Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 5, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Lynda Renée
Gary Olson
Howard Richler
Oslavi Linares
Chris Barry
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors
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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, Andrew Martin and Oslavi Linares 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.



3.0 -- IN THE FADE, Fatih Akin                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The literal translation of the film Aus dem Nichts is 'out of nothing.' But the English title of Fatih Akin's gripping drama, In The Fade, however confounding, immediately communicates, if only in the abstract. Well before the film's final chapter, the viewer is made to understand why both the far right and far left in Angela Merkel's Germany stand accused of turning the country famous for its law and order into a dysfunctional state.
German-born Katja, who is fond of recreational drugs and tattoos, is married to Nuri, a Turk who spent four years in prison on drug related charges before going straight. They have a six year old son Rocco. Nuri now runs a successful translation business in the Turkish part of town. Katja's life falls apart when Nuri and their son are blown to bits by a terrorist bomb. Even though a Neo-Nazi couple are identified and accused of the murders, the authorities are more interested in both the living and deceased's relationship with their past and present drug use. Much of the film unfolds in the courts. The heated and blade-sharp court room exchanges echo the brilliant defence and prosecution of Dimitri Karamazov in Dostoievsky's
The Brothers Karamzov. Into this mix of simmering anger and grief is the blame and accusation between the two immediate families regarding the final resting place of Katja's husband and son. From the biting script to the excellent casting and performances, ethnic tensions in Germany get a unbouldlerized hearing, especially through the spellbinding performance of Diane Kruger in the role of Katja. The slow burn, the imploding cocktail of anger, frustration and loss she brings to the screen recalls the stellar performance of Noami Watts in 21 Grams. One can barely sit through her harrowing and withering facial expressions when the court secretary mechanically reads out a detailed description of the state of dismemberment of her son's body and the blast effects of the nails on the internal organs. Despite an ending that wasn't particularly satisfying -- albeit the conventional revenge motif is given a totally unforeseen twist -- the film successfully addresses the burning issue of immigration without ever succumbing to preachiness or self-rightousness. In the Fade will not fade from anyone's memory for a long time and is argubably Akin's best film since Head-On.

2.9 -- PARADISE, Andrei Konchalovsky                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Despite the unavoidable clichés that go into the dynamics of Holocaust film making, Paradise will hold your attention for all of its 130 minutes. The film splices together documentary-like testimonials from both the Nazi and victim perspective and a two-pronged storyline: the harrowing inner workings of a concentration camp receiving and disposing of bodies, and an SS officer's love affair with Olga, one of the inmates with whom he once had a brief romance before the war. In contrast to the ugly, muddy monochrome colours of the camp, their story is told under the brilliant Tuscan sun where the polished marble marvels and everyone is dressed in white. But the title does not refer to those paradisiacal days, but the Nazi's whitewashed vision of the future, a vision that doesn't take into account human nature, which Helmut, the dashing blue-eyed, blond SS officer is sent to investigate: the contagion of theft committed by the SS officers running the camps. From the sleazy role of the French collaborators, to the courage of the resistance, to the monsters at the camp, on the surface it seems all too familiar, but Paradise is a stark and necessary reminder of how thin is the veneer of civilization, and that it doesn't take much to awaken the savage that lies at the heart of a species that, in the absence of a major rewrite, will probably not survive its worst instincts. Paradise obliges the viewer to confront the worst of the worst chapters in the human story of the continuing war between good and evil, with (in our troubled times) the outcome still very much in doubt. If you're not familiar with the Holocaust genre, this film is as good as any to begin your voyage into the heart of darkness, or, pace Ferdinand Céline, Voyage au but de la nuit, in part thanks to first-rate production values (especially the sets) and excellent acting.  

3.2 -- LOVING VINCENT, Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] Touted as the first oil-painting feature film, Loving Vincent beautifully brings to life the art and times of Vincent Van Gogh, but sets itself on an improbable expositional narrative. The plot starts after Van Gogh's death, when postmaster and friend of the artist, Joseph Roulin, sends his eldest son Armand to deliver a forgotten letter to Theo Van Gogh, Vincent's brother. As Armand travels to Paris and then to the village of Auvers, he grows curious about what led the painter to suicide but ends up discovering more about his life than his death. Roulin's encounters with different characters reveal Van Gogh's biography through a series of flashbacks which are in fact expositional confessions. These disclosures appear repetitive and at times contrived and turn Armand's quest into a 'who done it' mystery about the artist's death. However, the narrative stutter is outshone by the art of the film.
Painted over six years and requiring 65,000 oil painting frames by nearly a 100 painters,
Loving Vincent effectively immerses the viewer in Van Gogh's painted world. Several original works serve as reference or backdrop for the film's scenes and characters, conveying the illusion of two-dimensional space possessing depth. The camera moving through these environments along with morphing imagery provide the syntax from one scene to the next. Such a mix of painted, animated and cinematic visuals integrate with differing success given the camera-like point of view of some frames versus more painterly ones. To these are added the rotoscoped live-action characters whose rendering becomes more or less painterly through the film and which resemble the actual characters painted by Van Gogh.
Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's feature debut was produced by several studios in England, Poland and Greece, and received funding from the Polish and European Union governments. Both directors had worked on short animated films, but it was Kobiela who had animated with paint and conceived the Van Gogh project. The feature premiered at the 2017 Annecy International Animated Film Festival and closed this year's edition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma.

3.5 -- LUCKY, John Carroll Lynch                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Harry Dean Stanton was 90-years-old when he took on the role of Lucky in John Carroll Lynch's graceful film of the same title. Since the makers of the film had the actor in mind during the conception phase, we fully expected Mr. Stanton (1926-2017) to fit the role like a velvet glove: fait accompli and much more. The story is simple: what it is like being 90.
From his morning exercises to his daily breakfast at the restaurant and evening drink at the local bar, we learn that being 90 is largely determined by the lifetime's worth of choices and events that lead up to the present age. Lynch wisely doesn't romanticize the age and its challenges, nor does he make Lucky wiser than he ought to be, given what we know of him. Most of what we learn about Lucky -- at times cantankerous, and not afraid to speak his mind -- is through his at once haunting and remarkable face that we can't take our eyes off. His face is his confession whether it be via an irritating glance thrown at someone given over to small-talk, or when he's staring into the deep space of his thoughts, into the remains of the day, into the nothingness that awaits him -- a self-proclaimed atheist. Set in a desert town, the wide angle shots effectively render him small against the background of sky high cacti and even taller mountains. Despite his years, an imperfect memory and a recent fall, he doesn't gobble up every minute of his life as if each remaining drop were precious: he goes about his day enjoying a pack-a-day smoking habit, get-togethers with friends, doing the crossword puzzles and watching his favourite TV game shows to distract him from thinking about what lies ahead when his luck runs out. When he confesses to a woman, who has made an impromptu visit out of concern, that he is afraid, she in turn wordlessly confesses that there is nothing she can say or do to allay his fears. Despite a script that goes through a couple of red lights,
Lucky is a stark reminder that time, and not the ephemeral, is calling the shots, and that what happens between now and the big one that awaits is often a matter of luck, such as a film of this caliber being made and entered into the public domain, and the mother-lode of unexpected satisfactions derived from its viewing.

3.0 -- BEFORE WE VANISH, Kiyoshi Kurosawa                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] If your science fiction comes off as stranger than fiction, you've done both your homework and the genre proud. Kiyoshi's Kurosawa's (Tokyo Sonata) Before We Vanish survives a bumpy beginning only to leave us thinking about the future of mankind: no small accomplishment in yet another aliens taking over human bodies film. Narumi is concerned about her infidel husband's Shinji's disengaged behaviour and muscular dysfunction. We soon learn that Shinji has been taken over by an alien. He explains to her that aliens plan to eliminate humanity, but they first have to learn about "human concepts" and for this, they require flesh and blood guides. Narumi serves as guide for Shinji while Sakurai, a journalist, guides Amano. Sakurai tries to convince Amano to change his plans, but his best arguments fall short: humanity is not worth saving. In the film's other story, Narumi slowly discovers that she prefers the alien Shinji more than when he was flesh and blood. What distinguishes this work of science fiction is that it is short on action and violence and refreshingly long on dialogue, thanks to a thoughtful script and the director's inventiveness subsumed by his concern for the perilous state of the planet. The aliens call off the invasion at the last moment when Shinji, at the insistence of Narumi, takes over her concept of love, which leaves her completely empty. The notion of sacrifice, which is disappearing under our watch, and the frightening thought that only a major intervention (substitute genetic for alien) will save humanity from imminent demise are two of the existentials Before We Vanish has in its cross-hairs. In the spirit of Japanese cinema at its best, the film's final sequences rise to the occasion of poetry, turn the cynical viewer into a willing and wiser accomplice, and raise the bar for the genre of science fiction. It's a film that asks the largest questions and persuades us to overlook its flaws.

2.5 -- SWEET VIRGINIA, Jamie Dagg                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Thriller noir set in small town Alaska, Jamie Dagg's Sweet Virginia (motel's name) suffers from an accumulation of credibility gaps and overuse of standard genre props. Nonetheless, it's the kind of film you'll watch with eyes wide-shut because the script is on the money, the ironies are deliciously creepy, and the film wisely operates under the assumption that the less said the more is told: a strategy which invites the viewer to fill in the blanks in respect to the shadowy events and psychology that informs some of the bizarre choices the film's protagonists make. A hit-man, Elwood, who has just left three men dead, strikes up a friendship with motel owner Sam, who is having an affair with one of the widows, Bernadette, who is friends with the other widow, Maggie, who hired Elwood to kill her cheating husband. When Maggie learns her husband left her deep in debt, she fears for her life because she can't pay the hit man, a walking time-bomb. So to get him off her back, she tells him that her 'friend' Bernadette keeps all of her money in the safe at home, at which point Elwood decides to make an impromptu visit. What sustains our interest in the film is that all the relationships are as fragile as the lies and deceits they are based on. But we're not sure if the palpable tension is generated by the mannered, decibel churning soundtrack or the film's internal dynamics. To that, add the clichéd fear generated when Maggie looks into her rear-view mirror and notices headlights following her, or when Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), soaking in the tub after a tryst, hears an ominous sound downstairs. Somehow all too familiar, which is a downright shame. The pacing, the casting and performances were top notch, beginning with Jon Bernthal who plays Sam, an ex-macho rodeo man, and the icy demeanour of Christopher Abbot as the explosive hit man. Despite several memorable scenes, highly charged atmospherics, and beautiful long shots of Alaska's deep green pine forests and rugged canyons and cliff sides, Sweet Virginia does not live up to the promise of its better parts.  

3.5 -- INDIAN HORSE, Stephen S. Campanelli                 
[reviewed by Andrew Martin] Stephen S. Campanelli’s film Indian Horse, based on the Richard Wagamase novel, uses a frame narrative to tell the story of Saul’s life, starting with the present, and then moving us back in time. The story belongs to an Ojibwe man named Saul Indian Horse, who is a real person. He is snatched from the arms of his dying grandmother and forced into a residential school where he and his fellow students are routinely abused in ways that make you want to reach through the screen and save them. Saul later finds some hope in a seemingly warm-hearted, Trudeau-like priest (eye-roll) who introduces him to hockey. The boy excels at the sport by practicing in secret, using frozen horse turds for pucks. He goes on to play in an all-native team, smashing expectations and making it to Toronto. In the big city, he experiences a different kind of racism, this time at the hands of Canadian citizens who have multiplied and usurped the land. These scenes are devastating in the way they steamroll over Canada’s deceptively utopian self-image. Forrest Goodluck and Ajuawak Kapashesit, who both play Saul at differing points in time, left me stricken. Leaving the cinema, I felt like I had a new understanding of Canadian history, and a better insight into the absolute horror that native people are still working through. It could have been presented as a laundry list of sad moments, but it’s not. Well-shot and gracefully executed, this film left me reeling at the end (there is a sort of plot twist).

2.7 -- WESTERN, Valeska Grisebach
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] What gives border films their edge -- keeping us on the edge of our seats -- are their inherently unstable ingredients. Under the best of circumstances, it is always a challenge when unlike peoples are obliged to share the same space. We want to know how they go about negotiating their cultural and language differences. Add scarcity to the mix, which is what Valeska Grisebach does in her latest film, Western, and best-intentions will in all likelihood be severely tested.
Near the Greek border but in Bulgaria, a German construction team arrives, tasked with diverting a river for a hydro-electric project. They set up camp near a very small Bulgarian village where they are advised they have to share the limited water supply with the local population, which doesn't go down well with the German boss and his notions of entitlement, none of which is helped by the inabitity to speak the other's language. However, through hand gestures, eye contact, each side shows a willingness to find common ground while remaining circumspect. But relations are strained when the the boss makes a vulgar play for one of the village women whose hat has been swept downstream. Enter the taciturn Meinhard, recalling the handsome cowboy on the billboard lighting up a cigarette, all rawhide and granite jaw, riding a white horse he's found. It turns out the horse is owned by one of the locals who sells it to him; the son teaches him how to ride and a friendship forms and very slowly the village people come to embrace the cowboy, while his co-workers begin to resent him for his suspicious behaviour. But when Meinhard, regarded as rich by local standards, takes their money during a poker game and wins the favours of the village's most attractive young woman, tolerance levels are tested with predictable results: late at night Meinhard gets roughed up on his way back to camp. Shot with a hand-held camera, the film's very deliberate pacing works on a slow burn but to no particular climax. At the end of the film, we're left wondering how Meinhard's relationship with the village woman will turn out, how the dispute over gravel will resolve, and how Meinhard will deal with getting beat up after investing his time in getting to know the local culture. Be as it may that this is how Grisebach chose to conclude her film, it remains to be scene if audiences will go along with her diffuse purpose, if
Western has what it takes to sustain the interest of the wired-for-action western mind.

2.9 -- LOVELESS, Andrey Zvyagintsev
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] In the film's opening scenes, we follow 12-year-old Aloysha walking home alone from school, and then crying in his room as his separated parents argue over him. When we see him next, at the end of the movie, he's a slab on a mortician's table. Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless unpacks the complex circumstances that sealed the boy's fate. We learn that his mother, Zhenya, a self-absorbed owner of a salon, was unloved by her mother, and that she, in turn, never loved Aloysha, or Boris, the boy's father, who is equally self-absorbed and now infatuated with another woman who is carrying his child. Both Boris and Zhenya measure their success in life through their material and sensual conquests; neither wants custody of Aloysha, who goes missing. The authorities are unable to provide the means to carry out a search so the parents are obliged to hire a private team. The unnecessarily long search ends in tragedy, with Zhenya in denial, insisting the deceased boy isn't her son. Three years later, with both parents comfortably settled into their new relationships, it appears very little has changed: Boris, impatient with his 3-year-olds restlessness, ceremoniously deposits him in his crib, while Zhenya, obsessed with looking good, hits the treadmill. She still posts signs for her missing son, refusing to take responsibility for her role in his tragic demise. At every significant juncture of Loveless, Zvyagintsev takes direct aim at Russian society and its withering values, and how negative values take on a life of their own. In Zhenya's case, it's the abused becoming the abuser: she was unloved, and she in turn doesn't love her son. Multiply this by the growing number of people for whom iPhone relationships are on par with real relationships, and we begin to understand how the notion of sacrifice has completely disappeared from modern life -- just as Aloysha has disappeared -- and that this new phenomenon is very much implicated in a world order that has completely broken down. Loveless works on many intellectual levels, but it is the film's aesthetics that sustain our interest, and turn us into accomplices in creating a world that Zvyagintsev invites us to question.

2.7 -- CLOSENESS, Kantemir Balagov
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Ethnic divisions and family conflict run deep in the human story. Kantemir Balagov's Closeness offers a telling if somewhat mannered take on the familiar theme. To be noted immediately is that the film contains graphic newsreel footage of torture and killing. In this jaded viewer's opinion, it is gratuitous because it doesn't advance the plot. The film takes place in 1996, in Nalchik, not far from Chechnya and Karbadia, mostly Muslim regions just north of Georgia. We know that Russians and Muslims don't like each other, and neither like the Jews who are caught in the middle. The film is seen through the eyes of a Jewish family, in particular their rebellious, butchy-looking daughter, Llana, who loves to repair cars.
The extended family is gathered at the dinner table where the son David announces his betrothal to Lea. Shortly thereafter, the young couple is kidnapped and held for ransom. The father is forced to sell his garage, and marry off Llana for the extra cash. Llana rejects the proposal and decides to lose her virginity to her hulking Karbadian boyfriend that very evening. The director leaves little doubt as to where his sympathies lie in respect to Llana's first night: the ear can't tell if Zalim (a Muslim) is deflowering the human body or the building. The following day, at the dinner table, the families are expected to consent to the union when Llana, instead of simply announcing that she is in a sexual relationship with a Karbadian truck driver, tosses her bloodied panty on the dinner table, a gesture that somewhat alters the groom's view of his bride-to-be as well as dampening the enthusiasm for the next course. Overwrought scenes such as this -- and there are too many of them -- will not help the film in the Best Foreign Film category. Earlier, Llana's brother David, proud of his sexual potency, insists on showing his sister his erect penis: she has to physically ward him off. Again, not the stuff of Pushkin or Turgenev. Throughout the film, there are credibility gaps between situations and the off-putting, exaggerated emotional responses to them, on top of which the faces occupy the entire screen. In the denouement, to save face the family has to move. The director makes sure the viewer sees the real Russia for what it is: the scarred cityscape of Nalchik, the bleak apartment buildings and grimy factories left over from the Communist era, all of it contrasted with the spectacularly beautiful Russian landscape, as if to say Russia would be OK if it weren't for its people and politics.
Troppo familiare? But for all the film's missteps and overkill, its potent mix of ingredients set to a diegetic sound track and a remarkable first performance from Darya Zhovner in the role of Llana make Closeness a film that is not only worth seeing but one which will linger in the mind long after the cyrillic have rolled by.

2.9 -- SUMMER 1993, Carla Simon
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] In Carla Simon’s Summer 1993, 6-year-old Frida is whisked away from her home in Barcelona and sent to live with her Aunt and Uncle in the Catalan country side. In lyrically understated small scenes, which are their own reward, we learn that the mother died of AIDS. The film delicately explores Frida’s adjustment to her new family through the eyes of the child. We learn that the gift of children is that they are always in the present, so on the surface, it seems that Frida is making the adjustment without any apparent trauma. When she’s not alone she spends most of her time with her younger niece doing what children like to do: play, invent fantasy worlds, explore their immediate environment. But despite her apparent even demeanor – she never cries or cries out for her mother – cracks appear. She disobeys her new parents, and tries to run away because she doesn’t feel loved. For most of the film, the viewer doesn’t know if in fact she is really unloved by her aunt and uncle because we see the interaction from Frida’s perspective. Summer 1993 does not build to a rousing climax or epiphany. If throughout most of the film Frida is only intermittently engaged with her new family, we measure her emotional progress through the gradual increase of meaningful contact with her new Mum and Dad. Since the story and its even pacing are unremarkable, what engages the viewer is the director’s uncanny ability to empathize with Frida, and to sensitize otherwise indifferent viewers to the general plight of orphans, most of whom will not have access to the advantages of the kind Frida enjoys vis-à-vis her very caring, extended family. The ending, in the spirit of a paradigm shift, will both surprise the viewer and seal the deal on a quietly satisfying film.

2.5 -- A MAN OF INTEGRITY, Mohammad Rasoulof
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Most Iranian films that make it to the West are criticisms of the regime. Many of them are made on the sly, or outside the country. Mohammad Rasoulef spent a year in prison for filming his award winning A Man of Integrity without a film permit. What the bare-bones film lacks in subtlety is earned in message. Reza, who owns two large fish ponds, is struggling to make ends meet. Abbas, the strongman of the region, wants to expropriate Reza's farm and will stop at nothing to get it. He poisons Reza's fish, and then falsely accuses him of breaking his arm. Hadis, his more sensible wife, pleads with her husband to pay off Abbas and other officials so he doesn't have to sell his land for next to nothing, but he refuses. At first we admire him but when his immediate family is made to suffer on his account, we wonder if he in fact is a man of integrity or self-destructively hard-headed? Only after Abbas torches his home, and Reza's wife and child are sent into hiding, does he decide to take matters in his own hand. After cleverly disposing of Abbas, he learns that he has been manipulated by more sinister forces from which there is no escaping. The film, an unveiling of sorts, methodically reveals the many layers of corruption against which the Koran is no match, and the role of the opium trade that reaches the highest levels of local government.
The film was effectively shot in Iran's winter. As a metaphor for regime generated despair and resignation, the sun doesn't appear once: the drawn out faces take their expression from the trees shorn of their leaves and skies relentlessly grey. The film's taking points are delivered with a hammer which detract from the film's integrity and continuity. In one of the subplots, Hadis, who is the headmaster of her school, has to dismiss a student because she's non-Muslim. The student commits suicide and the townspeople, gathered as a mob, refuse to let her be buried in the local cemetery. Of course in real life such a burial would have been a non-starter. While most of the acting was credible, in particular Soudabeh Beizaee who plays Hadis, the choice of Reza Aklaghirad to play the lead was, to say the least, confounding. Instead of looking thoughtful or imploding with rage, his glassy eyes are so unmoving he resembles a deer frozen in headlight or an escapee from a wax museum. To best appreciate this film, stay focused on its hard hitting message.

3.0-- LES AFFAMÉS (RAVENOUS), Robin Aubert
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] Les Affamés could be thought of as the Quebecois approach to zombie films, not only because of its setting but also because of its narrative, intimate camera and intriguing soundscape. Set in a rural community in northern Quebec, an inexplicable malaise has turned most of the people into entranced cannibals that stalk the woods and the fields. Fending them off are different survivors whose paths cross and who must look for a way to escape the affamés (the ravenous). The film owes its subtlety to the meticulous character development of the zombies, who while resembling normal humans are vicious predators, capable of ambushing, attacking in groups, and even laughing. Their bizarre construction of piles of objects and the semiconscious whispers that echo in their minds assure their strange, other-worldliness. Sound, or a lack off, is indeed a strength of the film but perhaps also a weakness: the first minutes of the feature over indulge in the jump-scare cuts. The long periods of silence combined with a limited camera view point generate considerable anxiety for what is beyond the field of vision. This claustrophobic approach is complemented by the atmospheric shots of the forest, the misty fields, and the zombies' mysterious stillness. With Les Affamés, actor and director Robin Aubert returns to rural, existential settings and explorations amid extraordinary events. This, his fifth feature, won him the Best Canadian Film Award at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

3.5 -- THE FLORIDA PROJECT, Sean Baker
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Nestled in the lush Florida green of Orlando, surrounded by in-your-face Disneyland billboards promising the American Dream -- if you can afford it -- lies the sprawling, run down Magic Castle Hotel, where you find America's underclass doing what it takes to eke out enough coin to pay the weekly rent. We quickly learn about life in the projects through the film's two 6-year-old protagonists, Moonee and Jancey, who have already learned how to con cash for their daily dollop of ice-cream and talk back to adults using the F-word. Immune, as only kids can be, to their disadvantage and chronic parental dereliction, we see the world through their joys in a suburbia whose shapes seem to come out of a comic book: all the buildings and colour schemes are bright and happy. Moonee is the living tissue of her sluttishly dressed, foul mouthed mother Halley, who likes to look at herself and get high, who hawks perfume on the street to pay the rent, and when that enterprise breaks down, rents out her body.
What awakens both our sympathy and uneasiness in Sean Baker's
The Florida Project is the child's perspective -- the two kids, best-friends, doing and saying whatever they want because no one tells them not to. The kids haven't been so much raised as provided the ways and means to indulge their every impulse. Their carefree world is opened up by a camera that merrily chums along with them as they savour their all-consuming, ephemeral pleasures (ice-cream, fascination with matches and all things large and small that burn, spitting on people, stuff that breaks). They are the little terrors we can't help both adoring and fearing for. In one of the film's many creative turns, when Halley plays with Moonee we realize that it's not a mother playing with her kid but another kid. The scene recalls the Greek fable where after the son swore, the philosopher Diogenes slapped the father. Halley eventually gets her comeuppance, but it is already too little too late. The future of these kids has been mapped and a no-exit sign hangs above the ever widening gyre as things fall apart. This cutting-edge, provocative film asks how many consecutive negative experiences does it take to turn an innocent child into something bad. Sean Baker, who wrote, directed and edited the film, memorably makes us count the ways. Every laugh generated by the kids is a cry for love. Out of projects like the Magic Castle Hotel are born tomorrow's hookers, hustlers, hit men, drug dealers and abusers. The film, in its lurid naturalness and use of child actors that is its own precedent, rings with indictment. It deserves the widest circulation.

1.0 -- APRES COUP, Noël Mitrani
[reviewed by Andrew Martin] If ever there was a movie that failed to 'show not tell,' it's this one; quite baffling when the media in question is FILM. Après Coup by Noël Mitrani is an excruciating study of one man's Daedalean journey through guilt. It starts in medias res, with a conversation between Marc and his therapist. Immediately, we are aware that something terrible has happened to him, and that it involves a missing or dead little girl called Aurélie. At this point, I was ready to be swept up in a tale of intrigue and mystery - but soon after the mystery is revealed, and the tension all but evaporates. I barely remember the characters' names as they are all so two-dimensional: we can all simply refer to them as 'husband,' 'wife,' and 'child' to make things easier. His daughter's friend, Aurélie, dies in his arms after she is struck by a car - boo hoo. Rather than stand up to support his daughter through her grief, he collapses into himself and slowly begins to tear the family apart. Mitrani's camera is constantly in the actors' faces, suffocating us with non-stop close ups. Without a proper soundtrack, and little quirkiness or humour to lift it, the film just drags along. Wait until you meet the sadistic therapist whose job it is to help Marc overcome grief; he really loves to drive the knife into his patient's gut. The movie totally lost me when the therapist began performing some hocus pocus therapy which involved some kind of Jesus type hand gesture. Please.

3.0 -- ARABY, Joao Dumans & Affonso Uchoa
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Unlike so many films that are in your face (the bane of style over substance abuse), Araby, scripted and directed by Affonso Uchoa and Joao Dumans, does not draw attention to itself in either its production or performances, which allows the story to unfold without distraction, and for the meticulously crafted scenes to gradually lay bare the harsh conditions of life for the working class in the Bleak House that is Brazil. The film’s languid pacing and sustained minor key assure its gritty social realism and flinty, depressing charm. Itinerant labourer Cristiano is in a coma, has no family and no apparent history. We learn about his vagabond life through a young neighbour, who finds a notebook he left behind. Through the luminous, resigned-in-stone face of Cristiano whose youth has been weathered away, Araby tells the story of the faceless in Brazil, the multitudes who drift, like weather systems, from job to job, leaving no trace of themselves behind. As he chases work across the vast north of Brazil, finding jobs in agriculture, mining, road construction, and factory work, Cristiano learns to steel himself against his fate and the fate of his fellow workers as they get cut lose, and die old and broken. The days are long, the sun is hot, the work is hard, at the end of the day they are too tired to get angry. In his last job before he slips away, Cristiano is working the mid-night shift in a factory in Ouro Preto, an historic city and national treasure, but the viewer sees only its dark side, implying that there are two Brazils, as distant and unconnected as two planets. Silhouetted against hot fires and sulphuric air, we’re not sure if Cristiano is working his shift or is in purgatory. If by film’s end there’s no doubt as to the intent of the directors, we welcome the message as a happy consequence of the film’s craft, its abiding understatement, and the timely use of folk music and landscape as grace notes in the lives of those for whom the better life is a pipe-dream that lasts as long as a song and a dance.

2.7 -- THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE, Aki Kaurismaki
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Beneath every gruff exterior lies a kind and tender heart, is the working assumption that informs the films of Finland's most celebrated director, Aki Kaurismaki. Like Le Havre (2011), The Other Side of Hope follows the lives of people who are starting over, and who will depend on the kindness of strangers to get them to the next phase in their lives. An unsmiling, stiff and cantankerous middle-aged man named Wikström has just left his wife, quit his job and taken over a restaurant called The Golden Pint. Khaled, in a freighter's coal storage, has smuggled himself into Finland. He turns himself over to the police seeking asylum, which isn't granted. He escapes just prior to his scheduled deportation, and has to live on the street where he gets badly beaten up by neo-Nazis. Only in the middle of the film is he discovered, homed (that is garaged) and offered employment by Wikström. The latter, and his staff, gradually warm up to the Syrian, who has lost his entire family in Aleppo, with only his missing sister still alive. In the spirit of showing us how to do the right thing, Kaurismaki sets out to prove that the heart 'is not' a lonely hunter, that goodness, despite the ever presence of evil, will win the day. The director uses his usual ploys to make his point: a laconic script punctuated with drole, dead-pan humour, camera work that is made to serve the story lesson, and, like Mike Leigh, finding ways to make us take an interest in ordinary people despite their station in life. If this is your first Kaurismaki film you'll be thoroughly charmed and edified, but if it's your fifth film, the plot twists and devices begin to wear thin. Kaurismaki is still on top of his game, but it's the same game, which doesn't so much throw his exceptional gifts and endearingly quirky style into question, but rather begs the circumstance that will set them on fire again.

3.1 -- GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN, Fellipe Barbosa
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] I suspect that our fascination with 'on the road' films runs much deeper than yearning (however vicarious) for adventure. In the no man's land between home and destination, no longer subject to the long-arm of culture and habit, there is something about making it up, or winging it as we go along that we can't refuse. We get to reinvent the world as we see fit, and then learn to take responsibility for it. Most road films are variations of Huck and Jim on the raft on the river, where Huck decides not to turn in Jim -- a runaway slave -- to the authorities because it doesn't feel right. Huck is the new law, the flesh and blood of conscience, and his story becomes our story as we navigate his particular circumstance and the decisions he underwrites.
In the spirit of challenging himself, testing his limits, wanting to be a traveler instead of a tourist, in Fellipe Barbosa's
Gabriel and the Mountain, Brazilian born Gabriel takes to the road in Africa, beginning in Kenya and finishing up in Malawi. Eager to prove himself, he immediately goes native, goes hunting with the Maasai, and climbs Kilimanjaro. But as caught up as we are in Gabriel's story, Gabriel and the Mountain is first and foremost a meditation on the reasons we travel; it is an homage to and invitation to take to the road. The film's exquisite locations whet the appetite for foreign lands such that we're not sure if it's Gabriel's person or the places he visits that fascinate. An unobtrusive but curious camera takes the viewer deep into the quotidian that is Africa, its vibrant colour schemes, its earthy streets, bustling markets and drop-dead gorgeous landscape; the lens lingers without apology whenever anything or anybody of interest is encountered. Gabriel, who makes a point of learning the local language and customs, shows himself to be a smart traveler. He quickly becomes confident and cocky, and ultimately his own lawgiver. Early in the film he is joined by his girlfriend Chris. Their volatile relationship, its physical and intellectual dimensions, is seamlessly integrated into their travels and travails; their personalities and idiosyncracies permeate their surroundings like the diffuse light in a Georges de la Tour painting. We learn through flashbacks and digital photos shown in reverse of the events that lead to a decision that will change Gabriel's life forever. It redounds to Fellipe Barbarosa's control over his disparate subject matter that the true story on which the film is based doesn't upstage the culture in which it takes place, and that despite the seductive locations, the film does not romanticize travel. Wherever he goes, Gabriel is immediately identified as one of the 'haves,' and has to learn how to fend off the unwanted 'attention,' just as from the film’s opening sequences, our 'attention' doesn't waver, thanks to the note-perfect balance between people and place and the winning performances of the many Africans who were recruited to play themselves.

3.5 -- AVA, Léa Mysius
[reviewed by Andew Martin] The first question I had before viewing Léa Mysius’ film Ava was just how French would it be? Turns out that it’s pretty frickin’ French: a relaxed attitude to nudity, disturbing jump cuts (for effect), and a bit of good old fashioned anarchy all set by the quaint southern seaside of l’Hexagone. The story, at first, revolves around a tumultuous mother/daughter relationship. The Gilmore Girls this is not. Maud’s world is all pink flowers and make-up, a stark contrast to her daughter Ava, whose life is an ever-tightening black hole. As the movie progresses Ava’s world slowly becomes darker and darker. She is, in fact, losing her vision. Watching a 13-year-old girl come to terms with such a catastrophic diagnosis is difficult; and the movie revels in the pathos of Ava’s suffering. The motif of encroaching darkness/blindness is played out to sometimes fun and other times disturbing effect. We watch Ava live her life like a wounded animal, and we see her use this violent energy in various constructive and destructive ways. But, as we find out, she is not alone. A black dog leads her to a dangerous and mysterious boy who is camping out amongst the rocks of the seaside. When these two youths come together, it’s fireworks on the screen. Their performances are raw and understated. This is not only a good story, it is also told in an incredibly striking, visual way. You’ll know what I mean when you witness Ava’s Byronic battle against the sea for the first time. Although she may be a 13-year-old girl, make no mistake, she is an absolute warrior.

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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

2016 Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 05-16st, (514) 844-2172
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