It is with deep sadness that I report the passing of Peter Sklar, founder and publisher of Edhat.com. Peter was a true supporter of independent and foreign film and a good friend to Indie Film Guru. He carried our posts weekly on his community-based website. Peter and his camera were dependable sights at every unique and important event in the community. I fondly recall seeing him daily during each year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and like the many people whose lives he touched, I will miss him greatly.
Iceland's Best Foreign Film entry to the 85th Academy Awards is an improbable tale of survival set against a North Atlantic landscape of stark beauty.
In March of 1984, a local fishing vessel set out from Iceland's Westman Islands and never returned. Many hours after the boat sank in the near-freezing North Atlantic, a lone survivor, haggard and almost incoherent, knocked on a door in the village from which the boat had set out. He had swam the distance of several miles in six hours and then walked barefoot for two hours in freezing temperatures over cutting volcanic rock covered with ice and snow - a feat that should have been impossible for any normal human being.
The most amazing thing about Baltasar Kormakur's film is that it is a dramatization based on an actual event. Kormakur is best known to American audiences as director of Contraband, the Mark Wahlberg vehicle that released earlier this year, but he has a track record of outstanding films over the last decade in his native Iceland. His recreation of the sights and sounds on a fishing boat and the Icelandic coast are engrossing in their realism and simple beauty.
Olafur Dan Olafsson plays Gulli, the fisherman who beats the odds to survive in the harshest of conditions. Olafsson effectively conveys Gulli's will to survive primarily through facial expression and conversations with sea gulls during the survival sequences that run through the second act. The latter part of the story is devoted to Gulli's attempts to return to his normal life and escape the public attention his amazing story precipitated.
Olafur Dan Olafsson
Kormakur fittingly dedicates his film to the fishermen of Iceland. His film is a celebration of the humanity and strength of the people who populate the country's Westman Islands. These are a people who work hard to build a life in a desolate location, afflicted by both frigid weather and the terrible hell unleashed upon them from time to time by the area's active volcano.
Now that The Deep has made the cut for Oscar's Best Foreign Film shortlist, a few of the American distributors who have been hovering around it since Toronto may finally bite. I hope for this because The Deep should be seen on the big screen to gain a full appreciation of the beauty of its cinematography, especially the underwater scenes. If you don't get to see it in that format, and you have to reserve it on Netflix or Amazon, at least watch it on a big screen TV.
A heartbreaking and unflinching look into the lives of an elderly couple, Michael Haneke's Amour barely breaks from the confines of a Parisian home, as Anne slowly deteriorates from an illness that cannot be contained or helped. Sure, it may not sound like the type of film to bring holiday cheer, but the love that the two leads share as their lives crumble around them is an experience to be cherished.
The opening is stark and dark, like a typical Haneke film, filled with bleak undertones. When the cops arrive at a home, the stench quickly hits them. As they work their way through the rooms and open windows, they find a door that has been sealed off with tape, hiding a death.. Once inside they find the decaying body of a woman, dead for who knows how long, dressed in her Sunday best and adorned with the care usually given by a mortician for a final burial. Before there is a chance to breathe, the film cuts to the title card with little sound or emotion through the title sequence.
This is where we veer off from the typical horrors that Haneke gave us in recent films like Caché and both versions of Funny Games. We jump back to happier times. A time when Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sit within a crowd at a concert hall. These two have chemistry together and a lifetime of memories behind their eyes and wrinkled skin.
When they return home, they see that someone has broken in. They both feel uncomfortable and frail. It isn't the break-in, but the illness that quickly follows. The next morning as Georges is talking, Anne stares off into the abyss, possibly lost in the conversation, but we soon realize that Anne had her first stroke, which eventually leaves half of her body paralyzed. Instead of wasting away in the hospital, Anne makes Georges promise her that he'll never take her back to the hospital. She would rather spend the remainder of her time in their home, filled with memories. From here, the film never leaves the home, which is massive in size, and becomes more claustrophobic as the story and Anne's decline unfolds.
Georges becomes the caretaker, caring for his wife of sixty-plus years. There are tender moments when he moves her from her wheelchair to the bed, his constant affection of movements to keep her as limber as possible, and even changing her diaper as she becomes more infantile. These moments are a new type of embrace that take an old couple from passion to compassion in their final days, weeks and months. You can feel the love, and also the frustration that Georges feels, when feeling completely worn down, he slaps his wife. Even then you feel compassionate in his action.
Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji keep the shots wide, allowing the art direction to showcase the life once lived by the two. The photos clue the viewer to the passion and abundance the couple once shared, and the memories won't be forgotten. Ultimately it is a showcase for two living legends of the French New Wave that doesn't glamorize or dwell in the mundane. There is no way to beat Anne's affliction and they've both succumbed to her fate. It is a beautiful portrait, although bleak and a chore to get through, and it is the easy frontrunner of the films recently announced for the best Foreign Film in this year's Oscar race.
When Hollywood turns it's back on those who are AARP-eligible, Haneke allows his performers to fully embrace the demise of life and that of a great career. Riva should easily be a nominee for the Best Actress Oscar for her complete embodiment of a role that centers around slow deterioration with minimal dialogue. The pain in her eyes, the stillness of her lifeless body and the depth of her expression tell us volumes about her character.
And there are little touches throughout, most notably a dove that flies into the open window not once, but twice in the film. To me, the bird symbolizes a life of freedom, able to fly to and fro, and possibly a bit deeper meaning. Doves can represent love and peace, and maybe that is why, in an act of defiance, Georges covers it with his coat, only to free it once again. Then again, maybe I'm looking too deeply into it. But does Haneke ever include something without meaning in his films?
Two sisters, one planning her big day and the other questioning her decision to move in with her long-term rocker boyfriend, bring little in the way of new aspects to the rom-com genre, but the likable leads and rocking soundtrack make Save the Date worth the view.
When we first meet Sarah (Lizzy Caplan), she's reluctantly packing up boxes to move in with her boyfriend, Kevin, who she's been in a relationship with for two-plus years. The reluctance isn't because she's a commitment-phobe, but because she questions making the final leap. She even packs the dishes, still caked with leftovers of previous meals, into the box, knowing that she can eventually come to terms with the big decision. At the same time, she is the helping hand, offering a little bit of advice and an alternate voice for her sister Beth's nuptials. Beth is played by the multi-talented Alison Brie.
Geoffrey Arend and Lizzy Caplan
Even though she is reluctantly moving in and moving on to the next big step in adulthood, Sarah isn't necessarily ready to settle down. All of her insecurities and questions about her future are thrown into a tailspin when Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) proposes to her at the end of the sold-out hometown show of his band, Wolfbird. Even though Kevin has been forewarned not to, he proposes to Sarah in the middle of the crowd and is left with egg on his face, as a bevy of camera phones captures the embarrassing moment for the whole world to see. Now he must venture out on tour with his bandmate, who happens to be Beth's fiance, Andrew (Martin Starr).
But Sarah is the type of catch who doesn't stay single long. She finds herself the fancy of another suitor named Jonathan (Mark Webber), who constantly flirts with Sarah as he picks up books for his thesis in marine biology. The two hit it off, and Sarah is quick to warn him of her inability to settle into something for too long. But the hormones of two attractive and successful people are hard to hold off. The whirlwind rebound for Sarah grows quickly, while Beth hopes it will only lead her sister back into Kevin's arms.
Mark Webber and Lizzy Caplan
Save the Date isn't ground-breaking in story or structure, but the leads, along with the amazing supporting cast, makes it a step above the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. These couples cover the mundane, but somehow they make it worthwhile and leave you wondering what will actually lead Sarah to settle down and truly find herself. Caplan, who has been a standout in previous ensemble pieces, like Party Downand Bachelorette, is superb as the lead. She is able to carry and shift seamlessly between the comedic and the dramatic.
The film is muddled by Michael Mohanl's direction, with constant shots of feet (ala Quentin Tarantino), but he allows the viewer a chance to sit back and listen to the conversations that will jump from dramatic to quick-witted. The soundtrack is helped by a catchy indie-rock mix, instead of the plague of pop-centric montages typically found in mainstream films.
Currently the film is available in limited release or from IFC VOD.
This is the time of year when you may wonder what kind of holiday gift will light up the eyes of the indie film lover in your life. The fact is it's not as big a challenge as you may think. There are an endless variety of gift possibilities to fit every budget and taste. The following are a few of our top picks.
FILM FESTIVAL PASSES
There are now film festivals in almost every community and country in the world, and it's a sure bet there's one within 50 miles of where you are right now. You usually do not have to pre-select the films, which leaves selection to the discretion and personal taste of the recipient. You can buy film packs of as few as 4-6 films for little more than $50 or buy an all-access pass for prices ranging from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Festival Focus has a database of film festivals that is searchable by title, keyword and country.
HIGH QUALITY DVD & BLU-RAY EDITIONS
The Criterion Collection is an online store that offers high-quality, technically engineered DVD and Blu-ray editions of art house films that span the entire history of cinema, including special masters collections of great filmmakers, such as Akira Kurosawa and Louis Malle. The site also offers film memorabilia and gift certificates, in case you're not sure what the recipient wants or has already collected. Kino Lorber and Film Movement also offer great collections of foreign and independent film gift box sets.
Video on Demand is the fastest growing method of indie film delivery in the current market. The cinephile can download a selected film and watch it instantly on a desktop, tablet or television screen. Several major services offer gift subscriptions, including Fandor, Hulu, IndiePix, VOD, and of course, Netflix.
If you're not sure if your particular cinephile will prefer to use a VOD service or order DVDs for home delivery, there is the option of gift card purchases that can be used to buy DVDs and Blu-rays or download films directly. Gift certificates may offer more versatility and can be used for things like books and music, as well. Amazon.com and iTunes are two of the most popular sites offering gift certificates and gift cards.
THEATER GIFT CARDS
For the cinephile who prefers to see movies on the big screen for the pure cinematic experience, most theaters offer gift cards that can be redeemed for movie tickets or concessions. They range from large chains like Ciinemark to smaller, more local venues like Metropolitan Theatres in California and the Prytania and Canal Place in New Orleans.
A visually stunning love letter to cinema, Holy Motors may be light on plot, but it delves deep into multiple genres and may have one of the greatest performances of the early twenty-first century.
I recommend that you go into Holy Motors without much knowledge of the story, the characters or the visual candy in store for you. Coming off of its successful screening in Cannes earlier this year, I was told to avoid anything in the press and any trailers if I wanted to have the ultimate experience. Before sitting in the darkened multiplex to witness Leos Carax's latest film, I had seen the trailer only once, but little can actually be gleaned from it. So I leave you here dear reader, if you want to have one of the best film experiences in several years, and admonish you to turn away from the rest of the review and let the mind wander when you actually see the film.
In the opening images of Holy Motors, the director Leos Carax wakes in a room wallpapered to look like a forest and is freed by inserting a key into the wall that is part of his finger. From there, he looks over a group of theater-goers, watching a flick on the big screen. Then suddenly, a dog is wandering down the aisles. Maybe this old dog represents Carax and his old ways of cinema compared to the splashy special effects-laden films currently being churned out by the studios. Maybe there is another meaning, or maybe the director wants you to dig deeper into the film with multiple viewings to fully grasp his messages.
From the cinema we meet Monsieur Oscar, played by long-time Carax collaborator Denis Lavant, as he leaves his palatial estate and jumps into the back of the waiting stretched limo. What emerges from the limo after its jaunt across Paris, but a hunchbacked woman, who heads onto the town to beg for change. This is one of the many characters or "appointments" he will have over the course of a single day.
In between each appointment, Oscar sits in the back of the limo, which has been set up as a makeshift changing room. He transforms easily into each character with a mixture of prosthetics, wigs and acting chops. Neither Oscar, nor Carax, ever explains what the mission is or why he's set upon these "appointments." Viewers are left to make up their own minds, as Lavant plays eleven different characters over the course of the day. Not only is he the beggar, but also an emotionally abusive father, a performer in a motion capture session, and a sewer dwelling, flower-eating madman who kidnaps a fashion model (Eva Mendes). The latter character was previously featured in Carax's segment "Merde" in Tokyo!
With each new vignettes, Carax mixes between genres. One minute the audience may be laughing at the antics, while in the next segment the film shifts gears and hits a serious moment, all before breaking out in a song as an interlude. And Lavant flawlessly embodies every character. It is the type of role actors dream of, but as films often rely heavily on the use of actors against green-screened backdrops, an actor is hardly given the chance to explore multiple facets within the same movie. Just like Cloud Atlas, Motors wants the viewer to dig in deeper to find the meanings between the connective tissues. It may not be easy in the first viewing, but as you pull back the layers, you may just be able to see what Carax wanted to share with all of us.