March 25, 2011 Morality in Movies. Films Reviewed: Limitless, Outside the Law, West is West

When people are looking for discussions on morality, the last place they’ll look for answers is at the movies — they’re just entertainment, right? Well… not exactly. Actually, traditional Hollywood movies — be they dramas, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures, or even horror movies – always follow a strict moral code: The bad guys are punished or killed, the good guys rewarded in the end. It’s almost puritanical: in a slasher movie, the ones who smoke pot or get drunk or make out are always the first ones killed by the serial killer. In the recent comedy, Hall Pass, the characters who have extramarital sex get physically hurt, while the ones who stay pure are spared.

But occasionally you get movies where the characters themselves face a moral dilemma, and have to decide for themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing, when both options seem terrible. So today I’m going to talk about three movies – one takes place in Pakistan and England, one in Algeria and France, and one in the US – with potential moral dilemmas at their core.

Limitless

Dir: Neil Burger

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a novelist with writer’s block. He hasn’t written a word of his first book yet, but he’s already spent his cash advance (I’d love to meet his agent!); he can’t pay his rent, and his girlfriend Lindy has dumped him.

But then he meets a low-life drug dealer from his past who offers him a new type of little, clear pill, an unnamed pharmaceutical, a sort of a super-Ritalin — that will solve all his problems, and he’ll be the only one on these drugs. Suddenly, everything’s as clear as the pill. He knows the answers to all his problems. He can seduce any woman, instantly learn any language, stop any punch before it hits him. He immediately writes his novel, but now he’s forced to consider what to do with his new powers. (Sort of a moral dillema). Will he find the cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine? Will he bring about world peace? Will he be able to save the world from Earthquakes and tsunamis?

Naaah. He goes for money fame and power instead. He borrows cash from a Russian gangster to invest on wall street and meets up with the great financier Van Loon. (The trillionaire is played by Robert de Niro, who is also just in it for the money.) And then there’s a mysterious old guy in a cheap suit who pops up all over the place and who is obviously up to no good.

What’s going to happen to Eddie? Will he make tons of money? Will he get back his girlfriend? And what about the drugs – what happens if they run out? And what about the gangster? And what about Van Loon – will he beat him at his own game? And who’s that creepy guy who’s spying on him?

Limitless is the kind of so-so popcorn movie that’s fun to watch, but crumbles apart immediately afterwards when you try to make sense of it. (Maybe it’s because I’m not on the little clear pill, but I doubt it.) I liked the semi-psychedelic scenes in this movie where he has strange out-of-body experiences in a constant forward movement, speeding through time and space. Cool special effects. And there are some good dramatic moments, but the rest of is pretty stupid. Bradley Cooper plays the same douche-y prick he did in The Hangover, Abbie Cornish is forgettable as his girlfriend, and De Niro is just killing time – he doesn’t even try.

Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)

Written and Directed by

Rachid Bouchareb

In 1925, a family gets kicked off its farm in Algeria because he has no written deed, and some French colonist wants the land. The defiant mother and her three young sons are each affected by this, in their own way, but all of them just want back what’s rightfully theirs. Soon the three brothers are all grown up – it’s the 50s and a demonstration is building in the city streets. Abdelkader is an activist marching in the demo, Said is an entrepreneur trying to make money through boxing; and Messaoud is the tough boxer he’s promoting. But once again the French military and police are messing things up, massacring both the political activists and the people just living their lives.

So the movie follows the three sons and the paths they take – after being jailed for demonstrating, Abdelkhader becomes a real revolutionary, Said turns to organized crime, prostitution, gambling and nightclubs, and Messaoud who joins the French army becomes a POW in Hanoi.

Algeria is now a part of France – it’s been completely annexed. So they all eventually end up living as second-class citizens in the slums and shantytowns of Paris, and become involved in the increasing tension and growing political storm In Algeria, and the rise of the FLN, (the Algerian Liberation Front) in which they all end up playing a crucial role.

Abdelkader has to decide his priorities as he’s faced with difficult moral dilemmas. Is it the revolution above all? Or family ties? And does the end justify the means? And what does it mean if he’s behaving as violently as the French he’s revolting against, or resorting to terrorist actions? While politics always makes for strange bedfellows, Abdelkader’s strict puritanism is contrasted with Said the gangster’s devil-may-care attitude. But he also forces his Messaoud to be his muscle and do the dirty deeds that he decides on.

This is a neat movie that combines, using the three brothers, different movie types – it’s a combination historical, political drama, a police thriller (they’re being chased by a cop who was in the left-wing resistance during WWII), a boxing movie, and a Godfather-type family saga. Great acting by the three brothers – Jamal Debbouze as the funny, street hood, Roschdy Zem as the strong and silent bruiser, and Sami Boujila as the troubled, heroic revolutionary – who switch from Arabic to French and back again – in this really well-made movie. I think anyone who saw Gods and Men (the gentle movie about the French monks massacred in Algeria) should also see this one if they want to really understand the politics and history of the two nations.

West is West

Dir: Andy DeEmmony

Sajid is a British schoolkid in Manchester in the 1970’s, whose parents have a chip shop. His father George is Pakistani, his mother’s English, and he’s an irascible foulmouthed brat who is picked on by racist bullies at his school. The headmaster, having spent time in Punjab when it was part of the British Empire, shows his sympathy to Sajid by telling him about Kipling. “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab” he says, but Sajid wants nothing to do with that. And when, in a fight with his father, he uses the P-word, things really look bad. So the next thing you know, he’s being shipped off with his dad to the family homestead in Punjabi Pakistan.

And there’s a whole family there – George hasn’t seen his first wife and daughters since he emigrated thirty years before – he just periodically sent them money to support them. Sajid, who only knows “Salaam aleikum” and a few dirty words in Urdu, begins to study not in a classroom but by following a staff-carrying wise man who claims to be a fool and a local kid he dismissively calls Mowgli.

But he makes a friend, learns about life, and gradually loses his English uniform and ways. West is West wonders if ever the twain shall meet. Will his older brother, who is obsessed with Nana Mouskouri, ever find a bride that lives up to his image? Will Sajid find a culture to call his own? And what will George do to solve his impossible moral dilemma? The movie has more stories than you can shake a stick at, but it carefully and thoughtfully deals with each one inside the bigger East vs West story. It’s especially touching in the way it deals with the two wives, neither of whom planned their strange predicament.

Superficially, you can compare this to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it’s everything that movie is not.

It’s hilarious, but without reverting to camp or slapstick; it deals with cultural differences but not with cheap ethnic stereotypes; it’s adorable, but foul-mouthed enough to never seem cutesie; and above all, it was just a really good movie. It’s not a movie only for South Asians, it’s a lovely and delightful movie for everyone.

Limitless is now playing, and opening today, March 25, in Toronto are Outside the Law, West is West, and A Matter of Size (a movie about people embracing their body-size by becoming sumo wrestlers, which I reviewed last week). Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

Escape! Movies Reviewed: Battle: Los Angeles Cosmonauta, I Saw the Devil, A Matter of Size

Posted in Sumo, Uncategorized, Weightloss by CulturalMining.com on March 17, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

I have a tendency, please forgive me, to link current news and events to what I’m seeing in the movie theatres, even though the movies were made long before the events of the last week happened. So when Saudi troops are invading Bahrain, or the Tepco Dai Ichi reactor is reaching a boiling point, I start to see parallels to what I’m watching on the screen with what’s going on… out there. And right now, the world in a fair bit of turmoil. So, to distract you from all that, here are four new films – an American action movie, an Italian historical coming-of-age drama, an Israeli comedy/drama with a Japanese twist, and violent horror and revenge movie from Korea.

First,

Battle: Los Angeles

Dir: Jonathan Liebesman

(or should I say BATTLE: LOS ANGELES!!!) is about a US marine troop sent out to save trapped civilians and invaders in Santa Monica before the city is flattened by American bombs. You see, the unexpected meteor shower that cropped up all around the world is actually a planned attack by scary, metallic, insect-like space invaders who want to kill everyone so they can suck up the world’s seawater.

Not sure why they have to kill everyone on shore, since they want the stuff in the water… but never mind, don’t ask about details in a war movie. Just go out there and KILL KILL KILL! The troop is led by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, who lost all his guys in his last battle, somewhere far away. So the guys he commands don’t completely trust him. They have to save any civilians who haven’t been evacuated, and get them to safety. And when Santos a woman from the air force joins them, they deduce how to fight the aliens and win back the world – but first they have to find their core command, and take them out.

I went to Battle Los Angeles for the catharsis of a disaster movie, in the theory that everyday, real-life stress and tension, including repeated footage of cars and people being washed out to see by last week’s Japanese tsunami that you see on TV, on youtube, and even on screens in bars and restaurants.

I wanted lots of collapsing buildings, huge train and highway accidents, and screaming hordes of people stampeding in one direction or another.

But watch out folks, it isn’t a disaster movie at all – it’s military porn. It’s basically just one long, extended orgy of weapons, shootouts, grenades, bullets and other ordnance fired between the two sides. I was having trouble paying attention in the beginning – it was like having to watch someone else playing a military video game – maybe it was fun for the director, but kinda dull for the viewers. The dialogue: I want you to be my little marine, Hector. Cause Marines don’t quit. Says Eckhart to a kid. – was atrocious, the story was stooopid, and the acting was so-so. (though I thought Michelle Rodrigues was good as Santos). Though the special effects and some of the screechy alien weapons were sort of cool. But all in all, this movie was more of a “meh” than a “wow”.

To balance these reviews, I’m now doing a complete U-turn from the right to the left with

Cosmonauta

Dir: Susanna Nicchiarelli

It’s the late 50’s in Rome, and the Soviet Union is having its “Sputnik moment.” The whole country is rapt in wonder at the first space ship, with a little dog. But the communists in Italy are especially elated, and the Soviets seem to be surpassing the Americans in a triumph of science and technology. The Communist party was no fringe in Italy – it was the official opposition. And Luciana and Arturo, whose father was a party member, grow up venerating all things communist and Soviet.

Luciana (Marianna Raschillà) is a stalwart, straightforward crusader for women’s rights, against bourgeois capitalism, and longing for the day when a woman might be a cosmonaut (the Soviet term for astronaut.) She lives with her mother, and her traditionalist stepfather, whom she considers a fascist. She rejects the church on the day of her first communion, and looks up only to her brother a science geek who is equally enamoured of the space race.

But despite her idealistic goals, and her anti-fashion dress and haircut, she is forced to face the realities life as a teenager. She has to watch out for her older brother (who has epilepsy); she is faced with as many sexist comments at the Communist Youth meetings as in normal school life; and she’s crushing on a boy in the party but he only has eyes for the girl who plays dumb, not the one who asserts herself. Her party’s enemies seem to be not the fascists, the liberals or the Christian Democrats, but the “socialist traitors” who gave up Communism after Stalin’s crimes were exposed. And she is confronted with unanticipated sexual double standards everywhere goes.

Her crises come to a head in this gentle, historical drama when her dreams seem to come crashing down. Will she find love? Will her brother overcome his disability? Will her family get along? And will the soviets triumph in outer space?

Cosmonauta is a delightful, historically accurate coming-of-age story about a girl’s life within the cold war in Italy in the early sixties’s space race. A very enjoyable movie…

A Matter of Size

Dir: Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmore

Hertzl (Itzik Cohen) is a man in his thirties who still lives with his mother. He works as a chef, but when his boss moves him to the back of the restaurant so the diners don’t see him, he is offended and quits. He’s overweight, and gets derisive comments and abuse from all sides – his work, his mother, and especially his one social event, the support group at weight-loss clinic he attends religiously.

But when he gets a job at a sushi bar, he has a revelation he glimpses on a TV screen: Sumo! He decides he’s had enough of the battle against weight and instead to embrace his fatness, to stay heavy, and to celebrate the strength in his size, not to starve it down to submission.

With the grudging help of a strict Sumo coach (the restaurant owner) he gathers together friends from his weight loss club to join his team – a bigoted plumber, a guy who runs a donair stand, a young cameraman and his new girlfriend, a social worker. Will they get to Japan for the championships? Will he learn to become one with nature? Will he be the champion wrestler?

A matter of size is an OK comedy, that despite its topic, relies, for too many of its laughs, on fat jokes like collapsing chairs and being too big. Being a non-Japanese, it also depends a lot on the novelty and strangeness of the world of sumo. So the wrestlers have long scenes where they’re forced to run around in populated areas wearing only their mawashi loin cloths. (Incidentally, the only times I ever saw sumo wrestlers in public in Japan, they were always elegantly dressed in crisp white and blue cotton kimonos). But in the end, A Matter of Size is a sweet comedy that shows the positive aspects of being big.

I Saw the Devil

Dir: Kim Jee-woon

Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) is a secret agent in a prestigious job, who’s in love with a beautiful woman, the daughter of a police chief. Then something terrible happens: a non-descript looking middle-aged guy driving a school minibus offers to help her change a flat tire on a snowy night. But soon we see him in his cave-life home, brutally attacking, torturing, murdering, and dismembering her in an especially gruesome way. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is a depraved serial killer who glories in getting revenge on beautiful young women merely for looking down on him or even rejecting.

Kim is mortified so, with the help of his associate, takes time off of his job to avenge his dead love. He will hunt him down, and in an eye-for-an-eye style punishment, do to him what he had done to her (and all of the other women he killed). He becomes a sort of a Dexter, only attacking bad guys. But although he finds the killer early on, they begin a long extended battle between the two, to see who will win, who will triumph, and whose morality (if indeed there is a difference between the two) will win out.

I Saw the Devil is an extremely violent, gory and bloody pic, but, still, it is not as awful as the Saw series. It’s an aesthetically amazing movie, with stunning camera work that looks like a 1970’s American sleuth pic like Klute, with window reflections, blurring lights, views through windows. Sort of like the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, it’s way beyond the quality you’d expect in a cheap exploitation or horror movie. It’s also really well written with a good soundtrack, great acting, appropriate special effects, and a plot that keeps you going. It’s also a great director, (the guy who did A Tale of Two Sisters, among others)

It is, though, only for people who like horror movies, because that’s what it is, and it glories in torture and violence, but thankfully, the camera cuts away from the worst parts. Well, at least for the good victims; when the bad guys are tortured, it just keeps going on and on and on…. I Saw the Devil will definitely take your mind off the rest of the word for an hour and twenty minutes.

Battle: Los Angeles is now playing, and opening today (March 18) in Toronto are Cosmonauta and I Saw the Devil. A Matter of Size opens next Friday (March 25th) in Toronto and Montreal. Check your local listings.

Is It All In The Story? Movies Reviewed: Red Riding Hood, The Adjustment Bureau

I don’t about you, but one of the main reasons I go to the movies is to see a good story. I want to feel like I’m being taken into the plot and meeting the characters – I want to care if they live or die, and I want to find out what’s going to happen to them.

So people making movies look around for stories to use, if they can’t come up with their own. Awful source of plots are things like video games, 1970’s TV comedies, long forgotten Saturday morning cartoons, TV commercials, or ideas churned out by executives trying to duplicate the success of previous blockbusters. Good sources are things like novels or short stories, plays, along with myths, legends, and, believe it or not, fairytales and folktales. So today I’m going to look at two movies with stories that come from possibly good sources, but may or may not translate well into movies.

The Adjustment Bureau

Dir: George Nolfi

(based partly on a short story by Philip K Dick.)

David (Matt Damon) whose parents died when he was young, is a young and ambitious Kennedy-like congressman from New York, trying to make it to the Senate. But he blows the election when an old video surfaces of him mooning the camera in his days as a fratboy. But as he practices his concession speech in the men’s room, he has a fleeting encounter with a strange woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), he meets there. Love at first sight?

But their meeting confuses some cosmic order of destiny. When he goes into work, everyone has been frozen, except him, and the men in hats, and their faceless enforcers, are wiping clear everyone’s memory.

Who are these men in hats? Are they angels? Conspirators? Aliens? Or just accountants? Doesn’t matter. They tell him he has to follow what’s written in a book, that tells him what to do. And he’s not supposed to be with her.

Wait? Everyone’s lives are predetermined and there is no free will? No, no, no, they tell him. Just the superior – you know the politicians. The muggles all just live their lives, but the golden boys like David, are important people so the accountants take special care of them. The men with hats can pass through doors at will, and keep track of what the uber-menschen are up to all day, or so a sympathetic hat-man, Henry, tells him.

So will Dave be able to resist getting together with his lifemate? Or will he choose a life of politics? Blah blah blah…

Philip K Dick wrote the books that were turned into movies like Blade Runner, and Total Recall. So does this one work? No! it feels like a high-concept movie based on some producers scribbling down ideas on a cocktail napkin.

While it starts out good and interesting, this movie left me angry with its fake thriller trailers (it’s actually a romance, not a thriller) it’s badly thought-out characters, and its almost random plot-turns. People can only hide from the hat men near water – why? Are they fish people? Ado they swim? Are they allergic? Naaah, no reason. To pass through magic doors they have to wear their hats. And turn doonobs to the left! Why? umm… no reason. They all talk about a book – who wrote it? but when you see the books, they’re just roadmaps – no writing that I could see. And do they freeze the whole world anytime anything goes awry? Who cares…

It’s also a movie with 20 main characters, but except for Emily Blunt’s ballerina, they’re all men. The men in hats? The politicians? The people he knows? The people he talk to? All men. Even the other dancers were mainly male. What’s that all about…?

The whole movie seems like an ersatz excuse to show off more special effects. I thought the Adjustment Bureau was a waste of time.

Red Riding Hood

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke

…is very loosely based on the children’s fairytale Little Red Ridinghood, so its story is best described in the form of storytelling.

Once upon a time, in a valley by the mountains and beside a dark forest, there lived a drunk woodcutter and his wife and their two daughters. Now, everyone in the village knew there was a big bad wolf that lived in the woods, so, each month, on the full moon, they locked all the doors, and put out a pig for the wolf to eat, so he wouldn’t attack the villagers.

Valerie, the older daughter was pretty and strong, and good at hunting, and she promised to marry her best friend, a poor woodcutter like her father. But her mother said she had to marry the rich blacksmith instead. Her friend said, “Come away with me. Let’s leave this village.” But Valerie didn’t know what to do. Should she go with the woodcutter she loved, or stay with the blacksmith who her mother wanted her to marry?

Well, one day, the big bad wolf came back to the village and killed Valerie’s younger sister, despite the animal sacifice. So the village decided to call in a famous priest to catch it. Father Solomon was a cruel man: he murdered his own wife and locked up his two daughters, and traveled with a private army and an elephantine torture chamber. But he was also good at hunting wolves, and (or so he said), it wasn’t a regular wolf attacking them, but a werewolf. And this werewolf was someone from the village, but no one knew who that was. When it was a wolf, only its eyes remained human, so it looked like a giant animal.

Did she live happily ever after? And which husband did she choose? And did she stay or did she go? And who was it who turned into the werewolf? And what about the scary priest – will he kill the villagers in his crusade? And will she ever put on her red ridinghood, go through the forest with a basket of goodies, and visit her grandmother?

Red Riding Hood is a partially successful kids movie retelling a well known children’s story. You get the feeling there’s a tug-of-war going on. Hardwicke directed the blockbuster Eclipse before this one. Red Riding Hood seems to waver between the director’s artistic vision of a feminist, sexualized look at three generations of empowered women fighting a medieval culture war against religious excess and patriarchal violence and repression; and the producers’ mercenary attempt to recreate the success of Eclipse, that smarmy, anti-sex vampire/werewolf franchise of a weak and powerless highschool girl whose only thing of value is her virginity, and whose only choice is which superhero boy she’ll choose to rescue her helplessness from the baddies.

Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, and Amanda Seyfried are all good as a three generation triumverate and the center of the movie, while the boyfriends are really just Valerie’s arm-candy. Gary Oldman as Father Solomon is a great villain, almost as frightening as the childcatcher in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. In this strange medieval universe, the men look like prancing Peter Pans lost somewhere in Sherwood Forest… while the woman all just stepped out of a commune near Vancouver. There’s a nicely multi-racial cast, and some cool scenes that like bacchanalias from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but the sets all look artsy-craftsy, like they were constructed indoors for a stageplay or pantomime.

Problems? There are long gaps between lines, especially in the beginning, that are painful to watch – it really drags the movie down. And the whodunit/who’s the wolf plotline took away from the much more interesting rivalry between the women and the evil priest. And it’s not a grown-up movie — clearly aimed at pre-teen romantics, but still includes some horrific violence and scariness. It’s a so-so movie but one with some great ideas and images.

Red Riding Hood opens today in Toronto; The Adjustment Bureau is now playing: check your local listings.

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.

Unknown

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at http://www.ebk-ink.com/tsff/home.html

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to imagesfestival.com.

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

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