MUSTANG: No, It’s Not a Film About A Car

Mustang - poster

Director Deniz Gamze Erguyen shows the limited options facing women in rural Turkey in this film which starts with some harmless fun on the beach between five young orphaned girls and their male classmates. Unfortunately for the girls, the scene is misinterpreted and the girls end up quarantined behind forbidding walls and barred windows. Some of the girls are forced into arranged marriages. All are instructed by older women into how to make their husbands happy.   

The film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar,  submitted by France, Ms. Erguyen’s current home.(The Turkish government took a dim view of the film,even though two of the girls yearn to escape to the relatively cosmopolitan environs of Istanbul which is – duh! – in Turkey. )

The film was a matter of determination for director Erguyen, who tells, ” It took nine years from leaving film school until Mustang was  screened at Cannes, and those years were demoralising … “ It was in large part thanks to French film-maker Alice Winocur ( who ended co-writing the screenplay with Ms. Erguyen) that the film finally saw the dark of night in a movie theatre.  

mustang - Deniz et Alice
Alice Winocur (left) and Deniz Erguyen after winning Best Original Screenplay Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscars

If you were not aware (or did not care) about the shabby treatment of women of any age all over the world, this film will certainly increase your awareness after viewing this excellent film.  (Yes, it has English subtitles.)


Thoughts on Watching Black Mass

In the role of  a 1970s version of real life Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, Johnny Depp looks a lot like Canadian-born character actor (and  veteran screen villain) Michael Ironside.

Black Mass - Ironside 1

However Ironside is not a big box office draw. And the stakes aren’t as high. Industry insiders prophesied that if Mr. Depp didn’t bring home Oscar gold or at least a sizable profit with Black Mass he could go back to smaller paychecks and smaller films again after pricey, critically panned megaflops like The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and (shudder) Mortdecai. John may have missed out on the Oscar (he wasn’t even nominated) but Black Mass did turn a profit (plus there is yet another Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on the horizon  and the eagerly awaited film adaptation of Martin Amis’ London Fields so his current status should be secure.)

Black Mass - Depp2
Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass

Still, it’s enough to make one nostalgic for Mr. Depp’s  pre-Jack Sparrow days when the actor was praised for his chameleonic ability to submerge himself in quirky films with debatable box office appeal (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Cry-Baby , Dead Man and Blow … to name just a few).

Under the direction of the estimable Scott Cooper (writer-director of the award-winning Crazy Heart) Mr. Depp is grittily convincing as a ruthless criminal.

But how close is he to the genuine article and how accurate is the film? Well, it depends on who you talk to.

Black Mass - Whitey
Whitey Bulger today (after being captured after years on the run and sentenced to two life terms for his crimes

Interviewed from prison (where he is currently serving two life sentences), Mr. Bulger told Britain’s “Daily Mail” Black Mass is “an anti Whitey movie put together by 2 reporters from the Boston Globe. … This movie is pure fiction!’ However, he does admit Mr. Depp looks a lot like the gangster in his 1970s prime.

Mr. Bulger’s lawyer, Hank Brennan, says his client has not seen the film and has no interest in doing so. (Apparently Mr. Depp offered to meet the convicted mobster but he refused through his attorney.)

Longtime Bulger associate Kevin Weeks (depicted in the film by Jesse Plemons. TV’s Breaking Bad) while admitting that “We really did kill those people” characterizes the film as “a fantasy.”

However, Eric Schneider, a former drugs and guns dealer who has spent the last twenty  years in the witness protection program (guess why) says Mr. Depp’s portrayal of the gangster was so realistic he was forced to walk out midway during his first viewing of the film because it was too much for him. (He later saw the whole film during a second viewing.)   Johnny did a pretty damn good job capturing this man and what he was capable of,” Schneider told The Daily Beast.
Black Mass - Young Whitey
The real Jimmy Bulger in the 1970s
He was more ambiguous about the screenplay (by Mark Mallouk and Jes Butterworth, adapted from a book by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill). Schneider says the book was more accurate but,as for the film, he says to PEOPLE  “Hollywood does what Hollywood does.”
Mr. Bulger’s “special relationship” with the FBI, specifically old boyhood chum and FBI agent John Connolly (portrayed in the film by Joel Edgerton) is also a prime part of the plot and, according to the film, Mr. Bulger`s interaction with the FBI agent  is the chief reason he was allowed to run his various rackets for as long as he did.
Black Mass - Edgerton & Depp
Johnny Depp (as Whitey Bulger) and Joel Edgerton (as FBI agent John Connolly) in Black Mass
Mr. Connolly is currently serving a 40 year prison sentence for his part in the Bulger saga. He is 75 years old at the time of this writing.
Black Mass - poster





Arnie Has His Oscar Moment

maggie (poster)

Arnold Schwarzenegger had his Oscar moment. Y’know,the movie that proves an action hero can really act (sorta like Sly Stallone in Creed.)

Too bad very few people saw it (and probably no one from the Academy.)

Too bad, too, because (in my opinion) the big guy is actually pretty good in this one.

He doesn’t play a homicidal robot (The Terminator), a legendary warrior (Conan the Barbarian), even a gun-totin’ DEA agent (Sabotage) or any of the largethan life heroes he has portrayed in past flicks.

Instead, he is just a farmer and a grieving father. Seem his daughter (Abigail Breslin), the Maggie of the title, has gone to New York and picked up a strange sort of virus which will turn her into something inhuman in 10-15 days. 

maggie (daughter)
MAGGIE – Arnie & Abby play dad & daughter

All Arnie’s character can do is watch and wait while his beloved daughter slowly turns into something straight out of The Walking Dead.  Turn Maggie’s “condition” into a metaphor for terminal illness, as some viewers have suggested, and the scenario becomes truly chilling.

I get the feeling this was a deeply personal film for Mr.S. For one thing, he is listed as one of the producers. And, unlike recent films, he has put himself in the hands of an untested young director (Henry Hobson) and screenwriter (John Scott 3). You can see the pain in his eyes as his character watches helplessly while his daughter worsens and the time begins to shorten before he is forced to make, what for a parent, must be an unthinkable decision. The famous (or infamous) Teutonic accent is seldom heard.

Sure, if you’re a cynic, you could chuckle as Ah-nuld goes heavily dramatic on you. Or you can immerse yourself in the film and feel a father’s pain and wonder how he will resolve his dilemma. Will he end his daughter’s life or will he succumb to the inevitable?

It is not hard to see why this film did not play well in the multiplex. That sort of suspense is way more subtle – and probably alienating to action fans accustomed to the  thrill-a-minute editing common to the genre. 

However, director Hobson has decided (perhaps, stubbornly) to unfurl the story at his own (some might say, glacial) pace. The result, to this viewer, is a bleak, atmospheric human drama with no easy answers.

maggie - hobson
Director Henry Hobson makes his first feature film with Maggie

Credit the British-born filmmaker as well with pumping some fresh blood into the tired zombie genre by making us realize that those shuffling monsters in movies and TV once had lives and feelings much like our own. He has also gotten a convincingly emotional performance (as far as this writer is concerned) from an action hero whose acting style has often been characterized as, to put it kindly, wooden.

According to IMDB, Hobson had no new directing projects in the pipeline as of March 6,2016 (part of that may be due to Maggie‘s dismal fate at the box office (I saw it on Netflix) but on the basis of this debut I look forward to his challenging feature.

As for Ms. Breslin, on the basis of what I have seen here, her talent has been wasted in movies like Wicked Blood and The Call. (Either get yourself a new agent or make better film choices.)






























Foreign Affairs: REBELLE

rebelle - poster

Frankly, I found this film hard to watch.

However, that is not a knock on the acting or direction.

Rather it is the subject matter of the film: the plight of child soldiers in Africa.

French-Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen shoots the film with unflinching, documentary-type realism. Which only adds to the raw, vivid narrative.

9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis received an Academy Award nomination for her  role  in the independent film Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a young African-American girl struggling to deal with her troubled father and the after effects of Hurricane Katrina on her small backwater community, young Ms. Wallis justifies all the hype surrounding her precocious performance. She is just as natural and convincing  as you may have heard/read (She was just six when she made the film.)

However, after seeing Rebelle, I couldn’t help but wish 15 year old Congolese actress Rachel Mwanza could share in the Oscar love. (This is also her first film.)

Her role as a young child soldier in an unnamed African country is arguably even more challenging.

Rachel Mwanza as Komona - Academy All the Way
Rachel Mwanza as Komona – Academy All the Way

Her character, Komona, is abducted from her village at the age of 12, forced at gunpoint to kill her parents, learns how to handle an AK-47 like a pro, is “married” in a jungle ceremony, watches her “husband”  felled by a machete and conceives a child.

All before the age of 15!

Ms. Mwanza’s performance is so effortless and intuitive (and Mr. Nguyen’s script and direction are so sure-footed) that it is hard to believe she is acting. 

Rachel Mwanza (with writer/director Kim Nguyen in the background)
Rachel Mwanza (with writer/director Kim Nguyen in the background)

I should mention that although Ms. Mwanza did not personally receive an Oscar nom, Rebelle (English title: The War Witch) has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Yes, there are English subtitles for the film (although, in the DVD copy I rented, Mr. Nguyen’s accompanying audio commentary is completely en francais.)

Trivia Sidebar: This is the third year in a row National Film Board of Canada has earned an Oscar nomination in this category:  the others were Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Incendies (2010) and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011).

Stuff I Think About While Waiting for the Traffic Light to Change …

Why is ROONEY MARA up for an Oscar as Lisbeth Salander  in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when NOOMI RAPACE was not even nominated? 

How Do You Say "WTF?" in Swedish?

Okay, I’ll admit it. I haven’t had the opportunity to see director David Fincher’s  English language adaptation of the first book in the best-selling trilogy by the late STIEG LARSSON. (The film never played in our little burg).

Still, I have a problem believing Ms. Mara is somehow better than Ms. Rapace, who, after all,  originated the role.  (Maybe I am prejudiced. I immersed myself in all three books in the Larsson trilogy and have seen all three Swedish language films based on the novels.)

Oh well, at least Ms. Rapace was nominated for a BAFTA (the U.K. equivalent of an Academy Award) for her efforts.

Noomi Rapace as Lisabeth Salander: The Original and Still The Greatest

It’s nice that Ms. Rapace has been  flooded with offers since her breakthrough role in Tattoo (she can be seen in Guy Ritchie’s latest Sherlock Holmes adventure and Ridley Scott’s upcoming Aliens prequel, to name two) but it would be still be interesting to know why she was passed over for Oscar honors.

I would hate to think it is because Ms. Mara speaks English in the remake and American audiences do not like to read subtitles. (Was Ms. Rapace’s performance somehow less compelling because she delivered it in her native language?)

Kelly and Michelle and WENDY AND LUCY ….

Michelle Williams as Wendy and Lucy as Lucy (talk about typecasting) in WENDY AND LUCY

She Wuz Robbed: 

MICHELLE WILLIAMS shoulda won an Oscar for her role in this modestly budgeted mood piece,  directed by KELLY REICHARDT from a short story by JON RAYMOND. Fact is, she wasn’t even nominated. (She was, however, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.)

But Let’s Begin at the Beginning:

The film opens with Wendy playing fetch with her yellow Lab, Lucy. There is an easy familiarity between them. Any dog owner can relate.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

Wendy has the look of someone who has spent a lot of her life (to quote a Bob Seger lyric) running against the wind. 

Michelle Williams as Wendy: " living to run and running to live ... "

But even she is unprepared for the run of bad luck she experiences when she drives into a nondescript section of Portland on her way to Alaska to get a job in the canneries.

Her car breaks down, she is busted for shoplifting and when she is sprung from jail her dog is gone.

The film follows Wendy as she does her best to survive in this unsympathetic suburban landscape while trying to find her canine companion.

The Art of Independent Film-Making:

As in the best indie  films it is not so much the story that grabs and holds your attention as it is the manner in which it is told.

Reichardt isn’t much for exposition. Rather than being a passive observer the viewer is invited to participate in the process.

For example, Wendy has a strained telephone conversation with relatives back in Indiana.  We get it. She can’t go home again.

But why?  There is a brief shot of a baby picture in her wallet.  Is it Wendy’s child? Is that why things are tense on the homefront?

Reichardt leaves it up to us to sketch in the details.

Director Kelly Reichardt: Don't ask for whom the bells toll ....

From a film-making standpoint point there is much to admire here. Like the wide shot of Wendy walking through the down-on-its-luck neighborhood, a figure in a landscape framed against the side of an anonymous building. The muddy brown wall is bare except for a piece of graffiti. Someone has scrawled the word “Goner” in white paint.

Kudos as well for the striking visual imagery (boxcars in a train yard, birds on a wire framed against the blue sky) and ambient sound (the whistle of a train, the motorized whoosh of traffic, the film is alive with it.)

The slow and methodical pace of the film may be a bit of a culture shock to viewers accustomed to the smash and grab style of mainstream movies.

There is one thing you can count on, though, in a truly independent film like this one. The truth of the filmmaker’s vision shines through unfiltered by test screenings, focus groups and meddling studio suits safeguarding their investment in the editing room.

One Look is Worth a Thousand Words:

Ms. Williams doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in this film. She doesn’t need it. The expression on her face as she walks through the pound looking for her dog tells us a lot about her without saying a word. Like the dogs looking back at her from their cages, she is a stray: forlorn, lost, confused and looking for a friendly face to help her out of an existential dilemma.

Michelle Williams and co-star share a private moment

Alone on the Road? I Can Relate:

You could look at Wendy and Lucy as an intimate and personal piece of minimalist art best appreciated by artsy reviewers and/or film students.

For me it is more accessible than that. I hitchhiked across Canada following my graduation from university.  Naturally my parents did not share in my sense of adventure so, for me as well, going home was not an option. Reichardt and Williams presents Wendy’s plight with such spare unsentimental authenticity that the film brought back all those feelings of rootlessness I experienced myself in my misspent youth.

Sleeping in the park, changing your clothes in a service station washroom while someone pounds on the door, its all here in rigorously realistic detail.

Wendy: further and further from her home ...

Envelope, Please:

Williams plays our homeless heroine with resolute conviction and although she is in practically every frame of this film she never slips out of character for a moment. It is a remarkable performance. Even for her. Like I said, she shoulda won an Oscar.

“Tree of Life” Leaves Viewers Out on a Limb

Well,  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

“Some people found it kinda … boring” said the young woman behind the video counter as she handed me a copy of The Tree of Life DVD.

No problem, I assured her. I figured I had read enough about the film to know that it wasn’t your typical crowdpleaser.

Still I gotta admit that I began to shift uncomfortably on the sofa at around the two hour mark.

Full of Sound and Fury Signifying Something (Now All We Gotta Do Is Figure Out What)

The latest masterwork by TERRENCE MALICK (only his fifth turn as director in the last 38 years) is about nothing less than the beginnings of the universe and how it somehow ties in with the lives of a Texas family in the 1950s.

"If I hear the word 'metaphysical' one more time ..... "

Brad Pitt plays the strict authoritarian dad, Jessica Chastain is the tender-hearted but weak-willed wife and mother of three boys.  One of her sons,  Jack, is played as a rebellious youth by Hunter McCracken and by Sean Penn as an embittered adult, looking back on his boyhood.

Threaded into the family saga are a lot of trippy visuals courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

"Trippy, dude!"

I haven’t used “trippy” as an adjective since my hair was a lot longer but it really seems to apply here.

Folks have compared Tree of Life to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 headscratcher 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

In fact, Malick says he has been playing around with the idea for Tree for at least 30 years.

Too bad he didn’t make it then. Cuz back in the day the minds of young movie buffs were much more, um,  open and/or blown.

Truth is, most of us would have been grooving on the visuals and wouldn’t have cared whether the movie made sense or not.

And, as far as the running length was concerned, um, how shall I put it, time was more of a concept than a reality in those days.

Terrence Malick: "Trippy? I haven’t heard that word since ..... "

Typically, this is one of those movies that a lot of middle-aged critics love and the majority of moviegoers either hated or ignored altogether.

Former Variety mag stalwart TODD McCARTHY, writing in the (revamped) Hollywood Reporter, raves that the film is: “an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions … ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection.”

Not Everyone Is a Fan

In contrast here are some posts on Internet Movie Database (IMDB) message boards from  people who actually paid to see the movie:

“One of the most pretentious pieces of pseudo-intellectual garbage I have ever seen, ” Pekman (Portugal)

 “No matter how abstract a movie is, there must be something the viewer can cling to, something the viewer cares about. This movie has nothing like that.  azelenkovas (US)

(Okay, at least I understood that.)

Of course, the message boards aren’t completely filled with negative posts.

ruiresende84 from Porto, Portugal praises the movie for its “circular meta-narratives, where you can pick up on any spot (i mean any) and you can create whatever inner narrative you want. A sky of images where you can pick your own choices, and create whatever story you like. Or you can choose to frame the more palpable story visible in the film in whatever fashion you want …. the challenge is that you have to test the limits of your own imagination to live the film in its full extent.”

(Sorry, buddy or ma’am but you’re not exactly making the film more accessible.)

The gap between critical raves and audience reactions may also explain why the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the film fest equivalent of Best Picture) and then went almost straight to video. (According to imdb the film made $13 mil at the domestic box office against a $32 mil budget.)

Given the ecstatic critical reception The Tree of Life has been nominated for  Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Malick) and Best Cinematography (Lubezki)

Which means more people will flock to the video store to see what all the fuss is all about leading to more postings like this:

After seeing this movie, I sincerely cannot comprehend all the hype and the excellent reviews that it has attracted … one of the most pointless and most boring movies I’ve ever seen … I still do not understand what the director was trying to portray with the shots of volcanoes, planets, dinosaurs …  and jellyfish (??).   Nema Jhurry (U.S.)

I’m not saying it will win those  awards. Malick’s The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven awards but went home empty-handed.

However, in this case, I think an Oscar for Lubezki is a given (he has been nominated by the Academy four times and has yet to win.)

And although screen newcomer Hunter McCracken didn’t get an Oscar nod he is definitely a talent to reckon with.

“How am I gonna explain this movie to my parents?“

I knew the video clerk was going to ask me about the flick when I returned the DVD.

And it just so happens that I read a review on rottentomatoes. com that  summed up my feelings on the flick exactly ... and did it in just four words.

I figure it is okay to quote someone if you give them credit for it.

So when she asked me what I thought about the film, I simply replied.

“Well, as Bill Goodykoontz wrote in the Arizona Republic (and,  yes, that`s his actual name), I found the movie beautiful, baffling, poetic and pretentious. “

(I wish I’d written that.)

“Only 139 minutes? We wuz robbed!“

PS Even Sean Penn couldn’t figure out what was going on. But that was only because, judging from his comments in the press, he didn’t think the movie was long enough!

“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,he is quoted as telling French newspaper Le Figaro (via The New Yorker). “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact …  Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! …  Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

According to a six hour director`s cut may be in the works.

“There was going to be a long version of the movie at one point, and I don’t know if it exists or not,” Lubezi is quoted as saying. “I saw many edits, and one was probably close to six hours, and it was incredible. And I was hoping that they would finish it, even if it was just to make some DVDs or Blu-Rays, because it was fantastic.

Tree of Life: Impressive Feet