Fences(12/26/2016)

August Wilson was likely one of the most unanimously revered playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century and he also lived in my home state for about ten years, a fact that was more than enough for the local English teachers to adopt him as a hometown hero despite the fact that every one of his plays was set elsewhere.  As such I’m somewhat familiar with his work, but for whatever reason I was never assigned to read his most famous work “Fences,” perhaps because those English teachers all wanted to explore the deep cuts rather than the play that everyone would theoretically find without their help.  “Fences” was often viewed as being sort of a black response to “Death of a Salesman” which makes some sense structurally and thematically even if it is a little reductive.  It was something of a sensation when premiered on Broadway in the late eighties it won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and also won a Tony for its original star James Earl Jones.  Needless to say this is material that has largely been canonized and is not to be adapted lightly.  The play was however successfully revived in 2010 with a cast which included Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and now that revival has been adapted into a feature film with Washington himself directing.

The film is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1950s and focuses on an average working class African American family called the Maxsons.  The patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) has been working as a garbage man for decades and has raised a teenage son named Cory (Jovan Adepo) along with his wife Rose (Viola Davis).  As the film begins things are looking fairly decent for the family; Troy is lobbying to get a promotion that has historically not been available to African Americans, Cory is proving to be a talented football player, and the family is soon going to have a nice picket fence to spruce up their home.  However there are cracks in this nice veneer that will soon threaten to implode this tight family dynamic and they first show themselves when it’s revealed that Cory has put his job at a corner store on hold so that he can attend football practice, a move that would seem irresponsible until you realize that his skill is such that he’s already attracted the attention of a college scout and could get a scholarship from this skill.  Troy, played Negro League baseball in his youth and experienced the frustration of having never advanced beyond that because of his race and as such doesn’t see that as any kind of a valid hope for his son’s future and stubbornly refuses to allow the son to continue this pursuit.

Given that this play has basically entered the cannon of American literature at this point it almost feels presumptuous to weigh in on any of this material in and of itself, but I do have a few reservations.  The biggest is that I feel like the conflict that the play builds between the father and the son all through the first act sort of seems to be sort of pushed to the wayside in the second half in place of a different conflict with his wife which I will not reveal.  That second conflict is of course interesting as well but I would have liked to have seen how that tension over the son’s potential football career would have played out if the focus had stayed there.  I also maybe could have lived without a sub-plot involving Troy’s brain damaged brother and I’ve also never been particularly fond of August Wilson’s occasional dabbling in magical realism as he does in the epilog here.  Those quibbles having been aired, it is clear from this movie that this play does live up to its reputation and is clearly a very poignant character study about a flawed man trying to live up to the pressures and expectations of being a patriarch.

Of course with a film like this the question is really less a matter of how good the material is so much as how good the adaptation was, and the answer to that almost entirely depends on how you feel about stage plays being turned into films with minimal attempt to conceal the theatrical origins of the text.  The movie is certainly doing nothing to hide the fact that it’s based on a play.  A few scenes certainly appear to have been relocated to other locations but most of the action takes place in the back yard of the family’s house and the dialogue certainly leans more towards long speeches than any movie written directly for the screen is likely to indulge in.  Of course the film has the benefit of something that the stagings of the play at your local repertory theater company don’t have: it has a world class cast anchored by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are both operating at the height of their abilities.  Washing ton in particular is impressive here, albeit in a very certain kind of theatrical way.  My one real reference point for this character is a Youtube video I found with a three-some minute clip of James Earl Jones doing the play’s signature “why don’t you like me” scene.  Judging a Tony winning performance by a short clip like that is pretty stupid but what I noticed was that Jones’ take on the character seemed a lot more stern and withdrawn into himself.  Washington by contrast seems to be playing the character a bit looser and lets you see a bit more of the character’s roguish past.

If there’s any reservations I have about Washington’s performance it’s that it doesn’t have a ton of internal range.  Washington starts at about a 9 on the intensity range, moves to a 10 frequently, and occasionally pushes into an 11, but never goes much below a 9.  Of course the material invites this and he probably shouldn’t have played it any other way, but it is not the kind of actively naturalistic acting that most modern filmmaking trades in.  That can kind of be said about most of the movie as it is unapologetic in the fact that it’s speaking the language of theater rather than the language of cinema and one’s enjoyment of the movie is going to mostly be rooted in how one feels about that.  Personally I think that does kind of diminish the movie, at least when you’re directly comparing it within the larger world of cinematic accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still have a lot of value for what it’s trying to be.  I’m not someone who gets out to the theater very often for a variety of reasons and I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there like me in this regard.  I’m also not inclined to read plays like books and don’t have much of an interest in seeing filmed plays through Fathom events and the like.  As such these stage-to-screen adaptations are often my only real way to experience great works of theater like this.  So, for a play like “Fences” to be brought to the screen competently like this and with a cast like this is a pretty good thing any way you cut it.

Elle(12/25/2016)

During the 2010s I started a funny little personal movie-going tradition: making sure to go to a very decidedly non-yuletide movie on Christmas day.  Christmas has of course always been a big movie going day for me (I don’t need to travel for holidays and my family never makes a big deal about it anyway) and somehow Hollywood has consistently managed to supply me with movies to see on the day that are either downright perverse or at the very least contrary to the usual Christmas fare.  Last year my Christmas movie of choice was The Hateful Eight, and previous winners of the honor include Mr. Turner, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and True Grit.  This year I may have outdone myself, in part Hollywood was a little stingy about their releases this year (although Silence would have been an ideal choice had Paramount not decided to platform it slowly), so I instead I went to the arthouse to see noted provocateur Paul Verhoven’s French language rape-revenge film Elle which if nothing else can definitely be said to be pretty far removed from what most people would consider ideal holiday entertainment.

The film focuses on Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a divorced middle-aged woman who runs a video game development studio in Paris.  In the very first scene of the film a masked man breaks into her hope beats and rapes Michèle in the middle of the day.  That scene is shocking but perhaps not as shocking as the reaction she seems to have to the incident, which is to say she seems oddly undisturbed by it.  She doesn’t go to the police and dismisses the concept of doing so, not out of trauma but because she says it’s “not worth the trouble.”  This isn’t to say she invited the attack or that she is completely undisturbed by it, but the burning anger and trauma you expect doesn’t exactly emerge.  Meanwhile she continues through her daily routines while trying to figure out who her attacker was and prepare for a potential second attack.

The attack at the beginning of the film is not representative of the most common forms of sexual abuse, and the film makes it pretty clear over the course of its runtime that Michèle is not a typical person and her reaction to the attack is not meant to be typical either.  The movie is not really in dialog with the various social and political conversations about rape that have been occurring recently and is really meant to be more of a wild character study.  Michèle is indeed the most interesting aspect of the film.  She’s a character who, attack or no attack, is characterized by a sort of sarcastic remove from her surroundings born of previous traumatic experiences.  She has minimal respect for most of the people in her life from her silly bourgeois friends, to her immature and disrespectful co-workers, to her wacky mother, to her dimwitted son, to his clearly unstable pregnant fiancé.  She’s not exactly wrong in her assessment of any of these people, and yet you get the impression that even if she surrounded herself by a higher caliber of companions that they too would prove unworthy of her high standards.  One could imagine a version of the movie not involving rape which could have a nice bitter little dramedy about a badass chick who manages to rise above the lesser fools bringing her down, and in some way that is what the finished film ended up being but the whole rape thing makes all of this a little harder to comfortably pull off.

This multiplicity of side characters is actually one of the film’s problems.  There are a lot of mediocre white Frenchmen in this woman’s life, perhaps to provide the film with some suspects for who this masked rapist might have been.  It’s one thing to believe that this one woman would be a strange person with a strange background but it’s a little harder to understand why so many of the other people seem to also be so strange.  It could perhaps be said that the film takes place in a sort of heightened world in general but it does get to the point where characters start behaving in ways that are just too strange to connect to and that is especially true of the film’s third act where Michèle’s rapist is revealed and she begins to deal with him in ways that are reminiscent of Liliana Cavani similarly provocative The Night Porter, a classic of provocative cinema which itself left me a little bewildered with its characters’ unusual behavior.  Human reactions to trauma are of course complex, but I wonder if they’re ever really quite as complex as authors and filmmakers like to imagine them being, especially when they’re intentionally trying to dream up wacky scenarios like this.

Elle was directed by Paul Verhoven, a filmmaker previously known for satiric action movies like Robocop as well as sexually charged Hollywood thrillers like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.  He hasn’t had a ton of luck in the 21st Century as he’s a little too Hollywood for Europe and too adventurous for modern Hollywood.  Elle certainly shows some elements of his usual style (including a perverse little acting decision by a cat), but I’m not sure this movie was really the best use of his particular set of skills.  Verhoven is more of a satirist than a provocateur; he’s more interested in finding ways to make his wacky sensibility palatable to the viewer in inventive ways than he is in shoving outrageousness into the viewer’s face.  I can only imagine what something like this would have looked like in the hands of someone like Lars Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, or Gaspar Noe.  I don’t know, this movie is in some weird place where it presses too many buttons to be comfortable but no enough buttons to feel like this really exciting bit of boldness and the end movie just feels kind of strange all around.  I’d like to be able to get on some soapbox and declare that I didn’t like it because of some high-minded principle but really I just think it kind of fails itself in a number of ways and the overall mix just didn’t work for me.

Doctor Strange(11/14/2016)

I’m no expert on comic books but I know more than your average person and one thing I’ve always noticed about the Marvel universe is that it’s filled with characters who are ostensibly stars in their own right and have their own books but who mostly exist by making cameos in other more popular superheroes books.  These are characters like The Punisher or Ghost Rider or Black Widow who probably have their fanbases and which any Marvel fan will be able to recognize and know the general background of but who generally aren’t the marquee characters who sell tons of comic books.  Doctor Strange is definitely one of these characters.  He’s had titles over the years where he was the star but they have not been published consistently over the decades like, say, The X-Men have.  Instead most people will know him from his tendency to pop up in other heroes titles.  Say that Spider-Man were to find a magical trinket of some kind on one of his adventures, more than likely there would be a scene where he seeks out Doctor Strange to explain what this trinket was, thus both giving us a bit of exposition without having to involve some random boring scientist of occult expert.  Consequently, he’s a hero I don’t know a lot about given that most of my exposure to him involves single page cameos, but Marvel Studios is nothing if not adept at making obscure properties into box office hits and that’s exactly what they intend to do with the new feature length adaptation Doctor Strange.

The film focuses on a man named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a highly skilled and well paid surgeon and also something of an arrogant ass.  This hubris does catch up with him however when he starts texting patient dossiers while driving his Lamborghini around a mountain road and ends up in a huge wreck.  He survives the accident but is left with major nerve damage in his hands which leaves him unable to perform precise surgeries and thus unemployed and aimless.  In his desperation he goes to Nepal, where he’s heard that there’s some sort of genius who has caused miraculous recoveries in the past.  There he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an expert of the mystical arts who is thousands of years old and massively powerful.  The Ancient One and her accolade Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) see some potential in Strange and invite him to train in the mystical arts at their sanctum and Strange uses the same photographic memory that made him such a great surgeon to quickly become an expert at mysticism, powers that he desperately needs because The Ancient One’s order is under threat of being destroyed by an apostate mystic named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has joined forces with an evil demon from another realm named Dormammu to cause all sorts of evil and destruction.

If that plot sounds familiar it’s because Strange’s character arc bears a strong resemblance to Tony Stark’s arc from the original Iron Man except with our hero starting as an arrogant doctor (one that rather suspiciously resembles the title character from “House, M.D. in his mannerisms) instead of an arrogant industrialist.  From there the film follows a fairly typical superhero origin pattern, although it is perhaps notable that this hero is learning his skills from a mentor rather than coming to terms with his new powers on his own.  Of course The Ancient One’s reasons for accepting Strange as an accolade in the first place seem rather suspect.  Strange does not make a very good first impression when he arrives at the sanctum though his poor attitude and limited grasp on what the mystic arts are in the first place.  She seems to be persuaded to take him on for no real reason and her decision to take him or anyone else on as an accolade seems rather odd given that Kaecilius is already out and on the run as the film begins, which begs the question of exactly how long of a timeframe the film takes place over and why The Ancient One isn’t doing more to stop him over the course of Strange’s training.

So, clearly Doctor Strange isn’t exactly what you’d call a great work of literature but it makes up for this in a number of ways.  Doctor Strange has long been one of the more visually original superhero comic books what with its crazy interdimensional travel and spells and the movie does a pretty decent job of living up to that.  The various spells look very good onscreen and director Scott Derrickson (who mostly has a background making horror movies) does a pretty good job of adding a sort of logic to the craziness onscreen .  The standout visual is of course the one hinted at in the trailers where urban areas are bend out of shape like an M. C. Escher painting by way of Christopher Nolan.  It should perhaps be noted that this is the first Marvel movie I opted to see in 3D and I think it’s the first movie in general I’ve seen in that format since Gravity.  This isn’t exactly the most vital use of 3D I’ve ever seen, but it is pretty neat and this is probably the way the movie should be seen, especially during the aforementioned city bending sequence.

This is kind of an odd movie to defend.  I’ve spent nearly a decade whining that Marvel movies have an unfortunate cookie-cutter quality and yet here I am just throwing up my hands and saying “whatever, it’s fun” in the face of one of their most derivative efforts yet.  I think part of that is timing.  The last Marvel movie was Captain America: Civil War, which I’m told only came out six months ago but it kind of feels like it’s been an eternity since then.  What’s more we haven’t gotten a solo origin movie from them since last year’s Ant-Man and before that we haven’t gotten one since… geez, since the first Captain America movie.  The movie also has the befit of coming out at a time when we are richly in need of escapism.  I watched the movie the weekend before the presidential election when I was a bundle of nerves and as I write this I now know the outcome and… oh boy, I think we’re going to need Marvel more than ever in the next four years.

Don’t Breathe(8/27/2016)

I’ve seen a lot of movies this year, but if there’s been one subset of the year’s cinematic output that I just could not be bothered with it’s the horror movies.  I feel like I’ve spent the last five years railing against the overuse of movies about haunted houses that rely on cheap jump scares in order to get a reaction from their audience and clearly no one in Hollywood is listening because the most successful horror movies this year has mostly given us the likes of The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, and in a month or so we’re going to be “treated” to Ouija: Origin of Evil.  Outside of that nonsense we’ve had, what?  The Purge: Election Year (the second sequel to a movie that shouldn’t have had one sequel) and I guess you could count Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane if you wanted to but really those are both thrillers rather than true horror films.  The lone exception and sign of hope has of course been The Witch but that was so long ago at this point that it barely feels like it came out this year.  One glimmer of hope seems to have come in the form of Don’t Breathe, a horror film that comes with a number or critical plaudits and which is being helmed by producer Sam Raimi and director Fede Alvarez who both brought a pretty respectable (and extremely gory) remake of Raimi’s own The Evil Dead to the screens not too long ago.

The film is set in Detroit and focuses in on three young malcontents named Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who have taken it upon themselves to break into and rob various homes in the area.  Rocky and Money are a couple and are saving up to run away to California with Rocky’s daughter and Alex seems to be going along with them out of a sort of loyalty to childhood friends.  The three are close to their goal when they learn about a mark that could put them over the top: a blind army veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives in an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood but likely has a large sum of cash stashed there (presumably he doesn’t believe in banking) which he won in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident.  Alex is a bit reluctant but is finally convinced to help his friends but once they get into the house it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve chosen the wrong person to mess with and things quickly start going badly for them.

The basic premise to this may sound somewhat familiar to film lovers as it basically the same premise as Wait Until Dark except that curiously the film is told from the perspective of the Alan Arkin character and his gang… and the Audrey Hepburn character has been replaced by the villain from Avatar and he is clearly a believer in “stand your ground” laws.  The film tries to give these characters their reasons for being involved in a life of crime, but robbing from a blind war veteran is pretty damn low.  Getting an audience to sympathize with people who would do something like that requires a level of moral complexity and character development that I don’t think this movie is equipped for and I think that’s ultimately the fatal flaw that kind of sinks the movie for me.  Empathy is pretty important part of horror and nothing deflates suspense like thinking that the person being stalked by the psychotic killer kind of has it coming.  Now, I’m not saying I necessarily wanted the characters in this movie to be killed for their breaking and entering careers, but I certainly wasn’t rooting for them to pull off their heist and given that their hunter is a disabled person who never asked to be dealing with these intruders in the first place it was just a little hard for me to really get that edge of my seat feeling during the suspense sequences.  Granted the movie does eventually reveal that this victim is actually quite unsavory, but at that point it’s a little too late.

It is a shame that this concept never really worked for me because there is clearly skill being displayed on screen.  Fede Alvarez does a really good job of turning this one house into a stage for a lot of activity and clearly knows how to stage a number of these set pieces.  There’s a part towards the end involving a car and a dog which borders on the masterful, but the film’s central concept still nags at me.  It should not be this hard for three able bodied teenagers to escape from an old blind man and it takes a lot of contrivance to explain why they’re never able to just make a run for it and these characters just aren’t interesting enough to overcome the incredible unlikablity of what they’re trying to do.  As a whole I ended up finding the movie to be a pretty empty exercise.  Then again, I felt more or less the same way about the movie Green Room earlier this year and I was clearly in the minority about that one as well, so maybe it’s just me.

**1/2 out of Five

Finding Dory(7/16/2016)

As longtime readers will know, my relationship to the Pixar Animation Studio is… complicated.  I ignored them for years, much as I ignored family films of all varieties, until the overwhelming critical acclaim finally wore me down.  Finally in early 2011 I broke down and watched all the Pixar movies for the first time and wrote about the experience in a series of blog posts.  Long story short, the movies weren’t really for me and I wouldn’t go along with some of the more over the top praise for them, they were certainly well made movies for what they were and I found some things to enjoy in them.  Since then I’ve kept up with their output as they’ve come out on Blu-Ray for academic reasons, but until now I’ve never taken the step of seeing one of their movies in theaters and writing a full review.  So why now?  Well, it certainly wasn’t because Finding Dory seemed like all that promising of a project to me.  Of the old Pixar movies I watched back in 2011 Finding Nemo was not one of my favorites and Pixar’s non-Toy Story sequels have generally not been great.  Also, while Finding Dory has definitely been very well liked by critics it certainly hasn’t received the rapturous reception of Inside/Out.  The rather unglamorous answer is that, unlike other Pixar movies, Finding Dory has come out during a very slow period in the release schedule and with nothing better to see it seemed to me that keeping up with the discussion around the latest Pixar release seemed like the best option.

This sequel, while made over a decade later, is set a year after the events of the original Finding Nemo.  Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) have settled back down in their ocean home but have maintained a close friendship with their memory challenged companion Dory (Ellen DeGeneres).  One day after a convenient bonk on the head Dory suddenly has a memory from her childhood of her parents.  It’s vague but it’s enough for her to know she should be looking in Morro Bay California, which is on the other side of the Pacific from her current Australian digs.  Dory wants to seek them out and Marlin, realizing that he owes her one, reluctantly agrees to go with her there and after they hitch a ride on the turtles from the first movie they discover that her parents actually live inside of a giant Seaworld-like aquarium called the Marine Life Institute.  Soon Dory and Nemo are split up and are desperately searching through this rather large but interconnected institute to try to find these missing parents and escape before it’s too late.

A big part of why I wasn’t too wild about the original Finding Nemo was because I thought the character of Dory was really really annoying.  In fact my exact words were “what really irritated me about Dory was that every time I was getting into Marlin’s story and wanting him to succeed he would be hindered by Dory’s comic relief, though paradoxically I was just as if not more annoyed whenever she somehow managed to help Marlin’s quest through some kind of wacky accident.”  I can’t say that the character has been changed too dramatically but her crazy memory problem has been framed in a different way that does make it more palatable.  Most notably her “condition,” which mostly came off like a comic relief driven eccentricity in the first movie feels more like an allegory for a legitimate mental illness this time around.  This puts you the viewer in an odd position because every time you wish someone would yell “Dory there you go ruining everything again” or “Dory will you just shut up for one fucking second and let someone explain something to you” at her you have to stop yourself from thinking such things because it’s kind of a dick move to yell at a “special needs” person whose trying their best.

Fortunately Pixar has my back on this vis-a-vie a new character named Hank the Octopus.  Hank is an octopus voiced by Ed O’Neil who has been living in the marine institute and is trying to find his way onto a truck going to the Cleveland aquarium, which he believes will finally allow him a life of peace and quiet after having had bad experiences both in the ocean and in a children’s exhibit.  He tags along with Dory because he thinks she can give him her transport tag which will get him on the truck but is a lot less likely than some of the other characters to put up with her shit and the movie really comes alive whenever he’s on screen both because of the way he’s animated and his general attitude.  In fact this movie seems particularly packed with quality side characters compared to other Disney/Pixar movies and is certainly better at that than the original Finding Nemo which was filled with nonsense like vegetarian sharks and whatnot.  If you look through this movie’s IMDB page you see a staggering number of celebrity voice cameos and very few of them seem like stunt castings and are all integrated quite well.  It should also go without saying that this is a huge visual upgrade from the 2003 original given the evolution in technology since then, and that’s certainly needed because that movie is really starting to show its age, but I feel like beyond that there just a lot more ambition in the way the sequences are planned and choreographed here.

Let’s look back at the last really well received Pixar movie, Inside/Out.  That was a movie with a really clever premise, but I thought its adventure format was kind of weak and I had some philosophical differences with it that I couldn’t overlook.  Finding Dory clearly has a less creative premise than Inside/Out what with it not taking place in someone’s head and being a sequel to boot.  However, I think it works a lot better as an adventure narrative than that movie which would seem to make up for that… however, once again I’m held back form fully endorsing the movie by some philosophical differences with the movie’s message.  For one thing, I think the movie kind of fails Hank the Octopus.  Hank is a guy who knows what he wants, namely to not be in the ocean and to “get his,” and the movie ends up doing nothing but judge him for this.  But that’s kind of a minor quibble.  The bigger problem is the movie’s interest in a sort of clash in problem solving styles between Marlin and Dory.  Marlin plans out his every move and avoids taking unnecessary risks while Dory impulsively rushes into everything, “wings it” at every turn, and never gives up on an adventure once she’s found a goal.  Over the course of the movie Marlin is forced to not just respect Dory’s approach but to embrace it.  The movie actively holds up “what would Dory do” at every turn as the superior way of doing things in pretty much every situation and that seems ridiculous to me.  Yeah, impulsively doing whatever your ID tells you works fine if you live in a Disney movie like this where everything almost magically just works out for you but in the real world that is not how anyone should be encouraged to live their life.

Recently I’ve been looking back at some of the old movies that Disney made during its “Golden Age” and I’ve got to say, the experience has mostly been giving me a renewed appreciation for Pixar.  Don’t get me wrong, those classics had some beautiful animation and they did a lot of pioneering stuff, but man oh man were they simplistic and prone to doing some kind of lazy stuff.  For whatever their merits a lot of those “classics” make this look like The Godfather by comparison.  As for its merit when compared to the rest of Pixar’s work, I think it holds its own pretty well against a lot of them.  It’s definitely better than Finding Nemo and while I know I’m in the minority about this I think I might have liked it a little better overall than Inside Out even if I probably respect it less conceptually.  Either way it’s certainly the work of the good Pixar rather than the iffier Monsters Univerisy/Cars 2 Pixar that was looking like a shadow of its former self, possibly because it’s being overseen by Andrew Stanton, who is one of their OGs.  If it had just broken a little more ground gotten its messaging more in line I might have gone so far as to say it was one of their best efforts.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Dheepan(6/12/2016)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

My favorite of the films nominated for the 2015 Oscars (aside from Room, which didn’t seem to have a chance) was The Revenant, even if that was a somewhat divisive choice.  Given that, you’d think I would have been heavily rooting for that movie to walk away with the coveted Best Picture award, but that actually wasn’t the case.  I could tell at a certain point that the critical community was drawing lines in the sand with that movie and the more successful it became the more its detractors claimed to hate it.  I could tell that winning that award would actually be something of a disservice to the movie as it would have forever put the film in the Crash camp of being “that movie that shouldn’t have won that Oscar” in the minds of the people that the movie rubbed the wrong way.  Looking back I suspect that losing the Oscar was also in the best interest of other recent BP runner ups like Avatar and Lincoln.  Of course the Oscar isn’t the only award that can backfire when the wrong movie wins it, in the artier sphere of movie fandom a similar fate can befall winners of the Cannes Palm d’Or who don’t live up to that award’s lofty standards.  Case in point the Jacques Audiard movie Dheepan, which shocked the Croisette when it was given the festival’s highest honor by a jury headed by none other than the Coen brothers.  The jury press conference that followed seemed to hint that the film was more of a consensus compromise than a fervent manifestation of the jury’s tastes, but it was a baffling choice nonetheless given that it was up against films like Son of Saul, Carol, and The Assassin.  Still, it is a Jacques Audiard movie and that is a filmmaker worth paying attention to whether his films are deserving of major festival awards or not, so I was still rather curious.

The film concerns three Tamil Siri Lankans, a man, a woman, and a tween girl, who escape the unrest in that country by taking the identities of a family of three who passed away but still had the necessary visas to travel to France.  The man, whose real name is Sivadhasan (and is played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan) but his assumed name is Dheepan and the woman who’s masquerading as his wife goes by the name Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and the supposed daughter is Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby).  Sivadhasan seems to have had the roughest time back in Siri Lanka as he was a member of the Tamil Tigers and clearly saw some of the worst of the conflict there.  In France the family takes residence at what appears to be a housing project where Sivadhasan is given a job as a superintendent but whatever hopes the family had of some kind of idyllic new life are complicated by the crime that goes on at this building.  There’s a clear gang presence in the building and given that Sivadhasan is a soldier at heart he finds it difficult to keep his head down and simply deal with it.

Jacques Audiard is an interesting filmmaker because he clearly has a strong interest in social realism but he approaches this from more of a genre direction than his more humanist peers like Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers.  This makes him one of the more easily accessible French auteurs you’re likely to encounter and when he’s at his best, as he was with the 2010 prison/gangster film A Prophet, this blend can lead to sublime results.  However, his odd mix of the highbrow and the lowbrow can also be a bit jarring at times and when he stumbles it can sometimes make it look like he’s just making prettified mediocrities.  This is what ultimately hurt his last film, Rust and Bone, which was strongly filmed and had some brilliant moments and performances in it, but at the end of the day its script just felt melodramatic and silly.  In fact I might go so far as to suspect that scriptwriting may be the guy’s Achilles heel, which is kind of odd given that they guy worked for the better part of two decades as a screenwriter before his directorial debut.

This latest project certainly follows that formula in that it’s about a serious social issue, the refugee experience in modern Europe, but it tackles it in a way that at times borders on the sensationalistic, especially in its controversial ending (which I’ll be spoiling shortly).  In fact it’s that ending, which is jarringly violent, that has been the main sticking point for most critics and was likely the biggest reason that its Cannes victory was so shocking.  In this climax Sivadhasan/Dheepan seems to tap into his Tamil Tiger past to violently take down the gangsters that have taken over his building.  So the question is, is this a take on Death Wish (good man stands up to evil criminals through violent vigilantism) or a take on Taxi Driver (psycho uses the veneer of vigilantism to unleash his demons).  I certainly hope it’s the later and that the film’s coda could be interpreted as a delusion much as the final scene in Taxi Driver could be, but there’s a lot of benefit of a doubt required to give it that and even if that is what’s going on that still leaves the film’s ending as a faint echo of a forty year old Scorsese movie.

While that ending is Dheepan’s biggest problem I wouldn’t say that this was some kind of masterpiece in the making before it let itself down, but the first 75% of the film is solid.  The three principal actors here all do good work which is doubly impressive given that they appear to be non-actors.  The film is also really well shot and its depiction of the French immigrant experience is pretty well rendered.  The film acknowledged many of the challenges these immigrants may have faced but it doesn’t feel like a litany of suffering and is able to show the good with the bad and also adds that interesting dimension of being about people who are only pretending to be a family and sort of not knowing how to feel about that.  There is definitely the makings of a good but not great movie there but the fact that it’s all leading in this weird tangential direction kind of does sour the whole thing for me.  At the end of the day it comes back to that same problem I have with Jacques Audiard: great direction, questionable writing.  And no, I don’t really see why anyone would give this thing the most prestigious award in world cinema.

**1/2 out of Four