Here’s a quick sampling of my week’s watches. You can find more of my reviews at Always Good Movies.
Directed by: Abderrahmane Sissako
Country: Mauritania / France
African cinema has a fearless new voice that deserves huge accolade. Mauritanian filmmaker, Abderrahmane Sissako, directed and co-wrote (with Kessen Tall) “Timbuktu”, one of the most relevant dramas I’ve seen in a while. The film follows the misadventures of Kidane, a pacific cattle herder who does everything to protect his wife, daughter and assets, from a group of fanatic Jihadists that control Mali’s city of Timbuktu. Mr. Sissako, beyond taking aim on the invaders through a deft sneer, also shows the joyless life of the tormented inhabitants. The magnificent well-composed shots, amazed me when capturing the arid African landscapes, but also disturbed me when showed the Jihadists’ demands: women had to wear socks and gloves (poor fishwife who realizes her job is compromised), it was strictly forbidden to play soccer (a game played by youngsters, with the particularity of having no ball, has the simultaneous effect of being ludicrous and cruel), music was not allowed (one woman was condemned to 40 lashes after fill our souls with her voice), and adultery was considered the worst crime (the punishment was death by stoning). Despite of the law, forged in the name of Allah, there were those who enjoyed special immunity: Zabou, a deranged woman who was seen as a kind of sorcerer, could wander without covering her head; a religious fundamentalist was caught smoking and coveting Kidane’s wife; a teen girl was forced to get married against her will… Every senseless fanatic should watch “Timbuktu” whose objectivity and vision become essential these days. You can call it whatever you want: urgent criticism, breathtaking adventure or daring mockery… for me it’s simply an unsubmissive masterpiece, which I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Miss Julie (2014)
Directed by: Liv Ullmann
Country: UK / Ireland
Liv Ullmann, former muse of Ingmar Bergman during years in masterpieces such as “Persona”, “Autumn Sonata” or “Cries and Whispers”, directs her fourth feature film, “Miss Julie”, which was adapted from August Strindberg’s play of the same title. For this theatrical drama, Ullmann picked a trio of actors that guarantee credibility: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. They performed with conviction and it was not because of them that “Miss Julie” didn’t have the desired influence on me. Beyond being excessively wordy, the film occasionally plays with an emotional hysteria, becoming excessively dramatic, stuffy and for several times unnatural. Set during the midsummer night of 1890, the drama follows Julie (Chastain), the spoiled daughter of the wealthy Anglo-Irish Count of Fermanagh. Bored with her daily life, she insists to seduce John (Farrell), her father’s valet, in a disrespectful way in regard to her servant, Kathleen (Morton), who was committed to him. Julie reveals an overbearing and cruel side, but ultimately her emotional fragility and solitude is uncovered. She starts playing a defiant game that is sexy and contemptuous, pushing John to the limits of his sanity, since he is unable to control his impulses but also gets mad when treated as an inferior. All these postures torment the tired and devastated Kathleen, condemned to be on her own. Among confessions, accusations and lots of changings in attitude, “Miss Julie” can never be called a romantic film. Fear, disquiet and prejudice take control of this battle of love and hate that had its funniest moment when Julie states about Kathleen: ‘a servant is a servant’, to what John promptly retaliated: ‘and a whore is a whore’. The truth hurts! Immediately, she fell in tears.
Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)
Directed by: Andrea Di Stefano
Country: Spain / France
Italian actor Andrea di Stefano makes his directorial debut with “Escobar: Paradise Lost”, a thriller, set in 1991 Medellin, whose title mislead us to assume we are before a biopic about the unmerciful popular Colombian drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar. Instead, the film tells about a Canadian young man, Nick (John Hutchinson), who was having trouble with local thugs when trying to set up a business by the beach, in the company of his older brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet). Everything will become easier when he falls in love with the gracious Maria (Claudia Traisac), Escobar’s niece. Accepted by Escobar (Benicio del Toro) to be part of his clan, he will see the coast clear when those who demanded a payment for his business, were burned alive. A day before giving himself to the authorities in a pact with the Government, Escobar’s first concern is to protect the future of his family by concealing the fortune accumulated with years of narcotrafficking. He reserved one last special operation for the innocent Nick who was assigned to meet and kill a ‘campesino’. However, surprises come up and Nick, in panic, will have to fight for his life. As the story unfolds, it becomes too chewed in aspects it should have been more expeditious. Some good hints of tension not always usurp an annoying cheesiness felt in scenes involving Nick, unveiling superficiality and exaggeration in a story that deserved to be better handled. Di Stefano takes the wrong turn when he had everything to do it right – decent script and respected actors. The formula: ‘make it simple and raw’ would have given him better chances, together with a more astute exploration of the characters. Paradise lost… and a missed opportunity.
Directed by: Jon Stewart
In “Rosewater”, a political drama focused on the crime of bearing witness, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal is Maziar Bahari, the former Newsweek’s Iranian journalist who spent four months in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, northwestern Tehran, after being arrested by the authorities in June 2009 due to an inoffensive interview given to a satirical American TV show, under the accusation of maintaining contacts with an American spy. Jon Stewart, most known as a television host and TV movie producer, makes his directorial debut from his own screenplay, based on the memoir “Then They Came for Me” by Bahari and Aimee Molloy. Not so invigorating as it was supposed to be, “Rosewater” ends up being a bland exercise that relies on the same routines of the genre. If even those routines had been put in good use, perhaps we would have something more palpable here, but the superficiality of its mechanisms left me indifferent to what Bahari had to endure. Its biggest issue relates to the fact that the first half, when the journalist was shooting the civilian uproars after Ahmadinejad’s reelection, was more captivating and active than the second, where the menacing interrogations by governmental agents were more time-consuming than really an added value. The film, in spite of politically enlightening, falls gradually in the abyss, pushed by the elements that were supposed to bring something more to the emotional side, but simply didn’t work out. I’m talking about the journalist’s imaginary conversations with his sister and deceased father (two former anti-regime resistants), or the arduous distance from his pregnant fiancé whose actions in the UK were extremely important to take the case to a triumphant conclusion.
The Voices (2014)
Directed by: Marjane Satrapi
Country: USA / Germany
Iranian graphic novelist, illustrator and filmmaker, Marjane Satrapi, nailed it again with her new feature film, assuming fearlessly her own ways of expression, and showing she’s comfortable in other genres besides comedy, drama or illustrative fantasy. In “The Voices”, she makes a confident incursion on horror, and the result brought as much of amusing moments as horrific. Everything wrapped in an almost graphical style and covered in tones of fantastic, characteristic aspects already used in her previous works: “Persepolis” and “Chicken with Plums”. The story, set in the small town of Milton, evolves around Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), the new employee of Milton Fixture & Faucet, whose pink uniform and smiling face make us completely unsuspicious about the treacherous psychological state he is about to get into. To make the things clearer, Jerry is a disturbed, psychotic man who is being medicated since childhood, after a terrible experience that impelled him to take his mother’s life. Undecided about taking the pills, he keeps having long and weird conversations with his pets: Mr. Whiskas, the cat; and Bosco, the dog. While the dog calms him down by praising his good nature, the sardonic cat pulls out his darker instincts, awakening the killer in him. Jerry falls in love more than one time, showing he wants to change and lead a normal life, but fortuitous circumstances will trigger savage actions, which he momentarily regrets but recovers quickly enough to go on living in his delusional world. The film never slows down, maintaining a balanced pace and solid coordination between light drollery and heavy gore. Ryan Reynolds, invoking Alan Bates in his performance, was the key for success, strongly backed up by the rest of the cast.
The Dark Valley (2014)
Directed by: Andreas Prochaska
Country: Austria / Germany
Achieving considerable notoriety in its origin countries, Austria and Germany, “The Dark Valley” grips us with a tale of vengeance set in a remote village of the Austrian Alps. With a sturdy hand, director Andreas Prochaska, builds this western with passion, even considering that some viewers might be frustrated when trying to find answers for some plausible questions, such as the real motives for the vengeance behind the story. The charismatic Sam Riley (“Control”, “On the Road”) stars as Greider, an apparently quiet stranger who introduces himself as a photographer, willing to pay for staying the winter in the village. The old Brenner and their six harsh sons, as the town rulers for many years, decided to accept his monetary offering, placing him in the house of a widow whose daughter Lucy develops a fondness for her lodger. Lucy is about to get married with Lucas, but gets concerned when informed by her future husband that the ritual known as ‘Primae noctis’, a medieval prerogative that allows the rulers to take the virginity of young brides, will occur after the wedding party with the priest’s connivance. This fact seems to be the reason for Greider’s presence, coinciding with two unexpected deaths in the Brenner family that will make him a suspect, a fugitive, but also a predator. Prochaska takes his time to build things up, but once we are immersed in the hunting process, our attention becomes focused, not on the contestable motives, but on the action itself. Some flashbacks can help turning the visually stunning “The Dark Valley” a bit clearer, while the occasionally incongruous score was its most negative aspect.
Amira & Sam (2014)
Directed by: Sean Mullin
In “Amira & Sam”, debutant writer/director Sean Mullin, imagined a charismatic ex-soldier finding the perfect match when he meets an illegal Iraqi immigrant woman in New York. Sam (Martin Sarr) served his country during multiple tours in Iraq, where he became friends with his Iraqi translator, Bassam (Laith Nakli), now living in the US. Unhappy for working as a janitor in a rich building in Wall Street, Sam is fired when he traps a couple of presumptuous guys in the elevator. That’s when he decides to visit Bassam, meeting his niece, Amira (Dina Shihabi), who spends her spare time trying to sell DVDs in the corner of Canal St. and Broadway. Their first encounter is uneasy, with Amira opting for a defensive posture while Sam, whose dream was to become a standup comedian, tries to break the ice with his dry jokes and particular little stories. A comforting closeness will arrive when Amira moves to his place after being caught selling illegally in the streets with the aggravation of showing a fake ID containing her real address. While he gradually conquers Amira’s heart with his honesty, he also gets disappointed with his shifty cousin, Charlie (Paul Wesley) who offers him a second opportunity at his own company. The graciousness of the film comes totally from Sam, who endeavors to keep his life neat. The romantic side could have been better crafted, and the ending turns out to be as dry as the humor presented. Regardless this aspect, “Amira & Sam” never tried to please the crowds with emotional conventionalisms or boast itself pretentiously, opting instead for a clear, honest approach that literally saves it from falling into staleness.
Directed by: Celine Sciamma
With “Girlhood”, French writer/director, Celine Sciamma, addresses once again the subject of coming of age, but in a totally different perspective than in “Tomboy”. Sciamma created the perfect scenario to depict her main character, a 16-year-old girl called Marieme (Karidja Touré) who decided to stop being shy, getting away from her precarious family life and giving up school in order to join a gang of the hood, formed by three older girls: Adiatou, Lady and Fily. Their day-to-day basically consisted in drinking, smoking, stealing clothes from stores and money from frightened schoolgirls, in addition to engage in street fights with other gangs. Bashful at first, Marieme soon learned how to look straight into the eyes of people and talk aggressively. With absent parents, she showed to be always very attentive and responsible regarding her sisters, but her main concern was her older brother who often reacted violently if she didn’t comply with his demands. As ambition grows hastily and dreams get wings, Marieme takes unreliable steps to assure her freedom and independence, even if she has to sacrifice her love for one of his brother’s best friends. Socially incisive, “Girlhood” was consciously written and generally well performed, but I felt it got stranded for too long in the ‘cool’ postures of the girls, what made the film not to flow during particular periods of time. Sciamma’s execution was not always empathic, occasionally turning “Girlhood” into an immature exposure that gains emphasis after it has given the sensation that we had reached the end, for at least a couple of times. It’s observant, without a doubt, but sinned for being insistently unripe in determined scenes.
The Rewrite (2014)
Directed by: Marc Lawrence
“The Rewrite” may be the most interesting work of writer/filmmaker Marc Lawrence, author of light romantic comedies such as “Two Weeks Notice”, “Music and Lyrics”, and “Did You Know About the Morgans?”, but its product still remains very far from satisfying. Hugh Grant continues to be Lawrence’s first choice for the male leading role, and despite his efforts and commitment, the film ends up being a flop both as comedy and romance. Keith Michaels (Grant) is a divorced screenwriter who became famous in 1998 with “Paradise Misplaced”, winning an Academy award. Currently he’s facing a creative crisis that leads him to teach at Bingamthon University, upstate New York. Keith is a great talker but reveals a huge lack of vocation concerning his new job. Insecure and unavailable at first, he will find his own strategies to conquer everyone’s heart, even the extremely severe Professor Mary Welden (Allison Janney), an unpopular Jane Austen scholar. Among new friendships, talent discoveries, and some headaches for dismissing the class and having an illicit relationship with Karen (Bella Heathcote), a problematic student, Keith will find a helping hand on Holly Carpenter (Marisa Tomei), an enthusiastic sophomore and single mother, with whom he falls in love. Too standardized in presentation and derivative as concept, the gentle yet indifferent “The Rewrite” will hardly impress the fans of the genre, since the romance was too predictable and dispassionate, while the humor was mostly unproductive – exception made when Welden surprises Keith having an inflamed conversation with Karen during his ‘office time’. Did “The Rewrite” need to be rewritten? Definitely yes!