Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 18, No. 5, 2019
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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
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 Noah Simon have seen the following films. Here are their ratings and critical commentary, always out of 4, reserving 2.5 or more for a noteworthy film, 3.5 for an exceptional film, 4 for a classic.


3.5 - DINER, Mika Ninagawa
[reviewed by Noah Simon]? There's nothing quite like a good genre film. The best of them use excessive stylization; they have less interest in displaying subjectivity through formal immersion than they do through eye-popping aestheticism. In an industry where the standard for 'good-filmmaking' is attached to aesthetic and psychological verisimilitude -- an inherence to the real -- it's refreshing to watch a movie that pays attention to its own artifice, democratizing the filmmaking experience by refusing the impulse towards mechanical and ideological obfuscation. It makes sense why such films often gain feverish, dedicated fanbases.
Mika Ninagawa's film,
Diner, a new action/thriller from Japan, is as campy as they come. The film is vibrant, violent, self-aware, and, most importantly, fun as hell. The story is simple: Kinako Oba (Tina Tamashiro), an aimless, jobless woman seeking a way out of her mundane life, finds herself in a dangerous situation after looking for work on an online job board. Soon enough, she becomes an enslaved waitress to a restaurant owner who specializes in serving crazy, violent assassins. If that sounds insane, it's because it is. Diner has been compared to the films of fellow Japanese genre filmmaker Sion Sono, and with good reason. Like many of Sono's films, Diner bends the boundaries of reality and fantasy before inevitably plummeting into a claustrophobic hell-scape with seemingly no way out. Like Sono, Ninagawa imbues her film with a certain playfulness and kineticism, and her camera floats around the scene as if it has a mind of it own. But make no mistake: Diner is a statement all its own, to be remembered for its own contributions to the genre outside of its apparent influences. It's funny, goofy, entertaining, and has some of the most killer, singular action set pieces you'll see all year, which induce as much laughter as they do bloody catharsis. And the beautiful images! They're striking and colourful, always the centerpiece of the scene.
The film predominantly takes place in the underground restaurant, but Ningawa keeps it consistently engaging through rapid pacing and creative production design. She manipulates the environment and gives it life through quirky choices, such as having pictures of former waitresses talk and comment on an unfolding scene. She also displays her knack for expressionism by occasionally altering set proportions and using canted camera angles, further contributing to the restaurant's manifestation of hell. And the variety of characters -- while barely fleshed out -- all have weird, zany personalities. For a film whose style is relies on chaos and disarray, it's actually the politics that can be a bit confounding.

Diner is ostensibly about a woman finding autonomy within the oppressive enclosure of a capitalist, patriarchal society (there are quite a few allusions and references to puppetry), and yet Kinako's liberation relies on her subservience to and eventual self-actualization within the slave labour she's been assigned. Ultimately, her hopes and dreams revolve around pleasing the main male character, Bombero, her initial 'owner' and head chef at the restaurant. One could argue -- as I've attempted to -- that Ninagawa is parodying the absurdity of Hollywood action movie tropes, and that very well might be the case. But there are instances where it isn't clear if Ninagawa is subverting the misogyny ingrained in narrative and generic conventions, or if she's just unable to avoid them. Regardless, it's important to watch films directed by women, especially when they are within a genre that is predominantly dominated by men and have, historically, punished woman characters in its narratives (and then go ahead and apply this to all of cinema in general).
At the end of the day,
Diner still manages to be fresh by centralizing Kinako's characterization -- she's easily the most developed in the entire movie -- and by giving her narrative agency even within her isolated situation. With this film as well as Coralie Fargeat's Revenge, which came out last year, hopefully this is the beginning of an era of major international genre films directed by women. For any horror/action/thriller fan with a preference for stylistic extravagance, Diner is not to be missed. The story may be thin, as are the characters. But that's honestly beside the point -- just enjoy the ride.

3.0 -- THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME, Joe Odagiri                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Joe Odagiri's They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a meditation on a way of life that is disappearing in Japan -- if not everywhere. Toichi, a nimble old man with a deeply lined face and expressive eyes, works as a boatman ferrying villagers across the river. He lives in a shack nestled in the rocky coastline where he often sits listening to the wind, the rustle of leaf and frond and the gurgle of the river that is home to many species of brightly coloured fish. From time to time he is visited by Gencho, a young man who comes to share his food.
In his work he meets people from all walks of life; some poke fun and insult him because he's uneducated and poor, others pay him the respect owed to age and all that it entails. One day he learns from one of his passengers that a bridge is being constructed upstream. He knows what this means.
His life changes when he discovers a body wrapped up in a blanket floating in the river. It's a young woman (Fu) who he nurses back to health and whose trust he eventually wins. She is suffering from amnesia but we learn from the villagers that her entire family was slashed to death by a psychopath.
The film's languid pacing and the easy rhythms of life that revolve around the river are seamless. Despite Toichi's concerns that the balance and calm he has known all his life are under threat, he continues to live his life.
One night, during a torrential rain, he is woken up by a friend who asks him to help transport his deceased father into the woods so he can give his body back to the animals he has hunted all his life. The allegory reminds us that the idea of give and take and respect owed to the environment has all but disappeared in modern life.
While we never see the bridge, it looms large in the film as a metaphor, a crossing over to a future that will turn its back on what has been tried and tested over the centuries.
Toward the end of the film and true to the film's title, we rudely learn nothing stays the same. With the opening of the new bridge, Toichi is older and rendered useless. His friend Gencho, dressed to the nines, is now full of himself and his city ways. When the girl Fu who Toichi has taken under his wing rejects his advances, he tries to rape her. When Toichi, after a visit to the doctor, returns to the bloodied scene, he begs her forgiveness for not having been able to protect her.
They Say Nothing Stays the Same -- a film that recalls the Knut Hamsun novel Growth of the Soil -- is a nostalgiac work that draws the viewer into a haunting dream world that throws into stark relief the pluses and minuses of the brave new worlds we have all embraced. From close ups of Toichi's wise and weathered face to long shots of the river in the deep of summer or in the breathless calm of winter, the camera lovingly frames its subject like a motherbird dotes on its newborn.

3.1 -- ADORATION, Fabice Du Weiz
[reviewed by Noah Simon] Adoration, the new film from Belgian director Fabrice du Welz, uses fresh ideas to tell a familiar story. Paul (Thomas Gloria) is a kind, sensitive adolescent boy who lives isolated in the woods with his mother, who’s a nurse at a neighbouring mental hospital. After encountering Gloria (Fantine Harduin), a similarly aged girl and patient next-door, he quickly becomes infatuated. Gloria pleads for Paul to help her escape, at which point this story become a pseudo fairytale of a damsel-in-distress.
Fairytale tropes are scattered throughout
Adoration, but Weiz mostly tries to break conventions. Stylistically, the film’s shaky camera and use of zooms create a somewhat docu-realist aesthetic that counteracts the fairytale story -- Weiz relates their world to ours, putting us into reality as opposed to distancing us from it. Despite a few fantastical images -- such as ominous misty landscapes and sun beams bursting though the forest -- the film instead creates a sense of fantasy through peculiar cuts that confuse the audience’s temporal and spatial awareness; Weiz uses the magic of editing to teleport his characters through and across space, forcing the viewer to ask where they are how they got there, without ever questioning the reality itself. The film sometimes takes on the form of a surreally vivid dream.
Adoration plays with gender tropes in unique ways. Paul provides the alley for Gloria’s escape, but for most of the narrative it is Gloria who holds the cards. She takes action, advances the story, and consistently manipulates the fantasy that Paul sees himself in. Paul’s isolated life is full of reading books that has made him impressionable to stories of strong male heroism, and the film is most interesting when those delusions shatter in the face of real danger. Regret and doubt seep into his eyes (the performance is excellent), emotions that run contradictory to fairytale representations of masculinity, and themes of fate and eternal love. The film moves fast, focusing less on the escape itself and more on the journey, ostensibly leaving space to positively develop Paul and Gloria’s relationship. But instead of creating emotional bonds between the two, Weiz opts to portray the instability of their situation and its psychological effects. Additionally, as opposed to maintaining perceptions of innocence, the film very uncomfortably depicts the two adolescent’s bourgeoning sexuality, further destroying any notions of fairytale romanticism (these moments are also slightly problematic considering Gloria’s mental state). The main issue with the film’s speedy first act leading up to the escape is that it leaves behind some compelling elements, namely the peculiar, inverted relationship between Paul and his mother.
Weiz’s dark, realist deconstruction of fairytale tropes is a fascinating, if sometimes plodding, experience. The film’s subversions seem to be a means in and of themselves. Viewers don’t immerse themselves into these characters as one might in a fairytale romance, and they instead become knowing voyeurs -- we simply observe as Paul and Gloria go from place to place. Aesthetically and narratively, then, the film often runs itself into a corner with no where to go and nothing to say. But perhaps this suggests the biggest fairytale subversion of them all -- the refusal to succumb to any moral or narrative resolution..

3.3 -- THE INVINCIBLE LIFE OF EURIDICE GUSMÄO, Karim Aïnouz                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] The saturated colour washes from the opening sequences of Karim Ainouz's The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmäo introduce viewers to the steamy tropics. The weather that sticks to the skin like sap sets the tone for what is set in stone in the 1950s in Brazil: its stifling, cruel patriarchy, the rude gap between the haves and have-nots, and the institutional hardships women must endure "If you're poor and go to a hospital you won't get out alive," remarks Guida, who has eloped with a Greek sailor, leaving her sister Euridice, a gifted 18-year-old pianist, in the lurch. When Guida returns pregnant and without a husband, the father throws her out into the street, forcing her to fend for herself. The parents lie to Euridice about her sister's whereabouts, and for the duration of the film, the separated sisters refuse to believe that they will never again reconnect.
The film's narrative reach covers many years. If in their late teens the self-absorbed sisters were the sum of their immediate passions, as new mothers, and having suffered through destitution and denial, they emerge as generous and sympathetic adults even though their dreams have been crushed.
The sisters, played by Carol Duarte and Julie Stockler, are the focal points of the drama. Refusing to accept their assigned role in life, the accusation and recrimination are raw; nothing is left unsaid just as nothing will change since it's a world where a man's pride and place come first -- and Euridice's invitation to study piano at the Conservatory in Vienna will go unanswered.
In Greek mythology, Euridice was killed by a snake bite. Orpheus travels to the land of the dead in an attempt to bring her back. The sisters are separated for the entire running time of the film. On one occasion, Chrismas eve -- they unknowingly are living in the same city -- they come close to meeting. In a heart-rendering scene their children find each other in a restaurant and begin to play together.
Much of the film's emotional load is carried by a note-perfect soundtrack featuring the original music of Benedict Schiefer and additional music from Chopin and Grieg. There are moments in the film that are so overwrought that speech must cease and allow music to do what it does best. The score has reward written all over it.
Some viewers will conclude that the film is a not so subtle rebuke of the kind of Brazil the recently elected Bolsonaro wants to revive. Since there is no direct evidence one way or the other, that conclusion must default to the mind of the beholder. But as to the film's excellence, from its tones, narrative sweep, vivid colour schemes, interior sets, and marvelous performances throughout, 'I'm persuaded that
The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmäo will live to enjoy the wide circulation it deserves.

3.1 -- LA VIRGIN DE AGOSTO, Jonas Trueba                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] At the beginning of Jonas Trueba’s La Virgin de Agosto, we are told that most of Madrid’s Madrileños leave the city because of the extreme heat. As the camera lovingly embraces the film’s main character Eva, who had decided to stay and enjoy the many local festivals that are taking place, we quickly come to realize that both the city and its festivities are incidental. The film is a masterful character study, inspired by the work of French director Eric Rohmer.
Unlike Rohmer’s young and flighty women, Eva is not vapid. But she is very ordinary. Her looks are average, as is her figure (she’s shy to be seen in a bathing suit), and she’s of average intelligence and education. But she has a million dollar (gummy) smile that the camera loves, and she is disarming. The film, from beginning to end, follows her numerous encounters with friends and strangers she meets up with as she explores the center of the city to where she has moved for a couple of weeks. We discover that she’s not quite sure what she wants in life, that she used to be an actor, that’s she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend, and that she is quite adept at looking after her basic needs: she knows how to make friends and she has no trouble attracting men. Among her endearing qualities is that she is an attentive and sympathic listener, and, in the manner of Rohmer’s female characters, she’s without a trace particle of pretention, a quality she brings out in everyone around her. The script, which forms the back bone of the film, hits all the right notes, especially when Eva, who is in her middle 30s, and her women friends are taking about their monthlies, their romantic hopes and concerns.
Despite the everydayness of Eva and her circle of friends, Trueba lends them a dignity and respect that do all women proud. His lensing, and casting all serve that end.
If the ending is somewhat of a letdown, it is fully consistent with Eva’s character. For viewers looking for a deeper message, it might be that if Eva, a single woman living in a new part of town, is able to make friends and meet decent men it’s because she’s out there in the world. A famous photographer once said: “Photos won’t come to you, you have to go out there and get them,” and that’s what Eva does. She not stuck in the digital iPhone, iEverything universe. She’s fully engaged with life, visiting art galleries, attending concerts, meeting new people, keeping in touch with people she knows.
La Virgen de Agosto is a small gem of a film that moves briskly along despite the absence of any story line. It features memorable performances from Itsaso Arana in the role of Eva, and from Isabelle Stoffel, in a co-starring role, who delivers a senstive rendering of Olka.

2.6 -- ATLANTIQUE, Mati Diop                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] A long lens, cutting through Dakar’s legendary sun-bleached dust and haze, settles on a half-completed modern high rise whose backside faces the turbulent sea. A team of construction workers gathers around a foreman, demanding wages that haven’t been paid in three months. Among them is Souleiman, whose thoughts are elsewhere, anticipating his secret rendezvous with the tall and slender, lithe and lissome, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Her Muslim family has arranged for her marriage to Omar, a wealthy playboy type, but her heart belongs to another.
Mati Diop, in her first full length film, takes up that forbidden relationship to explore the class, religious and gender divides that are causing a major rethink in Senegal. Throughout the film the Atlantic plays a major role: it mirrors the turbulence of her country’s societal upheavals, and it swallows up Souleiman and his friends who dared to dream of a better life in Spain.
At the half way point, the film introduces the spirit world that will leave some western viewers scratching their heads. Ada’s friends who work at a sea-side bar haven’t been paid. When they take their case to the police, they are promised an investigation, but the police have been paid off by the man holding their money. In the dead of night, white eye-balls lit up from menacing moonlight, the girls, zombie like, are out for revenge. Ada, grieving her loss, gives herself away to the policeman who is convinced she is protecting her lover, or is it Souleiman? The spirit world is a coping mechanism. It is evoked, out of despair, to right the wrongs and injustices of life. And while it might be offsetting to some viewers, it is essential in understanding the Senegal's abiding pride and prejudices, and the limited choices available to women.
The film features some sharp dialogue; in particular a scene where Ada’s friends discuss the pros and cons of her pending arranged marriage. The spirit world is enhanced by a haunting soundtrack; elsewhere, it is diegetic, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to frame the story line. And if it’s travel that excites, Dakar is given a fair and sometimes extensive showing. Last but not least, the film’s understated charm is inseparable from the natural performance of Mame Sane as Ada, who we would like to see in every frame of the film, whose long silences and darting eyes and coltish manner obviate the need for any script.
Atlantique, despite its rough edges and jumpy montage, is for the most part a edifying journey to a place that begs for a return visit.

3.5 -- BEANPOLE, Kantemir Balagov                 
[reviewed by Robert J. Lewis] Until recently there was no name for it - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - a post-war condition affecting, often for life, both combatants and civilians. We learn from first hand accounts that there is no circumventing, finessing the debilitating effects of war, the psychic accumulation horrific deeds either witnessed, inflicted or received. Without exception war is a savage enterprise, and proof that reason is no match against human nature "red in tooth and claw." Every war holds up a mirror to man's brute nature, a nature that has never been entirely comfortable in its skin in times of peace and reconciliation.
Kantemir Balagov's wrenching film, in the manner of invasive surgery, opens up the complex, twisted relationship between Iya and Masha following the 900 day Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Iya, who, prone to catatonic trance, has been returned from the front where she is now looking after Masha's little boy Pasha.
From the film's opening frames that recall Van Gogh's misery-saturated "The Potato Eaters," Balagov enlists his many artistic influences in bringing to bare the ugly realities of war and their deadening and distorting effects on the survivors. Despite the grim, run down hospital where both Iya and Masha work as assistants, Balagov use of George La Touresque lighting transforms their tragic faces into Madonnas. With their dark side of their moon-lit faces taking up the entire screen, we watch in real time as Iya asphyxiates the little boy she loves, presumably to save him from a future bleaker than death. And then again, at the behest of the paraplegic Stephan who wants to spare his daughters from his condition, when she inserts a lethal needle into his neck and then blows opium smoke from her mouth into his - the final kiss of death. The film is an accumulation of one harrowing, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking scene after another. When Masha, who as a coping mechanism has learned to smile through every hurt, learns of the death of her son, she blackmails the hospital's doctor/administrator to conceive a child with Iya who will hand it over in a quid pro quo. The sex is as joyless as a root canal.
Beanpole, despite its stark beauty and understated technical virtuosity, is not without a couple of missteps. Balagov is prone to overplaying the arthouse card. In his homage to Ingres' "The Bathers," he constructs a scene where a bevy of naked woman are partaking of a Turkish bath. It's simply not credible that such an extravagant space could have been available in the impoverished hospital. In another episode, this time recalling Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a train comes to a screeching halt and Masha learns that a woman, also nicknamed Beanpole, has thrown herself under the wheels. But these are small imperfections in a film that may one day rank with the great masterpieces of Russian cinema.
This viewer left the film wondering how he survived such a relentlessly grim and depressing film whose 2 hour 20 minute running time seemed to fly by. If nothing else,
Beanpole will leave you thankful for every small blessing that is bestowed by nations that have been spared the horrors of war and their lingering after-effects.

2.3 -- GUEST OF HONOUR, Atom Egoyan                 
[reviewed by Noah Simon] Atom Egoyan's newest film, Guest of Honour, continues the Canadian fimmaker's penchant for non-linear storytelling. Within the film's consistent temporal shifts is an unfolding mystery between a restaurant health inspector named Jim (David Thewlis), and his daughter Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a high school band conductor who finds herself in jail after confessing to sexual assault. The film's jumbling of timelines contributes to its primary theme: the deceit of memory. Egoyan continues from his last film -- 2016's Remember -- a particular fascination with memory and its effects on subjectivity. While Remember focused on an elderly man's amnesia and that disease's shattering of his conception of himself, Guest of Honour is interested in the ability of smart phones to distort memories and re-create the past, and how such sensations contribute to a present sense of alienation.
Guest of Honour is framed by the issues of interpreting memories, emphasized by its noir-style narration (the film begins with Veronica detailing the film's events to a priest, played by Luke Wilson). And as the story progresses, one finds more noir conventions in the struggle amongst the film's characters for authority over the central narrative voice. But the consistent clashing of memories and perspectives ultimately create an unfocused movie whose abundance of ideas fails to resonate with its over-dramatic tone. Each scene presents a new theme to preach at its audience: The world's dividing attention; the obsessive drive for a good reputation; the tension between the societal codes to which we abide in public, and the taboos we hide behind close doors (and how the smart phone can blur the dimensions of public and private spaces). This provides a titillating yet convoluted experience. Egoyan attempts to connect these themes to his overall message -- the alienation of trying to piece together a past through internal memories and the memories documented through technology -- but this message becomes muddled amongst long scenes of dialogue that always seem to strive towards something else. In this sense, Egoyan appears to tap more into his career as a theatre playwright, and not as a filmmaker.
It is ultimately Egoyan's camera that approaches any greater truth. The shots aren't flashy -- there are no intricate camera movements or overtly-stylized compositions. The camera appears to be placed right where it should be, offering a visual glimpse into the film's deeper mysteries beyond the surface level plot -- Egoyan's compelling use of framing better represent the characters' dissolution than any stretch of dialogue. The film's emotion is often derived from the mise-en-scene, as the actors' interaction with objects brings to mind material associations with memory, a connection that proves stronger and more essential than anything else. Egoyan's mastery of formal elements, after 25 years of filmmaking, is clear. One might wished he used them more.


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