Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, 2011) – Director Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar takes the well worn template of an inspirational teacher movie and creates something far grander out of a type of film that often lends itself to grandstanding and speeches. It’s a heartrending look at a community struggling with a great loss where the man with the will to help happens to be in over his head.
Following the tragic and horrific suicide of a Montreal elementary school teacher during recess, the staff are struggling with not only how to grieve, but also questions of blame, the degree to which they need to coddle the shell shocked children, and ultimately, replacement, not just of the teacher, but of pretty much everything in the room that could bring about mournful thoughts. Into the school’s life comes Bachir (Fellag), an Algerian refugee who claims to have a teaching background and who knows all too well what it feels like to lose a loved one. Taking on an already tenuous role as a substitute teacher, Bachir at times seems out of place amidst his surroundings by assigning them homework far above their reading levels, but it’s his past that allows him to connect to the class and especially the two children most affected by their teacher’s passing.
Based on a one-man stage play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, Falardeau crafts an elegiac, yet hopeful look at the healing process. Set against a beautifully realized Montreal winter, the location is certainly idyllic to look at, but Falardeau makes it known from the early going that no amount of snow or fresh paint can cover up sadness. Taking posters down in a classroom and relegating them to the boiler room only adds to the feeling that the school harbours a dark secret.
As Bachir, Fellag displays not a quiet intensity, but a nurtured understanding combined with a different cultural upbringing. Through his interactions with colleagues, some disastrous parent-teacher conferences, and his head butting with the school’s chief administrator (a powerful Danielle Proulx, matching her masterful work in Jean-Marc Vallee’s C.R.A.Z.Y.), Fellag struggles to show Bachir’s affable understanding of his new culture through forced smiles and curt body language. It’s a far more physical performance that it probably reads on paper.
The heart of the film, however, belongs to young Alice and Simon (Sophie Nellisse and Emilien Neron) as the two classmates and former best friends that now argue constantly because of the role Simon seemingly played in their teacher’s suicide. It’s through these wonderful child actors (directed with extreme care by Falardeau to make sure they never come across as precocious “little adults”), that the film dares to look at the selfish nature of suicide and the scarring it can leave behind. This B-plot manages to be every bit as engrossing and emotional as Bachir’s soul searching. When they plots converge at the end, the film becomes a real thing of beauty.
Monsieur Lazhar was every bit worthy of its Academy nod earlier as it was one of the year’s most humanist tales. There isn’t a single false note to be found and not a single unbelievable moment. It’s the rare film that’s as uncomfortable as watching a real life tragedy and as nurturing as hug. Not only is this a great film, it’s a great experience. (Andrew Parker)
The Raid (Gareth Evans, 2012) – “1 minute of romance. 99 minutes of non-stop carnage.” That’s what the box for The Raid: Redemption promises and for once it’s not just marketing hype (well, maybe “10-15 minutes of plot 85-90 minutes of non-stop carnage” would be more accurate, but that’s splitting hairs). Welsh export Gareth Evans landed in Indonesia in the late 2000s to relaunch his directing career as a new master of martial arts mayhem. After an impressive practice run on the underrated Merantau, Evans struck B-movie gold here. Combining minimalist action influences from Die Hard and early John Carpenter with the contact-heavy silat martial arts stylings of star/choreographer Iko Uwais (and a presumed severe case of ADD), The Raid is an action movie distilled to its essence. At times it feels like Evans challenged himself to create an action flick with the least amount of plot and characterization ever attempted. The result is a movie made for that select crowd of action fans who complain that Commando is boring and plot heavy.
Uwais stars as the member of a SWAT team sent into a building owned and operated by the local crimeloard (Ray Sahetapy). Within minutes of the cops entering his security camera-packed layer, Sahetapy announces on an intercom that any resident who brings him a cops’ corpse will get free rent for life. Given that an apartment run by a druglord isn’t exactly a residence for preschool teachers and clergymen, that means the cops will have to kill everyone in the damn building one floor at a time. The plot structure is almost like a video game, with each floor a new level and each major henchman a new boss. Evans unloads machine gun and fist-mashing action with a surprisingly level of variance that never feels repetitive. He also has enough skill at staging an action and laying out plot to ensure that a 2-on-1 fight between established characters can have a far greater impact than the mass slaughter of a dozen extras. The movie really only plays one note of ever-escalating violence, yet when executed with this level of physical and filmmaking skill, that’s all you’ll need. It’s action porn and proof that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The new Blu-ray offers Evans’ 100-minute adrenaline rush in the best possible technical presentation. This is about as good as the violence will ever look, while remaining true to the director’s dirty, low-fi, under-cranked aesthetic. Supplements include a 40-min on-set documentary filled with footage showing off the incredible level of rehearsal and skill required for the full-contact fighting. That’s probably the highlight of the special features, but it’s backed up with new North American featurettes and interviews (the highlight of which is seeing the director amusingly stunned by the film’s reception and success) and a pretty hilarious all-cats claymation parody. Simply put, this thing is a must watch for any action movie lovers, especially before the inevitably disappointing Hollywood remake arrives…or Evans’ in-production prison-bound sequel. (Phil Brown)
The Flowers of War (Zhang Yimou, 2011) – A friend once told me that Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) could easily be seen as his country’s Martin Scorsese. For better or worse, the comparison feels quite apt than in his latest film, the ambitious and mostly successful The Flowers of War. A sprawling World War II epic with a major Western star in a leading role, the film represents a solid, but definitely overstuffed effort from the famed director. It’s far from his best, but aside from a lengthy two hour and twenty minute running time, there’s still enough here to recommend in this story of the tragic Rape of Nanking.
An American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale) finds himself trapped in 1937 Nanking just after the Japanese troops had successfully taken hold of Shanghai. Miller, who doesn’t care about anything more than collecting a paycheque, getting drunk, and not getting shot, has travelled to Nanking to bury a priest at an all girl’s monastery. Desperate for any sort of help, the only remaining boy and the priest’s former helper begs John to stay to help the young women escape. Once Miller hears that the body of the priest is gone and there isn’t any money or booze, Miller refuses to help until a large group of brothel workers from the red light district hop the monastery walls and demand shelter. The relationship between Miller, the schoolgirls, and the working girls starts tenuously at first, but over time as the Japanese begin to ignore Red Cross safety issues that previously made the church off limits, they all realize they need each other for survival.
Yimou finds himself most at home during the film’s stunning battle sequences, some of which are truly breathtaking to behold. He stumbles a bit when it comes to scenes of domestic turmoil within the church, but these problems are a direct result of the script. Instead of trying to tell one or two stories really well, writer Heng Liu (working from a novel by Geling Yan) packs the film with numerous subplots and B-stories that never really add anything. There are really only four major characters despite the church housing more than 30 people in total. Not everyone needs to have their own story here as one overarching plot would’ve sufficed. It’s all handled quite well despite occasional sequences of extreme brutality towards children at the hands of soldiers, but there’s just too much going on that could have been trimmed.
As for Bale, he seems quite comfortable in the role of Miller, which early on harkens back to performances he gave in American Psycho and the Shaft remake. Miller starts off as a pretty unlikable and selfish guy, and Bale attacks the role with aplomb, probably because he doesn’t have to play a goodie-two-shoes for the whole film. The time does come when Miller finally has to take a stand in light of what he sees happening around him, and for a movie that takes its sweet time explaining everything about everyone, the transition from jerk to savior comes across as abrupt. Still Bale and the rest of the cast (including a great Ni Ni as the head of the former brothel) help to overcome the script’s shortcomings.
The Flowers of War begins to drag a bit in the second half once the decision is made to flee the city, but it’s always watchable thanks to the talented Yimou and a well rounded cast. It’s not very hard to see why the film was snubbed at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, but it’s very easy to see how with a little more editing it could’ve made the cut. The DVD does come with a really comprehensive and interesting five part making of documentary (totalling an hour and forty minutes) that speaks candidly about making a world class epic on a limited budget. (Andrew Parker)
Marley (Kevin Macdonald, 2012) – Although he’s inarguably one of the biggest musical and cultural figureheads of all time, reggae artist Bob Marley hasn’t had a truly great biopic made about him until now. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) was granted unprecedented access to rare, unseen material by the Marley family to paint a picture of a brilliant, but flawed man that some considered to be truly God-like. At two hours and twenty four minutes, watching Marley is certainly a formidable undertaking, but for those looking for the most comprehensive portrait of the man possible there are few sources that feel more vital than this.
From his early, less documented days as a doo-wop influenced artist in the rough Trench Town area of Kingston to his untimely death from melanoma related complications in 1981, Macdonald looks to leave no stone unturned in creating as balanced a picture of the man as possible. Much is made of Marley’s desire to inspire and engage those around him while remaining a staunchly apolitical voice for peace and change back home, even when it nearly costs him his life and he’s forced to flee to London. The film also does great service to the musical legacy that came both before and after Bob, working also as a great history lesson looking at reggae culture and ska.
It isn’t all laudatory, however. Bob’s family openly and freely discusses his problems with his father, his almost staggering infidelity, and his cold distance between him and his children. It’s interesting to note just where the people around Bob have ended up in their lives. His wife seems to have always been at peace with Bob’s sleeping around, seeing what they did as being almost akin to missionary work. His son Ziggy seems to have gained some understanding with time, but his daughter Cedella still seems to hold some conflicted feelings towards her father’s legacy, and many viewers might think that her trepidations are pretty well founded.
While some of the more anecdotal asides about Marley could be cut in terms of pacing and narrative, they all speak to how much his music has endured to this day. For fans and pop culture history buffs, this is one you won’t want to miss, and the DVD comes with some extended interviews with Bunny Wailer and Bob’s children that add quite a bit to the material even though their stories are pretty incidental. There’s also a 20 minute look at Bob’s impact around the world and a rare American club performance from the artist’s early years. (Andrew Parker)
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallstrom, 2012) – Salmon Fishing In The Yemen slid onto home video last week with a featureless Blu-ray and one of the most uninspiring titles for a major release in years, but at least this movie does exactly what it says on the box. Admittedly, there are a handful of sweet and funny little moments as well as some nice performances from, but the film is ultimately about, well, salmon fishing in Yemen. It’s not exactly riveting subject matter. Sure assassinations, wartime tragedy, liberal doses of verbal sparring, and some gentle romance are woven in, but ultimately the movie is about the magical healing powers of fishing. It proves to be just as exciting fodder for an all-star comedy as birdwatching was for the already forgotten Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson joint The Big Year.
Ewan McGregor stars as a government fishing expert (apparently those exist) who is asked to look into the feasibility of transporting Salmon to the Arabian Peninsula to manufacture a fisherman’s paradise. The request comes from a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) for whom money and logic are not barriers for the impossible quest. McGregor initially laughs off the request, but it ends up peaking the interest of a cynical fast-talking press agent for the British Prime Minister (Kristin Scott Thomas), who wants the impossible dream to happen to create a positive Middle East news story to counter balance all of the bloody war coverage. McGregor is skeptical, but his interest is slowly peaked by the sheik’s stunning British representative (Emily Blunt). To complicate matters, Blunt is carrying a torch for a soldier MIA in Afghanistan and once the whole cast heads to Yemen, there are some gun-totting locals who don’t take so kindly to the sheik’s costly plans.
Well, a quick glance at the credits should reassure audiences that everything is going to be ok. The film was directed by Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire). These guys aren’t afraid to let the occasional dark theme slip into their work, but they never verge into creating films with a sense of moral ambiguity. Nope, these guys are crowd pleasures specializing in gently amusing fair with an eye on the Oscar prize and this is no exception. It’s a gentle little tale that hits all the expected beats and slips of the screen fairly painlessly. Audiences are likely to emerge from the theater with a mild grin on their face and then promptly forget everything they saw within minutes
One thing that Hallstrom and Beaufoy have going for them is a strong cast. Ewan McGregor appears in a rare cast-against-type form as a loveless dork obsessed with fishing. McGregor seems energized by playing very different role and is wonderful as a charming, funny, and socially awkward mess. And if you’re looking for a British actress to play an adorkable female fantasy, you could do a hell of a lot worse then Emily Blunt. She essentially hits two notes in the movie. She’s either in awkwardly funny and flirty mode when drumming up emotions with McGregor or appears sad and withdrawn when lamenting her missing army boyfriend. Even though the role is limited, Blunt always makes it believable. Then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas busting out her patented icy intellectual role, this time in comedic mode as a spin-doctor, and she’s frequently hilarious.
Despite their shared weakness for schmaltz and melodrama, Hallstrom and Beaufoy do typically create fairly interesting characters for actors to latch onto and that’s certainly the case here. Watching McGregor, Blunt, and Thomas pair off with each other in a collection of love scenes and comic asides is a pleasure, but it’s just a shame that the material they’re working with isn’t particularly compelling. All of the political commentary and references to war are there simply as dramatic asides to the dry central story and they never feel properly paid off or fleshed out. In the end, the movie always comes back to stale romantic comedy and passages about the escapist power of fishing. There’s nothing bad about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but there’s just nothing particularly memorable about it either. It’s a pleasant enough inoffensive time waster perfectly suited for lazy Sunday afternoon W Network programming. (Phil Brown)
Community (Season Three, 2011-12) – Depending on who you talk to, Dan Harmon, the creator of the cult hit TV show Community, is either a mad genius or just plain mad. It’s a testament to the show that it would be able to overcome the firing of its show runner following a blow up with one of his actors. For all of the hemming and hawing and threatening of cancellation that led to yet another grass roots fan movement, the third season of Community rose above all of the nasty problems that plagued its production behind the scenes to craft one of the most gleefully surreal and hilarious (if sometimes slightly uneven) seasons of any sitcom in history.
Returning to the hallowed halls of Glendale Community College, season three doesn’t offer too much in the way of character development aside from poignantly showing how study group leader Jeff (Joel McHale) might be the bane of his friends’ existence. It does decidedly up the level of craziness in the season’s earlier episodes with inspired episodes about creating alternate timelines and a pitch perfect piss take on Hearts of Darkness that no other show on television would even begin to attempt. Following the mid-season departure of Harmon from full time duty, the show does settle into a bit of a more mainstream groove (until a favourite recurring character “dies”), but even at its most standard Community belongs to the rarefied air of shows on television that are actually worth watching on a weekly basis.
The DVD package matches the prescient Sony set with the first two seasons with commentary tracks on every episode (that are still joking, but sometimes oddly gravitate towards actually talking about some of the show’s behind the scenes drama… in a joking fashion, of course), a wealth of deleted scenes, vignettes, webisodes, and outtakes. An outtake of Alison Brie freestyle rapping at great length steals the whole package and is almost worth the price of buying the package on its own. (Andrew Parker)