Looking Closer’s Film Forum!
When the envelopes are torn open and the winners are breathlessly announced on Oscar night, most American moviegoers have already had plenty of opportunities to see the nominated features. But when the Cannes Film Festival crowns the winner of the Palme d’Or each year, only the fortunate festival attendees get to feel the excitement. It often takes months for the rest of the world, America included, to learn what all of the fuss was about. (And most moviegoers are never even curious, because Hollywood does such a good job of convincing us that America is the only place where significant movies are made and distributed.)
I’ve come to anticipate the Cannes award announcements as eagerly as the Oscars, because as I have tracked down the films that win acclaim there, I’ve discovered many of my favorites. Wings of Desire, Barton Fink, The Double Life of Veronique, The Son… so many lasting, rewarding treasures. So I’m eager to see this year’s parade of films that have already won cheers at Cannes.
The winner of last year’s grand prize, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, dramatizes the clash between the Irish and the British in the early 1920s. It focuses on two brothers Teddy and Damien (Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney) who get caught up in the Republican fighting forces resisting British oppressors.
Critics in the mainstream and religious press are both powerfully impressed.
John P. McCarthy (CNS) says, “Loach vividly exposes the pitfalls of violence by showing how cycles of reprisal tear apart both the country and the siblings. … The narrative, beautifully realized from a production standpoint, has been pared down to its essentials and has the universal, inexorable qualities of a tragic fable.”
Salon’s Andrew O’Heihr writes that Loach “blends colorful scenery — in this case, the damp, green lushness of County Cork, on Ireland’s southwestern coast — with meticulously rendered sociology, straightforward family drama and tendentious political debate.”
Andrew Sarris of The New York Observer writes, “There is no happy ending in Barley—only a symmetry of suffering in the killing that brings no solutions to the problems. At the very least, Barley doesn’t partake of the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed anti-war pictures that provide enough violence to satisfy the most bloodthirsty spectators. But though Mr. Loach has escaped that trap, in the process he doesn’t provide any compensatory redemption. Ultimately, Barley is the antithesis of a feel-good entertainment—but it is to be commended for its unflinching seriousness.”
And The Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan says, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley turns out to be a more complicated, more dramatically potent story than it appears at first. It’s concerned at its core not with how bad the British were but with what the cost of dealing with them was for the Irish.”
Why did the UK, which sent 20,000 Tommies to their deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme a half decade earlier, not stay the course in Ireland? Ken Loach’s film … graphically conveys why the English, a civilized people, went home. Defeating a guerilla uprising broadly supported by the local populace requires a level of frightfulness that does not bear close inspection. . . .
Loach is neither the most fluid of filmmakers nor the most historically trustworthy, but Barley is consistently informative about the Anglo-Irish War, if spectacularly wrong-headed about the subsequent Irish Civil War among the victors . . .
And Tony Watkins at Damaris has a thoughtful look from the film’s earlier showings on the other side of the pond.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley is not an easy film to watch. It is, as one expects from director Ken Loach, superbly made… … It is more than a little uncomfortable to have the brutality of British rule portrayed so starkly, and it is both moving and distressing to see the desperation of the Irish and the poverty to which they were subject. Loach is always a very political director, and his realist approach to film-making (historical accuracy as far as possible in sets, costumes and dialogue as well as in the historical context itself; natural lighting; shooting the story in sequence; and long takes) helps to bring out the seriousness and the complexities of the situation. This is a film which makes clear the ugliness of occupation by foreign powers and of armed conflict. But while it is frank and graphic in its portrayal of the violence, there is no lingering over it or celebration of it. Loach says:
There is often a hypocrisy going on in war films, where they claim to be anti-war, but then a large part of the entertainment involves all the explosions and the blood. That doesn’t seem very anti-war to me, if you’re saying we hate killing but let’s enjoy it while it’s on screen.
Instead The Wind that Shakes the Barley shows how violence breeds more violence in an escalation of tit-for-tat cruelty. It shows the pain and tragic consequences of betrayal, and the agonies of a nation which becomes so divided that former comrades, friends and even brothers end up struggling with conflicts of loyalty and fighting each other because of passionately held principles. And perhaps most distressing of all, it shows the traumatic experience of ordinary men who end up becoming killers because of what is at stake.
More reviews are piling up at Rotten Tomatoes.
Sure, Sandra Bullock had a significant role in the Best-Picture-winning Crash. But does that mean she’s going to become a regular headliner of dramas and thrillers? If you ask me, I think Bullock’s comic instincts are her strengths, and my favorite Bullock performances are still her supporting roles in Speed and (especially) The Thing Called Love.
Bullock stars in Premonition, a thriller with a premise that will remind many of the classic comedy Groundhog Day. But this is a thriller with a deeply furrowed brow. And it’s furrowing the brows of critics as well.
Harry Forbes (CNS) says, “Serious suspension of disbelief is required on the viewer’s part. Why does Linda coolly seek out an extremely creepy doctor … when she has already experienced him (in the future) fiendishly strapping her down and administering an injection? Why does she look so panicked when a page in a phone book is ripped out when all she has to do is dial ‘411’ instead?”
For some reason, I think those questions make the movie sound like a barrel of laughs. Could it be that Premonition is the year’s best inadvertent comedy?
Maybe not. Forbes says that “Mennan Yapo directs with great skill,” and he calls Bullock’s performance “riveting.”
Peter T. Chattaway at CT Movies says, “…the filmmakers work themselves into a bit of a corner, and the world depicted in this story owes more to the cruel, ironic fatalism of ancient Greek myths than it does to the liberating hope of the Christian gospel. And it doesn’t help that the positive elements that are there require us to overlook huge gaps in the narrative, both in terms of how Linda experiences the world around her, and in terms of the objective chronology in which everyone else lives.
Crosswalk’s Christa Banister says, “The script doesn’t make even a twitch of sense.”
Taking a different view, Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) thinks that the conclusion has “real emotional resonance. Ultimately, the point of the film is not about dark premonitions, but about what it means to keep faith with our families.” But he would prefer that the film was specific, pointing out that what they really need is Jesus. “Instead, the film implicitly endorses faith in faith itself.”
You’ll find plenty more at Rotten Tomatoes.
When fans of the great French director Eric Rohmer heard that one of his classics, Chloe in the Afternoon , was being adapted by Chris Rock, it was a little hard for them to imagine. Could the popular stand-up comedian translate the subtlety and nuance of Rohmer’s work?
In a word, the answer is “Nope.” Critics are responding to I Think I Love My Wife, saying, “I think I dislike this movie.”
John P. McCarthy (CNS) writes, “Rock falls short both behind and in front of the camera…. His film skimps not only on any special insights into marital fidelity but also on pure entertainment value.”
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, “The movie preaches strongly that the final act of adultery will likely destroy your marriage, and you should think long and hard before doing it. But it largely gives a pass to the process, thoughts and compromises that lead up to that act.”
He’s also not happy with the film’s perspective of women. “[Rock’s] movie views marriage as joyless—unless wives can hang on to that ‘ho’ quality that supposedly attracted their men in the first place. It views women in general as, in the words of Newsday’s Jan Stuart, ‘either pouting spoilsports, nagging, frigid soccer moms or man-eating vixens.’”
James S. Robbins (The National Review) says, “One is attracted to the human drama of the story. A small band of fighters willingly sacrifice themselves against vastly superior forces to buy time so armies could assemble to defeat the enemy later. It is no mystery why the defense of the Alamo was soon dubbed ‘America’s Thermopylae.’ … But the analogy is inexact, because of what the respective groups were defending. The heroes of 1836 were fighting for freedom. The Spartans fought to maintain their autocratic state. A better analogy is not the Alamo but Iwo Jima, from the Japanese point of view (also recently dramatized in Letters from Iwo Jima). Both groups of defenders, Spartan and Imperial Japanese, were prepared to die fighting the enemy — but not for things we value.”
Relevant’s Michael Kneff asks, “So, what is so compelling about 300? It is, in essence, a gore fest. What causes us to cheer when limbs get hacked off? … I, for one, couldn’t wait to see this movie. And I enjoyed it. But why?”
His answer doesn’t do much to help me understand that question. “I think that movies like 300 create isolated bubbles where we can watch virtues acted out without real consequences,” he explains. “This is also known as escapism. Frank Miller’s characters exist in a world where words like passion, honor, courage and strength are lived out in pure form. Miller’s world is black and white with no trace of gray. King Leonidas charges his men to act as free men and live with honor. There is a real sense that these men are fighting for something greater than themselves.”
I’m not persuaded. I personally don’t cheer when limbs get hacked off. I’ve been bored with big battle scenes since Braveheart, except in rare films that make me care about the characters, and in which each moment of the battle is essential to enrich the storytelling. When filmmakers exploit the violence of war for mere entertainment… that’s not healthy for audiences. And I’m not sure I’m capable of looking, as Kneff does, “past the pile of dead Persians.” I’m not sure I can cheer for either side of this struggle. And personally, I think that “escapism” that urges us to see the world as “black and white with no trace of gray” is very, very dangerous.
I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the film. But Kneff’s defense only serves to increase my worries and apprehension, and I think I’d do well not to waste my time with this film.
Wasn’t Osama bin Laden “standing up for his way of life” and “fighting for something greater than himself”? We need to cheer for something more than that. We need to recognize what “way of life” is being defended, and what “greater” cause is being celebrated.
There are some interesting reactions to the film in the comments posted to last week’s Film Forum.
One commenter to my initial coverage of the film replied,
… [T]he message was straight out of mein kampf. it was hyper macho, derogatory to the handicapped, the homosexual and minorities. the struggle of a few for the survival of the west from the forces of the darkness from the east is just creepy. all of this pro-western imagery is really intense; it paints the spartans as saints, when in reality (the reality presented by the movie) they were oppressive and brutish.
And I’m especially interested in the comments (and the full review) by Opus:
… All of the talk about honor and sacrifice just rang false, because I knew this was merely padding out the time until the next Persian assault came down the road and the next wave of dismemberings took place.
At the risk of sounding too nitpicky, the talk about honor and sacrifice also rang a bit false because, after all, the Spartans’ culture (or at least their military) is based on infanticide and what could only be construed as child abuse and brainwashing — something that the film’s narrator explains early on, and even with a touch of pride. As such, all of this talk about honor felt somewhat deluded, deformed, and even jingoistic to me.
If the film had dealt more squarely with that discrepancy between the Spartans’ noble ideals and the barbarism on which their culture is founded, that might have given the film a bit more substance and ambiguity. I suppose you could argue that the film did just that with the subplot involving Ephialtes. But again, that particular subplot felt a little rushed to me, pushed aside to make room for the next wave of Persian cannon fodder.
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, “[E]very cultural detail seems pitch-perfect, every shock and conflict based on keen observance of reality, every generational gap simultaneously universal and specific. … Long ago, such tales used to be about emotional awakening; since the 1960’s, they have largely centered on the discovery of sexual organs and girlfriends’ mothers. Now, in an era when young adults are not truly achieving independence until deep into their twenties, The Namesake offers a new vision for the genre—tales which take emotional and sexual awareness for granted, and instead focus on a different kind of awakening: of identity and purpose, of cultural, societal, and familial reconciliation.”
At CT Movies, Steven D. Greydanus says, “The Namesake is knowing and observant regarding the vagaries of cultural collisions that are a perennial part of the immigrant experience. Yet the basic issues are not cultural, but universal and human.”
He concludes that the film is “a rare adaptation that works better the more familiar one is with the source material. Most adaptations compete with their source material, so that the stronger one feels about the original work, the more conflicted one feels about the adaptation. The Namesake may be best enjoyed by viewers most able to connect the dots and fill in the gaps wherever Lahiri’s creation hasn’t quite made it to the screen.”
Christian Hamaker at Crosswalk says, “Nair’s attempt to condense Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel misses a few other beats. Leaps in time seem arbitrary, and attempts to draw distinctions between the first- and second-generation immigrants are too obvious…. But the film’s color palette compensates mightily for any script deficiencies.”
Beyond the Gates:
Peter T. Chattaway at CT Movies writes, “Beyond the Gates has been criticized in some quarters for telling what ought to be an African story through the eyes of noble Europeans, but there are many stories that could and should be told about the Rwandan genocide—and one of those stories does, indeed, concern the fact that the western world failed to intervene. the film is blessed with excellent performances, and it is clearly motivated by a desire to make this tragedy known. If you see it, stay for the credits, which reveal that a number of the film’s crew are survivors.
Chattaway’s interview with David Belton, producer and co-writer of Beyond the Gates, is also up at CT Movies.