Archive for December, 2014

Song of the Sea Film Review

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

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Song of the Sea is the cutest movie I have seen in a long time. The cute seal designs alone are worth the price of admission and runtime.

This is a gorgeously animated film, both in terms of visual style and production values. The art had this textured feel that reminded me of the art design of Japanese animation studio Gonzo’s series from 2004, Gankutsuou.

The rounded, abstracted, shimmering, and high-contrast art style suited the plot’s whimsical and ethereal nature. Magic realism is not the right word to use, but it is the word that comes to mind at the moment when I think about the story. The revelation of the existence of fairies, mythical creatures, and legendary beings are not treated with much skepticism or surprise. The world is assumed to be filled with mystery beyond human understanding, mystery to be accepted, respected, and revered by us humble humans. It is a kind of story that I cannot imagine being told in anything other than a 2d animation medium. Sure, one could attempt with CGI, but with the reduced abstraction that three dimension polygons bring, I feel that some of the sense of mystery, unknowableness, and ethereality would be lost. Anyway, that is my pseudotheory — that 2d animation more suitable for fantastic stories because us having to engage our imagination more to fill in data reduces our threshold for suspension of disbelief. What may seem otherworldly and fantastic in a 2d rendering could seem creepy, ridiculous, and alien in live action or CGI.

A gateway to the unknowable mysteries of life and the universe, a celebration of the joie de vivre that merits the sadness we experience. This is what an all-ages film should be.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) Film Review

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

 

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‘Triumph’ and ‘understatedness.’ They are two unlikely verbal bedfellows. It is sensibly rare and uncanny that a film evokes both (I am less familiar with other mediums, so if this is a common thing elsewhere, do let me know.), so when one does, it is a fine piece by my books.

In the closing shot of Deux Jours, Une Nuit, directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) walks away from the camera on a nondescript, if well maintained road. It is an unceremonious final shot, especially when compared with that of Tangerines, which I saw last week. No swelling music, soaring camera on a jib or helicopter. The last expression we see from Sandra is a delicate smile. It is certainly not a “happily ever after” ending — and Marion Cotillard does not play it as such. Her smile is not so wide as to show any teeth. She looks downward, figure looking encumbered by the bag she is carrying at her side. Nonetheless, it is made triumphant in comparison to the struggle and glumness displayed through the preceding runtime. Marion Cotillard’s face gives the film an uplifting ending without testing believability. Cinema, at its best — some finality for a particular chapter; life continues.

As suggested above, the film follows a character named Sandra who has been on leave from a job at a solar panel foundry because of depression. Her specific job is never mentioned, but with the talk of welding and fabrication, it is implied that she has a blue collar manufacturing job susceptible to economic and managerial pressure. That her specific position is never mentioned further sets her up as a representation of the modern, replaceable worker, a cheap cog in a machine.

At the start of the film, Sandra is notified by a friendly coworker, Juliette, that the employees at her company, Solwal, were forced to choose between allowing her to come back to the company or getting €1000 bonuses, That they voted for the bonuses, in part because of intimidation and prodding from the foreman, Jean-Marc. Sandra obviously reacts grimly to this news. She is still afflicted by symptoms of depression and does not appear to be ready to go back to work, but her family needs her salary and she has told her colleagues that she is ready to return. Juliette and Sandra’s husband, Manu, convinces Sandra to meet with the Solwal CEO, who decides to allow another vote because of the foreman’s tampering. Through the rest of the film, Sandra tracks down her colleagues over the course of a weekend to lobby them to vote to keep her in the coming Monday vote.

The scripting of this film was impeccable, not insulting to the cognitive faculties of its characters or the audience. It is biased toward Sandra’s cause, but is not a polemic on the evil and selfishness of all humans. Counterarguments are not shunned — Sandra frequently falters in her unconfident pitching and pleading, and members of the pro-bonus camp mostly justify their positions with simple, reasonable, and relatable defenses that are painful to argue against. (As is the case with reality though, some people are not reasonable though and some justifications sound better than others.) The writing anticipates concerns the audience may come up with by having characters cover a few angles in articulating their reluctance and unwillingness to vote to keep Sandra. Demonstrating a confluence of good direction, writing, and acting, many of the Solwal colleagues manage to exude contradiction, hypocrisy, and multifacetedness despite only getting minutes of screen time. There are not many outright caricatures.

Rather than lamenting human self-interest, the film is more an indictment against managers, executives, people in power, who force contrived and artificial decisions onto their constituents, employees, serfs. The CEO and foreman characters are the closest the film gets to caricatures and straw men. More than once, Sandra is accused of being an instigator and divider, but with his passive absence and the repeated highlighting of the false dichotomy set up by the vote, the filmmakers implicate the CEO as the wrongdoer. The notion of false dichotomies perpetuated by those in power reminded me all too much about the fractious political debates being waged in the United States and Europe.

The realistic, informed manner in which depression was portrayed was another standout aspect of this film. Sandra’s condition was consistently inconsistent throughout the film, swinging between anxious sobbing and despondent catatonia. I feel that many works of cinema do not acknowledge the inconsistent and lingering nature of mental illness. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, whose calling card was all about its portrayal of mental illness, I recall the characters played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (forgot their characters’ names) ostensibly being symptom free past a certain point in the film. They behaved steadily and regularly through their scenes, permanently improving after clearing checkpoints in their character development with little in the way of lapses or erraticness. This is not the case in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, where Sandra was prone to lapses and impulses, her momentum easily deflated by awry remarks from her colleagues. Capably transitioning from stupor to euphoria to anxiety and then back again in single scenes, Cotillard does some admirable physical acting with remarkable postural and facial control. (See Foxcatcher for more recent examples of dedicated and attentive physical acting.)

In regards to technical aspects of the production, I do not have much to say. I was glued to the plot of the film and did not pay too much attention to the editing or cinematography, which indicates competency. I do not remember anything in particular about the editing — Walter Murch and Edward Dmytryk would be proud. In terms of cinematography, the approach was minimal and workmanlike. Natural lighting, handheld photography. No spectacular compositions or how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?! tracking shots. Unlike the case for Tangerines (which again, I still enjoyed — just truthfully a less polished film), I can recall nothing odd and distracting from the camera movement. I do remember that the camera movement moving between character’s faces to capture their expressions as they reacted to dialog was sublimely timed, particularly for the in-car sequences.

“We put up a good fight,” Sandra says in the last shot. Indeed, the film mounts an effective, but not overbearing indictment against those who force false dichotomies onto their toilers and dependents. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is a work of heartfelt and respecting empathy. Up there with Nightcrawler and Force Majeure as one of my favorite films of the year.

Tangerines (Mandariinid) Film Review

Monday, December 8th, 2014

 

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Hats off to the Georgian and Estonian embassies for sponsoring the post-film reception. I exited the theater after the credits had finished rolling to find trays of this Georgian cheesy bread, apparently called khachapuri, arrayed in the lobby of the AFI Silver Spring, along with some other decent Estonian and Georgian hors d’oeuvres. That investment on their part now compels me to think of those two nations as future travel destinations.

Now, onto the film itself —

Tangerines, written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, follows a simple premise. An old Estonian man named Ivo lives in a conflict zone of the Georgian Civil War. One day, a skirmish between Chechen mercenaries fighting for the Russian-supported Abkhazians and Georgians spills over onto his land. Ivo rescues the two sole survivors of the skirmish, Ahmed, a Chechen, and Niko, a Georgian. Both are gravely wounded. Ivo and his tangerine-farming tenant, Margus, decide to nurse both of them back to health under the same roof.

This screening had terrible subtitles. Typos everywhere, bad timing, lazy pasting of dialog from multiple characters on screen at the same time. The untimed pasting can actually spoil the plot, when you have a case like so:

Character walks into a forest, looking for his missing friend.

“Margus, Margus, Margus,” he shouts. “Where are you?”

Suspense builds.

However, the subtitles read:

“Margus!

-Hey!”

minutes before the character finally appears on screen.

I have been spoiled by some of the anime subtitling I used to watch, where I can almost find myself not even aware that there is text on screen, but from watching the DVD extras about subtitling and seeing people try their hand at it in fansubs, it has become apparent to me that good subtitling requires plenty of training and dedication. There are subtleties to the process. One might be faced with questions like, “What words can I cut off to fit the sentence on the screen while still preserving the gist of the translation?” “At what point do I break the text of a longer sentence without interrupting reading flow for the audience?” Even an excellent translation (which is not what one usually gets when distributors seem to pick people of the street in lieu of hiring more expensive professional translators) cannot guarantee a good subtitle experience if the timing is not up to par.

I held my breath for the introductory stretch of the film, not only because of the subtitle quality, but also because of some of the dialog delivered, which was apparently stuff along the lines of, “Nothing good comes from war,” “War is such a waste,” “Why must we kill each other when we are all people?” and the like. Though a single person might, nations and populations tend not to go to war for a single reason alone; I therefore tend to be wary of anti-war aphorisms, despite my considering myself to be a pacifist. I am willing to trust the translation on those lines, because the delivery and staging seemed hackneyed as well. Imagine, two grizzled guys smoking on a porch. One looks up at a night sky, face lit by HMI light beams coming in from an unnatural angle. “War…it kills many innocent civilians.”

On the note of visual technicalities, the cinematography helped to start me off on pessimistic footing. From what I remember, almost everything at the beginning seems to be a tracking shot. I found the tracking to be unmotivated and irritating, especially all too blatant when juxtaposed with the static character blocking that we see a lot of in the introduction.

The film won me over, however, as it moved away from wooden aphorisms into humorous, pastoral territory. The men swear at each other, and then make peace as they cook and share meals. The characters are simple, sane people who do not rehash doubts or go back and forth on their word. They are grateful for help and appreciate of respect. They do not set absurd thresholds that must be cleared before they can trust each other. When excited and anxious, they can be calmed down with appeals to reason and prevented from reacting to threats suicidally. This may sound dramatically glacial and unsuspenseful (perhaps even unrealistic), but I found this to be refreshing. I could be confident that the choices made by the characters would not frustrate me and induce facepalms. The same cannot be said for many other works of fiction where characters are abruptly devolved by writers and complications rehashed.

The short length of the film at 87 minutes works in the characters’ favor, preventing them from growing stale in their simplicity and contradicting themselves. In longer narrative threads, particularly those running through multi-sequel franchises and TV shows, character consistency is, more often than not, an issue.

The climax is representative of the film’s pithy and economic nature. It is an appropriately unspectacular and solidly executed fight scene that accomplishes much over the course of a few short bursts of gunfire. In what I believe to be the film’s most impressive stroke, a character bond is solidified with the toss of an AK. No extraneous dialog needed — the clanking of the AK on the ground is all that is necessary for payoff.

Tangerines will not leave too much to ponder in its aftermath, but it is a satisfying, bittersweet appeal to pacifism and hospitality. Certainly, it was a decent enough film to entreat me to go on a swashbuckling adventure in the Caucauses.