yearns to shear away the direct and indirect burdens of Sharia strapped to her back like her blood-colored book bag.

Production design here is lovely, and Foroughi’s color palette—scarlet Sharia contrasting with pastel mints and deep blues—works to emphasize atmosphere, moods, and story throughout. The oval mirrors in the mise-en-scène, like egg-shaped time portals, reflect both Ava’s future and her parents’ past, while highlighting the characters’ introspective challenges.

Foroughi places the camera purposefully and thoughtfully. When the girl’s mother scolds her loudly on the landing of Melody’s apartment building, you experience it from an elevated camera across the street. In order to diminish the impact of this particular conflict, the director keeps the audience at a distance, but that’s not always the case. When Melody applies mascara to Ava’s lashes, Foroughi takes you in for extreme close-ups on the teen’s eyes. So her priority in the first and second acts seems to be preservation of a gentle approach to her characters and a subdued tone.

To that end, she often uses unconventional compositions. She frames the characters, in a few two- and three-shots, from the shoulder down to about their knees. Especially when all the actors in a shot are women or girls—and with the aid of the hijabs and other loose-fitting clothing—the technique puts the characters on a more even playing field. By not showing their faces and by diminishing the perception of height, Foroughi de-emphasizes differences in age and attitude. There’s dialogue, but who’s talking? The subtly purposeful confusion is highly effective within each scene and reserves the more direct, conventional compositions for greater impact elsewhere in the film.

Ava only falls short in one area, and that’s the writer-director’s decision to make the movie almost entirely humorless. As usual, this leads to a self-serious note that plays once or twice over its otherwise impeccable tone. But Foroughi deftly does include lighthearted, upbeat stanzas, mostly via Ava’s father. He’s a pleasant man, reasonable, even sweet, and a foil to the harsh bitterness and deep-seated sternness of the mother.

As an outsider, I felt that the behaviors of several characters seemed motivated by sheer sadism. It’s unlikely that Foroughi herself would object to the question of to what degree Persian and other Iranian cultures value sadism, though it would certainly constitute a taboo topic. For that matter, what role does it play in society at large? To what degree does sadism anywhere breed masochism?

The people depicted here also appear highly susceptible to power trips. Even people with relatively little actual power. It’s yet another area where the voices of sociologists are needed. Stateside, of course, we’re experiencing the consequences of power trips at the highest levels. We might be beginning even to gauge the breadth and depth of the damage that can be done when malignant narcissism and pathological avarice are given the reins of government. Like the proverbial poem that’s about a snake and hence must avoid only one word (“snake”), Foroughi shows maturity and clever insight by not once mentioning Sharia or Islam by name.

In so many ways, Ava is profound and refreshing. For those of us who have never had the pleasure of visiting Tehran, witnessing the civility and functionality of the city (outside of the institutions of family and school) runs counter to every notion put forth by cynical American propaganda. It affords us an orrery with which to explore power dynamics and the ways in which they affect the human being who is sensitive, spirited, and vulnerable—personified by Ava herself—the way peaceful, social human beings probably should be.

Foroughi asks that we consider whether the teen’s crises arose from inner or outer causes. The facile answer is: “She’s disturbed or neurotic,” implying that the pathology comes from within. But this sharp story plainly shows how a society’s tendencies toward institutionalized sadism and personal power trips work against souls like Ava and, ultimately, against peace (of mind, of the household, of the nation, of the world). That this holds true in Iran, the U.S., and every other place on Earth is proven through the universality of this film.

The depth and urgency of this film might catch you (happily) off guard. Unlike the whip-crackers she depicts, Foroughi’s is a quiet power of the type that’s most effective across the ages. Her hand is delicate as she guides us through struggles of fierce teenagedom, hypocritical parenting, and plaguing authoritarianism.

4 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Ocean’s 8

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Ocean’s 8 may have just pulled off what 2016’s Ghostbusters remake attempted—a successful all-female cast. The film oozes sex appeal, something the Ghostbusters reboot didn’t bring to the table. Now take those elements, mix in some A-list actors (along with a few “B”s and “C”s), add in a heist, and this may be summer 2018’s biggest hit—with the potential for a few sequels to boot.

Our story starts with Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean (played by Sandra Bullock), sitting in front of the parole board after serving a five year stint. Debbie manages to convince the board that her criminal intentions are in the past and that she just wants to live a normal life; though it’s not long after that we realize that her Sweet Polly Purebred act is just an act. She soon works her criminal magic in a five-star hotel. Bullock is masterful; she is your girl next door, your sexy goddess, and your smart diva rolled into one for this character.

Now, we all know that since this is Ocean’s 8, our protagonist has come up with some elaborate plan involving criminal activity, and soon enough we find out how Debbie has been keeping busy in jail for the past five years—planning an elaborate jewelry heist. Knowing she can’t pull this off alone, she teams up with her trusty sidekick, Lou (played by Cate Blanchett), the counterpart to Rusty in Ocean’s 11. Together this sexy criminal duo recruits an all-female team to pull off the biggest jewelry heist in history.

The plan is to steal a Cartier necklace—the Cartier Necklace— at the Met Gala, the biggest fashion party in New York City. The first step is to get the famous Miss Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear the diamond dangler. Daphne is their way into the party, and they recruit Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a washed up designer who is desperate for money, to couture the dress Daphne will be wearing at the Gala.

“Nine Ball” is played by “Umbrella” singer Rihanna, who is the computer hacker of the bunch. Comedian Mindy Kaling plays Amita the diamond expert, while “American Horror Story” alum Sara Paulson plays Tammy the swindler housewife. Newcomer Awkwafina plays Constance, the street hustler. The plan seems perfect… until they meet a few glitches along the way, but it won’t be long before this sexy group is able to think on their feet and smooth out the creases to try and get away with the perfect plan.

There is one thing I’m leaving out: my favorite part, and all I want to say is that indeed hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I guess you can say it’s Debbie’s payback. But you’ll have to go see it to know what it’s all about. If you are an Ocean’s fan, then I highly recommend Ocean’s 8. It’s super sexy. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are definitely the female version of George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Their chemistry works and they are able to pull off the story. I smell sequels with this duo.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Pope Francis – A Man of His Word

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

Director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire [1987]) makes a tough task look easy in his new documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The task is no less than capturing the essence of a man.

Wenders’ wisest choice here is breaking the fourth wall, a technique that allows the individual in front of the lens (the subject) to look directly into the camera and address the viewer. This is exactly what happens when Wenders interviews Pope Francis. The effect draws the viewer into the story and makes one feel as if the Pope is directly talking to you. It is an ingenious method for certain documentaries, as it touches each viewer personally and allows them to be absorbed by the story. In this case, you also draw near to the words and messages of a man who speaks with candor, love, and truth.

One has to wonder, What is Wenders’ objective? Is it the man behind the robe? As we watch, we begin to understand that this film is not just about Pope Francis’ life. It only glimpses his past through archival footage, that of the man previously known as Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentine Jesuit. Instead, Wenders concentrates on the present and the papacy.

Pope Francis’ papacy begins at the retirement of the last pope in 2013, and the film opens recounting the life of St. Francis of Assisi in a shot of the Umbrian village of Assisi. The birthplace of the patron saint of the poor and sick. This is the man after whom Pope Francis was named and, more importantly, the saint who he has devoted his life to following.

This is evident in Pope Francis’ vows, rejecting the offerings of the papacy. We also see that his home is less extravagant than the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace. He travels in a small electric car to meet heads of states. So, the film focuses on Pope Francis’ humbleness, compassion and, most of all his love for mankind, in keeping with the lifework of St. Francis.

Wenders does occasionally turn his lens toward subjects the Catholic Church for years has not wanted advertised, such as its positions on homosexuality, its plague of sexual abuse spread by priests, and the cover-ups thereof. Pope Francis’ answers to difficult questions reveal a man who is empathetic to each cause differently. He issues no criticism on homosexuality by answering, “Who am I to judge?” He feels that the Church needs to repair the wrongdoings of sexual abuse, and shows support of civil proceedings against defendants formerly of the Church.

In truth, Pope Francis is the pope of the people. He is just a man who recognizes that he has been given a gift to share with all who will accept and listen to his message of love. Wenders’ film will make you feel good about yourself. Leave you to feel warm and accepting of what it means to be an individual.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Godard Mon Amour (Le Redoubtable)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

Celebrated contemporary French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius (Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist [2011]) has delivered his “valentine” to the godfather of the French New Wave in Godard Mon Amour. While it might have come genuinely from the heart, as a work of cinema, its pulse is weak.

A film always says something about its creator, and one gets the sense that Hazanavicius’ story is also being told. Like Jean-Luc Godard, he lives the life of a French filmmaker and he’s married to a younger, beautiful actress (Bérénice Bejo, who starred in The Artist and appears here in a supporting role). The fragility of the artist (no pun intended) works as the film’s main theme.

I can see where making Godard Mon Amour could serve as a form of therapy for Hazanavicius, perhaps exorcising any of the demons that his titular director calls cliché: jealousy; the balance of individualism and attachment in relationships; the fear of becoming irrelevant, etc.

But the screenwriter/director assigned himself too many tasks to attend to. There are the biographical, historical, and political angles. There are the drama of Godard’s self-doubt and the comedy of his fumbling rebellion. The complex relationship with his wife. Every one of these aspects spread too thin.

Godard was prone to homages early in his career, so it make sense that Hazanavicius would want to pay homage to Godard but, especially in the third act, they are simply too many. Perhaps he felt it a playful approach, but I think “toying” is a better word for it. For a moderately accomplished—and certainly talented—director, getting to the low point of simply toying with his own film is unbecoming and feels almost banal.

Here again the multiple layers of irony in this film reveal themselves. Has Hazanavicius made a film of the sort Godard despises? In a slyly comic, real-life twist, Godard himself, hearing of the project in development, said that this was a “stupid, stupid idea.” Hazanavicius and the U.S. distributor sportingly made a poster with Godard’s proclamation in giant red letters.

However, the mere possibility that the elder might be right must have weighed on the younger director. Bravo to him, though, for daring to open the can of worms he must have known the telling of this story (based on an autobiography by Godard’s late former wife Anne Wiazemsky) would be. And, again, perhaps he felt he must do it for his own well-being.

One also gets the feeling much of Hazanavicius’ clever language gets lost in translation. Even with my limited, beginner’s, high school French, I could tell the translator took liberties every so often, summarizing a dialogue rather than trying to match any poetry in the original verbiage. At one point, the Godard homage involves the characters speaking to each other as subtitles of what each person is actually thinking flash where standard subtitles do. Well, the U.S. release being in French with English subtitles results in this particular scene having two sets of subtitles running at the same time. A bit of a mess.

At its funniest, Godard Mon Amour plays a lot like a good Woody Allen movie. One where Woody Allen plays himself, basically: the bespectacled, clumsy, neurotic filmmaker and his star-crossed love affair. Allen’s Bananas (1971) comes to mind, with its satire of Marxist politics and the clownish, clueless outsider who so dearly wants to be part of the revolution.

At its best, we glimpse Wiazemsky’s heartbreak as she realizes her husband is becoming another person at the expense of their marriage. Their quarrels ring true, especially due to Stacy Martin’s intelligent, subtly intense portrayal of Godard’s young wife. Louis Garrel, as Godard, also succeeds in his comedic turns, while perhaps a little less so in the serious sequences. He must contend with a script that repeats itself regarding the beloved filmmaker’s frustrations with, well, just about everything.

The film also repeats itself in depicting Godard’s boorish behavior. Here’s where Garrel’s Godard becomes tiresome not just for Anne, but for the viewer. Most disappointing is seeing Hazanavicius repeating his own, previously successful shots. In The Artist’s climactic, thrilling moment Peppy (Bejo) and George (Jean Dujardin) complete a ravishing dance number, both look directly in to the camera, and *spoiler alert* you can hear the actors breathing for the first time. It’s sheer brilliance, and the director makes it feel easy. On the contrary, as he struggles through Godard Mon Amour, he takes several actors’ asides to no avail, comedic or otherwise.

Michel Hazanavicius set a high bar for himself when he (along with Bejo and Dujardin) charmed our socks off with his ode to Hollywood and silent film. For his efforts, he went home with an Oscar (and Bérénice) one night in 2012. The talent is most certainly still there. He needs only to find the right story and to rediscover the free spirit that informed his masterpiece, and he’ll be ready to charm all over again.

3 of 5 stars

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Film Reviews

Film Review: The Workshop (L’atelier)

BY ANDRES SOLAR

In The Workshop, lauded French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (2008’s Palme d’Or winner The Class) delivers a remarkable artwork that delicately explores the developing mind of a high school boy and the machinations of teenagedom that hammer daily at his soul. From his writing workshop teacher, his family, and especially from his peers and the internet, Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) receives metaphorical blows of varying power, intent on sculpting him into something of their liking.

From the outset, it’s clear that the workshop of Miss Olivia Dejazet (played beautifully by Marina Foïs) presents a microcosm of French society in the 21st Century. The more traditionally European characters Antoine, Benjamin (Florian Beaujean), and Dejazet herself act as the primary instigators. Whether consciously or not, they quickly take the reins, leaving the others in often defensive postures. The two Muslim children, a boy and a girl, along with a French boy of African origin, find themselves increasingly fending off Antoine, the most aggressive of the bunch. Though not a complete zealot—indeed Cantet seems to argue that a person in their teens can hardly be a complete anything—Antoine does stumble into provocative racial affronts.

But The Workshop doesn’t so much “tackle” complex issues (We love our war and football terminology in the United States, don’t we?) as much as it simply sets them out for the viewer’s perusal. The movie is set in summer, and Cantet’s languid pace serves the setting while also giving the moviegoer time to really think about the proceedings, the characters, and most especially the characters’ motivations. The euphemistic “national identity problem,” for instance, forces itself on children and adults alike, and each must find a satisfactory position, even if only to get through the day without a fistfight.

Thoroughly multi-layered, the Antoine character fascinates, and the young actor Lucci’s insightful performance deserves all the praise it has received and more. The middle-aged novelist and workshop teacher Dejazet exudes a subdued neurosis that her students nevertheless pick up on. In an after-class scene where the kids walk together to the bus stop, they express contempt of their instructor which ranks no less than vicious. And yet, at workshop the next day, most are respectful, even admiring of their guide. Here, the power of peer dynamics plays out.

Again, Antoine is the exception. In and out of class, he enjoys verbally tangling with his ostensibly sensible teacher. The teen, who works out and talks about joining the army, is nearly always a personification of tension. The friction between Miss Dejazet and her student is ever present. Their tussling also attains a measure of sexual chemistry, though it’s not clear whether the instructor is complicit or simply trying to steer the troubled boy in the right direction, as she professes.

As symbols for the general mindset of older teens, Cantet subtly, effectively uses swimming and cliff diving—Antoine’s preferred recreations. The deep blue waters of La Ciotat in southern France represent all of life itself, which a young person sees stretched out before them. The diving is relief from the yearning to be through with schooling and to, at long last, dive into living as an adult.

Cinematographer Pierre Milon’s (Foxfire [2012]) camera is mostly handheld and loose, and if it looks a beat behind the action at times, well, so too are we adults when trying to keep up with our children. Like the students in the writing workshop, Cantet and Milon consider past and present in their storytelling, and the handheld camera emphasizes immediacy and the present tense. The film’s freshness and even its timeliness are bolstered by Milon’s casual yet savvy style.

All these layers, masterfully assembled by the writer-director, produce a portrait of a teenage boy struggling against myriad forces tearing at him. In any case, he feels pushed and pulled, and he repeatedly voices his disdain for it. “I don’t need any help,” he insists. Here, in a French film of all places, is the detailed and sensitive look we so dearly need in the United States in order to understand the phenomenon of the masculinity-threatened, boy mass murderer. The “school shooters.” (We became comfortable long ago with the euphemism for them.)

The ultra-violent, “first-person shooter” video games. The loudmouth extremist on YouTube aiming his bullhorn at children vulnerable if for no other reason than the jarring effects of raging hormones. The absent parents. The teasing peers. The guns. The caring teacher. This is a day in the life of Antoine, and we would do well to look and listen closely to him. He could be the Parkland, Florida killer. He could grow up to be the Las Vegas mass murderer.

It’s a credit to Cantet’s narrative integrity that this thrilling, pressure cooker of a film doesn’t need much bombast to make its points. In carefully constructing this story and thoughtfully placing boundaries, he shares a fuller, richer examination of the personal issues behind the explosive headlines of our day. In so doing, Laurent Cantet shoots for the moon in his own measured way.

4 of 5 stars

In French with English subtitles.

An Official Selection of  Festival de Cannes 2017’s Un Certain Regard, The Workshop opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater on Friday, April 6th, 2018. For more information, visit: https://towertheatermiami.com/coming-soon/the-workshop-latelier

Categories
Film Reviews

Film Review: Isle of Dogs

BY RUBI DEL RÍO-HERRERA

The story unfolds in Japan, sometime in the future. We meet a 12-year-old orphan boy named Atari Kobayashi who lives with his bodyguard dog named Spot and his uncle, the mayor of Megasaki City, a cat lover. We’re in the midst of  an ongoing war on dogs, and the leader of this pack is none other than Mayor Kobayashi.

A mysterious epidemic known as canine flu and snout fever has plagued all dogs in the city. The mayor makes an announcement declaring all canines a nuisance to society, and passes a law that immediately exiles all dogs to an island that’s used as a garbage dump—Trash Island. The story takes a painful bite when Mayor Kobayashi exiles the first dog to the island. It’s Spot!

The island is soon filled with dogs roaming in packs and fighting for garbage scraps. Chief, Rex, King, Boss, and Duke are all alpha dogs and their pack discovers Atari when he crashes his small plane on the island. Atari, who speaks Japanese, immediately bonds with the dogs, who are more than eager to help and please this small human. Chief, the leader of the pack is skeptical at first, being a street dog, but soon begins to realize his place and his need for human companionship.

Isle of Dogs is your typical Wes Anderson film, and if you are a fan then you know “typical” for this director means quirky, eccentric, and most of all original in his storytelling style. This is Anderson’s second stop-motion animated film with an all-star cast lending their voices to bring this affectionate dog story to life. It’s an adventure. A journey that leads each character to discover something special about themselves. Classic Wes Anderson storytelling.

One of the most unusual stylistic devices Anderson uses is silence between dialogue. The expressions without words speak volumes in the development of the story and the characters. The other unique element is that the dogs are the only ones that speak English, as well as Tracy Walker the foreign exchange student, and the leader of the “Pro Dog” group. Yet the story moves effortlessly without the viewer having to understand Japanese or English. The film is well-structured, and the expressions on each dog and human envelope the viewer, drawing you further and further in.

Isle of Dogs is a heartwarming story filled with friendship, loyalty, and unconditional love, and it ranks as one of Wes Anderson’s best films. Dog lover or not, it will appeal to you from an emotional standpoint, as you watch a group of alpha dogs follow a boy in search of his beloved.

4 of 5 stars