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That One Day (2016)
That One Day is the second of two 2016 entries into fashion label Miu Miu's "Women's Tales" series where they hire directors and give them carte blanche to make a short film as long as the film features Miu Miu clothing. I've seen a number of these so-called "fashion shorts" and while they're all beautifully shot some directors work better in the medium than others. I think That One Day is perhaps my favourite, because it's beautiful but conventionally structured.
The film follows teenage Rachelle (Rachelle Vinberg), a newbie skateboarder who heads to a skate park only to find herself feeling intimidated by the more experienced boys that tease her and roll around the park like they own it. The magic happens when she's defended by a group of brash skater girls who she quickly bonds with. There's a quasi-magical element to the movie but it all works well together and Moselle presents us with a beautiful little snapshot of teenage girldom.
Worth the watch.
Mandarin Peel (2009)
Simple but lovely
A simple but beautiful short about two young girls playing around in nature.
They share a Mandarin orange together and some (very) minor drama ensues.
There's not much of a plot here, which makes sense given its minuscule running time, but I still rather enjoyed this because of the beautiful cinematography where the bright blue uniforms of the girls pops against the browns of the landscape they are playing in and the orange is bold and beautiful as well.
The short has no dialogue but the soundscape is very well done.
A nicely made short with some great acting from the lead actress. The film follows a woman who has just been dumped and is trying to put herself out there again but is, like the film title says, fragile. She goes on a blind date with a cop and ends up walking out on their date choosing to wander around and then get drunk instead.
I could have done without all the stuff involving the cop and the woman which felt very clichéd and not very interesting to be quite honest but this was very little of the actual movie.
The ending is pretty funny and cathartic though. The whole short is nothing mind blowing but it's an interesting enough film to watch.
Sukkar banat (2007)
Surprisingly Bitter Sweet
Nadine Labaki's debut features has a lot of the trappings of a typical rom-com but it eschews the stereotypical neat ending of the genre to become something more.
Featuring a cast of non-actors (led by Labaki who takes on a leading role) the movie revolves around a group of women working in a beauty parlour in the Christian district of Beirut. Each woman has a problem with their love life and the other women in their circle help them along.
Beautiful actors, great music and warm tones make this movie great to watch.
Lost River (2014)
Not as bad as the reviews would have you believe
Lost River received a critical drubbing so vicious upon its Cannes premiere that nearly a year later WB, who had naively bought the rights back when it was still considered a promising and thrilling project, dumped it on VOD after vacillating nearly a year on how to release it.
It's really too bad that VOD was where Lost River ultimately wound up because the real saving grace of the movie are the techs which include beautiful bold cinematography by Benoît Debie and a melancholy score by Johnny Jewel that would no doubt have played well on the big screen.
The movie opens with one of the few residents of Lost River (a fictional fairy tale city standing in for the actual filming location, Detroit) fleeing in his car for greener pastures and warning Bones (a completely forgettable Iain De Caestecker) to do the same. But Bones is just a teenager and despite his declaration that he'll leave as soon as he manages to fix his car he has the same loyalty to the broken down ghost town as his mother Billy (a luminous Christina Hendricks) who, in an attempt to keep her house from being destroyed like the rest of the town, turns to sex work in the form of macabre stripping where she literally peels the skin off her face to the delight of her flesh-hungry customers.
This is a film that wears its overt metaphors on its sleeve and its a fairy tale technique that works for the most part. Where Lost River really loses its way is that it simply has nothing new or innovative to say and without a new perspective aside from America in decay! Housing crisis bad! The result is a beautifully filmed but exploitative, empty film.
Punk Jews (2012)
Despite the eye-catching title Punk Jews is a rather tepid documentary, an attempt to look at subcultures within mainstream Judaism with so loose and broad a focus it ends up meaning very little. The problem is perhaps that the filmmakers defined punk so loosely and found no shortage of worthy subjects: a Yiddish theatre troupe, a man trying to bring about awareness of sexual abuse in the orthodox community he left behind, black orthodox Jews who also rap etc. The documentary lurches from one subject to the next, only giving cursory appreciation to people whose individual endeavours would be worthy of a full length documentary themselves.
Still Punk Jews is an enjoyable, fast-paced film and for those interested in Judaism, sub-cultures or who just want something quick and easy to watch it's an interesting way to kill an hour.
Empire of Dirt (2013)
Empire of Dirt is a rather clichéd tale, the story of drop-out single mom Lena who, despite managing to get herself clean and working as a community leader for other struggling aboriginal youth, finds herself struggling to support her troubled teenage daughter. When her resources run out she returns to the town of her birth and reconnects with the family and friends she was once so quick to let go of as a pregnant teenage mother so many years ago.
Despite the trite storyline which neatly skips over the usual beats of the story, the movie is somewhat rescued by the lovely performance of its three leads. Newcomer Cara Gee appears in nearly every frame of the movie and acts natural and graceful and Shay Eyre as her teenage daughter Peeka matches her beat for beat with the two having a believable mother/daughter chemistry.
The movie is also lovingly shot and the camera luxuriates on the outdoor beauty of the town of Lena's birth.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
A comedy of excess
Marie Antoinette is most famous for her extravagant excess and her tragic demise, but in her biopic of the last French queen Sophia Coppola makes the interesting choice of focusing only on her years at Versailles, a period which spans roughly 15 years, from 15 to 30.
The story is a familiar one to anyone who has ever watched (or read) a female-focused story about a European royal. A rich woman is sold off through marriage to a cold/unkind/unfaithful/un-relatable equally wealthy royal and she spends the rest of the movie tragically flitting around the extravagant scenery, looking ravishing while bemoaning the fact that she can buy everything but her husbands love. What makes Marie Antoinette rather unique in the royal biopic tradition is that Coppola decides to bypass most of the melodrama in order to celebrate the up-beat, witty, teen-queen who charmed France and handled her royal problems with grace and dignity.
I've never been a fan of Kirsten Dunst, but her sunny disposition and little girl looks are perfect here. She is at once graceful and naïve, over-spending but at the same time dutiful and eager to please. Dunst's comic timing in this movie is impeccable. When she is forced to speak to Madame du Barry, she nails the casually bored voice that demonstrates the ridiculousness of the situation and her reluctance to be a part of it. She is also careful to portray Marie Antoinette as innocent and ignorant rather then out and out stupid. In one particularly cute scene the queen declares that she would like to have large trees planted all along a walk-way. When she is reminded that money in the royal coffers is tight, she generously decides to go with the "little trees" rather then spend all that money on the larger ones.
I must admit I was also extremely skeptical when I heard that Coppola had cast her cousin, Jason Schwartzman, as Marie Antoinette's husband but he too handles his (mostly silent) role perfectly. He is the quiet, shy, foil to Dunst's sunny queen, the dweeb to her cheerleader. Coppola plays up the differences between them for comedic effect, and it works well. You can imagine that if Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were average teenagers in modern day France, they wouldn't even talk to each other, and yet because of the age they live in and their political positions they are forced into a bizarre, yet friendly, marriage.
The ensemble is incredibly tight, with cameos by many accomplished actors. Judy Davis steals every scene she's in, Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson (random side note: Shirley Henderson is hilarious AND brilliant. Someone needs to give her a leading role.) play the two bitchy tantes to perfection, Asia Argento is slimy and seductive as the trashy Madame du Berry, Rose Byrne is sumptuous as the saucy Duchess du Polignac and on and on.
The movie itself works best in its first half. The painfully funny inability of Louis XVI to consummate his marriage provides the plot for the first half of the movie. As Marie Antoinette learns the ridiculous rules of the French court and makes room for her own traditions she is constantly kept grounded by the fact that her husband refuses to bed her and that she has yet to provide any heirs to the throne. Coppola lovingly flits from the church, to the dining hall, to the bedroom giving us a feel for the whirlwind of monotony that becomes Marie Antoinette's life. Like many directors, she is fascinated by the golden cage imprisoning her heroine and yet unlike so many directors she openly invites her audience to laugh at the excesses and childish naïveté of her characters. When Marie Antoinette's brother drops by for a visit he is the one who must explain the act of sex to young Louis by using a key and lock metaphor, hilarious since the only thing Louis seems to show any interest in are locks and keys. Sadly, once the marriage is consummated and the longed for dauphins and dauphines arrive any narrative thread is dropped and the movie instead becomes a series of cobbled together vignettes. Marie Antoinette takes a lover, loses said lover, has some children, and then loses some children. Not that the vignettes are not beautiful and effective, only that the treatment of Antoinette's twenties seems hurried compared to the fun, easy-going pace of her teens.
In one of the touching final scenes of the movie, Louis and Marie Antoinette eat an opulent dinner together as they have done since their first meeting and marriage. As in their first dinner there are many ridiculous rules and protocols to be observed but the difference between that first meal and this one are striking. With most of the royal court forced into exile there is no one but the servants there to observe them. Rather than an orchestra to provide them music to accompany their meal there is the unceasing angry chanting of a mob. But Marie Antoinette, looking at her husband the same way she did at their first meal together, many years ago, reaches across the table in order to hold his hand and provide him with comfort. They know the years of indolence and extravagance which made their teen years a never-ending party are over. And yet, together, they are still willing to stay at Versailles now that the party is over; to try and rule and to face the consequences of their ignorance.
Coppola seems to be taking a bit of a breather between films in order to take care of her new baby but I hope she returns to the camera and soon. I'm not a huge fan of the Virgin Suicides, but her work on Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette show that she's a director with a vision and a message, and I can't wait to see what she does next.
Le silence de Lorna (2008)
The Price of Silence
The titular heroine of the Dardenne brothers latest movie is Lorna, a recent immigrant to Belgium who spends her days earning paychecks from a dry-cleaners while earning more substantial money by selling herself off as a bride to a Russian man looking to immigrate to Belgium himself. Before she can marry the Russian however, Lorna must obtain a divorce from her current husband, Claudy, a broken-down, pathetic, drug-addict who only married Lorna in order to obtain the cash to fund his habit.
The relationship between the young couple is complicated. Lorna, with a boyfriend back home and another potential husband eager to obtain Belgian citizenship waiting in the wings, has no romantic attachment to Claudy. Early scenes show her disgust and impatience for her lazy, feeble husband who does little more then shoot-up, play cards and follow her around like a puppy-dog. Nevertheless she can't help but feel sympathy towards the man she is using solely to obtain her citizenship. Claudy's feelings are equally muddled. He is aware that Lorna is using him and yet is devastated when she talks about divorce. He plays on his weaknesses to illicit Lorna's sympathy and then plagues her with childish demands. Their relationship, masterfully played out by Arta Dobroshi and returning Dardenne brother favourite Jérémie Renier, is utterly, intensely fascinating. They're both the victims and the aggressors in their relationship and who you root for and who you find repulsive flips frequently from scene to scene.
But the movie isn't focused on the relationship between Claudy and Lorna. As Lorna struggles to earn her money quickly she is forced to choose between protecting Claudy, whose desire to kick his drug-habit is problematic for her divorce proceedings, and her desire to protect her own small dream of owning a café with her long-distance boyfriend. Her optimism and strength are quickly torn apart when the man responsible for arranging both her marriages quickly yanks her down to reality by reminding her that she is little more then a pawn for people who want to cheat the system. The movie falls apart in the final third, the twists and turns a bit ridiculous given the slow, yet gripping, pace of the previous sections. And yet the movie is still compelling, quietly questioning a system in which people must go to such violent lengths in order to obtain simple and innocent desires.
The lack of music, gritty cinematography and superb acting all lend itself to the feelings of realism that pervade the film. The Dardenne brothers make us believe in Lorna's plight, her struggle between what she feels morally is right and the silence that will enable her to live out her dream.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
A Woman and her dog...
Wendy & Lucy follows a nearly impoverished young woman on her quest to Alaska where she hopes to find some decent work. Travelling and living in her ancient, run-down car disaster hits when said car breaks down and her only friend (a dog named Lucy) disappears forcing her to stay stagnant in a tiny town. That's about all that can be said for the plot and about the movie as well.
At the q & a for the screening I attended, Kelly Reichardt (the director) briefly talked about how she wanted to capture the struggles that millions of Americans are going through, finding themselves one misplaced dollar, or accident, away from complete disaster.
The movie definitely portrayed these things but there was nothing I felt I could really latch onto to make me feel for the title character. Michelle Williams turns in a decent performance but the movie really drags her down; we all know what's going to happen to her but it sure feels like it takes forever for her to get there. The slow, methodical pace and almost complete lack of any characters aside from Wendy doesn't help in this respect. The movie is only about 80 minutes long and it felt twice that. Production values weren't so good but it's hard to criticize that as the film was obviously made on a tiny shoe-string budget.
I'm honestly miffed as to why this film got such great critical reviews. With the American recession more and more people are struggling with poverty in the same way Wendy does but just because it's realistic doesn't mean it's a good film.