Review: The Custody (2014)

The Custody, original title La Garde, is a film that proves that a straightforward simple premise that opens an avenue to examine characters in the tensest circumstances possible can be highly effective. It’s a low concept that’s high on drama, character studying and features two tremendous performances by Paul Doucet and Antoine L’Écuyer.

The premise is as follows: Luc (Doucet) is frustrated with the restrictions that have been placed on his custody rights. His disobeyed court orders about visitation have lead to restraining orders and the like. Risking jail time he has continued to follow his son and resolves to take him hunting so they can be closer whether Samuel (L’Écuyer) wants to go or not.

In seeing the trailer or reading the synopsis you know certain things are givens. However, the foreboding that’s built in through the edit and the low-angle shots and urban color palette of the early shots really carries the film until there is a shift both in the tone and setting.

However, with the more traditional thriller template somewhat out the window once the backdrop is sylvan there is a fascinating shift, as despite the high stakes circumstances that come to the fore the characters continue to prod one another and seek answers. In certain ways they are still duty-bound as father and son, but the estrangement and conflict continues to influence proceedings. There are no facile resolutions, no epiphanies where unrealistic understanding can be achieved.

With all the givens in place be they character- or narrative-driven there could be a great temptation to expand the world and cutaway, to raise the stakes and detract from the central focus of the narrative: the father/son conflict. This temptation is wisely resisted and the world stays small.

Much of the storytelling in this film is visual and that is appreciated. However, to reach the heights this film does it needs superlative performances. It gets those in spades. Doucet carries himself as a man who is clearly flawed but not cartoonishly evil, a man whose motivations can be clearly understood even if his actions can’t always be condoned. When he fills in those blanks with backstory the film, and his performance just becomes richer.

It’s so unique to find two performances by an actor at such different ages in development as a child performer being released in the same year. When I saw It’s Not Me, I Swear recently I saw that L’Écuyer had tremendous potential. With that film waiting so long to see American distribution I did not realize that I had seen him in a music video before. In this part he’s about four years older than he was when he showed such promise in It’s Not Me, I Swear. That promise is followed through with tremendous alacrity and poise. His presence on film, this one especially, is a forceful one indeed.

I’ve been quite careful to try and preserve much of the surprise in this tale. Rest assured that what you now know of this film is only the very beginning where things set-up. There are changes afoot throughout and it is a tremendously engaging drama that is worth seeking out.

8/10

Review: Bicycling with Molière

It’s interesting, on an ancillary note, to consider the English and French titles of this film. The English title is, of course, the above referenced Bicycling with Molière. The French title is Alceste à bicyclette, which translates literally to Alceste on Bicycle. What this speaks to the relativistic nature that Molière and The Misanthrope has to English-speaking cultures, as opposed to in his native France. In France a mere mention of the name Alceste is already an allusion to Molière, such is his influence in French literature. Here it’s better to merely mention Molière to have a better chance of and audience to know what this film’s driving at based on its title. An analogy would be that if a similar concept would be attempted here a Shakespearean character’s name would be more recognizable such that the Bard’s name need not be in the title.

Yet, even admitting to a bit of cultural myopia on our part this is a film that can connect with audiences regardless of their familiarity with Molière and The Misanthrope in general. Furthermore, you get to see quite a bit of it rehearsed in scenes such that it can definitely intrigue one and whet their appetite for more.

The set-up for the film is that now-famous TV actor Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson) travels to Île de Ré to recruit his friend, now-retired reclusive actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini) to be in a revival of The Misanthrope that he is producing.

Naturally this concept is one that is very conducive to playing with the line that divides theater and film. There isn’t anything very revolutionary done but there are subtle touches. One of which deals with the characters they read and how they mirror Gauthier and Serge in their interactions. While the concept of an alexandrine may be something new to the viewers of this film the way this dramatic/poetic device highlights personality differences between the two not only in their approach to their profession but their overall philosophy. The would-be unprecedented trick of having Serge and Gauthier alternate between Alceste and Philinte it allows even more aspects to be examined and more acting muscle to be flexed organically.

Bicycling with Molière (2013, Strand Releasing)

There is much muscle to be flexed indeed for the actors and both Wilson and Luchini are both fantastic. They have definitive approaches to the roles that have to tackle in reads, but also convey the complexity and humanity of their characters outside the framework of the play. Furthermore, with scenes of Valence’s medical drama on display Wilson shows a third acting style in just one film.

Yet with all that symbiosis and the tackling of a classical work it’s not merely an intellectual exercise. It is billed as a comedy and the humor does translate and comes from the characters and not out of knowledge requisite to follow it. Therefore, there’s a universal commonality that allows the audience comfort, and, should they be interested enough they can look into Molière and his works later.

Due to the fact that it’s the people and not the situations so much that make the film funny, on the flip side because you can understand the characters and they are well-defined the drama makes sense is appealing. This perhaps shows itself best as Francesca (Maya Sansa) is fleshed out. With the presumed performance coming it seems prudent for Gauthier to buy a getaway house. At first Francesca is a brusque, abrasive b-word. Then she opens herself up and connects to each of them on an individual basis and contributes well to the whole.

From the outside Bicycling with Molière may seem like and ivory tower dweller’s delight, but there is an approachability and relatability to the humor that make it a welcome treat for all. The theatrical tricks, TV Drama jokes and the like are just icing on the cake.

8/10

Mini-Review: Heartbeats

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Heartbeats

Director Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort about a love triangle where a young man is the prize for a gay man and his girlfriend is a rumination on unrequited love and love in general.

I can see why this didn’t get the fanfare that his first film, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), did but in it Dolan proves himself to be a flat-out artist. He not only acts in it but directs it with a steady hand. The only things that hold it back is a conceptual/intellectual disconnect with how the material is rendered but there is an absolute certainty to how he does things. The cinematography is brilliant and vibrant throughout; the framing precise, the edit is good. The use of slow-motion is at times inspired and his affinity to source music rivals Tarantino. It’s not the greatest script but it is perhaps the best treatment that script could’ve gotten.

7/10

Mini-Review: Even the Rain

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Even the Rain

This is an interesting tale about a Spanish film about Columbus in the New World being shot in Bolivia during civil unrest regarding price gouging for public water.

The film-within-the-film does fade into the background but there is a fantastic moment of symbiosis. There are some fantastic performances in this film and when the most notable one isn’t by Gael Garcia Bernal you’ve got a pretty good film on your hands.

Political sentiment pervades this film in a way that are not detrimental to enjoying it but rather necessary.

9/10

Review – The Jewish Cardinal

This film tells the dramatized tale of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Lustiger was born to a Jewish family but was kept safe by a gentile family during the second world war. At the age of 14 he felt the calling to convert and was baptized into the Catholic Church.

That’s the backbone of the tale; it’s the hook. It’s what gets you intrigued, however, the film structures itself differently in part because its allowed to. The dual-nature of Lustiger’s identity only really surfaced when he was promoted to the position of Bishop of Orléans. Were this to be an exploitative tale a bulk of the film would be public bickering and fighting back against both sides trying to claim him as their own; what for some films is a whole here is merely a launch-point. Where the film excels is the introspective nature the film has.

Another hurdle this film has to overcome is that it tells a sprawling tale from 1979 to 2007. Covering that much time in roundabout 100 minutes can be problematic, however, there is a wonderful symmetry among the struggles Lustiger has within his own family, with the Church, with himself and in trying to be a liaison between said Church and the Jewish people. That conflict is crystallized as a bulk of the tale ultimately concerns an ill-fated and -conceived establishment of a convent at Auschwitz.

Such a duality wherein a character is balancing his faith an ethnicity is not an easy one to convey. Audiences who appreciate gray areas will certainly gravitate to this film. It reminds me of a bit of The Other Son where the inextricable link of the Jewish faith and ethnicity is made rather profoundly in a different way. Whereas here a man seeks to keep his cultural identity and his “newfound” faith.

A film that paints in such shades of gray would be nowhere without an excelling cast, faltering on their part would render the tale farcical or disrespectful regardless of the best efforts of the writer(s) and director. Thankfully this film has no issues as such. Both clerics that are the central focus of the film are painted as rather human. Firstly, there’s Laurent Lucas as Lustiger, whose introspective yet fiery nature. Then there is Aurélien Recoing as, for the lack of a better term, the antagonist (in some regards), as Pope John Paul II is not painted as infallible, but rather a man whose judgment of a particular situation is clouded by his own world-view. The coming to an understanding that both characters have as they reach a consensus on the crisis is rather moving and sets the stage well for the closing acts.

Those acts are set in motion by the well-timed nature of the flashbacks. For a time it seems like the film is burying the lead not showing or discussing the conversion process and similarly avoiding discussion of the war. Those play in later. It’s a clear illustration of breaking chronology is a better treatment.

To preserve the surprise of it, I will avoid describing the detail the peace that Jean-Marie comes to and the conclusion he reaches regarding his identity at is really only discussed at the most pivotal points of the film. However, it is an intriguing way to look at it.

Clearly, as described above, this is a film that’s not afraid to discuss matter of faith, but also take those discussions into some difficult, challenging places. It’s a story wherein it could be tempting dumb it down and mollycoddle but it does not, quite the opposite it respectfully challenges those watching it to think – proving that faith-based films needn’t be neither propaganda or mindless.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema: In the Fog (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

In the Fog (2012)

In the Fog goes about its narrative in a few ways that are a bit outside the norm. By norm I mean standard three-act formatting and forward-moving chronological narrative. What this film does is persistently but languidly pushes its narrative forward about twenty to thirty minutes at a time then at a necessary crossroads backtracks to fill-in any blanks that may have been left by the previous passage. However, the reason this method works for the most part is that you get a bare minimum of information as you need to be able to follow the plot. What the backtracks do is illuminate the shock, but what had occurred prior is engaging because of the basic drama, and in part some of the disorientation being felt.

Another aspect that makes this structural decision adept is as you follow the tale of this man who has been wrongly accused of collaborating with the Nazis who are occupying Belarus at this time is that the end of his, and the film’s, story are not that difficult to figure out. However, the structuring of the tale is such that impact of most plot points and twists is heightened and made more profound by information you glean after the fact.

Nearly all the drama in this story centers around three soldiers: Sushenya, the accused (Vladimir Svisky), Burov, sent to capture him (Vladislav Abashin) and his partner Voitik (Sergei Kolesov). It is largely thanks to these three performers that you stay as engaged in this tale as you do. Much of the time these three are interacting, either recounting what has occurred or engaging when only stakes and not details are yet understood and its their commitment and clarity that is communicating what the details omit.

Another aspect of this film that is worth noting is that the framing is usually rather loose and withdrawn, leaning toward wide shots that are fairly static. It plays into the more storytelling nature rather than a battle tale. The film is a human tale amidst a war not a war film amidst humanity.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film is the psychological. Both the psychology of the characters that is examined throughout, but also the psychology of the Nazi nemesis in this film, which is very accurately portrayed and seemingly well-adapted from the source material.

The only things that really holds this film back are that slight bit of lag, and the fairly clear endgame in sight. However, those are not the be and all and end all of this film, thus, those facts are not ruinous to this film and it does manage to engage well enough.

7/10

Thankful for World Cinema – The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) (2013)

After seeing The Notebook, I went and reread my post on The Witman Boys in part because it was the other Janos Szas I had seen to date. I started on that task merely to remind myself of it a bit more (as writing can help fill in the blanks that memory decides to leave). However, what I found as I looked it over was a film more similar to The Notebook than I’d remembered.

The parallels do go beyond merely a shot of two brothers with their face in close proximity to one another. And this is also not to be implied as a slight on either film; quite the contrary, it makes for a very fascinating look at the auterism behind both and also the refinement and the increased power that the newer film has.

The films both have inciting incidents wherein the boys are changed by something beyond their control. In The Witman Boys its the loss of their father. In The Notebook the second World War is raging on and the boys’ parents worry for them and want them protected. The Witman Boys has similar brothers each with a designated name whereas The Notebook is about twins whom are never referred to by name and are credited as “One” and “The Other.” This is an important fact because the idea is to make the twins inextricable from one another and also to make them symbolic.

For as One and The Other move away from a metropolitan area (presumably Budapest) to the Hungarian countryside, they come closer to the horrors of the war and have to learn to cope with life during wartime in their own unique way.

This is where the tonality of the film comes into play. Children coping with the ravages of war is not a new topic. It’s how the topic is dealt with that dictates the tonality of the film, and in certain regards the success of it. Much liked Szas’ prior film this is not going to be an uplifting tale.

Prior to the boys being taken to live with their estranged grandmother their father gives them a notebook to write down “everything” in. Twins have a tendency to stick close together regardless, but when placed in such isolation the tendency to stick by one another, at least to start, is redoubled; and gives them even more incentive to live a microcosmic existence wherein they seek to define morality, strength and learn how they can best cope in the tumult about them with no outside assistance.

That then lays the groundwork for the film which is told through entries the notebook. Voice-over allows episodes of the story to be tied together . While the wondrous visuals created by Christian Berger, this time exploiting color in a parable. The images are usually gorgeous regardless, but stark when they have to be and edited together precisely to render the progression (or degeneration if you prefer) of the boys from wide-eyed innocents to hardened survivors, who frighteningly at times still have a childlike understanding of things, and at others have a cold and calculated, all-too adult outlook.

Not that those things ever seem wrong for they work in a proper progressive order and lead to a gutting finale whose impact is hammered home when you fully realize how and why things occur the way they do.

One of the fascinating things about this film is not only does it find a way, for the most part, to remove the narrative from the frontline but it still keeps the war close by. It tells a dark, haunting tale in one of the 20th Centuries worst moments that goes above and beyond simplistic moralizing about a specific conflict but makes a more sweeping point. A point uttered through visuals and actions and not directly through dialogue, such that you’re still engaged in watching a story, a disturbing one, but a story nonetheless.

Tying this back into the auteurist aspect, so as not to leave it abandoned as an introductory ploy: many directors have told tales that parallel one another. Hitchcock himself said that “self-plagiarism is style.” With regards to World War II, Steven Spielberg has been there quite a few times in very different ways (1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). It’s not the fact that a director returns to a common ground that matters, but rather what he does when he gets there. What Janos Szas does here is amplify and refine the sensibilities employed in The Witman Boys to this adaptation, sharpening the impact of the story and making it one that can resonate universally. Whereas the prior film was one that could bring one to Hungarian cinema, here he pushes Hungarian cinema out to the world.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Watchtower (2012)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

Watchtower (2012)

There are films about situations and there are films driven by their characters. There are not as many that find an interesting situation, and the right characters to place in that situation, as Watchtower does. The characters of interest in the film are Seher (Nilay Erdonmez) and Nihat (Olgun Simsek). Each has a rather different job: Nihat has just started working in a watchtower where basically he’s looking to see if anything out of the ordinary is going on in the surrounding mountains and forests in the Turkish countryside; this usually would have to do with the prevention of rampant wildfires. Nihat, meanwhile, is a hostess on a cross-country bus line. In this way their paths do occasionally intersect.

The film builds well dedicating long portions to telling the story of each of these solitary and willfully ostracized people. It soon becomes clear that each has a secret that is a great burden to them. The secrets, and their situations, will inevitably join their narrative strands. We know this.

The unfurling of the stories spins much like water going down a drain; circling ever closer to the truth of the matter. The performances, especially that of Erdonnez, are wonderful.

This film only faces one true stumbling block, and it is one that holds it back from the greatness it seems destined to achieve for much of its running time. The glimpses of the characters and their plights are riveting for how the film slowly unravels what bothers them about their predicament and why they feel they cannot share it. However, the situation they find themselves in together struggles to find a conclusion and eventually, for all intents and purposes, drops the narrative.

I’ve sat with this ending and thought on it for some time. It’s not the kind of, let’s call it an “open” ending for lack of a more suitable term; that elevates the film. Conversely it is not one that undoes a great deal of the good that was accomplished before it. However, it is still a disappointing and unsatisfactory close to the tale.

There reaches a point in a certain kind of narrative where if you move past the plot point you’re on you’ve stopped telling one tale and moved on to another altogether. Therefore, that ending has to feel like a button, and what occurs afterward can be explored in another film or in the mind of the viewer. I think that Inception would actually be a good, recent, widely-viewed example of that (not that these films bare any similarity). The point being that the last image was meant to be the last image in that film. It had to be. Here it felt a bit like settling and that’s highly unfortunate, but not ruinous to the whole.

Watchtower has characters with baggage who are in binds and meet a crossroads. It is interesting to watch them get there, and see how they interact when their paths cross. I just wanted to go on their journey a little longer, and that can’t be all bad, now can it?

7/10

Thankful for World Cinema: Bergman Island

This Criterion collection offering pieces together three Swedish television interviews with internationally renowned writer/director Ingmar Bergman that originally hit their airwaves in 2004. This re-edited version, with cutaways and a feature structure, premiered in 2006.

The interview flows naturally with rarely a question heard. It starts with Bergman recapping his childhood and then goes through his career, spending much time on his early days breaking in, and then the rest of it is told chronologically. Then towards the end we hear his thoughts on life and death.

The discussion on the films is enhanced greatly by cutting in clips from some of his most famous films, or other dialogue to support what he is saying. What you get in this film is a rare look at a filmmaker who didn’t interview much, and this was the last one, but it was also not overly-manipulated. He stops, restarts, stumbles, rubs his eyes in discomfort; the master filmmaker, always in control, is very human here.

You learn quite a bit in this film both about Bergman as a man, and about life in general, but not necessarily anything new on film, which is fine. Like all of Bergman’s tales, this too is personal.

To delve too far into the details divulged in this film would be to do it a disservice. It is the perfect companion piece to your library and a wonderful coda to a life and a career, even more so when you take into consideration the titles at the end of the film. It adds a certainty, sadness, finality and a feeling of bittersweet farewell to the proceedings, and gives you the sense that the director who spent a career and lifetime trying to sort his beliefs was at peace in the end.

For any fan of Bergman or of film, this is a must have it can be purchased either as a single disc edition or as a supplementary bonus feature on the new edition of The Seventh Seal.

10/10

VHS Gems

Here’s another great list idea courtesy of @bobfreelander. Whenever contributing to a popular list I believe that once must always include their slant on it so you understand the selector’s criteria, perspective and so forth.

I do have a horror story of foolishly trusting a VHS-DVD dubber and then tossing the back-ups only to find the DVDs incompatible with any other players, save the one that broke from overuse; despite that VHS is not my favorite format. I’m fine with progress in that regard.

What I’m not fond of is losing access to titles and that’s what format changes have done. Granted, with streaming, DVD, Blu-Ray and movie on demand distribution we’re getting closer, eventually to having most of what is still extant available, completism is all that will satisfy me. Therefore, here are some of my top choices of films I saw on VHS but have not had an official region 1 DVD version (BTW, going multi-region will change your life, and blow your face off your head).

I did pick some titles to try and make them representative of a niche that is likely replete with missing titles and you may see some of these titles pop-up on another similar list soon.

Ghost Town (1988)

This is a film I actually heard of thanks to Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Then, as luck would have it, I found it on sale at the library where all VHS tapes that get donated cost $0.50. Quite a bargain. If you see enough Charles Band movies, and get a taste for them, you’ll find that as a director/producer he’s somewhat in the Roger Corman mold inasmuch as if you sift through enough of his refuse, there’s some good movies to be found, and this is one of them! Western-horror and ghost towns in general have always interested me, and while what’s delivered is not something quite like the box promises it is strong enough to withstand a late second act bout of sloth.

Song of the South (1946)

I’ll save my Song of the South rant for another post. In fact, this selection isn’t really about Song of the South but Disney in general. There are rumors abound that Disney will create its own streaming service. They’ve already put their toes in the water on an international line, and recently into an MOD line. Both of those are very small and release titles infrequently. It’s bad enough the animated classics get vaulted, but for certifiable Disney nuts like myself (and I’m more tame than most) Disney’s squatting on its titles is terribly bothersome and this is at the top of the list.

The Son of the Shark (1993) and Jacqout de Nantes (1991)

I combine these two selections to further illustrate a point, and that’s about foreign-language films in the US. Far too often when formats change, some new home video distributors emerge, others fall by the wayside; and to capitalize on new technology some older titles get overlooked. These two French films couldn’t be more different: the first is a hard, gritty, disturbing look look at juvenile deliquency the second is a delightful, charming warm-hearted portrait of Jacques Demy by his wife Agnes Varda. It is a film she made in memory of him, that features many clips of his films, as well as ho his childhood shaped them and his life.

These films have not made it to DVD or blu-ray in the US.

American Gothic (1988)

I have to be honest and confess that I really can’t recall that much about American Gothic, other than I can differentiate it from the excellent short-lived TV show of the same name. However, I do recall seeing it as a Blockbuster rental and enjoying it a great deal – it’d be perfect to revisit but I cannot.

The Cellar (1989)

The Cellar represents another interesting aspect of distribution inasmuch I first saw it on cable, I believe at some point during the DVD era, but it has not moved past VHS into further means of being viewed.

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)


I needed an older film here but I also needed one representative of serials, which I do like but don’t get to see enough of. As for Blake of Scotland Yard it’s as good a choice as any. In fact, one of my first posts on this new blog was my consumer outrage at discovering that such a thing as a composite serial, or as I like to call it “Studio Sanctioned Nonsense,” exists. I’ve probably seen it three times through in one for or other and it should be in print.

So those are just 7 films that are on VHS alone as of this writing. If I sat down I could find many more I am sure, but these were the ones that came quickest to my mind and also highlight gaps in distribution patterns that hopefully get picked up.