Daily Film Thoughts: The Smaller Things (of 2009)

I’ve been catching up on the smaller and primarily foreign releases in 2009 (going by US release), so I figured I should make this post before the festival. A few good movies – some you may not have heard of, so I think its only fair to keep anyone reading this in the currently acclaimed loop. Alright, lets go:

The first I saw was Cold Souls, which just ended its Toronto run at Carlton Cinemas. It stars the always reliable and generally sardonic Paul Giamatti in a semi-satirical play on his own life. He plays Paul Giamatti, a man emotionally indebted to his work on the stage and his latest agitator, the titular role in Uncle Vanya. His stage director proclaims he is not the man he used to be – too riddled with anguish and guilt without a funny bone; a man unlike the one, he mentions, “had a sense of humor” a few years ago.

Due to the stress of the performance and losing his sense of appreciation for living, Mr. Giamatti begins to cogitate his purpose in life. If acting – his one passion in life – is constricting his ability to live a healthy life with his wife Claire (Emily Watson) amongst high society, what can he do? Of course he can’t be miserable for the remainder of his life – and this is where the story emerges. Paul acts on what was at first a minor irritation to hear about; desouling the body. He hears about it from a friend who recommended the article in the New Yorker and slowly the idea begins to fester and ring logical to Paul.

Conflict constantly orbits Paul after he decides to get his soul removed. At first, he is uneasy about the prospect of being completely apathetic towards everything, but once the surgery is complete he begins to, well, kind of like it. “Beats being stressed”, basically. Some of the best script work is found in this scene – the introduction to the severity of the procedure by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn). There is darkly humorous insinuations about what can go wrong and the absurd choices Paul can pick from after his soul is removed. The high-spirited doctor jests with him plenty and it really helps the more dragging moments of the film in later stages – a little something to look forward to every so often.

From here on out, Paul contemplates the purpose of a soul, the reason of being and several other metaphysical and philosophically deep questions about the universe. The story takes sort of a satirist turn about the neglect that comes with upgrading small businesses as well as the foreign underground trade market.

In a parallel story there is Nina (Dina Korzun), a young Russian woman who has souls inserted into her in Russia that she takes to America because shipping just the soul causes a sort of flight fatigue. The constant back and forth does a physical number on the young beauty, but inside something else is brewing. Because after a soul is removed from you, you still retain residue from it, you begin to have soul augmentation and it becomes hard for your body to handle more soul than original. So basically, souls are being crammed into her for Russian profiteering. Of course the two stories collide and the primary source for emotional conflict/self-doubt are birthed.

Considering the amount of space writer/director Sophie Barthes had to work with on the matter – especially since the lead-in scenarios provide so much potential – I left the cinema fairly disappointed. It isn’t a bad film by any means, but it does come off as a great story with subpar execution. There are a few fragmented views on what a soul is; never quite manifesting its view on the subject, seeming content with meandering about for the majority. In that aspect, I compare it to Synecdoche, New York – a film that appears to have solid intentions, but an unsteady execution. Still, neither film is at all bad and both hold strong leading performances by always impressive men.

In the end, what you get from Cold Souls is an unfulfilled appetite for deep conversation, an alluring mini-ensemble, a few impressive thoughts about the metaphysical and an off-beat, but endearing tale of the importance of companionship. By no means the sleeper many are proclaiming, but not half bad either. [7/10]

Liverpool

Next up is the seldom seen, “surprised it got a US distributor so quickly” Liverpool – a film by one of the most consistent new Spanish talents. After completing his metaphysical trilogy – literally translated to The Freedom, The Dead and The Phantom – throughout the decade, Lisandro Alonso’s latest is one of the most poignant pieces of simple cinema showcased this decade.

The story is very humanistic and undoubtedly very personal to the lone wolves in this world. The protagonist Trujillo (Nieves Cabrera in his debut performance) is a man in his late 30’s – a man who has cut himself off from much human contact by segregating himself to crew duty on a large fishing vessel. We don’t know why this man chose the road least taken, but we do know that he drudged his way through the majority of his life and his journey up to this point.

Upon landing in Ushuaia (the capital of Argentina) Trujilio tells his Nacho (his captain) that he’ll stay on port for a few days to see if he can find his mother – his captain tells him that they leave on Thursday with or without him, showing the importance Trujilio plays in their lives. He leaves the boat and walks on shore – the land is blanketed in snow and sets the chill tone for the feature quaintly. Blank expressions tell stories of his vocation; minor gestures upon packing indicate an uneasy past and his worriment for things to come.

While on land, Trujilio encounters social scenarios and plays them off well. He clearly isn’t in the area to make friends – nor does friendship seem like a priority for him. Hitchhiking prevails a simple task, so there isn’t much visible early conflict for the viewer to spot. Perhaps one of the few places where the film doesn’t satisfy my viewing needs, but then again, this isn’t your routine feature either.

The main character passes time through repetition in this town. He eats at small cafeterias, has momentary conversations with locals and is really just passing time until he works up the courage to visit his mother; a woman he has shunned for two decades, give or take.

In a side story, we see the prosaic life of Analia (Giselle Irrazabal), a young woman in the town. Her life is every bit as quotidian as Trujilio’s. As the film progresses and we see the death trap this plain living would be for anyone with a need for excitement, we understand why the main character decided to leave this yawn-inducing scenario when he was able to; living contrary to his upbringing by living a life at sea and exploring the world to an extent.

The way the film delivers its climax is almost unheard of. It is very sincere, but also quite impressive. There is little to go on about dialogue or action to discuss in key scenes, but this ‘loner tale’ is an unmitigated installment that will do wonders for the foreign independent scene. Highly recommended – a grand take on convention with a killer conclusion. [8/10]

Sugar2

I can’t believe its taken me such a long time to review this. I saw it roughly a month ago and really enjoyed it – a vast improvement on Ryan Fleck’s 2006 praised indie flick Half Nelson.

Baseball: America’s past time with strong roots in southern America and Japan – a sport that was once white’s only is now a definitive symbol of racial integration into society. However, the barrier is still there in some sense and Sugar explains that with diligence.

The story begins in the Dominican Republic with Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), an up and comer on the mound (pitcher, for those that don’t know the slang). At 20 years old, he is an accomplished young man – he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, a glowing family situation and several talents that woo everyone around him. After impressive a scout during an impromptu game of baseball with his friend, Sugar is given the go ahead to enter single A baseball in the MLB – the minor team for a minor team for a minor team. Basically, Sugar would have to excel in A to make it to AA, excel there to make it to AAA and excel there to get his professional start in the big leagues. So his journey won’t be an easy one, but at least its a start. And for those uncommon with the sport, it isn’t rare to see a 30 year old be called a rookie on the pitching mound, as odd a concept that may be for fans of football and basketball.

After a brief introduction to Sugar’s daily routine, we’re fast-tracked along side him to the wonders of American civilization. Alright, so it isn’t nearly the American Dream most hear about as he’s put in vacant, rural areas, but it’s peaceful and enjoyable. The major issue that Sugar has is that he doesn’t speak any English, but he works on that at baseball school where there are specific courses for international players that don’t know the country’s native tongue. These scenes are pretty humorous and add to the overall sunniness that lights up the first act. But like most three act features, we know that descent is soon to follow and struggle will play a crucial factor in our protagonists life.

Now onto the culture shock that hits Sugar like a stray bullet. Considering we know about Sugar’s language hurdle, we expect awkward scenes and brace ourselves for uncomfortable situations – feeling what Sugar feels. Whether it be the endearing tribulation of the young sensation in social peril or having to get somewhat of an American-Dominican appointed baseball rookie escort to order all his meals for him, Sugar’s journey is Shakespearean in misfortune.

What really strikes me as honest is Sugar’s second family while on the farm team (another slang term: just a minor league team) and how dearly Miguel Santos misses his sturdy homestead. He’s without his translator at this point; his Dominican buddies are dropping out of circulation left and right – he’s lost, scared and alone. A delightful elder couple (as seen above) take him into their home – they have strong religious beliefs like Sugar, are kind and hopeful of him, feed him as if he was their own child and really cherish him as a son. With the nourishing parent front covered, he seeks a romantic affair to fill his desolate soul. This is where I find Sugar’s moment of truth to be – where it makes or breaks his character. A very definitive emotional climax in an already momentous film.

Fleck mixes both perspectives of morality very well, but what it does best is in audience participation. By making such a sympathetic and flawed character, the viewer will always buddy with Sugar and at times parent him – make you feel hopeful for him no matter what the outcome is. With a rousing lead performance, delightful commentary on a life most don’t think about and an impressively paced tale of finding your calling, Sugar’s result is as satisfying as a walk-off home-run. [8/10]

vlcsnap-2009-09-04-08h27m19s180

I guess this will be my cut off point. I’ll do a part two of this post tomorrow or something (with Julia, Munyurangabo, World’s Greatest Dad & Eldorado, maybe. A bunch I’ve yet to cover/see) so I’ll keep this one at four.

This, for those who are unfamiliar with Canadian cinema, is Polytechnique – a dramatization of the 1989 Quebec massacre in which a student took a rifle gun to over a dozen peers. The facts are real, but the stories behind the film are fabricated enough to make you question the intentions of the film, if only momentarily.

The movie starts out on an ordinary day in the institute. A bunch of students are using photocopiers when an armed assailant walks in and pumps random rounds into the crowd – a taste of the grueling horror to come. Denis Villeneuve’s crisp black and white photography plays well as cheap symbolism (something I tend to eat up), but also inflicts a sense of unanticipated chill – a cold breath of death, taking the winter setting outside the school and bringing it into the school. What I mean by all this is that it plays out like a literal horror film – giving various aspects of three main characters to the viewer and playing them out with divergence; a way that will make you clench and anticipate the next plot point and/or turn.

As said, there are three main characters. First expressed is the antagonist, only known as The Assassin (Maxim Gaudette) – a misogynistic, anti-establishment anarchist mainly focused on making women pay for his unsatisfying life. By calling simply calling him ‘The Assassin’, writer Jacques Davidts dehumanizes him by giving him little backstory and a name that no one can relate to in a positive way. A bias look at a cruelly bias young man.

The second character that is shown to the audience is Valerie (Karine Vanasse), a well-to-do young woman who is working on being a civil engineer, but is also being prosecuted by ‘the man’ for being a woman. In the film, she faces duel views on men thinking women are worth less than them and both scenarios take a terrible toll on her. She’s also in a committed relationship – or that’s what the film leads you to believe – with fellow student Stephanie (Evelyne Brochu). Their scenes will either play off as a slightly preachy attempt at stating that the gay community are as valuable and human or as a valuable introspective into two loving humans.

In the third story, our protagonist – the other view of men in this school; not a misogynistic killer or an ignorant employer, but rather a young man with his own doubts and certainly nowhere near a perfect being. During the shootout in the school, Jean-Francois (Sébastien Huberdeau) is the only one shown who isn’t scared to death by what is transpiring and tries to salvage some lives during the event.

These are three of the most opposing characters you’ll ever see in a film like this – sort of a token to those who are accustomed to old fashioned horror films with the rampant murderer on the loose and the civilians trying to survive. But perhaps this is too real to be horrific in an entertaining sense and plays out more along the lines of a monochrome nightmare.

At 77 minutes, the story is as succinct as possible – surpassing fellow high-school massacre films like Elephant that are heavy on caricaturing the students and trying to recreate a similar atmosphere. What Polytechnique does for the already tired story is honorable for the victims and their families. Instead of trying to manufacture semblance,  Villeneuve and Davidts manage to give three differing perspectives enough time to form a credible arc for each of them. How they managed to do that given roughly 20 minutes a piece is beyond me. The first true film about the high school tragedy, it’s just too bad it’ll be hard to find an audience like van Sant’s feature. [9/10]

Yeah, a good few features. I don’t believe Polytechnique has touched base with America yet – but its on already on DVD here in Canada, so I’m sure if you wanted to see it desperately enough you could order a copy from Amazon. Until next time, happy movie going. (6 Days Until TIFF!)

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