Tanna

Imagine Romeo and Juliet set among the Yakel tribes of the island of Tanna in the small nation of Vanuatu. The tribe people speak a rare dialect called Nivhaal, and, except for the grass-skirts that the women wear and the penis-sheaths for the men, they are naked. What is most extraordinary about Tanna is that Australian directors, Martin Butler and Bentley Dean have based their Romeo and Juliet on real events that happened to that tribe 30 years ago. Some of the non-actors in the film are playing their own role. You understand that it is about two doomed lovers. Teenagers Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) are in love. The handsome Dain is the grandson of the Yakel chief, and returning to the village after an absence, he reconnects with his childhood crush Wawa. The whole thing is observed by Wawa’s little sister Selin (Marceline Rofit). Selin is a bit of a pest, asking Wawa what is happening (even though she knows that her sister is in love with Dain), following her sister, spying on her. Selin is also able to run barefoot through the jungle faster than most people. Marceline Rofit’s fierce running is reminiscent of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beast of the southern wild. When the sister’s grandfather is attacked by members of a rival tribe, Selin runs to the village to tell them what she saw. After the grandfather dies, a meeting between the two tribes is set to arrange a peaceful truce. To make peace a marriage is arranged between Wawa and the son of the chief the rival tribe. The two lovers escape from the village to avoid being separated. This angers the rival tribe and puts their tribe in danger. Mixing documentary and fiction film techniques is nothing new. The films of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the north in 1922 or Man of Aran in 1934) are good example. But this was a long time ago. The genre has been dead for quite some time. The cast is entirely made of non-professional tribe people, and they are filmed in their natural habitat, doing the things they probably do every days. It is their rituals, their dances and their chants. There is a minimum of artificiality, if any. It is real. That is maybe why there is not a bad actor among them. They are not acting. And the people are charming. Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain make a lovely couple. But as Salin Marceline Rofit steals the movie. That only would be enough to see the film. The breathtaking landscapes, magnificently photographed by director Bentley Dean, who does double duty as cinematographer, is another reason. Tanna is a beautiful, charming and compelling film. A pure joy.

And the Oscar went to… The Australian entry for Best foreign language film, Tanna made the final list of five films to compete on Oscar night. It is strong enough to have won. But Iran’s The salesman was the winner.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from June 16 – 25
http://www.bytowne.ca/movie/tanna

Tanna

Directed by:
Martin Butler
Bentley Dean

Screenplay by:
Martin Butler
Bentley Dean

Starring:
Mungau Dain
Marie Wawa
Marceline Rofit
Albi Nangia

100 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In Nivhaal with English subtitles.

Bitter harvest

The farmers, all impeccably dressed in their (accurate?) Ukrainian folkloric costumes, are joyfully working in the sun drenched golden fields while golden-haired children are playing and laughing and layers upon layers of syrupy music can be heard. As children, Yuri and Natalka were already in love. They are seen joyfully swimming in the river, impeccably dressed in their Ukrainian folkloric costumes, while more sappy music is playing. As an adult, Yuri (Max Irons) has developed an artistic taste and would like to go study art in Kiev. His father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper), and his grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp) are both Cossack warriors. Before leaving for Kiev, Yuri marries Natalka (Samantha Barks). We are in the Soviet Ukraine in 1933 and Joseph Stalin‘s genocidal famine was killing people in most of the Soviet countries. In Ukraine, it is now called the Holodomor. It was particularly deadly, killing from 2 to 7 million Ukrainians and went virtually unmentioned for 50 years. Yuri is trying to survive in Kiev. He gets imprisoned, escapes, walks miles and miles through the forest in the cold of winter. At home, Natalka and his family have to deal with Sergei (Tamer Hassan), the local Russian villain. At the beginning, Bitter harvest almost seemed like a parody of a bad film. Well, you know what they say, “If it smells like duck…”. And although Bitter harvest gets a bit better, it never regains the credibility it lost in the first few minutes. A cliché never comes alone, and for sure the other ones were never far behind. This important topic is lost among too much bad action films antics and Cossacks-on-horse acrobatics. On top of everything, instead of filming in Ukrainian, Bitter harvest was filmed in English, with an entire cast of British accented actors and actresses. And not the best ones, I can assure you. Dreadful! I understand how important it was for the director and the screenwriter to tell this story, as they have family members that have died and suffered during the Holodomor. I just think that the victims of the Holodomor deserved a much better film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Bitter harvest

Directed by:
George Mendeluk

Screenplay by:
Richard Bachynsky Hoover

Starring:
Max Irons
Samantha Barks
Barry Pepper
Tamer Hassan
Terence Stamp

103 min.

Land of mine (Under sandet)

In Denmark during World War II, the German occupier had installed over 1.5 million landmines mostly on the Danish west coast. When the war was over, and Germany surrendered, the Danish government decided that the German prisoners of war would detonate the mines. When we first meet Sgt. Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller), it is clear he does not like the Germans. It was a long and bloody war and Rasmussen has, in Land of mine’s first scene, a violent outburst where he beats up a young German POW to a pulp. Rasmussen is put in charge of a small group of young Germans POW. Among them is Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) and twin brothers, Ernst and Werner Lessner (Emil and Oskar Belton). At first Rasmussen is not very sympathetic towards them. But when he was assigned, he had no idea that they would be so young. They are teenagers, kids really. Add to the difficult pressures those boys are under the fact that they do not get any food sent to them. As he sees them getting sick, Rasmussen makes a decision to bring them food, even if that means getting in trouble with his superior, Lt. Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard). Based on a little-told story, Land of mine’s director Martin Zandvliet keeps the tension to unbearable levels. Any moment the audience may see a mine blow up and one of the boys killed or badly injured. Land of mine is the most tense film I’ve seen in a while. Møller and Hofmann have great chemistry together. But the excellent acting from the young cast should also be mentioned. This is not an easy film to watch, for sure, but Land of mine is a worthy film that should be seen.

And the Oscar went to… Land of mine lost the Best foreign language film to Asghar FarhadI’s The salesman from Iran.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Land of mine (Under sandet)

Directed by:
Martin Zandvliet

Screenplay by:
Martin Zandvliet

Starring:
Roland Møller
Louis Hofmann
Joel Basman
Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
Oskar Bökelmann

100 min.

In Danish and German with English subtitles.

Lion

Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly, who at the age of 5 (child actor Sunny Pawar) got into a train that brought him 1600 miles away from his house, his family and his mother (Priyanka Bose). When the train door finally opened, he was in Kolkata (AKA Calcutta), trying to find his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Homeless in the Indian capital, Saroo often finds himself in trouble. He’s a smart and instinctive boy who runs away when he feels danger ahead. Lion is compelling and heart pounding filmmaking. Sunny Pawar is the star of the first part of the film. The small boy running around dirty Indian streets, amongst the poorest of the poor, desperately calling his brother (“Guddu! Guddu!”) are some of the most troubling, indelible images of 2016 cinema. Then, after many misadventures, Saroo (his real name is actually “Sheru”. “Sheru” means “lion” in English, hence the title.) is found on the street by Indian social services. They try to find Saroo’s mother or his village, but the name of the village, according to the name that Saroo has given to social services, is nowhere on the map. Eventually, Saroo is adopted by a nice Australian couple. John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) fly with Saroo to their home in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. The film then jumps 20 years. Saroo is in his mid-twenties (now played by Slumdog millionaire’s Dev Patel) and is trying to locate his mother and his village with the support and help of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). He uses maps on Google Earth to retrace the footsteps of the 5 years old boy he used to be, and revisit some painful memories. I think that Lion can qualify as a tear-jerker, but it does not feel like a tear-jerker. It doesn’t because the true story is given room to breathe, to simply be an incredible tale of survival. It’s an impressive fiction film debut for director Garth Davis. Everything is done with much restraint without underlining the drama with effects. He is helped by great acting from Pawar, of course, and also Patel and Nicole Kidman, who give sensitive performances. Cinematographer Greig Fraser is an artist, a painter who uses dark tones and colors with a deft eye. Precision and control. Lion is a tear-jerker, but it is also a great film.

And the Oscar went to… Despite 6 nominations, Lion did not win a single Oscar. Oh well!

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Lion

Directed by:
Garth Davis

Screenplay by:
Luke Davis
Based on A long way home by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose

Starring:
Dev Patel
Sunny Pawar
Nicole Kidman
Rooney Mara
David Wenham
Priyanka Bose
Abhishek Bharate

118 min.

Rated Parantal Guidance

In English, Bengali, and Hindi with English subtitles.

Christine

When I write about Christine, I can’t tell what happened in 1974 that made Christine Chubbuck famous because that would be a spoiler. Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) was a 29-years-old news reporter for WXLT-TV in Sarasota, Florida. Christine had her own talk show called Suncoast digest in which she talked about local and social interests. But she is always at odds with news director, Michael (Tracy Letts) who would like the newscast to be more sensational and cover murders and crimes (“blood and guts” someone says) to bring in higher ratings. The news that there might be positions opening in Baltimore, brings even more tensions and competition at the station. If that wasn’t enough, she suffers from sharp pains in the stomach, and as a result will have her ovaries removed. It is clear after a while that Christine’s depression is coming back. At times, it comes very close to manic depression. She lives with her mother, but always picks a fight with her. Her incoherent thinking is all over the map: she wants the job in Baltimore, she’s a virgin but wouldn’t it be nice if she finally had a romantic life now, especially before her ovaries are removed because she wants children, she wants that job in Baltimore, she buys a CB radio to listen to police calls and be the first to report it to the news, she needs that job in Baltimore. She does puppet shows for children at a local hospital, but they get increasingly weird and disturbing. There is a yelling match between Christine and Michael where Christine goes too far. There is a ray of hope when the handsome anchor, George Ryan (Michael C. Hall, no relation to Rebecca) invites her out on a date. The screenplay by Craig Shilowich is successfully showing the slow drip of mental illness. It is a relentless enemy. Shilowich and director Antonio Campos sets the film squarely in a realistic mid-1970s, complete with 70s long dresses, 70s pants, 70s hair and moustaches, and a fun soundtrack of songs from the 70s. Christine is such a difficult part to play, with all her contradictions, her mood swings and sudden shifts. Rebecca Hall’s Christine is an unvarnished portrait of a mentally ill woman, warts and all. With the marvellous Tracy Letts as her boss, there is a feeling of watching a harsher and less likable version of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore (from The Mary Tyler Moore show). Lets hope these two will be remembered at Oscar time.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Christine

Directed by:

Antonio Campos

Screenplay by:
Craig Shilowich

Starring:
Rebecca Hall
Michael C. Hall
Tracy Letts
Timothy Simons
J. Smith-Cameron
Maria Dizzia

118 min.

Rated 14A

Denial

David Irving is a British self-described historian. But he is really a Holocaust denier and a Hitler apologist. In 1996 Irving sued Penguin books and American author and (genuine) historian Deborah E. Lipstadt for libel. In her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt made the claim that Irving (Timothy Spall) was twisting the facts in order to promote anti-semitic ideologies. Because the book was published in England, Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) could be sued there where the burden of proof for libel laws falls on the accused. She has to prove that she is not guilty. For an American this is the world upside down. Denial seems to be an accurate description of what really occurred. The legal team was headed by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), with libel barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) as lead counsel. This is a grand affair. A class act. The screenplay is by British playwright David Hare. Beside a haunting visit at Auschwitz’s gas chambers, most of the scenes consists of lawyers discussing their legal strategies. At first Lipstadt wants to bring Holocaust survivors as witness. Her legal counsel disagrees. They say that Irving, who is representing himself without legal counsel, will make a mockery of the survivors. Denial’s big draw is the acting duel between Spall and Wilkinson. Although Spall has an imposing figure, he paints Irving as a frightened bulldog (if such a thing is possible), with shaking lips and jowls, who stares back at people with the incredulous, confused look of someone who doesn’t know what hit him. Tom Wilkinson is my favorite English actor. Here he exudes warmth and likeability underneath a gruff exterior. But what is most stunning with Wilkinson is that it seemed so easy and natural that I did not see the acting. In other words: completely believable. Irving v Penguin Books Ltd is was a fascinating court case. This film is equally gripping.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Denial

Directed by:
Mick Jackson

Screenplay by:
David Hare
Based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt History on trial: My day in court with a Holocaust denier

Starring:
Rachel Weisz
Tom Wilkinson
Timothy Spall
Andrew Scott
Mark Gatiss
Alex Jennings
Caren Pistorius

110 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

The lovers and the despot

The incredible tale of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, film director Shin Sang-ok, being kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. As weird as it sounds it did happen. In 1978, Kim felt that North Korean films did not have the prestige of South Korean films, and were not exportable. That was probably because all North Korean culture product were replete with propagandist elements. The tagline for The lovers and the despot is “They were kidnapped by their biggest fan”. Kim Jong-il had a great appreciation for the work of both the director and the actress. First he kidnapped Choi, then her husband. He incarcerated Shin in solitary confinement four long years, until Shin agreed to make films for North Korea. Once reunited, Shin and Choi planned to escape while traveling to film festivals. They were so convinced that once free their stories would be challenged, that Choi carried a tape recorder in her handbag and recorded every meeting she had with Kim. Shin Sang-ok died in 2006, but Choi, now 89, is interviewed in the film. Their son and daughter are also in the film talking about their parents sudden disappearance. We also get to ear those eerie tapes. We don’t need technical wizardry here because the story is so interesting. The lovers and the despot seems to have something for almost everyone: love, human interest and international intrigue.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The lovers and the despot

Directed by:
Ross Adam
Robert Cannan

Screenplay by:
Ross Adam
Robert Cannan

98 min.

In Korean, English, and Japanese with English subtitles.

Last cab to Darwin

Last cab to Darwin is what I would describe as a road movie about euthanasia. I know it does not sound very appealing, but the film is not as morbid as it sounds. It stars veteran Australian actor Michael Caton as Rex Macrae, an aging taxi driver who learns that he has stomach cancer and that he has at most only three months to live. Beside his dog (Rex named his dog ‘Dog’ because ‘Rex’ was already taken) and a few drinking buddies, he has nobody left. But there’s also Polly (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), Rex’s aboriginal neighbour and occasional lover. Rex wants nothing to do with hospitals as he hopes to end his life with dignity. That’s when he hears about Dr. Nicole Farmer (the great Jacki Weaver). Reg Cribb’s play Last cab to Darwin is based on the true story of taxi driver Max Bell, and upon the Rights of the terminally ill Act 1995. The Act was passed by the Northern Territory legislative assembly of Australia in 1995, making assisted suicide legal only in said Northern Territory. The Federal parliament repealed it two years later. In the film, if he wants to meet Dr. Farmer, Rex Macrae has to travel 3000 km from his small village of Broken Hill to the Northern Territory capital of Darwin. Along the road there is a lot of drinking. And Rex meets and befriends young indigenous hitchhiker Tilly (Mark Coles Smith). Without spoiling it, I can say that they have many adventures. And then Julie (Emma Hamilton) joins them for the last leg of the trip. Julie happens to be an English nurse seeking a new life in Australia. The corny thing to say about that type of films is that ‘ it is not a film about death, but about life’, or some such BS. In  reality the topic does not matter. What matters is Last cab to Darwin has a good cast, young and old. Michael Caton is the big draw here. He and Ningali Lawford-Wolf are an endearing couple. In addition there is the beautiful Australian desert landscapes provided by Steve Arnold’s photography. The sunsets and sunrise are particularly effective. The lively, twangy bluegrass Ed Kuepper score puts us in the right mood. Not a masterpiece, but still pretty good. As for euthanasia, a film is not going to change anyone’s opinion, including mine.

Quote: “If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny the right to me to use it.” Bob Dent, 66. He ended his life by physician assisted suicide under the Rights of the terminally ill Act 1995 legislation. Dent suffered from Prostate cancer for five years in what he called “a rollercoaster of pain”.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Last cab to Darwin

Directed by:
Jeremy Sims

Screenplay by:
Reg Cribb
Jeremy Sims
Based on Cribb’s play

Starring:
Michael Caton
Nigali Lawford-Wolf
Jacki Weaver
Emma Hamilton
Mark Coles Smith
David Field
John Howard
Alan Dukes

123 min.

Rated 14A

Les innocentes (The innocents)

I don’t think that this topic and historical fact has ever been the subject of a film. We know that during wars, nuns were sometimes brutally raped. Les innocentes deals with aftermath of those terrible events. It begins in December 1945 when a young nun from a Polish convent defies Mother Superior’s strict orders and leaves the convent to seek the help of doctor Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge). Doctor Beaulieu is working at a nearby French Red Cross hospital. At the convent she is allowed in by the reluctant Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza), and see her patient a young nun who is just about to give birth. Mathilde is assisted by Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who explains what the situation is. A few month earlier, Soviet soldiers occupied the convent and raped the nuns. The secret must be kept because the blame and the shame would fall on the victims. This revolting situation is probably why we have not heard more about these events. Mathilde is trying to help as best she can, even as it causes problems at the hospital. She also is having an affair with fellow doctor Samuel (Vincent Macaigne). And she becomes friends with Sister Maria and the others nuns. This is Anne Fontaine’s best film. The first scene shows a young nun walking in the snow, her black robe becoming increasingly paler. This is the work of cinematographer Caroline Champetier who has used minimal lights inside the convent settings. It all seems to be lighted through windows. And Fontaine has found the perfect trio of actresses: the main actress de Laâge is the energy that drives the film and she is actually draining to watch. Polish actress Agata Kulesza’s Mother Superior is more than simply harsh and dour. It is desperate resignation we see in those eyes. And Agata Buzek is the most accomplished performance in Les innocentes. Maria’s devotion to God is embodied physically and emotionally by Buzek. But, unlike Mother Superior, Sister Maria is not resigned and she refuses despair. What a beautiful film!

You should know… Mathilde Beaulieu is based on the story of  Docteur Madeleine Pauliac (1912 – 1946). During World war II, Pauliac was a doctor in the French resistance and in 1944 she then took part in the liberation of Paris. In early 1945, as a medical lieutenant in the French military, Pauliac left for Moscow. Then in April, Pauliac was appointed chief doctor of the hospital of Warsaw, Poland. For the French Red Cross, Pauliac performed more than 200 missions throughout Poland and the Soviet Union, with the Blue Squadron, a unit of women ambulance volunteers of the French Red Cross. Pauliac died in an automobile accident on 13 February 1946, in Sochaczew, near Warsaw. She was only 33 years old. She was  posthumously awarded the French Légion d’honneur with the rank of knight of the Croix de guerre (1939 – 1945). Les innocentes was based on a segment from Pauliac’s diary. The diary is now the property of her nephew Philippe Maynial. It is Maynial who brought the idea to director Anne Fontaine.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Les innocentes (The innocents)

Directed by:
Anne Fontaine

Screenplay by:
Sabrina B. Karine
Alice Vial
Pascal Bonitzer
Anne Fontaine
based on an idea from Philippe Maynial

Starring:
Lou de Laâge
Agata Kulesza
Agata Buzek
Vincent Macaigne

115 min.

Rated 14A

In Polish and French with English subtitles.

The lady in the van

At 81 years old, Dame Maggie Smith proves with her latest film that there is still nothing she can’t do. She is a star. I’ll just mention Downton Abbey and the Harry Potter films as proof of her longevity. In The lady in the van, Smith plays Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman living in her van. Shepherd was a real person. Playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) let Miss Shepherd park her van and stay in his driveway for 15 years. Bennett himself adapted his own 1999 play for the screen. Smith reprises the role she played in the original 1999 theatrical production. Bennett’s difficult relationship with Shepherd starts when she parks her van on the street where he lives. The film was shot in the house where the real events took place on Gloucester Crescent, in London’s Camden Town. Miss Shepherd is not the easiest woman to have as the neighborhood bag lady. That’s what she is. There are bags stuck under the van and she sleeps in that van surrounded by bags. Mary Shepherd was probably suffering from some form of mental illness. In the film, Shepherd cannot stand to hear music, she screams every time children sing or someone plays the flute, she stinks, the van stinks and she’s aggressive to anyone she meets. Bennett and Shepherd became more acquainted after he first allowed her to use his washroom. When new bylaws would have made it possible for her van to be towed, Bennett agreed to let her park her van in his driveway. When Bennett digs into Shepherd’s past he finds out that her real name was Margaret Fairchild, she was actually a classical pianist. He also learns that her van was hit by a motorcyclist and that the incident terribly traumatized her. The material shows its theatrical origins with a gimmick: The play and the film has two Alan Bennetts, the writer and the one who lives the life of Alan Bennett. The first Alan only sits and writes while the second Alan does all the other stuff. They have conversations and discussions about Alan’s life and about Miss Shepherd. What worked on the stage won’t necessarily work on film. This does not work. But if you are a fan of Maggie Smith, you will find everything here that you’d expect from her. I was amazed at the range she shows in The lady in the van. Her comic delivery is priceless. And there is a scene at the end where Mary Shepherd sits at a piano to play Chopin. She is like a little girl again. Smith’s ability to tap into Mary Shepherd’s fragility is simply brilliant. Dame Maggie Smith should be named International Treasure. Mary Shepherd/Margaret Fairchild died in 1989.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The lady in the van

Directed by:

Nicholas Hytner

Screenplay by:

Alan Bennett

Based on his own play

Starring:

Maggie Smith

Alex Jennings

Jim Broadbent

Frances de la Tour

Roger Allam

James Corden

104 min.

Rated Parental Guidance