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.

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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.

 

Review: Documentary Under The Sun shows that ‘normal, everyday life’ is a foreign concept in North Korea

Zin-mi, right, and her friend smile in Under The Sun. It’s a cute photo, but sadly, it’s one of the few times anyone looks happy in the film. Even here, the girls are probably just pretending.

The subversive documentary film Under The Sun takes us to North Korea, where we observe 8-year-old Zin-mi as she eats with her parents in their apartment, attends school, joins the North Korean Children’s Union, and rehearses her part in a pageant that will celebrate “The Day of the Sun,” the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current ruler, Kim Jong-un. The Day of the Sun (April 15) is the most important holiday of the entire year in North Korea.

We also visit the alleged workplaces of Zin-mi’s parents. (In an early meeting, Zin-mi had told filmmaker Vitaly Mansky that her father was a journalist and her mother worked in a cafeteria, but in the film they are seen as an engineer in a garment factory and a worker at a soy milk plant, respectively. Made me think of “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Mom and her co-workers wear white uniforms with red aprons and cute, red rubber boots. This echoes the white shirts and red scarves of the members of the Children’s Union.)

Mansky wanted to make a film about day to day life North Korea, with co-operation from the government. He knew there would be restraints, but he got many more than he had expected. The script was written by the North Korean government. Government minders were always close by, telling people where to walk, what to say, to speak more loudly, to show more animation. “Look at her when she’s talking!” They would make people repeat dialogue over and over to achieve the appropriate level of breathless enthusiasm. Mansky had no freedom in choosing events or locations. He was not allowed to make small talk with any North Koreans in between shooting scenes. He had to show his footage to the government at the end of each day.

You might expect the resulting film to be as exciting as the “Bulgarian tractor epics” of the past. The thing that makes Under The Sun different is that Mansky kept his cameras running all day. He did not wait for the government chaperones to yell “action,” and did not stop filming when they said “cut.” Despite all the supervision, he did not hand over ALL of his footage for scrutiny. I’ve read different explanations for exactly how that worked, but one way or the other, he had secret copies that the authorities probably did not know about until the documentary was released. On the other hand, he made filming two trips to North Korea in 2014, but never received his visa for a planned third trip. So maybe they did have an inkling, after all.

Documentary filmmaker Vitaly Manksy in in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2014. Mansky is standing in front of one of the many monuments to North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il.

A scene of garment workers celebrating their heroic production is exceedingly awkward and unnatural. In the first take, they have surpassed their government quota by 150 per cent. By the next take, the figure has grown to 200 per cent. Seriously, how dumb do they think we are?

Even seemingly ordinary, boring scenes of people crossing a square or boarding a bus were scripted and directed. When films are sold on DVD they often include a behind-the-scenes “Making Of” documentary. Under the Sun has made those scenes an integral part of the film, instead of setting them apart.

In their alleged apartment, Zin-mi and her parents sit in front of a table that’s crowded with luscious-looking food. Remember that North Korea is a country that has lost millions of citizens to famine. After Zin-mi and her father praise the health benefits of their national dish, kimchi, (several times) the table is carried out of the room, with most of the food untouched. What happened to it? Who ate it? Perhaps Zin-mi is perfectly healthy, but she is very slight and often looks tired. Too bad they didn’t let her eat some more.

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Zin-mi is asked how she sees her future. She has nothing to say, and starts to cry.

Eight-year-old North Korean girl Zin-mi, the main character in Vitaly Mansky’s documentary Under The Sun, often looks tired and overwhelmed.

Needless to say, Under the Sun has not been shown officially in North Korea, though someone recorded a screening somewhere, and showed it to North Korean authorities. Those authorities contacted the Russian government, which had provided some of the film’s funding, and asked that the film be destroyed and Mansky be punished. Mansky was criticized, but he was not punished; his film was not seized. In fact, it won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Message to Man International Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. And while eight theatres in Moscow refused to show it, 20 others did. In 2016, New York’s Museum of Modern Art cancelled its screening of the film, though it apologized later.

Vitaly Mansky was born in Ukraine, when it was part of the USSR. He spent most of his adult life in Russia, though he lives in Latvia now.

Random thoughts, observations and questions:

Though the Sun of the title refers to Kim Il Sung (Il Sung means “to realize the sun”) we don’t see much sunshine in the film at all. Some wintry scenes look foggy, but is it really fog, or air pollution?

Many scenes were shot in February. Mansky has said that it was very cold, even indoors. He lets us know by showing students warming their hands over a radiator in their classroom.

Every room we see, whether public or private, has portraits of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il. There are many huge murals and monuments to them in Pyongyang. How much did those photos and monuments cost? How much food could have been bought with that money?

In interviews, Mansky has speculated that many families do not live together. He thinks that many students live at their schools and he knows that many workers live at their factories. I’d like to know more about that.

Even though North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world, clunky, ugly platform shoes managed to get in.

North Korea is often demonized because it has nuclear weapons and an unpredictable leader. There has been some talk about bombing the place, “taking out Kim Jong-un,” etc. Films like Under The Sun add some nuance to the us-and-them narrative, and showing us the people who could be killed by those bombs.

Hope for the future? The huge monuments, the exercise instructions given over loud speakers, and the huge squares filled with robotic, marching people reminded me of scenes from China in the 1960s. Life in China might be far from perfect now, but it seems better than it was. Maybe things will improve for North Koreans, too? (Without the poisoned air and water of China?)
Choosing a girl to be the main character in this story might be the final irony. An article on the web site of Human Rights Watch says that “every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop.”

That name though….It’s a minor point, but the name Zin-mi was puzzling. In decades of watching Korean films I don’t remember anyone named Zin-mi. Articles about hangul, the Korean writing system, and hangul charts don’t show any symbols that correspond to “Z.” There are some online articles from South Korea that call her Jin-mi.

Under The Sun, directed by Vitaly Mansky
Russia, Latvia, Germany, Czech Republic, North Korea | 2016 | 106 minutes
In the original Korean, with English subtitles

Under The Sun was shown by RIDM+, January-to-May series of films presented by RIDM, the Montreal International Documentary Festival. RIDM will run from November 9 to 19, 2017.

 

Review of La sociologue et l’ourson: Puppets, politicians and same-sex marriage

French sociologist Irène Théry appears in the form of a stuffed bear in the documentary film La sociologue et l’ourson (The Sociologist and the Bear Cub).

It’s not every day that we can learn about the evolution of the family and changing social mores from a witty, articulate, stuffed bear. So why not take advantage of the opportunity and watch La sociologue et l’ourson?

In the fall of 2012, the video and filmmaking duo Étienne Chaillou et Mathias Théry set out to make a film about the debate over a proposed law that would allow same-sex marriage in France. The law, which had been one the campaign promises of recently elected President François Hollande, would also allow same-sex couples to adopt children. As part of their research for the film, Mathias Théry recorded many phone chats with his mother, Irène Théry, the sociologist of the title. She’s an academic who studies the family and human rights. She was also one of many experts who had advised the French government on the proposed law.

President François Hollande in the French documentary film La sociologue et l’ourson (The Sociologist and the Bear Cub).

Chaillou et Théry wanted to use those chats in the film, but they had no video footage to go with it. What to do? I don’t imagine they wanted to use “Ken Burns technique” of panning over photos. They decided to use stuffed animals to represent Irène Théry and other participants. Irène Théry becomes a Mama Bear with swinging hair, (and Mathias Théry is her  “ourson” – the bear cub, of the title.) President François Hollande looks like some kind of Lego figurine, while newscasters are depicted as birds of various kinds – some halfway realistic ones, along with others that are clearly made from grey socks. This introduces some humour into a situation that became more heated than the filmmakers had expected. Though Chaillou et Théry are on record as saying there is no particular meaning to the animals they chose viewers might wonder about that when they see that some lawyers are depicted as pigs.

In the French animated documentary La sociologue et l’ourson, reporters and newscasters appear as birds.

While there is some footage of the real life Irène Théry on public transit, appearing on TV, at demonstrations, etc., we mostly see her animal avatar in her office, her kitchen, riding taxis, etc., as she explains how much families have changed over the centuries, and how cruel French society once was toward unmarried mothers and their children. There are also some funny bits of a more personal nature, connected with her marriage, her husband, his fish stick errand, etc. I wonder if Chaillou et Théry are fans of the Muppets, because the puppet version of Irène sometimes tosses her hair in a way that makes me think of Miss Piggy.  (Irène Théry is better looking, of course.)

Many people were against the proposed legislation, including religious leaders. Close to 2,000 mayors said they were unwilling to marry gay couples. Between October 2012 and May 2013 thousands of people attended demonstrations for and against same-ex marriage and adoption. Many of the “anti” demonstrations were led by a right-wing satirist and activist known as “Frigide Barjot.” (Her real name is Virginie Tellenne; Barjot means daffy, crazy, nuts, bonkers.) When Irène Théry attends those  demonstrations, her gregarious nature and her network of connections become obvious. Many people come to greet her and more than once she is introduced to “my future husband.”

NOT A SPOILER! Anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in the news will likely know that the legislation did pass. There were 7,000 same sex marriages in 2013, 10,000 in 2014, 7,751 in 2015 and 7,000 in 2016. However, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing Front national, has said that she would rescind the law if she is elected president this year.

Mathias Théry and Étienne Chaillou, directors of La sociologue et l’ourson, will present their film in Montreal on Friday, April 7, 2017. Irène Théry will be there, too.

La sociologue et l’ourson begins its run at Cinéma Beaubien on Friday, April 7, 2017. Étienne Chaillou, Mathias Théry and Irène Théry will be there to introduce the 7 p.m. screening of the film and answer questions afterward. Will they bring some of their puppets with them? I hope so! When the film was shown by RIDM + at Cinéma du Parc last week, Chaillou and Théry talked to the audience via a glitchy Skype connection. It was the middle of the night for them, as they sat in their respective kitchens. They said they were looking forward to a “real discussion” when they arrived in Montreal.

Cinéma Beaubien is at 2396 Beaubien St E. Visit the Cinéma Beaubien web site for more information about the film and the screening.

Movie review: Le dernier souffle is a love letter to Hôtel-Dieu Hospital

Common Room of Hotel Dieu Hospital in 1911. (Wm. Notman photo)

The documentary film Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is a powerful love letter to Hôtel-Dieu. You might just want to run over to the hospital to give the staff a collective hug. And if you watch it at Cinéma du Parc, you won’t have to run far, either!

Don’t wait too long, though. Director Annabel Loyola was prompted to begin the film after reading a distressing newspaper headline “Hôtel-Dieu to be sold” in March 2013. She wanted to “recreate. . .the distinctive universe of the Hôtel-Dieu,” and she has done so magnificently.

She introduces us to the hospital’s patients, doctors, nurses, volunteers, painters, carpenters, electricians, gardeners and cleaners. And the musical therapist, with her beautiful white harp! The staff members all seem like lovely, friendly people who enjoy their work and appreciate their co-workers. One woman has been a volunteer there for more 40 years. Two heart surgeons worked together so often, that they were listed on the operating room schedule as one person, with a hyphenated name. And then there are the “two Sylvains” in building services, who also worked together for decades. Patients share their joys, pain and fears.

Then and now: Cardiac surgeons Ignacio Prieto and Fadi Basile have worked together at Hotel Dieu for 30 years. They would be listed on the operating room schedule under one hyphenated name – Dr. Basile-Prieto.

We even meet some non-human “employees” – the bees who pollinate the hospital’s apple orchard and garden. (I used to walk by the hospital almost every day and had no idea that there were beehives in there.)

Loyola returns to those bees many times. Maybe she just likes them and the surrounding garden, but I assume that she is telling us, in a subtle way, that the hospital and the beehive are both complex social organisms where individuals work hard for the good of the whole. Sometimes beehives and hospitals fall victim to things beyond their control, like pesticides, parasites, etc., in the case of the bees, and government decisions in the case of hospitals.

Loyola spent two years shooting the film, so we see the hospital in all seasons, from the lush greenery of summer to the depths of winter, when the beehives are buried under mounds of snow. She takes us to hospital areas, utilitarian or beautiful, calm and peaceful, that we might not otherwise notice or have access to. Images are carefully framed and the editing is impressive, too. Archival maps, engravings, paintings and photos complete the picture. (Like Jeanne Mance herself, Loyola was born in Langres, France. In 2010 she made La folle entreprise, sur les pas de Jeanne Mance / A Mad Venture, in the Footsteps of Jeanne Mance. Canal Savoir will show it five times in May. The station’s web site has more details.)

Fort Ville Marie, as it was in 1645.

As an organization, Hotel Dieu Hospital is as old as Montreal itself. On May 17, 1642, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and Jeanne Mance, accompanied by about 50 settlers from France, founded Fort Ville-Marie, where the St. Laurent and St. Pierre rivers meet. At first Jeanne Mance treated the sick from her own home; a separate building was built in 1645. It would be replaced many times in the years to come. In 1659 Jeanne Mance recruited three sisters from the Hospitalières de Saint-Joseph. These sisters ran the hospital after she died and members of their order continued to do so until the early 1960s. The hospital left St Paul St. in Old Montreal for its present location, on St. Urbain, in 1861. That area was then regarded as “the countryside” and blessed with fresher air to benefit the patients.

(BTW: Jeanne Mance lived until the age of 66 – that seems like a long life, considering the difficult conditions in the colony.)

Hôtel-Dieu was the city’s only hospital until the Montreal General Hospital opened, in 1821.

Religieuses de l Hotel-Dieu de Montreal, James Duncan, 1853.

The history of the hospital reflects that of Quebec in so many ways. The hospital was run by nuns until the early 1960s when the Quebec government took over. (Nursing sisters continued to work there, though.) In the 1960s, when female participation in the workforce was not as widespread as it is now, the stay-at-home wives of male doctors were encouraged to become hospital volunteers.

Le dernier souffle is interesting enough purely as a moving portrait of the hospital, as it was and as it is now, but it has extra poignancy because of the uncertain future of the buildings and grounds.

Since 1996, Hôtel-Dieu has been part of the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM). By the end of 2017, the hospital’s staff and functions are supposed to move into the “superhospital” on St. Denis. Years ago, when this move was announced, there were fears (and anger) that the hospital grounds might be sold for luxury condos. Neighbours and fans of the hospital held rallies and created petitions advocating for community clinics and social housing instead. To this day, no concrete plans have been announced.

As a final indignity, the Hôtel-Dieu has been left out of all the brouhaha surrounding Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

In Brief: Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu) is warm, loving, respectful, a marvel of editing and filmmaking.
Who is it for?: Anyone interested in other human beings, documentary film fans, history buffs, Montrealers, Québécois, Canadians.
I see what you did there: Right after a scene where a priest lights an incense censer, we see a beekeeper with his smoker, a device used to calm the bees so they won’t sting.

Filmmaker Annabel Loyola in the garden of Hotel Dieu Hospital. (Photo: Julie D’Amour)

Le dernier souffle, au coeur de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal (The Last Breath, at the Heart of the Hôtel-Dieu)
72 minutes long; researched, written and directed by Annabel Loyola;
Camera: Tomi Grgicevic, Annabel Loyola; Editing: Emma Bertin; Original Music: Fabienne Lucet

Montreal screenings will take place Friday, April 7 to Thursday, April 13.

Cinémathèque québécoise
Everyday 6:15pm | Sunday April 9, 4:00pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7 at 6:15pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11 at 6:15pm
Debate with Christine Gosselin, conseillère d’arrondissement Jeanne-Mance district, Dinu Bumbaru, Héritage Montréal and Amir Khadir, Québec Solidaire, Sunday April 9, 4:00pm.

Cinéma du Parc (original French version with English subtitles)
Everyday 2:45pm, 7:10pm | Saturday April 8, 10:00am, 7:10pm | Sunday April 9, 10:50am, 2:45pm, 7:10pm

Screening and Q&A hosted by film crew, April 7, 7:10pm
Screenings and Q&As hosted by filmmaker Annabel Loyola, April 7, 8, 9, 11, 7:10pm
Debate with Dominique Daigneault, Coalition Sauvons l’Hôtel-Dieu, and Ron Rayside, architect, Hôtel-Dieu social and community project, April 11, 7:10pm

Visit the film’s web site for information about screenings in Coteau du Lac, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Rimouski.

OMG! Action-packed Commando 2 opens on Friday, March 3, in Montreal!

Vidyut Jammwal as Captain Karanvir Singh Dogra in the film Commando 2: The Black Money Trail

Vidyut Jammwal as Captain Karanvir Singh Dogra in the film Commando 2: The Black Money Trail

In the summer of 2013, Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival showed an Indian action film called Commando. Fantasia fans loved it. (Me, too!)

The headline for my Montreal Gazette blog post was handed to me on a silver platter when I heard a (female) audience member exclaim “That’s the sexiest man I’ve seen in my life!” She was referring to the star of Commando, Vidyut Jammwal.

Jammwal plays a super-skilled, extremely fit Indian soldier who is captured and brutally tortured by another state, in some faraway outpost. Of course, he escapes his tormentors. I wrote that his “skills include, but are certainly not limited to: punching, kicking, stabbing, setting traps, swinging on vines, running up walls (or people) leaping off rooftops, cliffs and bridges, over cars or through the windows of their open doors, etc., etc.”

“He gives good glare, where the bad guys are concerned, but is also ready with great smouldering looks, when the heroine (Pooja Chopra) needs one. Multi-talented!”

The film’s subhead “A One Man Army,” was an understatement, if anything.

If ever a film was crying out for a sequel, it was Commando. And now. . .  it’s almost here! Commando 2: The Black Money Trail,  opens in Montreal (and many other places, I’m sure!) on Friday, March 3, 2017. Whoohoo! The film is about money-laundering on a massive scale, along with a double kidnapping in Malaysia.

Vidyut Jammwal in the action film Commando 2.

Vidyut Jammwal in the action film Commando 2.

Take a look at the exceptional action choreography in the trailer below. (More than 16 MILLION people have already watched it since January 23, 2017!) The action is even more impressive than what we saw in the first film. The leaps, spins, the tumbles! Good grief! How does Jammwal slip through that tiny window? He has been studying Kalaripayattu, a martial art from the Indian state of Kerala since he was three years old. That probably helps!

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Jammwal said “Commando 2 will be the biggest action film in recent times.” “We created a new genre of action, where no cables and wires were used. It will be a visual spectacle.” I believe it! I’m also thinking, maybe it’s time to redefine the concept of a “chick flick.” We don’t necessarily need female bonding, singalongs, weddings, alcohol, flowers, fancy food or clothes, you know?

I usually avoid opening weekends, because the films often sell out and audiences can be too unruly, but in this instance. . .I don’t think I’ll have the patience to wait five whole days until (my unofficial name for it) “Cheapo Tuesday.”

Commando 2: The Black Money Trail, written by Ritesh Shah, directed by Deven Bhojani, starring Vidyut Jammwal, Adah Sharma, Freddy Daruwala, Thakur Anoop Singh, Esha Gupta, Adil Hussain, Suhail Nayyar.


Film Review: A Man Called Ove

Rolf LassgŒrd plays the title character in A Man Called Ove.

Rolf LassgaŒrd plays the title character in A Man Called Ove.

The Swedish film A Man Called Ove is one of the five entries competing for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. It’s also nominated for a Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar.

Ove is only 59, but he looks much older. That’s what crankiness will do to you! Ove is a stickler for rules; his main purpose in life seems to be upholding them. Even the possibility that a rule might soon be broken raises his ire.

Every morning, Ove Lindahl (Rolf Lassgård) does the “rounds” in his suburban neighbourhood, even though he is no longer the head of the residents’ association. Cars parked (or driven) where they shouldn’t be, errant bicycles, cigarette butts, tiny dogs piddling where they should not, these are just a few of the things that get his goat. Ove even takes his suicide rope back, to a Home-Depot type place, to complain that it was not “suitable for all uses.” The man has chutzpah!

Why suicide? Grief, boredom, or feeling useless and rejected? I choose “all of the above.” Ove’s wife Sonja died within the past year and he misses her very much. Every day he visits her grave to promise her that he will join her soon. He recently lost his longtime job with the railroad, too. (The dialogue in that scene should make human resources people everywhere cringe.) Arguing with the neighbours and store clerks is just not enough to keep a man going. But when decent, friendly Patrick (Tobias Almborg), his wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), and their two little girls move in next door, they do provide many new distractions.

Bahar Pars plays Parvaneh, the friendly, lively neighbour of Ove (Rolf LassgaŒrd).

Bahar Pars plays Parvaneh, the friendly, lively neighbour of Ove (Rolf LassgaŒrd).

A Man Called Ove is a crowd-pleasing tear jerker, with some jokes and pokes at smug, smirking bureaucrats. Some of those bureaucrats are just clueless, while others are truly evil.

Ove himself is not evil, he’s a sad, somewhat clumsy man, who has constructed a hard shell over his gooey centre. He’s a politically-correct crank – he does not hate gays, immigrants, or women, so he doesn’t have too far to go to redeem himself, as we know he eventually will. This is not one of those stories where a neo-Nazi sees the light and becomes a human-right lawyer. Too bad he’s so mean to retail clerks, though. As for his run-in with a clown. . . who really likes clowns, anyway?

The young adult Ove (Filip Berg) while socially inept in the extreme, wins the heart of school-teacher-to-be Sonja (Ida Engvoll). He is astounded by how many books she has when they move in together, but gamely sets to building more yet shelves when he realizes he did not make enough the first time. At first, we only see Sonja in relation to Ove, later we learn more about her life-changing goodness toward others. It might have been nice to see more of her, but the story IS A Man Called Ove, not a Woman Called Sonja.

When that same young adult Ove meets his neighbour Rune, it’s like finding another sort of love, as they run after the local rule-breakers with the joy of small children, or frolicking puppies.

Most people might guess the general direction the film will take and some might feel manipulated. While A Man Called Ove has its clichéd elements, I enjoyed it anyway, I’m not sorry I watched it; I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Be warned though: Reviews I read before seeing the film led me to expect a comedy about a cranky man. I was surprised by the many tragedies and injustices that were revealed in the flashbacks. While Ove’s life was not quite as bleak as that of the Biblical Job, he did suffer a lot, much more than I had expected, based on summaries and reviews I’d read before seeing the film.

Random info and musings: The film is based on Fredrik Backman’s  popular novel; it’s been translated into many languages.

Makeup artist transforms actor Rolf LassgŒrd into the balding cranky Ove. (Gala magazine photo)

Makeup artist transforms actor Rolf LassgaŒrd into the balding, cranky Ove. (Gala magazine photo)

Rolf Lassgård has played the detective Wallander on TV. In real life, he doesn’t look much like the worn-out Ove at all. Hence the nomination for a Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar.

Ida Engvoll, who plays Sonja, is slightly toothy. If she were a Hollywood star, would someone have suggested that she “fix” those teeth?  I wouldn’t be surprised.

Ove was so lucky to meet his wife, who accepted him as he was. Would an awkward woman be so lucky? I wonder. Don’t think I have see a film like that yet.

Ove’s estranged friend Rune reminded me of one of the guys from TV show Trailer Park Boys.

The blue in Ove’s workplace made me think of the blue of Montreal’s metro system.

The film opens in the plant department of a store that looks like the Home Depot on Beaubien St.

Feline trivia: According to web site imdb.com, the large fluffy cat in the film is portrayed by two Ragdolls, both from Poland. In an interview after a screening in Seattle, director Hannes Holm said one cat was sleepy while the other was quite aggressive. More than once, crew members brought the wrong cat onto the set, with painful consequences. Holm also said that a Hollywood film would probably opt for CGI cats, but Swedish filmmakers don’t have that kind of money. When told that the film Inside Llewyn Davis used six cats, he said he couldn’t have afforded so many. The entire production budget for A Man Called Ove was a mere $350,000! Quite amazing!

In Montreal, A Man Called Ove is playing at Cineplex Odeon Forum, Cinéma du Parc, and Cinéma Beaubien. One hour, 56 minutes long, In Swedish with English subtitles at Forum and Cinéma du Parc, French subtitles at Cinéma Beaubien.

A Man Called Ove, written and directed by Hannes Holm, with Rolf Lassgård, Filip Berg, Ida Engvoll, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Poyan Kamiri, Borje Lundberg, Stefan Gödicke