Middle. Movies Reviewed: Salt of the Earth, Last Knights, While We’re Young
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
While exciting things might happen at the fringe, people tend to aim for the centre. This week I’m looking at three movies about the middle. There’s a comedy about a middle-aged couple who try to regain their youth; an action drama set in the Middle Ages; and a documentary about a news photographer who always places himself in the middle.
Salt of the Earth
Dir: Wim Wenders, Julian Ribeiro Salgado
Sebastiao Salgado is a photojournalist from Brazil. Trained as an economist he moved to Paris in the 1960s with his young wife. He soon realized he was in the wrong profession and became a news photographer, taking pictures of people in dramatic or disastrous circumstances. The Ethiopian Famine; the Rwandan genocide; the subsequent refugee crisis in Goma, Congo; and the Balkan wars. The movie opens with his masterpieces: unbelievable shots of pit miners swarming like ants up and down vast dirt walls in a Brazilian gold rush.
His images are breathtaking, moving, informative and historically relevant, and they’re mimicked in the film’s cinematography. This guy is a great photographer. The movie gives you the photos, alongside the cameraman himself commenting on when he took them. It’s like looking through the world’s best photo album with the guy who took the snaps sitting beside you. Salt of the Earth is a documentary made by his son and Wim Wenders. With the stunning visuals, he comes across as earnest if a bit dry.
Dir: Kazuaki Kiriya
It’s the middle-ages. Raiden (Clive Owen) is the Commander of the 7th rank, widely known throughout the land for his fighting skills and discipline. He and the other knights are sworn to loyalty to their master. They’re well trained with the bow and arrow, and can cut down four enemies with a single sword. Their clan is headed by Milord, ruler of the Bartok lands (Morgan Freeman). Each year, the lords are summoned to the capital to pay tribute – as in bribe – to the emperor. But the gifts actually go directly to a corrupt minister named Geeza Mott (Aksel Hennie: Max Manus). He’s effete, whiny, cruel and evil. You can tell because he spends more time with his black and white lapdog than with his wife. He pulls all the strings – the Emperor is just a figurehead.
Bartok has had enough. He challenges Geeza but is executed for his insolence, his lands stolen and all his knights cut loose. Will Rainer and his men siege Geeza’s palace and avenge Bartok’s deat? Or will they all just give up?
This is an odd sort of movie. It has an amazingly diverse cast : African-American, British, Norwegian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian… you name it. Problem is a lot of the cast doesn’t speak English… they’re basically unintelligible. Not that the lines they’re stumbling through are that important anyway. What’s interesting is that this is a Japanese Samurai movie, reset in a multi-ethnic Europe of the middle ages. Geeza Mott is the Shogun, Bartok the Daimyo, Rainer and his crew are Samurai. (Think 47 Ronin in tights and tunics.) Even the sword fights are Japanese, not European style. The fights and battle scenes – though loaded with CGI – are very well done. See it for the action, not for the dialogue.
While We’re Young
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Cornelia and Josh (Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller) are a childless — and decidedly unhip — couple in their 40s living in New York City in . They once had great hopes of artistic achievement, but it didn’t quite work out. Ben has been making a documentary for more than 8 years with no sign of progress. He’s a purist who wrangles daily over the essence of his subject, when he should just be finishing it. And even though Cornelia is the daughter of a famous documentary filmmaker herself, Josh is much too proud to accept advice from his father in law.
Then something changes: he meets a young couple of aspiring filmmakers seemingly by chance – they crash one of his university lectures just to talk to him. They tell him he’s their hero. Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seiyfried) are just what Josh needs to regain his confidence, rejuvenate his ailing career and recesitate his marriage. He can get back in touch with his creative side. Cornelia is suspicious at first, but soon is just as entranced as Josh is. They volunteer to help him with his documentary. They’re so casual, they’re not out for fame or fortune, they do it just for the art. Josh is in love.
Soon enough, they’re listening to the same 80s vinyl songs they used to laugh at. They’re attending weird native purges that involve puking. They’re hanging in crowded nightclubs with obscure bands. It’s like they were told the secret hipster handshake and given the keys to the city… of Bushwick. They adjust their wardrobes and lifestyles accordingly.
But all is not what it seems. Does the younger couple have ulterior motives?
While We’re Young is a good, light social comedy and not much more. It portrays Cornelia and Josh — a couple living in New York and working in a creative industry — as if they’d just arrived from a farm and never seen a hipster in their lives. Noah Baumbach is a very good filmmaker who happens to be dating a much younger woman (Greta Gerwig); perhaps this movie is a self-deprecating apology. He’s trying to make Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors but ends up with Meet the Fokkers. This is a formulaic, generation gap comedy.
Last Knights and While We’re Young both open today in Toronto, while Salt of the Earth opens next week. Check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com