Movie reviews: Lawless, Compliance, Possession, and more
Big issues are everywhere in this week’s films, including declining journalism, corporate bullying, defying or blindly obeying authority, corruption and official retaliation.
You can also (if you go to www.vlaff.org) find a critique of Cuban society, in a zombie film nonetheless. It’s tonight’s opener at the Latin American Film Festival, which runs daily until a week Sunday. Argentina gets special attention this year.
Here’s my list for today:
Lawless: 3 stars
Compliance: 3 ½
Oslo, Aug. 31st: 4
Big Boys Gone Bananas: 4
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: 4
The Bullet Vanishes: 3
The Possession: 2
LAWLESS: All praise to the art directors, the set builders and the costume people. Their work is the best thing about this film. They got the look of 1020s rural Virginia down exactly, even to that horrible short back and sides haircut Shia LaBeouf wears. He plays the youngest of three bootlegger brothers and, as we learn in an early scene when as a young boy he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the family pig, the most sensitive. Tom Hardy, as the oldest, is tough, which is necessary when the local cops, a special agent (played with oily relish by Guy Pearce) and a fat politico come around demanding a cut of the profits. The “true” story was written by the grandson of one of the brothers.
We get two hours of well-crafted violence, intimidation, shootings, fights and high-speed chases on narrows roads, interrupted now and then by assertions of independence and invincibility. And some romance, Shia with Mia Wasikowska, as an adventurous preacher’s daughter, and Tom with Jessica Chastain, as a former burlesque artiste. Gary Oldman has a few scenes as a Tommy-gun wielding gangster. There’s good, sometimes excessive, action and a facile stab at drawing a parallel with today’s war on drugs Note the music though. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Ralph Stanley and others do The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, John Lee Hooker and others in bluegrass, here they are. In perfect support of both the time period and the film’s air of menace and trepidation. (Scotiabank and suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
COMPLIANCE: Do what you’re told. We know what we’re doing. Some time back, probably around the Viet Nam War, we learned that’s not always true. This film shows us people who’ve never learned that. And it’s a chilling vision, all the more so because it’s true. A caller to a fast food restaurant identifies himself as a police detective and says that the pretty young blonde at the front counter has stolen money out of a customer’s purse. The manager, played by Ann Dowd, agrees to take her into the back room and search her. Then strip search her.
Dreama Walker, as the victim, can only whimper her innocence and more orders come. They’re more intrusive, and eventually abusive. Writer-director Craig Zobel carefully advances the progression step by step. He shows how the caller manipulates the manager and a couple of employees she brings into the scene and how they all bow to his authority. We can see a dozen questions they should have had along the way but they don’t ask them. There have been 70 cases like this in the US. This one, although set in Ohio, is based on one in Kentucky, which has been well-documented in subsequent court cases. The film is tense and lurid, but not exploitative. The unstated message is good: No, you don’t have to. (5th Avenue Cinemas) 3 ½ out of 5
OSLO, AUGUST 31st: A drug addict fails at suicide at the beginning of the film and then gets a chance to fix his life. He’s given a day pass from a rehab centre to go to a job interview. He botches that and spends the rest of the day and night meeting old friends. Sounds gloomy and ominous doesn’t it? Not so. I won’t say it’s happy and ends well, but it is a sharp and gripping character study of a lost soul. “I’m 34 years old. I have nothing,” he says.
Actually, as we watch him visiting around Oslo, we learn that he’s bright, thoughtful, the son of intellectuals and still liked by his friends. His girlfriend, though, won’t answer his calls and his sister won’t meet him for lunch. Very subtly, without hysterics, the picture is filled in. He says can’t feel anything. In a very poignant scene in a café he listens to conversations around him and grasps how cut off he is. An old drug-sharing pal, now a family man and a potential role model, offers advice but also admits his own life is boring. The story is from a 1931 French novel about alcoholism that was made into a film by Louis Malle. This Norwegian version by Joachim Trier is terse, succinct and, for all its despair, surprisingly light much of the time. (Vancity Theatre) 4 out of 5
Playing in tandem with …
BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS: In this absorbing documentary, the initial story, big corporation endangers workers in a Third World country, turns into something that affects us all. Namely the depressing state of modern journalism. Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten tells it as a sequel to his 2009 film Bananas which followed a court case brought by workers at a Dole company plantation Nicaragua. They claimed they were made sick by a banned pesticide. Dole, got wind the film would play at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and threatened to sue. The letters went to everyone involved, including every one of the festival’s sponsors.
Then there was a relentless campaign of more letters, planted op-ed pieces and press releases which the newspapers reported without getting comments from the filmmakers. In one intriguing development, Google put an ad for Dole alongside every search for anything about the story. The film details all the steps and various analysts fill in what they say about news reporting today. Gertten had the foresight to hire a camera crew wherever he went with the story so we see much of the drama unfold. Ironically, it took a Swedish hamburger chain to jolt the story back to proper reality. A very good film.
Local producer Bart Simpson, who helped make the original and appears in this new one, will be there to take questions Fri., Sat. and Mon. Details at : viff.org/theatre 4 out of 5
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY: This lively documentary lets us watch China’s most famous dissident in action. I love a sequence when he confronts a couple of undercover cops watching him from a car. They threaten to call the police. In another scene, he and a cop do a Tarantino-like stand-off, each armed not with a gun, but with a camera. The film revels in the many ways he sticks it to the Chinese authorities, including obscenely telling off the “Motherland” in a video and sometimes only with finger gestures before the press.
He’s an artist who travels the world and, now more notably, a feisty political activist. He’s driven by memories of his father, originally honored, then destroyed by the regime. As a student in New York, he learned individuals can fight their government. He’s taken on a campaign to publicize corruption, principally around the Sichuan earthquake where many died when shoddy buildings collapsed. That makes him a target for the authorities. There’s audio tape of a violent police visit to his apartment and just last month, after the film was already circulating, the regime got him on a tax evasion charge. He claims it was meant to intimidate him. The film shows he’s too driven to be shut up just like that. (5th Avenue Cinemas) 4 out of 5
THE BULLET VANISHES: A nicely old-style murder mystery produced with great atmosphere in China. Also, unfortunately, too much story. The twists keep coming at the end as if the writers felt are few more flips would make it better. Before that, it has the look and the lighthearted air of the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes films. Lau Ching Wan plays a wise detective enlisted to fight corruption but increasingly absorbed by one death at a munitions factory where the workers fear a “phantom bullet.”
He joins up with a hot shot young policeman played by Nicholas Tse, who incidentally grew up in Vancouver and studied at St. George’s before returning to Hong Kong where he’s a singer and an award-winning actor. The two make a good pair, one quietly deductive; the other cocky and fast with a gun. They work out how a bullet can disappear without a trace and incidentally, in a couple of subplots, puzzle-out a locked-room murder and ponder a perfect crime. The dialogue is snappy and often comic and the film is entertaining despite the cluttered story. Two missteps: an autopsy seen from inside the body is glimpsed three times and one character, a factory owner, is played as broad as a cartoon. (International Village and Riverport) 3 out of 5
THE POSSESSION: I’ve never heard of a Jewish exorcism before. And didn’t I read somewhere that Judaism doesn’t deal with the devil and hell? There is folklore though about a dibbuk, an evil spirit that comes after children. That’s what has to be exorcised here. And you know, the procedure is pretty much like all those other exorcisms the movies have been bringing us . By my count, this is the 10th in 10 years.
A young girl, played by charmer Natasha Calis of right here in Vancouver, buys a wooden box at a yard sale and before you know it strange things are happening. A person is thrown around a room. Moths swarm in the house. The girl punches out another pupil at school. Her newly divorced parents ( Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick) are squabbling but her dad, noting a Hebrew inscription on the box, consults a rabbi who says “this must be left to the will of God”. A trainee rabbi offers to help, though, and suggests an exorcism. In a slightly weird touch he’s played by Matisyahu, a Jewish reggae singer. The film isn’t scary and Vancouver street signs break the spell that it’s taking place in New York. The story is partially true though. Sam Raimi, who produced but did not direct, found it in a newspaper story about a box bought at an estate sale. When it brought supernatural consequences, the owner found an easier solution. He got rid of it on e-bay. (Scotiabank and many suburban theatres) 2 out of 5
NOTE: The images are movie stills provided by the studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.