Thursday, October 28, 2010

On "RED"

From The Dispatch:
“RED” is a sharply funny and highly engaging action comedy that is more than carried by its four venerable stars. In a moviegoing era where action stars are getting younger and younger, seeing these mature heroes in action is both a refreshing and thrilling kick in the head.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Un Chien Andalou

Take a look at Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's 1929 surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou, completely free and legal on YouTube.

On "It's Kind of a Funny Story"

From The Dispatch:
“It's Kind of a Funny Story” seems unnecessarily treacly and lightweight, teetering oddly between comedy and drama and never really being particularly solid in either department. It has moments of comedic inspiration, but more often than not the quirk is almost painfully self-conscious, and it reaches for emotional payoffs that it hasn't earned.

Still though, Boden and Fleck's gentle direction keeps the film moderately likable even when the story threatens to veer off track, and it's never what one would call bad. But its “grass is always greener” theme is pretty simplistic, driving home a point that most of us learned (far more memorably) in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Click here to read my full review.

"South of the Border" DVD Giveaway

To celebrate the 4th anniversary of From the Front Row on October 31 and today's DVD release of Oliver Stone's new documentary, South of the Border, I am pleased to announce that I will be giving away 3 copies of the film on DVD courtesy of Cinema Libre.

All you have to do is send an email with your name and address to contests.fromthefrontrow@gmail.com with "South of the Border" in the subject line, and you are entered to win. Winners will be drawn at random. Only one entry per person will be accepted. Entries are limited to those who live in the United States.

The contest closes on October 31 at midnight, winners will be announced on November 1. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

DVD Spotlight | "Spring Fever"

The plot of Lou Ye's Spring Fever sounds like something out of some sort of torrid soap opera. A woman who suspects her husband, Wang Ping, of infidelity hires Luo Haitao to follow him and report his findings back to her. When he discovers that Wang Ping is having an affair with a man named Jiang Cheng, she is devastated. But Luo soon finds himself drawn to Jiang, putting his relationship with his own girlfriend, Li Jing, in jeopardy. Soon, a strange love triangle forms between Luo, Jiang, and Li, as Li finds herself more and more in the back seat as Luo explores his newfound homosexuality.

Spring Fever is an observant and haunting exploration of sexual identity in China. Its intricate portrait of roving sexual alliances and games of "musical bedrooms" may occasionally be hard to keep up with, but Lou's tender direction creates such a memorable atmosphere that it's hard not to become lost in it.


Lou obviously has a keen insight into human relationships, and in Spring Fever he demonstrates a great directorial restraint as well an almost painterly visual sensibility. The film deftly navigates its tricky emotional waters for a powerful and intimate examination of three men working through their forbidden desires, even while their homosexuality is almost treated as a non-issue. The fact that they are gay does not bother their female partners as much as the fact that they are cheating on them, and that is a very important distinction to make. In one of the film's most poignant moments, Li Jing takes Luo Haitao's hand and asks "is this how you hold hands?" wondering aloud what makes his relationship with Jiang different from what she can give him. She even goes so far as to cut her hair short to appear more boyish.

It is a heartbreaking scenario, and Lou handles it with supreme grace. It is a tale of people finding themselves, who don't yet know who they are, just trying to navigate their way through life and love. Male, female, it doesn't matter - each one is lonely and lost in their own way, and in Spring Fever they find a modicum of solace. Few other films this year have seemed so gut wrenchingly honest.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SPRING FEVER | Directed by Lou Ye | Stars QIN Hao, CHEN Sicheng, TAN Zhuo, WU Wei, JIANG Jiaqi | Not rated | In Mandarin and Cantonese w/English subtitles | Now available on DVD from Strand Releasing.

2010 Gotham Award Nominations

I'm not going to lie, I found this crop of Gotham Award nominees to be completely underwhelming. Which isn't much of a surprise - always first out of the gate by announcing their nominations in October, the Gotham Awards have little relevance in the overall scheme of the awards race (although last year's Oscar champ, The Hurt Locker, won last year's Best Feature award).

I was, however, thrilled to see that Prince of Broadway's Prince Adu (pictured left) received a nomination for Breakthrough Actor, an honor which he richly deserves. He gives perhaps my favorite performance so far this year in one of the year's best (and most overlooked) films.

The inclusion of Let Me In among the Best Feature nominations is a joke. I like the film, but to honor it after not having honored the superior Swedish film on which it is based in 2008 is, well, ludicrous.

Also, every Best Documentary winner has gone on to at least be nominated for an Oscar, although Inside Job is really the only one here with a shot. It's good to see The Oath and Sweetgrass listed among the nominees.

Here is the complete list of nominations:

Best Feature:

  • Black Swan
  • Blue Valentine
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • Let Me In
  • Winter’s Bone

Best Documentary:

  • 12th & Delaware
  • Inside Job
  • The Oath
  • Public Speaking
  • Sweetgrass

Best Ensemble Performance:

  • The Kids Are All Right
  • Life During Wartime
  • Please Give
  • Tiny Furniture
  • Winter’s Bone

Breakthrough Director:

  • John Wells for The Company Men
  • Kevin Asch for Holy Rollers
  • Glenn Ficarra and John Requa for I Love You Phillip Morris
  • Tanya Hamilton for Night Catches Us
  • Lena Dunham for Tiny Furniture

Breakthrough Actor:

  • Prince Adu in Prince of Broadway
  • Ronald Bronstein in Daddy Longlegs
  • Greta Gerwig in Greenberg
  • Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone
  • John Ortiz in Jack Goes Boating

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You:

  • Kati with an i
  • Littlerock
  • On Coal River
  • Summer Pasture
  • The Wolf Knife

Honorary Awards

  • Darren Aronofsky
  • Robert Duvall
  • Hilary Swank
Source: Awards Daily

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On "Let Me In"

From The Dispatch:
For the most part, the story's integrity remains intact. The most notable aspect of the remake, however, are the performances. The young leads are terrific — McPhee (“The Road”) gives a powerful and haunted performance as the young boy, but the real star here is Moretz, who was such a jolt of adrenaline in this summer's “Kick-Ass” as Abby. Moretz has real star power, and her turn as the young vampire girl (whose real age is never known) is truly astounding. The two have great on-screen chemistry and add something truly special to the remake.
Click here to read my full review.

Review: "Nowhere Boy"

Arriving on US shores the week of what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday, Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy seeks to explore Lennon's teenage years to find out just what made the man who would become one of rock music's greatest icons tick.

The result is sadly less illuminating and more frustratingly pedestrian. There is little here to set Nowhere Boy apart from other, similar music back-story dramatizations.

In Taylor-Wood's vision, Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is just another troubled teen with a guitar. He lives with his aunt, Mimi (Kristen Scott-Thomas, the film's strongest asset), a stern, traditional woman who would much rather listen to Tchaikovsky than rock n' roll, after being taken from his troubled mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who lives just down the road. Despite Mimi's best efforts, John eventually finds his way back to his mother, and the two form an inseparable, and almost uncomfortably close, bond that almost borders on romance. It's a strange fetishizing of Lennon that grows more and more awkward as the film progresses, and one can't help but wonder how much of that has to do with the director's much publicized romance with her young star.

Aaron Johnson stars as young John Lennon in Sam Taylor-Wood's NOWHERE BOY.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2010


Still, Julia Lennon's influence on John is undeniable, as she introduces him to a world Mimi had actively sheltered him from, and soon John discovers his musical calling, forming a band called The Quarrymen that will eventually grow to include a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell). It's all very paint-by-numbers, with Taylor-Wood hitting all the high points but achieving little in the way of emotional depth. The closest it comes is in Lennon's tumultuous relationship with Mimi, and Kristen Scott Thomas' performance is arguably the highlight of the film.

The performances are all uniformly on point, but Lennon never grows to become anything more than a Liverpool bad boy. In fact, he's almost entirely unlikable. And while that isn't necessarily to its detriment, the film's flat characterization of him as an edgy, James Dean wannabe with mommy issues seems to betray its attempt to look deeper into who he was.

Aaron Johnson as young John Lennon and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia Lennon in Sam Taylor-Wood's NOWHERE BOY.
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2010

Taylor-Wood shows us young Lennon but rarely does she evoke his spirit. The film is a little too neat and tidy for that. Nowhere Boy applies easy, simple answers to deep questions in order to save time, and in the process says nothing about who Lennon really was. It falls into the trap of so many biopics before it - connecting the dots but failing to color them in. It's all very well produced, it is shot and edited with the air of a film of great importance (read: Oscar worthy), but it simply misses the feeling. It is absolutely typical from start to finish - a slick, pretty, and altogether hollow exercise in musical bio-humdrum.

Nowhere Boy is a film of image over substance, something Lennon himself spent a lifetime rejecting. The film not only ignore that, it betrays it. Lennon was by no means a spotless moral hero, but Taylor-Wood goes for image and misses his essence, ensuring that this film will fade into obscurity while Lennon and his music will continue endure.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

NOWHERE BOY | Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood | Stars Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, David Threlfall, Thomas Sangster, Sam Bell | Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.

Review: "Amer"

The first half hour of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's nearly wordless Amer is a brilliant exercise in gothic psychological horror - as a little girl named Ana deals with her own fear and fascination with death in the bowels of a dark, cavernous mansion as the corpse of her recently deceased grandfather lies upstairs. This opening sequence sets the stage for what will become a lifetime of darkness for Ana, and lay the groundwork for a series of psychological traumas that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

There is no real central narrative to speak of here, just a portrait of sexual repression and exploration as told in three stages of life - childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Images that represent her repressed religious upbringing depicted in the first section (a black gloved hand, a pocket watch that resembles a rosary) carry over from one period to the next as her sexuality begins to manifest itself. In the middle section, Ana experiences being noticed by the opposite sex for the first time, an experience she finds both terrifying and tantalizing, until her mother punishes her, further enforcing her correlation of sex with violence. Desire is forbidden, and her body is a sacred place not to be touched.

By the time she reaches adulthood, sexuality has taken on a much darker hue. Having been brought up in such a repressive environment, Ana's sexuality begins to present itself in increasingly sinister ways. Her brief encounters with sexuality are liberating, purifying even, but their forbidden nature comes crashing through in moments of primal terror, as she finds herself pursued by dark figures that want to take advantage of her. It soon becomes clear, however, that the enemy she is running from is herself - manifestations of her own sexual fears and conflicted desires.

The title Amer means "bitter," which could easily refer to the bitter taste of forbidden fruit. Amer is a horror film, make no mistake, but in many ways it is a kind of horror of the mundane. There are no supernatural forces at work here, no psycho, knife-wielding killers on the loose - what scares Ana the most are things that for most people would be extremely commonplace. Ana's worst enemy is herself, the sexual repression imposed by a strict Catholic upbringing. Everything we see is happening inside Ana's head, whether it is literally through dream sequences or through visual, symbolic evocations of her innermost fears.

To take Amer literally would be a grievous mistake. It operates on a plane of surrealism not unlike Luis Buñuel, it even pays homage to him in an ant scene reminiscent of a similar shot in his infamous masterwork, Un Chien Andalou. However, unlike Buñuel, the surreal images mean something here. The filmmakers cite Italian Giallo crime films and the work of horror directors like Brian De Palma and Dario Argento as key influences, but it's also easy to see shades of other Italian directors such as Lucio Fulci present in the film. Cattet and Forzani have distilled Italian horror of the 1960s and 70s and filtered through the work of the early surrealists to create a fascinating work of post-modern avant-garde. It is a film of textures, moods, and feelings rather than plot, and since there is hardly any dialogue in the film, everything is conveyed through very specific use of imagery and sound. Although, since each segment of the film has a different tone, often feeling like three separate films, the film is unable to establish a consistent mood. It is often jarring and schizophrenic, frenetically edited and disorienting. Yet what at first appears to be one of its few disadvantages becomes one of its greatest advantages, setting the audience on edge and making the film an often uncomfortable viewing experience.

Despite its occasionally inconsistent nature, Cattet and Forzani deliver a film that is undeniably fascinating, and even more so to contemplate. It truly is a feast, both for the imagination and the mind - a delirious, strangely erotic journey into the darkest recesses of the mind, and one of the most intelligent and original horror films to come along in years.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

AMER | Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani | Stars Bianca Maria D’Amato, Marie Bos, Charlotte Eugène Guibbaud, Cassandra Forêt, Harry Cleven | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, October 29 in NYC at the Cinema Village and LA at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

65 Countries Compete for Foreign Language Oscar

I've only seen three of the submissions so far - Greece's Dogtooth, Estonia's The Temptation of St. Tony, and Romania's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle. All three are excellentfilms, although probably not the kind of thing the Academy will go for. Anyway, here are the official selections.

• Albania, “East, West, East,” Gjergj Xhuvani, director;
• Algeria, “Hors la Loi” (“Outside the Law”), Rachid Bouchareb, director;
• Argentina, “Carancho,” Pablo Trapero, director;
• Austria, “La Pivellina,” Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, directors;
• Azerbaijan, “The Precinct,” Ilgar Safat, director;
• Bangladesh, “Third Person Singular Number,” Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, director;
• Belgium, “Illegal,” Olivier Masset-Depasse, director;
• Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Circus Columbia,” Danis Tanovic, director;
• Brazil, “Lula, the Son of Brazil,” Fabio Barreto, director;
• Bulgaria, “Eastern Plays,” Kamen Kalev, director;
• Canada, “Incendies,” Denis Villeneuve, director;
• Chile, “The Life of Fish,” Matias Bize, director;
• China, “Aftershock,” Feng Xiaogang, director;
• Colombia, “Crab Trap,” Oscar Ruiz Navia, director;
• Costa Rica, “Of Love and Other Demons,” Hilda Hidalgo, director;
• Croatia, “The Blacks,” Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric, directors;
• Czech Republic, “Kawasaki’s Rose,” Jan Hrebejk, director;
• Denmark, “In a Better World,” Susanne Bier, director;
• Egypt, “Messages from the Sea,” Daoud Abdel Sayed, director;
• Estonia, “The Temptation of St. Tony,” Veiko Ounpuu, director;
• Ethiopia, “The Athlete,” Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew, directors;
• Finland, “Steam of Life,” Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen, directors;
• France, “Of Gods and Men,” Xavier Beauvois, director;
• Georgia, “Street Days,” Levan Koguashvili, director;
• Germany, “When We Leave,” Feo Aladag, director;
• Greece, “Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos, director;
• Greenland, “Nuummioq,” Otto Rosing and Torben Bech, directors;
• Hong Kong, “Echoes of the Rainbow,” Alex Law, director;
• Hungary, “Bibliotheque Pascal,” Szabolcs Hajdu, director;
• Iceland, “Mamma Gogo,” Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, director;
• India, “Peepli [Live],” Anusha Rizvi, director;
• Indonesia, “How Funny (Our Country Is),” Deddy Mizwar, director;
• Iran, “Farewell Baghdad,” Mehdi Naderi, director;
• Iraq, “Son of Babylon,” Mohamed Al-Daradji, director;
• Israel, “The Human Resources Manager,” Eran Riklis, director;
• Italy, “La Prima Cosa Bella” (“The First Beautiful Thing”), Paolo Virzi, director;
• Japan, “Confessions,” Tetsuya Nakashima, director;
• Kazakhstan, “Strayed,” Akan Satayev, director;
• Korea, “A Barefoot Dream,” Tae-kyun Kim, director;
• Kyrgyzstan, “The Light Thief,” Aktan Arym Kubat, director;
• Latvia, “Hong Kong Confidential,” Maris Martinsons, director;
• Macedonia, “Mothers,” Milcho Manchevski, director;
• Mexico, “Biutiful,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director;
• Netherlands, “Tirza,” Rudolf van den Berg, director;
• Nicaragua, “La Yuma,” Florence Jaugey, director;
• Norway, “The Angel,” Margreth Olin, director;
• Peru, “Undertow” (“Contracorriente”), Javier Fuentes-Leon, director;
• Philippines, “Noy,” Dondon S. Santos and Rodel Nacianceno, directors;
• Poland, “All That I Love,” Jacek Borcuch, director;
• Portugal, “To Die Like a Man,” Joao Pedro Rodrigues, director;
• Puerto Rico, “Miente” (“Lie”), Rafael Mercado, director;
• Romania, “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” Florin Serban, director;
• Russia, “The Edge,” Alexey Uchitel, director;
• Serbia, “Besa,” Srdjan Karanovic, director;
• Slovakia, “Hranica” (“The Border”), Jaroslav Vojtek, director;
• Slovenia, “9:06,” Igor Sterk, director;
• South Africa, “Life, above All,” Oliver Schmitz, director;
• Spain, “Tambien la Lluvia” (“Even the Rain”), Iciar Bollain, director;
• Sweden, “Simple Simon,” Andreas Ohman, director;
• Switzerland, “La Petite Chambre,” Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond, directors;
• Taiwan, “Monga,” Chen-zer Niu, director;
• Thailand, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director;
• Turkey, “Bal” (“Honey”), Semih Kaplanoglu, director;
• Uruguay, “La Vida Util,” Federico Veiroj, director;
• Venezuela, “Hermano,” Marcel Rasquin, director

Monday, October 11, 2010

DVD Spotlight | "2501 Migrants" and "Bluegreen"

Cinema Libre has released two new documentaries on DVD in recent weeks - 2501 Migrants: A Journey, and Bluegreen. I'm in the process of playing catch-up a bit, but here is a quick look at two films that may have otherwise gone overlooked.

2501 MIGRANTS: A JOURNEY (★★★)

Despite its short length (a mere 56 minutes), 2501 Migrants: A Journey could have very easily have gone theatrical. This is a unique and moving look at Alejandro Santiago, a Mexican artist who returns to his small hometown in Oaxaca to find it nearly abandoned, with 2,501 of its citizens leaving for America, making the tiny town of Teococuilco one of Mexico's leading exporters of human labor. Both intrigued and saddened by the desolation of the place he once called home, Santiago sets out to commemorate each one in a massive art project, building a statue to represent each person from Teococuilco who immigrated to the United States.

With illegal immigration increasingly becoming one of the most contentious issues in the United States, 2501 Migrants provides a fascinating and heartbreaking look at the issue from the other side, giving us a Mexican perspective that is not often heard or even considered on this side of the Rio Grande. Santiago's expression of Mexico's plight through art is both sobering and thought provoking, and this is a film that seriously deserves an audience.

BLUEGREEN (★½)

I'll admit, surfing is not something that particularly interests me, and the new documentary, Bluegreen, part of Cinema Libre's earthNOW series, didn't really change that at all. Taking a look at humanity's connection to the ocean with surfing as the main focal point, Bluegreen starts off with a flimsy premise, asking why humans are so drawn to the ocean. The filmmakers treat the subject as a great mystery, but they try too hard to create some grand cosmic question where there really isn't one. Through interviews with surfers, scientists, and other experts, the film pieces together an awkwardly paced love letter to the ocean that never really adds up to a satisfying whole. Add that to an overbearing and intrusive score and some dull narration, and Bluegreen becomes a bland and uninteresting doc that isn't nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Surfing enthusiasts, however, may find something to like here, otherwise it's a tough slog.

Both films are now available on DVD. 2501 MIGRANTS will be shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (October 28th & 30th) in New York City, NY, and at the University of California, Davis (November 4-5 ) in Davis, California.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Review: "Letters to Father Jacob"

In perhaps the most striking image of Klaus Härö's Letters to Father Jacob, an elderly priest grips the sides of his podium before an empty church, seemingly forgotten by the world - pastor to a congregation that will never come.

It is in this moment that Härö brilliantly sums up the theme to his film in one heart-wrenching shot, telling us more about this character than pages of dialogue. This is Father Jacob (Heikki Nousiainen), blind, elderly, and past his prime, feeling useless and abandoned by the God he spent a lifetime in service to, left to wonder what his purpose is in a world that appears to longer need him. But this isn't really his story. The film is really about Leila (Kaarina Hazard), an ex-con who has just been released from prison after being given a mysterious pardon. With no job and nowhere to go, Leila is sent to live with Father Jacob in his secluded rectory in the Finnish countryside. Jacob is a widely beloved priest to whom devotees write a steady stream of letters asking for prayers on their behalf to help them through life's travails or trials of faith, and Jacob happily obliges, seeing this as an opportunity to extend his ministry and bless the less fortunate in the name of God.


Father Jacob, however, is blind. And needs someone to read the letters for him and write out his responses, a job which Leila grudgingly accepts. Yet her heart remains closed, and she becomes increasingly irritated with Jacob's doddering ways, occasionally tossing letters down the well to lighten her work load. Then one day the letters stop coming, and Jacob is suddenly faced with a world in which he no longer knows his purpose. After devoting his entire life to doing the work of God by helping others with their problems, he no longer feels wanted or needed, and slips into a deep depression, desperately hoping to reclaim his purpose in life. Leila, on the other hand, just wants out, but both of them are about to discover something about themselves, and will find salvation in the most unlikely of places - each other.

Running a scant 74 minutes, Letters to Father Jacob is both short and sweet, a simple parable that manages to embody a complete emotional journey in just over an hour. It is a film without pretense or agenda, capable of reaching both religious and secular audiences, which is a testament to the power of Härö's graceful direction. Make no mistake, this is clearly a film about faith, and a deeply personal statement of belief on behalf of its director, but it is never pushy or sanctimonious. Instead it is a loving, warmhearted evocation of unconditional love, a film that is perhaps the closest embodiment of the teachings of the Biblical Jesus that I have ever seen, evoking a lovely gentility that is both spiritual and universal. Yet perhaps most importantly, it is one of the most strikingly true portrayals of the clergy that I have ever seen. While shrill hatemongers like Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson tend to dominate national attention, pastors like Father Jacob are often overlooked, and as such the film is something of a breath of fresh air. Härö neither judges or preaches, and instead allows the audience to find their own way through his tender narrative, finding the elements that most speak to them individually.


One need not be religious to appreciate the beauty of Letters to Father Jacob. It is, above all, a film about love, whether that love is embodied by faith, family, or something more. While its central conceit is a bit of a stretch (the letters just stop coming without warning rather than trickling down to nothing), it's hard to deny the film's simple power. Härö has an innate ability to convey so much with so little, something he has learned from years of working with low budgets in the Finnish film industry, and it pays off in spades. There is so much opportunity here for melodrama, but Haro keeps everything restrained and on track, from the remarkable performances to the hauntingly understated score by Dani Strömbäck.

While some might mistake its simple nature as simplistic, its brilliance is actually in its simplicity. After all, it is Father Jacob's simple faith that defines the film, and Härö clearly understands that less is more. The film makes its point quickly and efficiently, never overstaying its welcome, and in the process becomes one of the most deeply moving films I have seen in years. It is a small film that carries with it a profound emotional impact, and it does so with great subtlety, never manipulating the audience or reaching for the obvious. Härö treats his audience with great respect, and it shows in every gorgeous frame. What he has achieved here is truly stunning, Letters to Father Jacob is a deeply personal film with a universal message. Its themes may not be terribly complex, but its genius lies in the disarming power with which they are conveyed. It leaves an indelible impression, a searing an unforgettable evocation of one man's simple faith and compassion, that finds something of the divine in simple human kindness.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB | Directed by Klaus Härö | Stars Kaarina Hazard, Heikki Nousiainen, Jukka Keinonen, Esko Roine | Not rated | In Finnish w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, October 8, at the Cinema Village in NYC.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Klaus Härö Discusses "Letters to Father Jacob"

I was nervous. And why shouldn’t I be? Not only was this my first one on one interview, but I would also be interviewing Klaus Härö (Mother of Mine, The New Man), the director of one of my favorite films of the year, Letters to Father Jacob, in his very first interview in the United States. I had seen the film twice before back in April when it was at the River Run International Film Festival, but I wanted to make sure it was fresh in my memory, so before I was due to call Härö’s hotel I watched the film one more time, finishing it literally a minute before I placed the call to New York.

Klaus Haro on the set of LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB.

Seeing the film again reminded me of just how much it had spoken to me the first time, and its power hasn’t been diminished with subsequent viewings. It is truly a beautiful and timeless film, and its softspoken grace put me at ease.

My nervousness quickly faded after I placed the call. Härö is a kind and gracious man, well spoken and articulate despite suffering from a bout of the flu. Despite being sick and having just gotten off a transatlantic flight from Finland, Haro was energetic and upbeat, eager to discuss a film he clearly feels passionate about. And it’s easy to see why - since its debut Letters to Father Jacob has racked up award after award at various film festivals around the world, including the audience award for Best Narrative Feature at River Run here in North Carolina.

For his part, Härö had no idea the film would be so well received. In fact, it was a film he never meant to make at all. Before the screenplay landed on his doorstep, he was working on another film that was floundering. According to Härö, Finland’s film industry is very small, producing maybe 10 to 12 films a year, and without agents, things operate a little differently than your typical American production. The script for Father Jacob arrived uninvited, marked with only a title, a phone number, and a name - J. Makkonen (Jaana Makkonen, a social worker who wrote the original screenplay as a project for her diploma). He was at first offended that someone had presumed to send him a script without an invitation, but he was sick at the time and sick of reading the same newspaper over and over, decided to give it a read. By page 10 he was hooked and knew he had found something special, something “brilliant and classical.” He saw something in it he had never seen before, a film about faith with characters he recognized, not the typical one-note images of piety one would expect, and immediately pictured its two eventual stars, Kaarina Hazard and Heikki Nousiainen in the lead roles. He originally envisioned it as perhaps a small TV film, but it eventually grew into something more.

He speaks with great affection about both the film and the actors. He considers both Hazard and Nousiainen to be fine Finnish actors that he had always wanted to work with. He calls Nouiainen, who plays Father Jacob in the film, “the Henry Fonda of Finnish film,” a very masculine man with the ability to put that away to reveal great vulnerability. But he saves his most effusive praise for Hazard, who plays the film’s emotionally wounded ex-con with the rock hard exterior, Leila. Hazard, he says, who is not a trained actress, is not afraid to appear unattractive, and is a fearless actress who is not always pursuing the next part, her focus is totally on the here and now.

Kaarina Hazard as Leila and Heikki Nousiainen as Father Jacob in LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB.
An Olive Films release.

Härö speaks with a refreshing respect for directorial restraint. When I inquired about the film’s scant running time, and how it manages to feel like a complete emotional journey in just over an hour, he is quick to point out that he enjoys the purity of shortness, feeling that much energy is often wasted on too many subplots. Having learned to work with small budgets in the relatively tiny Finnish film industry, Härö emphasizes simplifying wherever possible, paring down the film until you define its emotional core. He compares film to a hot air balloon - it can’t fly until weight is lifted. He cites Chaplin and his ability to keep it simple as a major influence, as well as modern Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home).

When asked how the film affected his own beliefs or way of thinking, he says the opposite is true - while it allowed him to reflect on things he found important, it also allowed him convey a message he felt very strongly about. It is a film about faith as he knows it. He recalls very clearly growing up in a home where faith was not emphasized, only coming to it during his teenage years. He remembers how awkward it was as a child being around someone who was reading a Bible or praying, allowing him to put himself in Leila’s shoes as she is suddenly thrust into Father Jacob’s world. But now he is able to identify more with Jacob, and wanted to convey a very Finnish view of faith while evoking the feeling of Finland’s countryside that he remembers from the 1970s. The film is meant to reflect his own beliefs and where he stands now. It is about faith and human frailty, and he approached it with the question of “who am I when I am at my weakest? And who am I when I can no longer be of any use?” He believes there is a value in what we do. Modern Christianity is, to him, about having value even when you are weak, and Father Jacob embodies that notion without feeling heavy handed or preachy.

Coming from a family of Protestant ministers myself, I was struck by how true and honest the film’s depiction of the clergy is. It is never cloying or self righteous, and while we never discussed my own more secular beliefs, it was clear that
Härö is neither pushy or sanctimonious with his views on religion. He is just as gentle and accepting as the film he directed, and it is easy to see just what a personal project it was for him.

While the American journey of Letters to Father Jacob is just beginning (it opens in New York City on Friday, October 8),
Härö is already working on two new projects; one, entitled House of Hope, about a group of soldiers building a house for the widow of a fallen comrade, and another about the plight of Finnish Jews during WWII. Of course, if his newest film is any indication, things don’t always go as planned, and something else could fall out of the sky that demands his attention. Whether it was divine providence or a stroke of good luck, Letters to Father Jacob exists now for all to enjoy, and no matter what project Härö ends up tackling next, we can only hope it ends up as deeply powerful, and emotionally intimate, as this.

Letters to Father Jacob, an Olive Films release, opens Friday, October 8th, at the Cinema Village in NYC. It will open in Los Angeles on Friday, October 15, at the Laemmle Music Hall 3. Additional cities will follow.

On "The Social Network"

From The Dispatch:
Heavy hangs the head that holds the crown, and Zuckerberg’s loneliness and social alienation at the film’s end could be anyone, as Fincher hints at the site’s impending impact on interpersonal relationships. Facebook has both united and divided us, connecting us with everyone from close friends to casual acquaintances, family members and old classmates. But at what cost? It is a connection with a computer screen wall, and while Fincher never really explores the cultural impact Facebook would eventually have, he leaves us with a haunting impression of an impending cultural shift.
Click here to read my full review.

Review: "Marwencol"

Documentaries about overcoming adversity through art have almost become a genre unto themselves. It has become a nearly hoary cliche, be it through art, dance, music, or theatre, how art brings people out of the darkness and gives them a new lease on life. There is a certain sense of having seen it all before, until a film like Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol comes along.

Marwencol is a completely disarming and utterly unique look at an artist who represents one of the most unusual and remarkable artistic discoveries of the decade.

Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside of a bar in April of 2000, and beaten within an inch of his life. He suffered severe brain damage which resulted in nearly complete memory loss, his former life erased as if it never existed. When he emerged from his 9 day coma he was a man without a past or an identity, and to the people who knew him he would never be the same. 40 days later he left the hospital a different man, with a clean slate on which to write a new and brighter future.

General Patton comes to Marwencol to inspect the troops.
Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Readjusting to life after his traumatic experience proved difficult, however, with his brain damage also impairing his social skills and ability to interact with others. So instead be begins to build his own town using dolls and models, a miniature World War II city in Belgium called Marwencol that is populated by people he knows. Through Marwencol he lives out an alternate life, with an alter-ego who is the dashing heroic figure he dreams of being. From everyday scenarios to clandestine intrigue to epic battles against the Nazi forces, Marwencol comes to life through Hogancamp's imagination, and he begins to document each storyline through an extensive series of photographs, never intending them for any other purpose than for his own benefit.

That is until he is discovered by someone who recognized the unique qualities of Hogancamp's art, and suddenly he finds himself thrust into the limelight, a shy, awkward man suddenly becoming an unwitting sensation. It is a remarkable story, a film about the transcendent power of art that is also a deeply observant and layered portrait of an extremely complex man. Malmberg isn't interested in a cloying rags to riches tale. What he found in Hogancamp is something much deeper.

Mark Hogancamp sets up a scene in Marwencol.
Photo by Tom Putnam. Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

More than just an example of the healing power of art, Marwencol dares to ask the question, "what is reality?" For Hogancamp, Marwencol is reality. His life is lived through his interactions with his fictional town, which in his head represents a world more real than the life he is leading. One can easily say that such a thing is unhealthy, but when looked at in the context of what he has overcome, suddenly it is shown in a completely different light. Malmberg wants us to look at Hogancamp from different angles as the man of many layers that he is, rather than judging him on face value. Whereas some would classify him as "odd" or "creepy" on first glance, Malmberg saw a man of many talents who had accomplished something extraordinary. Which is why for most of the film the reasons for the attack that left him with amnesia are left unknown. Malmberg withholds certain aspects of Hogancamp's life until later in the film, inviting the audience to get to know him and appreciate his work without judging him, but by hitting us with this information in the third act as some kind of shock, it almost unnecessarily sensationalizes it. But it's hard to fault Malmberg's intentions. Marwencol is meant to be a film that replaces judgment with understanding, and by the time Hogancamp's secret is revealed, the audience already feels a kind of kinship with him that supersedes any aspects of his life that some people may find off-putting.

In the end, Hogancamp is still something of an enigma. But that's kind of the point. How much can one person truly know another, especially someone as reserved as Hogancamp, whose personality is poured day after day into his art? Marwencol is a fascinating portrait of an artist who didn't even know he was one that challenges its audiences' notions of art and reality by confronting them with a man who refuses to be pigeonholed. Thankfully, Malmberg doesn't try, and the result is a truly compelling and insightful documentary.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MARWENCOL | Directed by Jeff Malmberg | Featuring Mark Hogancamp | Not rated | Opens Friday, October 8, at the IFC Center in NYC.