Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 5, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Jordan Adler
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Farzana Hassan
Betsy L. Chunko
Andrée Lafontaine
  Music Editors
Nancy Snipper
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque
Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Film Reviews
  Bowling for Columbine
Shanghai Ghetto
Talk to Her
City of God
Magdalene Sisters
Dirty Pretty Things
Barbarian Invasions
Fog of War
Blind Shaft
The Corporation
Station Agent
The Agronomist
Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
Buffalo Boy
Shake Hands with the Devil
Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
The Legacy
Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold
The Mourning Forest
Beneath the Rooftops of Paris
Before Tomorrow
Paraiso Travel
Necessities of Life
For a Moment of Freedom
Blood River
By the Will of Genghis Kahn
The Concert
Weaving Girl
Into Eternity
When We Leave
Le Havre
Presumed Guilty
A Separation
Take This Waltz
Beyond The Walls
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Past



So far, A & O film critics Robert J. Lewis and Jordan Adler have seen the following films. Here are their ratings and comments, always out of 4, reserving 2.5 or more for a noteworthy film, 3.5 for an exceptional film, 4 for a classic.


2.5 -- THE HANDMAIDEN, Park Chan-wook
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Combining the multi-perspective narrative style of Rashomon with the voluptuousness of Fellini's Amarcord, Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, despite the trite and tired plot, manages to sustain interest over its near two and half hours. It's an erotic tale of a swindle involving a seductive pickpocket and her gentleman accomplice out to relieve an innocent heiress of her fortune. The tale is told thrice with three different victims, with the lesbian lovers being granted the last word - but not quite. All three sections are incorporated into Marquis de Sade-like reading get-togethers whose members' members look to literature's licentious worlds to get the blood flowing. The sets are garishly sumptuous, the settings, both indoors and outdoors, drop-dead gorgeous, and you need look no further than this film to find "the beautiful people." The camera, one button at a time, from the nape to the small of the back, takes forever to expose and palpate the marble-smooth skin waiting to be introduced to the pleasures of the flesh. Turning a tooth ache into a sensual encounter speaks to the acrobatics of both the lensing and script rendered silent by the imperatives of want and desire. From the very first frames, the cinematography behaves like an appetite that can't get enough of the sumptuous decor and its myriad surface textures, turning ordinary objects into museum pieces, and creating the illusion that the inanimate world makes itself beautiful in order to stop us in our tracks. If it weren't for the vivisection of the unequal relationship between the served and servers, and the two women scheming to make a life for themselves in the straight laced Victorian orient, the film could easily be accused of deferring to style over substance. But if the story line grabs your attention as much as its aesthetics and studied sensuality, you'll rate this film considerably higher than my take it or leave it two and half stars.

3.2 -- SOY NERO, Rafi Pitts
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] If you have ever wondered why there is a disproportionate number of Mexican names on the PBS News nightly roll call of the dead, you need look no further than Rafi Pitts's Soy Nero, a film that draws attention to itself as much for its creative technical flourishes as original take on a theme that has been the subject of many excellent films (El Norte, La Juala de Oro, Paraiso Travel).
Nero, an undocumented Mexican-American, finds himself on the wrong side of the wall looking to return to the promised land. He succeeds on his second try and is police-escorted to a sprawling villa in Beverly Hills where his older half-brother, a mechanic and girl-friend (Mercedes) 'presumably' live. Nero, 18-years-old, still wearing vestiges of innocence, quickly settles into the American dream spending his first evening drinking and getting high at pool-side. With his brother passed out in a lawn chair, Mercedes discreetly arrives, greets Nero with a smile, the camera clinging to her body as she removes her robe and self-consciously tugs at her bikini before gliding into the pool. Without a hint of impropriety, the scene smolders, as do all the scenes in the film. Each vignette is so expertly constructed and tensile, the sometimes questionable relevancy and duration all but vanish in the pure pleasure of the moment. When the real owner of the house arrives the following morning and the charade crashes (they are both staff), we are poignantly reminded that the have-nots are prisoners of both their station in life and unfulfilled dreams.
The second half of the film takes place in the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan), in a sun-scorched wasteland not all that different from the one between Mexico and California. Nero has signed up for another dream (The Dream Act) that promises the illegal immigrant a green card if he enlists in the military and survives his tour of duty. Nero belongs to a unit charged with guarding a checkpoint. His fellow soldiers, a couple of bickering Afro-Americans, are suspicious of his origins and pedigree. As if condemned to be the voiceless outsider wherever he finds himself, he hardly speaks in this section of the film. After the post is ambushed and bombed, he finds himself alone in the desert until rescued by another unit that treats him like the enemy when he can't produce a social security number.
The film features exceptionally creative use of the high-powered, long distance lens which crunches distance and slows down time so that great expenditures of energy seem all for naught: it can take an suspenseful eternity for a vehicle to arrive at a checkpoint. In the vibrant, liquified, wavy background familiar objects are rendered unrecognizable. Through that same lens (wide-angle format), Nero is a mere speck against the vast expanses he has to negotiate, be it the no man's land between Mexico and the USA or that same space between his dreams and soldier's life on the front lines of a war he doesn't understand.
If the script was a bit overwrought in the second half, and Nero's character not fully fleshed out, the compelling, semi-autonomous scenes are their own reward with the story providing the syntax. As a unique perspective on the American dream that can be bought and sold like a commodity or a gun-for-hire,
Soy Nero does the El Norte genre proud.

2.9 -- HARMONIUM, Kôji Fukada
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Simmering with panic and aggression, the new drama-turned-thriller from Japanese filmmaker Kôji Fukada is a disquieting affair. In plot, theme and style, it reminds one of Tokyo Sonata, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa in 2008, except this one is more sinister. In the first scene, grade-schooler Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) plays away on the family piano, trying to keep with a metronome’s beat. Just like her playing, the balance in this family will soon be slightly off. Her withdrawn dad Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and mom Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) live a functional middle-class life in Japan. However, the sudden arrival of Toshio’s old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), at their home, starts to stir up some strangeness. Yasaka slurps his dinner quickly and wears a dress shirt to the park, but his quirks slowly become more ominous. He spies on Hotaru when she is on a jungle gym and then begins to make a move on Akie, whom he suspects isn’t faring too well in her marriage. To spoil Harmonium’s secrets would be unfair, but the plotting escalates rapidly around the middle, before the film jumps forward eight years, as we watch the family still coping with the aftermath of Yasaka’s actions. The drama’s inclusion of dark thrills into an ordinary family unit will make some shudder, aided by Fukada’s minimalist aesthetics that announce the creeping arrival of something wicked. One wishes the film’s screenplay, especially in the second half, had mirrored the restraint of Harmonium’s visuals. A few too many secrets and lies spill out in ways that feel inorganic, although the performances are incisive enough to mute these problems. Meanwhile, the film’s climactic scene, which features some fake-looking special effects, goes big when a more psychologically nuanced finale would have been more affecting.

2.9 --  WEIRDOS, Bruce McDonald
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] It is the weekend of the American Bicentennial, but the only glimpses of that fanfare in the new film from Bruce McDonald (Trigger) come from televised parades. The various Nova Scotia residents who populate Weirdos may be tuned in to celebrations of their neighbours to the south, but the radio hits and folksy charm of the characters here are definitely Canadian. Just as many from this country struggle to define their national identity, especially in the shadow of American patriotic fervor, 15-year-old Kit (Dylan Authors) is at a crossroads with his sexuality. He is gay, but in the closet, and hasn’t yet told his girlfriend Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) or his father (Allan Hawco), who Kit heard using a homophobic slur. So, he has packed a suitcase and plans to hitchhike his way to Sydney with Alice, so that he can live with the artist mother (Molly Parker) he rarely sees. Scripted by playwright Daniel MacIvor – a Sydney native, openly gay, who was a teen in the late 1970s – Weirdos nails the details of closeted anxiety. Meanwhile, the classic rock-heavy soundtrack, crisp black-and-white cinematography and spirited performances from the young ensemble (Stone, in particular, grabs our sympathy), reminds one of the freewheeling films that played on American screens during the 1970s. (The change of location is refreshing). There is little counter-culture clashing though, beyond some mild teenage smoking and drinking, although an Andy Warhol surrogate shows up to be Kit’s “spirit animal.” (This quirky touch doesn’t add much). Although the performances are often affecting, at just 85 minutes, this sweet study of teenage confusion feels a bit slight. One could imagine a heftier draft doing more to develop various character relationships, such as the one between Kit and his single father.

2.2 -- MIMOSAS, Oliver Laxe
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] A visually arresting but disjointed narrative, Mimosas takes place in the awesome Atlas mountains in southern Morocco. A group of tribesmen reluctantly decides to follow its sheikh over a dangerous mountain crossing because he wants to die in the town of his birth. He expires en route and from that point on has to be carried. During the trek through treacherous terrain things happen without rhyme or reason: the group suddenly splinters then inexplicably finds itself together again; the body of the sheikh gets swept down a torrential river only to miraculously reappear intact. During the middle section of the film, the incoherent story line is somewhat rescued by breathtaking cinematography and our interest in the conflict between two of the tribesmen. Shakib, a man of resolute faith, has been summoned to lead the group. Opposing him is Ahmed, who has never set foot in a mosque, and, who along with Said, is a thief. Their positions in respect to their faith are severely tested by extreme cold and hunger, a lethal confrontation with a band of marauders, and a life and death disagreement over the location of their final destination (Sijilmasa). Whether viewed as a factual account or an allegory, the film suffers from lack of credibility, on top of which the director's tendentious views on Islam turns what could have been a compelling drama about faith into a propaganda expedient. It is hardly a coincidence that the only young woman in the film is a mute; or that Shakib, for whom reason counts for nothing next to his absolute faith in his God, with sword in hand, à la Don Quixote, launches a wholly irrational attack on a group of armed villagers who are hanging the mute who was kidnapped earlier. In Shakib's bloated Quranic utterances and bizarre behaviour, the fanatic is born. As for the marauders, they are not just hanging the woman, but in fits in starts, torturing her by letting her down for a gulp of air before hoisting her up again, their sadistic pleasure increasing with each yank of the rope. This unforgettable scene leaves no doubt as to Laxe's take on the people and ethos of the region. Like maggots feasting on a decayed corps, the camera crawls all over the hideous, pock marked faces, in and about the gaps of rotting, black teeth, up into the slimy nostrils, the unseeing blood-shot eyes - a savage horde of ugly disgusting sub-humans begging for extermination. More interested in outing his politics than telling a story, through Laxe's warped lense we learn that Morocco's Atlas is no country for the mimosa and its beautiful flower, and woe to the men convinced that faith and faith alone is enough to turn rock into orchards of plenty.

3.0 -- BELGICA, Felix van Groeningen
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Everything, over time, turns into its opposite, or, paraphrasing Jean Baudrillard, in order for anything to be of interest it must be 'haunted' by reversibility. Belgica tells the story of two brothers, one-eyed, doe-faced Jo, and his older, louder, stronger brother Frank. Together, they grow the Belgica, a boisterous music club that caters to a strictly hedonistic clientele. At the beginning, the club does very well, with Frank making the major decisions while looking out for his kid brother. On the home front, Frank is burdened by his wife and kids while Jo is looking to have a family with someone he met at the club. In a series of symmetrical reversals, in both the club's fortunes and personal lives, everything spirals into its opposite. The club becomes violent and unprofitable, while Frank, who is on a 24/7 high, finds himself unable to break the losing streak of bad decisions that leave him at odds with his brother and wife. All of the relationships are under the influence of the explosive cocktail of sex, drugs (especially cocaine) and throbbing music which was tellingly recorded live by the group called The Shitz. Thanks to expert camera work and editing, the mad frenzy and energy generated by the club scenes perfectly capture and preserve the hedonism of the day and the raw pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, as if the laws of gravity no longer apply. Eventually, Frank becomes a victim of living in the fast lane and is no longer capable of running the club or being a father to his children. The relationship between Frank and Jo deteriorates to the point where the latter wants to buy out the former. In the end, everything has changed. For the better or worse asks the film? Like a multi-faceted surface of a precious gem, which in its making the movie aspires to be, it depends on the person and the manner in which the facet strikes the eye and the ear. With its in-your-face emphasis on the moment and strong performances from the two leads, Belgica manages to retell an oft told story so that it feels like you are hearing and seeing it for the very first time.

2.1 -- PRANK, Vicent Biron
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Absence, as in derelict parents, plays a major role in the comedy-drama Prank that follows the lives of four teens who spend their days and nights confectioning pranks to help them pass the abundant time they have on their hands, or, in Freud-speak, to supply the deficit of attention their lives are lacking. Nerdy, friendless, orthodontically challenged Stefig, is invited by Martin, his girl-friend Léa, and Jean-Sé, all of whom are three or four years older, to film a prank they've devised, at which point he becomes part of the team for whom pranking is their raison d' être, a device that very quickly wears thin. Stefig's attraction to rebel-punk, platinum blond Léa provides the only story of interest. We are offered glimpses of what the largely absent, self-absorbed parents are doing while their kids are on the lamb. In the only brief epiphany in the film, Stefig revolts against the others - "you're all losers" -- but finds himself alone again until he reconsiders. Without ambition, any future or role-models, condemned to a nowhere existence, the foursome at least have each other. Prank paints a bleak societal portrait of the equivalent of bee colony collapse syndrome, and accuses the absentee parent. The back drop to the film isn't so much the white middle class neighbourhoods that grow these kids but the nihilism that prevails and snuffs out their future. Of note is Biron's energetic cinematography, the sudden washes and fades into which images and ideas from the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme (ersatz role model) are interpolated. The problem with Prank is its excessive pranking on which the the project's considerable talent base is squandered. Leaving the film, I felt that the final prank was the one played on the audience for whom the promising beginning ended up going nowhere.

2.6 -- THE RED TURTLE, Michael Dudok de Wit
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The latest animated adventure from Studio Ghibli – even though this is technically a co-production, although staple Isao Takahata is on board as an 'artistic producer' – is imaginative and swirling with visual poetry. However, despite various stunning moments, The Red Turtle’s survivalist realism and dream logic doesn’t quite mesh as seamlessly as the studio’s past efforts. The wordless story, from Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit, follows a man with shoulder-length hair and white robes, who, tempest-tossed, washes onto the shore of a deserted island populated only by beach critters. The first half of the 80-minute drama chronicles his repeatedly failed efforts to escape the island’s throes and get out to sea. But, every time he builds a raft, a mystical figure from under the sea swims upward and destroys the floating structure. Back on the island, the castaway’s dreams are illuminating but also harsh, just like the moonlight that bathes the sand at night. However, once the titular creature appears, soon to be joined by other bodies, De Wit’s story begins to drift into a lull of episodic situations. The lack of dialogue gives the audience the opportunity to bask in the film’s storybook beauty, but also limits one’s attachment to the characters’ feelings and motivations. The Red Turtle’s images are individually striking; however, stretched beyond a reasonable running time, the poetry begins to plod. The final third feels aimless when the story should be refining its focus and building toward a stirring conclusion.

2.5 -- DOGS, Bogdan Mirica
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The "be careful what you wish for" admonition, or films based on someone assuming another person's identity is a sure recipe for the unexpected and/or getting more than you bargained for. Dogs not only keeps the faith, it ups the ante. In the opening scene, the camera, like a dog sniffing its way through scrub, is stopped in its tracks by ominous bubbles breaking the surface of a swamp - an apt metaphor for what's in store. Roman, hailing from the capital Bucharest, inherits a vast tract of border land from his grandfather, who was the leader of a local criminal organization. For reasons never explained, but probably smuggling, the capo's underlings-thugs don't want him to sell the land. Much of the story consists of their attempts to dissuade him, employing intimidation techniques that recall David Lynch: a severed foot is found; there's a Klu Klux Klan-like gathering of headlights just outside the main residence and a chilling night hunting scene. Eventually, Roman meets the thugs, a sinister, unwashed bunch, who instead of making its views felt, pass around the bottle, politely inquiring about life in the city. The awkward dialogue is punctuated with silence and foreboding as the friendly gathering imperceptively turns menacing. Roman, tone-deaf, fatally under-appreciates the danger at hand, which predicts the violence that ensues. If we grant that the suspenseful build-up doesn't miss a beat, technical virtuosity alone is not enough to carry this film. Although the blood-count was graphic, it was restrained in the sense that it wasn't in your face but on the windshield. That said, bull-fight aficionados will not be left wanting. Dogs is a brooding mood piece but lacking in bite. That it wasn't meant to be anything other than that will satisfy some viewers and disappoint others.

3.2 -- THE STUDENT, Kirill Serebrennikov
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The thorny issue of radicalization in the secular age is given an incendiary hearing in Kirill Serebrennikov's riveting The Student (the alternate title is The Disciple). Christianity, taking a last stand against modernism, and no less than other religions, is very capable of growing its proper fundamentalists and providing the necessary textual support. Inga, recently divorced, is worried over and a bit afraid of teenage son Venya, who has become distant and aloof. His grades are falling and he repeatedly skips swimming class because the girls are all wearing skimpy bikinis, which the Bible he carries with him at all times explicitly proscribes. In an unforgettable scene, a swooning, pivoting underwater camera performs a ballet with lissome female bodies, perfectly capturing their smouldering sexuality. Venya is an angry, brooding, but highly charismatic student, self-annointed to carry out a critique against the moral decadence of his time and place -- Christian Russia. The classroom scenes are as outrageous as they are X-Rated. Fluently incorporating the sound and fury of the Bible into his scathing condemnations, the viewer is initially seduced by Venya's arguments, in particular those aimed at the sexual license enjoyed by modern youth. It redounds to the director's great skill and attention to pacing that our attraction to Venya initially feels the same as the attraction of someone undergoing gradual radicalization -- someone who will eventually become a religious fundamentalist. Full of the Lord, Venya decides that his biology teacher, Elena, his intellectual nemesis and a Jewish atheist (Christ-hater), must die, while the fate of his loyal disciple Grisa hangs in the balance after the latter makes a homosexual pass. As the film feverishly jumps the tracks from one explosive conflict to the next, the splintered soul of Russia is laid bare. The school administrators, representing the old-guard, are somewhat sympathetic to Venya's semi-delirious, apocalyptic utterances while the younger generation is totally sold on the promised-pleasures of secularism. In the no-man's land between the two extremes is born the fundamentalist-fanatic slouching towards Bethlehem, and a superlative mix of ingredients that assures an absorbing, thought-provoking film that honours both the combattants and the very high stakes.

2.8 -- AFTER THE STORM, Hirokazu Koreeda
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Who hasn't secretly wished to return to a more happy and idyllic period in one's life? Hirokazu Koreeda's no-nonsense drama looks back at that happier period through the eye of the storm of the present, where a divided family is forced to spend the evening together while waiting out a typhoon. The thin story line consists of family members coming and going at the mother's small apartment in the projects. Through a series of off-handed remarks - like photo flashes in the dark - we learn why Kyoko left her husband Ryota who is still in love with her. The initially affable, basketball-tall Ryota isn't so much a bad person as incurably weak and irresponsible. To supply his gambling addiction, he'll steal from his mother, whose husband was also a gambler. Ryota published a novel to some acclaim 15 years ago but hasn't written since, and now works as a shady, wire-tapping detective. In his encounters with the various family members and co-workers, we learn that his best intentions are no match for what is unwholesome and unsavoury in his character. He dreams of winning back his wife but can't come up with his monthly alimony payments, so he is only allowed to see his son Shingo once a month. After the Storm is not a happy film. No one is untouched by Ryota's gambling habit, and while we feel sorry that he can't enjoy a relationship with his son, the facts make the case that it's probably for the best. The elderly mother, Yoshika, wonderfully played by Kilin Kiki, who stuck by her husband through thick and thin, now feels her mortality and desperately wants to see the family whole again, but she too has to relinquish her dream in a film whose final scenes unfold like a 'requiem for a dream.' While both mother and son stubbornly cling to their illusions, it becomes clear -- if not in words then in body language -- that what's past is gone: Ryota is unshaven and disheveled while his ex-wife is prim and proper, determined to get on with her life without looking back. Such is life in this quietly affecting tale of ordinary people caught up in adversity and having to make difficult choices. Despite the mostly interior scenes, the film is by no means static, its momentum generated and sustained by solid character development, including the characters with bit parts. From beginning to end, the dialogue bristles and benefits from thoroughly enjoyable diacritical remarks and observations. That an obvious lesson isn't a necessarily easily learned one is After the Storm's most enduring truth.

3.5 -- SAND STORM, Elite Zexer
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The debut feature from Israeli director Elite Zexer simmers with indignation as it comments on the constraints felt by women in a Bedouin community. The film focuses on the anguished Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), trying to raise four daughters and not show her thornier side during the short time after her husband (Hitham Omari) re-marries. She is also not privy to the desires of her eldest, high school student Layla (the transfixing Lamis Ammar), who is in a relationship with a boy from many towns away. Layla pines to move away from a village where she would have to uphold patriarchal gender standards: the trick is to figure a way out. Zexer immerses the audience with the customs and rituals of a village rarely seen on the big screen, while offering subtle twists on the conventional tale of teenage agitation from the strict mores of the parents. Sand Storm’s powerful critique of gender dynamics comes, subtly, from various sides – in sour glares from Jalila, pithy talk among her daughters, choice repetitions of dialogue – until its fire becomes overwhelming. (An oft-repeated line in the film, centered on choice, comes to be very significant, showing the screenwriter’s care for organically building the story’s main themes). Meanwhile, the performances are all first-rate, especially Ammar as the stubborn teenager, defiant as her youthful dominion recedes. The young actor, in her film debut, offers a gaze in the final scene that, much like Sand Storm, shakes to the core.

2.8 -- SAND STORM, Elite Zexer
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Sand Storm is an apt metaphor and title for director Elite Zexer's brave but somewhat unsubtle first film, which with restraint and keen attention to detail develops the notion that what's worse than bad weather outside is bad weather inside. As proxy for Islam, the location - an isolated Arab village in the desert - is deliberately vague. Under the microscope, Sand Storm investigates the plight of the gentler sex and the role and rule of tradition in Islam. The first response to a sandstorm is to close your eyes, at which point you are blind. As the story unfolds, not only the women but also men are shown to be blind to the manner born in which their lives are pre-determined by cultural fiat. Desiring a grander house and more Rubenesque woman, Suliman decides to take on a second wife. Jalila, the mother of his four children, stoically accepts her fate. She discovers that her daughter Layla is in love with a boy, Omar, from 'another tribe,' which is unacceptable since the father decides whom his daughter will marry. Despite Layla's protestations, the father arranges for her to marry Munir, but the mother objects, finding the choice unworthy of her daughter's beauty and intelligence, and insists Suliman find someone else. For speaking out, for contradicting her husband, Suliman, also in thrall to tribal protocol, is obliged to banish his wife. Layla decides to flee with Omar but can't go through with it, feeling responsible for the fate of her mother and sisters, and reluctantly agrees to marry Munir. As it begins, the film ends with another wedding ceremony, another deal cut, another fate sealed. As the camera catches the younger sister surreptitiously spying on Layla meeting the bland and rotund groom for the first time in the bedroom, her future is writ. While Israeli director Zexer sticks to the narrative and painstakingly avoids moralizing, Sand Storm, although not an outright propaganda piece, is nonetheless a blunt-edged, albeit engaging, indictment of Islam's deeply embedded sexism and androcentric world view. The film works because viewers are shown up-close the intricacies and internal dynamics of family life under Islam, and by extension, are moved to reflect on the freedoms they take for granted.

2.4 -- PACIFICO, Fernanda Romandia
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Not much happens in first-time director Fernanda Romandia's lyrically paced film Pacifico. The events, or rather non-events, unfold near the tropical sea-side resort of Puerto Escondido (Mexico), but the city is peripheral to the central location, which is a construction site and the simple family homes nearby, the ever presence of the sea in its many moods, and the cactus-studded sandy terrain. Oriente, who hails from the mountainous region of Michoacan, is the foreman of the construction gang: he is overly fond of his tequila and likes to recite his favourite lines from Don Quixote. During his extended stay, he falls in love with one of the locals and is torn between staying or returning to his family, a decision made more difficult by Coral, the 6-year-old daughter who looks up to Oriente, and spends too much time innocently wandering around the construction site. In a series of loosely connected vignettes, we enter the lives of these unassuming workers and their families, eavesdropping on private conversations as they discuss their quotidian, their love lives and hopes for the future. The film doesn't pretend to offer anything more than an intimate glimpse into the rural life of a largely forgotten people for whom decency and tradition are one and the same. Shot on a shoe-string budget, Romandia directed and casted the film and co-wrote the script. As if beaten down by the relentless heat, the camera is often static. There is nothing in the film that draws attention to its making except for the inexplicably decibel heavy diegetic sound-track: from the high-pitched screech of electric saws, the piercing collisions of metal on metal, to the deafening crashing of surf-high waves, the beleaguered, battered ear searches in vain for a symbolic justification of the sonic assault, but alas, I couldn't find it: Unless the noise was meant to infer that higher forces are more than any of these workers can handle as it concerns improvement of their lives. Romandia has a good ear for natural dialogue which was credibly supplied by local actors. Through indirection and inference, we learn that limited resources and being unschooled are not deterrents for families wanting and doing the very best for their children. Pacifico is a modest first take in a career that shows considerable promise.

2.3 --  MEAN DREAMS, Nathan Morlando
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] The tone and natural beauty of Terrence Malick’s early films comes through in the sophomore effort from Canadian filmmaker Nathan Morlando – but, sadly, little of the poetry. Blame it on a hackneyed script from Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby, which moves briskly without finding much in the way of original moments or crackling dialogue. The story is of two young teens that end up on the run. The boy, Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins, a capable anchor), lives on a farm, several miles from town, helping out his rancher dad. The girl, Casey Caraway (Sophie Nélisse), has moved into the house nearby with her police officer pop, Wayne (Bill Paxton, imposing). The attraction between Jonas and Casey is instant, which Wayne notices, as he tries to keep this new neighbour away from his “baby girl.” After Jonas witnesses Wayne commit a horrible act of violence, he and his girlfriend escape the grip of the father and go on the lam, where they try to evade the storms in their midst. Nélisse (an award-winner for Monsieur Lazhar a few years ago) and Wiggins have a disarming chemistry that grinds against inorganic dialogue, while the conversations about good and evil also feel forced in. Nevertheless, despite conventional plotting, the menace throughout Mean Dreams is palpable; from Paxton’s oily turn as the abusive patriarch to the pounding score by Son Lux. Featuring Canadian treasure Colm Feore in a supporting role as a deputy with mysterious motives.

3.5 --  NERUDA, Pablo Larrain
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] This year in cinema could be the year of Pablo Larrain. The Chilean filmmaker brought us the haunting drama The Club in winter, while his portrait of Jackie Kennedy (starring Natalie Portman) was a recent TIFF prizewinner and is due in December. But he’s not done yet: also roving the festival circuit is another Larrain drama, Neruda, about the legendary Chilean poet and Communist politician. To call it a “biopic” sells its lightness, nuance and self-reflexive layers short. The drama focuses on the postwar period when Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) and wife Delia (Mercedes Morán) went from the halls of power into hiding after a warrant is issued for his arrest. Half of the running time sticks with the titular figure, portrayed with gravitas and flair by Gnecco. The rest sides with Oscar (Gael Garcia Bernal, offering deft comic timing), the lead investigator tracking down the Communist leader and doing a rather lousy job of it. Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón refuse to spoon-feed the history, so a quick refresher before the lights dim may be needed. Regardless, as soon as the cat-and-house chase begins about 20 minutes in, Neruda becomes a dazzling dual character study of two men of unequal wit. Larrain has long been interested in immersing audiences with the period – remember the lo-fi video aesthetic of No? – although Neruda captures the era in nifty ways. The filmmaker employs natural lighting, jarring shifts in location and obviously fake rear-projection, which hint at how a movie of the story’s era may have looked, while also keeping with the film's themes regarding the artificiality of storytelling. Like the work of the poet it examines, Neruda manages to be unconventional and endlessly absorbing.

2.7 -- NERUDA, Pablo Larrain
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The notion that there is no pursued without the pursuer, or an idea is only as meaningful as the opposition it generates, is central to Pablo Larrain’s highly inventive if not always convincing drama about the poet-politician Pablo Neruda and his times. The film vacillates between historical drama, biopic and allegory, and of course no Latin American film is complete if it doesn’t include a sequence or two of magic realism. In sharp contrast to our own vacuous, deteriorated, tweet-wrecked language, Neruda opens up a window into a world where the poet and the power of the word are to be reckoned with, which in the late 1940s in Chile pitted Communism against the government of Gabriel Gonzalez Videla that was turning to the right. Fearing the poet and his influence, the President engages a bumbling police inspector, Oscar Peluchonneau, luminously portrayed by Gael García Bernal, to hunt down Neruda, who goes into hiding. The chase, or the relationship between the hunter and hunted and their peculiar interdependency, takes on a surreal quality as the inspector, in mostly voice-overs and priceless facial expressions, reflects on his profession, his mission and secret admiration for the poet. The dialogue, deliciously sardonic and witty, is of the highest order and seamlessly includes lines from the poet’s famous Cantos, inspired by the suffering and sacrifice of the peasantry opposed to the regime. The film is also a no-holds barred character study. Unlike the hungry and exploited workers for whom the poet is a hero, Neruda, more admirable than likeable, is an out-and-out voluptuary (code for glutton). Handsomely overweight, he enjoys the best food, the best wines, and repeatedly risks his life in order to be surrounded by bevies of naked women whose youth and wantonness his middle-aged wife cannot match. But since he is a rebel with a cause greater than himself, he enjoys both the fidelity of his wife and adulation of the masses.
To better capture the era, the film is exquisitely shot in faded newsreel tint, while the meticulously designed sets and decor, as Neruda flees from one town and room to another, speak to impeccable production values. Pablo Larrain’s
Neruda exalts the power of the word and reminds us of the respect and status once accorded to the poet, and makes the case that a portrait of the artist with all his flaws and foibles does not make him a lesser man but a fuller one.

3.1-- AMERICAN HONEY, Andrea Arnold
[reviewed by Jordan Adler] Few films from 2016 capture the shallow thrills and aching despair that has defined so much of this year’s polarized political landscape as Andrea Arnold’s new drama. Running 162 minutes, yet rarely feeling long, American Honey centers on Star (Sasha Lane, a great discovery), an 18-year-old who lives in squalor and jumps at the chance to run away to survive and strive with a band of young adults. These teens and twenty-somethings, coming from all corners of the U.S., drive from state to state in a big white SUV, find the rich neighbourhoods and sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. The boss over these eager workers is Krystal (Riley Keough) and her right-hand man, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf, as charming as he’s ever been), starts falling for the new arrival. Their passionate, off-kilter affair takes centre stage, although Arnold’s film – the first of her titles set in the U.S. – keeps swerving in unpredictable directions. American Honey has a raw, intoxicating energy, and its asides – dance parties around a bonfire, discussions about Darth Vader – eventually reveal substance, drawing on the difficulties of growing up young and poor while yearning to be visible. Here, themes related to class struggle, religion and the American Dream drift organically into the story. As the protagonist, Lane is a natural who possesses a flinty edge as well as the sweetness to which the title alludes: Star comes from a dark place and each day reveals new layers and feelings. Still, one would have sacrificed a few scenes of Jake and Star’s affair for time with this irreverent crew of young hustlers, who spend much of the running time singing along to hip hop and chirping at each other with exuberance and bravado.

3.5 -- DEATH IN SARAJEVO, Danis Tanovic
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence of the same" gets a blistery retelling in Danis Tanovic's edgy drama that unfolds in a hotel in Sarajevo where an UN assembly is taking place, commemorating the events that precipitated WW I. The film stars the human genotype (human nature), against which best intentions and reason are no match. The storyline, which centers on the hotel readying itself for its international guest-list, is merely a device -- and a brilliant one at that - that introduces us to Omer (Izudin Bajrovic), whose hotel is being threatened with foreclosure as well as a strike from employees that haven't been paid for two months. Helping him deal with the gathering assembly is the very all-business and attractive Lamija (Snezana Vidovic), who is torn between her career and loyalty to Omar and her mother, who is at the vanguard of the strike.
Through deftly rendered relationships between the various employees and departments, we are introduced to the imperatives of history and memory as Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Herzegovinians try to find common ground in the present. On the roof of the hotel, a journalist, with her own biases, interviews players from both sides of the conflict, each convinced of his own rectitude. Collated into that immiscibility is the European view, on whose watch Sarajevo has suffered through WW I, WWII, and the horrific break up of Tito's Yugoslavia that left a quarter of a million dead.
Thanks to a riveting script and razor-sharp editing, this bleak, message driven film makes its points without a hint of didacticism. Scenes that take place in the laundry room or hotel kitchen, in their quasi-accidental accumulation, speak - so that the viewer supplies the connective tissue -- to the uncompromising politics of the region and the dyed-in-blood codes of ethnicity. Refract the truth often enough and it is sure to emerge splintered, undecipherable, as dead as hope is in Sarajevo. As a microcosm of the region, the hotel, thanks to a burrowing camera that follows the employees from the main floor into its multi-faceted underground, is stripped of all pretense and propriety. In its dungeons are a gambling den, strip club, surveillance cameras, and the thugs serving the criminal elements calling the shots.
Death in Sarajevo is at once a fascinating account and indictment of the fear and mistrust that hold the entire region in a head-lock, where everyone outside of family is an outsider. At a minimum, this masterly conceived drama turns us all into insiders, and, in a world where unlike people and cultures are sharing the same spaces as never before, is a precautionary tale that deserves the widest possible audience.

3.4 -- TWO LOVERS AND A BEAR, Kim Nguyen
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The event maker in Kim Nguyen’s haunting, fascinating, highly original, Two Lovers and a Bear is location (Iqaluit). Everything -- relationships, shopping, partying, dressing -- is under-the-influence. As the camera follows the favoured means of transportation (the high-powered, all-terrain snowmobile), the viewer quickly learns that in the extreme north nothing is biodegradable: mixed in with the snow banks that line the roads are wooden crates, discarded junk and a fleets worth of abandoned vehicles. The director uses the brilliant natural light and pervasive, antipodal darkness to convey both awe and respect the north commands: the long shots are breathtaking, the remoteness unlike anything you’ve ever seen – a wonderland that invokes terror and incredulity that anyone could survive there. We quickly learn that extreme conditions often appeal to people looking to escape the extremes they have been subjected to in 'the south.'
Madly in love Lucy and Roman are damaged goods, both victims of abusive fathers. Their fragile love and stability are severely tested when Lucy announces that she is going south to study biology. As if in thrall to the harshness and absolutes of their environment, each in his own manner breaks down. Roman, flirting with suicide and who has categorically refused to return with Lucy, drinks himself into a stupour followed by hospitalization, while Lucy’s demon, in the form of an hallucination, relentlessly stalks her. Lacking the funds to fly themselves out, they finally decide to snowmobile their way home in what will prove to be a journey fraught with peril and weird and unforgettable scenes that seem to come straight out of a dream sequence. In an environment that lends itself to the expectation that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, Nguyen wisely opts for a balanced unfolding of both major and minor crises, including philosophical pronouncements delivered by a talking bear, and a surreal evening spent in an abandoned radar station.
The casting was a tour de force, from the minor roles delegated to the locals to the selection of the two leads, Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan, who deliver deeply affecting yet very natural performances. From the opening scenes framed by the deep cold, we are spellbound, like deer frozen in head lights, by the expressions worn on DeHaan’s face: no matter what he does or says, everything, like a beautiful sadness, is refracted through his quiet hurting and fragility.
In cinematic language that is its own precedent, even while conceding the North invariably takes more than it gives,
Two Lovers and a Bear is an homage to the physical and metaphysical beauty of the land and its imperatives, and the indestructible spirit of the defiant men and women who challenge its dominion.

2.6 -- I AM NOJOOM, AGE 10 AND DIVORCED (Moi, Nojoom, 10 ans, divorcée), Khadija Al-Salami
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Deepa Mehta's Water and Jeremy Teicher's Tall as the Baobab Tree are probably better films than I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced by Khadija Al-Salami, but none is as important. All films deal with enforced but legal child marriage. Nojoom's case garnered international attention in 2009 when her plight was brought to the attention of the Yemeni justice system. Despite an uneven script and lapses into melodrama the film, quite brilliantly, manages to address two very separate and mutually suspicious audiences: the local population that subscribes to Sharia law and the West that unapologetically regards child marriage as a legalized form of pedophilia. In a far-off-the-beaten-track village in Yemen, a farmer and his wife, suffering through hard times, decide to marry off their 8-year-old daughter, Nojoom, who only wants to play with her dolls; they are desperate for the dowry and are looking forward to feeding one less mouth. The groom, 20 years older than his child bride, rapes her on their wedding night, after which she is treated like a slave until she finally manages to escape to the capital, Sana'a, where she explains to a sympathetic judge that she wants a divorce. Father and groom are arrested, and interrogated under oath. The groom is asked if he is familiar with Sharia's position on child marriage. He explains that he is a decent law-biding, peasant who can't read, that with the blessings of the local sheik he is simply following tradition. The judge explains there is no excuse for ignorance, that Sharia, while it condones child marriage, obliges the groom to wait until the child comes of age (message for local consumption: pedophilia verboten). Where the film could have indulged in pure messaging and stereotyping, it instead grants father and groom the complexity of character that humanizes them despite their ignorance, and contextualizes without exculpating the tender of children to the highest bidder. Father and groom are not so much evil as hostage to the traditions into which they are born. Nojoom is an important true story that needs to be told again and again. For viewers for whom cinema is an opportunity to vicariously visit foreign lands, they will be treated to the fascinating World Heritage architecture of Sana'a and breathtaking panoramas of Yemen's arid and rocky countryside turned green under extensive cultivation. A nod to very credible performances from mostly non-professional actors.


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3.5 -- THE SAVER, Wiebke Von Carolsfeld
[reviewed by Nancy Snipper] Once in a rare while there comes along a film that steals our heart because of its honesty and simplicity. Yet the subject matter is pretty serious. Fern, a 16-year-old aboriginal girl, living in Montreal, has just lost her mother who spent her life cleaning houses and taking care of her only daughter. Fern has to start cleaning those houses. She finds a book about how to become a millionaire and reads it, but saving money just doesn't get her far. She ekes out a living cooking in an African little restaurant, avoiding a terrible landlady, and doing odd jobs for her as a janitor, and then must suddenly put up with her Uncle jack who appears at the door. He wants to become her guardian. Fern is on her last rent money and is told to get out, but not only does she do a great deed to help the mean landlady and her autistic son, but takes in Uncle Jack once again; after she kicked him out, and gets herself rehired at the restaurant she is told to leave for having almost burnt down the kitchen. As Fern begins to deal with the loss of her mother, she enters a happier stage of her life, and this is where the film ends. It's a moving little film that turns victimhood into a reverse state of victory. Imajyn Cardinal is a great actor who deliberately underplays her role in order to fully inhabit the psyche of Fern and vibrate the pathos buried in our hearts

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