Friday, July 1, 2011

Recent Cinema: Highs and Lows

Montreal's Seville Cinema
News that Toronto’s venerable Bloor repertory cinema was going to close for the summer for renovations has worried a lot of people in the city. Despite assurances from the owners that the Bloor will re-open in the fall, people are understandably concerned that this won’t in fact happen and a historic cinema and landmark will vanish. I, too, hope that won’t occur – I was proud to host its 100th birthday celebration in the fall of 2005 – as I have always been partial to the rep house experience. Growing up in Montreal, I frequented the city’s two major rep cinemas, the suburban Cinema V, which also functioned as something of a cinematheque (for one, it was where I was introduced to the '70s German New Wave movies) and the downtown Seville Cinema, which was known for showing late night cult movies like El Topo and, of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Alas, neither of those cinemas still exists, but I’ve found other ones to attend since I moved in Toronto. (In addition to the Bloor, I also check out the recently refurbished and non-profit Revue Cinema, where I’ve lectured.) To my mind, rep houses are somewhat more authentic than many first run houses. The films are more reasonably priced, as are the concessions, and people seem more interested in cinema for cinema’s sake and not as something to do on the weekend (or for a first date). As a result, they’re less likely to talk during screenings or even text. And while you may not get the best possible print by the time it gets to the rep house and because there are actual human beings doing the projecting (instead of the machines as is the case at most first-run cinemas), glitches can and do happen. But they also happen in first run. I’ve had the disconcerting experience of sitting through movies at the Varsity theatre in Toronto where they suddenly shut down for a minute or two because the machines showing the film thought it was over. Human errors, though, are also part of the rep house experience. (I still can’t quite get used to the fact that Toronto is big enough that a movie can play at the Bloor and still be in first run a few subway stops away. In Montreal, by contrast, if the film was still in first run, the reps could never show it even if they’d booked a movie for a full week.) This musing about the reps is also my segue into reviews of three recent releases, Of Gods and Men and The Lincoln Lawyer, which were seen at the Bloor, and Certified Copy, which I caught at the Revue.

A scene from Of Gods and Men
Of Gods and Men: Xavier Beauvois’s fact-based drama, is an emotionally devastating account of what happens when, in 1996, a long established French Trappist monastery in rural Algeria becomes embroiled in the battle between a ruthless authoritarian government and encroaching Islamic fundamentalists/terrorists. Caught, as they say, between a rock and a hard place, the monks, led by their iron-willed leader Christian (Lambert Wilson), must decide whether they should abandon their home, where many have lived for decades, in the face of the possible threat, or stay put and possibly die for their beliefs. Oddly, the movie's French title Des hommes et des dieux actually translates as Of Men and of Gods; I can't help but wonder if there was a fear on the part of the distributor that American audiences would be offended if man came before God in the title.

Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines plot, nothing in Of Gods and Men, which comes out on DVD on July 5, is excessive or melodramatic. It does function somewhat as (a low level) thriller as you become gripped by the possible dire fate of these elderly men, but its impact is mostly as a powerful, contemplative and deeply thoughtful meditation on the meaning of faith. We’re not used to religion being treated with such respect in the movies – its depiction is almost non-existent in American cinema – but France, that most secular (and intellectual) of nations, has a long tradition of dealing with the subject in an intelligent manner going back to Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and including Robert Bresson’s Journal d'un curé de campagne/Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse/The Nun (1966) and later his two Joan of Arc movies, Joan the Maid/Jeanne la pucelle (1994) and Maurice Pialat’s Sous le soleil de Satan/Under the Sun of Satan (1987), weighty movies all. But I don’t think any of them were as matter of fact, unadorned and decidedly non-cynical as Of Gods and Men.  

Michel Lonsdale in Of Gods and Men
Beauvois spends much time just immersing us in how the monks live. Theirs is a willingly chosen Spartan existence: with simple food, rudimentary lodging and regular prayer. One quickly gets a sense of how these men, most in their sixties and seventies, have forsaken secular life and its myriad temptations for an existence that is devoted solely to God and good deeds. But they’re not ascetics, either. They participate, willingly and joyfully, in their Muslim neighbors’ celebrations and, sometimes, as with Luc (Michel Lonsdale), who also attends to the village’s medical needs, give them some advice on their love lives, which in this case, revolves around arranged marriages. They also know, as Christian reveals in a pivotal scene in the film, much about Islam, a respectful riposte to the French colonials before them who never bothered learning about their subject’s religion. And the villagers, though devout, are not fanatics and react with horror when word arrives that a young girl has been stabbed to death because she was not wearing the hijab. Of Gods and Men is a timely reminder that the chief victims of fundamentalist regimes are those of the same faith who are either non-religious or religious but tolerant of others who are not. Incidentally, the film placed second to Best Picture winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul's ridiculous Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives at the Cannes film festival in 2010, which is baffling as the two are so qualitatively different.

From its superb performances to its matter-of-fact realistic dialogue, written by Beauvois with Etienne Comer – when a monk actually tells one of his fellows to fuck off, it’s a shocking breach of the men’s traditional etiquette – Of Gods and Men nimbly and subtly draws you into its unique world, which most of us know little about. (Beauvois, who is a talent to watch, also directed the excellent and gritty Le petit lieutenant/The Young Lieutenant (2005) which starred Nathalie Baye as an alcoholic cop doing her job on the mean streets of Paris; it’s the profane counterpart to Of Gods and Men’s sacred nature.) Beautifully shot by Caroline Champetier, the heartbreaking Of Gods And Men will haunt you. Like John Boorman’s Myanmar-set Beyond Rangoon (1995), which contained a disturbing scene where normally pacifist monks used violence in self-defense, the answers it offers, regarding what courage, duty and sacrifice really mean when the chips are down, are not easy ones. Sometimes, however, those painful questions must be asked. Of Gods and Men asks them in a special, impactful and unforgettable way.

Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer
The Lincoln Lawyer: Miles removed from the philosophical concerns of Of Gods and Men, The Lincoln Lawyer is that rare Hollywood creature, an entertaining, witty and likable film, with a surprising, perhaps career-best performance from the usually dull Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill, Tropic Thunder). He stars as Mickey Haller, a disreputable L.A. lawyer who develops a conscience when he learns that one of his clients who he actually advised to plead guilty and thus helped send to jail, may, in fact, be innocent. That may sound clichéd, but the film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly and scripted by John Romano, avoids the pitfalls that often accrue to mystery/lawyer films. Haller doesn’t completely abandon his shady ways – he’s happy to continue ripping off those clients he doesn't particularly like and maintains his working relationship with a drug dealing motorcycle gang, who pay him well to get their gang members off the hook when they screw up and get caught by the cops. He also crosses swords with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei), a prosecuting lawyer who often opposes him in court. But unlike most cinematic set-ups of this sort, these exes actually like each other and bond in taking good care of their young daughter. Even the plot gimmick that Haller works out of a moving Lincoln town car, instead of an office, works to good effect. Ostensibly the car was punishment when Haller lost his wheels after a DUI, but he likes it well enough to continue using it, utilizing ex–con turned loyal chauffer Earl (Laurence Mason) as an assistant. Joking his way through the film, but displaying plenty of smarts and heart, McConaughey’s complex, troubled Haller is a welcome, colourful addition to the pantheon of movie counselors.

McConaughey is ably abetted by some very talented character actors in support, including the always reliable William H. Macy as his chief investigator, John Leguizamo as one of his courtroom contacts and Frances Fisher as a society matron. Even Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions, Crash) is fine, playing a snotty, spoiled, rich kid accused of a vicious rape; the callow character fits Phillippe’s superficial screen persona to a T. Granted, the breakneck, overly showy direction by Brad Furman betrays a bit of interior trashiness – at heart The Lincoln Layer, which will be released on DVD on July 12, isn’t really interested in getting at the nuts and bolts of a miscarriage of justice – but the film is always good fun. 

Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy
Certified Copy: If Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), with each movie, moves further and further away from the promise he showed in his early career, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has pretty much squandered any good will he garnered when he directed the ‘Koker’ trilogy in the late 80s and early 90s. Those three films, Where is the Friend’s Home?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in the same Iranian village, were earnest but very sincere and moving rural dramas, adeptly directed by Kiarostami. However, as his later films –Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us – became more ambitious, upping the ante by tackling such heavy themes as gender relations, technological progress and suicide, they also became less compelling, mainly because his previously understated style, perfectly suited to quiet, subdued rural situations, fell short when dealing with emotionally messy, complicated scenarios. His increasingly stilted dialogue and paucity of plot and motion scuttled whatever emotional reactions his movies were hoping to evoke. Certified Copy, his latest film, is simply atrocious and irritating in a 'let’s get the hell out of this theatre' way. (The film did win its star, French actress Juliette Binoche, the Best Actress award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, not that that means anything.) Kiarostami belly-flops by trying to essay, of all things, a romantic comedy/drama. He’s never been Mr. Chuckles – I don’t think anyone has ever cracked a smile in any of his movies – but Certified Copy is so painfully unfunny that it’s embarrassing. 

Set in gorgeous Tuscany, Certified Copy may have something to do with copies, fakes and whether artificial objects, flowers, jewels, etc, may have just as much value as the real McCoy since they’re less trouble to maintain and can look just as good as the genuine article. I say may because this film has one of those murky screenplays, so beloved of cineastes worldwide, that just delights in withholding information and letting the viewer decide what’s real and what’s not. That cinematic ambiguity doesn’t always make for bad movies – in some cases like Francis Coppola's The Conversation, it actually makes for great ones – but for that particular approach to succeed it needs to be anchored in a substantive story. That’s exactly what's missing in action here as the film simply sets up Binoche as an antiques shop owner (no fakes in her store) and British opera singer (but with no range as thespian)William Shimell as a visiting art historian, who may or not have a relationship with Binoche. They pretend to be (or actually are) meeting for the first time, take a trip, are mistaken for a married couple or may really be one and then play out a scenario where after 15 years of (imagined?) marriage, they’ve drifted apart from each other.

If they don’t know each other at all, then the film makes no sense whatsoever; if theirs is an elaborate role playing game, it’s a banal, trite one. Either way, one comes away unmoved – though I’d be lying if I didn’t hear some laughter in the cinema – or more likely, annoyed. (Binoche tries very hard to create something substantive out of her underwritten role, but there’s only so much anyone, even the finest actor, can do with such a minimal part to interpret.) Certainly, the movie, plot-points notwithstanding, feels utterly false, right from its opening scene as the art historian delivers a rambling speech about his latest opus before meeting with Binoche's character and setting the plot in motion. The pair don't even speak like real people do; plus their interactions with other seem like obvious set-ups where their revelations are less than revelatory. Yet, like all of Kiarosatmi’s films, the reviews of it were rapturous. That doesn’t surprise me, but it shouldn’t fool anyone else. (Tellingly, there was a difference of 20 points – 83% to 63%- between critics’ approval and the audience’s approval of the film.) Certified Copy only apes real movies. I’d deny it a certificate of authenticity. 

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

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