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Don't Worry Bee Happy
Honeyland is about a woman who searches for beehives on cliffs and in hollowed-out areas of trees in the isolated Macedonian valley where she lives, collects the bees, takes them home, and eventually takes the train into Skopje - the capital of Macedonia - to try to sell the honey. She takes care of her elderly mother as well. One day a large family of nomads drive into the valley. They bring their cattle, and they also bring their bees. They settle down right by where the bee woman lives. As you can imagine, feathers are ruffled. But both parties are civil to each other despite voices being raised. In one scene, the father nomad decides to burn down a big old tree so he can plant some corn, which he needs to feed his cattle. The bee woman is livid about that as she watches the tree burn. Father nomad says something like, "OK, you take care of my children and I promise not to burn any more trees."
Two common scenes in the film are people biting into honeycombs, and people blowing smoke onto bees.
I loved the close-up scenes of the bees....for example, after a rain there's a close-up of bees struggling to get out of the water and onto a leaf.
Hope you get to bee it. I mean see it.
Lightweight Lightfoot, But Still Satisfying
Watching Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind was a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, but something was lacking. Maybe this had to do with the life and career of this 80-year-old music legend's life being reduced to a mere 90 minutes. I wanted more. My only other complaint: Why feature Alec Baldwin over and over again? The interview snippets of him talking about Gordon Lightfoot puzzled both me and my friend. Alec Baldwin?? "That was the weirdest part of the movie," my friend said. Was it so hard to find relevant people to say insightful things about Gordon and his music that the filmmakers had to go with what I thought were banalities of an irrelevant?
But there are many pluses which include a lot of old footage, and Gordon singing of course. The best running theme of the film for me is Gordon reflecting on things, or just shooting the breeze. His lamentations of causing emotional trauma to the women in his life via his actions and his music juxtapose beautifully with his belief that the male-female dynamic is the single most fascinating force in the universe to him, and with his gorgeous lyrics and soulful crooning. The best moment of the film for me is when the Good Brothers talk about how Gordon can evoke such emotion from seemingly ordinary lines. One of the Goods recites the line "Is the home team still on fire, do they still win all their games, and by the way, did she mention my name", and gets so choked up he can barely finish it. I could so relate.
When it comes right down to it, I and the several other Gordon fans I talked to who have seen this doc love it for the simple fact that it's a doc about Gordon Lightfoot. How could that concept fail. Still, I wish it had been at least 2 hours long. Why edit it to 90 minutes. Make it 2 hours, replace Alec Baldwin talking about Gordon with esteemed musicians and/or esteemed Canadians and/or esteemed Canadian musicians talking about Gordon Lightfoot....10 out of 10 stars.
Carmine Street Guitars (2018)
Old School Cool
A small, intimate film which mostly takes place in a cramped and cluttered guitar shop where master guitar maker Rick Kelly and his apprentice design and create guitars out of wood recycled from old dead New York City trees, old demolished New York City buildings, and once Rick even scored some wood from the oldest tavern in New York City still in operation. Musicians - and Jim Jarmusch - come into his shop, talk about guitars and other things, and sooner or later some of them zero in on the guitar that has their name on it. But all of them play a little something, and it's all wonderful as the setting is just so intimate and conducive to music. Jim Jarmusch comes in with a guitar made out of catalpa wood, and they talk about catalpa trees. While all of this is going on, Rick's elderly mother might be dusting the guitars, answering the phone, or crunching numbers at a desk. Rick has no cell phone and doesn't use a computer; being a hardcore traditionalist seems to be who he is at his core. Or, maybe it's because he wants to put as much of his energy as possible into his guitars, which are the stars of the film. They are beautiful and unique, and they sound amazing.
Nice That John Callahan Had a Movie Made About Him However
A poorly-written script grandstanding liberal political correctness and dollar-store philosophy with a sappy button-pushing soundtrack throughout to remind the viewers that they are constantly witnessing touching and deep drama. Overall, it's yet another exaggerated attempt by Hollywood movie makers to be real and soulful, and of course to try to connect with as many sizable American demographic groups as possible. Nasty thing to say, but I got tired of all the close-ups of obese faces.
The story is about a victim who overcomes victimization, so I did not want to dislike this movie. But when the sage Alcoholics Anonymous guru said in a moment of epiphanic clarity,"My grandparents were rich, my parents were rich, and I grew up rich. Like, it's so funny," I realized that that was not just an isolated dumb moment, but fairly representative of the whole movie. Why are people so taken with this guru guy anyway? He announces that he is going to New York City to "get his freak on", and then we see him in a hotel doing a silly dance...is this supposed to be charming? A man railing against women in the military out of nowhere and for no apparent reason other than, I'm cynically thinking, the makers of this movie got to cross "show sexism" off the list.
The best thing about this movie is the cartoons, which are actual cartoons drawn by the brilliant cartoonist John Callahan. See the movie for the cartoons and for Joaquin Phoenix's acting. Beyond that it's a steady stream of cheese.
Sallah, Po Ze Eretz Yisrael (2017)
A Dark Secret Brought to the Light
An astonishing portrayal of Israel's founding movers and shakers as having a racially hierarchical vision of their new found land, with the White European Jews given opportunities to thrive in the environments of their choice, while the Arab Jews were forcibly relegated to the forlorn desert outposts. And if they tried to leave, they would be punished.
This film is not anti-Zionist propaganda. It was made by Israelis, and backed up by official Israeli government documents that had recently become declassified. Some of the old Arab Jews who were there long ago when it happened spoke in the film about how they were lied to, manipulated, and mistreated by the Israeli government. And one of the major architects of the master plan for Israel was interviewed for the film, and was candid and unapologetic about what happened. It was for the good of Israel, he insisted, with thought-provoking arguments to back that up I must say. Onwards with that, not all the old Arab Jews in the film were bitter. One professed her love for Israel, and walked out of the room of complainers in disgust.
My suggestion to anyone reading this - After you watch Ancestral Sin, before you condemn Israel for its treatment of Arab Jews, maybe watch the film one more time. At least watch it once with as many people as you can, and talk about it. There is so much in this film to take in, and some validity in the stance that the Israeli pioneer government took, I reluctantly opine.
When The Hunter Becomes The Hunted
Winterjagd is fantastic. I don't get how a film this good has only one write-up on IMDb (mine)...what is up with the world. Maybe the director should consider making a zombie superhero film next.
If you like intelligent thrillers; if you like the idea of a tense drama taking place in a huge and remote countryside mansion in a Germany blanketed by dark and snow; if you like the intimacy, intensity, and director's pure focus of a fine-acting ensemble cast's battle of wits; then you will love this film. See it, somehow. I saw it alone at a Toronto Jewish Film Festival venue, so after it ended I sought out strangers in the audience to talk to about it. Everyone I talked to was excited about it.
Above the Drowning Sea (2017)
The Chinese Schindler and Other Stories
Above the Drowning Sea addresses and interweaves five topics, and does so beautifully and intelligently - Refugees; the lives of Jews in Austria as Hitler was gaining power; Ho Feng Shan, the "Chinese Schindler" who virtually single-handedly saved the lives of thousands of Jews; the exodus of Jews to Shanghai during the Nazi era; and finally, what happened to these Jews after they got to Shanghai. I saw this film in a packed movie theatre, and could tell that many were moved by it by the stifled sniffles and quiet sobs. I stayed quiet, unless I unknowingly made some noise wiping away my tears. But as the credits started rolling I burst into applause, same as a lot of people.
It's not clear from the film how many visas Mr. Ho - the Chinese consulate general in Vienna at the time - issued to Jews trying to flee Nazi enslavement, but according to Wikipedia, Mr. Ho "risked his life and career to save more than 3,000 Jews by issuing them visas, disobeying the instruction of his superiors." According to an article in China Daily, Mr. Ho's daughter Ho Manli said that close to 4,000 visas were issued about a year after the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March of 1938. "How many more were issued in the remaining months before the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, when routes of escape began to shut down, is hard to determine, she added."
God's Own Country (2017)
Going Down on the Farm
I went to see God's Own Country not knowing it was a gay love story. "Farmhand from Romania finds love in the UK" I'd put in a nutshell from my hurried search online to find a movie to go to that day, and that was interesting-sounding enough for me. I'd assumed that the farmhand was a woman. God's Own Country was not what I was expecting nor hoped to see, but boy did I love this movie. What eventually struck me about the relationship that the two main characters formed, and how it all panned out, was how similar it was to what I went through with my wife. What ultimately struck me was that love is love, a love story is a love story, people are people, and it's just dumb to assume that what homosexuals go through is much different than what heterosexuals go through. It may be different on average in the sense that it takes courage to have a gay love life, even a clandestine one, considering that it's often seen in families and communities as an aberration. But having the courage and determination to love whom you want to love, and facing and overcoming the adversity which stems from that, is such a common theme in love stories about young adults that gays certainly can't claim that as their own. God's Own Country is a human relationship saga, primarily, and oh yeah the two lovers happen to be gay sheep farmers, which gives the film some spice.
Secret Superstar (2017)
A Warm Embrace
On my walk home from the cinema, I thought about why I loved Secret Superstar so much despite it being a sometimes-absurd, cliché-heavy fantasy film imparting the dubious message that only if a female is a potential entertainment superstar does she have the chance to escape her sordid existence in the Indian Muslim world. It's obvious - there is so much to love about this film that made me cast aside any reservations I had about declaring it a masterpiece. The subjects of domestic abuse and the subjugation of women in Indian Muslim culture are dealt with adroitly, and they provide the perfect foundation and vortex for an extraordinary story to unfold. I loved the mingling of conventional Indian Muslim culture and Internet culture, and the mingling of provincial values and culture with the Mumbai lifestyle and attitude within the entertainment industry. Overall, I did not feel manipulated by this film nor did I feel bombarded by a Let-Us- Entertain-You vibe; behind the Bollywood blockbuster production guise I witnessed tremendous genuineness. The tears that I shed did not happen because the filmmakers are clever pushers of emotion buttons. I was genuinely touched. The joy that I experienced was more from being moved than from being entertained. It's simply a beautiful, glorious film.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Foisted! (2017)
Worst Season So Far, But It's Still Curb So It's Still Good
As a huge fan of Curb, as someone who has watched every episode of the first 8 seasons at least twice, I naturally had high expectations of Season 9. Larry had set the bar so high...maybe that was the problem, because I'm disappointed in this season so far. Everyone is noticeably older, yet they all seem to be in denial about that. It's weird. Ted is banging Cheryl, Larry asks Mary out but she turns him down because Larry's not her body type, Larry gets advice on how to pick up women then ends up with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter...it's all contrived and strange. Nobody has grown up. Susie, Leon and Richard do the usual shtick, but it's tired shtick now...it lacks freshness. And Larry's turned his shtick up a couple of notches to the point where he's a ranting old man more than a savvy social assassin.
Having said that (thinking of the Having Said That scene now on an old Curb), it's still Curb, so it's still worth watching.
Harry Dean Stanton Says Goodbye To You All
Lucky is both eerie and alluring in that it hasn't just turned out to be Harry Dean Stanton's swan song, it's as if all of those involved in the making of it were watching the Grim Reaper approach Mr. Stanton from a distance during filming.They were certainly aware - and impressed - that he was 90 years old. There's not a bad performance in the whole film; everyone gives a thoughtful, elegant performance as if there is no room for childishness in the presence of the approaching death of their friend. Surely Mr. Stanton could feel to the core that his days were numbered, and wow did that make for an eloquent performance in a role perfectly suited for him. Despite Lucky being a film about the waning of life, it's not a morose film; the message seems to be that while death is scary, you can still smile at it, and still smile till the end. And while you lose some liveliness as you grow old, that doesn't mean that you have to lose your feistiness. As much as I enjoyed Lucky, I also believe that a good filmmaker could have followed almost any old man for a few weeks with a video camera and come up with an equally interesting film. Lucky is essentially one down-to-earth old man's tale of a rather unexciting present-day life, and that's about it...but maybe that's special in itself. Still, I didn't see a whole lot that was fantastic about it beyond Mr. Stanton's performance. But there's no denying that it's a well-made film, with poignant and sometimes amusing moments, moving stories from the distant past, and many good shots of the desolate, solitary desert.
Sipur Ahava Eretz-Israeli (2017)
Before the Canada-premiere screening of An Israeli Love Story here in Toronto, the director Dan Wolman emphasized to the audience that his film is a love story primarily, and after the film during the QA session - when someone asked a politically-charged question - Mr. Wolman would not go there, stressing again that his film is a love story. Some may have seen that as a cop out, as the setting of this love story is around the time when the State of Israel was established, in an area where there were sometimes-hostile neighbours who regularly made their presence known. But I stand behind Mr. Wolman 100% - it is a love story above all, with a backdrop that just happens to be politically and culturally exciting. As Mr. Wolman also pointed out before the film, this love story could have happened anywhere in the world, meaning that it possesses many elements of a classic love story, for example, girl becomes infatuated with guy, and they at long last unite but there are big bumps in the road. OK, it occurs in volatile Mandatory Palestine, and sure that plays a role in directing the course of the love story. But what epic love story isn't fraught with tumult, and when are young lovers not vulnerable to the whirlwinds.
What was especially fascinating to me about the love story was that even though the couple were Israeli, and even though they were neighbours, that one was brought up on a kibbutz and the other on a moshav created overwhelming differences in the young couple that love would conquer or not, but it would be a challenge. Another classic love story element - when the honeymoon period ends with dissimilarity rearing its ugly head.
I saw An Israeli Love Story with an Israeli-Canadian who hasn't been back to Israel for a while, and she was thrilled nostalgically by the film. She marveled at how authentic it was, from the way people talked to how they lived to the food they were eating. Israel is so different now, she said, but she thought the film captured the soul of Israel in addition to being effective as a period piece, bringing the Israel of another era to life in 2016 despite having been made on a shoestring budget.
An Israeli Love Story was composed with a lot of love - passionately and skillfully made, and passionately and skillfully acted. Bravo to everyone involved.
I Felt Set Free
Five-minute shot of people milling about, doing nothing in particular except walking and looking around. Cut to another 5-minute shot of people milling about, doing nothing interesting in particular. A teenager is wearing a T-shirt with an irreverent expression on it, but not that irreverent. The host waxed philosophical about that T-shirt at the cinema before the movie began, unintentionally setting the stage for artistic pretension. Cut to another 5-minute shot of the entrance to the concentration camp memorial site. Some are taking photos of the Arbeit macht frei sign, but so what. Cut to another 5-minute shot...get the idea yet? I got up and left. Walking out set me free.
Jane of Arc(hitecture)
It's a cliché to write that everyone involved in or studying urban development and planning should see this documentary, because of course they should. And of course they should read Ms. Jacobs' books. But as I witness, or at least fear, the gradual decay of the city I live in - which happens to be the city Ms. Jacobs lived in for the last 20 or so years of her life - I see that the wisdom of this saviour of cities does not seem to be a core part of Toronto's current urban- planning scheme. Maybe that's because, as Ms. Jacobs pointed out, cities develop organically as they are an independent life force. So you can't apply one set of rules for every city as every city is a unique entity. It was obvious to me though after watching Citizen Jane: Battle for the City that there are some enlightened guidelines that everyone responsible for urban development should be aware of. But in the lofty battle of what's good for the city vs. what's bad for the city, Ms. Jacobs' vision of what's good for cities - while noble - was not all-encompassing, not to be used as a blueprint for development, but rather as a compliment to a greater blueprint.
One glaring omission from this documentary was the mentioning of public transportation and how good public transportation plays a key role in making and keeping neighbourhoods and cities vibrant. Ms. Jacobs focused on two antithetical ways of getting around - walking and driving. Highways being thrust into the hearts of cities tend to destroy neighborhoods and result in horrible urban decay, but people need to get around, and walking is not an option for most people when they're traveling more than a kilometre or two on a regular basis. Ms. Jacobs downplayed traffic gridlock as if it were a secondary problem. Happy cities are all about people living in vibrant, safe neighbourhoods, she believed. But what about the essential need of the urban masses to travel outside the neighbourhood in a reasonable amount of time? Ms. Jacobs' nemesis in the documentary - the developer Robert Moses, presented as the single greatest destroyer of the soul of the American city during the post-WW2 Era in the US - at least pointed out in the doc that traffic gridlock is a very bad thing, and needed to be dealt with. Though his solution - highways through the city - was a terrible one, what was the alternative? Ms. Jacobs was so focused on quality community living that she didn't take into account the profound, widespread need for people to be able to move from one community to the next. But at least New York City has an excellent public transportation system. As I see condo after condo going up in my city, the traffic getting worse and worse, and not nearly enough being done to improve public transportation, I wonder what Jane Jacobs would have to say about this sort of urban decay going on. A lifetime of fighting the good fight for urban health and ten books later, and wouldn't you know it, she didn't take everything into account in her grand equation. Alex Marshall writing about Ms. Jacobs: "Jacobs makes virtually no mention of...the New York City subway system in her masterpiece and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This omission points to something Jacobs didn't get, which was infrastructure: the big systems that make a city work. Jacobs not only didn't talk much about the New York subway system, she didn't talk much about the water system, an engineering marvel whose pipes snake hundreds of miles into the Catskill mountains, bringing fresh, clean liquid to millions of people. She doesn't talk about the power grid. It's almost as if she assumes the dense urban neighborhoods she loved just materialized organically on the banks of the Hudson, not the product of massive infrastructure systems usually financed or directed by big government."
So is Jane Jacobs really the Urban Studies visionary hero that she's been canonised as? Maybe or maybe not, but she still did a lot of good, and won huge battles against evil. This is well portrayed in Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.
David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)
Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man
David Lynch at around 70 years old talking, smoking, and doing his art. That's about it. But as he says about his childhood, when the whole world was only 2 blocks, but you can have everything you need in the world in 2 blocks, David Lynch - The Art Life - a film about 2 blocks long compared to a Hollywood blockbuster - still can give you everything you need for a really fascinating film experience.
If you are hoping for an exploration of the films of David Lynch, and of the filmmaker David Lynch, stay at home. Only David Lynch the neophyte filmmaker is explored because this is a natural development of the real star of the show - David Lynch the painter. One day he sees one of his paintings moving, and that's when the seed is planted for him to make movies - he wants to make moving paintings.
We see a lot of the finished artwork of David Lynch, and most of it is stunning and quite dark, the latter being somewhat of an incongruity considering that David Lynch seems to be a happy and contented person. In one scene, Mr. Lynch talks about showing his father some of his art as a young man, and his father's reaction is grave concern that Mr. Lynch is seriously mentally ill. "Don't have children," his father tells him. David Lynch once described his art as "violent comedy". Indeed, if you get the violence but not as much the comedy, you might think something is deranged about the man. During the whole 90 minutes I spent at the TIFF Lightbox Cinema in Toronto with David Lynch, I never got the sense that he was a nut job. His toddler of a daughter made several appearances in the film, and David Lynch was warm, playful, and attentive with her, and never acted bothered by her as she played while he was painting. He told story after story the way that regular guy that everybody likes in your life would. It finally occurred to me that Mr. Lynch had found the perfect catharsis in his art for anger and violence - which are within all of us - and the result was a cleansing of sorts, the mentally wholesome fellow I spent some time with yesterday at the cinema.
Every art student, budding artist, artist wannabe, art appreciator, and artist appreciator should see David Lynch - The Art Life. And every David Lynch fan, of which I am one...a BIG one. The rest of you might be bored.
Rush: Time Stand Still (2016)
Rush's Final Exit Stage Left
Rush: Time Stand Still is the perfect sequel and the perfect companion to Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Beyond the Lighted Stage focuses on the formative years of Rush the human beings and Rush the band, and culminates in the band's remarkable comeback after Neil Peart's tragedies and long healing process. Rush in the life stages and phases of youth, maturity, overcoming adversity, successful career, tragedy, and "rise from the ashes and blaze", to quote from a Rush song featured in Time Stand Still. After watching BTLS in a packed movie house in Vancouver I wondered why the hell isn't Rush in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Time Stand Still picks up where BTLS leaves off. They get inducted into the RRHOF, and their second-to-last tour - the Clockwork Angels tour - lives in the limelight for a short time. But mainly, TSS is about Rush approaching the end of a phenomenal career as a band and especially as a touring band, and how much they mean, and have meant, to Rush fans. Rush as a touring band in the life stage of old age. With old age comes reflection - from the Rush members and crew, and from fans. With reflection comes emotion, and the main emotion that flows and often pours from the film is love. There is also sadness, but it's a sweet sadness, a sadness that springs from love. The end is near, but it's been so wonderful and fun. Their final tour - the R40 tour - is selectively followed right up until the final show, where Rush give a very emotional final exit stage left.
BTLS features fan interviews and examines Rushmania superficially, but TSS digs deeper into the lives of Rush fans by showing - not just telling - their stories of what Rush means to them. For me, this is the best part of the film - the vignetting of Rush fans - from Baseball Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, to the creator of Rushcon, to a man who was brought back to life and health in part by being inspired by Rush, to the Rush memorabiliac who stresses that he puts family first and Rush second.
You can't not be touched by this documentary, Rush fan or not.
Gimme Danger (2016)
Intelligent Tribute to a Great Band
If you're expecting another quirky, brooding Jim Jarmusch film, or even that Jarmusch signature here and there, you will be disappointed. Gimme Danger is still a great film, but Jarmusch doesn't do what he usually does - show that the conventional can be really far out if you excavate a little - because he gets that Iggy and the Stooges are already supremely avante-garde; they are already Jim Jarmuschy. So Jarmusch does the opposite - he brings that down to earth, and just showcases what's already naturally there rather than try to create something. Still, documentary filmmaking turns out to be well suited for at least a couple of Jarmusch creative sensibilities. There's a charming, amiable leading man (Iggy), and when Iggy speaks there's a subtly comedic element, and subtle comedy is essential in all Jarmusch films. When Iggy tells the story of contacting Moe Howard of The Three Stooges, there's no need for direction with a magic touch. Just let it be.
Ultimately, Jarmusch forgoes being a director with a Jarmusch vision in Gimme Danger other than maybe hoping to convince the viewer to believe, after watching this film, that Iggy and the Stooges are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. He made Gimme Danger as a fan more than as Jim Jarmusch the auteur director, and it ends up being a "normal" kind of rock and roll doc/tribute, with plenty of great music and great footage, history, and lots of interviewing.
So to repeat, don't expect Gimme Danger to be a typical Jim Jarmusch film. But if you expect it to be a loving and intelligent tribute to a rock and roll band that "reinvented music as we know it" according to their former manager, a band that wiped out the 60s according to Iggy, you won't be disappointed.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
A Wild Bore
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is dumb from beginning to end. For starters, the child protagonist is still just as obese after 4 or more months in wilderness survival mode. Maybe the director thought that was absurdist humor, but I thought it was just stupid, and even felt angry that the director would use the boy's obesity as a comedy vehicle. The acting of the woman who plays that Social Services woman is atrocious. Sam Neill acts like he wishes he were somewhere else. The writing is poor. The film is rarely funny...too many flat gags and witty exchanges that are not witty. Much does not ring true about this film, from stilted conversation to contrived, silly scenarios that wouldn't even be charming in a fantasyland. Clichés abound, like the wild boar being shot by the boy just before it attacks then plopping down dead right in front of him. There's even an American-style car chase with a police car flipping over. Loved the New Zealand landscape though, and since it is ever-present throughout the film, and because I liked Rhys Darby's performance as Psycho Sam, I give Hunt for the Wilderpeople 5 stars.
Sufat Chol (2016)
The Matrix, Bedouin Style
Sand Storm is about a patriarchal social system that hasn't budged much from the dark ages despite the evolution happening all around it, and despite the yearning for change from much of the population, especially the female population. The brilliance of this film, though, is that the filmmaker - Elite Zexer - never ultimately condemns any individuals in the film, demonstrating that the system has taken on a life of its own, and people are ultimately beyond judgment. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, "The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy."
Yes, the father is railed against for his seeming inability to think for himself, but rather automatically doing what is expected of him. But he is also portrayed as a loving and reasonable man, and even as a progressive and independent thinker...just not when it comes to his daughter marrying whom she wants to. Yes, young love and young life is quashed by the actions of people - rigid tradition needs people to sustain it - and the anguish that ensues is heartbreaking. But is keeping with tradition the appropriate thing to do in the long run, in the big picture? Everyone - willingly or begrudgingly - seems to accept that it is. Or do they? And whether it is or isn't, what does it matter when there's no choice. Or is there? There is one telling scene between the father and mother, where - despite the tremendous friction between them throughout the film - they share an intimate moment. They share a cigarette, talk comfortingly to each other, and hug, acknowledging then and there that the system is bigger than both of them, and with their hug they silently agree that deferring to it is the only thing that can be done, like it or not. There is no choice. But this is not seen as a tragedy, necessarily. Their world is what it is, and one has to accept that. Or do they? Will the little girl who sees her beautiful, intelligent sister with her new schlemiel of an arranged husband accept that when she's of marrying age? Is she the future Bedouin Neo who will challenge the Matrix?
good vs. EVIL in Russia
The 2 questions I came away with after watching this extraordinary movie were, does this kind of thing really happen in Russia, and is this really what Russia is like? I contacted my only Russian acquaintance about this, and he said the movie is an accurate, though exaggerated, depiction of small-town Russia. I was curious about his comment about the movie taking place in a small town; Russians live in massive apartment buildings in small towns? In fact not a whole lot about this film is small-townish, at least to this Canadian outsider. It feels like an urban nightmare, mostly taking place in or around this huge apartment building teeming with people, at a restaurant that's teeming with people as well - because the local government is throwing a big party for themselves - or along built-up streets. The most glaring indication that the setting is indeed a small town is when the government heads all get together in a small room to discuss an emergency situation, and we are introduced to an unsavoury ragtag assortment of drunken schemers who happen to have absolute control over the local population. There is nothing urbane about these people. It's made clear in The Fool, however, that this fiefdom's vulgarity is partly the result of trickle-down vulgarity from the federal level, and there's an underlying despondency among some of the local government officials as they seemingly have no other choice but to be corrupt. So you do get glimpses of decency and humanity within the fiefdom. But how can decency and humanity win amidst the corrupt, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog reality in modern Russia from the top down to the bottom. The Fool is a tale of a flower that attempts to grow in sewage, and what happens to it, and it is the tale of how people as individuals are affected when evil reigns. Some become evil themselves, some try to resist evil entirely, most take the middle road. Beyond that, The Fool is a story about people just trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families, and be happy despite overwhelming odds, and despite hopelessness all around them.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
A Movie That Theater Lovers Will Appreciate
I can't imagine anyone who appreciates fine theater not liking The Hateful Eight. I even wonder if anyone who panned this movie has ever seen a top-level theater production of a drama. It has many elements of a great play, yet goes that extra mile in many ways because it's a movie. Essentially, it is one of those movies - like 12 Angry Men - that succeeds, and can be appreciated, as both a play and as a movie. But unlike 12 Angry Men, Tarantino takes more advantage of his movie being a movie, and really goes to town sometimes, as only Tarantino can do.
Plays are about communication. And communication among the characters is at the core of The Hateful Eight. If watching a movie unfold based on what people say to one another is not as thrilling to you as action, you may find that this movie falls short. But there is plenty of action, just not boom boom boom like in some other Tarantino movies. And nobody can "climax" like Tarantino...in a play the climactic scenes have to be minimalistic compared to what can be done in movies, and the cinematic climaxes in The Hateful Eight are Tarantino-esque...need I say more?
The Hateful Eight, like a fine play, is more thoughtful than the usual Tarantino flick. Tarantino has become a deeper thinker, more adept at imparting wisdom about humanity, about how minds work. He seems to have a deep understanding of his characters, considering that they're from another era and from a very different American subculture. That all of the main characters are pugnacious,abrasive,and deceptive, yet know how to conduct themselves in an eloquent way, demonstrates what kind of person Tarantino admires, at least as a movie character.
Finally, a great stage drama is all about character development, and how characters develop from social interaction, which makes it the most human of all the arts. Modern American film often subordinates character development, instead focusing more on holding the attention and interest of a target audience, which is not the kind that goes to the theater. (Kind of a snobby comment I guess, but I'll stick to it.)The Hateful Eight succeeds as a stage drama, and does not succumb as a movie, in this way.
I could go and on about how much I liked The Hateful Eight. I think it's Tarantino's best work.
Miles Ahead (2015)
A Social Movie
As the reviews of Miles Ahead amass on the Internet I'll be interested to read all the different ways people will have to describe Don Cheadle's electrifying performance as jazz great Miles Davis. Or should I say "social music" great, a term Mr. Davis preferred to jazz, according to this biopic. I'd never heard this term before, looked it up online after the movie ended, but couldn't find any definition that fit what I thought Mr. Davis might have meant. What it meant to me though, after being treated to a sumptuous sampling of Miles Davis music in the film, is that there's no better musical expression of the human soul than jazz if done right. In Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle seems to be able to relate to that. As for his portrayal of Miles Davis in general, he plays a man who lays everything on the line in everything he does. Total honesty. Total this feels right so I'm going to do it. No-bs, no-putting-up-with-bs attitude. From violence and crudeness to stunning beauty - this is humanity unadulterated. The movie's high points, to me, are the stunning beauty scenes - when Mr. Davis plays the horn. That is the culmination of everything.
Still, it's ironic that while Don Cheadle seems to get not only jazz, but the concept of creativity - starting off the movie with the Miles Davis quote "When you're creating your own sh**, man, even the sky ain't the limit" - Miles Ahead is limited by being formulaic. In other words, the movie itself is not jazz, though at times it tries to be and wants you to think it is. For example, there is too much clichéd man/woman relationship drama in the film, and while I get that Miles' love of women is necessary to portray for the all-important character development, Miles Ahead gets a little schmaltzy at times, if only because I'd seen the same kind of drama scenes more or less so many times before in so many Hollywood movies.
Overall, Miles Ahead is a passionate tribute, beautifully done, and the love that Don Cheadle had for the project and for Miles Davis really shines through.
A Mess that Misses the Mark
Chi-Raq begins promisingly, with a brutally poignant rap about the city of Chicago. It's a passionate summing up of what Chicago is to this rapper, an emotional stripping down of what it is to be attached to such a messed-up entity. There is the brilliant Samuel L. Jackson's ebonologue, some stats backing up the mess that Chicago has become, and a child is murdered. I'm hoping at this point that Spike Lee has decided enough already with the cinematic pretentiousness that polluted several of his other movies, and that I'm about to see a really good film. Unfortunately, a really good film never materializes. Though there is a lot to like about Chi-Raq, Spike Lee kept spoiling it for me. For example, I really like the rhyming couplet dialogue. But why does there have to be that schmaltzy piano music playing while people are talking. I loathe these cinematic manipulations that remind the audience that they are witnessing some deep, meaningful stuff. And why do people talk in rhyming couplets sometimes, but not other times? I think Spike Lee wasn't sure what he wanted to make, so he just threw everything into the pot, and hoped that it would taste great. My ultimate disappointment about Chi-Raq is with its ultimate message, that Love is the Answer. True solutions, and the core reason why there are horrendous problems in the first place, is not about loving thy neighbor; it's a systemic disease. Spike Lee seems to sort of get this for a while, but he has no time to excavate this hugely important issue because he has to stick to the rather ridiculous plot, has to explore female power and empowerment, and we all know that the true mark of a great film, historically, has been to include plenty of booty. There is a failure to dig deeper into why Chicago has become Chi-Raq, and I wonder if Spike Lee even has an understanding of that. His preaching about jobs means nothing since he fails to make any kind of intelligent expression about why there are so few opportunities to make an honest living in the first place. Overall, Chi-Raq is a mess that misses the mark, but it is entertaining, and the acting is superb, with a special nod to Wesley Snipes, who has a small role but is riveting in it.
Srpski film (2010)
Not a Bad Film Even With the Abominations
The ultra-vile scenes in this movie have been well discussed, and A Serbian Film has often been vilified because of them; I will set these aside and focus on what makes this movie decent in the conventional sense to demonstrate that if you can somehow see the scenes of horror as artistic, and effective at driving home hard the director's point, you should like this film.
The acting is very good. Not B-movie acting by any stretch. The story is good, the pacing, and the characters are interesting. The writing is good. The protagonist is likable, despite being a porn star. He's a loving father and even a good husband. In most good films the protagonist struggles with moral problems, and this guy makes most protagonist's moral problems look piddling by comparison. He is really struggling, and it's fascinating how it all unfolds. This film is an allegory for war, what decent people are reduced to, and what happens to them despite their best efforts to do what they have to do, and maintain normalcy. It's a struggle to create value amidst the insanity of existence, a struggle for survival, a struggle to maintain sanity while having to relinquish control to, or at least tolerate, the forces of evil. It asks the questions Who are we after we succumb to evil compared to who we were before, and Who were we all along? It's a deep film that hits you hard again and again in albeit shockingly unsubtle fashion. But its abominations are never gratuitous. What I especially like about A Serbian Film is its bashing of the hero persona in war. There are no war heroes. There are only destroyers, and those who are destroyed. And often they are one and the same.
Rams is an Icelandic saga of the highest order, not of Kings, but of the Icelandic sheep farmer. There are battles, but the opponents are nature, the struggles of human relationship, and the hardships of life. It is a saga of and for the working man, expressed and pared down like a working man's haiku, and it is breathtaking. Beyond the story, it is a visual feast. The Icelandic landscape - seen in both its green glory and its stark white glory - literally made me gasp at first. The sound of the howling, relentless winter wind touched a primal nerve in me. And as someone who has co-existed with animals for much of my life, and who has worked on farms for years, I was touched by the aphorism that you can love - truly love - your animals, and then kill them and eat them. Killing something you love is not an easy thing to do of course, but Rams is a blast of reality in that way. Sustenance and survival in the real world, people. It's not always pretty, and never packaged. Rams is harshness and it is beauty, contrasting, colliding, and intermingling, like an Icelandic landscape and an Icelandic sheep farmer's life. Ten out of ten stars.