Review of The Midwife (Sage Femme): Two Catherines are better than one!

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot are the main stars of French film The Midwife (Sage Femme).

In The Midwife (Sage Femme) we get two Catherines for the price of one – Catherine Frot as Claire, the midwife of the title, and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice, a figure from Claire’s past. For many viewers, seeing these two together will be more than reason enough watch the film.

Claire works in a small hospital where all the midwives get along; her works exhausts her but she enjoys it. Her future is uncertain, because the hospital will soon be closed (hence the “Resist” sign hanging from it). She is the single mother of Simon, who is off at medical school.

Actress Catherine Frot received maternity training and delivered six babies in the course of filming The Midwife (Sage Femme).

We hear Béatrice before we see her, as Claire listens to her voice on her answering machine. We find out later that it’s a voice she has not heard for more than 30 years.

With great reluctance, Claire goes into Paris to meet Béatrice, who is dying of brain cancer and looking to reconnect with people from her past. She needs familiar faces and moral support. Fair enough. Far as we can tell, making amends, and seeking forgiveness are not part of her plan. She seems to be the guilt-free type.

Béatrice was mistress to Claire’s father, but she left him one day without a word of explanation. It’s not clear what she was to Claire  – something between a big sister, aunt or mother figure? (Some of the critics who don’t like this film are annoyed that such things are not spelled out.) What is clear that Claire has never forgiven Béatrice – not for the affair itself, but for her departure.

We have no idea how Béatrice has been supporting herself all these years either, though a scene in a gambling den offers a partial answer. I read somewhere that those were real gamblers, not actors.

The two women have many disagreements and misunderstandings before they come to a sort of truce. (Minor spoiler, sorry, but you could figure that out from the trailer.) Though these women are straight, that’s the same pattern many romantic comedies follow, isn’t it?

Speaking of romance, Claire has a one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards one with long- distance truck driver Paul (played by Olivier Gourmet, who has worked so often with the Dardennes brothers.) Here his character is quite amiable, not glum, silent, tortured or creepy as he has often been in other roles. Paul and Claire share adjoining garden allotments. (Gardening, earthiness, sex – is it too obvious? I’m willing to let it go.)

Béatrice does not have a visible love interest, but even though she is seriously ill, she still has an appetite for alcohol (whisky and wine) and lots of red meat. Cigarettes, too! However unlikely that might be in real life, it’s a signal that she’s not yet ready to just lay down and die and that she’s still chasing pleasure, wisely or not.

Colours and clothes were among the pleasures of The Midwife for me. Though Béatrice dislikes Claire’s frumpy beige raincoat, Claire does wear a pretty blue scarf, which matches the blue couch in her otherwise boring apartment. Béatrice has an absolutely gorgeous coat in a rich, jewel-like purple. No matter how distraught she might be, she always looks good! (I also read that her film wardrobe is by Yves St. Laurent.) In a nod to Deneuve’s past ads for Chanel No. 5, you might notice a big bottle on her bathroom shelf, if you look carefully. (Nothing bad happens to it, but keeping glass bottles in rooms with hard floors seems very unwise. Don’t ask me how I know.)

In the French film The Midwife (Sage Femme) Claire (Catherine Frot) checks her image after trying on lipstick belonging to Béatrice. She takes a spritz of perfume, too. See the bottle of Chanel No. 5, almost hidden by her shoulder?

The Midwife is unusual in that Catherine Frot was not just acting in scenes set in Claire’s workplace. Frot received several days of training in a French maternity ward and delivered six babies in the course of filming. Those scenes were shot in Belgium, because babies younger than three months old cannot be filmed in France. (In the U.S., babies who “act”  must be at least 15 days old.)

Writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette) said he wrote the film with Frot and Gourmet in mind, and he was very happy that they agreed to appear in the film. In this interview, on a British site called The Upcoming, Provost talks about that and the birth scenes.

The Midwife (Sage Femme)
Written and directed by Martin Provost.
With: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourme, Mylène Demongeot, Quentin Dolmaire

In Montreal, The Midwife (Sage Femme) is playing in the original French-language version at Cinema Beaubien and Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, and with English subtitles at Cineplex Odeon Forum.

Fantasia 2017: Before you see A Taxi Driver, here is some background info about the Gwangju Massacre

Thomas Kretschmann, left, and Song Kang-ho in South Korean film A Taxi Driver.

A Taxi Driver is the closing film of the 2017 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival. It’s a dramatization of real life events from South Korea’s tumultuous history.

In May of 1980, Jurgen Hinzpeter, a German reporter, stationed in Tokyo, hears rumours about  government violence against citizens in Gwangju South Korea. News is not getting out because phone lines had been cut and roads into and out of the city were blocked. The country is under martial law; many schools are closed and news reports are censored.

Hinzpeter (played by Thomas Kretschmann) flies to Seoul and hires a taxi driver named Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho) to drive the 300 km to Gwangju. (In those days, the city’s named was rendered as Kwangju in English.) With advice form local farmers, the two men manage to bypass the barricades and enter the city using tiny back roads.

Once in the city they see a real spirit of solidarity among the citizens, who are hungry for democracy and an end to military rule. Then they see soldiers shooting protestors, young and old, along with people who try to help the wounded. They capture these events on film while trying to avoid arrest, injuries or their own deaths.

The film’s only screening, today, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, is sold out, but if you are among the lucky people who have a ticket, here are some links to recent articles and ones written at the time, that will give you some background information to the events depicted in the film.

An article in today’s New York Times says: “With the Korean news media muzzled by martial law, only the handful of foreign correspondents present could publish reports on what was happening in Gwangju. . .Mr. Hinzpeter was one of the few foreign correspondents to document the carnage, and his footage was seen around the globe.”

“Mr. Hinzpeter, who died last year at 78, has long been celebrated in South Korea for his part in exposing Mr. Chun’s atrocities. A memorial to the journalist stands in Gwangju. . . Behind a hospital, ‘relatives and friends showed me their loved ones, opening many of the coffins that had been placed in rows,’ Mr. Hinzpeter wrote. ‘Never in my life, even filming in Vietnam, had I seen anything like this.’ “

A New York Times article from May 20, 1980 bears the headline “New Repression in South Korea.”

Gwangju is about 300 km from Seoul. These days, one can drive there in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

This article from The Hankyoreh calls the massacre Korea’s Tiananmen, referring to the 1989 massacre of students in Beijing, China. Lee Gang-jun lost his twin brother Lee Gang-su. “When he asked a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of death in 1997, just before the body was moved from a cemetery in Gwangju’s Mangwol neighborhood to the May 18th National Cemetery, it was because he wanted the truth to come out. ‘My brother’s skull was caved in, and even the specialists couldn’t figure out what the marks were caused by,’ (Lee) said. Gang-jun believes that his brother died during torture at the Sangmudae military base. After his death, soldiers shot him to create the impression that he died from a bullet would instead of complications suffered during torture.”

This article from ThoughtCo. says “Troops shot dead twenty girls at Gwangju’s Central High School. Ambulance and cab drivers who tried to take the wounded to hospitals were shot. One hundred students who sheltered in the Catholic Center were slaughtered. Captured high school and university students had their hands tied behind them with barbed wire; many were then summarily executed.”

An article in The Korea Observer includes quotes from Na Byung-un, who was there in Gwangju. “In those days, South Korea’s GDP per capita was just under $4,000 per person, or less than one-sixth than that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As a country with few natural resources recovered from Japanese colonization, it struggled to find its footing politically, economically, and socially. This was especially true in Gwangju, a city nestled in the one of the poorest regions of South Korea, agricultural South Jeolla Province. ‘People were very, very poor, and they led miserable lives.’ Na recalls. ‘They didn’t even have one dollar.’ “

“According to Na, there was a rumor that those who criticized the government would be kidnapped and murdered in secret. . . .Na recounts, “People had been uprising and protesting against dictatorship continuously under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They put innocent people into prison and oppressed the masses by force of arms. So people all rose up. . . All Gwangju citizens were involved in the protests, because all of us were together as one. Everyone thought we had to stand against injustice,’ says Na. ‘Even the police were on our side. They changed into normal clothes at night and joined us.’ “

Tim Shorrock of The Nation has reported extensively on Korea. In this article he says that the Korean troops who injured and killed civilians were “sent with the approval of the U.S. commander of the US-Korea Joint Command, Gen. John Wickham.”

“That decision, made at the highest levels of the US government, forever stained the relationship between the United States and the South. For the people of Gwangju, many of whom believed that the US military would side with the forces of democracy, it was a deep betrayal that they’ve never forgotten. And once the rest of Korea knew the truth about the rebellion and understood that the United States had helped throttle it, anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire.”

(U.S. president Jimmy) “Carter decided that the Gwangju uprising—despite the US knowledge that it had been sparked by the slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters—had to be crushed militarily. Five days after the meeting, South Korea’s crack 9th Army Division rolled into the city and killed the remaining rebels holed up in the provincial capital building.”

Shorrock’s article contains links to many, many others.

A Taxi Driver is distributed by Well Go USA. Perhaps it will return to Montreal for a general run in the future.

See Colossal again, or for the first time, free, outdoors, at the Fantasia Film Festival, tonight!

In the film Colossal. Anne Hathaway’s character has a weird connection with a giant monster that’s attacking Seoul.

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival showed Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky first feature film Timecrimes (Cronocrimenes) way back in 2008, so it’s highly appropriate that the festival show Colossal.

Though most of Colossal is set in the U.S. (actually, British Columbia, for the small town parts) there is also a giant monster attacking Seoul, South Korea. So it REALLY fits in the Fantasia lineup.

In fact, it’s so appropriate, that when I first heard about Colossal, I thought that it might have its premiere at Fantasia. But, no, it was released months ago.

Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Dan Stevens are among the stars.

It will be shown on a terrace behind the Hall Building, at 1445 de Maisonneuve West. Enter by Mackay St.

Colossal,  9 pm, Wednesday, July, 26, 2017.

 

http://www.fantasiafestival.com/festival/en/2017/films-schedule/films/782

Fantasia 2017 Review: Have A Nice Day

A stupid guy steals one million yuan from his boss in the Chinese animated neo-noir Have a Nice Day.

Have A Nice Day (Hao Ji Le) is a very clever, animated neo-noir film from China. I don’t remember seeing such a thing before. You?

The character Xiao Zhang, on the other hand, is not clever at all. In fact, he’s dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers. As a fan of movies like The Godfather, he ought to know that stealing from your sadistic, criminal boss, is a very bad idea. Mistake No. 2 was taking the bag full of money (100 million yuan = $187,090.52 Canadian) from a fellow employee at knifepoint, so there’s no mystery about who the culprit is.

Maybe he could have gotten away with this for a short time, but the idiot doesn’t even leave town! And he isn’t any good at covering his physical tracks, nor his digital ones.

The crime boss, Uncle Liu, sends his henchman Skinny, who is also a butcher (gulp!) after Xiao Zhang. Of course, once other people hear about the stolen money, they go looking for him, too. He draws attention to himself by using a large bill to pay for a cheap meal. His rudeness towards a guy at an Internet cafe leads the man’s friends to beat up Xiao Zhang and take the bag.

That bag passes through many hands, rooms and vehicles in the course of Have A Nice Day.

This is Uncle Liu, the baddest bad guy in Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day. Would you mess with this man?

BTW: There’s no question that Uncle Liu is sadistic – early on we see that he’s holding a hostage – a half-naked, bruised and bloodied man who’s tied to a chair. When Uncle Liu tells an embarrassing anecdote about him we realize that they’ve known each other since childhood, though we never do find out exactly why the man is tied to a chair.

In old U.S. films, a guy might do a stupid or dangerous thing (robbery, kidnapping or a boxing match) because a sick mother, brother or sister needs surgery to prevent blindness, replace a failing kidney, etc. But Xiao Zhang has stolen the money because his his fiancée’s plastic surgery did not go well. He wants to take her to South Korea to get the job done right. He must make her happy, so they can marry, have children and make his mother happy. Filial piety is still a thing!

These are just two of the many people chasing after stolen money in the Chinese neo-noir animation Have a Nice Day.

Philosophical remarks about the different levels of freedom, and an animated music video that mocks the iconography of Chairman Mao’s era are among the many things that make Have A Nice Day entertaining. We are so very far from that era now. People dye their hair all sorts of colours, including blue; they wear U.S. T-shirts; they have U.S. film posters on their walls, they struggle to send their children to university in the U.S. or U.K., they talk about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Brexit. We even hear a few words from Donald Trump on the radio! Some practice Christianity, while others just wear crosses as a fashion statement. I didn’t see anyone riding a bicycle, either!

The Chinese animated film Have a Nice Day contains a music video mocking the iconography from the era of Chairman Mao.

Director Liu Jian also wrote the film and his name appears in several other places in the credits, too. Seems like a multi-talented guy! And I wonder if he jokingly named the villainous crime boss after himself?

Have A Nice Day was shown in competition at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. Variety says that Strand Releasing has bought the distribution rights for the U.S. and the company plans to show the film there in the fall.  Memento Films International has sold distribution rights for Have A Nice Day in the U.K., Spain, Benelux, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

If you get a chance to see Have A Nice Day you really, really should! (Did I mention that the music is great, too? It includes tunes from the Shanghai Restoration Project.)

Meanwhile, lucky Montrealers can see it on Wednesday, July 19, at 3:15 p.m., in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Have A Nice Day, China, 2017, 77 minutes long
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed by: Liu Jian
Written by: Liu Jian
Voice cast: Zhu Changlong, Yang Siming, Ma Xiaofeng, Zheng Yi, Cao Kai
Company: Memento Films International

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Free and Easy

The Chinese film Free and Easy has two screenings at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival.

Free and Easy is low-key, black comedy that takes place in an unnamed Chinese town in winter. Many of the town’s buildings have fallen down, while others are in an advanced state of disrepair.

There’s some symmetry in Free and Easy: two con men, two policemen, two guys pasting posters on walls. Eventually we see a con woman, too, and a third person pasting posters.

One con man asks people to smell the soap he’s selling. Something in it quickly renders them unconscious. He takes their money, phones and watches while they’re knocked out. Pretty easy as far as it goes, but the pickings can’t be great in such a rundown place. There aren’t many people out and about, either, though it’s not clear if they’re sticking close to home or if the town is more or less abandoned. If there were more people around, surely they’d warn each other about this guy.

The other con man is an alleged monk who offers “free” amulets, but then requests a “donation,” to rebuild his burnt-out temple. If they don’t want an amulet, people can touch him “for luck.” Of course, he wants money for that, too.

When the monk and the soap man walk along some railroad tracks, there are ugly grey hills in the distance, the kind of scenery we see in films by Jia Zhang-ke. Is this place a former mining town?

The policemen don’t seem to have much to do; they smoke and eat in the station house, even sharing their medications in a weird, comradely way. One of them has plenty of time to make unwelcome visits to a woman who runs a boarding house. Coincidentally, the soap man rents a room from her, and her husband, who’s in charge of a reforestation project, is the man looking for the missing tree. This tree man is a very quiet sort. Slow moving, too. He might be bored out of his. . .tree, exhausted, or suffering from narcolepsy, who knows?

As for the poster-pasters, one is looking for his mother, who has been missing for years, while the other is looking for a very large tree, which vanished more recently.

The jokes in Free and Easy are subtle; there aren’t any martial-arts battles, or car chases (hardly any cars at all, actually). There is a troublesome dead body that has to be dealt with, though. Free and Easy won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at the Sundance Film Festival. Music in the film is from Chinese band Second Hand Rose. Second Hand Rose has a web site, and a Facebook page. The New Yorker wrote a profile on the group back in 2014.

Free and Easy
China (2016) 99 minutes long, in Mandarin with English (subtitles)
Directed by: Geng Jun
Written by: Liu Bing, Geng Jun, Feng Yuhua
Cast: Xue Baohe, Gu Benbin, Xu Gang, Yuan Liguo, Zhang Xun, Wang Xuxu, Zhang Zhiyong
Company: FilmRise

Free and Easy will be shown on Thursday, July 20, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival.

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: The Senior Class

Jung-woo and Ju-hee are art students in the animated Korean film The Senior Class. (Lee Joo-seung provides the voice of Jung-wwo and Kang Jin-ah plays Ju-hee.)

When I’m watching a horror movie, I often want to yell: “Don’t go in the basement!” While watching The Senior Class I was pulled into the story enough that I wanted to shout: “Don’t do that; don’t say that; don’t go there!”

The Senior Class is not a horror movie, strictly speaking, though many people behave horribly. It was written by Yeon Sang-ho, who wrote The King of Pigs, The Fake, Seoul Station and Train to Busan, evidence enough that Yeon knows plenty about bad behaviour. (Hong Deok-pyo directed the film, and he came to Fantasia to present it to us and to take questions after the screening.)

The story is set in a class of art students in their final year of university. The students all have anxiety over final projects, the evaluation of their year’s work and a coming exhibition of that work.

The main characters are the quiet, slightly nerdy Jung-woo, his loudmouth, jerky friend Dong-hwa and pretty Ju-hee, who concentrates on her work and is rather quiet herself. Some classmates assume she’s a snob because of that. The female students talk about her behind her back, but they put on friendly faces  when they want to know where she bought her handbag.

Jung-woo has had a crush on Ju-hee for a long time. Maybe it’s more like an obsession. She appears as a delicate, ethereal angel in an online cartoon he works on regularly, while he portrays himself as a scrawny, caring, sensitive merman. (Really!) In many belief systems, angels protect us, but this angel seemingly needs the protection of Jung-woo’s alter-ego. In real life, Jung-woo can barely say hello to Ju-hee.

Jung-woo and Ju-hee get to know each other better when he discovers something about her and she begs him to keep it to himself. He agrees to do that, but can he keep his mouth shut? And since he made this discovery while doing an errand for Dong-hwa, it’s quite possible that Dong-hwa will find out, too. We’ve got some tension, now!

In the animated Korean film The Senior Class, Jung-woo, centre, is quite literally stuck in the middle of a dispute between his jerky friend Dong-hwa, left, and the young woman on the right, who was seduced and then rejected by Dong-hwa.

The Senior Class is distressing to watch, because there is so much meanness and betrayal in it. There’s also some “cutting off your nose to spite your face” behaviour, that makes no sense, logically, but people do act illogically all the time.

Though The Senior Class lacks the physical violence seen in the other films written by Yeon Sang-ho, it is like them in that it exposes a rampant hypocrisy that is hardly unique to Korean society. Gossip is harmful, but hypocrisy is so much worse.

I haven’t included a link to the trailer because I think it gives away too much of the story, but you can find it on the Fantasia web site, if you want to. (Link is below.)

Director Hong Deok-pyo will attend the screening and answer questions after. I’m sorry that I did not ask one myself. A certain character reminded me of Marilyn Monroe. I wonder if that was an intentional thing, or just my imagination? I’ll try to find out before he leaves! (The last time I thought I saw something in a Korean film, it WAS all in my head!

At the Q&A for The Senior Class: Fantasia International Film Festival programmer Rupert Bottenberg, translator Noeul Kang, and director Hong Deok-pyo.

The Senior Class, in Korean with English subtitles, 82 minutes long.
Directed by: Hong Deok-pyo
Written by: Yeon Sang-ho
(Voice) cast: Lee Ju-seung, Kang Jin-ah, Jeong Yeong-gi
Company: Contents Panda

The Senior Class will be shown Monday, July 17, 5:10 pm, Salle J.A. De Sève of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs until Aug. 2, 2017.

Visit the Fantasia web site for more information.

Fantasia 2017 Review: Tilt

Joseph Cross plays a filmmaker names Joseph Burns in the film Tilt, directed by Kasra Farahani and shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

In the U.S. film Tilt we watch a man slowly coming unhinged. Joseph Burns (played by Joseph Cross) is a documentary filmmaker, though he has only completed one film so far. His second film will be about the the Golden Age of America, or rather, the myth of it. It was never really more than fairy tale, or propaganda in the first place, right?

His film is a very low-budget, independent project that he’s making in a shed in his backyard, using clips from newsreels and educational shorts from an earlier era, when average citizens were more innocent, or gullible. Among those films is the (in)famous Duck and Cover. Imagine telling school children to hide under their desks if an atomic bomb is dropped on their school. Joe has been watching that stuff for awhile and maybe it’s taking a toll. He empties many cans and bottles while working, too. I don’t think they are soft drinks.

He’s also been watching TV, where the 2016 presidential campaign is underway, so we can cringe along with Joe (well, I cringed) when Donald Trump, still just an inexplicable candidate, talks about losers, etc. Joe’s wife, Joanne, asks why watch if Trump annoys him so much? (A person could write an essay, or entire book about that, I think!)

Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) is a nurse who will soon be applying to medical school. She is the voice of sanity and reason in their home. Possibly also the voice of conformity, convention and authority. When she semi-sarcastically says “Not everyone is as smart as you,” he gives her a look cold enough to stop your heart. Then he hits her in the face with the cork while opening a wine bottle. He apologizes profusely for this “accident,” but it’s a disturbing moment.

Alexia Rasmussen as Joanne Burns and Joseph Cross, as Joseph Burns, in the film Tilt. This might be the only time that both characters manage to share a smile.

Joanne is pregnant and Joe does not seem ready for fatherhood at all, though he never says it in so many words. Joanne berates him because he’s not super enthusiastic about the baby’s sonogram photo, the way that her friends are.

Joe can’t sleep at night so he takes long walks around his dark, largely empty Los Angeles neighbourhood. (In a city where they say “no one walks” Joe has given up the expense of a car and a smartphone for the sake of his film.)  There’s a definite feeling of danger, tension and unease during these scenes. Each time he went out, I was expecting something bad to happen to Joe. On the other hand, he looks kinda scary himself, with his face half hidden under a dark hoodie. He looks scarier still when paints his face with black stripes before heading out to observe Halloween/ Dia de Los Muertos festivities.

Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities in Los Angeles, seen in the film Tilt, shown at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

About those names, Joseph and Joanne, both abbreviated to have the same sound: Jo(e). In real life that could be an amusing coincidence. But in a script? The same name might imply too much togetherness or a loss of identity, I don’t know. But when he tells his wife things like “I don’t know if I’m safe, Jo,” he could just as well be talking out loud to himself. And that sentence could be taken two ways. While the more obvious interpretation is that Joe might be in danger, it could mean that Joe himself is dangerous.

Tilt prompts one to wonder, could trying circumstances totally change a person, or do they allow parts that were hidden and controlled to finally break free?

I give Tilt full marks for mood and cinematography. I will gladly watch another film from Kasra Farahani. My only small complaint is, it seemed a bit long. Perhaps it would be stronger still if trimmed by a few minutes.

No wonder it looks good!: The Internet reveals that director and co-writer Kasra Farahani was an art director or concept artist for many Hollywood films. Check out his imdb page, or his resume.

Tilt

Directed by: Kasra Farahani
Written by: Kasra Farahani, Jason O’Leary
Cast: Joseph Cross, Alexia Rasmussen, Jessy Hodges, Kelvin Yu, Jade Sealey, C.S. Lee, Billy Khoury
Company: Bad Guy Good Guy
100 minutes long, in English

Seen at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada, July 14, 2017

Django review: Go for the music – ignore the plot

Reda Kateb, centre, plays jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in the film Django, directed by Etienne Comar.

The French film Django presents the life of renowned jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt during the last years of World War II in Occupied France. The music is wonderful, but the plot is disappointing. It features a fictional, generic, femme fatale while all but ignoring Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, a real-life Luftwaffe officer who loved the very music that the Nazis criticized as degenerate. Schulz-Koehn wrote about jazz and even supervised recording sessions under the name Dr. Jazz. More than once he helped Reinhardt and other musicians get out of trouble. Wouldn’t you want to know more about such a conundrum? (Director Stanley Kubrick had hoped to make a film about Schulz-Koehn. The Atlantic wrote an article about that.)

Many German officers attend jazz concerts in Paris, despite that degenerate label. (Signs warn that they’d better not try any dancing, though.) Django (played by Reda Kateb) does not mind playing for Nazis. Music is all he knows and he has to make a living, after all. He also declares “It’s not my war.” On the other hand, he’s in no rush to leave the familiarity of France for an extensive tour of Germany, and the idea of playing for Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and other bigwigs holds no appeal at all, especially since solos, syncopation, quick tempos and other musical flourishes are strictly controlled, when not banned altogether. (Does that fall under the “banality of evil?”)

Django’s manager reminds Django and his bandmates that saying “No” to the Germans is a very dangerous thing to do. The fictional femme fatale, Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France) points out that travelling into the heart of Nazi darkness would also be dangerous. There’s no happy solution to this problem.

After a certain amount of dithering in Paris, Django and his entourage head for the border in hopes of crossing into neutral Switzerland. It’s a closely watched border, though, so they must wait (and wait and wait) while hoping that members of the Resistance will deign to help them eventually. The film pretty much grinds to a halt at this point. Django plays in local bars to earn some food money, sometimes hiding his face under a hat, sometimes not. It seems extremely foolhardy considering his fame and unique style.

(SPOILER!) In one laughably silly scene Django is being chased by tracking dogs, so he lies down in the snow and sprinkles a few handfuls of the white stuff on top of himself. Somehow, I don’t think that would fool the dogs at all.

As many viewers will already know, Django did indeed survive the war, but as far as I can tell, the film fudges his escape attempt. The implication is that he made it into Switzerland and presumably stayed there until the war was over, but in fact, the Swiss border guards would not let him in.

What I did not know before seeing this film: Django Reinhardt could also play huge honking church organs and compose for them, too.

Things I learned later from Google: Django Reinhardt was touring England with his Quintette du Hot-Club de France when England declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939. Django returned to France immediately, but the Quintette’s violinist, Stéphane Grappelli, stayed in England until the war was over.

In regard to spending the war in France, Django said: “It is better to be frightened in your own country than in another one.”

In France during the war you could trade a Django Reinhardt record for two kg of butter on the black market. Django Reinhardt died May 16, 1953 at the relatively young age of 43.

Django is 115 minutes long

Director: Étienne Comar.

Screenplay: Étienne Comar and Alexis Salatko, based on the novel Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko.

With: Reda Kateb, Cécile de France, Beata Balya, BimBam Merstein, Gabriel Mirété, Vincent Frade, Johnny Montreuil, Raphaël Dever, Patrick Mille, Xavier Beauvois (In French, German, English, Romani dialogue)

Music by the Rosenberg Trio.

In Montreal, Django is playing, with English subtitles, at the Quartier Latin Cinema, 350 rue Emery, H2X 1J1.

Django Reinhardt’s music, as performed by Nomad O Swing, Eclectic Django and Denis Chang, can often by heard at Montreal Jazz Bar Diese Onze, 4115-A, rue St. Denis, H2W 2M7.

Rêveurs Définitifs brings magic and mystery to Just For Laughs Festival

Clones? Doppelgangers?The cast of Rêveurs Définitifs seems increase, thanks to some visual trickery.

So what is this “Magie Nouvelle” (new magic) anyway? Based on my experience at the show Rêveurs Définitifs, now on at Montreal’s Théâtre St. Denis, it can include ethereal songs and dances, in which  dancer  Ingrid Estarque floats above the stage; a flying, ghostly orb; and multiple versions of the performers interacting with each other, thanks to holography, and other mysterious trickery.

Besides all that, there’s still room for more traditional elements, like doves appearing out of clean air, jokes, card tricks, and audience participation.

The songs are performed by local musical hero Patrick Watson, by the way, and pianist Isabelle Mathieu provides live music for many of the acts.

The show was created by Raphaël Navarro for the Théâtre du Pond-Point in Paris. Other performers include Éric Antoine, Étienne Saglio, Yann Frisch.

Don’t freak out if this “creature” flies over your head!

The show is entirely in French and I must confess that I did not catch every last joke during the card-trick section. Perhaps that’s because the performers were talking very quickly, or maybe I’m just a dumb anglo, who knows? The show is mostly a visual spectacle, so an attendee’s language skills (or lack thereof) don’t matter much at all. Even if you don’t speak French, don’t worry, you’ll be fine!

Those who do understand French can read more reviews of Rêveurs Définitifs on the web sites of La Presse, Montreal TV and Le Devoir.

The cast of Rêveurs Définitifs.

Rêveurs Définitifs is part of the Just for Laughs Festival Juste pour rire. There are performances every night at 8 p.m., at Théâtre St. Denis, 1594 St. Denis, until July 15, 2017. There will be a 4 p.m. show on July 15 as well, and three 4 p.m shows on July 20, 21 and 22. You can buy tickets online, or at the theatre.

Théâtre St. Denis is quite close to the Berri-UQAM metro station.

Kedi Review: A warm, lyrical documentary about the street cats of Istanbul

A cat from the documentary film Kedi looks wise and regal.

Kedi is a delightful documentary film about the street cats of Istanbul, Turkey, and their human friends. It’s just lovely. The cats are elegant and endearing, the humans are eloquent and kind. (As you might guess, Kedi is the Turkish word for cat.)

Turkish-American filmmaker Ceyda Torun lived in Istanbul until she was 11 years old. Her fond memories of the city’s cats led her to make Kedi. She shows cats strolling, snoozing, and snacking, cajoing, climbing, and cuddling, playful, preening, and pouncing, watching, waiting and leaping. There are males and females; some with kittens, some are long-haired, others short-haired; they are tabby, calico, marmalade, or black-and-white. The cats make themselves at home on sidewalks, in doorways, at outdoor cafés and markets and down at the wharf. They seem to be everywhere, like the little dishes of food and water that people leave out for them.

Some Istanbul cats hang out at cafes, where the owners and the customers are happy to see them and feed them.

Cats have lived in Istanbul for thousands of years. The theory is that the population was regularly augmented by cats arriving on trading ships; they would leap out for a little rest and relaxation and not did not always find their way back to their home ship before it left the port. Cats lived on ships to keep rats and mice out of the cargo and the food supply; no doubt the sailors appreciated their company, too.

Torun introduces us to seven cats, revealing their personalities, special quirks and exploring their day-to-day routine. We also meet the people who help them and love them. In many cases, this help goes beyond just providing food – one man says that everyone in his neighbourhood has running tabs with at least one veterinarian, often several. Another man regularly carries antibiotic drops for cats with infected eyes. Among those who feed them is a woman who goes above and beyond by cooking 20 pounds of chicken every day!

Sari walks purposefully through the streets of Istanbul, in the documentary film Kedi.

 

Sari’s kittens are waiting for her. They’re hungry!

People provide shelters for the cats, too. Some are just cardboard boxes, but one impressive structure looked like a townhouse for multiple cats.

Because of silly stereotypes about women and cats, it’s refreshing that so many of the “cat people” in Kedi are men. In particular, a fisherman shares stories about the low points in his life and how a cat helped him to recover.

Cat-loving cartoonist Bulent Ustun makes a brief appearance, though his name only appears on the credits, not onscreen next to his face. The animated film Bad Cat (also known as Bad Cat Serafettin) is based on his graphic novel Kotu Kedi Sarafettin. Bad Cat was shown at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2016. Kedi and Bad Cat might make a great double bill, something to think about when Kedi is available for purchase. Bad Cat is definitely not family friendly the way Kedi is, though. You couldn’t call Serafettin a model citizen.

Cinematographers Alp Korfali and Charlie Wupperman do a fine job of keeping up with the cats, whether they’re scampering over rooftops, climbing trees or barrelling down the street. (I read somewhere that some footage was shot with miniature cameras mounted on remote-controlled toy cars.)

Kedi is a bit of a travelogue too, with images of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Galata Tower, sunshine on sparkling waves and soaring seagulls worthy of a tourism brochure. Neighbourhoods visited include Cihangir, Kandilli, Karakoy, Nisantasi, and Samatya, since that’s where the profiled cats live.

Kedi will probably boost tourist visits to Istanbul.

In addition to music that Kira Fontana composed for the film, there are tunes from assorted Turkish artists including Mavi Isiklar who were sometimes called the Turkish Beatles. Here’s a link to the film’s tunes at imdb. While I didn’t look for all of them yet, I found some videos on YouTube.

I’d read many positive reviews before seeing Kedi and it totally lived up to expectations. I felt calm, happy and light-hearted after seeing it. You might find it as beneficial as yoga or meditation. I’m tempted to say, you’d have to be a curmudgeon not to like it, but maybe that would be going too far.

If you don’t live with a cat already, Kedi might put you in the mood to get one, or more. You might want to visit Istanbul as well, but consider checking government travel advisories before doing that.

In Montreal, Kedi is playing at Cinéma du Parc with English subtitles and at Cinema Beaubien (2396 Beaubien E. H2G 1N2) with French subtitles. It is 79 minutes long.