Arts &
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Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018
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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
Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
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
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
The Good Kill



2.5 or more for a noteworthy film
3.5 for an exceptional film
4 for a classic.

2.7 -- THE DEATH OF STALIN, Armando Iannucci
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares]
"I have nightmares that make more sense than this," mutters Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) as he plots with Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) in this absurd palace intrigue by director Armando Iannucci (Veep and In The Loop). The year is 1953, Stalin terrorizes the Soviet Union by the hand of the sinister Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Rusell) and his NKVD secret police. No one is safe, not even the highest Soviet ministers . . . until the dictator suddenly dies. Then the race for power is on. Reformist Khrushchev and sadistic Beria start an unscrupulous rivalry where everyone is a pawn in their game: their fellow council members, political prisoners, the secret police, the red army, Stalin's children, and the whole Soviet Empire as they confusingly struggle to play each others' loyalties or just carry the dead man's body. Set to the mood of Russian choirs and Mozart, the film revels in Moscow's architecture from Red Square to the shitty apartments, economizing long-shots and opting instead for medium and close camera takes, along quick paced cuts or fade to blacks that convey the terror of blacklists and political sanctimony. Indeed, the film's real narrative aesthetic is that of the political purges where concert halls and cowboy films coexist with night raids and torture chambers. Death is sudden and illogical while those that dispel it are grotesque caricatures of power. But as silly as it may be, this satire arrives at a (surreal) time in global politics. As Vladimir Poutine elects himself for a fourth term, the US president is embroiled in Russian conspiracies and plans to hold talks (or nuclear war) with a totalitarian dictator. In light of our real absurdities, The Death of Stalin infuses current political farces with a touch of humour and reminds us of the ridiculousness of high level power.  

2.9 -- THE DEVIL'S SHARE, Luc Bourdon
[reviewed by Mathieu Bédard] Luc Bourdon's The Devil's Share gets its title from the constant political turmoil that its images show and it bears its name well, as close to a hundred films made by the NFB during the 60s and 70s are fractured and re-edited into a monumental and vertiginous work. The result is a convincing and impressive homage to civil rights activism and national cinema, but one that remains rooted in populism and nostalgia albeit lacking a truly insightful perspective that could connect it with the cultural and political now.
That said, credit goes to Bourdon for making this relationship between cinema and 60s and 70s politics in Quebec feel particularly organic and alive. This is in part due to the spectacular work of restoration that his team has conducted, which brought the best of the NFB's past production to today's HD quality standards with dazzling results. But the fluidity of the montage itself is also an important reason for the film's success, as it assembles a diverse range of people, landscapes and public events with a strong sense of unity that remains throughout. The end result does not feel like a patchwork but rather like a tapestry where the viewer becomes an active participant as well.
Through montage and archives, Bourdon achieves what filmmakers like Pierre Perrault did best with direct cinema: creating a sense of palpable immediacy and collectively articulating speech, giving the people body and voice. The choice of such source material was ideal indeed as direct cinema positioned its documentary ethics somewhere between observation and instigation, becoming an active witness.
Documentary filmmaking therefore seemed to be present at every key moment that defined Quebec's history, be it the October crisis, the massive strikes of the 70s, the Olympics, or just to get a pulse of the everyday, with a visual artistry unmatched by any television crew. Bourdon lets the images speak for themselves and refrains from commentary, letting the viewer become totally immersed in them.
The Devil's Share, however, is not without its flaws, as it more or less repeats the same discourses and points of view that those films themselves had adopted then. As the end credits state, the film is an homage to the artists and technicians who worked for the NFB during its golden days, not a meditation on history and archives. The major tropes of the Quiet Revolution are therefore reprised with nothing very new being added to the mix: the enemies of the people are English Canadian capitalists and the Church, and René Lévesque comes off as a sensible, very humanized leader while Pierre Trudeau is an antipathetic man of steel and Jean Chrétien a buffoon.
Furthermore, as with most populist depictions of Quebec's past, the film fails at documenting the inner divisions and differences within the population that could foretell, for example, the victory of the No after the first referendum, incidentally where the film ends. And yet, addressing this split is what creates one of the best scenes of the entire film, when the voice of a newscaster announces the assassination of Labour Minister Pierre Laporte while a woman softly falls apart in an anonymous café. This scene is an example that shows all the ambivalence of a revolutionary discourse that couldn't bear its own commitment to action, and it creates a devastatingly poignant moment in the film.
If we can't entirely blame Bourdon himself for all this, as it reflects the historical bias of past filmmakers who more or less equated the 'people' with left-wing unrest, his lack of a more personal or essayistic approach remains a little disappointing. For better or for worse, Bourdon sticks to the period and does not connect it to the political and cultural now. The film, for instance, does not sufficiently address how fighting for collective justice and building a nation state have become separate issues over time. Not many traces or signs of this are found, as the past is not re-imagined so much as it is creatively restaged. This affects Bourdon's film in many instances, which becomes a rather uncritical and nostalgic discourse.
This is not to say that
The Devil's Share is not without its own sense of poetry. Many images and symbols are striking and are well worth a watch, such as the re-editing of Derek May's Mother Tongue where a bilingual couple fights over P.O.V shots of an emergency vehicle rushing through the city.
But now that the French-speaking population of Quebec thrives and has occupies the key positions of power that were being contested in the 70s, are these images of the past still relevant to understand the present? As filmmaker Jeanne Crépeau wrote on the contemporary reception of past 'revolutionary' works: "Antagonistic representations of bad English Canadians and good French Canadians seem to me tragically inadequate today. Do you really think today's problems are settled just because the bankers are named [Pierre-Karl and] Julie?" As much as the fight for progressivist social institutions is inspiring, nay, galvanizing in the film, the inscription of an Other as the source of evil and the feeling of an homogenous Quebecois people that does not know internal class division is problematic.
In other words,
The Devil's Share situates an idealistic past that saw important battles being fought, but it didn't anticipate the neoliberal where the Other is not the English Canadian boss anymore but the Muslim woman. Is Bourdon's historical narrative just a comforting tale that the Quebecois like to countlessly retell themselves, even as they are pulling away from it? Or is it the story of a different time and a different people which the director offers to the present in the hope of reassessing its direction? There is no definite answer here, but in any case the viewer will certainly respond with strong emotions to such questions, especially if the history of film and Quebec is an interest.

2.8 -- SUBURBICON, George Clooney
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] Co-written with the Cohen brothers and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, George Clooney's sixth film is a typical loss of innocence thriller but also a political response to American racial tensions. The plot is relatively simple and predictable: a home invasion leads to the gradual disarray of an iconic 1950's family in an equally iconic dysfunctional suburbia. Despite the collection of 50's types portrayed by celebrities --Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge the corporate executive, Julian Moore as aunt Margaret the lovely housewife, Oscar Isaac as the clever insurance agent, and others -- the real protagonist of the film is Gardner's son, the boy named Nicky (Noah Jupe). In the wake of his mother's death, Nicky's loss of innocence serves as a metaphorical vehicle for the nostalgic 50's image that many contemporary right-wing Americans cling to. Perhaps the child's unmasking of this false memory would have sufficed but the addition of racism and segregation as subplots, however well-intended, does not convincingly integrate with the film. The story of racist neighbours against a middle class black family runs parallel to that of the Lodge's, but it serves more as a counterpoint to the main story. That said, certain elements of the film are skilfully integrated as performative or visual allegories: Gardner's blood-stained shirt, the recurrent use of poisons in the plot, Margaret's died hair, the skeletal structures of houses under construction, or the confederate flag. In one scene, the camera comfortably follows one of the characters, withdraws to reveal the environment, lighting the episode with soft golden tones that shift to starker white illumination, and a treacherous chiaroscuro that suggests the film noir genre. Indeed, in this regard, both stylistically and narratively, Suburbicon recalls other loss of suburban innocence films ( David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of a Doubt), however, unlike these precedents, Clooney uses the Cohen's script to address the current swing towards racist ideologies in the US.

2.0 -- AMERICAN ASSASSIN, Michael Cuesta
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares] USA! USA! Anymore patriotic and American Assassin would feel like a parody. Based on the novel series by the late Vince Flynn, the plot, in short, plays with contemporary threats to the US (fundamentalist terrorists and nuclear weapons) and downsizes them to a personal drama of father and son figures. Set in Turkey, the East Coast of the US, and Rome, the plot revolves around Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien), a US vigilante on a quest for revenge against the Islamic terrorists who killed his girlfriend. Rapp is recruited by a CIA black-ops unit and sent to train and work as a counter-terrorism agent for cold-war veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). With these protagonists, the film plays as vehicle for the American myth of individualism; as Rapp constantly disobeys orders but gets the job done, and as Hurley tries to rein him in but concedes to Rapp's patriotism and skill. The rest of the cast feels like props for the pseudo father-son relation: rivals, enemies and lovers appear and/or die to advance Rapp's 'hero's journey.' Still, it is worth mentioning that the Iranian government is presented as both potential enemy and unlikely ally, and allusions to the Iran nuclear deal refer to those in Iran that are for or against such deal. But even the attempted complexity of the story's geopolitics falls prey to personal drama of family grudges (the Iranian femme fatal avenging her family, the former agent resentful of Hurley). Besides these thematic elements, the film includes the regular dosage of action sequences, gun fights and last minute salvation. It is more restrained in its gimmicks than the Bond franchise and aims for the realism of the Bourne ones, but its camera work and locations resemble those of videogames like Metal Gear Solid or Call of Duty Black Ops. Perhaps more interesting is the film's release date (September 15), just a few days after 9-11, with a US president calling the Iran deal "the worst in history," and North Korea threatening nuclear war. Thus, while as a movie it is as cookie-cut as they come, it is representative of current American anxiety.

2.8 -- GOOD TIME, Benny and Josh Safdie
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares]
Good Time offers the standard adrenaline crime drama with a twist in its plot and a cinematic emphasis. The story's premise is a simple one: low-life Constantine 'Connie' Nikas (Robert Pattinson) and his autistic brother Nick (played by co-director and co-writer, Benny Safdie), try to rob a New York bank and fail. After Nick is captured in the heist, Connie tries to rescue his brother through every means at his disposal; manipulating, stealing, impersonating and evading the police, and in the process encountering the outcasts under and at the margins of society as the night goes on and wrong. Connie's quest is shown through personal close-ups, moving shots following his escapes, and aerial shots of the sprawling metropolis at night. He and the environment are illuminated in a manner suggesting the tension of the moment or the nature of the place, employing the diegetic sources of light (or colour) to give oneiric dimensions to fast food joints, low-income housing, empty amusement parks, and even Connie himself. While this combo of artistic takes and Nick's autism takes the film out of the usual boundaries of crime films, at times the characters feel like social types or genre archetypes. Perhaps this also makes it interesting to see Pattinson portray such a rogue as Connie, especially because of his teenage idol status for the Twilight film series). Nevertheless, the film made was nominated for Cannes' Palm d'Or and premiered with great acclaim at this year's Fantasia. With Good Time, directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie continue their tradition of modern day social dramas (Daddy Longlegs, 2009, Heaven Knows What, 2014), featuring fringe characters and situations.

3.5 -- THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, Sébastian Laudenbach
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares]
In The Girl Without Hands director Sébastien Laudenbach uses a fragmentary drawing style to animate an adult version of the well-known Brothers Grimm tale. The story centers on a young girl whose father makes a deal with the devil and loses her hands on its account; while she escapes; the devil is far from letting her go, and her perilous voyage leads her to loneliness, love and her own self-determination. Although a fairy tale, Laudenbach's treatment of the story deals with themes of female emancipation and embodiment, as well as the girl's sexuality and bodily functions. The protagonist's misadventures put her at odds with her father and later with her prince, however she ultimately learns to overcome her handicap through self-reliance. But the most notable aspect of this feature is the style chosen to tell this tale. Described by its maker as a style that is "light and strewn with holes, that is often not coherent except when moving . . . " Laudenbach relied on his personal style to convey an open and fragmentary animation. Minimalist yet figurative, at times very elaborate and at others abstract, it reminds one of Jankovics Marcell's Sisyphus (1974) or Frederic Back's The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) for their craft and subject matter. Moreover, Laudenbach's use of space is also evocative, as he often composes through several layers to create forests and palaces, but most often relies on the blank page to convey a sense of incompletion that invites the viewer to fill in. Add to this the polymorphic character of his traces and the image becomes a canvas for movement of and movement through space, and thus it becomes a canvas for the mental states and moods of the characters. Laudenbach has developed this style through his 19 years as an animator of shorts. An auteur, he animated this tale in its entirety with little planning and limited budget, rendering his ink drawings on paper with only the original tale as guidance. With this, his feature debut, he offers an alternative to modern techniques of computer graphics and big budget features, reminding us of animation's basis in drawing and concretion in movement and narrative. The Girl Without Hands will be screened Aug. 18th in Montral at the Cinematheque Quebecois.

2.5 -- THE GLASS CASTLE, Destin Daniel Cretto
[reviewed by Oslavi Linares]
Based on the autobiographical book by Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle is a somewhat predictable nostalgic family melodrama. Well constructed but with few surprises, the plot alternates between Jeanette's present-day life as an engaged gossip columnist (played by Brie Larson) and her poverty-stricken childhood with her siblings and their free-spirited parents, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson). It is largely through Rex that most of the drama unfolds, as he is both an anti-establishment dreamer and an alcoholic constantly moving his family to flee bill collectors or the authorities. During Jeanette's adult life he still holds up to his ideals, squatting with Rose Mary in New York, and posing a disruption to Jeanette's wedding plans to a well-off financial analyst (Max Greenfield). This disruption parallels the highs and lows of her upbringing, using conventional but well-placed match cuts, dissolves to illustrate the passage of time or the act of remembering. This editing highlights the similarities between Jeanette's past and present life, evoking a sense of nostalgia into what would otherwise be just examples of parental neglect. At times, this feels too emotional, as we are reminded multiple times (not just through the parallel cuts but also through the close-ups, music, acting) of the difficulty of Jeanette's relation with her father. Because of the plot's foreseeable resolution, The Glass Castle's narrative turns its story of soul searching into a feel-good movie.

3.2 --  DJANGO, Etienne Comar
[reviewed  by Oslavi Linares] An apt opening act for this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival, Django is as much a biopic of guitar legend Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) as it is about music in times of conflict. The plot can be summed in the dichotomy of the persecuted gypsies playing music for their Nazi oppressors and surviving thanks to their talent. This reality leads Django to try to escape to Switzerland aided by a duplicitous former lover (Cécile De France), while relying on his talent to safeguard his family and fellow gypsies, or, in the words of his wife (Bea Palya), "make crowds dance and enchant snakes." And the snakes dance to the tune of swing, blues and jazz.
Indeed, music plays a large part of the film; from the opening scenes of persecution to the closing memorial, it weaves through Django's and the audience's worlds, borrowing from the musician's power to at times speak for him, illuminate the scene, or simply induce clapping.
Django's technique is so brilliant that the movie barely mentions the fact that at the age of 18, after suffering extensive first and second degree burns over his body and left hand, the doctors not only wanted to amputate one of his legs, but his fourth and fifth string plucking fingers were paralyzed. Django rejected the surgery, left the hospital shortly thereafter, and was able to walk with the aid of a cane after a year. Although the doctors were convinced he would never play guitar again, through sheer will and talent, he learned to play with his thumb and two fingers - and the rest is history.
But the film, thanks to its up-close cinematography, is also an effective portrayal of the artist and the gypsy community. The camera purposely closes in on its subject, marking in a series of vivid portraits Django's change in attitude from a care-free self-centred spirit to a concerned member of the Roma community, and an aid to the Resistance, while never loosing his sense of humour. To better render the stages of Django's journey and the many confrontational scenes, eye level shots are preferred over the more conventional aerial perspective, while the highs and lows of the artist's life are effectively evoked through creative lighting. The atmospheric shots of the different cities and locales (from gypsy camps to concert halls) breathe life to a period that does not seem so distant in today's world of rising xenophobia and ethnic violence.
Director Etienne Comar is no newcomer to ethnic conflict, having co-written with Xavier Beauvois the tale of two religions in
Of Gods and Men (2010), winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes. For the occasion of his directorial debut, Django, the very first biopic of the legendary guitarist, was chosen to open the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.
The film and its spot-on script effectively and seamlessly blend fact with fiction, altering the outcomes of his (second) attempt of escape, mixing the concert at Amphion-les-Bains with the French Resistance, or completely creating new characters, as in the case of his fictional lover, Louise de Klerk.
Comar's film joins the ranks of World War II films like
La Vita è Bella (1997, Benigni) and Train of Life (1988, Mihaileanu), while touching on the lesser known facts of the Roma genocide where it is estimated that a half a million gypsies were slaughtered by the Nazis. But in contrast to these films, or even The Pianist (Polanski, 2002), Django is not just a story about survival but about the artist's power and responsibility. The film reminds us of what stands behind music and what it can endure.




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