MSPIFF14 Reviews: Proxy and The Animal Project

Happy Wednesday everyone! Ok, we’re down to the last two batches of MSPIFF reviews. Today we’ve got two from Josh  from JJames Reviews.

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PROXY

Review by Josh P.

Proxy-PosterProxy begins with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen), who is nine months pregnant, at an ultrasound appointment, talking to a technician (Shayla Hardy). Rasmussen’s stunningly removed vocal and facial affect tells us that Esther is, at the very least, depressed. Co-writer/director Zach Parker’s decisions are just as unsettling. For instance, Esther’s pregnancy belly is shaped oddly; the sonogram never looks like a fully formed baby; the technician’s conversation is bizarre; and so forth. Everything about the opening scene tells us that something is wrong, foreshadowing the next development, when someone with skinny legs and a red sweatshirt brutally attacks Esther. The mother survives, but the baby does not, and so begins a series of off-putting conversations, culminating in Esther meeting Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins) at a support group. The two women form a friendship, but their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), Anika (Kristina Klebe), Peyton (Xavier Parker) and Melanie’s own mental instability. 

In the early going, Proxy is atmospherically mind-bending, featuring considerable tension that causes confusion without frustration. It helps that the two featured characters, and the actors who play them, are compelling. Esther and Melanie are disturbed but still interesting, especially Esther, whose mental illness we do not understand until it’s too late.

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Throughout, Parker’s artistic decisions—including a slow-motion sequence and an odd fantasy in the picture’s climax—build tension. Rasmussen’s entrancing performance helps just as much. In her hands, Esther might be a psychopath, a broken victim or something in between. 

Unfortunately, Proxy does not sustain such quality, largely because many of the twists make Melanie less believable, but mostly because Patrick and Anika are not as interesting as Esther and her new friend. Swanberg plays Patrick with, more or less, a single facial expression, one that makes a would-be complex character decidedly one-note. As such, whenever Proxy focuses on him, it suffers. Ditto that for Anika, though for different reasons. Klebe’s performance is fine, but the character she plays is poorly written, so poorly that Anika is archetypal, unexplained and unbelievable. 

Parker and Donner’s portrayal of women doesn’t help either. The three primary females are, to varying degrees, insane, and the minor characters are either insensitive or weak.  Would I call Proxy sexist? Probably not, but, at the least, I can understand why some (including Slant magazine) have. And, whether or not the film is biased, such characterization means we never genuinely empathize with any of these characters. In turn, we never feel Proxy’s would be emotion (I am aware that Slant’s review makes this point, as well).

For all of that, Proxy remains interesting enough to warrant a tepid recommendation, if only because, it does successfully buy our interest. We want to know what will happen next.

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2.5 out of 5 reels


The Animal Project

Review by Josh P.

The-Animal-Project-PosterWhat with simple focus on a small acting class, The Animal Project is not the most complex movie at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, but it is nonetheless a solid, character-driven dramedy.

In centering her Canadian film on Leo (Aaron Poole), a father, widower and acting teacher, writer/director Ingrid Veninger wisely chooses a complex and likable protagonist. Leo contends with considerable baggage, not the least of which is a positive but strained relationship with his eighteen-year-old son, Sam (Jacob Switzer), and muddled interaction with one of his students, Saul (Joey Klein). Eventually, Leo devises a plan to challenge his students by having them dress up in costumes and walk around town, offering free hugs to people they meet. 

That is, more or less, the extent of The Animal Project’s plot, which is why it proves meritorious that Veninger develops some interesting characters. Leo, Sam and Saul are all multidimensional. Even better, Leo and Sam’s father-son relationship forms a terrific emotional core, one that produces several moments of intense feeling, both when the two argue and when they reconcile. 

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The relationship between Leo and Saul, however, is less skillfully written. Though Leo probably is not gay, the two men share odd, underexplored sexual tension. Even by the end of the movie, we do not fully understand how these two men relate, or why they do so. Perhaps that is why The Animal Project is best when it focuses on Sam or Leo.

Or maybe it’s because the rest of the acting class characters are all undeveloped. Of them, Pippa (Jessica Greco) is the best, but that’s mostly because she’s intimately connected to both Leo and Sam. Ray (Emmanuel Kabongo) is worst. Alice (Hannah Cheesman), Jason (Jonathon Sousa), and Mira (Sarena Parmar) fall somewhere in the middle. In the end, even Pippa is underwritten, which means none of the secondary characters resonate, and The Animal Project stumbles every time it focuses on one of them, which it does semi-frequently. The film probably would have been better if it had been less ensemble and placed greater priority on Leo, Sam and Saul. 

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Still, The Animal Project is far from bad in its current form. With several laugh-out-loud funny moments and terrific acting performances all around (especially from Poole, Switzer, Klein and Greco), it is entertaining and occasionally moving. Not to mention worth viewing. 

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3 out of 5 reels

JJamesReviews


What do you think of these two films? Intriguing enough for you?

Weekend Roundup & MSPIFF14 double reviews starring Juliette Binoche

Happy Monday everyone! Hope you all had a lovely Easter weekend.

I took a bit of a break from blogging this weekend, but this week has been pretty busy in terms of movie watching. It’s the last week of the MSPIFF 2014 and I saw three more films, one short of what I intended to see but fortunately there’ll be a press screening of Locke next Monday. As the film fest continues with Best of Fest screenings all week, there’ll be more reviews coming from both me and Josh 😉

Here are the three new movies I saw over the weekend:

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I’ve blogged about All Things To All Men quite a while ago and finally it’s available on Netflix streaming. Remember how I always say some movies are well worth seeing just for the cast. Well, in this case, the ONLY thing worth seeing is the three actors: Toby Stephens, Rufus Sewell and Gabriel Byrne in that order [I’m having a serious crush on Toby, didn’t you notice?] Alas, the film itself left so much to be desired, and leaves me scratching my head why these actors signed on to do such a project. Did they lose a bet or something? I’m not sure I could even review it, but let me just say that unless you’re absolutely in love with any of the cast, I can’t exactly recommend it.

These two from MSPIFF, on the other hand, is well worth a look.

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A Thousand Times Good Night

Rebecca is one of the world’s top war photographers. She must weather a major emotional storm when her husband refuses to put up with her dangerous life any longer. 

This is one of those dramas that at times play out like a thriller. Even from the first moments when the protagonist is witnessing a ceremonial custom of an Afghan suicide bomber being prepped for self sacrifice, it’s quite an emotional roller coaster all the way to the very last scene.

For Rebecca (Juliette Binoche), covering the war is not just a job, it’s her way of life. When she comes home injured from Afghanistan, it’s apparent that it’s just as tough for her family to deal with her dangerous job. It’s apparent that her husband Marcus is constantly worried sick for Rebecca and this incident puts him over the edge which compels him to give her an ultimatum. It’s her family or her job. At first I felt that it’s not fair of him to do so, but as the film progresses, we’re shown how her two young daughters are dealing with her absence whilst she’s away in a war zone. It’s a tricky dilemma that I find myself grappling with as I watched this film. I read that this film is semi-autobiographical as Norwegian director Erik Poppe was a war photographer himself. No doubt this story is quite a personal one for him.

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The main quibble I have with the film is the slow pace. I don’t mind quiet moments on film, but at times it felt a bit too indulgent that it threatens to grind the film to a halt. The metaphor of Rebecca drowning/suffocating by her life dilemma also grows repetitive. But the cinematography is simply stunning, nearly every shot is like a work of art. It’s also very atmospheric and the conflict felt genuine. The sense of authenticity comes from a committed performance from the always-reliable Binoche, as well as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who plays her sensitive & caring husband. I’ve always been a big fan of Nikolaj from his short TV stint in New Amsterdam, long before he played Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones, and he proves himself once again to be a capable and versatile actor. Lauryn Canny as Rebecca’s eldest daughter Steph is also quite good. When they’re in Africa, something happened that was quite traumatic for Steph. Some of the most emotional scenes in the film feature the two of them.

The heart of the film is no doubt Binoche. She conveys so much even in scenes where no words are spoken. This is the first of two films I saw her in and she’s absolutely excellent in both of these. There’s a certain aura of mystique about her that seems unreachable, and she’s very convincing as an fiercely idealistic woman. There is a fine line between bravery and recklessness and I think this film often blurs that line. There is a hint at the finale where Rebecca is back in Afghanistan that perhaps she’s a changed person after what happened between her and Steph, but the film lets us interpret that for ourselves.

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Words and Pictures

An art instructor and an English teacher form a rivalry that ends up with a competition at their school in which students decide whether words or pictures are more important.

Romance that’s sparked out of rivalry has been done many times before, but with the right cast, it can still feel fresh. The pairing of Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche is what intrigues me about this film and they’re still the reason to watch to movie.

Owen is Jack ‘Mr Mark’ Marcus, a gifted English teacher at an upscale prep school. His best days as a published author seems to be behind him and he’s got a drinking problem. Perhaps that’s a result of his disillusionment with his life, as he seems to have lost his mojo, as well as in danger of losing his job. Meanwhile, a renowned painter Dina Delsanto (Binoche) has just been hired at the school. Her nickname is icicle for obvious reasons, but her coldness seems to also stem from her disappointment that she can no longer paint as much as she did due to her server Rheumatoid arthritis.

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The two couldn’t be more different from each other, but as they say, opposites attracts. It’s fun to watch Owen in a softer role like this where he’s not firing a gun every two seconds, but his intensity is still there as he bud heads with the school principal and board members. He’s a deeply flawed character and in the most vulnerable moments, especially between him and his estranged son, is where I enjoyed his performance most. I wish the film would focus more on these two characters, as all the drama with the students are not as intriguing to me, and they don’t really add much to the story. The whole school competition of Words vs Pictures is more of a personal *war* for Marcus and Delsanto, and though it’s predictable that they’d end up together, it’s still fun to watch their banters. I personally like the pairing of Owen and Binoche more than him and Julia Roberts in Duplicity, which I find rather contrived. The only other actor I like in this movie is Bruce Davison as one of the more sympathetic faculty members.

Binoche is lovely here and it’s a testament to her versatility that she is also very convincing as a painter. I didn’t know that she’s an artist herself but in the credits I noticed that the Delsanto’s work is by Binoche, wow! I think out of the two films I saw last week, her dramatic chops perhaps suits something like A Thousand Times Good Night better. I like the idea of two broken people finding each other and to see a romantic film between people over the age of 40. Alas, I think the ending is almost as rough as Owen’s unkempt stubbles. Even the finale of the competition just didn’t have the oomph needed to make the story soar. Overall it’s an enjoyable dramedy though, eons better than a lot of the rom-coms are churning out these days. If you’re a fan of these two actors, this one is definitely worth a look.

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So what did you see this Easter weekend? Anything good?

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Paulette & The Life of Riley

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The film festivities continues! Today we’ve got a couple more MSPIFF 2014 reviews courtesy of Josh from JJAMES reviews.

Paulette (2013)

Paulette-PosterPaulette is a French comedy with a simple plot and simple characters to match. The titular protagonist (Bernadette Lafont) is an unpleasant elderly woman who, along with her late husband, once ran a successful restaurant. Now, however, she lives on minimal pension and cannot afford to pay her bills, a fact that inspires her sell marijuana. When other dealers take offense at her success, Paulette opens a bakery, with the narcotic as her central ingredient.

To be certain, Paulette is initially hilarious. For the first thirty minutes, or so, we are aghast that this woman dares tell her black confessor (Pascal Nzoni) that he deserves to be white, that she steals food from the homeless, that she tells her bi-racial grandson (Ismael Drame) she hates him because he’s black, or that she ignores her son-in-law (Jean-Baptiste Anoumon), who happens to be a police officer investigating drug trafficking. Paulette’s behavior is despicable, but it is also funny, no doubt owing to Lafont’s skill in playing the character. We laugh even more passionately when Paulette chooses to sell drugs, and then all the more when she is good at it. Quickly enough, however, the humor grows stale, because writer/director Jerome Enrico and his four credited co-writers replay the jokes too many times.

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How frequently does Paulette dodge detection by her son-in-law, who is supposedly good at his job but can’t pick up on the incredibly obvious clues she spills? I lost count. How many times do her friends seem aghast at her new behavior? Again, I lost count. Eventually, of course, the friends learn the truth, but then instead of being as appalled as their previous behavior suggests they ought be, they help Paulette. Why? How many times does Paulette’s daughter drop off Leo, the aforementioned grandson, even though Paulette is a terrible caretaker? Again, I lost count. How many times does Walter (Andre Penvern) seek Paulette’s romantic affection? You already know my answer to that question.

Poor character development doesn’t help. The villains and other secondary characters are basically trait-less. Even Paulette is in-complex, no matter her changes. Simply put, she has one note early and a different one late.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. Thanks to its sense of humor Paulette isn’t a total failure. I just don’t think it successful either. Here the comedy isn’t enough to overcome poor character development, simplistic plot lines and repetitiveness.

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The Life of Riley (2013)

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The Life of Riley occurs in and around Duluth, Minnesota, sometimes venturing northward to the Lake Superior shores that surround it. In many ways, the film is a love letter to its setting; director Carrie Boberg, cinematographer Mark Hartzel and writer/co-editor/producer/star Jason Page present Duluth such that it seems equal parts calming, fun and beautiful. Boberg’s wide angle and static exterior shots prove especially effective in that regard. Like Mystery Road, another movie I saw at MSPIFF, The Life of Riley has a superlative sense of setting. All viewers, even those previously unfamiliar with the city, will fall in love with Duluth.

The central characters are lovable, too, especially Maggie (Jessica Manuel), who enters Riley’s (Page) life as he is languishing at a job he hates, so much so that he lacks inspiration to finish the novel he has been theoretically writing for years. Maggie and Riley’s first date is to join Elliot (Peter Ooley) on a trip to Minneapolis where they see Martin (Zachary Stofer) headlining a rock concert with one of his bands. The date goes well, so well that Maggie seeks out Riley the following day, whereupon the two begin a passionate relationship, one that vitalizes Riley and brings about significant changes in the ways he lives life.

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In the early going, The Life of Riley is hilarious, largely owing to the witty banter between Riley, Martin, Elliot and Maggie. The mostly amateur performers help, as well, especially Page and Manuel who play their characters with such charismatic aplomb that we almost don’t notice Riley or Maggie’s flaws.

Approximately two-thirds through the film, Page’s screenplay takes a surprising turn, one that instantly transforms The Life of Riley from hilarious to emotional. For the most part, the shift is handled adeptly, except in the moments immediately preceding it when Boberg’s directorial decisions and Page’s screenplay too directly foreshadow what is to come and thereby temporarily make the project melodramatic. In the final third, the cast stumbles a bit, too, not quite accessing proper gravitas to suit events. Finally, some of the dialogue is a little too on point.

All of these flaws are dismissible, however, because the characters are complex and captivating. Moreover, enough of the film is laugh out loud funny that we are always entertained, and, perhaps most importantly, The Life of Riley makes several interesting observations about life. The film mightn’t be perfect, but it is quite good.

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JJamesReviews
Thanks again Josh for the excellent reviews!


What do you think of these two films? Let us know in the comments!

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Breathe In & The Grand Seduction

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Breathe In

BreatheInPosterI have to admit I’m usually not into films about infidelity as it often gets glamorized on film and those getting cheated on often appear as if they deserve what happen to them. Luckily that’s not the case here. It’s more of a character study on temptation and the fragility of people who are deeply disillusioned with their lives.

The film opens with a seemingly happy family in an idyllic suburbs in upstate NY. The dad Keith (Guy Pearce) is a music teacher who is an aspiring orchestra cellist, the mother Megan (Amy Ryan), is a housewife who sells cookie jars on the side. Their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) is a swimming champion, blond and vivacious. They were all anticipating the arrival of Sophie, an exchange student from Britain who’s coming to stay w/ them. That part reminds me of an exchange student from Denmark who came to live with us when I was in high school. Fortunately there was no such drama like what happens to this family. But then again, the student at our house was not in the form of an attractive girl like Felicity Jones and there was no married male in my household.

The attraction between Keith and Sophie is inevitable and palpable. As soon as Keith helped her with her luggage at the airport, exchanging quick glances in the car or at dinnertime, all the seemingly innocent acts have an electric undercurrent.

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The naturalistic style of Drake Doremus‘ direction lends itself to an atmospheric and intimate setting, as well as an authentic performance from the actors. Not that their behavior is excusable in any way, but neither Keith or Sophie seems powerless to stop their attraction from getting the best of them. In Keith’s part though, it seems that it’s more about him chasing his dream of a Bohemian life, something he felt he gave up when he took on the job and move out of Manhattan. There’s no real friction between him and his wife other than the fact that she sees his aspiring career as a concert cellist as a mere hobby. Keith’s motivation in the whole affair seemed more visible, for a lack of a better word, whilst Sophie’s much more of an enigma. And that to me, felt like a crux that prevents this film from being truly compelling. The way Lauren and her teenage friends is depicted here seems rather simplistic and generalized, it certainly puts teen life in a very unflattering light.

What I do appreciate is the lack of sensational & unnecessary sex scenes which I think would cheapen the story. As my friend Ashley astutely pointed out in her comment, anyone can grind and moan but to create a real sexual tension with just the touch of a hand or even a look across the room is far more challenging. As I’ve mentioned briefly in this piano moment post, there’s not one but two memorable piano scene brimming with sexual tension. Pearce and Jones certainly have a scorching chemistry despite their 16 age gap and the build up to their first moment together was almost as tense as a suspense thriller! Pearce is one of today’s finest actors and this performance further cements his amazing versatility. Even at 30, Jones still looks believable enough as a teen, and her character is supposed to be much more mature than her age. Having seen Like Crazy, I feel like I have seen Jones in a similar role as a girl who recklessly puts desire and passion above reason.

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I have to give props to Amy Ryan for delivering a memorable supporting role to a thankless role as Keith’s wife. She somehow makes her character sympathetic and I’m glad the film didn’t turn her into nothing but *scornful wife* here. There’s also a droll, albeit creepy, scene with Kyle MacLachlan pointing out the elephant in the room to Pearce’s character.

I think people might call this film tedious or underwhelming as there’s barely anything happening. I can see where they’re coming from, and for me, if it weren’t for the excellent performances I’d probably think the same way. I do think the script is so sparse and the vague finale barely give us anything to grasp on. What happened to Sophie in the end? Is the family beyond repair at this point? There are gaps that seem to be intentionally left open here which can be frustrating. All the exquisitely shot and breathless moments are memorable in and of itself, but ultimately the film itself feels too indulgent and even morose for its own good. One thing for sure though, it’s quite a sobering picture of infidelity that temptation may be sweet but remorse never is.

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GrandSeductionPosterThe Grand Seduction

I almost missed seeing this as I couldn’t get an extra ticket for my hubby on Friday night. Fortunately there’s a second screening on Sunday night and I’m glad I made it! This is one of the most delightful and sweet comedies I’ve seen in a long while.

The tiny Newfoundland harbor called Tickle Cove was once a thriving fishing village. But now that they’re prohibited from fishing to make a living, the community is living off welfare check. So when there is an opportunity that might land a contract with a big oil corporation to build a factory, a petrochemical byproduct repurposing facility to be exact, the town realize this is an opportunity of a lifetime to save their town from complete financial ruin. What’s the catch? In order to have the factory built on their premises, the contract specifies that the town needs a permanent doctor. And that’s where the grand seduction comes in.

At first I was wondering why they choose such a sensational title but once I see the movie it perfectly makes sense! The doctor in question is a young, cricket-loving Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), is only assigned in that town for a month. And so the new mayor Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) gets the entire harbor community to seduce the doctor to stay. The length to their seduction is the heart of the story and it lends itself to grand hilarity! I think the funniest bits are when the hockey-loving town has to learn the game of cricket, from creating the uniform & paddles, building the cricket field AND of course learning the rule of the game. As soon as Dr. Lewis arrives in town, he’s welcomed by practically the entire male population in a [faux] game of cricket. That’s just a fraction of the other schemes the entire town is in on Dr. Lewis, who’s so deliriously oblivious I feel like he deserves being pranked in this way.

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I LOVE comedies that aren’t gross, foul-mouthed or just plain silly and this movie fits that description. As director Don McKellar said during the Q&A after the film, he’s drawn to the project as it’s the kind of social comedy that has a certain dignity, a certain respect for the people being depicted. There is a purpose to every gag, down to even the smallest comic scene is not a waste. There’s an obvious ethical issue with what the town is doing, I mean they’re tapping his phone and stuff, the NSA has nothing on them, ahah. Yet it’s not done in a mean-spirited kind of way and you can’t help but root for the town as well as for the young doctor.

The name of the harbor town is perfectly appropriate as it tickles your funny bone. There are plenty of gut-busting, thigh-slapping hilarity to be had from start to finish and having real life townsfolk definitely makes it feel authentic. Gleeson and Kitsch seem like an odd match and it is, but that’s kind of the point and it’s played to great effect here. Both of them are the only two actors who aren’t from easternmost province of Canada. Gleeson is Irish (which fits perfectly to the town’s Irish heritage) and Kitsch grew up in Vancouver. Gleeson is such a great actor, but I really like him in comedies [he’s much softer here though than his character in The Guard which I saw recently]. He’s is joined by Newfoundland’s most famous celebrity Gordon Pinsent (Away From Her), and the rest of the supporting cast, including comedian Mark Critch are from the area as well. All of them are so hilarious and by the end of it I fell in love with the Tickle Cove community!

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The ending is pretty predictable but in no way that it lessens the charm of the story. In fact, I don’t mind it at all that it ends on a hopeful and cheery note. I’m still gleeful just thinking about some of the funniest bits from this movie. Not only is it delightfully funny, it’s also heartwarming and beautiful to look at, it could practically doubles as a tourism video for Newfoundland. I definitely will watch it again as soon as it’s available on dvd or streaming.

4.5 out of 5 reels


Have you seen either one of these movies? I’d love to hear what you think!

MSPIFF14 Reviews: Hotell & Mystery Road

MSPIFF_Reviews

Happy Sunday everyone! We’ve got a couple more MSPIFF 2014 reviews courtesy of Josh from JJAMES reviews.

Hotell_posterHotell (2013)

A Swedish film written and directed by Lisa Langseth, Hotell follows Erika (Alica Vikander), a beautiful and pregnant young woman with an almost idyllic life. Already moneyed and apparently successful, she and her husband, Oskar (Simon J. Berger), have a plan for including an infant in their lives, one that begins with a pre-arranged Caesarean Section.

But their plan falls apart when their son’s birth goes horribly wrong, a fact that mandates the couple adjust. Oskar manages well enough. Erika does not, instead slipping into deep depression, because of which she joins a support group that includes Rickard (David Dencik), Pernilla (Anna Bjelkerud), Anna-Sofi (Mira Eklund) and Peter (Henrik Norlen). Each of Erika’s new friends are, in their own way, ill, and, like Erika, tired of feeling conflicted, so when she proposes an unconventional plan to collectively escape their lives, for an indeterminate duration of time, they accept. Along they way, they informally try to help one another.

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Hotell has many merits. First, and most notably, Langseth portrays mental illness exceptionally well, never playing it for laughs or forced sympathy, but rather showing its complexity and potentially debilitating consequences with acute empathy. It might be the best such portrayal I have ever seen, in any motion picture or television show. 

Moreover, Erika and Rickard are complex, vibrant characters. Oskar could be one, as well, if he had received more focus. Plus, all of the performances are top-notch, especially Alicia Vikander’s Her every expression shows a veneer of reserve and composure, but also underlying vulnerability mixed with grief and guilt, facts that are praiseworthy enough, but become all the more so when considering Vikander’s two most explosive scenes. She is award-worthy good. Mira Eklund, who plays Anna-Sofi perfectly, is almost her equal.

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Yet, despite its many merits Hotell is not as emotionally moving as it could have been, largely because Langseth doesn’t develop her secondary characters well. Oskar all but disappears for most of the movie’s last three acts, and Peter, Pernilla and Anna-Sofi are too simplistically drawn. Just as their illnesses are not given enough attention.

It is doubly disappointing, because Langseth daringly bucks genre expectations. Here the therapy group is not particularly good for each other, and none of them are necessarily ‘cured,’ facts that help solidify Hotell’s themes. And would have done so even more powerfully if some of the characters had been better developed.

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Mystery Road (2013)

Mystery-Road-PosterMystery Road is ostensibly a police procedural about Australian outback Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), who investigates the murders of indigenous girls. In that sense, the film is predictable, opening with Swan being assigned a murder case and following him through his investigation. Eventually, of course, he learns the truth, and then must grapple with the personal consequences of his new, and dangerous, knowledge. If we only consider the plot, Mystery Road is borderline formulaic and certainly not inventive. On the other hand, if that is all we consider, we are unfairly pigeonholing this complex movie. 

Because, in a master-class display of showing not telling, filmmaker Ivan Sen (the picture’s writer, director, editor, cinematographer & composer) ensures the story is tertiary, important only as a vehicle to represent setting and characters, in that order. Therein is why Mystery Road opens with sweeping, late-night aeriel shots of the rural outback. The wide angles are impressive, but made all the more so by their juxtaposition with close-ups of a truck driver (Hayden Spencer) using a flashlight to check his rig’s tires and then, after hearing a howling dog, to light his walk through nearby terrain. The sequence is wordless and slowly paced, meaning our focus is on the location, not the trucker himself and certainly not his actions. Perhaps that’s why we’re startled when he finds the first body, that of Julie Mason.

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At that point, Sen cuts to protagonist Jay Swan. Now we watch the detective, becoming intimately connected to him at the same time we learn more about Winton, a rural town. Swan asks his Sergeant (Tony Barry) for extra manpower to help him investigate Julie’s death, but he’s rebuffed. So he works alone, encountering racism aplenty. Some of the residents he meets are indigenous, like Swan’s ex-wife, Mary (Tasma Walton), and his daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton). They live in small houses. Others are white and own farms with larger homes. Still others, including Johno (Hugo Weaving), are morally obscure, leaving us to ponder their objectives. All of which contributes to Mystery Road’s greatest strength: neither Sen’s filmmaking technique nor his screenplay tell us what to think; he shows the conditions in which his characters live and trusts that we’ll understand his message.

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That Jay is well developed and that Pederson is captivating helps, as well. As do the strong supporting performances (special mention to Weaving and Walton), and the interesting secondary characters, most of which make sense. Johno is the lone exception. Even in the movie’s climax, we do not comprehend his motives. Johno is Mystery Road’s biggest misstep, but it is easy to overlook. As is the film’s other mistake: having so many characters that tracking them is difficult. 

The flaws do not limit the picture’s effectiveness, because Sen’s minimalist filmmaking is entrancing. He uses his simple score infrequently and powerfully, punctuating scenes and cementing emotion. Ditto that for his almost tangential dialogue, and his camera work and editing cuts, each of which are reserved. The director’s decisions immerse us in his setting.

As if it isn’t sufficiently clear, Mystery Road is almost magical and surely one of the best movies at MSPIFF.

4.5 out of 5 reels


JJamesReviews
Thanks again Josh for the excellent reviews!


What do you think of these two films? Let us know in the comments!

MSPIFF14 Reviews: JOE & Brave Miss World documentary

MSPIFF_Reviews

JOE

Review by Josh P.

JOEmovieposterOften grim, Joe is well made and gripping, though, perhaps, not for the faint-hearted. In the film’s first scene, writers Larry Brown & Gary Hawkins and director David Gordon Green define Joe as a harsh drama. In it, fifteen-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) accosts his father, Wade (Gary Poulter), for being an abusive alcoholic. Gary’s soliloquy helps solidify the film’s identity, of course, as does Wade’s response, but Green’s camera angle is even more effective; it is an unchanging over-the-shoulder shot, one that shows us the back of Gary’s head and most of Wade’s face.

From this first image, we know that Gary is not in control, that he will have to fight for success. Joe promises to be about a child on the precipice, one whom the world ignores.

It delivers. When Gary meets Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage), an ex-convict with a good heart but uncontrolled anger, the former convinces the latter to hire him and his father for laborious work as corporate tree killers. In his excitement, Gary runs home to tell his family he’s found work, but neither his mother nor father reciprocate his elation. Worse, Wade refuses to help Gary get groceries in town, only finally agreeing to join his son after lengthy conversation. Upon enlisting his father’s aid, Gary sees a stranger, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and asks for a ride. But Willie does not help. And neither does Wade, no matter what Willie says or does to his son.

Gary is too young and uninformed for such a life, but only Joe and Connie (Adriene Mishler) care. And only Joe helps. Helps so much, in fact, that he becomes Gary’s role model and surrogate father, his own emotional issues notwithstanding. Brown, Hawkins and Green’s plot, then, effectively adheres to theme: as Joe himself asks, more or less, how does society allow its children to be this disadvantaged? Why don’t people help them?

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It is an upsetting question, made all the more so because Green immerses in it. When Joe should be disturbing, the directoruses every filmmaking element to fuel the audience’s anxiety. Consider when Wade stalks a homeless man. We hear soft, beat-heavy music mixed with natural footstep sound editing, at the same time we see a wide-angle shot that frames both men. The shot is held so long, the walk so drawn out, that we dread the scene’s resolution. When Wade lights a cigarette, our dread turns to fear. It is only one example of Green’s directorial skill, but it is emblematic. Joe would not be half so effective without the director’s artistic touches.

A narrative that sufficiently develops most of its characters helps, as well. As do powerhouse performances from Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan and Gary Poulter. All three men are note-perfectly captivating. Ditto that for Joe’s occasional flights of humor, which lighten the mood just enough to make the film entertaining.

If still imperfect, mostly because Willie is poorly written. Why, really, does he hate Joe? Why he is so bent on revenge? Why does he freak out at Gary the first time they meet? Why, in other words, is he who he is? We can only begin to answer such questions, and none of our answers move beyond theories.

Despite this significant flaw, Joe accomplishes its objectives and merits a recommendation.

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Review by Josh

JJamesReviews


Brave Miss World

BraveMissWorldDocI’ve always been attracted to documentaries about social issues and this one immediately grabbed my attention. Linor Abargil seemed to have the world on her feet at 18. I mean she beat hundreds of contestants to win the Miss World title in 1998. But little did most of the world then knew that she was abducted, stabbed and raped in Milan by someone she trusted, her travel agent, just six weeks before she was crowned.

Some documentaries are tough to get into, especially when the subject is as bleak as rape. Yet this film kept my attention from the start thanks to the protagonist of the film. Linor became the reluctant ‘face’ if you will for survivor of sexual violence. Though she had the support of families n friends, she was still haunted by the horrifying event. I applaud her for speaking out however, and using her Miss World fame to help others. Though at times it wore her out and took an emotional toll on her that she had to revisit that terrible night every time another woman confessed she had been raped, she kept going. I wonder why at times, and so did her family members, as her parents candidly shared to the camera how they dread her taking on this cause. It helps that how open and candid her family & friends were, including her then-boyfriend who’s now her husband, about sharing how they felt about Linor and her journey.

As the documentary took us on a journey along with Linor though, I’m inspired that Linor chose to turn a brutal act into be something that brings light to a lot of suffering women around the world. At the same time, the experience of talking to fellow survivors was sort of a healing process for her. It was also a quest to bring her rapist to justice. Turns out her rapist has done this crime before and so she was determined to keep him behind bars when he became eligible for parole. The mix of Linor’s personal journey and the cause to bring sexual violence to light wasn’t always seamlessly done however, and editing could’ve been tightly done to maintain the focus on the protagonist. The abrupt detour showing Hollywood stars (Joan Collins, Fran Drescher) who shared their own experience of being raped felt a bit jarring, as it sort of took me out of the film a bit.

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Towards the end of the film, we saw quite a striking transformation of Linor. Her conversion to Judaism may seem quite drastic but I for one didn’t think that her new-found faith was merely a spiritual *crutch* nor that it was merely an act of desperation of some sort. I felt that her desire to be closer to God is a natural passage as she somehow starts to see herself in a different light. I respect that and I’m glad that her spiritual journey was not cut out from the film. I felt that she’s far more beautiful in her natural state, without any makeup or glamorous clothing, as her inner beauty really shines through.

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BraveMissWorldWebsiteFor more info and how you could take action to support this cause, check out Brave Miss World’s official website. She will be making the film festival rounds for the next few weeks. Hope you’ll check out this film when it’s playing near you.

You can also read (and share your own) stories on the site, as well as info on how to get help if you need it.


What do you think of these films?

Weekend Viewing Roundup & MSPIFF14 Review: Intruders (2013)

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After the snow storm on Friday, this weekend turned out to be absolutely gorgeous. Saw four movies this weekend:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the second time around (yep, still love it!). It’s currently my favorite Marvel stand-alone movie!
  • Capricorn One – a fantastic 1977 space conspiracy thriller (Thanks Michael for lending it to me!). Review upcoming but I really enjoyed this one, and that ending was awesome!
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  • For my first day at MSPIFF, I saw two films yesterday:
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Here’s our reviews of Brave Miss World and David Gordon Green’s JOE. I’m thrilled to not only saw such a great documentary about such an important yet devastating issue of rape, but I got to meet filmmaker Cecilia Peck, yes Gregory Peck daughter! After the Q&A, I went up to her and tell her how huge of a fan I was of her dad, and that I appreciate her making such a great film on an important topic. She clearly cares about social justice issues like her dad did, and she is just as beautiful inside and out as well. Too bad all four of the photos taken were so dark (turns out the flash was off), but you could see a bit of our smiling faces I think 😀

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I’m thrilled to tag team with Josh from JJames Reviews (who’s way more than qualified btw) in covering MSPIFF 2014! He’ll be contributing MSPIFF reviews for the next three weeks. Starting with this one from South Korea:

INTRUDERS

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The Festival staffperson who introduced Intruders pitched it as being “Fargo by way of South Korea.” She wasn’t far off, at least when considering the ways both films generate humor through flawed characters and unexpected plot twists. That each includes sweeping wintry landscapes and impressive cinematography facilitates the comparison, as well.

In Intruders, writer Sang-jin (Jun Suk-ho) takes a bus to the Gangwon province in South Korea’s mountainous north, where he plans to stay at a closed and otherwise unoccupied bed and breakfast that belongs to his boss’s family. While alone at the resort, Sang-jin hopes to finally complete his screenplay, for which his boss is impatiently waiting. Unfortunately, the writer faces significant challenges, including writers’ block, a talkative ex-convict named Hak-su (Oh Tae-kyung), two scary hunters, a group of young skiers who think he manages the resort, and a local police officer (Choi Moo-soung). It only gets worse when he becomes increasingly convinced that the bed and breakfast is unsafe.

Along the way, Intruders reminds us of several mainstream films, including, of course, Fargo (1996), but also Prisoners (2013) and Misery (1990), a project writer/director Noh Young-seok jokingly references in Intruders’ first act. All are favorable comparisons, largely because Noh makes many strong authorial and directorial decisions. Start with his screenplay, which impressively shows not tells the most important characters. We know Sang-jin intimately, despite only passing references to his backstory and limited dialogue explaining his current motivations. Then, we see him change through carefully developed scenes.

Hak-su and the cop are similarly well written, but Noh struggles a bit with his secondary characters. The hunters are enigmas and most of the skiers are stereotypically inconsiderate youngsters, indistinguishable from one another. Only Yu-mi (Han En-sun) is given some treatment, but even she is too thinly defined, what with only two character traits: angry and shrill.

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Yet, Noh Young-seok’s screenplay mostly overcomes flaws in development of secondary characters, partially because it masterfully foreshadows plot twists, so well, in fact, that we are never certain what will happen next, but also never stunned into disbelief by new developments. In his long opening sequence, for instance, Noh shows Sang-jin’s obliviousness, playing it for humor but also staying with it long enough that we know it will be important later. Frequent newscasts foreshadow what is to come, as do many other examples I will not directly cite.

That Intruders is often laugh out loud funny, even in its darkest moments, helps as well. As do the actors, all of whom are perfectly understated. Special mention to Oh Tae-kyung who plays Hak-su so skillfully that we can never be certain whether or not the character is an innocent bystander, a villain or something in between.

Neither the screenplay nor the actors are Intruders greatest merit, however. Noh’s direction is. Take for example, his camera work. By frequently placing subjects in the center of the screen, and by using lengthy point of view shots, the director increases our sense of intimacy with his characters. Plus, he keeps the camera perfectly still for the majority of the film, only to move it in bursts of lengthy pans, arcs and editing cuts, techniques that heighten or lessen tension fittingly. As just one more example of Noh’s directorial talent, Intruders’ ambiguous symbolism works very well; when, at one point, Noh cuts away to a close up of a spider web, we have to wonder: is Sang-jun the spider or the trapped prey?

The director is so good that we can overlook Intruders’ unsatisfying jump cut to end credits or its inconsistent use of telephones. No matter its few minor flaws, this film is very good.

four and a half stars out of five
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P.S. So far, Intruders lacks US distribution. Hopefully that changes.

Review by Josh

JJamesReviews


Thoughts on the film(s) above? What did YOU see this weekend, folks?