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December 16, 2011


In the order in which I saw them...

Set in the 1990s in an Algeria in the midst of civil war and Islamist insurgency, Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men tells the true story of eight French Cistercian Trappist monks who refuse to abandon the village their order has served since the mid-19th century. I have rarely experienced a film of such quiet. (Excepting Philip Groening's 2007 documentary Into Great Silence, which is simply an invitation to live for almost three hours among  the monks who take a vow of silence and live in an isolated stone charterhouse [monastery] in the French Alps.) The routine of the monks' daily lives provides the soundtrack for Of Gods and Men. They sell honey in the village marketplace and perfom their daily offices and devotions. The aging Brother Luc metes out his meagre supply of medicines to the sick. Though they exist as a devoted religious community, as their survival becomes more perilous, it is as men that each must make his own decision to stay or go. The soul searching of each man forms the center of the film, and each makes the decision to stay and face certain death at the hands of the insurgents.

A remake of Kim Ki-young's 1960 film (which I have not seen), Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid (2010) has been described as "less kinky" than the original, but it's still pretty kinky. A young innocent has been hired as an au pair/maid into an ennui-ridden Korean couple's home, he a nouveau riche businessman full of amoral swagger, she a bored, sadistic housewife. A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times summarizes the film well when he concludes that it "...generates intrigue partly by making you guess which movie it is going to become: the cruel psychological thriller, the comedy of upper-crust manners, the feminist fable, the erotic romp. That it manages to be each of these in turn testifies to Mr. Im’s skill but also turns out to be a limitation, since the film is, in the end, an exercise in thwarted and confused desire."

If you are a filmgoer who likes Last Year at Marienbad, and I am one (which again speaks to my insistence that I am not against ambiguity on principle; I am against it only when it is used in defence of lazy story-telling), you will like the Abbas Kiarostami's clever, talk-filled Certified Copy, Kiarostami's first feature outside his native Iran. A French woman meets a British author at a lecture he is giving in Paris on artistic authenticity. The question: Why does a reproduction have less value than the original? They end up tooling around the French countryside. The strangers stop in a cafe, drive to the little town of Lucignano, visit an old hotel and all the while the nature of their interactions mutates until they seem to be a married couple of 15 years. The film plays with the question Marcel Duchamp posed with his ready-mades, most notably in 1917 when he hung The Fountain, a urinal signed "R. Mutt," on a gallery wall. Does putting it in a gallery or under a vitrine make it art?

Mexican director Mariana Chenillo's first feature film Nora's Will is a delightful take on passive aggression beyond the grave -- well, that would be if her ex-husband and her son could only just get her into a grave. Even as Nora's secrets emerge, it becomes clear that her will be done.

Another feature debut, The Double Hour directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, plays with the dream/reality conundrum. In a fast-paced, Hitchcockian thriller, things are not what they seem. Sonia works as a maid in a high-end hotel, and as she becomes more romantically involved with Guido, complications ensue that lead to their capture in an art heist at the estate where Guido works as the high-tech gate guard. Trying to protect Sonia, Guido is killed and a bullet puts her in a coma. The double hour of the title is the time when the hour and minutes match, 12:12 say, and they signal the moments when what we think we know will be subverted by another point of view. The narrative is a clever cat and mouse that demands we constantly re-evaluate what we think we know.

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is nothing less than astonishing. Cavers in southern France inadvertently discovered a barricaded limestone cave containing paintings dating back 32,000 years. The ancient artists utilized the undulating walls of the cave to give a palpable sense of motion to the figures, and drew the animals with multiple legs so that the flickering of their torches would give an illusion of movement, of the actual experience of their intimate relationship with their fellow creatures. I encouraged everyone I knew, even minor acquainances, to see this magnificent film. One did not understand the present day postscript. I explained that the point is that our energy-addicted culture requires technology as deadly and destructive as nuclear power plants, one of which is situated only 20 miles from the Chauvet cave. The holding tank/lagoon is only a couple of miles or so away. The alligators, both prehistoric in their lineage and futuristic in their mutant albino incarnations, are the perfect Herzog-ian metaphor. This cave holds a mystery, a masterpiece, a window onto what it means to be human, such that we have never known before. And yet we play Russian roulette not only with this wondrous discovery, not only with human life, but with the very earth itself. I don't know if the postscript was added after the Japanese earthquake and the meltdown of the reactors there, or if Herzog had the prescience to include it beforehand. Either way, should the French reactors fail, this holy place will be lost to time. [Herzog's 2007 Encounters at the End of the World about melting Antarctica should likewise be required viewing for every human being on the face of the earth.]

A Better Life, Chris Weitz's Mexican illegal immigrant tale of a father's struggle to make a home for his son in LA can be a little heavy handed but in some moments transcends itself. It is the classic everything-that-can-go-wrong-does plot, redeemed by convincing performances, but it pulls a little too self-consciously at the heart strings.

In Michael Winterbottom's comedy The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The Trip began life as a six-part BBC2 television series. The premise is that The Observer of London has hired Coogan to review six restaurants in northern England. When his girlfriend declines to accompany him, he invites his buddy to go along, despite their strained relationship. Amidst the philosophizing, orating, impressions, eating of overly haute cuisine and ridiculously micro cuisine, wafting through the film is the question of where performance ends and the individual begins. We also feel the desperation of lonliness that all the bluster and wise-cracking just barely conceal.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by Lisa See ("best-selling" should tell you something right off the bat), Wayne Wang's Snowflower and the Secret Fan is really a chick-flick masquerading as serious period drama. The film moves back and forth between two friends in contemporary China and a foot-binding, 19th century China where Snowflower of the title and Lily are made laotongs, or best friends, as children. As the historical story unfolds, it enlightens the friendship of the contemporary women -- even if it utterly fails to enlighten us.

The love story is, of course, a staple of Hollywood, where the subject is presented in a cute or saccharine or otherwise superficial treatment. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is not cute or saccharine or superficial. It deals with the complexity of love, its messiness, its often bewildering lack of logic, its clumsiness and its intimacy. It is also a film about identity, which lovers confront as two distinct individuals and as the thing between them, which becomes a third entity. The movie is gorgeously shot. By that I do not mean that it's full of lush colors or epic pans. I mean that every shot is perfect. One or the other of the two characters -- or both -- is in almost every shot, and the shots could be hung on the walls of a portrait gallery to great effect. The story ends sadly as many love stories do in real life, but the film still stands as an unflinching testament to love. Oh, and the couple is gay -- which matters not a whit.

Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In cleverly packages the trope of the mad scientist into a plastic surgeon, cooly executed by Antonio Banderas, who has lost his wife to suicide after she was burned to the point of grotesque disfigurement. His daughter is psychologically scarred having witnessed her mother's leap from a bedroom window upon seeing her reflection for the first time. Now years later, the doctor lives in a secluded villa with a housekeeper and a beautiful woman he keeps under lock and key in a room he surveils from his bedroom, the frame of the TV screen that monitors her room turning her figure into nothing more than one of the many voluptuous nudes that grace the walls of the house. Manohla Dargis writing in the NYT observes that "There are several genres nimbly folded into The Skin I Live In, which might also be described as an existential mystery, a melodramatic thriller, a medical horror film or just a polymorphous extravaganza." The story circles in on itself, layers accrue. Yet Almodóvar keeps the plates spinning in a gyroscopic tour de force that has you on the edge until the very end, all the while posing compelling questions about the skin we each live in.

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