Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fim Review - Searching for Sugar Man

On a winding road in Capetown South Africa we are introduced to Steve Segerman He is driving a compact vehicle with folk rock music coming out of the speakers. He explains that his nickname is Sugar because no one could pronounce Segerman when he was in the army. He was named after the hit song Sugar Man by great American Musician Rodriguez who is a megastar in South Africa but surprisingly to all South Africans not elsewhere and very little is known about the musician.

A group of South Africans decide to piece together the story of their hero. He was thought to have died on stage by his own hand either by fire or bullet. His career spanned two critical acclaimed but poor selling U.S. albums in 1971 and 72. The group begins to look into the lyrics on both albums for clues and eventually track his musical roots to Detroit Michigan.

Director Malik Benjelloul speaks to club owners and goers from the early Seventies who saw Rodriguez perform. They all remember the voice and the working class songs that were as gritty as the Detroit streets. Rodriguez  did not cater to his audience; he often sang and played is guitar in the corner of a bar with is back to the audience. They were not even sure if he had a home. If you were to meet him he would say meet me at the corner and would never give a full address.  The producers of his two albums were shocked that they were not a hit. The songs were Dylanesque with hard hitting plain lyrics backed by a strong voice and many powerful everyday messages.

Songs like the earlier mentioned Sugar Man featuring the activities of a drug dealer.  The understated Crucify your Mind about a person that appears to have it together but is falling apart on the inside.  The Cause who's first line is the haunting I lost my job and it was two weeks before Christmas. The happy base rift  driven anthem I Wonder that asks about the listeners sexual experience and the folksy Inner City Blues on being thankful for what you have. Lastly A Most Disgusting Song describing all of the different types of places that he has played and shows that Rodriguez is equal parts wise-man, prophet, poet and artist.

Legend has it that a South African's American girlfriend brought a copy of Cold Fact to the country. The music spread across the country and became a symbol of the need to become anti-establishment and fight  Apartheid from inside the isolated country. Rodriguez' songs became rallying Anthems to a generation of South Africans and they passed the passion for the songs on to their children.

Bendjelloul weaves a mysterious story across two continents. Mixed in with the soundtrack featuring the music of Rodriguez. In one excellent sequence the film switches to animation as we see Rodriguez walking down a block in the bar district of Detroit in the dead of winter an apparent homeless poet of the backstreets and alleys of the city. Benejelloul links together interviews with devoted fans, music journalists, and acquaintances from the 70's to slowly build a picture of the man that disappeared in the early 70's.  The story has twist, turns and dead ends followed by leads from the most unlike sources even a web page for readers to provide any information they may have on the musician.

Searching for Sugar Man is an excellent watch and definitely top 5 film of 2012.

A film I can definitely recommend.

**** out of 4.

Searching for Sugar Man | Malik Bendjelloul | Sweden / U.K. | 86 Min.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Film Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to her Oscar winning The Hurt Locker sees the Director returning to familiar territory of the middle east and the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Instead of bomb detection and retrieval this film focuses on the 10 year hunt to find Osama bin Laden.

The films main character Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a recent CIA recruit sent to Pakistan to join the Working Group to gather information on the leaders, structure and operational procedures of Al Qaeda. She is hands on in the interrogation of detainees and reviews countless hours of footage of interrogations to gain information on the organization.

The story uses an episodically approach starting with the interrogation of a Saudi Al Qaeda money man Ammar (Reda Kateb)  then shifting to other Al Qaeda detainees, network contacts and eventually the Seals.

Maya is searching for a courier who is known by a number of the detainees. She is hopeful that if she can find this courier that he may lead to bin Laden or it could turn out that he is last in line to a multi person row to the Al Qaeda leader.

All of the major historical events are touched on from September 11th, to the July 2005 London bombings, the attacks in India, the bombing at the US base in Afghanistan and the September 28, 2008 attack at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. The events serve as a sign post to advise the viewer of the timeline of the story. It can be difficulty to create suspense in a film where the viewer knows the eventual outcome however Bigelow manages to keep the suspense and tension at a high level.

One of the tools used greatly in the film is the score. It's full of traditionally local instrumental pieces and that familiar slow underlying hum of flutes & whistles, guitar like Ouds, tambourine and drums. The military scenes feature music with a driving baseline. The piece chosen to back the flight of the Seals to their target starts with a slow baseline the quickens using an up tempo string section then combines the two and builds in volume as the Seals move closer to their target.

Bigelow re teamed with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal for this film. The pair did their research through interviews and document review.  As they were gathering information about the events they learned about this junior female single minded agent agent who recruited right out of school had  only worked on bin Laden. The co-producers knew they had found their lead character.

Film editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor did an excellent job with the film material. Especially strong were the scenes where they put together the different terror attacks over the 8 year period of the film and the reaction to each event by the Working Team.

Bigelow steers clear from politics for the most part. The events occur during both the Bush and Obama Presidencies. The role of politicians is not prevalent however the narrative clearly shows the time taken to fact check before a go ahead on the raid is given and there is some mention of that not being the case in relation to WMD's. The storyline also notes that the Detainee program went away but does not state overtly that it was due to the change in the White House.

Jessica Chastain is very strong as the featured CIA analyst who put together detainee interviews, messages and intelligence documents to piece together the workings of the highest level of the Al Qaeda network.

Aussie Jason Clarke puts in a strong performance as Dan the bearded feral master interrogator using the carrot but mainly the stick to obtain information from detainees then switches with ease to a clean shaven button down company man when posted back to C.I.A. Headquarters. Reda Kateb is memorable as the initially detainee during his extended scenes of interrogation and interplay with Clarke at a CIA Black Site. Brit Mark Strong who was excellent in 2011's Tinker Tailor Solider has an impactful opening scene mid way through the film. As CIA section chief George he delivers a forceful message to the Working Group in the wake of the Afghanistan base bombing. A key moment  that gives new energy to the team and a great plot device to keep the pace moving.  George later becomes the object of Maya's frustrations which is uniquely displayed during the pre-raid evaluation.

The role and actions of the Seals is well written and presented. They go from one task to the next, if there is a set back or new development they move ahead and adapt. Once a task is complete they switch on to the next item with no dwelling or reflections. When they are on duty they move at 100% when on down time they switch completely off.

Zero Dark Thirty features a strong script from well developed source material. A fast moving piece that does not drag despite its near 160 minute run time.

A film I would recommend.

Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | U.S.A. | 2012 | 157 Minutes.

*** out of 4

Film Review - Beasts of the Southern Wild

Welcome to the Bathtub population 87 located in a fictional condemned area south of a levee in Louisiana. The residence have little in the way of possessions and appear to wear the same clothing each day but they are very happy and have more holidays than anywhere else in the world. The area is always in danger of flooding being south of a levee a big storm would cause the area to flood due to lack of drainage. This is the setting for first time director Behn Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin also has a co-writer credit along with Lucy Ailbar as the film is partly based on her  stage play Juicy and Delicious.

The film centres around 6 year old Hushpuppy ( newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis) lives with her dad in part farm, part junkyard open space.  Her dad Wink (first time actor Dwight Henry) lives in a shack and Hushpuppy has her own trailer. Hushpuppy is interested in pre-historic times. She makes drawing similar to cave drawings and after the local teacher / spiritual leader Miss Bathsheba ( Gina Montana) discusses ancient creatures or Aurochs.  Hushpuppy is convinced they will show up in Southern Louisiana and eat her in a couple of bites.

Cinematographer Ben Wilson does an excellent job with the film. Wilson captures many shots of the wide Louisiana sky and even though water is a deadly enemy of the community the blues of the waters almost link up directly to the sky in some scenes. Also featured are the wide shots of the polar icecaps as they violently crash into the sea and browns in the water when it turns against the community, its animals and people.

Hushpuppy and her friends are pretty much left to fend for their own in the community. The adults are hard drinking cheerful living off the grid and it appears that there are crawfish and crab-legs parties abound in the community.

The story moves between a linear storyline and fantasy. Hushpuppies Aurochs thaw in the south pole and begin a march to the Bathtub. Her father Wink goes missing and upon his return argues with Hushpuppy and in her mind is knocked out by her with one punch. Hushpuppy's mother has a legendary status to both Wink and his daughter. She is rumoured to have killed a gator topless with a shotgun and she was so sooth she could turn the stove on and boil water by just waking past. The narrative however is vauge on the location or fate of the mother. Hushpuppy has a Michael Jordan Bulls jersey that reminds her of her mom and carries around when she misses her mother and talks to it while alone at home.

The storm feared by the community hits with a vengeance. Hushpuppy and Wink ride it out in Wink's shack seeing that his daughter is scared Wink heads outside and fires his shotgun into the air in defiance of the storm.  The next morning the entire community is flooded and Wink and Hushpuppy head out in a pick up bed/pontoon boat to survey the community and catch fish bear handed. Wink tells Hushpuppy that he is her Daddy and it's his job to take care of her.

The State authorities eventually come to the Bathtub to clear out the community as the area is condemned. The group is moved to a community centre where they had access to medical attention. It's becoming clear to Hushpuppy that her father is ill and with her mom long gone she will be on her own.

The group make a break and head back to the Bathtub where they make Wink as comfortable as possible for his final days. In the interim the young girls of the community venture out to a gentleman's club where Hushpuppy gets some motherly attention for a short period of time.

The backbone of the film is the score. Filled with Cajun songs rich with violins its the underpinning to the both the happy and festive along with the sad scenes. The opening fireworks festival features rich violins, horns, drums and piano. Accordion and piano lead the piece played in the gentleman's club as the local girls all find a bit of affection and attention that they are not able to obtain at home.

Quvenzhane Wallis is the narrator and main character in the film. She is in just about every scene in the movie. A grand achievement for a first time actor who was 6 when the filming started. Dwight Henry another first time actor and a baker at a store that Behn Zeitlin frequents is wonderful as Wink the rough and sometimes absent single parent who teaches Hushpuppy tough life lessons for an unforgiving world. An excellent first effort from director Zeitlin with fresh subject matter and a unique storyline. As Hushpuppy proclaims in a million years when kids go to school they gonna know once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.

A film that I can defiantly recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4

Beasts of the Southern Wild | Behn Zeitlin | U.S.A. | 93 Minutes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Film Review - Moonrise Kingdom

The King of Quirk Wes Anderson returned in 2012 with an a new feature. Set in 1965 New England and starting three days before a major storm we meet Suzy who lives in a lighthouse with her parents Walt and Laura Bishop ( Anderson Uber regular Bill Murray) and Frances McDormand plus her three younger brothers. Suzy (newcomer Kara Hayward) wants out.  She is very smart does not have any real friends and does not get along with her family. She finds a partner for her plan in Sam ( Jared Gilman) who she met by chance at a church production of Noah's Arc one year prior. The two began writing to each other and hatched a plan to meet in a field near Suzy's home and leave their current worlds behind oh by the way they are both 12 years old.

All of the Anderson elements are her in this film. Off centre shots of the main character on screen, events set in the past, young smart protagonists and dysfunctional adults and families. Anderson choices on how to shoot a scene are unique. This is especially evident with the scenes featuring the narrator played by ( Bob Balaban). Each time he came on screen to provide information about the island, the storm or input as a former teacher of Sam the viewer is presented with Balaban in a different part or the shot.

Another key Anderson element is the use of colour in his films. Here he uses vivid yellows, red, blues,  greens, browns and of course Khaki. Another key element to the story is the fact that Sam is an excellent watercolour artist and is very comfortable behind an easel as he works on a piece.

The film moves in a linear pattern except for a wonderful passage which details the back story of Sam's original meeting with Suzy and then shows a series of hand written letters between the two over the year up to the point their plan is hatched and their meeting point chosen.

The music used for Moonrise Kingdom fits excellently into the narrative. The opening piece The Young Person's Guide to Orchestra Op.34 plays on an old time battery operated plastic record player pointing out the four different families of the Orchestra for the young listener as we move through the lighthouse and view different couplings of Suzy's family.  The Khaki Scout Camp Ivanhoe has its own theme featuring crisp snare drums with and undertone of a native rhythm. Francois Hardy's  Le Temps De L'amour  a gift from Suzy's godmother (who lives in France) plays in the background as the pair awkwardly get closer to each other after they reached their destination.  The upcoming storm is represented by 4 original pieces by Alexander Desplat's each titled Historic Weather Conditions building each time the weather turns for the worse lading up to the big storm. The last piece to mention is  Friday Afternoons Op.7 sung by a school choir that will leave the viewer humming cuckoo ~ cuckoo at the end of the film.

Moonrise Kingdom features many very good performances the best of which is Ed Norton as the beaten down Scout Master Ward who first looses Sam and then the whole scout troop. The opening scene at Camp Ivanhoe where the camera follows Norton across the screen as he barks out directions and administers punishments to various Khaki scouts is worthy of the best Drill Sargent. Also memorable is his repeated disbelief that the records did not show that Sam is an orphan. Scout Master Ward is also strong when he makes his way to the the Large Scout Camp Fort Lebanon where Commander Pierce ( Harvey Keitel) strips him of his title but Ward is quick to act and regains respect saving Commander Pierce from a cabin as the storm hits. Ward then leads the boys to the designated sport for shelter at the local Church.

Kaya Hayward is particularly strong as Suzy. It is clear that she's the leader. Sam looks to her to determine what to do and when action is required when they are tracked down by the Khaki Scouts its Suzy and not Sam that takes it.  Two very good scenes are when she reads from her favourite stories first to Sam and then to the whole scout troop after they team up to help Sam and Suzy with their second attempt to escape . She pauses after a passage and in both instances is encouraged to continue and assured that her audience is listening to the story. She is also almost always armed with her binoculars which she considers to be her super power as the characters in her stories all have powers.

Set design choices reflect the characters personalities  the best illustration is the cramped residence of the island sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) The narrow sleeping area and living space is what one would expect from a longtime bachelor. The lighthouse set which serves as home to the Bishops is used to the maximum in the opening sequence and is also the perfect vantage point for Suzy to perch at its summit and through her binoculars see all that takes place on the Island.

Moonrise Kingdom is an excellent project in movie making and one that I highly recommend.

**** out of 4

Moonrise Kingdom | Wes Anderson | U.S.A. | 2012 | 94 Min.


Film Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Thorin the Grandson of the last ruling Dwarf king of Erebor asks Gandolf the Grey  why he chose Bilbo Baggins to come on this journey to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom.  Gandlof responds because he is a little scared of the task and Bilbo Baggins gives him courage. The trick is not to know how to take a life but when to spare one.

In the Hobbit An Unexpected Journey we return  to Peter Jackson's middle earth 9 years after the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Academy Awards.  The film brings us back to familiar territory of sweeping overhead shots of the troop as the march across the middle earth countryside to their destination.   The familiar theme of the Shire - Home of the Hobbits and Ravendale home of he Elves ( middle earths equivalent of Switzerland ) are also present.

The film opens with the story of the Dwarf Kingdom Erbor and the images of the wealth and splendour. Until the dragon Smaug overruns the Mountain and takes over the Kingdom. The Dwarfs also have an epic battle with the Orcs which lead to the death of Thorin's father.

We next shift to the Shire and an elder Bilbo is working on his memoirs keeping them from a curios Frodo. The film shifts back 60 years to a young unassuming Bilbo who is visited by Gandolf and chosen to go on the journey with 13 dwarf's to reclaim the dwarf Kingdom.

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey lacks the interesting set of characters that were the strength of Lord of the Rings. The script does not do enough to distinguish the individual dwarf personalities except for Thorin and veteran warrior Dwalin.  One of the low points is a mismatch presentation of Radagast the Brown a wizard of middle earth that lives a solitary life with and specializes in animals. I expect that Radagast is cast this way to be a contrast to the the other wizards Saruman and Gandolf equipped with a lightning fast bunny sleigh and a C.G. hedgehog named Sebastian as a sidekick.

There are a couple of good passes sages in an exchange between the dwarfs and three Trolls and a third act battle with the Orcs. We also learn how Bilbo comes to inherit his sword which is later given to Frodo.

The highlight of the piece is the exchange between Bilbo and Gollum at an underwater lake in the Goblin Kingdom. Bilbo gains the ring and the two have an exchange of riddles in the underwater lair.The scene climaxes with a key moment that fulfils Gandlof's prediction at the outset of the journey.

I saw the 3D 48 Frames per second version. Despite the controversy the increased frame rate worked well the 3D presentation.

The film still has some influences of the original director Guillermo Del Toro who still maintains a writing credit.  The stone  giant passage is a Del Toro contribution and is eerily close to his upcoming film Pacific Rim. 

At its heart this film is about a return to ones homeland. In one passage Bilbo states that the reason that he wants to leave is the reason that he stays. Bilbo loves his home and always wants to be there. He stays because the dwarfs are transiants and do not have a home and deserve one.

The other main arc is that the relationship between  Bilbo and Thorin from the outset where Thorin has no use for Bilbo and cannot understand why he is on the journey at all to the change between the two characters by the end of the film.

We are off again in middle earth on the first part of a trilogy. Hopefully the next two films will do more to introduce more character development and punch.

Ian McKellen; Martin Freeman; Richard Armitage; Hugo Weaving; Cate Blanchett.

The Hobbit | Peter Jackson | U.S.A. New Zealand  | 169 Min.

** 1/2 out of 4

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Film Review - Django Unchained

Set in 1858 Quentin Tarantino continues his march into the past in pursuit of the perfect revenge film.

In new territory and 60 years prior to his previously chronologically oldest film Inglorious Basterds Tarantino without the aid of his usual pulp cultural references to fuel his dialogue has to use other methods to fuel the void.  He does so through the character of Dr. King Schultz played by new Tarantino regular (Christoph Waltz) who played the Nazi Colonel investigator in Basterds.  Shultz tells literary stories such as old German fairy tales and provides the history of words and phrases to fill in the spots where one would have expected a pop reference speech.

The film opens with a chain gang of recently purchased slaves marching through Texas led by two slave traders. They are met by Shultz who it appears that has wondered onto the group by mistake but we soon lean that he is here for one particular slave that can identify his next three targets the Brittle brothers. Shultz takes measures to obtain Django's (Jamie Foxx) freedom and a partnership is formed between the two men.

The two spend the winter in the mountains hunting wanted men for reward and Shultz pledges after he learns that Django is married, his wife was named Broomhilda by a German and can speak the language to travel to Mississippi with Django to free his bride.

Tarantino gets the setting for his western right.  The first small town that the pair ride into is pinpoint authentic even capturing the difference of the responsibilities of between the local sheriff and the Marshal. The two main plantation sets in the film also serve to bring the viewer right in to the 1850's.

The soundtrack mixes old school songs, spaghetti western cuts and new songs for the film which is a first for a Tarantino film.  The original 1966 title song from the film Django is used as the title track to the film to serve as the opening credit sequence that is key to a spaghetti western.  As the song starts the view knows that they are at a Spaghetti Western and a Tarantino film. Eno Maraconi is featured throughout as drops during scenes to add the Spaghetti Western feel. Dr. King Shultz has a theme song His Name is King. The film features a lot of Louis Bacalov's original score to the 66' Django. James Brown's payback also appears in a mash up with a Tu Pac unreleased track Untouchable called Unchained  Another Key song Jim Croche's I Got A Name plays as Django now a trained and properly outfitted bounty hunter checks out his new saddle and clothes before the two head out on the road their next destination. One of the original pieces is a rap track by Rick Ross called 100 black coffins that included a spaghetti western whistle. A last piece that needs to be mentioned is John Legends original song Who Did That to You that he sent to Quentin especially for the film the song specifically discusses  revenge on those who wronged a man's woman.

Once the pair determine that Broomhilda is at the Candieland plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio). They need a plan to gain entrance to the estate.  They decide to pose as Mandingo Fight-trainers to purchase a fighter from Candie's stable for an exorbitant amount of money.  It's at Candiland where the second half of the film takes place.

All the Tarantino elements are here in this film outstanding dialogue, action by the main characters to upset the local attitudes of the day, bad language, extreme violence and excellent performances by the actors.  DiCaprio is great as the overly polite but sadistic plantation owner Candie and will garner recognition during award season along with Waltz's portrayal of Dr. Shultz King. Foxx is solid as the title character. Look for Samuel L. Jackson one of the original Tarantino players as a way over the top loyal head of the household slave named Stephen that Django takes particular time to dispatch when he gets his chance towards the end of the the film. Django is a film that I highly recommend.

**** out of 4

Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | U.S.A. | 2012 | 165 Min.

Film Review - Les Miserables

Through a water filled lens the camera focuses on an immense torn French flag then above water level to a huge shipyard with rows of men on a chain gang breaking into the opening number Look Down.
The men are prisoners sentenced to hard labour in early nineteenth century France.  Among the prisoners is Jean Valjean nearing the end of a 19 year sentence for stealing a mouthful of bread. Prison guard Javert points out that the sentence length was due to attempted attempts to escape.  Valjean is paroled and thus begins a 17 year cat and mouse pursuit between the two men.

Tom Hooper's follow up to his Oscar Winning directing turn for The Kings Speech is epic in scale and powerful in voice.  Hooper took a different approach from most musicals that come to the screen instead of having the actors record the songs ahead of time and lip sync on screen Hooper instead had the actors sing live during the filming giving the film a crisp, fresh impact full feel.

The director also used the limitless canvas of the screen to visualize many parts of the play that just cannot be done on the stage. a great example of which is the fast and quick downward spiral of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) We first see hear as a young innocent worker in Monsieur Le Mer's ( Valjean alias) factory then within a few frames she is sacked, cast out , amongst the fallen women,  her head shaved and teeth missing all to raise money to pay the innkeepers who are taking care of her daughter Cosette.

Le Mer /Valjean intercedes to right his wrong a bit to late for Fantine but in time to rescue her daughter Cosette from mistreatment and menial chores at the Thenardiers Inn. Javert now a police inspector and aware of Valjean new identity is in pursuit and just misses the pair at the Inn giving them the opportunity to disappear again.

The piece jumps ahead to 1932 centred around the June Student rebellion. The Act opens with a reprise of the Look Down number but in this instance it's a call from the poor and wretched in the Paris streets demanding the rich to see the plight of the average poor citizen.  Hooper in this sequences brings the audience into the underbelly of Paris the viewer can almost experience the filth and disease that is rampant in the city streets which is apparently unnoticed by the rich as they pass by in their horse drawn carriages.

Cosette now a young woman catches the eye of Marius a leader of the student rebellion.  Eponine (estranged daughter of the Thenardiers) realizes that Marius sees Cosette as she wishes he would see her and decides to help bring them together as does Jean Valjean.

Javert goes to the students blockage under the guise of informant but is discovered by street urchin Garvroche and taken into custody by the students.  Jean Valjean arrives at the barricade to protect Marius and is given the task of dealing with the prisoner.  Valjean and Javert are face to face again but this time with the upper hand Valjean lets Javert escape which destroys Javerts belief system leading him to a drastic act.

The film boasts some wonderful performances that will lead to many nominations during awards season. Anne Hathaway is excellent as the doomed Fontaine. Hugh Jackman is outstanding as Jean Valjean the central character and glue that holds the whole project together.

The film features excellent sound. The ensemble numbers leap off the screen filling the theatre with their enormity. The slower more intimate pieces such as Fontaine's I Dream a Dream and Eponine's On My Own wonderfully done by Samantha Barks reprising her role from the stage rang true and clear. Russell Crowe was passable as the stoic Javert as he delivered his two main numbers both helped by a visual of a harrowing ledgewalk.

I expect the audience to fall into three categories for this film. Theatre veterans who have seen the stage play countless times and have ranking favourites in each role, those that have seen the stage play possibly some time ago and know the story and the songs and those who the film will be the first experience. Those that fall into the first category may have the most difficulty with the film having already established favourites in their minds eye for each character. I count myself in the second category and found the film excellent, original, riveting and one that I would definitely recommend.

**** out of 4

Les Miserables | Tom Hooper |  U.K. | 2012 | 157 min.

Film Review - Beyond the Hills

2007 Palme d'Or winner Christian Mungiu returned in 2012 with a new feature Beyond the Hills based on a true account of an incident in a Romanian Monastery in 2005.  Mungiu returns to a territory that he knows very well a complicated relationship between two women and the presence of a singular decisive male character.

The film opens with a train slowly entering a rural Romanian train station. Alina (Cristina Flutur) returns to her home town from Germany to convince her longtime friend Voichita  (Cosmina Stratan) to  return to Germany with her to start a new life.  However Since their separation Voichita has taken vows and moved to the local monastery as an orthodox nun and is hopeful that she can convince her childhood friend to stay. The conditions at the monastery are beyond austere, no electricity, night time prayers by candlelight and fresh water comes from the well on the property.

The community is all female except for the the Priest that all of the nuns refer to as Papa. Alina arrives at the monastery with her outside thoughts and modern attitude in complete contrast to this medieval setting. Alina soon learns that her friend has changed. She expects them to share a bed while Voichita determined to take her vows seriously refuses and maintains her regular prayer cycle and duties.

Alina's outbursts and actions are a direct affront to the Community and especially to the Priest who is not used to disobedient females and has other issues as his ongoing battle to have the area bishop consecrate the church.

Alina is sent to a hospital in town due to her repeated actions.  She is treated for a while and then released. She returns to the home of her foster parents who also report that they have no room to take her back in. Now out of options she returns the monastery which seals her fate.

To state that Mungiu's shooting style for the film is minimalistic would be an understatement. Most scenes are single camera and very long takes. The mood is set using the monastery itself and the fact that the film takes place during the winter months adds to the barren cut off from the modern world feel of the piece.

The old world views of the Priest leads his thoughts and those of his nuns to an attempt to read to Alina in an attempt to help her. Reading in the Orthodox faith is synonymous with performing an exorcism. The reason for Alina violence and actions must be due to the fact that she is possessed by a demon.  Thus Alina is restrained and brought into the church each day to be read to. Her restraints are not removed in between sessions which leads to tragic consequences.

A riveting watch Beyond the Hills recounts a tale of old world values and how the holders react when faced with the modern world. Mungiu also gives a powerful message on how group think can easily lapse into cult like activities which makes it hard for an individual to step back to evaluate if the path being taken makes sense and is the best course of action.

Definitely a Top 5 Film of 2012

**** out of 4

Beyond the Hills | Christian Mungiu | 2012 | Romania/ France/ Belgium | 150 Minutes.

Film Review - Holy Motors

We first meet Monsieur Oscar as he leaves his home at the crack of dawn dressed in a business suit headed for the office.  His wife and family send him off with well wishes and armed guards occupy the rooftops of his family compound as he walks down the driveway towards a white stretch limo. He is greeted by his female driver and settles into the back of the vehicle for the drive into the city. Monsieur Oscar discusses business deals and the need for an upgrade in weaponry for his guards during the drive.   His driver (Edith Scob) then hands him a folder that prompts Monsieur Oscar to undergo a transformation the back of the limo emerging as a beggar woman complete with cane and cup to  panhandle for money in a busy downtown square. After a period of time Mr. Oscar returns to the limo to prepare for his next appointment as a motion capture actor. These are the opening sequences of Leo Carax's Holy Motors the directors first feature in thirteen years following 1999's Pola X.  Carax himself has a brief part in the film billed as the sleeper. He wakes up up a room with a wall featuring a forest mural. A screwdriver appears extending from one of his fingers that he uses to enter the balcony of a movie theatre above an audience full of sleeping patrons.

Carax has evidently built up a lot of material in the period between films. The plot of many of the films appointments could have stood alone as subjects of their own films. When interviewed Carax indicated that he came up with the concept of the film while wondering around Paris mulling over his problems obtaining financing for other projects. He noticed an abundance of limousines and always came across the same elderly female panhandler those early elements were the seeds of the film.

Carax's regular muse Denis Lavant is mesmerizing as the central character. He switches from one character to the next in the back of the limo that resembles a theatre dressing room. Throughout the day he reviews the folders passed back by his driver Celine ahead of each appointment, completes his own elaborate makeup in a large movable dressing room mirror and his wardrobe department covers the  back two thirds of the limo.

The film serves as a low tech take to Cloud Atlas on a multiple character feature. Lavant plays 11 different roles in the film including one where he plays both ends of a one on one deadly encounter.
The film is rich in dialogue the day long banter between Monsieur Oscar and Celine serves as it's backbone. Along with being his driver Celine plays confidant, motivator, assistant, shrink, mechanic  and there are hints that their relationship has or may go further throughout the film.

Music is thoughtfully chosen and adds to each scenario.  It has a particularly telling impact in the scene where Lavant assumes the role of Merde a sewer dwelling goblin that bursts through a cemetery and into the middle of a Paris fashion shoot harkens back to the silent era of monster films.  Then there is the wonderful Rock and Roll accordion sequence to R.L. Burnside's Let my Baby Ride in an old church billed as the films interlude.

Part way through the film Oscar returns to the limo to find a mysterious older gentleman sitting in the far end of the vehicle. A discussion ensures about Oscars motivation and commitment to his role. Oscar responds commenting on how in the beginning the cameras were large and evident, then smaller and hidden and now he is not sure if there are any cameras at all regardless he continues his tasks for the beauty of the Act.

Holy Motors is why we go to the movies. It's captivating, breaks entirely new ground and is fresh take on movie making definitely a top 5 film of 2012.

A Five Star Film

Holy Motors | Loes Carax | France 2012| 115 min.