Oscars 2012 Best Picture Nominee: Amour


Amour is the first foreign language film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 12 years. This film is also the second film by Austrian director Michael Haneke that won the Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Watching it will surprise you how the saying that ‘less is more’ is true here.

The film actually opens with the ending at the very beginning. After the title’s flashed, the film sets up the events leading to its ending. The first event is a crowd of people at a concert hall gathering to watch a classical piano performance. In the crowd is an elderly couple: Anna and Georges. Both Anna and Georges are retired music teachers and the concert they see is of one of their former students. The next day Georges notices Anne catatonic at breakfast. Georges gets her help and she’s found to have had a stroke. She is to have surgery on a blocked carotid artery but the surgery goes wrong leaving her confined to a wheelchair with a paralyzed right side. Anne makes Georges promise her she’ll never go to a hospital or to a nursing home. She doesn’t even want to talk about it in conversation with one of her students.

Both continue life as well as they can but life becomes more difficult for Anne and she loses the desire to live further. A visit from their former student softens the mood but Anne however wants no reminder of her illness in conversation. Anne however suffers another stroke which causes further deterioration to her body. It’s serious to the point her daughter flies in from her home to see her.

Georges keeps his promise to Anne but with great difficulty and a lot of personal strain. He employs two nurses to look after her on separate days only to have one fired for mistreatment. Anne loses the ability to speak coherently to the point she can only shout “Hurt!” repetitively. Georges has to act as the nurse at certain times. There was even one time Georges has to get Anne to drink her water despite her refusal. It’s when Anne is crying in pain and Georges tries to comfort her with a childhood story that leads to the set up for the ending we saw at the beginning.

The film’s biggest asset has to be the truthfulness of the situation. It captures the silent intensities of the moment and the people struggling with it. It tells the story of Anne and her struggle with her illness as it slowly takes everything from her. She hangs onto the one thing the illness can’t take away: her love for her husband. Also this was more than just about Anne dying but the Georges’ relationship to her. His love is being tested too as her illness dehabilitated her and reduced her to a person he can’t recognize. He tries to be the loving husband. He tries to be the force that keeps her wanting to live. He tries to have her wishes followed. His successes don’t come without its difficulties. That has to be the biggest quality of the film. Not just simply telling the story but focusing on the relationship of the two. The relationship is what the story’s all about.

This is another accomplishment by director/writer Michael Haneke. Haneke is one director who has been able to make a big impact in the new century. He started making a name for himself with The Piano Teacher and has since gotten better with each additional film he sends out from Cache (Hidden) to The White Ribbon which won him his first Palme d’Or from Cannes to Amour. As in his previous works, he is successful at capturing the feel of the moment. He captures the tension of the situation and the emotions and relations of those involved. It’s a no-nonsense story-focused picture that Haneke succeeds in bringing out.

Emmanuelle Riva was excellent in her acting. This was a performance that wasn’t just about emotional acting but physical acting too. Her ability to play a stroke victim well was excellent technically. And all this done at the age of 84 makes it all the more admirable. Despite the great performance of Riva, we should not overlook the performance of Jean-Louis Trintignant. His performance as the husband dealing with it all is also excellent and worthy of respect. He too spoke volumes in his performance and also added to the story. The film also makes a great effort in playing out with no musical score in the background. This is common in Haneke’s films not to have a musical score. Having this film without a score adds to the intensity of the situation and adds to the focus of the relationship of the two.

You remember I talked about film eligibility in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards in my review of Rebelle. This adds more question to the discussion. Amour is a film representing Austria: the country of nationality of director Michael Haneke. Yet it is situated in France and completely consisting of French dialogue. The reason why I’m bring these facts up during these two foreign film nominees is that it does have me wondering what the rules are. I myself take Amour for what it is and am not insisting that Haneke should’ve done it in German. However it does have me wondering about what constitutes a country’s official submission to that category. I was told years ago that an entry of such had to consist of the country’s predominant language or languages. I also was told a multitude of years ago that it had to be set in the country of origin. All I know is the rules don’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure that Amour would have the same Oscar nomination success without being a country’s official submission for the foreign film category. Nevertheless it does get me thinking.

As of now, Amour is the one film with the least release of all the Best Picture nominees. Normally it’s common for films that make for the top contestants for the Best Foreign Language Film to wait until after the Academy Awards for a wider release rather than after the nominations. Amour is doing just that with a very limited release despite its nomination for Best Picture. This weekend saw the film playing at 64 screens across North America: 28 more than the previous weekend. The total gross has just surpassed $1.8 million. Could it be possible it too is waiting until after the Oscars for a wider release?

Amour is possibly the most no-nonsense of all the Best Picture nominees. Michael Haneke knows how to tell a story well and not only does he do it again but he delivers one of the best films of the year. Worth seeing if you have the chance.

Movie Review: War Witch (Rebelle)


This is the third year in a row a film representing Canada has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The film’s title is Rebelle (English title: War Witch) and it’s a surprisingly good film.

The film is set in Southern Africa: possibly the Congo. Komona is a young pregnant girl at fourteen telling her life story to her unborn baby. It all starts at 12 where she is captured by the rebel army and ordered to become a child soldier. The first order she’s given is to kill her parents. Since then she’s now the war lord’s. She’s constantly on the battlefront with the rebel squad’s killing missions. Her killing prowess wins her praise from the rebel leader Commandant-Rebelle and he even names her ‘War Witch’. However she’s haunted by the ghosts of those she killed. Including her parents.

At 13, she meets Magicien: a boy with albinism who will change her life forever. The two fall in love and agree to escape. Magicien wants to marry her but she insists on the promise she made to her uncle; if a man is to marry her, he must give her a white rooster. It almost appears to be an impossible task until Magicien comes across a community of people with albinism. There he finds a man willing to give him a white rooster. There’s just one catch. The rooster has to be let free and he has to catch it. Magicien accepts the challenge with the villagers watching. After a lengthy try, he does catch it. Komoma is his.

Soon the solitude and hope for a better future is under threat. She still has images of the ghosts of her parents. And the warlords capture Magicien and Komona. They order her to kill Magicien but she can’t bring herself to do so. Magicien is then killed by the war lords and she is kept captive. She knows she would have to kill her way out. She succeeds so just after the ‘rape trap’ she created works on the soldier who almost raped her. She escapes after killing him to the help of her uncle and aunt. It’s after the birth of her child she has to find a way to make peace with the past and rid herself of her parents’ ghosts for herself and her child.

A common theme shown in films and movies is seeing the images of beauty and hope in the midst of ugliness. This film features a modern ugliness in the world: child soldiers in African countries participating in fighting. It may be a civil war or a rebel mission but it’s ugly. Many like Komona are ordered to kill their parents and are a permanent part of the army. It’s a childhood stolen. Even some of the girl soldiers end up being victims of rape amongst the leaders. This film does show the ugliness that Komona experiences but it also shows moments of hope that she can break free from her captivity. We see it in her romance with Magicien. It’s a unique moment when two children ordered to be killers drop their guns and fall in love. We see it in the birth of her baby. We see it in the end as she’s on a truck full of people cradling her baby. Moments of beauty in the ugliest of time is the film’s biggest quality. We see it and feel it.

Another accomplishment of the film is its ability to make what’s normally unwatchable watchable. No one wants to see a child soldier who’s forced to kill her won parents. No one wants to see a child being raped, even though the actual act of intercourse is hidden. Nobody wants to see a young girl giving birth in the middle of nowhere. It’s realities but the type of realities that we don’t want to know about. What redeems it is the images of hope I just talked about. It’s those qualities in the movie that makes a movie full of unwatchable realities be watchable.

The direction and writing of Kim Nguyen is the best quality of the film. Born of a Vietnamese father and a Quebecois mother, this is only his fourth feature film but this looks to be the one he’s able to make a name for himself. This film shows all the right moments and presents the story excellently to the point that the images of the ghosts are seen as an important part of the film instead of something ridiculous. Also good is the acting of actress Rachel Mwanza. Interestingly is that she herself was abandoned by her parts and was a street child in the Congo. She did an excellent acting job here with no phoniness. The acting of Alain Lino Mic El Bastien and Serge Kanyinda was also very good. The inclusion of both a score and African folk music also added to the atmosphere of the film.

Rebelle has already generated a lot of buzz outside of its Oscar nomination. It was in competition for the Golden Bear award at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and Rachel Mwanza won a Silver Bear for her acting performance as well as a Best Actress award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Other accolades it has received are Best Film from the Cambridge Film Festival, ranked in the Top 5 foreign language films for the National Board of Review awards and nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards; Canada’s own Oscars formerly known as the Genies.

Seeing how a movie situated in Africa makes for some interesting discussion how it can become an official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for Canada. It is because director Kim Nguyen is from Quebec. If you have seen the film, you’d notice that none of it is situated in Canada nor is there any mention of Canada in the screenplay. There’s some dialogue in French with the rest being in Lingala but that’s it. The Best Foreign Language Film category is a category that is always under frequent debate. First there’s the imposed limit of one film for every country submitting an entry into that category. Then there’s the language question. I guess it will continue to be a topic of discussion over the years.

Rebelle is an excellent story of finding hope and the survival of the human spirit in one of the darkest situations in the world around right now. Its story of love and hope is its best quality and makes it all that more memorable.

VIFF 2012 Review: Rust And Bone (De Rouille et D’os)

Rust And Bone is a French film that’s not your typical artsy type of movie you’d associate with the term ‘French film’. Instead it’s an offbeat romance between two unlikely people. It has to be the year’s most unlikely romance story.

Ali is a Belgian man who’s had it rough. A young father of a five year-old boy names Sam, he’s dirt poor and often looks for food or steals it. He dreams of being a mixed martial arts fighter but has to earn a living as a security guard or bouncer and make whatever extra money he can from outdoor fringe fighting. He travels with Sam to Antibes, France living with his sister in hopes of a better life.

Stephanie is a killer whale trainer at the French resort town. She appears to have things better for her as her job is more stable and pays well but something is missing in her life. The fact that she goes to night clubs scantily dressed shows she’s missing something.

Ali and Stephanie first meet by accident. A brawl starts at the night club Ali is a bouncer at and Stephanie is hurt with a bloody nose. Ali offers to take her home and look after her for a short while. They trade phone numbers but they soon return to their regular lives. The next day Stephanie returns to her job at the oceanarium. The show seems business as usual until one of the orcas flies in and smashes the wooden office leaving Stephanie injured and bleeding. The wounds were so bad, both her legs were amputated.

Ali had all but ignored Stephanie until he received a call from her. They spend time together including times when he takes her swimming at the beach. During the time, she learns to get her self-confidence back. She’s able to swim, to stand and walk with prosthetics and even return to her job at the oceanarium.

Even though Ali helped her through it all, he is the one struggling. He has problems financially and still does his fighting outside. He has difficulties juggling his security work with his fighting. Sometimes he spends less time around Sam than he should. He constantly spends time with Stephanie and even has sex with her but still engages with women frequently even in front of Stephanie.

There would eventually have to be some message to send him to turn his life around but nothing does. Stephanie is tired of spending all this time with Ali despite his unwillingness to have a relationship. During his work as a security guard, he discovers people stealing from the store his sister works at. One of them is his sister and she gets fired. The sister throws him out of the house and it’s just up for him and Sam all alone. Things don’t change for him until a near-tragedy happens. It leads to changes for both but an ending that ended rather flat.

It’s hard to pinpoint what the actual theme of the movie is. If I could determine a theme, it would be about love turning your life around. I think the most unique thing about this film is that it makes a very good effort in creating a romance in the most unlikely of circumstances. A romance between a woman who just lost her legs and a man who is pursuing bloodsports doesn’t come across as your typical romance fair but the film was successful in achieving it. Part of it had to do with the screenplay co-written by director Jacques Audiard with Thomas Bidegain and in directing. It was most well-written to present a very real situation and real sets of events. Also part of the success of it was the acting from Marion Cotillard. She has one of her best acting performances in years. Her ability to act out the part very well and give depth to her character also adds to the film. Matthias Schoenarts didn’t give as stellar a performance as Ali but he did a good job for himself. Also a standout effort is the score from Alexandre Desplat. He keeps on churning out scores that fit movies well and he does it here again. Another standout effort of the film is the use of Katy Parry’s song Firework. The song is first used as part of the orca show but later becomes Stephanie’s personal anthem of self-recovery. Stephanie’s a firework.

Rust And Bone has already received good acclaim at film festivals. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival. It also won the Golden Swan for Best Film at the Cabourg Romantic Film Festival. It has made the circuit for many Canadian film festivals including Toronto. It’s expected to be released in North American theatres on Novermber 23rd in limited release.

Rust And Bone is not your typical romantic movie but it’s a very deep story about people with deep emotions that were meant to be together. Despite its imperfections and lack of spectacle, it’s still worth seeing. You’d be surprised how good it is.

Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar

If a Canadian movie has a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, do you think I’m going to go see it? Of course I’m going to go see it. For the second year in a row and for the sixth time ever, a Canadian film was nominated for an Oscar in that category. This year’s nominee is titled Monsieur Lazhar.

The film starts with what is to be a typical day at a Catholic elementary school. A boy named Simon is getting the milk for the day. As he walks into his classroom alone, he discovers his teacher Martine hanging. This is very hard for the students and the school. One of the difficulties is finding a new teacher for the students of the deceased teacher’s class. In walks Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant. They are hesitant at first but they agree to hire him.

Known to few is that Bachir’s immigration status is in question by the courts. A package he receives comes into question. The immigration court asks him why he won’t return since ‘Algeria is back to normal’ but he replies “Nothing is ever really normal in Algeria.” The interrogations eventually get frustrating to the point Bachir admits of the fire in Algiers that killed his wife and children back in the 90’s. That fire was no accident.

The class tries to move on as usual. For some students, it goes fine. For others like Simon and Alice, who witnessed their teacher hanging, it’s difficult and painful. Alice is more vocal about her difficulties. She makes a speech in class about violence and how the hanging has an effect. She also has a softer side and develops a liking for Monsieur Lazhar, even learning about his home city of Algiers. Simon is more reserved and difficult. He’s not the same since the hanging and appears like he has something to let out but can’t. He even resorts to fights with other students. Home life isn’t easy for him because his parents are rarely there. However something has to be done as it’s discovered he has a picture of Martine which he drew angel wings and a noose on.

Dealing with the students is not an easy task to do either. The elementary school is worried about the suicide being brought out into the open. Plus teachers are now under strict limits over what to deal with students’ issue and how to deal with them. The new laws set twenty years ago changed lots to how a teacher can function towards a student. This is hard for Bachir as he wants the students to heal from this trauma. Especially Simon, whom the teachers are considering expelling. We learn shortly before Martine hung herself, Simon was hugged by Martine while he was crying but told his parents she kissed him. The parents came down hard on her.

What happens in the end is one scenario ends on a bright note and another scenario ends on a low note for Bachir. In the end we get a turnaround that’s more valuable than Bachir keeping his job as a teacher. Something that the school board could never give the children.

The role of Monsieur Lazhar was that of a man who would help bring help when it was needed unexpectedly.  Right at the beginning of his teaching he would tell the meaning of his name:  “Lucky” and “Tell the good news,” In the end, he was the lucky one who would give the good news to the children. The students in turn would be the lucky ones as he would help the most troubled of the students heal from the trauma. He would succeed where the school board and the counselor would fail. Even in the end, his impulsive helping of the students would be too much for the school to handle. The ending would show the common belief that no good deed goes unpunished but it’s not without its rewards. Bachir Lazhar would give to the students and he would receive from them as well. His teaching of the students would also help him in terms of his own healing from the loss of his own family.

The best quality of the movie was in its gentle storytelling. We have a situation of a troubled school being taught by a teacher with a troubled past of his own. He faces two pressures of keeping his new-found job, keeping the peace of his classroom since the suicide, maintaining the peace of the school and being able to stay in Canada to avoid persecution back home in Algeria. All of this was told in a gentle manner that would keep the audience intrigued and hoping for the best for Bachir Lazhar and for Simon and Alice. That was its best quality.

The acting overall was excellent and stuck to their parts well without coming across as showy or phony. Mohammed Fellag was excellent playing a teacher with a troubled past thousands of miles away. The children were also good as they played genuine child roles instead of the typical cutesy acting Hollywood normally gives them. Their feelings, traumas and actions were not over-the-top either. The directing and scriptwriting of Phillippe Falardeau was also well-written, although not a standout. Known to few, Monsieur Lazhar is actually an adaptation of a one-man monologue. Falardeau did a very good job in creating and directing a script with a multitude of actors. He did a very smart job in making the story very real.

Intersting how Monsieur Lazhar gives Canadian film a unique achievement. This is the first time Canadian entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category has been nominated for two years in a row. Last year was Incendies. Interestingly two of the three producers of Monsieur Lazhar also produced Incendies. The Oscar nomination isn’t the only acclaim Monsieur Lazhar has received. The film also won the Viewers Choice Award for Best Canadian Film at the Toronto Film Festival, Best Film award at the Valladolid Film Festival and has been nominated for nine Genie Awards, Canada’s national award for filmmaking excellence. Surprisingly, it was not shown at the Vancouver Film Festival. It’s a shame because I would have liked to have seen it if it was out then.

Monsieur Lazhar is a film that starts out on a dark subject but it ends on a bittersweet positive note. The warmth of Monsieur Lazhar reminds us how people can succeed where the system fails. We need more people like Monsieur Lazhar out there.

Movie Review: Of Gods And Men

The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.

This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.

The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men. 

 The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.

As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.

Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.

There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.

This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.

For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington: 

I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.

She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.

If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.