Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 19, No. 5, 2020
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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 critic Robert J. Lewis has seen the following films. Below are his 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.

Please note: Due to Covid-19, all films were streamed and viewed on a 42 inch screen.


2.9 -- THE THIEF'S DAUGHTER, Belén Funes

Most people learn early if not later in life that life isn't fair, either due to circumstance of one's birth or particular life situation. Far too often decency, diligence and industry are not rewarded.

Debut director Belén Funes, without ever trying to make the point, creates a no-nonsense but endearing portrait of a young woman who deserves better.

Sara, in her early 20s, with unconventional winning looks, is the daughter of a thief just out of prison. She has to keep a close eye on her 7-year old brother with a disability, and with state assistance she looks after her baby, all the while taking on odd jobs and looking for permanent stable employment. The father of the child, just returned from farm work in southern France to Barcelona, is no longer interested in her, so Sara's plate is full.

Thanks to spot-on editing, the busy-body that is Sara as she flits from one responsibility to the next (feeding child, looking after brother, trying to reconcile with father, applying for work, dealing with MIA husband) swells into a mood of quiet desperation that lulls the viewer into empathizing with her on-going messy life situations that tie her down all the while feeling that she deserves much better, in part because she refuses to play the victimization card.

The role of Sara, nimbly, inventively played by Greta Fernandez, has star-is-born written all over her performance. She shines like a diamond such that we feel let down in scenes that don't include her.

The film reminds us that much of the good of the world issues from ordinary people who decide to make the best of circumstances not of their choosing. The Thief's Daughter abounds in grace notes that redounds to both the director and her team who make the most of limited resources and extract convincing performances from mostly unknown actors.


2.8 -- ATLANTIS, Valentyn Vasyanovych

The film Atlantis opens in the near future, 2025, but in Ukraine, the future is overwhelmed, swallowed up and buried by the past; a not so subtle reference to Russia's illegal invasion and expropriation of Crimea and the costly resistance that followed.

Almost without exception, every forlorn scene is shot with an inert camera -- grim portraits of the devastation unleashed by war and untold hardships endured. In the opening scene, from high up looking down, in colours that are saturated to their warping point, we observe three men digging a grave. The intended, a captured sniper, is still alive when his mouth is stuffed with bullets before he is clubbed and dumped into the hole and buried.

Switching to an interior scene, a man brings in a pair of frozen stiff pants that were hanging outside, begins to iron them, and then burns the iron into his thigh before going berserk and smashing up his meagre living quarters.

In the degraded steel mill engulfed in fumes, a platform worker, despairing of the present and future, leaps into the foundry's fiery furnace. The next day, on a huge video screen, an American CEO announces to the workers that the mill is temporarily closing due to modernization, but the locals know that US steel can't compete with Ukraine's lower local production costs.

In another scene, body bags are unfolded for autopsies. In a voice as lifeless as the corpses, the condition of the bodies is described in minute detail before they are carted away, many of them ending up in unmarked mass graves.

And if all of this isn't sufficiently miserable and depressing, it's winter and all the roads have turned into mud and everything mechanical breaks down; once thriving cities and towns are now toxic wastelands where nothing grows.

In a water delivery episode that will appeal to closet anthropophagists, in a harsh rocky outcropping, a trucker, extending a long hose, fills a deserted metal dumpster with water after which he sets fire to the wood beneath it. He waits for the water to warm up, strips down and climbs into a deliciously warm bath.

In the penultimate frames, a couple, hardened by war and prolonged despair but desperate to find traces of their humanity, copulate in the back of a sealed container, their animal lovemaking easily more dignified than what their humankind have done to their country. When the latched door opens, there is an explosion of light. The man explains that for years he wanted to die but now realizes he must live.

Atlantis, in its unrelenting grimness and despair, is not only an indictment of Russian aggression and a world that stood by and watched, but of all wars and the anguish and loss they leave in their wake. It's also a poignant reminder that the 6 o'clock news doesn't tell us what we really ought to know.


3.0 -- COCOON, Leonie Krippendorff

Young teens awakening to self-consciousness and their budding sexuality is a rite of passage fraught with both consequences and phantom fears. Beginning with the new millennium, coming out and/or coming of age has been a favourite theme of cinema, especially since the LGBTQ movement found its voice. Leonie Krippendorff's Cocoon does the genre proud.

The summer weather in Berlin is hot and sticky and 14-year-old Nora, her older sister Jule and friend Aylin are dressed skimpy to beat the heat. The three-some are precociously splashing about in pool when Nora accidently touches another girl and discovers that she likes it. Shortly thereafter she has her first period during a mixed gym class. But it's the new girl in the neighbourhood, Romy, who helps her overcome her embarrassment.

Nora, played by Lena Urzendowsky, gives an extraordinarily nuanced performance that has reward written all over it. Her feelings, her facial expressions that refract her inner turbulence and fondest dreams reads like a personal diary of one's most private confessions. Under Krippendorff's inventive helmership, the give and take between Nora's fluctuating emotional state and the external world (at poolside, the bedroom Nora shares with her sister, the symbolic presence of a caterpillar, the extravagant vegetation) are flawlessly rendered.

Throughout the film the sensuality is almost palpable, as if the camera contains a beating heart and desires seeking to be fulfilled. Like a gentle caress, at every opportunity the up-close and tactile lens celebrates the warmth of summer and supremacy of the flesh.

The tracking of Nora's metamorphosis from cocoon to butterfly seamlessly unfolds in the new Germany with its immigrant population. In schools that are multicultural, students share the same challenges and feelings about the world that is changing about them. The manner in which young Germans, Turks and Arabs relate bodes well for the country's future, despite the decline in family values. Nora and Jule's mother who is still very (too) young and attractive, has a drinking problem and is mostly absent, leaving the two sisters to look after themselves. In fact the role of parents is an after-thought throughout the film. No surprise that Nora and her relationship with Romy are running along two separate tracks; and life goes on, just as we wish Cocoon would have gone on longer.


2.5 -- OASIS, Ivan Ikic

In the 1960s, Serbia prided itself in providing institutions that looked after its mentally challenged population, mindful that in man's early history newborns with defects were routinely put to death.

Oasis unfolds in a real life institution.

Two girls, Marija and Dragana form a close bond, in part because their wrists bare the scars of their cutting and suicide attempts. When they meet Robert, a mute, they cannot resist his handsome features and angelic face. The pained expression that shows in his gait and pours out of his large sad eyes beg to be cared for, but the care-givers, for the most part, aren't there for their patients, on top of which they aren't so much as unfeeling but incompetent or unqualified, seemingly incapable of the smallest empathy.

Jealousy dooms the girls' friendship. Dragana announces she is pregnant, a dagger in the heart of her rival that turns out to be wishful thinking. But then Marija is found out to be pregnant and is whisked away for an abortion. So much for patient rights. Meanwhile, Robert, like someone subjected to a Pavlovian experiment, is introduced to Bianca in order to wean him off Marija. The three of them will eventually meet in a better place, which throws a backwards light on an institution that talks big but delivers small. It seems that special needs people aren't supposed to fall in love, or exhibit normal human emotions, and are presumably helped when they are denied their humanity.

Mostly shot with a hand-held camera, Oasis has a documentary feeling to it because the location is real and the actors are playing themselves. Its two hour running time would have been more effective pared down to 90 minutes.


2.9 -- WISDOM TOOTH, Liang Ming

While the wisdom tooth pain metaphor isn't likely to receive the blessings of this year's Poet Laureate, the film Wisdom Tooth certainly doesn't suffer on its account.

For its entire length, the film sustains interest as a mood piece and character study of a young Chinese girl whose relationships with those closest to her and her work environment are deliberately obscure.

In exciting interest in any storyline, one of cinema's most oft used techniques is suspense created by withholding critical information: its first effect is to both unsettle and engage the viewer. Ambiguity and ambivalence are the staples of Wisdom Tooth, whose storyline -- the difficulty of Chinese border town workers obtaining visas to Korea -- is secondary to the film's seductive atmospherics.

When we meet teenage Guxi, she is sponging the back of Guliang, who we learn only much later is her brother, or maybe half-brother. But in point of fact we're never quite sure if they are lovers, are platonically in love, or simply unusually close siblings. After losing his fishing income consequent to an oil spill the government tried to suppress, Guliang reluctantly begins to work for Jian, the town's shady power broker, who just happens to own the hotel where the undocumented Guxi works. In the meanwhile, Guxi begins a friendship with the boss' classy, sexually charged daughter Quingchang, but we're not sure how sincere it is, just as we're not sure about the underlying motiviation when we discover that Guliang is romantically involved with Quingchang. But when Guxi discovers the affair, she cannot contain her jealousy over her brother's apparent betrayal but perhaps also Quinchang's.

Without artifice or compromise, Winter Tooth is a tangled skein of sexual politics and convoluted relationships. But however vague and unresolved are the story's overlapping subplots, Guxi's volatile emotional state -- her small pleasures, her disappointments, her explosiveness -- is the glue that keeps the film's many disparate elements in orbit. . From one scene to the next, we're not sure how Guxi is going to react when her circumstance changes, which is typical of adolescents trying to find their way in a mostly uncaring world.

The director, Liang Ming, takes full advantage of location, the contrasting indoor and outdoor environments. The latter has a monochrome wintery, edgy feel to it while the indoor hotel/bedroom/restaurant scenes are wanton and hot and bursting with steamy colours.

Winter Tooth, in consideration of its multifaceted physical, political and psychological components, is a tough film to pull off. It speaks to a director in full control of her materials and vision. Her next root canal promises to be even better.


2.3 -- DROWSY CITY, Luong Dinh Dung

In Luong Dinh Dung's Drowsy City, there's no chance of drowsing off.

The film opens with a knife slicing open a chicken's throat, after which the slicer drains the blood into a slop-pail which stands in an island of grime and bird feathers. The camera pans to the film's nameless, taciturn anti-hero, known simply by what he does: slaughterman. He kills chickens for a living. Before slitting their throats, he pours boiling water over them to facilitate the removal of the feathers.

Every aspect of slaughterman's life is peculiar: his manner of preparing the chickens for his clients; when not working he soaks his body in a small tub (ersatz return to the womb, innocence) and he's a peeping Tom, which gets him in trouble after he's caught in the act of witnessing his thug neighbours abuse and hold a prostitute against her will. When he's caught, they subject him to all sorts of indignities, and for laughs, they force him to jump up and down like a chicken.

Wrath, as in vengeance, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There isn't a film culture in the world that doesn't have its revenge genre. Drowsy City offers an unusual perspective on that theme. When the prostitute announces she is pregnant, the thugs begin kicking her in the stomach, hoping to induce a miscarriage. Slaughterman, as is his wont, is spying on the somewhat unsophisticated medical procedure, and resolves to do something about it. So he dissolves a package of powerful sleeping pills into the meal he's preparing for the thugs, and when they are under, he ties them up and subjects them to the horrors normally reserved for his chickens.

Vegetarians and animal rights warriors are likely to take exception to the graphic executions and flow of blood. However, consequent to the incontinent blood letting, there will always be a disaffected vegetarian or two who suddenly develops a liking for the Colonel's (Sanders) favourite fowl.

Kudos to director Dung who understands that character development would constitute a major distraction in a film that doesn't pretend to be anything other than gross entertainment.


3.1 -- SERVANTS, Ivan Ostrochovsky

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was one of the first books that laid bare the repression and systemic horrors experienced under Soviet Communism.

Ivan Ostrochoveky's Servants offers a bleak harrowing, albeit static account of the inhumanity and constricting contagion of fear generated in that anomalous era. The story unfolds in Slovakia (Bratislava), in the late 1970s.

Filmed in black and white, Servant's sombre atmospherics are introduced in the first scene. A bumpy camera follows a car along a deserted, frozen road; the trunk is opened and a body is removed.

In the interior of the seminary where most of the film is shot, two friends, Juraj and Michael are among a group of students studying to become priests. While religion was officially banned under Communism, the Soviets allowed the seminary to operate under a "Pacem In Terris" agreement, but under strict control. The priest's first duty was not to God but the State.

One day, the head priest is summoned by the security chief, Frantisek, who advises him that someone is secretly transmitting information to the West, and that if he doesn't apprehend the culprit(s), the seminary will be closed. The directive obliges both the priest and subversive students to consider their calling and conscience.

The film is shot in 4 x 3, a size that favours portraiture, of faces and the era. Most of the action is comprised of whispers and nods, and clipped dialogue. In this film, the eyes speak and see. The regimentation within the seminary and the State are superbly captured by inventive camera positions, including from the dome looking down. The tension is almost palpable as the parallel lines of refectory's austere benches and tables toe the line of the rigid architectural lines of the seminary. Where there is light, and there's not much of it throughout the film, it's dark and inky, and spreads like a pestilence to the effect that the world inside the seminary resembles a prison.

Servants, at once subdued and explicit, is a precious document and witness to the ugly truths of a repressive system that could not have prevailed indefinitely, so contrary were its foundational principles to man's essential nature.


2.0 -- THIS IS NOT A BURIAL, IT'S A RESURRECTION, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

A film praised by all the major reviewing journals tends to sweep up in its coatails even more positive reviews, and however unconsciously, persuades even well-meaning reviewers to overrule their better judgment.

After the first sclerotic half hour of This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection, I couldn't help wondering if this wasn't a student film assigment made on a shoestring budget. Clocking in at 140 minute film I would have sent it back, by jet, to the cutting (hacksaw) table. On a scale between zero and ten, the camera work was unfailingly negative integer; the sets, although true to life, were uninteresting, and the voiceover, representing the influence of myth in the daily life of a small, isolated village in South Africa that time seems to have left behind, wasn't convincing. It must be said, however, that perhaps too much was lost in translation: for every 100 spoken words of the African language, about 30 appeared in English, and in subtitles that far too often disappeared into the background colours.

Mantoa, the still alert, ancient woman of the village, has lost everyone she has loved: her parents, her husband, her children and her grandchilden; and she wants to join them. But the district council wants to displace the entire village to make room for a dam, which will flood the entire area including the sacred burial ground. The old, who are believers, Christians, will not tolerate the desecration of their loved ones' spirit world while the young are more amenable to change.

As a socio-political drama, the film works best when focussed on the very real conflict between progress and tradition, while acknowledging the natural advantage of the former. The village church was constructed in the 1850s. All the male members of the tribe had to contribute the iron from their spears for the construction of the bell. By inference, the representatives (proselytizers) of a foreign religion managed to convince the hunters to trade in not only what was precious in their weaponry but their many gods for the one Christian god. What will they have to give up this time? Or what are you left with if you have to give up everything?

Among the paucity of pleasures the film offers up are some of the locations and individual life stories spun out of the warp and woof of the local mythology. But the unecessarily long film is jagged and far too short short on connective tissue.    


3.0 -- MOVING ON, Yoon Dan-Bi

We learn either experientially or anecdotally that the three main sources of major life-stress are death of a loved one, poverty and moving.

In Yoon Dan-bi's very impressive Moving On, a down-on-its-luck Korean family must learn how to deal with all three stresses as the family (a divorced father and his two children) moves its meager belongings to the ailing grandfather's home because the father has lost his job and now sells shoes from his truck.

The most affected are the children, despite the father putting on a happy face and show of calm in the midst of the turbulence. As one would expect, of the two children, 15-year old, emotionally volatile Okju, and not her much younger brother Dongju, is more vulnerable to the sudden changes in the family's fortunes. Unlike her brother, she cannot forgive her mother for leaving her father and apparently withdrawing her love from her children. Okju, played by Choi Jung-un, steals every scene she appears in.

Despite the many ups and down, disappointments and hardships, the family unit, that now includes a recently divorced, sympathetic aunt refuses to break down.

Throughout the film, a curious but unobtrusive camera joins the family in its daily activities as it strives to normalize life. We observe how each family member, in his or her own way, volunteers to look after the grandfather whose health is rapidly failing; and the empathetic manner the father and aunt administer to Okju's emotional tantrums, and how the simple preparing and sharing of a meal can be a joyful experience.

The sum of these moving parts play like an homage to the importance of family in the face of adversity. From scenes that delight, to tug on the heart strings, Moving On, in the accumulation of its details, pitch-perfect script and natural performances, is a small gem of a film that speaks large to matters of universal concern.

In his debut as a director, Dan-bi is already a candidate to join Korea's distinguished pantheon of film makers.     


2.6 -- UNDINE, Christian Petzold   

Unrequited love, or relationships that end in body but not mind, are the source of much unhappiness in life. What both works and doesn't quite work in Christian Petzold’s Undine is the fine acting and the extraordinary burden carried by the film’s metaphors and symbols.

Undine is a museum tour guide in Berlin: her specialty is architecture. Leading groups of tourists around immaculately designed architectural miniatures (maquettes), Undine, paying attention to the smallest detail, rather brilliantly describes Berlin's post-war massive restoration and reconstruction projects. Meanwhile, in her private life, everything she comes in contact with breaks down: a huge aquarium is knocked over and spills its tonnage; her boyfriend's underwater diving gear malfunctions, she drops a precious gift, and she is at the epicenter of several relationship breakdowns.

We learn right away that something isn't quite right: when Johannes announces he is leaving her, she explains that she'll have to kill him. Shortly thereafter, she begins a consuming, lovey-dovey affair with Christoph, a frogman repairman, but this relationship is suddenly in jeopardy when Undine passes her ex on the street. Christoph senses the betrayal and leaves her, but like Undine, he is an emotional prisoner of the past and can't let her go.

If the director Christian Petzold expects his audience to find a message via the reconstruction/restoration metaphor, he is probably asking too much, at least of this reviewer. Whether in architecture or relationships, we know the past perfect cannot be perfectly replicated in the present. And the elaborate underwater scenes and symbolism complicate rather than explicate what motivates the bizarre decisions and behaviour of the protagonists. But their unusual choices are part of the films small charm. Undine’s contours are sufficiently off-center to fully engage the viewer even while leaving him vaguely unsatisfied at the end. Whether the film lingers in the mind long enough to grow one's understanding of the ups and downs of relationships remains to be seen.

2.8 -- THERE IS NO EVIL, Mohammad Rasoulof              

Of practical necessity, many Iranian films employ symbolism or muted storylines to criticize the regime: in
Baran (Majid Majidi, 2001) a young girl, to support her family, dresses up as a boy to find work on a construction site.

Mohammad Rasoulof's There is No Evil takes a very different turn: it non-judgmentally interrogates the people who go along with, do not take a stand against the regime.

The film is divided into four separate vignettes, each dealing with the oft used death penalty. We never learn what the condemned have done to merit the ultimate punishment. Instead, we follow the lives of four individuals who are either directly or indirectly party to the executions.

In Part I, an edgy camera follows a day in the life of Heshmet: negotiating Tehran's torridly slow traffic and unceasing noise, shopping with his wife for weekly groceries, picking up his young daughter at school, looking after his infirm mother. Heshmet is an easy going man, a calming influence on his wife and extended family, a model of domesticity. At 3 am, he is woken up by the alarm, he drives to work, slips into his uniform, prepares himself a snack, and then at the appointed hour he flicks the switch: five bodies are dropped at the end of a rope. As they twitch and shudder so do we. The camera pans to the urine leaking out of their lifeless bodies.

The remaining three vignettes, in similar fashion, refract Iran's unconflicted relationship with the death penalty and those (mostly soldiers who must serve in order to qualify for a passport) who flick the switch.

Rasoulof asks the toughest of questions where there are no easy answers. Are the designated executioners simply doing their job, correctly deciding not to risk putting themselves and family on the wrong side of the regime, or are they abetting evil?

The 150 minute film offers few pleasures but at the midway point (the 7th inning stretch), in rural Iran, the wide angle lensing provides for spectacular scenery and dreamy route shots.


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