This fall I’ve been part of the talented crew who program films and help out at Carbon Arc screenings taking place at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. Here are my thoughts on each of the films we screened.
(Carbon Arc Cinema returns in the first week of February, 2016.)
The Second Mother
Written and directed by Anna Muylaert | 112 min
The Brazilian entry into this year’s Oscar race is a domestic drama set in Sao Paolo about a middle-aged maid who lives with a wealthy family, helping raise their son and cleaning after them while leaving her own daughter to be raised by her father and step-mother in some other city. It’s a story of inequality that’s universal, told with a soft touch that occasionally looks like it’ll tip into comedy, but holds back on the edge of pathos. Regina Case is terrific as Val, her discomfort visible when her headstrong daughter comes to visit, disrupting her host family. A little more dramatic event in the final 20 minutes wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it fascinates as a look inside the Brazilian class struggle.
When Marnie Was There
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi | Written by Yonebayashi, Masashi Ando, and Keiko Niwa, based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson | 103 min
If this is, in fact, the final film from the Japanese master animators at Studio Ghibli, it’ll likely be remembered as a handsome and worthy production, if not quite up to Miyazaki standards. When shy teen Anna visits the seaside, she finds a house that seems strangely familiar. One moment it’s empty, the next it’s home to a girl named Marnie, who rapidly becomes Anna’s bestie.
The dreamy tale of ghosts and memories and magic, aimed squarely at tween girls (or anyone with the heart of one) is gorgeous to see, and the film’s deliberate, old-fashioned spirit carries the day.
Directed by Christian Petzold | Written by Petzold, Harun Farocki, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet | 98 min
A taut melodrama posing as a thriller, Petzold’s film requires a suspension of disbelief, one out of a literary or theatrical tradition, that some may find a weight too heavy to lift. Nina Hoss is Nelly, a torch singer and concentration camp survivor whose face has been disfigured. A surgeon gives her a new visage, and her friend, Lena (Nina Kunzendorf), arranges for visas to Israel. But Nelly wants to find her man back in Berlin, pianist Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may have betrayed her to the Nazis. Find him she does, and though he doesn’t recognize her, he hatches a plan: She looks enough like his “dead” wife that he figures she can impersonate Nelly, and the two of them can collect on her estate.
The required suspension is that a husband wouldn’t recognize his own wife, even with her new face. It’s a Hitchcockian conceit, one that works only if you let it. Guilt and maybe even intentional amnesia play roles, as Nelly willingly goes along with Johnny’s plan to bilk her of her inheritance because she still loves him despite the betrayal. When the finale arrives, the film’s grip tightens to the point of choking.
Directed by Crystal Moselle | 90 min
Six brothers and a little sister grew up in a public-housing funded New York apartment without having much access to the outdoors, their father a tyrant and agoraphobe, passing on his paranoia to his children. The home-schooled brothers absorbed the world through the family DVD library, then recreated scenes from their favourite films (Reservoir Dogs and Batman Begins two of the more popular choices) as a way to escape the isolation.
This documentary screening provoked strong reactions in our audience, especially from those who felt we should offer a trigger warning to anyone who has issues with claustrophobia. Also, there was controversy about the abuse of minors—was it the filmmaker’s responsibility to go to social services as soon as she understood what was going on here? That’s a conversation worth having.
What Moselle did was spend five years filming these boys as they slowly rebel against their father and finally achieve a certain kind of freedom. The boys are surprisingly well-adjusted, articulate and open about their feelings. Their passion for movies is a joy to behold, and when they finally get out, their view of the world is equally thrilling.
I understand that since the release of the film, a number of the boys now have jobs and leave the apartment regularly, though only one has moved out. They remain tight and supportive of each other despite the trials of their upbringing, which may be the sweetest thing about this wonderful and moving story.
A Poem Is A Naked Person
Directed by Les Blank | 90 min
A lost document of folk rock musician Leon Russell and all his pals in and around his Oklahoma studio, shot in the early ‘70s by legendary documentarian Les Blank but only released in 2015. Apparently music rights held up the film’s release until now, but I’ve also heard that since Russell also served as a producer of the film, he wasn’t happy with how it turned out and worked against its release.
Whatever the reasons, having it available now is a real treat. The film is a serious time capsule of a time and place, a party scene of young, talented musicians who were getting a lot of approbation at the time. And also living to excess. As one of my colleagues at Carbon Arc remarked, if someone who grew up in the era since the 1970s wanted to know what it was really like back then, plunk them down in front of A Poem Is A Naked Person and they’ll get an eyeful.
The New Girlfriend
Directed by Francois Ozon | Written by Ozon, adapting a story by Ruth Rendell | 108 min
I like Ozon’s work, though it sometimes makes me chuckle unintentionally. Seen from a small city in Canada, his films seem to exemplify French culture in broad strokes, or at least some of the cultural cliches: Sex, older men obsessed with younger women, and sometimes wine.
This feels like a bit of a leap for Ozon—the story of a young woman (Anna Demoustier) who, after her best friend dies, vows to look out for her friend’s husband (Romain Duris) and baby daughter. When she discovers the husband is a cross-dresser, she’s at first appalled, but rapidly becomes intrigued. Her motivation here is key: Is she looking for a new friend to fill the absence left by the death of her BFF, or is she somehow turned on by enabling this transformation? The film is by turns playful, moving, and dramatic, but always sensitive. If you’ve had a little too much Hollywood in your cinematic diet, check out The New Girlfriend to cleanse your palette. The volunteers at Carbon Arc discussed how this film would have been made in North America—probably something like Mrs Doubtfire.
Directed by Sean Baker | Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch | 88 min
I don’t know what’s more impressive: the dazzling over-saturated look of this low-budget gem, shot with smartphones on the streets of LA, or its kicker of a story. An overt, outrageous comedy, it follows two transgender prostitutes on a day when one of them has a singing gig and the other is on a mission of vengeance to find her boyfriend and crush him for his various infidelities—hell hath no fury, etc.
It’s a wonderfully jumped-up film, with Tarantino-esque beats and a fizzy soundtrack. By the time the locomotive narrative winds up with an Armenian taxi driver and his family sharing a donut shop with our leads and their pimp, the film has delivered an effective and highly caffeinated shot to the head and heart.
Written and directed by Chaitanya Tamhane | 116 min
When we screened this with Tangerine, Sean Baker tweeted he was thrilled to have his film paired with this one. This is a powerfully subtle and satiric look at the Indian legal system, a courtroom drama where we never get to know the defendant or the aggrieved. Instead we spend time with the prosecuting and defending attorneys as the film regularly steps away from its central locations, the pre-court hearing and the trial of a folk singer absurdly accused of inciting suicide in a sewer worker who might have heard the folk singer perform.
The pacing is extraordinarily deliberate, the filmmakers happy to set up a series of repeating tableaus while the highly subjective and often ridiculous cogs of legal procedure gradually turn. It may try your patience, but it’s insidiously rewarding if you can plug into it.
Directed John Goldschmidt | Written by Jonathan Benson and Jez Freedman | 94 min
A predictable but undeniably charming fable about an elderly Jewish baker in the UK who, on the verge of losing his place of business, takes on a young Muslim guy who has a sideline selling drugs. One afternoon the apprentice lets some of his product get mixed into the bread, and whaddaya know, they have a sensation on their hands and the bakery’s fortunes take off, annoying a cartoon villain of a developer. There’s not much here that will surprise, but the characters are well enough drawn (Jonathan Pryce and Jerome Holder, especially) there’s some fun watching them get where they’re going.
Directed by Ken Loach | Written by Paul Laverty, from a play by Donal O’Kelly | 109 min
Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley is one of the great films of the century thus far. Here he works on a fact-based story with the Barley screenwriter working on another historic drama set in Ireland. This one is more playful, exploring the rural culture in the years after the civil war, making for a semi-sequel. The plot, strangely similar to Footloose, is about Jimmy Gralton, a dance hall owner who was chased out of the country 10 years earlier when his politics and his good time venue caused all sorts of consternation from the more conservative and religious in the community. With his return from America, Jimmy reconnects with old pals and reopens the hall, but the grudges with the church and others are still lively.
Loach manages to muster a few laughs in with his typical socio-political stridency, and tells a fine story. It’s not quite as character-driven, nor as moving as his earlier film, but there are lovely moments.
The Russian Woodpecker
Directed by Chad Garcia | 80 min
A vivid and occasionally creepy documentary, a look at the history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster through the eyes of a Ukrainian radical, artist, and conspiracy theorist Fedor Alexandrovich. He believes the accident was no such thing, that Russian officials had both motive and ability to cause the meltdown in order to cover up the money pit that was the Duga, a gigantic over-the-horizon radio antennae near the reactor that broadcasted strange, repetitive beats towards the West, but never did what it was supposed to do. Whatever that was. I wasn’t entirely on board with Alexandrovich’s theories, but he’s a compelling figure and creative spirit. He definitely makes a few officials in the Russian and former Soviet regime uncomfortable, and the film is directed a lot of verve, exploring the socio-political morass in the present day Ukraine and all that led up to it.