“Wadjda” (2013) by Haifa Al-Mansoor

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It is not every day that you encounter a feature film from Saudi Arabia, nor one that is as politically-minded and well-crafted as “Wadjda.” Saudi Arabia – a country with no public movie theatres – has never produced a film entirely shot there, let alone by a woman. For these reasons and a whole host of others, “Wadjda” is an important landmark in world cinema.

Wadjda Director Haifa Al-Mansoor’s film tells a simple story, resembling the tales of Iranian filmmakers and their outwardly simple yet rich and metaphoric narratives. In “Wadjda” the title character is a ten year old girl (played by first timer Waad Mohammed), who dreams of buying a green bicycle so she can race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) through the streets of Riyadh. Her parents are both hesitant to give her the money and anyway, they are caught up in their own marital drama: Wadjda’s father is trying to resist his mother’s pressures to take a second wife in order to produce a male heir. Wadjda decides to earn the money for the bike herself by entering a school Koran recitation competition.

The story is straightforward but the gender politics and relationships informing it are not. Part of Wadjda’s mother’s hesistation has a lot to do with her belief that the bicycle will compromise her daughter’s virginity. Wadjda, an adventurous and outspoken girl, is also repeatedly reprimanded for not knowing how to ‘behave’ as a girl should. Interestingly, these reprimands do not come from the men in the film but from the other female characters. In a society where the interaction between men and women so heavily censored, this makes sense. Women, like Wadjda’s teacher, have internalized the various messages and systems of control. The teacher, Ms. Hussa (played by American-Arab actress Ahd), tells the girls in the school on various occasions to stay out of the sight of men and to keep their voices down because a woman’s voice “is her nakedness.” You are not to be seen or heard by anyone but the male members of your family.

The film also touches on the difficult issue of South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East. Here is where the politics of the film get a bit murky. The film is both sympathetic and unkind to the main migrant character, the driver Iqbal, who is short-tempered, always late and needs a firm hand to perform his job well. At the same time, we see Wadjda and Abdullah speaking to Iqbal with disrespect, implying that his mis-treatment permeates the generations in Saudi Arabia. In another scene, we hear a South Asian construction worker cat-calling little Wadjda. Only the intervention of a Saudi stops the construction worker from his verbal harassment. Given the well-documented overall dire situation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, this first depiction in a Saudi feature film is a problematic one as it turns the issue around on them – they are the problem and not Saudi Arabian society or the bad working conditions.

Despite the fact that the film has its flaws (including some overly dramatic acting), its charms are plenty. Al-Mansoor, like a lot of Iranian cinema, uses metaphors to add layers to the story. The bicycle in the film symbolizes freedom for Wadjda and the film suggests that even though various people and institutions try to withhold this freedom from her, in the end, determination succeeds and change is inevitable. Given its success on the international film fest circuit, we can hope to see more stories from a country that has so far created very few widely available self-images on celluloid.

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“The Necessities of Life” (2008) by Benoit Pilon

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Necessities of LifeBenoit Pilon’s “The Necessities of Life” opens with an caption that informs the audience that the film is inspired by the real historical medical intervention of the Canadian government in the TB crisis of the 1950s. In this real life situation, Pilon tells the fictional story of Tiivii, an Inuit father and hunter from Baffin Island, who has to leave his home and travel to Quebec City for treatment. Upon arrival in the sanatorium, he discovers he is utterly unable to communicate with the doctors and nurses on staff. Tiivii’s good-hearted nurse brings in the young boy Kaki to help him out of his loneliness. The orphaned Kaki is also an Inuit but he speaks both French and his native tongue. The thought of adopting the young boy gives Tiivii renewed energy and purpose and the two form a strong bond.

Pilon’s film is a very heart-warming but misleading film. It’s hard to buy all the exaggerated, one-sided good-heartedness from the nurses, doctors and other patients towards Tiivii. If there is one thing for sure, it is that the 1950s Canada had little understanding for Inuit people, their customs and cultures. In Pilon’s fantasy, everyone is trying their best to communicate with him. Surprisingly, in two years at the sanatorium, Tiivii learns only how to say thank you and a few other token words. He barely gets a chance to speak his own language nor does he interact with anyone outside of the place so it is hard to imagine that this would be the extend of his French.

Perhaps what is the most confusing about the film’s historical re-visioning is the character of the priest – yet another loving, understanding white character. As a cultural intermediate, he is on Tiivii’s side, trying to help him adopt Kaki. Given the small-mindedness of the church at this time, it does not ring true enough to see him speak with so much respect and high opinion of Tiivii to others.

Pilon’s film would work more realistically if it actually had a host of diverse, complex character and not only a hospital full of good guys. “The Necessities of Life” leaves you thinking that the forced confinement of First Nations TB victims was certainly not so bad. Heck, in the end the friendly white people just want to help the poor, ailing Inuit and it is their medicine and ways that turn out to be Tiivii’s salvation. Unfortunately, we all know this is far from the actual course of events…

An interview with filmmaker Sara Zandieh (The Pool Party)

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I first saw Sara Zandieh’s work at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Still a student at Columbia University at this point, Zandieh was premiering her short film “The Pool Party.” On a bill with the short film debuts of Kirsten Dunst and Max Hoffman, Zandieh’s film stood out in quality and meaning. The plot is simple: set in Tehran, a middle-aged housekeeper named Khani is over-worked and under-appreciated by his demanding employer and her petulant daughter. While working to prep the family’s pool for a birthday party, Khani realizes he is on the receiving end of a number of social injustices that include age and class. The film’s strength lies in something very difficult to achieve: its fine balance of telling a story that is well-rooted and grounded in a specific setting (here class-conscious Tehran) while at the same time addressing inequalities that concern us all, no matter the geographical location.poster1

Since her remarkable directorial debut, Zandieh has gone on to write and direct three more short films. At this year’s Nashville International Film Festival I saw her latest short film  “Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall,” a film that deals with two things close to Zandieh’s heart, comedy and the Iranian-American experience. Like her previous films, this film features stellar performances from actors working in two different languages; Farsi and English.  I spoke to Zandieh recently about some of the challenges and joys of working across languages and cultures, as well as her current cinematic endeavors.

You have made four short films so far that really vary in subject matter, from a mother-daughter relationship set in France to an aging domestic worker in Iran. What are the themes that interest you in your writing and directing?

I don’t really approach ideas with a theme. I always start with a character. Then a situation or a story arises from that character. I suppose if I were to step back and analyze, there are some overlapping themes across these four films: individuals trying to make sense of their environment or relationships, modernity vs tradition, maintaining appearances.

The four films you have made so far vary very much in style and content. What are some of your cinematic influences?

I have so many!  I’ll name a few that have been particularly helpful to me these past few months in my writing. Woody Allen for his comedy and stories about relationship anguish. Asghar Farhadi for his family dynamic driven dramas. Robert Bresson for his humane, empathetic camera.

You have worked on films in the US, France, Turkey and Iran. What draws you to making films outside of the US?  What are the challenges of working in a language other than English?

I grew up speaking Persian, French and English.  English is the easiest because it is a direct and professional language. Persian is an ancient, poetic language and there is more sensitivity to formality and politeness. Also, Persian and French differentiate between formal and informal tenses so it always takes that extra second to form your sentence. It’s really interesting to observe how these nuances come into play, especially in the high speed, high pressure environment of a film set. I rarely feel concerned about offending people or being too direct when I’m speaking English.

I’ve always traveled a lot so I feel at home in many different places. Every culture has specifics that show different sides of the human experience. It’s rewarding to be able to express and approach stories from these different perspectives. For example, Pool Party deals with the struggle of a domestic servant and it felt important to tell that story within the class gaps that exist in Tehran.

Logistically, Iran was the most difficult to work in because of the restrictions on content.  My film worked in allegory as oppose to being directly political but we still had to go through a rigorous permission process.

“Reza Hassani Goes to the Mall” grew out of a collaboration with the comedian Maz Jobrani. What was it like working or collaborating with someone else?

imagesOne of the best aspects of filmmaking is collaborating. I got really lucky on Reza because Maz Jobrani agreed to play the lead. I wrote the part for him so I was overjoyed. He is an amazing and generous actor. I was struggling to cast the child actor and he suggested his little nephew.  It was a perfect fit because they already had a natural chemistry. It was a very fun collaboration. I love working with comedians because of their strong sense of comedic timing and comfort with improvisation. It’s also fun to be around funny people all the time.

The short film “The Pool Party” is certainly a poignant drama about class difference but you switch to a bit of situational comedy in “Deadline” and a full blown comedy in “Reza.” What genre do you feel the most at home in?

I would say comedy/drama. To me even Pool Party is a comedy, albeit a subtle satire. I grew up in a very funny family. Humor was the family art of survival. We always made light of situations even if it seemed bleak at the time. So humor in the face of intense drama is something I value.

Reza is a comedy but it deals with the difficulty of integrating into a new culture. It sort of humanizes and satirizes the immigrant experience. Mixing seriousness and playfulness feels right to me because I think it’s the tone of life.

You are currently working on a feature film script. What is the difference in the writing process between working on a short film script and a feature length?

The main difference is that you can’t step back and see the whole thing. With features, you can only see one section at a time, so it’s harder to have that birds eye view. Though features are more rewarding in the sense that you stay with your characters much longer. They become part of your life for many years.

What would be your dream film collaboration?

Cate Blanchett, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Tom Hardy and the ghost of Marlon Brando are trapped on an island. I’m writing and directing. Darius Khondji is shooting. Thelma Schoonmaker edits. Score by Michael Nyman. I dreamt that last night.

“Frances Ha” (2013) by Noah Baumbach

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Frances HaSet in New York of the present, Baumbach’s latest film tells the story of awkward early twenty-something Frances (played by Baumbach’s real-life girlfriend Greta Gerwig). Like most hipsters of her generation, Frances likes to wear strange clothes, listen to indie bands and she takes a special interest in the unusual. Although she may fit in with her generation’s special brand of supposed subculture on one level, the film is also about all the ways that Frances doesn’t. The film offers a biting critique of present day hipster culture while still celebrating some aspects.

For starters, unlike her friends, Frances is not rich. As a dance student with lower middle class parents, she barely scrapes by. When her roommate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to upgrade her living situation, Frances is forced to move in with two male acquaintances, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen). In Baumbach’s film, New York is no longer a welcoming haven to misunderstood bohemians like Frances. Instead, it’s become the playground of trust-fund babies like Frances’ roomies Lev and Benji.  Frances struggles to make ends meets while the other two enjoy late night parties, massive hangovers and other First World problems. Baumbach portrays most of those around Frances as self-obsessed. Sophie has no problem dropping Frances at the drop of a hat for greener pastures in Soho. Instead of thinking about the friendship and relationship she compromises, Sophie is more focused on the square meters she gains. Frances on the other hand anxiously tries to adjust to the new situation to try to maintain her connection to Sophie, who gets more and more caught up in her own life and drama.

What Baumbach does celebrate in the character of Frances is her truly odd-ball personality. Frances is as a sympathetic character, who does not always follow the dour conventions of social decorum. Although she provides the occasional belly laugh, Frances’ self-conscious and self-deprecating behavior does start to grind a little. It is hard to believe that, given her situation, she would spontaneously spend a weekend in Paris. For no understandable reason, she feels inclined to max her credit card with three lonely days in the city of light.

Towards the film’s end, Frances’ character undergoes an interesting development and the film does provide an interesting character arch. Although she spent the majority of the story struggling to find her place amongst those who can bank roll their lives with more ease, Frances eventually learns that what it takes to survive in NYC is compromise, hard work and staying true to your drive. Instead of constantly trying to fit in, Frances focuses on her gigs. The sentiment behind this is of course good natured but in an annoying Hollywoody ending, too much ends up neatly working out: she gets a job, an apartment, a first dance show and maybe she might finally have a boyfriend (although she is “utterly un-datable”).

Despite the sometimes annoying self-centered lifestyle of Frances and her all-white milieu (in Baumbach’s NYC people of different racial backgrounds other then white seem to only drive cabs), Frances Ha offers an old-school, black and white romantic image of New York, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Manhatten” and Darren Aranofsky’s “Pi.”  “Frances Ha” is a film worth seeing on the big screen or on HD for this reason alone.

“The East” (2013) by Zal Batmanglij

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220px-The_East_2013_film_posterZal Batmanglij’s new thriller “The East” is a highly entertaining movie, despite it’s naïve and elementary treatment of the issue of anarchy, environmentalism and the question of when activism becomes terrorism.

The films starts on an average spy thriller premise: Brit Marling plays Sarah Moss, an ex- FBI agent whose first assignment for her new employer, a security organization, is to infiltrate a group of anarchist social drop-outs. This group of eco-activists likes to carry out ‘jams’ based on the biblical mantra of ‘an eye for an eye,’ serving socially irresponsible companies a taste of their own medicine. Sarah’s step one for going undercover: she dyes her hair one shade lighter and she puts on a pair of Birkenstocks. From there, we see her absorbed in the warm environment of The East.

What really works for the film is its cast of actors, from Patricia Clarkson who plays Sarah’s tough as nails boss, to Ellen Page, whose precariousness and physical expressiveness for once works perfectly as the committed eco-activist Izzy. The film contrasts the cold, sterile environment of Clarkson’s office with the warm, almost entirely candle-lit hide-out of The East and it is this setting that draws Sarah deeper and deeper into the mindset of the group. She eventually finds herself changed by the honest and concerned citizenry of the East.

Unfortunately, the film includes excessively cheesy scenes of the group’s almost cult-like habits, such as feeding each other while wearing straight-jackets and washing one another in a river. The film also seems to have a limited conception of what anarchism is. Anarchism is first and foremost concerned with creating a stateless society and ridding people of any kind of hierarchical relations (a key difference with communism).  The film repeatedly refers to the East as an anarchist organization, a misleading understanding of them and their activities. Because Benji (played by the handsome Alexander Skarsgard) is definitely their leader and the main target is not the American government and its well-documented violations of the public but instead, their activities are aimed at major American corporations.

The real baffling thing about the film is the ending. To be exact, I am referring to the last five minutes. Previous to this, the film offers an interesting twist on Sarah’s relationship to the group and Benji in particular. However, as the credits roll we see Sarah searching out various other undercover agents. She fulfills her earlier statement to Benji:  “If they [other undercover agents] could only see what I have seen they would change their minds.” In film’s final montage we see Sarah working down the list of undercover agents, befriending them on planes and airports, and then taking them to the scene of the crimes committed by the corporations they try to safe-guard. What this ending is suggesting is that Sarah condemns the use of violence and loss of life that The East was willing to accept in its acts of ‘terrorism’ in the name of activism. She operates under the premise that given that most of these undercover agents are ‘reasonable’ people, talk can go a long way. This is indeed a very well-intended but unrealistic understanding of what kinds of people work for these security companies in the first place. Have these agents never read a newspaper or followed the news until Sarah came along and opened their eyes?  Is the film truly suggesting that the sad reality of these crimes is a mystery to the average, well-educated American today? The list of environmental lawsuits in the U.S. is incredibly long (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_environmental_lawsuits). Cases like the BP oil spill and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company got lots of press coverage and were widely discussed on various media.

Alas, just when I thought that Hollywood had surprisingly produced a film that did not vilify contemporary grassroots movements (however violent their tactics), this ending makes a joke of any serious attempts at considering The East in an earnest light. Instead, in the end the film paints them as just a bunch of misguided, violent hippy anarchists that had not yet discovered the use of reasoning sessions.

“Bliss” (2013) by Doris Dörrie

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Bliss

The German director Doris Dörrie is like a female version of Woody Allen (well, without all the self-conscious babble and autobiographical elements). She once made a few films I liked and since then, she’s continued to crank out feature films and documentaries at regular intervals. Like Woody’s prolific output, the more recent ones vary very much in quality and depth. I watch them more out of loyalty to the director then for the true anticipation of seeing anything worthwhile.

Dörrie’s latest superficial offering is the 2012 film “Bliss,” which starts with the misleading voice-over of a Berlin lawyer (played by Matthias Brandt), telling us about the first time he met the young Eastern European Irina (he hits her with his car but she walks away insisting she needs no help). You would think this lawyer would play an important role in the film, but he and his voice-over completely disappear and he only reappears in the last fifteen minutes of the film to save the day.

In a short flashback following the accident, we see Irina (Alba Rohrwacher) back in her pastoral days in rural Macedonia. We see Irina sleeping with baby sheep (I’m not joking), running through fields of flowers and filling jars of honey with her mother, while dressed like a 19th century farmer. In short, her life is too quaint to be true and all seems way too picturesque to last. It’s all shattered to a million pieces only minutes later when we see war break out. Irina’s parents are murdered and she is raped by a gang of soldiers. She moves to Berlin, Germany and survives by selling herself for sex with what she calls “disgusting” clients.

While out working the streets, she meets Kalle (played by Vinzenz Kiefer), a street punk who slowly falls in love with Irina. The two share true moments of ‘bliss’ together and they slowly learn to mend their wounds without asking each other painful questions about their past. Irina manages to save enough money to move them both into an apartment and she continues to turn tricks from there, while Kalle distributes flyers.

Although the film wastes some time on unimportant details and corny moments of couple ‘bliss,’ the chemistry between Rohrwacher, playing Irina, and Kiefer, playing Kalle, is believable. Both communicate vulnerability and a push/pull attraction to each other. Unfortunately, they are trapped inside a weak script that offers only superficial mediations on love and true happiness – the stuff that keeps these two alive amidst so much personal tragedy.

The whole story does take a turn that is rather unexpected (that is, if you have not read the book that it is based on or one of the handful English-language reviews of the film that give away the ending). I, for once, will not give it all away but let me say this: in a bizarre lapse of logic on the part of Kalle, Dörrie’s romance drama takes a serious dip into the slasher genre. It’s as strange as it sounds.

Hot Docs Recap

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The end of April is probably every documentary lovers favorite time in Toronto. Hot Docs celebrated their 20th anniversary this year and here are some personal festival highlights.

“Forest of the Dancing Spirits”

I’m suspicious of anthropological documentaries that claim to present some truth about the culture and custom of indigenous peoples, especially when it comes to those who choose to have little contact with the world beyond their own. This doc, however, is one of the most intense and crazy film experiences I have had in a while. It starts with the birth of a Pygmy baby deep in the forest of the Congo Basin. From this intense auditory and visual beginning, the doc goes on to tell the story of a Pygmy tribe, their local masters, and the changes that are acoming with the arrival of logging in the region. The director keeps herself out of the film as much as possible and does not take up their cause. Instead, she spent seven years creating a beautiful record of their lives, environment and their relationships to not only each other but also the filmmaker. The film is so immersive that Toronto post-screening seems surreal.

“Blood Relative”

I did not heed the words of fellow film-goers and did not bring my Kleenex for this tear-jerking documentary on Bombay’s Vinay Shetty, who is tirelessly working for Thalassaemia sufferers in India. This complicatedly named genetic disorder refers to those trapped in the bodies of children due to stunted growth and who need weekly blood transfusions to live. Although there is some repetition in the film, it does a great job of following a local cause without having to resort to international experts to explain the disorder and it’s effects. Instead, the film establishes the milieu and its challenges in a very immersive way. Vinay Shetty is an inspiration of a character, charismatic, and dedicated to a little known genetic disease. Very touching and informative (the film was after all funded by the Knowledge Network).

Blood Relative“Dragon Girls”

I watched this film by fluke. Despite its bad projection (the sound and image were off), it’s a compelling film about an all-girls’ kung fu school in China. This sounds like an uplifting topic but instead the film slowly uncovers the nightmare conditions of becoming a champion kung fu master. The hardships include living in a factory-like setting with thousands of other girls, training for over ten hours a day, and baring grim physical punishment. Ranging in age from six to sixteen, the film’s subjects express a common yearning for the love and affection of their parents. The film’s textured, slow, tracking camera work evokes memories of other China-focused film like “Manufactured Landscapes” and “Up the Yangtze.”

“31st Haul”

The young director who made this film looks barely twelve years old and he’s a fresh film school graduate. This one-hour doc – his graduating film – follows a group of smugglers as they travel in a tank delivering goods to some remote parts of Russia. Along the way they swear, cuss and drink a whole lot. Their misogynist observations and behaviors are interestingly reflected by women who are as toothless, drunk and foul-mouthed as the tank drivers. The film offers a very bare bones, music-less, fly-on-the-wall look at a particular segment of Russia’s population, that is the underprivileged, rural population.

“Great North Korean Picture Show”

It appears the filmmakers of this doc could not make up their mind about what kind of film to make. Lucky for them, the material is so darn interesting that you’ll watch it regardless of the pastiche. The film attempts to explore the film landscape of this isolated country but instead, the filmmakers find themselves stumped and censored (why in the world that was that a surprise to them is beyond me since every doc on North Korea foregrounds this fact). However, the filmmakers find a way around this by including subtitles that tell the viewer the censors reaction to the material, intelligently revealing the censors hands in shaping the images you see. The second part of the film presents some interviews of a famous North Korean director and follows him to the set of his latest cinematic endeavor. The most fascinating part of the film is the third and final segment on a young acting student. The camera follows her to rehearsal, to lecture and into her home. What is unique and memorable is the fact that she lets her guard down and doesn’t tirelessly talk about the Great Leader. Instead, she’s an eighteen-year old woman struggling with what it means to hone your craft and to balance the expectations put on young actresses with regards to weight and looks. What emerges is a portrait that is more candid then any other seen of urban North Korean youth.

“Zero Dark Thirty” by Kathryn Bigelow

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Zero Dark Thirty

There’s been much hype about this film, yet for a long time I could not stomach the idea of watching a film that opens with a notoriously long torture scene. Well, there wasn’t much to be afraid of because as the twenty minute long scene in question was more annoying than truly disturbing. And for all the talk of Bigelow’s critical depiction of the practice, I don’t think it went far enough in asking the question if torture and the evidence collected under torture is ethical and trustable. Actually, she does offer a simplified and morally fraud answer to point number two: yes, torture can help you in finding much needed information. The torture question is dropped half an hour into the film and instead the rest of the film focuses in very inconsistent ways on the minute details of finding America’s enemy number one: Bin Laden.

In the film, we follow CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) for over a decade as she tries to hunt down Bin Laden’s messenger in order to get to “UBL” – as he’s called in the film. There are lots of scenes of waiting, negotiating, and government stalling.

My biggest problem with the film is that like Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” this film continues the hurtful (to Americans) U.S. navel gazing of 9/11 films. Do we understand the situation and the dynamic of America and the Middle East any better? No. Do we know, who half the people captured and tortured even are? No. Does it matter to the plot? No. Do we see any complex non-white characters representing themselves beyond the caricature of the crazy Muslim fundamentalist and the rich sex-crazed Arab sheik? No. Does the director love herself some special-op military men in tight outfits with ‘crazy’ yet endearing personalities? Yes! Do we only get to see thing and feel things for the American side, the film’s unquestionable good guys? Yes!

What actually holds your attention through the four hours is the fact that you know how and where the film will end but you want to see the film get the characters there. You want to see Bin Laden’s reaction (which you actually don’t get to see). Jessica Chastain also plays a pretty convincing CIA agent. And this despite the fact that she, along with all other female agents, look more like models, running around in designer suits in the desert. However, her fragile frame does communicate vulnerability yet determination and drive. Unfortunately some of the humour directed at her as a woman in the field falls a bit flat and she has a striking resemblance to another famed, skinny, model-esque CIA agent, looking for Bad Arabs, on TV right now. The Claire Danes “Homeland” resemblance is striking and can really not be accidental.

I hear the main character on whom the film is based is releasing her take on the events in an autobiography this year. I hope it’s much more compelling and coherent then the disappointing film but then again, I certainly won’t be running to the stores to buy that one…

“Transfer” by Damir Lukacevic

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Transfer

I think I am of the school that believes film adaptations of books – especially short stories – are an art rarely done well. German-Croatian director’s “Transfer” is an example of a short story adaptation that lacks the depth and character exposition of a written piece. In this case, a lot is lost in the translation from word to image.

“Transfer” tells the story of two aging Germans, Hermann and Anna, who are nearing the end of their lives. With the help a new genetic engineering company, they manage to prolong their lives by transferring their consciousness into the young, virile, hot bodies of two Africans, Sarah and Apolain. Every night for four hours, Sarah and Apolaine get to inhabit their own bodies (which I find a bit confusing since scientifically speaking your mind does have to have a period of rest during sleep). Given that they are aesthetically and pheromonally each others match, Sarah and Apolain fall for each other, which of course complicates things a tad for the other two, Hermann and Anna.

The racial implications of this film are obvious: white people will be at a disadvantage in the future when the colour folks will emerge physically as more resilient. The financial desperation of young “genetically superior” bodies of young immigrants will drive them to literally sell themselves to support their families back home in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Despite it’s futuristic setting, it seems white people will still have all the power, money and technology according to the colour coding of the different layers of German society in the film. Racial matters in the case of Germany are highly sensitive and it’s a well-known fact that the dialogue around these concepts still has some catching-up to do in Germany. The film unfortunately reflects this. It simplifies what may actually could have been an interesting discussion of racial inequality.

“Transfer” is also rather low on credible character motivations. At some points it is confusing to figure out when Anna or Sarah are making the decisions and half way through the film, the predictable set-ups let you see all the plot turns before they even happen. This predictability is unbearable and so is the horrible dubbing of both Sarah and Apolain’s dialogue, who obviously speak no German. Unfortunately, “Transfer” suffers from mediocre film-making on many levels. A disappointing follow-up to the director’s first film “Homecoming,” a melancholic film entirely dependent on skillful directing, acting and a solid script.

The Judgement Day: This Sunday’s Academy Awards

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academy-awards-20112I  know I’m not the only one but I find the Academy Awards really looooong and often really booooring but I usually do my best to see the high-lights. In anticipation of this Sunday’s Academies, I’ve tried to see as many nominated films as possible and make my own judgements.

Django Unchained: This is one heck of a violent film about two 19th century American bounty hunters, one a German-born doctor an the other a recently freed slave. It is pretty stunning that every other line includes the N-word but somehow, I could tolerate the contextual use (it is about a plantations and slavery after all). What I do appreciate about it is that it really draws out the cruelty and inhumane aspects of slavery. What I don’t like about it is the satisfying feeling of revenge you feel at the violence. I’d be ok with the film winning Best Score. But I’m still wondering what was with the Quentin Tarantino guest appearance? However, I do have a weak spot for Christoph Waltz playing the German physician and bounty hunter Dr. Schulze. Some great German cultural references.

Lincoln: Steven Spielberg’s latest “gem” is about the last four months of American president and civil liberties hero Abraham Lincoln.  I saw the first half but that is reason enough to review it. It’s painful, unless of course you want a primer on American history, the 13th Amendment and their mild obsession with Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. He did do good but man, ra-ra America is a sentiment celebrated in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. The Oscars can’t get enough. I predict Daniel Day-Lewis will win Best Actor but alas, I wish it wasn’t so.

Argo: I was a baby when the Iran Embassy/Hostage crisis happened but this film allows you to relive an American-centered version of that moment in history when six embassy workers hit out for over two months in the Canadian Embassy in Tehran, waiting to be rescued by the CIA. I wish there was a shame list that they would read out at the Academies. This is certainly one that needs to be shamed over and over again for the worst costuming I’ve seen in a film in a while. Why did everyone look like they were actors playing eighties dress-up? And I still have nightmare visions of Ben Affleck’s hair-do. (As a side note, Quentin Tarantino’s appearance in Django Unchained would be on there too). Besides the aesthetic crimes of the film, I find the depiction of embassy workers incomplete. They were willfully working in a country with a regime that tortured and suppressed opposition but they are the boor bastards that need our sympathy? The film is not about the crazy crisis in the country but instead it’s part of Hollywood’s celebrated American navel gazing. The film just adds to the present culture of fear of a ‘chaotic’ and ‘barbaric’ Iran.

Life of Pi: Rarely is a film better then the movie. Yann Martel’s popular novel was one of the few I skipped my way through and the film takes a much more fascinating look at the story of a young Indian boy shipwrecked and sailing across the Pacific Ocean on a little row boat with a Bengal Tiger. Ang Lee’s film is a beautiful and at times magical take on the drab novel and I loved the CGI (something I don’t say often). It should win Special Effects and perhaps music but not sure it really will get more attention then that. I hope I eat my words.

Amour: I think it should win every category, except special effects maybe. I’ve already reviewed and summarized this one earlier. Definitely the best on the roster.