Letters to Father Jacob

In the original Finnish it was called Postia pappi Jaakobille and was intended as a made for TV movie. But, luckily, this seventy-four minute masterpiece was released as a movie. The deft cinematography draws you in and the acting of the two principals (Kaarina Hazard as Leila and Heikki Nousiainen as Father Jacob) keeps you riveted to the screen.
The basic plot surrounds the newly pardoned criminal Leila coming to work with the blind Father Jacob as an assistant. But there are layers of meaning in every amazing shot and moment of dialogue. The story is succinct but full of subtlety. The clash of faith with modernity, in particular, was skillfully played with.
I had to watch the film for a second time immediately just to satisfy myself that I had grasped everything.
Klaus Härö is the young director and wrote the screenplay using an original work by Jaana Makkonen. It’s official: I’m now a fan.
Very highly recommended to an older audience with an open mind.

Next Stop Wonderland

This 1998 movie from Director Brad Anderson was a surprise. It is a fresh, Woody-Allenesque drama (but set in Boston) that had me laughing and interested the entire 104 minutes.  In fact, my wife and I enjoyed it so much we watched it twice this week. And we’ve talked about buying a copy for our collection.

It’s about a young nurse (Hope Davis) who is dumped by a radical activist (played by a young Philip Seymour Hoffman). Her mother (the very funny Holland Taylor) places an ad in the Personals for her and hilarity ensues while she keeps just missing a young plumber-turned-Marine-Biologist (Alan Gelfant).

A very enjoyable flick for the whole family.

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols 2011 movie Take Shelter is different. Not what I was expecting at all and yet it kept drawing me back while my wife watched it. I kept trying to go back to my writing but I ended up watching the whole thing. There are the obvious themes of coping with mental illness and the responsibility of supporting and protecting a young family but I saw more here. Nichols deftly investigates the lines between prophecy and madness. What is the distinction? In this case they ride on whether the apocalypse happens or not.

And there is some great acting here. Especially from Michael ShannonJessica Chastain and Shea Whigham. Even the child actress, Tova Stewart, was believable.

A subtle but interesting film that will leave you thinking. If that’s your cup of tea then I recommend it highly.

The Bird Can’t Fly

The Bird Can’t Fly (2007) is, at first, a strange movie to absorb. So much is unexplained and you wonder if the steep learning curve is worth it. I’m writing this to say, emphatically, YES.
This is the first directing effort of Threes Anna (she also co-wrote it) from the Netherlands and I look forward to her next film Silent City and all future endeavours.
When you let this film in, it begins to haunt. You have to see it again almost immediately because there is so much you missed. I don’t want to explain too much of the plot since experiencing it for yourself is so crucial, so I’ll give some impressions.
First, the beautiful acting. Every member of the cast, even the children, are fabulous. Barbara Hershey superbly plays Melody who appears so serene and controlled, almost inhumanly so, at the opening of the movie but changes so dramatically by the end. Yusuf Davids (Melody’s grandson River) is riveting. When he’s on the screen (especially in his ‘Lord of the Flies’ element) you have to watch him. All the characters are unique from all the strong women which fill this movie to the skill of Tony Kgoroge (Scoop) and John Kani (Stone) who are the adult men.
Fairlands, South Africa, is the setting of most of the film. This was a diamond mining town which is being progressively buried by desert. The resort hotel, where Melody once worked, has only it’s roof and sign still exposed. The people still living there exist in huts that are drab at first but become more colourful as we learn more about the people who live in them. A truth most travellers learn.
One of the most beautiful transitions that I missed the first time (but Karen spotted right away) was the little girl’s doll. I’m not sure who the actor is (perhaps Amanda Dilma?) but what an amazing performance from such a young and beautiful girl. River demands rope of his feral band of conspiratorial children and this girl, whose seeming only possession is a doll, pulls it’s hair out and braids it. Then she replaces the hair with ostrich feathers. Doll with hair, Doll with no hair, Doll with feathers. It’s easy to miss but… wow, it’s a gorgeous symbol for the loss and then rejuvenation that we’re witness to here!
Very highly recommended. An important movie for anyone sensitive.

Eat Pray Love

I haven’t read the book, I’ve only seen the movie, but if it is anything like this waste of DVD plastic then I don’t want to. Ever.
It was such a disappointment to see the quest of this incredibly selfish woman to ‘find’ herself. I expected something deep but Liz Gilbert (the main character played by Julia Roberts) could have saved all the cost and effort with the following simple forumula:

  1. order in a good pizza and eat it
  2. say the following mantra: “Hallelugah I’m me!”
  3. kiss the shallow person in the mirror

Or just read a good book. I can’t believe this was so popular. Who’d be taken in by this sham?
At one point she is imagining a conversation with her former husband who still loves her. She tells him ‘So Love Me’. Wow! That’s empathy for the ages alright.
Definitely not recommended.

Defendor

First-time Director, Peter Stebbings, brings us an homage to the Superhero genre done realistically with Defendor (2009). And yes the long “o” is important. I was surprised when I saw this as I was expecting a spoof and for Woody Harrelson to play it camp. Isn’t this billed as a comedy? But this is a serious film with a compelling and interesting story, more surprising still since Stebbings wrote it too. And Woody shows that he can manage and excel a difficult acting role once again. The setting is ‘some declining American inner city’ which is played amazingly by Hamilton, Ontario. If you haven’t seen it and want to watch this gem spoiler-free, and I recommend that, do not read on.

Arthur Poppington is a borderline retarded man who invents a superhero persona to avenge his mother’s death by drug pushers and Captain Industry. But we don’t really know any of that for sure at the beginning. Stebbings, through a series of flashback done very well and with sensitivity, carries the audience into Defendor’s worldview. I went through several changes in my impression of the hero, each prejudiced, on the way and exited better for it. I kept turning to Justin and Karen, who were drawn eventually into watching from the kitchen, and saying with what must have been surprise “this is a really good film”. In the end, everyone who gets to know Defendor or Arthur, is convinced he’s a hero. Even the bad guys are forced to take “the retard” seriously.
The acting is superb without being overdone. Woody is fantastic as is his co-star Kat Dennings who convincingly plays Katerina Debrofkowitz, a young junkie whore. Her rehabilitation by Arthur, who she has manipulated into a situation way beyond his depth, is a remarkable thing. Arthur’s friend Paul is also multilayered and played very well by Michael Kelly. A hard-boiled construction foreman who, I convinced myself, was Arthur’s brother turned out to have his own reasons for being true to his friend. Sandra Oh plays a court appointed psychologist very well. She is yet another character who is lifted from the role you’d expect into something unexpected. Even the nasty undercover cop gone wrong portrayed by Elias Koteas with depth.
There are parts of the story line I was unsatisfied with and I will watch it again to see if I missed something. How the second undercover cop was found out, for example. It could, I suppose, be Paul’s fault for saying too much to the reporter… there I go again. Shows what an exceptionally crafted script can do.
Peter Stebbings talks about how his fascination for street people led to this story in the special features on the DVD. Kudos go to him for really capturing inner city life and showing a bit of how people can get there.
So. To answer my question at the beginning. This film isn’t a comedy in the normal sense. Not to me, at least. It does have comedic elements, especially in the child-like (but effective) ways Defendor invents to fight crime and in the ‘superhero’ addons but this is drama. Real inner city drama. What could be more poignant than a mentally challenged individual doing our fighting for us? I very highly recommend this film. It deserves to be bought and shown to kids old enough to handle a little adult content.

Reel Injun

The opening gala for the Guelph Festival of Moving Media this past Friday featured Neil Diamond‘s Reel Injun. That’s not the singer but the Director from Waskaganish on James Bay in northern Quebec. This 2009 documentary was both interesting and honest as it portrayed the history of Native People in the movies from the very early beginnings of the industry to today. A film like this could easily descend into an angry narrative about how terrible our natives have been treated as the guest facilitator did following the screening, but the documentary doesn’t fall into that trap. There is humour and hope here without candy coating the sad truth. And by the end of the film I have some hope of progress in coming to terms with and healing what was, after all, genocide.
One part that shocked me into realization showed John Wayne desecrating a native grave by shooting the corpse’s eyes to prevent him from seeing in the afterlife. Now I had enjoyed westerns as a kid: these were, in essence, films about the triumph of good over evil, right? Well, I am happy to say, my perspective is different now. This documentary puts those westerns from the 30’s in context. The American people wanted simple escape from the economic realities surrounding them and, I think, from the burden of their warped history. At one point in the film we experience this, particularly poignantly, when a classroom of young natives are shown a Cowboys and Indians movie typical of the time. The cinematographer focuses on their faces and it is so easy to see the damage cause by these historically inaccurate fantasies.
Wow!
But the portrayal of our native peoples in film changed many times. There’s Billy Jack who fights back and in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) you see Chief Dan George as the wise old man and comic relief. We see the noble savage shown out of all proportion.
The director shows, very clearly and with an admirable balance, that few films actually show native people accurately. Like headbands being shown on all Plains Indians who didn’t wear headbands. Why? Because the non-native actors needed a way to keep their long wigs from falling off. Only when native film makers have been allowed to tell their own stories do we see something real like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).
For those who want more check out this interview of Mr. Diamond by the CBC.
A very highly recommended film.