Yes, folks, I am starting to push out the reviews now that there’s a lull in events at the TTC. If you comment here, please make it relevant to the film, not to the problems you had on the TTC getting to the theatre.
- The Mourning Forest by Naomi Kawase
- Le voyage du ballon rouge by Hou Hsiao-hsien
- Captain Mike Across America by Michael Moore
- The Visitor by Thomas McCarthy
The Mourning Forest, written and directed by Naomi Kawase (France/Japan) ** 1/2
The scene opens on a forest, then a wider view across fields to that forest. A funeral party enters and crosses the frame. Later we will realize that this happened long ago in the life of Old Shigeki (played by Shigeki Uda) who now lives in a seniors’ home on the edge of the forest. Shigeki is withdrawn and difficult. He has spent decades longing for his dead wife, Mako (Kanaka Masudo), and fills volumes with letters to her. Now and then she appears, if only in his imagination, including a haunting scene that begins as a piano duet from which her hands and music disappear.
We learn that Mako died 33 years ago, and according to Buddhist tradition, her spirit will now leave the earth. Shigeki must end his mourning.
A new junior nurse, Machiko (Machiko Ono) , joins the staff, but she is quite unsure of herself. The old folks are a genial bunch in general, but Shigeki is a handful for anyone. The similarity between “Mako” and “Machiko” (a single written character) is no accident of the story, and soon a trust develops between Shigeki and the young nurse.
One day, Machiko sets off for a drive to the forest with Shigeki, but accidently runs her car off the road. While she is going for help at a nearby farm, the old man has wandered off into the woods. Machiko follows and soon they are both lost, or so it seems.
The forest is a character in its own right, old, and unconcerned with thoe wandering through it. I won’t follow the rest of the action from here, but clearly the characters are no longer quite in this earth. At dawn the next day, Mako appears again and dances in a clearing with Shigeki who then walks to the remains of a grave. There he buries the notebooks and dies while Machiko holds a small music box in the sun playing.
As you can see, this is not a plot-heavy film, and it concentrates on mourning and passing through that to acceptance. The central question is no less than what it means to be alive — both the physical act of being and the celebration of life itself — and the observation that life can be celebrated even in its absence.
I must admit that the 97 minutes seemed much longer in passing, and the story could probably have been told in less time. Interesting and moving in spots, but I won’t rush out to see it again.
Le voyage du ballon rouge (The Flight of the Red Balloon), written and directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien (France) ** 1/2
Right off the top, I must confess some disappointment with a film that trades on sentiment of the original “Ballon rouge”. Without the hint of this homage, I might not have bothered with this film even though it stars Juliette Binoche.
Our characters make up a rather frazzled extended family. Binoche plays Suzanne, a de facto single mother living in Paris with her young son, Simon. Her daughter lives in Brussels, hubby is off in Montreal and his sponging friend lives downstairs in their Paris flat rent-free. Song (Song Fang) is an au pair who looks after Simon.
The final major character is a red balloon which seems to be acting as a Simon’s protector, but nothing much is ever done with this conceit. Indeed, director Hsiao-hsien gives us one scene where the balloon’s handler, dressed in a tight green suit to simplify digital removal, is left in the shot. A short laugh, but do we really care? Do we remember that in the original, CGI didn’t exist and all of the balloon’s movements had to be managed from out of frame?
Suzanne is working on a puppet show based on a Chinese legend of a failed emperor suffering from seriously low esteem who is befriended by a princess who is a daughter of the dragon god. An allegory for our real-life characters, no doubt.
Technically, the film depends on long, improvised shots whose success depends on the strength of the actors and the skill of the crew and director. At the Q&A, Binoche spoke of her awe of the crew — Hsiao-hsien has worked with the same camera crew for years and they know exactly what he wants to achieve.
However, technical and acting skills don’t make up for the fact that this is basically a story of domestic crisis that doesn’t have a patch on the charm and brevity of the film that was its inspiration.
Captain Mike Across America, by Michael Moore (USA) ** 1/2
Does anyone remember a Presidential campaign where the war-mongering, knuckle-dragging right wing didn’t run the show? Back in 2004, Michael Moore hoped to mobilize the left, to “save the Democrats from themselves”, with a campaign swing through key states. Moore attacked the perennial problems of voter apathy — get them registered and get them to vote with rallies at fertile locations for Democratic voters.
Captain Mike was built mainly from footage shot during those rallies. Alas, when they started out, the documentary was not on their agenda, and we get far too many scenes of Moore walking out onto a stage to a cheering crowd probably because no other footage was available.
The interesting parts, such as they are, come as opposition to his tour builds. Press spin and manipulation of possible host sites grows as his potential impact is felt by the Republicans. During the Q&A, Moore spoke at some length about the animosity toward him shown by the political right. Free speech, of course, is always for “right thinking folk”, not for people in opposition.
That freedom became the issue when Republicans tried to get colleges to cancel his appearances. That backfired, in one case spectacularly, when he moved to another venue ten times the size and filled it.
In the election, the Democrats carried the precincts where Moore’s team had worked, but they lost elsewhere. The rest we know.
This was a world premiere, and it got a big ovation. However, the ovation was more for activism itself — the inspiration, the call to action — than for the film itself. A good one-hour documentary stretched needlessly to 102 minutes.
The Visitor, writen and directed by Thomas McCarthy (USA) ***
I was drawn to The Visitor by Richard Jenkins, an actor well known for his role in Six Feet Under, and I was not dispapointed.
Walter Vale (Jenkins) is an aging economics professor who really hasn’t done any real, new work for years. His wife, a pianist, died long ago, and we sense he has no music of his own. The film begins with a tentative and unsuccessful piano lesson whose only outcome is that the piano is sold to Walter’s would-be teacher.
Walter is, nominally, the co-author of a paper and his university dispatches him, reluctantly, to New York to present the work at a conference. The Vales have a New York apartment, rarely used, to which Walter repairs for the evening. There he discovers two illegal immigrants who have rented the apartment from someone taking advantage of Walter’s long absence. This plot wrinkle that bothered me — why would he have kept so large a space, fully furnished, for so many years — but I let the story carry me along.
At first, Walter turns the unexpected pair out onto the street, but changes his mind and gradually they become friends. Tarek (Haas Sleiman) is a musician from Syria living with his girlfriend Zainab. Their fight to stay in the USA becomes Walter’s passion and he turns unexpectedly into an advocate for immigrants. All goes well until Tarek runs into problems with a subway turnstile that won’t accept his fare [this is the transit content of this review]. He jumps the turnstile and is promptly nabbed by the transit cops. As an illegal, he winds up in a mindless holding facility run by a private agency that answers to nobody.
Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) shows up looking for her son and a friendship begins for Walter only to be cut short by Tarek’s deportation.
Walter Vale is the dull sort of everyman nobody wants to become, but many dread to be. Without an actor that can show him coming out of that shell, if only to give a hint there may be more to his future, the story would be rather maudlin. Walter is as much the “visitor” of the title — finding himself in a foreign milieu in New York — as those he tries to help. Jenkins makes us believe in Vale and holds the movie together because of this.