Review Monday: 1/27/14 (Big Bad Wolves)

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Draped across the poster of the new, sadistic Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves (C+) is an endorsement from Quentin Tarantino, who raves that it is “The best film of the year!” It is easy to see why Tarantino is putting his mouth behind this film: it looks, sounds and almost tastes like the stylish, bloody noirs he makes. Unafraid to flinch from depraved acts of violence while using a grimly comic tone to invite the audience into the madness, Big Bad Wolves even features a scene with the upbeat pop tune “Every Day” by Buddy Holly as a character creates a poisonous treat. It has the same giddily macabre effect that a certain Stealers Wheel tune did during an infamous ear-slicing scene. However, while the new film from writer/directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado is bleak, bloody and oozing with style, it also falters to plot contrivances and pedestrian character psychology.

The film begins with a slow-motion game of hide and seek. A boy counts down and two young girls enter a decrepit building; however, when he opens the hiding spot of the second girl, she is missing, with only her red shoes remaining. The girl ends up the latest victim of a serial killer, her body raped, maimed, and head decapitated. Her father, Gidi (Tzahi Grad), is thirsty for revenge. He tracks down the prime suspect in the case, a disheveled Bible teacher, Dror (Rotem Keinan), and brings him to a soundproof cellar in his secluded cabin in the woods. Meanwhile, the cop responsible for botching Dror’s interrogation, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi, best known for the Oscar-nominated Footnote), is still interested about the whereabouts of the missing girls’ and their heads. He ends up joining Gidi in his torture chamber, hoping for the same answers.

Keshales and Papushado pay homage to some of their favourite filmmakers of stylish, sadistic entertainment – the crack in Dror’s left glasses frame is a clear homage to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. There is even a shot from the trunk’s perspective, an obvious Tarantino allusion. Unlike their championing Inglourious Basterd, though, the Israeli filmmakers fail to insert their own inspired riff on the grim stoyline, letting the clunky plot strands and unconvincing character actions add up to a deadening effect. It also does not help that the film ends on a bitterly anti-climactic minor note, which feels more like a giddy tease of an unexplored subplot than a worthwhile closer the audience deserves.

The icy comic tone that pervades through the tense torture sequences in Gidi’s basement are fresh. Even in a space thick with tension, the men discuss the violence they are about to undertake with a darkly glib matter-of-factness. Meanwhile, a nagging Jewish mother and a Wagner ringtone provides some spirited comic relief. However, the shame of Big Bad Wolves is that it takes a wicked premise and fails to make much sense out of it. We understand very little as to why the soft-spoken Dror is the main suspect in the vicious slayings. Meanwhile, the end of the film feels calculated, with the characters behaving in deliberately uncharacteristic ways to suit a more suspenseful, action-packed climax.

Big Bad Wolves also has less to say about Israel’s response to violence and victimization (a fascinating topic gone suspiciously unexplored) as Prisoners, which looked at an American’s reaction to violence and terror to a more thought-provoking effect. (The plots of these two films are also incredibly similar.) Meanwhile, the thriller’s lack of psychological depth makes its characters less absorbing than the men in Denis Villeneuve’s chiller. The Israeli thriller remains so confined to that basement and its thrills so singular to the queasy punches of torture (and the bursts of comic relief) that neither of the three men become all that interesting. While Keshales and Papushado love dialogue that crackles with the same speed as the characters crack bones, when it comes down to character motivation and delivering a taut, satisfying final act, their writing could use a bit less pulp and a lot more inspiration with the fiction.

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The Essentials: The White Ribbon (2009)

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100 years ago, in a tight-knit village in Germany called Eichwald, a bunch of strange events occurred. One day, the village doctor headed home on horseback but the horse tripped on a wire near the entrance to his property and injured the man severely. Days later, a local peasant woman died suddenly in a working accident. After that, Eichwald’s powerful baron had one of his barns go up in flames. In a few months time, when villagers search the forests at night for a missing boy with Down syndrome, they will find him stuck to a tree, his eyes gouged.

As the narrator of this damning tells us, “I don’t know if the story I want to tell you is entirely true.” However, he then informs us that these cruel and unfortunate series of events could “clarify some things that happened in our country.” The White Ribbon takes place from the summer of 1913 up until the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the calls to battle the following year. These are the days before the war would cripple Germany’s economy and a monstrous fascist ideology consumed the nation into more despicable acts. In Michael Haneke’s 2009 Palme D’or winning (and Oscar-nominated) historical drama, he examines the tales of a small, agrarian community in the early 20th century to look at what spurred the damnation of a damned nation.

The collection of stories from this film, subtitled “A German Children’s Story,” all contain fractured relationships between the adults and children. Once the violence, cruelty and barbarism begin, it spreads like a sickness through the town – except the sickness is one of ideology. (Symbolically, it begins spreading when the doctor falls ill.) The parents, all devout, God-fearing men and women, inflict a religious temperament on their children. In an early scene, the Lutheran pastor (Burghart Klaussner) decides to punish his children for returning home late, sending them to bed hungry and submitting them the following night to 10 strokes of the cane. After the affliction and punishment “purifies them,” their mother gives them a ribbon, with the white colour to remind them of the innocence and purity they should strive for.

There is no affection between parents and children, only parents affecting the rigid ideology of their children. The children living in Eichwald, played by the most sullen and despaired-looking actors Haneke could find, are the victims of a harsh rule. Their faces are scared and trembling in front of their mothers and fathers, and Haneke often frames the adults to the side or with their backs to the camera, as they order their children into doing things against their will. Could the children be the creatures grasping the sick ways of their parents, later permeating this menace through the community? By the film’s end, the terrorizing acts of the learned parents will slip down to their children. The young actors give intense, measured performances, their haunting faces speaking of the horrors we hope they do not understand but know they are certainly grasping. They are weary and cautious, staring at the malice in their village with dark rings under their eyes.

The one happy subplot in the film is an awkward, but mutual attraction between the schoolteacher narrator (Christian Friedel) and Eva (Leonie Benesch), a nanny from the nearby township. Their moments of joy – dancing, flirting, carriage rides through the countryside – are interspersed with moments of grave sadness. Their affection for each other is unhampered by sin or guilt, unlike the other unions and relationships shown in Haneke’s drama.

Haneke shot this film in colour and then drained the life from the image into a chilly, stark black and white photography, making it resonate as a tale of historical significance. The images have shades of gray that remind us of ghostly photographs from museum walls, of the eyes of our ancestors peering into our souls. There is no electricity in Eichwald either, and so Haneke uses candlelight to bring the scenes at nighttime a dim texture through natural light. At other points, a small flame colours a child’s face in a room shrouded in darkness and the effect is stunning.

The White Ribbon is nearly relentlessly bleak, focused on a community filled with secrets and lies. The narrator closes out the story with some village gossip on who may be at the root of the violence; however, whether it is the adults or the children, their influence is mutually tied to the hatred already spread. Perhaps they are all monsters. Remember, the film’s subtitle is “A German Children’s Story.” Whenever evil appears, the children are not far away. The young characters see the actions of the figures around them, and will later draw their sinful ways to create a country filled with terror and affliction. They stare inscrutably at the sinister acts of their fathers, and are destined to repeat it with interest. Of course, their actions will be felt for generations to come, long after the white ribbons have fallen off.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: Academy, Abandon the Best Original Song Category!

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I just finished watching Once. You likely know the film, the Irish musical made for chump change in 2006 that has one of the greatest motion picture soundtracks of all time and became a part of the cultural conversation after its tender ditty “Falling Slowly” took home the Best Original Song Oscar in 2008. In an interesting bit of trivia, musician Glen Hansard quipped “And the Oscar for Best Song goes to…” after filming the scene when he performs it at a record shop with co-star and later girlfriend Markéta Irglová. Broadway producers later adapted the indie drama into an underwhelming (but somehow Tony-winning) musical.

However, if “Falling Slowly,” that magical duet that is so nice that director John Carney played it twice, were released today, it could be ineligible for nomination at the Academy Awards. For some reason, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) have so many strange, political rules for the Best Original Song category that it is hard to keep them straight. In fact, in 2008, the Academy’s music branch only decided that “Falling Slowly” was valid enough to garner a nomination the day before announcing the category.

Why was its nomination up for question? Hansard and Irglová performed the tune in local venues before recording the song for the film’s soundtrack and also released it on two of their albums. The song was recognized by the music branch only after Hansard and Carney explained that the song had been written in 2002 and those performances were strictly to test out the tune before funding for the film came through. As the song was written for the film, the Academy approved its nomination. However, for all the political brouhaha that contested the inclusion of a song that marked an indelible moment in cinema, it showed the Academy’s stiffness.

Some of the rules the Academy apply to potential nominees – it must be originally for the film, it must be played during the film or end credits – make sense. Other regulations make it easy to disqualify worthy contenders. For instance, songs that feature samples of other, unoriginal songs, like “Gangsta’s Paradise” from Dangerous Minds, are disqualified. This year, many of the songs from the stellar Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack are reworked variations of past folk tunes, making it (to the chagrin of Coen fans everywhere) ineligible. Meanwhile, a film can now have only two songs contend for the category – a rule not in place in 2008 when “Falling Slowly” faced off against three numbers from Enchanted.

Although producers of the Academy Award telecast have done a decent job trying to condense the bloated ceremony – the four-hour length it hovered around 10 years ago has dwindled to just over three – still taking up precious minutes of the ceremony are unimaginative renditions of the Best Song nominees. In recent years, fewer musical numbers have helped the show move more quickly. But are there even enough worthy nominees to fill in five slots? Not really.

This year’s list of nominees only include two songs that would have been included in this category in the early 1990s: the powerful “Let it Go” ballad from Disney’s smash Frozen and the moving “Ordinary Love” that U2 wrote in honour of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. When one of the nominated films is an anemic ditty from a film that virtually nobody had heard of before the Academy president announced its title – “Alone Yet Not Alone” from the film of the same name – the music branch is really starting to stretch it.

Alone Yet Not Alone, a faith-based (and supposedly gay-bashing) film that boasts no reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (a first for any Oscar-nominated film ever), only 75 votes on the Internet Movie Database (that give it a poor 5.5 rating out of 10) and no record of a box office intake, is officially a worthier representative of quality movie music than the soulful songs from Inside Llewyn Davis that are loosely based off real tunes.

So, how did Alone Yet Not Alone earn its berth? Well, the song’s co-writer, composer Bruce Broughton, is a former head of the Academy’s music branch. The song’s composer, William Ross, is the conductor of the orchestra at the upcoming Oscar ceremony on March 2. According to sources obtained by Deadline, Broughton made personal calls to people within the Academy to consider his song. Somewhere, Llewyn Davis’s cat is coughing up a hairball.

Moreover, the category is more unnecessary with each passing year. In 1945, any number of songs could be nominated – and 14 were. Four times in the past 10 years, however, there was not even enough support to sustain five nominees. In 2011, only two were nominated. At last year’s ceremony, only one of the songs – the winning “Skyfall” – got a full performance, while two of the nominees did not get a moment of stage time. Sometimes, the nominees are easily forgettable songs written for movie adaptations of musicals – with the sole purpose of pandering to a music branch already smitten by the big-budget re-imaginings.

The Best Original Song category has turned into a conscious reminder of what is wrong with AMPAS: too many regulations belittling worthy contenders – I am still stinging over Eddie Vedder’s ineligibility for Into the Wild‘s stirring soundtrack – and too few worthy contenders to begin with. Also, the cheap, political ploys that brought “Alone Yet Not Alone” into the minds of voters just prove how manipulative and meagre a nomination can mean anymore. Until studios actually become interested in bringing original music back into their films, perhaps the Academy should abandon this category for the time being.

Review Monday: 1/20/14 (Gabrielle, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit)

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From the producers behind Incendies and Monsieur Lazhar comes another film that Canada submitted to the Academy as the nation’s representative in the Foreign Language Film category: Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle (B+). Although the film was not nominated, it joins Lazhar as another sensitive, touching drama from Quebec.

The title character (played by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is a young singer with an infectious smile as well as Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that disables one’s development but also affords a special gift for music. Gabrielle – the character and the actor – both have the disorder, giving audiences an intimate look at the subjective experience of a person with the syndrome. The film, thankfully, never treats the character’s condition as a cloying plot device to create empathy. It is an honest, sincere depiction of a woman’s capacity to give, sing and love.

Gabrielle is a woman in her late twenties, a lead singer in Les Muses, a real-life choir at a performing arts school. The performers are all handicapped yet have an affinity with music – several of the cast members in the choir actually have special needs and play themselves. Gabrielle seeks her own autonomy, both in her music – she snipes at the choral instructor that she can do things herself – and her sexuality. Gabrielle falls for shy chorus member Martin (Alexandre Landry), who is also developmentally disabled. When the two of then sneak off together at a dance party to fool around and the principal catches them, Martin’s mother Claire (Marie Gignac) refuses to allow her son to see Gabrielle.

While Gabrielle goes through a romantic withdrawal, she tries to convince her sister, Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), that she has the ability to live on her own. This is a real test for Sophie, who has a boyfriend teaching in India trying to get her to join him overseas; however, that would mean abandoning Gabrielle. Meanwhile, the title character is dazed and lost trying to find her away around the city. Even crossing the street, filmed from the protagonist’s limited scope of view, becomes a daily act that plunges the audience in suspense.

The most magical moments from Archambault’s film are the immersive rehearsal scenes with Les Muses, when the handicapped performers find both pain and a radiance within the lyrics, matched by an encompassing sound design that makes their harmonies float into the next scenes. The songs they prepare for a summer concert, where singer Robert Charlebois (who plays himself) joins them on stage, speak to their desire to feel ordinary.

As the joie de vivre of this film, Marion-Rivard gives a performance of deep feeling, joy and sensuality. Archambault wisely lets the audience take Gabrielle’s perspective in moments when she swims, water entering her eyes, or wanders through town, searching for direction. Meanwhile, the sisterly camaraderie between Sophie and Gabrielle is explored honestly, giving the viewer an understanding of the trust, as well as the toll, that the relationship relies on.

The best scenes in Gabrielle trap the viewer within the protagonist’s perspective. When she flees the party with Martin, moving from a dance floor to her first sexual encounter, the pulsating beats of the music gradually dim into throbbing heartbeats that move at a similar intensity – the sensation of dancing morphing into love and sexuality. Meanwhile, few films in recent memory close with such a crescendo of compassion and feeling.

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Now available on entertainment website We Got This Covered is my new review of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (C+). Instead of being a powerful franchise starter for Paramount, it is a perfunctory action flick with a few solid thrills, some decent performances and little else. You can read that review here.

The Essentials: Caché (2005)

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Michael Haneke’s Caché is one of the first great post-9/11 films to capture the fear and tension that permeated the zeitgeist in the years that followed those attacks. It is a chilling thriller that shows the anxiety of living in a surveillance state, while examining the barriers between the Western world and its foreign enemies.

The opening shot of the film is unforgettable. We watch an upper middle-class home in Paris from an alley across the street. At first, it seems that nothing is moving, although we can hear the birds chirp and the wind rustling the leaves. Suddenly, a man on a bike pedals through and we realize that we are not just observing a still photograph or a mere establishing shot, but life itself unfolding in a slow monotony. The house we are watching belongs to Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil), an intellectual talk show host, his publisher wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) and their 12-year-old son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). This surveillance-like glimpse of their house is part of a videotape that appears at their doorstep, in a plastic bag. Looking at the shot for a second time, we overhear Georges and Anne discussing the footage and – similar to a late scene in Funny Games – moving through the videotape with a remote, rewinding and fast-forwarding.

The footage perplexes the Laurents. Why is someone watching their home and leaving a video with this recorded monotony footage for them to peruse? They go and inspect the alleyway and find nothing. The Laurents are suspicious and on high alert, especially when more videotapes showing banal footage of their home’s exterior and the surrounding neighbourhood arrive. These tapes come with drawings of people and animals looking constipated: coughing up blood, decapitated or with red spurting from their necks. Is it a schoolboy prank by one of Pierrot’s friends? What is the meaning behind the gruesome drawings? Does Georges have an enemy we don’t know about? The only major hint that Georges can derive from the ambiguous parcels of video footage comes when one tape shows a clip taken from a car’s windshield as it drives by the estate where the talk show host lived as a child. Suspicious that the person behind this charade is connected to his childhood, Georges begins hunting for Majid, the son of Algerian farmhands who lived in the estate during the same time, to get some answers.

Caché is thick with suspense and its title – Hidden in English – comes with a double meaning. It refers to both a nation’s hidden past, an allusion to France’s imperialist history that its white citizens would like to forget, and the main character’s repressed sense of guilt. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche are terrific here, as a couple trying to let go of paranoia when the videos invade their sense of comfort and conditioning. Almost none of the scenes between the two actors show a husband-wife affection or camaraderie; after a while, the duo cannot trust each other. Soon, Georges becomes so caught up in figuring out the mystery that he starts lying to Anne so that he can pursue this obsession without her knowledge. Although he is comfortable as a public figure on TV, the scrutiny given to his private life frightens George, a feeling that likely frightened the bourgeois audiences at the time of the film’s release.

Fearful and tense, Georges acts out in public. In one moment, a distracted Georges forgets to look both ways before crossing a street and he nearly collides with a Muslim biker. The two men snipe at each other, although their resentment and rage toward each other reflects the post-9/11 period, one of suspicion and suspense. The man terrorizing their lives could be a terrorist, Georges wonders, somewhat guilty. “You’re acting exactly as he wants,” Anne tells him, trying to get her husband to lay off the people he suspects could be plaguing his life.

The footage that peers in on the Laurents’ has the same visual quality as the scenes in the rest of the film, implying that each scene is surveying truth. Haneke’s stationary camera is judging the characters with as much scrutiny as the videotape clips. The director uses his hyper-realistic techniques to strong effect here: lingering on the characters without cutting and eschewing music to make sure a eerie disquiet fills the soundtrack. He provokes scathing commentary on the bourgeois – which he also did with Funny Games, which I wrote about last week – by framing their tense, fraying lives with objective realism and showing their flaws and upper middle-class guilt without flinching.

The still camera, rolling for minutes at a time at several points without moving, makes the viewer like a security guard, trying to figure out the mystery with the same intensity that the characters do. The last shot of Caché, which focuses on the entrance to Pierrot’s school as students leave for the day, is a disarming, steady, extensive scene. When I first saw the film, I noticed Pierrot speaking with a minor character – although the two took up such a small part of the frame and so little was done on Haneke’s part to highlight the interaction that I completely missed this moment when watching the film for a second time. The final shot may reveal something new to the story, although it is just as likely that some viewers will miss this reveal entirely. This suggests that there is likely more hidden in Caché.

The atmosphere, eerily silent despite taking place in a busy suburb, is hushed and thick with tension. There is an absence of feeling throughout Caché, and that works to the film’s benefit, creating a chilling sense of unease that pervades as the characters’ dread mounts. (The film also has what may be the most shocking death scene in contemporary cinema.) Caché is a phenomenal accomplishment, one of the few films of the 2000s to breathe with the same palpable, paralyzed fear as the contemporary society it focuses on.