Review: Hereditary

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Hereditary opens with the kind of aesthetic bluster we’ve come to expect from the films A24 distributes. The camera, placed inside a home’s art studio, does a 180 degree pan before locking its sights on a miniature version of the very house it’s in, zooming into one of the bedrooms until it takes up the whole frame and seamlessly transitions into the real-life version of it. It’s a neat trick, and what it foreshadows -- characters unaware of how they’re being used and manipulated by outside forces -- becomes apparent by the gonzo finale. But much like the rest of Hereditary, it’s an impressive idea followed through with a slick execution, one that doesn’t fully capitalize on its potential. 

Lucky for writer/director Ari Aster -- making his feature debut -- the foundations of his film are enough to forgive his hollow stylistic inclinations. The minitatures in the opening belong to Annie (Toni Collette), an artist living in a big, rural home in the Pacific Northwest with husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), pre-teen daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). The recent death of Annie’s mother looms over the family, and Aster continually drops hints that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Then tragedy strikes again, and as the family unit tears apart, malevolent forces enter the picture, turning the film into a full-blown horror spectacle.

Aster’s film suffers from the same setbacks as other ‘slow burn’ horror films, where the overt horror elements work better from afar than up close. What gives Hereditary an edge over other similarly structured titles is its strength as a family drama, and the specific anxieties Aster taps into. Early on, Annie talks about her family’s tragic history, ranging from the brutal deaths of her father and brother to her mother’s dissociative identity disorder. Given Annie’s family history, along with the brief hints of a frayed relationship with her own mother, Aster makes his film a literal manifestation of the fear of inheriting the bad traits of one’s own family, of being unable to break the cycle(s) one can spend their entire life trying to escape. Hereditary presents a situation where there is no escape from the past, and Annie’s dawning realization of her family’s sealed fate -- combined with the expectation of more sinister elements by the final act -- suffuses the film with a palpable sense of dread.

It’s when we finally arrive at our evil, demonic destination that Hereditary exposes itself as being far more equipped at dealing with anticipation than delivery. The horror sequences feel conventional, relying on images and constructs that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the Conjuring films. But it’s in these moments where Hereditary shows how much more effective it is when it hones in on horrors of the emotional kind. The strongest section comes approximately halfway through, after the second tragedy hits, and the family finds themselves unable to return to any sense of normalcy. It culminates with a dinner scene where Collette unleashes a torrent of rage, spewing out her pain at others in the hopes that her sorrow will stick on to something else. It’s the most unsettling scene in the entire film; there also isn’t a single ghost or ghoul in it.

Hot Docs 2018: The Blue Wall

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A case of straightforward reportage that benefits from its direct approach, Richard Rowley’s The Blue Wall presents a familiar, tragic story of racism and institutional corruption in modern-day America. In 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke in what the Chicago Police Department described as an open and shut case of a justified killing. But as one journalist investigated the incident, they discovered several pieces of disturbing information. Security footage from a building near the shooting mysteriously vanished, witnesses were intimidated by police into questioning their original statements, and an autopsy revealed that McDonald was shot sixteen times. When a source reveals that police and the city government are trying to suppress dash cam footage of McDonald’s murder, a long, arduous battle starts to get the video released to the public.

Rowley knows his film can’t work on telling McDonald’s story alone, as the depressing normalization of these police killings make this subject matter too common. Instead, Rowley expands his film to focus on the systems in place that have created and continue to uphold the status quo of giving police too much authority and too little accountability. In this case, the reelection campaign of mayor Rahm Emanuel played a role in the cover-up, as the footage would have hindered Emanuel’s chances of keeping his seat. At the same time, the police department was too afraid of the blowback the tape would bring, especially after the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray (among many others) became national news stories. Everyone within the system act in fear of the masses at its mercy, and once the tape comes out, most of them realize how expendable they become once things turn against them.

Granted, none of what The Blue Wall covers or explains on a macro level is anything surprising, but it’s effectively pulled off. Rowley and co-cinematographer Karim Hajj use drone shots to convey the imposing scope of the city and its institutions (and kudos to them for giving some purpose to using drones, which are becoming a very frequent and annoying presence in documentaries), while Brian McOmber’s score sets an ominous tone throughout. It’s efficient filmmaking in service of the material, and as the film winds down Rowley makes it apparent that, more than anything, The Blue Wall is about how corrupt institutions succeed by seizing and controlling the narrative around whatever events might not work in their favour. Currently, officer Van Dyke is awaiting trial after being charged with six counts of first-degree murder. The Blue Wall’s story remains unfinished, and if the film’s conclusion feels abrupt, it’s because Rowley is more interested in trying to help influence the current narrative than he is in talking about it after the fact.

Hot Docs 2018: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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It comes as no surprise that Fred Rogers—known to almost everyone as Mister Rogers—would get the biodoc treatment. A Presbyterian minister who was fascinated by television’s potential, he worked on different programs until creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968. The show was a children’s television staple for over three decades, partly because of Rogers’ philosophy and approach: deliberate pacing, clear lineations between reality and fiction, the ability to deal with deep, complex ideas, and an emphasis on self-worth, just to name a few of the qualities that made Rogers stand out. The most impressive and radical part about him was how he acknowledged children’s emotions as real, complicated, and worth listening to, never pandering and always trying to give kids the tools to deal with universal aspects of childhood that were rarely acknowledged.

It’s a shame, then, that the person tasked with documenting Rogers’ own life story is Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of Twenty Feet From Stardom. Unlike Rogers, Neville panders to audiences, peddling in mediocrity and documentary tropes simply because they work on the middlebrow audience he caters to. Rather than find ways to explore Rogers’ issues with depression, insecurity, and isolation growing up as a child, he utilizes animated sequences that show a young Rogers played by his puppet Daniel Tiger (some of his friends and relatives believe the puppet represents Rogers’ vulnerable and “real” self). Tactics like this are familiar, lazy, and simplistic, with Neville’s most offensive act involving his withholding the fate of an ill child who went on Mister Rogers’’ Neighborhood before undergoing major surgery. This is the kind of ill-intentioned manipulation Rogers couldn’t stand, but it’s Neville’s bread and butter.

At least Neville’s documentary isn’t too egregious, as his usual trademarks take a backseat to Rogers himself. Neville doesn’t shy away from his subject’s traditionalism, and he puts an emphasis on Rogers’ own ordinariness that prevents the film from glorifying things too much. But it’s worth remembering Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a show that railed against the lowbrow, familiar standards of childrens’ entertainment at the time, pulling off something unique and intellectual that went a long way to helping kids develop emotionally. To see Rogers’ story expressed through the usual tricks of the documentary format’s trade—especially with a tone that feels more serviceable than sincere—is further proof of how rare a presence like Rogers was in the entertainment industry.

Hot Docs 2018: People's Republic of Desire

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From a consumer standpoint, there’s been much to enjoy about the internet’s unregulated, wild west status since its invention, but director Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire shows a surreal, disturbing flipside to all the good the world wide web has brought. Wu follows the growing phenomenon of live streaming in China, where people host shows on a webcam and receive gifts from fans who watch and interact with them via a live chat room. Some hosts can earn over one hundred thousand dollars per month from live streaming, but Wu presents this new, growing part of the internet as something more sinister than exciting; it’s an ungodly mix of an unregulated communication platform with a largely unregulated capitalist economy, using narcissism and empty entertainment to prey on the hopes and dreams of people in the lower rungs of society.

Wu tries to pare down the complexities of the live streaming platform as much as possible in order to explain how the streaming platform works. The majority of viewers are called diaosi, a slang term used for people from lower class backgrounds with no prospect for a successful future (one of these viewers describes working a job that pays $400 and gives 2 days off per month). The diaosi watch and donate small amounts to hosts they like, and a higher class called tuhao—described as rich but lacking any real cultural value—makes big donations to hosts in order to receive adulation from the poor masses of viewers. Wu presents all of this information, along with portraying the streaming service itself, through computer generated imagery that makes the internet look like some kind of void where avatars hurl gifts at the screen. It looks cheap and bizarre at first, but as the film continues it becomes a fitting visualization for a part of our world that feels completely disconnected from reality.

Taking place over two years, Wu profiles two hosts trying to win the streaming service’s annual competition where viewers vote for the best host and hostess. Shen Man, a young nurse who quit nursing to pursue success through streaming, finds herself resenting the fact that her family relies on her income for support, and comedian Big Li becomes so consumed with winning best host that it threatens to destroy his marriage. Wu edits their stories into clean, rags-to-riches-to-rags narratives, and doesn’t have to do much when it comes to highlighting how strange the whole situation is (both Shen Man and Big Li find themselves dependent on a system that has no tangible value and can turn on them just as fast as it embraced them). Things only get darker as Wu dives further into the live streaming business, learning about predatory agencies and talent managers who try to pocket as much money for themselves as possible, all of it shown with a frankness that generates an uncomfortable disconnect with the material. Dystopias usually take place in the near or far away future, but People’s Republic of Desire makes an unsettling case that we might already be living in one.

Review: Ghost Stories

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Part of why horror remains one of the most successful and enduring genres to this day is because of how economical it can be. We can look at the rise of a studio like Blumhouse Productions to see the financial benefits of working in horror today, or we can look back in time at what remains the simplest, and most effective, form of horror: one person telling a story. There’s a thrill in the gossipy nature of someone letting you in on a dark, creepy tale, and the format requires the imagination to go wild. And even though a lot of horror stories one might remember hearing as a kid might not be especially original, it doesn’t matter. Most of the time, the excitement comes from how it’s told.

Writers/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson know how compelling the act of storytelling can be. Their 2010 play Ghost Stories structured itself as a lecture, where a skeptical professor talks about three cases involving the paranormal he could never debunk. The play was a hit, starting in the UK before traveling around the world, with its marketing dedicated to making sure people don’t reveal a single part of the story (promos only showed footage of audiences flinching and screaming in their seats, an old tactic that never fails to work). Now, eight years later, Nyman and Dyson have adapted their play into a film, with the hopes it will be as successful on screen as it was on stage.

Nyman reprises his role in the play as Professor Goodman here, but his character (who provides the wraparound story in this anthology) gets a little more fleshed out. Instead of giving a lecture, he’s hosting a reality show called Psychic Cheats, and the three stories come to him from a fellow skeptic who resurfaces after mysteriously vanishing years ago. Goodman tracks down each subject of the three cases and hears their stories, but as time goes on it becomes apparent that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Revealing any more would spoil the film, but anyone familiar with the structure of these sorts of anthologies can make a good guess about where things might end up.

Horror fans should know going in that Ghost Stories has no intention of reinventing the wheel, instead doing a nostalgia-tinged version of old, omnibus horror films (it’s a structure that’s been used recently by shows like Black Mirror). This serviceable nature also applies to the scares themselves, which are familiar but pulled off with enough skill to make them effective. The first story involves a nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse) wandering an abandoned building at night where he encounters a spirit. The next story has a teenager (Alex Lawther, entertaining as an anxious, terrified mess) getting terrorized by an evil force during a drive home, and the final tale finds a wealthy man (Martin Freeman, also having plenty of fun with his role) dealing with a malicious ghost threatening his pregnant wife. 

All three segments rely on jump scares and horror cliches, but this is a film that’s fully aware and appreciative of these ... let’s say classical tactics. Nyman and Dyson also know that viewers have knowledge of the old bag of tricks they use here, and Ghost Stories devotes itself to compiling a list of horror’s greatest hits, albeit with an impressive level of skill (cinematographer Ole Birkeland makes nice use of well-composed long shots to set the mood). But Ghost Stories’ success as a stage play came from seeing these familiar scenes play out in a live setting, meaning their impact isn’t nearly as strong when translated back into the format they originally came from. At least Nyman and Dyson show a level of admiration and craftsmanship that makes their film get the job done, so to speak. Its builds tension well, with each story having at least one scare that lands, and the twist-filled final act leads to an ending that makes it hard not to smile at how obvious it is. Ghost Stories works because it knows something that’s a part of human nature: everyone’s a sucker for a scary story.

Review: C'est la vie!

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Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano made waves on the international film scene back in 2011 when their feel-good dramedy The Intouchables made over $400 million worldwide. The film was nothing more than your typical adult-focused piece of counter-programming that comes out every year (think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Victoria and Abdul to get a sense of the tone and audience it’s seeking), but its broad comedy and sentimentality struck a chord the two filmmakers have yet to repeat. C’est la vie, their latest collaboration, is yet another collection of broad strokes, this time taking the form of an ensemble comedy about a wedding party gone wrong.

Wedding planner Max (Jean-Pierre Bacri) finds himself going through a tough time; he’s been having an affair with co-worker Josiane (Suzanne Clément) who’s pressuring him to break off his marriage so they can be together, and he’s about to oversee a massive wedding held at a gorgeous chateau. Problems abound from the start, and the film explores various subplots involving party staff and wedding guests, whether it’s the arrogant groom (Benjamin Lavernhe), the cocky band leader (Gilles Lellouche), the obnoxious photographer (Jean-Paul Rouve) or the lovelorn waiter (Vincent Macaigne). None of these storylines ever really come together as much as they chart their own orbits around the ceremony, with a few collisions here and there.

Nakache and Toledano’s bread and butter is through generalizing as much as possible, hitting certain emotional or story beats in a way that puts familiarity over everything else. Their film has a universal quality in its construction and in trying to appeal to the largest audience possible they churn out a bland product. One of several running jokes involves an ignorant staffer who tends to blurt out the obvious (“Looks like Max is pissed off,” he says after Max freaks out on everyone for causing another problem with the wedding). Anyone watching this can understand the joke’s purpose as an attempt at levity, but it’s never funny. It’s a transparent effort at using a familiar joke structure to wring out an easy laugh. Nakache and Toledano don’t try to make this funny, they just film the beats we expect and fill in the blanks where needed. It’s a strange sight to witness, since both filmmakers show such a strong hand at directing they clearly know the tropes they’re copying from, yet the opposite seems to be true in their writing.

For the most part, it’s the talent both in front of and behind the camera that keeps C’est la vie going, pulling off its pick and mix of clichés with enough skill to make it passable like comfort food. Subplots tend to be hit and miss but some—like a love/hate relationship between Lellouche’s band leader and Max’s bullish second-in-command (Eye Haidara)—get elevated by its talent to the point of forgiving the film’s piss-poor way it handles its female characters (all of them being a combination of overly sappy, nagging, “bitchy,” or manipulative). But Nakache and Toldeano’s coasting takes a hard fall in the film’s climax, which sees a group of Sri Lankan immigrant dishwashers save the wedding by providing the affluent guests with a bit of “cultural flavour.” Much like Intouchables and their previous film Samba, Nakache and Toledano touch of France’s immigration issue with a well-meaning but completely block-headed approach that veers on the offensive. It’s this blend of competence and ignorance that seems to make up Nakache and Toledano’s filmography, and with C’est la vie, they show no signs of making any adjustments to this formula that’s served them so well.

Review: Unsane

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In Unsane, trust can be deadly. Steven Soderbergh’s latest film—his second theatrical feature after coming out of retirement with Logan Lucky—sees him explicitly working within the horror genre for the first time (although Contagion and Side Effects could easily pass as horror films as well), and continuing to explore how people adapt to a society where everything becomes transactional. In Soderbergh’s world, everyone’s in it for themselves, so the act of trust becomes a liability, given it has no value lest it’s exploited for one’s own gain. This exploitation is what fuels the horror in Unsane, where people and institutions we expect to help us turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Our unlucky heroine is Sawyer (Claire Foy), a business analyst trying to restart her life after being targeted by a stalker (Joshua Leonard). She has a new city and job, but her past continues haunting her, as she continues seeing her stalker around her. Her paranoia leads her to visit a psychiatric centre, where she suddenly finds herself committed after signing what’s described as routine paperwork. Turns out Sawyer is a victim of a scheme by the centre where they trick people into getting themselves committed so they can steal their insurance money (a part of the story based on a real-life scandal). Sawyer gets her mother (Amy Irving) and a fellow patient (Jay Pharoah) with a hidden cell phone to try and find a way to get her out, but suddenly her stalker appears as a new staff member at the facility, and he’s committed to making sure she stays with him forever.

Soderbergh has never been one to rest on his laurels, so Unsane finds him experimenting with form yet again as he shot the entire film on an iPhone 7, and his attempts to merge form and content make up the most fascinating parts of the film. Soderbergh shoots the pre-asylum sequences with the camera constantly locked down in various, off-kilter positions meant to evoke Sawyer’s paranoia. As good as Unsane can look sometimes, it’s still shot on consumer-grade technology, but Soderbergh’s camera placement combined with the shoddy video quality evokes the imagery of surveillance cameras. Once Sawyer ends up hospitalized, Soderbergh uses tracking shots and other more elaborate camera movements as the stakes get heightened by the stalker’s presence. The camera’s limitations in regards to image quality, and its benefits in terms of its compactness, allow Soderbergh to experiment with getting further inside his protagonist’s head.

And as we go further inside Sawyer’s brain, we feel her exasperation at being labelled as insane despite all evidence pointing to the contrary; it’s the people around her who are driving her crazy. The first time we see Sawyer, her new boss suggests they travel to a conference together alone; her stalker came to know her through her volunteer work; the institute uses her therapy session against her to extend her stay; and the authorities ignore her pleas regarding her stalker joining the staff. These violations only push her further to the brink, so by the final act Sawyer transforms herself into an individual who uses others to her advantage, understanding the need to exploit others in order to survive. 

But to what end are Soderbergh and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer creating such a mean-spirited film? The insurance scam provides a chance to explore institutional rot and corruption, but around the halfway point it’s pushed to the background once the stalker takes over as the villain. And when the body count starts piling up, it feels like the film is reveling in its own cruelty, letting innocent people suffer for their generosity for the sake of it. Soderbergh is a smart enough filmmaker to avoid letting his film tip over into full-blown, Eli Roth-level bad taste, but Unsane veers close to falling off that cliff, resorting to a ruthlessness that feels unearned in its final stretch. Soderbergh closes his film with a freeze frame, an image that feels like a cheeky nod to ‘70s B-movies that likely acted as inspiration. But the reference also feels like a cop-out, as if Soderbergh is using the cover of genre filmmaking to get away with his film’s nihilistic attitude. It makes Unsane a film with some right ideas that follows through on them in the wrong way.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018: The Workshop

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It’s been a decade since Laurent Cantet won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Class, and his latest film The Workshop sees him returning to somewhat similar territory. Taking place over a summer in the south of France, The Workshop follows novelist Olivia (Marina
Foïs) overseeing a writing workshop where teenagers collaborate on a novel. The students decide to write a thriller, and as the development process continues Olivia takes an interest in Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), a member of the group who constantly provokes through his writing and bigoted remarks.

The first half follows the development process, which involves Olivia and her students sitting around talking about storytelling and how to approach writing their novel. Cantet co-wrote the screenplay with BPM director Robin Campillo, and much of the compelling approach to group discussions from both Campillo’s film and The Class show up here as well. Cantet, using improvisation and intensive preparation with his actors, creates a sense of urgency to these conversations, as we can feel a real sense of passion from these characters as they try to deal with some of the bigger questions that come with undertaking their project. Cantet and Campillo’s previous films show how adept they are at making conversations crackle, so it comes as no surprise that these scenes make up the best parts of The Workshop.

It’s in the second half, where Cantet hones in on Antoine to make a broader statement about contemporary politics, that the film fumbles. It’s laid out in plain terms that Antoine’s lashing out comes more from a place of isolation and boredom than anything else, but as Cantet’s intentions become clearer the film’s specificity suffers. Antoine becomes less of a unique individual and more of a representation of disaffected youth in the Trump/Le Pen era, and the involvement of alt-right ideas and other current references feel shoehorned in compared to the naturalism of everything else. By the final act, The Workshop turns itself into a thriller, a twist that the film thinks is far more clever than it actually is (now they’re living the situation they’ve been talking about the whole time!). And much like its handling of Antoine, the leaning on genre elements hurts the specificity of the drama already established. The film feels like it’s building up to a bang, only to end with a bit of a whimper.

Still, some credit is due to Cantet for making a go at a more relevant film. There’s something nice about watching a film that can command so much attention out of seven characters just talking about how to build a story. Cantet has a knack for making lively dramas out of what seems like very little, an achievement that already helped him receive one of cinema’s highest awards, and further reason why he continues making work that’s worth seeing.

Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2018: Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

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Give credit where it’s due: Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is visionary, and further proof that Dumont operates on a level his contemporaries aren’t bothered to go towards. After making his name on the festival circuit as an enfant terrible, Dumont changed gears with the hilarious and successful miniseries Li’l Quinquin. He followed that up with the bleak comedy Slack Bay, which saw him zigging when others expected him to zag. Despite recruiting some of French cinema’s biggest names and shooting a gorgeously styled period piece, Slack Bay was a hideous film: its humour ranged from slapstick to juvenile, its professional actors gave unhinged, garish performances, and Dumont once again confronted some of the ugliest aspects of human nature. The film was a massive middle finger to the arthouse audiences and institutions who have praised and dismissed his work in the past, and people either rejected it outright or (like me) embraced its spiteful, absurd nature.

Now, Dumont is back with a film that looks like a series of bad choices. It’s about Joan of Arc, but it covers her early years before she even went on to battle; it’s a musical, but it only uses direct sound; and the music itself is a combination of heavy metal, dubstep, electro, and other anachronistic genres, courtesy of musician Igorrr. It’s easy to think that Dumont’s choices won’t work, but Dumont is aware that his decisions are more unconventional than outright bad. So Dumont does what he wants to do, and Jeannette acts as another middle finger, this time towards our perceptions of what constitutes a musical, a biopic, a period piece, and what constitutes “good” cinema. Those willing to give Jeannette a chance have no choice but to abandon their preconceived notions, and anyone who does will find themselves encountering one of the most entertaining experiences of the year.

Split into two parts, Jeannette starts with the 8-year-old Joan (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) in 1425, wandering around a field with a friend expressing dismay at the brutality of the English towards the French. She’s having a crisis of faith, dancing and singing her issues out before meeting with the nun Gervaise (Aline & Elise Charles), who appears as twins and tries to convince Joan to not lose hope in God. This sequence, an elaborate song and dance that runs well over ten minutes long, is a marvel to behold. Igorrr’s score bounces from one style to another, the two Gervaises ping pong lines of dialogue and song between each other while performing elaborate choreography, and it all culminates with a headbanging session that would be considered sacreligious if it weren’t so baffling and funny. 

The film doesn’t reach the high of the Gervaise sequence again, but it remains a riotous act of rebellion throughout. At a certain point the film moves forward four years, and the now adolescent Joan (Jeanne Voisin) finally makes good on her promise to leave home and save her country, thanks to the help of her rapping, dabbing uncle (don’t worry, just go with it). For Dumont, a figure like Joan of Arc is a perfect target for his new style of confrontation. By taking an established historical figure—one that’s been adapted into cinematic form plenty of times over the decades—and building an anachronistic musical around her, Dumont exposes the absurdity of our self-imposed standards when it comes to rendering our perception of truth through history. Jeannette is the party the kids throw when their parents are away, a freeing act of defiance against cinematic boundaries that have been established and embedded since its creation. Dumont is a filmmaker learning from the past in order to move forward at his own, singular pace, and where he leads I will follow.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018: 12 Days

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Since 2013, the law in France says that anyone admitted to a psychiatric hospital against their will must have a hearing before a judge within 12 days to determine if their stay should be extended. Raymond Depardon received permission to attend and film these hearings at a facility in Lyon for 12 Days, which showcases ten different people awaiting judgment as to whether or not they’ll be given freedom or a prolonged stay.

With only some brief glimpses of the outside world in between hearings as an exception, Depardon keeps things within the hearing room itself and relies on a simple setup for each subject: a wide shot of the room, and a shot reverse shot structure between patient and judge as they discuss the case. 12 Days makes for compelling viewing at first, but as time goes on it becomes apparent that Depardon has no interest in anything but observing this particular institution operating as it’s supposed to. The subject matter and distanced approach to filming recalls Frederick Wiseman’s work, but Wiseman uses editing and form to gradually build a thesis out of his footage. Depardon doesn’t really have a point to make here, preferring to dwell on the tension of each case’s proceedings, which can only sustain the film for so long.

Depardon’s film generates questions about the trial system itself, the procedure, and how effective this particular institution’s methods may be in treating mental health, but they’re never entertained. 12 Days exists within one very specific context to look at issues that demand a bigger scope, and while the film is technically accomplished, by the end of its brief runtime it leaves a lot to be desired.

SXSW 2018: Thy Kingdom Come

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It’s impossible not to feel conflicted watching Eugene Richards’ Thy Kingdom Come given its origins. In 2010, Terrence Malick asked Richards, a successful documentary photographer, to work with him on To the Wonder. His task was to head to a small town in Oklahoma and film townspeople telling their life stories to Javier Bardem, who played a priest in Malick’s movie. The footage appeared in small fragments throughout To the Wonder as a subplot for the priest, who was going through a crisis of faith while trying to help the film’s lead characters. Richards was so struck by the footage that he wanted to make his own film from it, and after seven years he finally got rights to use the material and make his own spin-off of sorts. It’s a success story for Richards finally getting to realize his vision, but his rosy outcome contains plenty of thorns.

Despite Richards’ repurposing of his footage, the fact that Thy Kingdom Come’s intention was to act as a B-plot for Ben Affleck choosing between Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams hangs over every moment like a dark cloud. This gives the project an origin that’s morally dubious at best, and if anything Richards’ film feels like a rescue mission. Bardem’s priest stays silent for the most part, sitting and listening to each person as they talk about their hardships: a mother suffering from chronic pain who only keeps going for her child, a woman who lost one of her three kids in a tragic accident, a man on the road to recovery after cheating death. This lets Richards give his subjects the space to be heard rather than treated with a blind eye. “There’s not many people that listen,” says one person to Bardem early on, a line that leaves a bad impression given that it’s been left on the cutting room floor since 2010.

Thy Kingdom Come makes a good effort to overcome its questionable nature, even if it’s not entirely successful. The testimonials are harrowing, with an attitude of contentment towards suffering that runs throughout (one subject, a former KKK member with deteriorating health, explains that his only purpose for existing is for people to see him and learn how not to live their lives). There’s also Bardem himself, whose performance becomes fascinating in how visibly shaken he looks by the experience, making it hard to figure out if he’s even acting at all. But Richards’ efforts to make his work for Malick stand on its own can’t escape the uncomfortable emotions that come up around this film, its conception, and its eventual outcome. That push and pull leaves Thy Kingdom Come somewhere in the middle, where it will likely remain as little more than an impressive curio for Malick fans.

Oscar Nominated Short Films: Documentaries

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Coming to the end of my journey across all three short categories at this year’s Oscars, the documentary section closes things off with a big, long sigh. While live action and animation had at least one highlight in their respective categories, nothing in particular stands out from the nonfiction nominees. On the other hand, even the weakest documentary nominee doesn’t come close to matching the lowest lows of Dear Basketball or My Nephew Emmett; it’s a collection of filmmaking that feels too familiar in its presentation, content to rest on convention rather than explore the possibilities of documentary.

One title that comes close to trying something interesting is Traffic Stop, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s look at Breaion King, who was arrested after a cop stopped her for speeding. King, an African-American woman and school teacher from Texas, was assaulted by the officer for no reason, and Davis and Heilbroner crosscut between the police car’s dash cam footage of the arrest and King herself, who talks about her personal life. The footage of King’s arrest is disturbing, but it’s made even more chilling by how the footage gets edited in a cinematic manner. When backup arrives and King gets moved to the back of a different cop car, Davis and Heilbroner cut between security footage of King crying in the back of the car and the other car’s dash cam, which catches the arresting officer lying in his recounting of what happened. It’s a feat of editing that calls awareness to its own filmic qualities and confronts the detached, voyeuristic emotions that come with watching a very real, very traumatic situation presented in a form associated with escapism.

It’s too bad that Traffic Stop’s other half falls into a trap that usually happens when profiling a victim. Each time Davis and Heilbroner cut to King, a new piece of information about her life gets revealed, whether it’s her educational background, her work as a teacher, her passion for dance, or her hard upbringing. These are meant to evoke surprise given what she went through, as she’s clearly an upstanding citizen. But this approach comes with a problematic implication that, if King was not an upstanding citizen, her assault might have had some cause or justification. The footage shows that King was beaten up for being stressed out, scared, and not blindly following the orders of a power tripping cop. Her occupation and background are irrelevant in this context, and Davis and Heilbroner’s unnecessary attempt to justify King’s status as a victim hurts the film’s power in telling the story of a hate crime.

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Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e) represents Netflix’s continuing attempt to go after its rival HBO, who tend to dominate this category every year, so it’s no surprise that Sheldon’s film feels like Sheila Nevins could have produced it. It takes place in Huntington, West Virginia, a small town overrun by the opioid epidemic that’s been ravaging America for years. Sheldon’s smart approach to the subject matter focuses on three women dealing with the epidemic in different ways: a Fire Chief trying to save people who’ve overdosed, a judge in drug court helping addicts on the path to recovery, and a Good Samaritan providing meals to sex workers. The opioid epidemic could easily be expanded out to a feature-length documentary, but Sheldon’s humanistic lens works well enough in the short format. Rather than ask how we got to this situation or turn to the institutions whose failures have created this mess, Sheldon looks at the people on the frontlines who have no other choice but to work with the hand that’s been dealt to them.

The other three nominees are more lacking in their impact, part of which might be due to the fact that they’re more specific stories that aren’t tied to more politically relevant issues. It could also be due to these films not really being too interesting themselves, save for Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie, although what’s interesting about it is how the director’s original vision gets away from her. After learning about an interracial, nonagenarian newlywed couple (yes, you read that correctly), Checkoway took a trip to film them in the hopes of profiling a sweet love story. Instead, she stumbles into a legal feud between Edith’s daughters, with one of them wanting to sell off Edith’s assets and put her in a retirement home. The short culminates with an incident of elder abuse, where Edith gets forcefully separated from Eddie by her court-appointed guardian. The material outshines Checkoway though, whose sentimental direction undercuts the impact of what happens.

Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills profiles a new restaurant in Cleveland that gives itself a series of arbitrary obstacles to overcome. Owner Brandon Chrostowski only hires workers who have gotten out of prison (some of whom have no experience working in a kitchen) and puts them in a rigorous training program less than two months before opening day. Lennon’s documentary reeks of back patting and self-satisfaction at Chrostowski and his business, which doesn’t sound very appealing anyway. At one point Chrostowski talks about how it’s better to hire someone who got out of prison because they have something to prove and will therefore work harder, a message intended to be positive that really comes across as a gross, business-minded perspective. These restaurant workers represent people who have fallen through the cracks of the system, succumbing to drugs and crime as a result. Lennon and Chrostowski see an opportunity for these people to conform and be thrown back into the same system, while gaining something for themselves in the process, and the congratulatory tone of it all doesn’t sit right.

Lastly, Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 tells the life story of Mindy Alper, an artist who’s battled with abuse and mental illness throughout her life. Director Frank Stiefel keeps things straightforward in his direction, letting Alper discuss her tumultuous history with some input from her friends, colleagues, and family. There isn’t much to say here, as the short operates as a mildly interesting human interest story, although Stiefel makes some strange choices (like a cheesy attempt to portray Alper’s anxiety which requires her to “act”). Alper’s story is inspiring, but Stiefel’s handling of it lacks much inspiration, and like the majority of these nominees winds up making a film that kind of just exists as a fine effort.

Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation

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The Academy has a reputation for pleasing itself as often as it can, and for good reason. Films like The Artist, Birdman, and La La Land make up just a few examples of movies about the magic of movies that walked away with plenty of gold statues, so does it come as a surprise that they would nominate something as self-indulgent as Dear Basketball? Kobe Bryant’s vanity project sees the now-retired athlete hiring legendary Disney animator Glen Keane and composer John Williams to visualize a poem he wrote to announce his retirement. On its own, Bryant’s poem is fine, but in this context it’s a laughable act of stroking one’s ego. Williams’ soaring strings sound like a parody of his work, and Keane’s animation can’t overpower the sheer gravitational pull of Bryant’s ego. Dear Basketball is only inspiring in the way it shows how limitless one’s own vanity and sense of self-importance can be.

Thankfully, Dear Basketball only lasts for five minutes, and almost all of the other shorts in the category follow suit, offering up brief run-times and small bursts of storytelling. Pixar makes its inevitable appearance with Lou, where a pile of miscellaneous items in a school’s lost and found come to life and teach a bully a lesson. You have to admire Pixar for how well they’ve weaponized their ability to prey on nostalgia through anthropomorphization. Here, the cutesy pile of knickknacks is a cross between Wall-E and Inside Out’s Bing Bong, and while the short is transparent in its manipulation, it’s executed well enough to remind us of why Pixar remains a cartoon juggernaut.

On the more ambitious side of things, Garden Party has six (!) directors creating a lifelike playground for amphibians, who find themselves enjoying the pool in an abandoned mansion. The short looks nice, but there isn’t much to say beyond that (this is the graduation project for the film’s half-dozen directors, which might explain why it feels more like a demonstration of skills than anything else). A grim twist ending puts a darkly comedic capper on the short, but it’s a punchline that doesn’t really justify the set-up. Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer’s Revolting Rhymes stands out from the rest of the nominees due to its length, as it’s a half-hour, half-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s subversive take on popular fairy tales. Schuh and Lachauer take three of Dahl’s poems (The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood specifically) and mash them up into a single tale as narrated by the Big Bad Wolf (Dominic West), and the results are as serviceable as can be. Given the familiarity of the source material and how played out “dark” spins on fairy tales have become, Revolting Rhymes plays it too safe to be anything more than adequate.

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All that said, the likelihood of Bryan’s ode to himself or Pixar’s adorable lament of childhood innocence taking home the award is high, although neither hold a candle to Max Porter and Ru Kuwuhata’s Negative Space. Adapting a poem by Ron Koertge, Porter and Kuwuhata use stop-motion animation to explore a father and son who bond through packing luggage for business trips. In five minutes, Negative Space comments on the different ways families can forge connections, displays a metric ton of creative energy in its visuals (highlights including a tidal wave of clothes and a car turning into a suitcase zipper), and ends with a punchline that stings. The best animated short nominee by a country mile, Negative Space would be a deserved win if it beat out its two flashier competitors, and a sign that the Academy might not always be up its own ass when deciding what deserves to be the best.

Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live-Action

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If there’s one thing to be certain of with the Oscar’s short film categories, it’s that these nominees are far from the year’s best. This is less of a knock on the Oscars themselves than it is an inevitable result of the marketplace. For the many people watching these annual compilations of live-action, animated, and documentary short nominees, these might be the only short films they’ll see in a year. There really isn’t an easy, accessible, or (most importantly) desirable form of exhibition for short films, nor is there much press given to shorts aside from film festivals or this annual tradition. Academy rules state that titles are only eligible under three scenarios: a one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles, a “qualifying award at a competitive film festival,” or a top prize at the Academy’s student short film competition. In other words, to be considered requires money or a propping up by other, flawed systems.

So the shorts categories operate much like the feature-length films do, but on a much smaller scale that makes it easier to point out where things are rigged. That’s why it doesn’t come as a big surprise that almost all of the live-action shorts aren’t particularly good, but in order to stay positive I’m going to start from the top and make my way to the bottom. Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary takes inspiration from a 911 call at an Atlanta school in 2013, where a secretary (played here by Tarra Riggs) has to deal with a young, male shooter (Bo Mitchell) walking into her office brandishing an AK-47. Van Dyk keeps the camera still and distanced from both characters, letting the events play out in real time with a frankness that recalls a similarly compelling standoff in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. With no cinematic tools to rely on for familiarity or comfort -- no close-ups, no score, no crosscutting, just a basic, linear series of shots and edits -- DeKalb Elementary stays unpredictable and tense throughout, before concluding with a call for empathy over hostility when facing the unthinkable.

Chris Overton’s The Silent Child feels like an odd pick for the category, given its specificity. Shot in a rural, foggy town somewhere in the UK, Overton’s film follows social worker Joanne (Rachel Shenton, who also wrote the screenplay) as she helps a four-year-old deaf girl learn sign language before starting school. Joanne makes progress over a short period of time, but the girl’s family (none of whom are deaf or know sign language) interfere, insisting she stick to lip reading as they can’t be bothered learning to sign. Title cards at the end give grim facts about the lack of adequate educational tools for deaf children, and while this isn’t the sort of issue Academy voters typically glom on to, it’s a little refreshing to see a different kind of extended, sentimental PSA pop up in this category.

The odd film out in this year’s batch is Derlin Seale’s The Eleven O’Clock, a comedy whose effectiveness will depend on whether one finds its central concept funny (I didn’t). A therapist sees a patient who thinks that he’s a therapist, and when the two of them have their eleven o’clock appointment, a weak "Who’s on First?" variation goes on for far too long. A quick mention of the therapist’s secretary being a temp worker sets us up for the twist ending, and by the time it comes the twist is welcome, since it signals that the film is over.

With the final two nominees, the Academy’s penchant for rewarding morally odious works for their “relevance” and “power” makes its usual appearance. In Watu Wote: All of Us, director Katja Benrath uses the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Kenya to adapt a real-life incident where a bus full of Muslims protected a Christian passenger from execution by a terrorist group. No need to search for the point of Benrath’s film as it’s right there in the title, but it’s hard to swallow her message of unity when she’s too busy trying to gag viewers with her crass methods of manipulation, like slaughtering extras to raise the stakes or pointing a rifle at a child’s head to ratchet up tension. 

As offensive as Watu Wote: All of Us might be, it still has some sort of positive message to impart. The same can’t be said for NYU student Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett, a reprehensible and opportunistic take on the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Wilson Jr. retells the day’s events through the perspective of Till’s uncle, a decision that lets us know he felt bad about handing his nephew over to racist murderers. Like a visually slick reading of a Wikipedia article, My Nephew Emmett offers little to no artistic value or insight as it goes over the basic facts of what happened. Emmett Till has been described as many things over the decades since his murder: a child, a victim, a symbol, and an icon, just to name a few. Kevin Wilson Jr. has the very distinct and gross honour of adding ‘calling card’ to that list.

Berlinale 2018: Cross My Heart

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Intentional or not, Luc Picard’s Cross My Heart has a lot of audacity. Starting out as a serviceable family drama set in 1970, Picard takes his story into one ludicrous direction after another while keeping a straight face, and at times it’s hard not to wonder if he’s daring us to blink. 

Set in Montreal during the FLQ crisis -- in which a terrorist group kidnapped two government officials and made Pierre Trudeau invoke the War Measures Act -- Cross My Heart deals with the teenage Manon (Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau) and her young brother Mimi (Anthony Bouchard), who find their own lives in disarray. Their father is dying from cancer and their mother can’t handle the stress of having to take care of her husband while raising two children, so she arranges to have Manon and Mimi put into foster care, where they’ll be separated and sent to different families. The tumultuous situation in Montreal turns into a reflection of the ambiguity in Manon’s life, knowing her family’s about to be torn apart.

It turns out that the FLQ’s kidnapping is a source of inspiration for Manon, and it’s at this point where Picard’s story goes wild. In order to ensure her and Mimi stay together, Manon convinces two of her cousins to kidnap her elderly neighbour (Clare Coulter) and hide out in a hunting cabin, where they can all live together as a family unit while tricking the cops into thinking they’ve been taken hostage by terrorists. It goes without saying that Manon’s plan is insane, but Picard makes sure it works out, with musical montages and cute moments between characters showing this illegal arrangement might just work out. By the time the kidnap victim warms up to her captors after they ask her to be their grandma, it feels like Picard himself has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome.

As crazy as Cross My Heart becomes, it’s fully dedicated to the story it wants to tell, and dedication can go a long way. Picard works well with his ensemble, and he directs everything with a level of ease and confidence that keeps the film about as watchable as your average cable drama. By the time the police start catching up to Manon and her crew, it’s hard not to root for them. And when little Mimi ends up brandishing a rifle in a standoff with police, you might as well go with it because you’ve made it this far into the film anyway. Despite its factually-based setting, Cross My Heart is a ridiculous fantasy; it’s a pretty funny one too.

Berlinale 2018: Grass

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I could say that Hong Sang-soo is back with a new film, but this is his fourth project in the last 12 months, so it might be more accurate to say that Hong is still here with a new film. One of the most prolific and beloved arthouse directors working today, Hong’s Grass runs just over an hour long, a fact that also makes him one of the most considerate. The film’s premiere in Belin’s Forum section -- a choice one might perceive as a downgrade given that On the Beach at Night Alone screened last year in official competition -- suggests this might be seen as a more slight entry into his filmography, but Grass remains as consistent and enigmatic as Hong’s other recent output.

I would agree that Grass is a slight film, even though it really isn’t. Most of Hong’s films have some kind of structural gimmick, and here it comes from its lead character Areum (Kim Min-hee), a writer spending her days eavesdropping on other people in a cafe. She sits back on her laptop while we watch and listen to those around her: a struggling actor, a happy couple, a director, and a mourning pair of friends are just a few of the people Areum hears, or so we think. Truth is slippery here, and some of these conversations might actually be Areum imagining her own writing. Hong doesn’t make any clear distinction, nor does he seem bothered with presenting his film as a puzzle to be figured out. That gives Grass a freeing nature that makes it feel a bit flighty. You can take each exchange in its own context, which makes the film nicely compartmentalized.

But this is where the paradox comes in. A melancholy cloud hangs over Grass, with suicide being a topic of conversation in several scenes. At one point a man and woman drink together while he berates her over being responsible for his friend’s suicide, the camera pointed over the man’s shoulder from behind with the woman just out of focus, a stylistic choice that’s almost entirely new for Hong. So how can Grass deal with such heavy subject matter, show its director experimenting with different visual methods, and feel so lightweight at the same time? Figuring out the answer is part of Hong’s allure. Just as he can put ‘real’ and ‘fake’ scenes together here and make them coexist, he can also let these opposite reactions work at the same time. There’s more fun to be had with the contradictions Hong can bring up and explore in the span of one hour than what most other films can muster up with two.

Berlinale 2018: Cobain

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Life is hard for young protagonists in European co-productions, like 15-year-old Cobain (Bas Keizer). He’s forced to take care of his mother Mia (Naomi Velissariou), who’s well into her third trimester and unable to kick her drug addiction. Despite getting assigned to a foster family, Cobain decides to make Mia his top priority, and soon finds himself working for a pimp named Wickmayer (Wim Opbrouck, looking like a second-rate Gerard Depardieu in his boxers and open bathrobe) in order to earn money. It’s the perfect mixture of tragedy and social realism, or a mixture just perfect enough for an international tour of the festival circuit.

Maybe I’m being a bit too hard on Cobain, but after years of enduring these tales of woe and misery geared for the arthouse there’s a breaking point. Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, character traits, plot points, social environments, and other details appear as vague forms of things we’ve already seen before, and our general familiarity with these dramatic building blocks lets the filmmakers leave us to do all the work for them. Feast your eyes on the seemingly friendly pimp who turns cruel and predatory towards our teenage protagonist because it’s the point in the story where the third act has to begin; look at the prostitutes with hearts of gold who give our lead a sense of family until they fulfill their dramatic usefulness; and don’t forget about the complicated mother, whose mean and self-destructive behaviour towards her son are offset by one or two scenes where she shows some affection when she’s tired, high, or both.

Cobain inspires schematic thinking because it’s a schematic film. Every piece pops into place as it should, and all the dramatic beats play out as expected, with the only exception being the absurd direction the story takes. It’s hard enough to believe a 15-year-old could get a stash of methadone, put his strung-out pregnant mother on a motor scooter and drive her into the country to detox, but that’s just a warm-up for the bloody, ludicrous climax. I won’t spend any more time dwelling on it, because I’m afraid that by now I’ve put more thought into this than the filmmakers.

Review: Before We Vanish

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Following Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s output can be like riding a roller coaster. He’s one of Japan’s best filmmakers working today and for a loyalist like myself it can be tough to navigate the peaks and valleys of his more recent work. But it’s difficult to not have interest in whatever comes next from the director of Cure and Kairo. Most directors would be happy to make one masterpiece in their lifetime; Kurosawa has two, and plenty of strong titles peppered throughout the rest of his filmography. But for every high point -- like his family drama Tokyo Sonata or aptly titled thriller Creepy -- there’s a slog like Journey to the Shore or a haphazard mess like Daguerrotype

Thankfully, Before We Vanish falls more on the positive side, with Kurosawa taking a stab at an alien invasion movie. Three extra-terrestrials arrive on Earth and inhabit the bodies of three people in order to better understand the human race before launching an invasion. Their desire is to understand “conceptions” of human ideas like family, work, freedom, and self, but their process of doing so involves extracting these concepts from humans who, in turn, lose all comprehension of whatever the aliens take from them. 

Kurosawa and cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa keep the camera moving at a frequent rate, with plenty of pans and tracking shots that give the film a classical feeling (the same goes for Yusuke Hayashi’s score, which uses the likes of Ennio Morricone as an influence). Despite its overlong runtime, there’s an energy to the presentation that keeps things moving along, and Kurosawa’s trademark of making the fantastical look banal unsurprisingly makes for a nice fit with this particular genre. There’s a sort of relief that comes from watching material like this being done with such an assured hand.

But no matter how confident Kurosawa’s direction may be, his screenplay (based on Tomohiro Maekawa’s play) doesn’t commit hard enough to one thing to make a strong impact. While the film offers a handful of action sequences and thrills, it’s too conceptual and spread out to work as a more direct genre film. And its main theme involving what it means to be human (along with what humans become when certain ideas are taken away from them) is shallow, with a resolution that relies on an unearned sentimentality. Kurosawa makes his ideas understood, he just never makes them felt.

Still, Before We Vanish’s writing issues don’t tank the film by any means. Like some of Kurosawa’s other titles, frustration comes from seeing someone capable of making a great film not entirely rising to the occasion. Genre has always been his strong suit and Before We Vanish is entertaining and accomplished enough to show why Kurosawa remains one of Japan’s foremost auteurs working today. The roller coaster may not be a pleasant ride, but for the time being, there’s no reason to want to get off just yet.

Review: The Insult

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Words have unintended consequences in Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult, which tackles one conflict in the Middle East with a well-meaning tin ear. Taking place in Beirut, the initial conflict starts when construction worker Yasser (Kamel El Basha) comes to fix a building code violation at an apartment belonging to mechanic Tony (Adel Karam). Yasser tries to fix the violation, only for Tony to freak out on him, leading Yasser to tell him off. But Yasser’s insult is just a warm-up, as when his boss forces him to apologize for his behaviour, the Christian Tony tells the Palestinian Yasser that he wishes Ariel Sharon wiped all of them out.

Yasser retaliates by punching Tony in the stomach, breaking two ribs and setting off a chain of events that leads them to court. Tony receives the help of a high-profile Christian attorney (Camille Salame, perfectly slimy) while Yasser gets assistance from a young lawyer (Diamond Abou Abboud) wanting to fight for the persecuted Palestinians. By this point, The Insult turns into a full-blown courtroom drama, and there’s a fun theatricality to the proceedings. Doueiri and director of photography Tommaso Fiorilli use plenty of steadicam shots swirling around characters to heighten the drama, and at one point a plot twist gets revealed in a way that would make Ryan Murphy proud. Before it ends up getting to what it really wants to say, Doueiri makes his film entertaining in the way it indulges the genre’s tricks of the trade.

As the case evolves into a media sensation -- even in the film’s universe, people can’t resist the symbolism of the central conflict -- Doueiri fumbles his landing. The trial turns into an examination of what could have led Tony and Yasser to act out on each other, which delves into their respectively tragic pasts. This is yet another example of the “context is everything” argument, but it’s flimsy when applied to this story. No matter what either character has gone through, it doesn’t justify Tony wishing for an entire nationality of people to be wiped out. The problem here is that Doueiri wants to generate sympathy for Tony, but all he can muster is a variation on “both sides do it.” That might have worked if the incident itself had some ambiguity to justify it, but it’s pretty clear-cut in terms of who wronged who.

Surprisingly, The Insult’s themes of cultural division and the difficult road to progress mirror another title from 2017: Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (both films also have the pleasure of being Oscar nominees). But at least McDonagh’s film had a sense of humour, more interesting performances, and the ability to get messy in its exploration of messy issues. The Insult holds back too much, starting out as high-minded camp before settling into an attempt to say something meaningful. It might have been better if it sat back and let the dramatic fireworks do the talking instead.