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The Butler (2013)
A fine film that chronicles U.S. civil rights history
Based on the life of Eugene Allen, this film tells the story of the fictional Cecil Gaines, an African-American who overcomes early life tragedies and works as a butler in the White House between the Eisenhower and the Reagan presidencies.
This film does well in juxtaposing the broader U.S. history along with the civil rights struggles and the difficult family life of the main character. This is the film's greatest strength especially when the stories intersect and relate to each other. This time period was volatile and still fascinating. There is also an intriguing conflict between two family members who each handle their oppression differently: one continues to use survival skills even if the main problem still exists; the other is willing to fully lose security in the fight for justice.
Director Lee Daniels did a superb job with "Precious" released a few years before this film. His best work in "The Butler" shows in the scenes of racial discrimination and violence during the 1960s which are shocking and dramatic. His skills are rather weaker in some pivotal scenes near the end where a few events that could have had more impact seemed predictable. Also, as there is such a super A-list of stars who all perform quite well, there isn't really any scene where any of the performers shows greater depth as, say, Mo'Nique did in her final scene in "Precious". It is also unfortunate that the events of the 1970s were skipped over quickly.
Despite these criticisms, this is still a film that is entertaining while reminding the viewers of some of the most difficult times in modern history.
A fine film - it's miraculous it was even made
The title character is an 11-year old girl living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her adventurous spirit causes trouble living in such a repressive environment, particularly for girls.
I compared this film to "The Circle", an Iranian film in 2000 which also chronicled the difficult lives for females in another repressive regime. "The Circle" was dramatic and tragic. "Wadjda" has a good share of drama but it also has a special lightness. Its characters seem to be able to find ways of having fun within their restrictions.
Occasionally, a side story about Wadjda's mother is confusing. The film also misses a few opportunities for other expanded side stories. One involves a religiously fanatical school official who does not seem to practice what she preaches. (Isn't that always the case?). Another involves a very amiable relative who seems to break barriers by working in an environment along with men despite the controversy this causes.
But the main draw in this film is the very charming performance of young actress Waad Mohammed. Also, the fact that this film was made in Saudi Arabia is a special victory in itself.
Les salauds (2013)
Mixed but mostly good
In this French film noir, a ship captain leaves his post to get revenge on behalf of his sister whose family has faced recent tragedies.
This film is occasionally confusing but always intriguing thanks to the directing style of Claire Denis. At first, it is difficult to distinguish who's who partly because two characters look alike. There are also times it is hard to understand the motives and actions of the main character.
Still, the intrigue seems to work especially with a plot twist followed by one of those endings that is shocking because one would not have expected the film to end at that point. This is one of the few films that gets away with this device.
Dead Ringers (1988)
Double Brilliance by Jeremy Irons
In Toronto, the lives of twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) go bad after each has been involved with an actress (Geneviève Bujold) who is in the city to film a mini-series.
This dark, moody film continues to have the great power it did a quarter century ago. A lot of credit can go to the directing of David Cronenberg but the bulk of it must go to Irons who is brilliant in not just one, but two performances of twins with opposite personalities. When only one twin is onscreen and not referred to by name, it doesn't take long to guess which twin it is due to the distinct acting style. This is a magnificent feat.
This is also a film about addiction - not just drug addiction but love addiction and co-dependance as well. The last third of the film seems to accelerate too quickly at times. Also, it seems the outside world of medical licensing is in rare appearance considering the bizarre behaviour of the doctors. But with the brilliant work of Irons and a superbly orchestrated ending by Cronenberg, this film was well worth viewing a second time.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Award-Worthy Achievement: performance by Jeremy Irons
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
A mixed bag but quite good overall
This film centres around a couple living in rural Belgium who are part of a group that sings American bluegrass music. Their lives are significantly changed once a major difficulty affects a loved one. The film is in the Flemish language.
"The Broken Circle Breakdown" is much like "Black Swan" in its effect. Both films have moments of brilliance but also some major flaws while averaging out to a respectable rating.
There are many jumps among time periods within this movie. In the first half, it is tolerable though occasionally confusing. In the second half, it is irritable. There are also major family events where the woman's family is absent and not even mentioned. Some scenes involving atheistic, anti-religious rants go way over the top despite being well performed.
This brings us to the film's greatest graces: the lead performances of Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh. In all the stages of the highs and lows of their relationship and life itself, these performers are courageous and intense. Their performances contribute highly to the overall emotion of a climactic scene in the middle of the film - a scene which can be credited for creating genuine tears.
A fine contribution to the outer-space genre
Astronauts in a U.S space mission (two of whom are played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) face grave danger when a space mission of another country causes havoc in outer space.
The film's basic elements (story, directing, and acting) are all fine though perhaps not equal to the extremely high acclaim this film has received. What truly deserves the acclaim, though, are the brilliant special effects and other technical aspects (photography, sound, etc.) which are exceptional. Seeing the film in IMAX and 3-D adds to the enjoyment. Viewers can almost feel the same experience as those in the film. It is frightening and thrilling at the same time.
The benchmark of space films remains "2001: A Space Odyssey". But "Gravity" is still a fine competitor.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Award-Worthy Achievements: Special Effects and other Technical Aspects
Enough Said (2013)
Could have been better
In southern California, two middle-aged divorcees (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini) hook up. They both have daughters that are about to leave home for university.
The beginning of the film is charming and enjoyable but it loses traction when it falls into a goofy, mediocre sitcom plot where the Louis-Dreyfuss character has to keep a secret from various people. A dramatic twist makes the last fifteen minutes or so more heartfelt giving the actors a chance to show more depth. But this is not enough to redeem the movie overall.
The Little Foxes (1941)
A superb story and a great cast to match
The film centres on the wealthy Hubbard clan in the U.S Deep South in 1900. The clan's three middle-aged siblings are willing to harm anyone, including their own family members, to satisfy their unending greed.
This film is one of those gems that excels where few other great films rarely do - a superb story. Mostly written by Lillian Hellman and based on her play, the family in this story could easily be the ancestors of the despicably greedy people who have caused so much harm in our current economic system. While a young male member of the clan seems to be set up as a cartoonish foil for others (despite being well played by Dan Duryea), all other characters are well developed with a strong cast aided by the great director William Wyler.
Bette Davis is delightfully devious as one of the evil siblings, fighting off harm by some while easily dishing it out to others. Her performance is a great contribution not only to this film but to her collective work as a whole. Herbert Marshall and Patricia Collinge are very powerful as two people who bond with each other after having made the same terrible mistake - marrying into the wretched family. Collinge's time on screen may be brief but she shows brilliance especially in a scene where alcohol brings out the truth. Teresa Wright does well in a major role as a young member of the clan in inner conflict - does she stick to this family's ways or go by her conscience which is prodded by a smart young working-class man played by Richard Carlson. Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid round out the great cast as the two other evil siblings.
Though the film was two hours long, it was a rare experience in that I would have been quite content if it had continued for at least another half-hour.
Rating: 9 out of 10
1) Acting Ensemble
2) Screenplay by Lillian Hellman (based on her play) with extra scenes by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell
And under-rated gem
The film takes place in pre-Civil War New Orleans. It centres around a head-strong, rich, young woman (Bette Davis) whose willfulness causes trouble for herself and others.
Davis' performance is rightly praised. It is difficult to imagine anyone doing better in this role. (It is said that she was given this role as compensation for being rejected for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone With the Wind'.) Her greatest scene is one in which her great hopes are dashed by a shocking disappointment all while trying to maintain good manners and composure. This is one of the best scenes in the movie.
Even greater praise must be given to its director, the renowned William Wyler. Not only does he coax great work from Davis; he does so from all other actors as well in even the subtlest of ways. In group scenes, small gestures such as the facial expressions of people in the background or a stillness followed by a slight tilt to the back of the head, great tension is created in the most quiet of ways. This was most apparent in scenes involving the breaking of a dress code at a formal ball and a dinner party where political divisiveness between northern and southern mentalities challenges people's usual proper manners.
Wyler's great technique is also displayed in the set-up of a scene that reveals the winner of a duel. This is one of many aspects that made this film a very enjoyable experience. The film can be faulted for depicting the house slaves as happy members of the extended household which strongly contradicts history as we now know it. While this ignorance reflects the time period in which the film was made, other aspects of the film thankfully shine through quite well.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Outstanding Achievement: Directing by William Wyler
Captain Phillips (2013)
Based on a true story, this film is a dramatization of the 2009 hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The title character is played by Tom Hanks.
The beginning has its flaws. It takes a while to get used to the busy hand-held camera work. It also gives the impression of being yet another "us vs. them" / "good guys vs. bad guys" scenario that has been done hundreds of times before, particularly those based on true stories.
Last year's "Argo" advanced this genre from its superb directing despite its great stretching of the truth. While "Captain Phillips" does not advance the genre, it also does not set it backward.
Once the adventures begin (and there are two of them), the film is very engaging due to the skills of director Paul Greengrass. He is especially adept at portraying the detailed level of teamwork in military operations.
The last half hour could have been cut a bit as it seemed there was a bit too much drama at that point. But Tom Hanks's final scene displays so much vulnerability and humanity, it's no wonder he is one of moviedom's greatest superstars.
Tian zhu ding (2013)
The difficulties of live in modern China
This film exposes the difficulties of a few characters in various Chinese provinces - people of average circumstances just trying to get by. Their stories are based on true events.
This film is suitably shocking in many ways in exposing not only the difficulties of the characters in focus but also the extreme reactions some of them have in dealing with their circumstances. The most creepy aspect is the absence of any authorities or help given to those who need it. This was intended by director Jia Zhang-Ke to expose modern life in China.
While there are powerful scenes in this movie, it seemed confusing at times and not fully coherent and a bit long at over two hours. But credit can be given to the boldness of exposing so much in a totalitarian regime.
All Is Lost (2013)
A mixed result
Robert Redford plays a man who is alone and lost at sea in the Indian Ocean.
There is only one player in this film and he rarely speaks so the story is mostly expressed visually. With a lack of dialogue and interaction of characters, this leaves the film very limited in its scope and sometimes difficult to enjoy because of this.
However, within these limits, all elements of the production are very good. It's too bad the film wasn't more expansive.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
A brave look back at the troubled 1980s
This film is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a drug-addicted Dallas rodeo cowboy who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. The film follows his journey from homophobia to a crusade of getting non-toxic medical treatments for him and his fellow AIDS-sufferers.
"Dallas Buyers Club" can be praised for its fine job of recalling some of the most difficult times in the 80s including the ostracization of anyone diagnosed with AIDS regardless of their sexual orientation. Equally praiseworthy is its coverage of a negative situation that continues to this day: the collaboration of government medical systems with pharmaceutical companies who conspire to ban healthy treatments in favour of toxic drugs that harm patients as they create big profits. Placed in the negative spotlight is the U.S Food and Drug Administration as Ron imports healthy treatments from other countries.
In the lead role, Matthew McConaughey is very believable in all the character's contradictions including the transition from a homophobic redneck to a righteous helper of many gay men. His unlikely kinship with an MTF transsexual (well played by Jared Leto) is moving though a confrontational scene in a grocery store is a bit unbelievable. Jennifer Garner also does well as a young doctor who is caught between bureaucratic career aspirations vs. a more truthful way to serve others.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
A stunning film worthy of its high praise
This film is based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup who was born as a free black man in New York state but was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south.
While I highly recommend this film, I do so with qualification. Some scenes of torture are very harrowing and disturbing. Naturally, this raises the point that if it is so difficult to watch such simulations, how difficult must it have been to live through such torment?
The story-line is always engaging as it is often difficult to predict what will happen next. One surprise is that, while some slave owners are downright evil, others show glimpses of humanity. Director Steve McQueen showed great power with his other two films "Hunger" and "Shame". Adding "12 Years a Slave" to this fine list makes McQueen one of my favourite modern directors.
This film has three great performances who rightly won accolades. As the main character, Chiwetel Ejiofor is the perfect anchor. His final scene is such a powerful summary of all he has endured, it could bring tears from even the coldest of hearts. In the role of Patsey, a fellow slave who is terribly abused, Lupita Nyong'o is heartbreaking. Michael Fassbender is gripping as he personifies insanity and wickedness as a slave owner. Fassbender has performed in McQueen's other two films. This is clearly already one of moviedom's great collaborations and I look forward to more films from them.
There were occasional moments of confusion but too few to dilute the effect of this great film. It is nearly miraculous that this story could be told more than a century and a half after being published. It could only have been told because Northup was already literate before his experience as a slave. As most other slaves were kept illiterate, their personal stories could sadly never be told.
There were no satisfying revenge scenes such as those in "Django Unchained" and "The Help" (where racist abuse continues post-slavery), but its truth-telling should no doubt change minds and hearts.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Outstanding Achievement: Directing by Steve McQueen
La vie d'Adèle (2013)
The two lead actesses give great performances
The film focuses on Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a high school student in a city in northern France. Her emerging same-sex desires lead her into a relationship with Emma (Léa Seydoux), a fine arts university student.
At three hours long, a love story like this has great challenges. Luckily, it meets these challenges mainly due to the powerful performances of the two actresses, especially Exarchopoulos. Ironically, despite the great length, there were holes in the script such as whether Adèle is honest about her relationship with Emma toward her parents as well has what happens to Emma's previous lover before she meets Adèle.
Much commentary has been made on the explicit sex scenes. While they are certainly erotic, the principle "less is more" might have been applicable here as the length of the scenes, their frequency and close-ups diminish the impact overall. It almost seems that it was deliberately made to be pornographic in order to stimulate a certain mindset that doesn't necessarily regard such scenes as "art". This was also a criticism by Julie Maroh who wrote the book on which the film was based.
Some scenes explore the conflicting mindset between the artistic class vs. those who believe one must set one's career prospects toward something that presumably guarantees employment. This was welcome though it could have been more explored.
The two greatest scenes are between Exarchopoulos and Seydoux near the end. One is a serious fight; the other is a truce. The latter is so real, it makes one dig into one's past and cry with the performers. These scenes and the two great actresses behind them are the true strength of "Blue is the Warmest Colour
An enjpoyable what-if
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a young, struggling singer/songwriter living in Lowestoft, England. Just as he is ready to give up on his musical aspirations, a world freak accident occurs which eliminates the entire history of the music of The Beatles; that is for everyone except Jack, apparently. In response, he uses his memory to "write" The Beatles' hits, performs them, and becomes a star.
The film begins with some terrible music gigs that are funny in their truthful depiction of star-wannabe purgatory. It then morphs into a fascinating "what if" scenario that could also be a dystopia to many.
The fantasy is the best part of the story which is sadly weakened by an unrequited romance between Jack and his childhood friend and music manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James). Occasional dollops of schlock and schmaltz in this area lower the overall quality of the film.
But "Yesterday" has more pluses than minuses. Patel has a sweet, innocent likeability overall and James is fine as the leading lady. A couple of supporting performances add to the comedy element. As Jack's right-hand man Rocky, Joel Fry has some great moments as an oaf often out of place. And Kate McKinnon is bang-on as a Hollywood showbiz shark, Debra Hammer. In one scene, she is making her nastiest comments while doing perfect poses in yoga and Pilates while wearing (presumably) designer yoga clothing. This scene seems to be a not-so-subtle jab against a certain North American archetype. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of encountering this archetype would have a good snicker at this scene. The jabs against shallow, Hollywood, showbiz types are further extended into a surreal boardroom scene.
Overall, "Yesterday" has a theme of "what price, fame". This is best depicted in a sublime scene that takes place in an isolated seaside home in the film's second half. (No spoilers here!) This scene, which could easily jerk tears, plus others carry the film's message quite sweetly and enjoyably.
Le dialogue des Carmélites (1960)
A magnificent, under-rated gem
Based on a true story (as well as a book and a play): In 1794, during the Reign of Terror phase of the French Revolution, Carmelite nuns in the city of Compiègne are threatened by revolutionaries to either renounce their faith or face prosecution.
The opening credits are shown against a caged wall in a cathedral behind which members of the convent live. This is a reminder that we, as viewers, are outsiders of a cloistered convent where only the residents are allowed to set foot. Even when higher members of the Catholic Church want to speak to a Carmelite nun, they can do so only from behind this wall.
From this point, the viewer is taken inside the exclusive area and sees the daily convent life within a beautiful and peaceful setting of cloistered halls, small-sized rooms, and a collective commitment of a dedicated, spiritual life. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography (by André Bac) enhances the experience.
While the greater drama happens in the later half, directors Raymond Léopold Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini still manage to keep the viewer intrigued in the earlier section even with routine activities that are the opposite of dramatic. This is a great setup for the grander drama of events that happen later on. The directors also succeed in creating a beautiful and soulful atmosphere of not only another time and place but with a specific religious mindset which would not exist today even within the same religion.
"Dialogue of the Carmelites" has a dramatic finale that raises the bar for all dramatic finales. Its melding of a well-known period of history with a spiritual community whose faith is strong enough to overcome fear of death is utterly fascinating in its uniqueness. With a fine cast lead by Jeanne Moreau and Alida Valli, this film qualifies as an under-rated gem.
RATING: 9 out of 10
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Directing by Raymond Léopold Bruckberger and Philippe Agostini
Marianne Ihlen was a Norwegian woman living in the Greek Island of Hydra in the 1960s. There, she met Canadian poet Leonard Cohen and became his lover and muse. This documentary covers their early years together, Cohen's rise to fame, and how their lives and relationship evolved over the years that followed.
This film is rich in material and covers many fascinating topics including Cohen's career. It's fascinating to learn of his life and work before becoming a legendary singer/songwriter. And events surrounding his first stage appearance are very surprising considering the great career that followed. In addition, the film is often blunt about Cohen's struggles with depression.
"Marianne & Leonard" is beautifully expressed in the first half with a very poetic flow. It is blessed with amazing footage especially of Hydra in the early 60s. The film also joins many recent films in its depiction of the hedonism of the 60s and 70s ("Echo in the Canyon", "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind", "Rocketman", "Bohemian Rhapsody"). At first, the drug scene and open marriage are exposed for their fun indulgence but the serious and devastating consequences are made very clear in the second half.
Some editing might have improved in the film's second half which occasionally meanders. Also, while it genuinely expresses the consequences of the earlier indulgences (especially for how children were affected), there are insertions of inappropriate drunkalogues ("Man, we were SO stoned that night, ya just wouldn't BELIEVE it").
While much of the second half negates the beauty of the earlier half, it is saved by an emotional conclusion that is so deeply moving, it could make a stone weep - a perfect conclusion for film that is sometimes mixed but overall quite good.
The Farewell (2019)
Outstanding Screenplay by Wang
Billi Wang (Akwafina) is a young aspiring writer in New York whose family had immigrated from China when she was six years old. She maintains a happy telephone relationship with her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) who still lives in China in the city of Changchun. Billi's family has received news from another relative that Nai Nai is dying of lung cancer. The extended families travel to Changchun to celebrate the wedding of Billi's cousin although the collective intention is really to say goodbye to Nai Nai - while withholding the news from her that she is dying.
Throughout the film - and especially by the end, it is very clear that is biographical and based on the experiences of the film's talented writer/director Lulu Wang. The story is rich for various reasons including its unique take on the universal theme of dealing with the impending death of a beloved elderly relative.
Billi is also a stand-in for many "new world" North Americans who would find it terribly wrong to withhold from anyone the fact that they are dying. Her points are well expressed but so are the contradictory replies from her elders and those more in line with a Chinese cultural tradition of such secrecy. The reply to the question "who's right" is answered in Nai Nai's laid-back, content demeanour (when not coughing), totally oblivious to her diagnosis. This is one of the fascinating surprises of "The Farewell" in its acquiescence to old-world values in subtle ways. Here, Wang must be given credit for her humility. She seems to have nodded to a sarcastic quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: "I am not young enough to know everything".
The main story is powerful enough; yet Wang adds to the wealth by delving into the immigration experience - for those who left their homeland as well as those left behind. Here again, she takes on a universal theme. In conversations and monologues, the viewer hears what it is like to lose all of one's children (two sons in this case) as they leave the homeland (Nai Nai's other son emigrated to Japan). Billi also has a powerful monologue of what it was like to leave behind an extended family and community when she was six. While intelligently avoiding platitudes, the film asks: is there really a 'better life' somewhere else?
The fine cast does justice to Wang's eloquent story. Awkwafina fits well in the lead role and Zhao's Nai Nai is so loveable that she makes it very easy to see why so many would grieve her impending death. One particular scene stands out even though it is brief: Billi's mother (Diana Lin) quietly avoiding eye contact in a taxi while fighting back tears. In less than a minute, Lin conveys an experience of every adult at least once in our lives.
RATING: 9 out of 10
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Screenplay by Lulu Wang
Muscle Shoals (2013)
A fascinating subject
The subject of this documentary is the musical recording history in Muscle Shoals, Alabama - a very small town near the scenic Tennessee River. This very unlikely location for recording some of the biggest stars of the 1960s and 1970s was believed to have a special musical energy where the recording sound was believed to be better than those in major centres like New York, London, and Los Angeles.
Some of the great artist interviewees include Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. There is also superb film footage of artists recording during the beginnings and heights of their careers.
Some of the best interviews are those with Rick Hall, a producer who was responsible for many of the recordings. His most moving recollections include his tragic childhood, the conflicts and successes of his career, and the absence of racism within the recording studios despite its strong presence outside of it.
In addition to being a fine documentary, the audioplay of the recordings of the time, especially the soul music, are worth the admission price.
A fine film
In a small Montana town, Woody Grant (played by Bruce Dern) is an heavy-drinking senior citizen whose mental lapses cause trouble in his family. He believes he was won a landfall and is determined to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (the state where he grew up) to pick up his prize. The result is a road movie with skeletons coming out of various closets.
While this film has its flaws, its overall effect is one of melancholy charm. It seems a bit long at just under two hours. Woody's son David (Will Forte) seems to have too much goodness. At the opposite end, Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb), while hilarious, seems to have too much profane cruelty though she shines in a great scene where she stands up for her family when they're under attack.
Though the characters, as written, are sometimes questionable, the acting is quite good. It would be hard to imagine someone other than Dern in the main role. His subtlety and quietness speak volumes. Squibb's curmudgeon must be seen and heard to be believed especially during a scene in the cemetery where she pays her "respects".
The film's greatest strength is in the directing by Alexander Payne. With so many unspoken words and gestures (plus beautifully bleak black-and-white cinematography), it is amazing how much the past can be brought back to the surface as though it never died. Sadly, the past can include pettiness, nastiness, and greed.
Luckily, there is also a lot of good humour to lighten the load at times. Some scenes are quite memorable in this fine film.
A standout film
This film is based on the life of Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an Irishwoman living in England. Around 2004, Lee worked with journalist Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to help find her son who was forced into adoption almost fifty years before.
I believe that a movie-going year feels incomplete until I've seen at least one film with Judi Dench in it. "Philomena" not only fills this quota; it provides one of Dench's best performances. It also happens to be one of the best films of 2013.
The acting is praiseworthy enough but an even greater strength is the story written by Coogan and Jeff Pope based on Sixsmith's book. There are so many shocking and fascinating twists in the search that the film proves, yet again, that truth is stranger than fiction.
It is easy to compare "Philomena" with "The Magdalene Sisters" (2002) as both films expose the extreme injustices of some Irish convents against teenage girls in the last century. Both films are well made but "Magdalene" leaves the viewer with an unresolved rage by the end. "Philomena" certainly raises just rage as well but its main impact is the compassion one feels for the main characters particularly in debates about rage vs. forgiveness in a shocking finale.
All the great elements of this film were placed together by the great master Stephen Frears whose best works include "My Beautiful Launderette", "Dangerous Liaisons", "The Grifters", "The Queen", and now, "Philomena".
Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980)
A rarity: an experimental film that works very well
Based on the writings of French physician/philosopher Henri Laborit: the lives of three individuals are chronicled and analyzed using theories of how human lives and behaviours are formed and the results of inner and outer conflicts due to early programming. The individuals are René (Gérard Depardieu), a devout Catholic who left behind his farming family and became an executive in a textile factory; Janine (Nicole Garcia) whose family cut ties with her when she pursued a successful career in acting; and Jean (Roger Pierre) who was born into wealth and works in politics and writing.
It is clear at the beginning that this film is unconventional. The opening sequence has three simultaneous narrations of the early lives of the main characters and it takes a very long time - much longer than most narrations take. But it all pays off. The information is valuable for the fascinating stories of what happens to the characters later on.
The acting of the three leads is solid. Among some of the best scenes: Depardieu and Pierre each have at least one hissy fit moment in which they are hilarious, chewing up the scenery and everyone else in it.
The Depardieu story is particularly fascinating as it accurately displays the unethical viciousness of the corporate world. (Notice the film takes place in 1980, a decade in which corporate deviousness would begin to take over the world and worsen with each decade that followed.) The René story can resonate with anyone who has spent any time in corporate purgatory.
The frequent narration of the film is intriguing in its observations of human behaviour using three fine examples. The style of the film is experimental. Usually, this means disaster but in the case of "Mon Oncle d'Amérique", the experimental style not only works; it works quite well.
RATING: 9 out of 10
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Screenplay by Jean Gruault
Echo in the Canyon (2018)
Deviously Deceptive and Disappointing
The focus of this documentary is the musical creativity in the Laurel Canyon district near Los Angeles from 1965 to 1967. The film features music of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, and The Beach Boys.
Like most documentaries looking back in time, this one includes interviews with those still living who were part of the era. It also includes footage - musical and otherwise. But the musical footage is minimal before it morphs into modern artists singing the same songs in full length. Here is the main flaw in this film.
One of the best times in North American music history was in the period from the mid-60s to the early 70s. This was also a special era in other ways in how people related to each other. Not to undermine the problems of that time (e.g. the Vietnam War), but this was a time of relative prosperity and an era in which people who were together spent time talking to each other rather than staring at their phones simultaneously.
There are recent films that easily bring the viewer back to this great era and easily create an air of genuine nostalgia. They include "The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years", "Amazing Grace", and "Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind". Only the latter film includes other artists doing remakes of original songs and these scenes are as short as they ought to be. The opposite case occurs in "Echo in the Canyon".
In leading the viewer to believe that they will relive a fine era and hear, once again, the great songs of that time as ORIGINALLY performed and recorded, the film is deviously deceptive. It ends up being a manipulative scheme of self-promotion to hear modern artists who are certainly good but who cannot recreate the special vibe of an era long gone. Old footage should have been used instead.
Jakob Dylan (yes, the son of THAT Dylan) is an executive producer on this film. He is also the main interviewer - fair enough. He is also the main performer in the modernized versions of the older songs - not good. So, instead of a 1960s vibe/attitude of peace, love, and good times, the viewer is forced to endure a 1990s vibe/attitude of marketing, marketing, and more manipulative marketing. How disappointing.
The Biggest Little Farm (2018)
Entertaining, Enlightening, and Encouraging
In 2010, John and Molly Chester left city life and bought land in southern California to establish the Apricot Lane Farms. This documentary (co-directed by John with Sandra Keats) was filmed over a period of eight years, showing the beginning of their venture and the hardships and victories along the way.
It was wise to have documented the farming project over many years as it shows the many ups and downs of the period thus making this film almost seem like a traditional comedy/drama. Some of the farm animals are even highlighted as special characters including a phenomenally fertile sow named Emma.
As non-farmers, the Chesters did something wise: they hired a farming expert, listened to him, and put into practice what they learned. A basic lesson is re-learned here (listen to the experts) yet what they were taught is something that most people would have ignored; some would have chosen to shut down the project entirely.
The key is diversity in everything: all possible forms of livestock, fruit, and vegetables. This may seem bizarre at first, but throughout "The Biggest Little Farm", this method proves that if nature has created a problem, another part of nature can solve that problem. Apricot Lane Farms proves itself to be a fascinating ecosystem. And Lord knows our damaged planet can use as many of those as possible.
Overall, "The Biggest Little Farm" is entertaining, enlightening, and ultimately encouraging.