Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection is actually titled La French, hammer them together and you get the subject: The French Connection. Spanning the years 1975-1982, The Connection tells a new, fictional, story of the downfall of the real life drug ring. As drugs rampage Marseilles, police magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is promoted from juvenile cases to Vice so he can bring down La French’s ringleader, Zampa. Michel and Zampa play games over 7 years in an attempt to come out on top.
Resembling some sort of dull hybrid of Zodiac, The French Connection, and Goodfellas, Jimenez and co-screenwriter Audrey Diwan bring absolutely nothing new to the table. Michel’s determination turns into obsession almost ruining his marriage. Dark and gritty sequences of absolute violence are meant to point out the corruption in the police. Zampa opens up a flashy 1980s disco, starting with Blondie’s Call Me. Jimenez’s most bizarre quirk is bringing in French versions of two separate Nancy Sinatra songs: These Boots Are Made For Walking, and Bang Bang.
Coming in at 135 minutes, this rehash of almost every overused crime movie trope overstays its welcome by at least 40 minutes. Unlike Goodfellas, which comes in at 148 minutes, La French doesn’t have the originality or drive to pull you along. The final result feels most like a vanity project for Dujardin to display his ACT-ING and possibly win awards. But, Dujardin isn’t anywhere on the credits other than as the lead actor. I’m unsure of why this movie exists, except that France wants to prove it can do soulless boring rehashes of mindless Hollywood films as well. Unfortunately, they’re trying to do this without the participation of either Michel Gondry or Luc Besson.
Riding the coattails of that genre rehash, Slow West felt even more like a rehash than it might have. Jay Cavendish is a 16-year-old boy from Scotland who is going through the old west to find his long lost not-girlfriend. Along the way, he hires bounty hunter, and overall desperado, Silas to accompany and protect him until he reaches his final destination. Little does he know that his girlfriend and her father have a $2,000 bounty on their head.
If Pitchfork made a movie, it would be Slow West, an impeccably shot Western road movie that is made out of the best parts of other movies. The dialogue is less natural and more like bon mots found in the lyric books of Sunny Day Real Estate. Yet, overall, it lacks heart, soul, or meaning. Even the irony in Slow West seems lazy and uninspired. There’s a preciousness and faux deepness to Slow West that runs only skin deep. Writer-director John Maclean (The Beta Band) attempts to infuse depth by paralleling love and death, but it all falls flatter than a pancake. It is gorgeous to look at and well-acted, but is that enough?
After Slow West failed to impress me, I jumped down for a second viewing of Frame By Frame, a documentary about four photojournalists in modern Afghanistan. You’d be forgiven for not knowing the full ins and outs of the politics of Afghanistan, as the power struggle dates back to the 1980s. Luckily, Frame By Frame has our back, saying that Russia invaded Afghanistan in the 80s, and withdrew in the 90s. This left a power vacuum where the Taliban won a civil war and ruled with religious brutality until 9/11 and America ousted the Taliban. Under the rule of the Taliban, all photography was banned, and photos were actively destroyed during house invasions.
The four photojournalists in Frame by Frame each focus on a different aspect of Afghanistan’s culture and culture struggles. Najibullah is a professor teaching the next generation on how to construct an image on the fly, and what to look for in photo journalism. Massoud is a Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist who takes photos of extreme situations (i.e. terrorist attacks). Wakil, the youngest of the bunch, captures the problematic culture and the political activism of the country. Farkana focuses on women’s lives, trying to amplify the voice of the women through her photography.
Combining the four journalists, including the stories of their past, Frame By Frame constructs a brief snapshot of the Afghanistan of the Now. It’s image highlights real world problems from drug addiction to cultural abuse of women to political apathy, while also capturing the unease about the future as foreign power pulls out leaving Afghanistan to stand on its own. Even though there are many, MANY, heartwrenching sequences and stories (Farkana, in particular, is a voice of power and fury at the injustices that women face), Frame by Frame doesn’t just focus on the negative. Weaved through the portrait is a thread of hopeful potential – that the progress made since the removal of the Taliban won’t be undone – yet the specter of the recent religious domination still looms large. This is no “here’s what you need to do” piece of agitprop. Frame by Frame is a gorgeous (its about photojournalism!) doc about a country as it exists; the more knowledge the better.
The showings at SIFF were special, as it was one of the very few to feature all four subjects in person, as well as both directors. If you were at the opening gala, and had known who to look for, you could have seen the journalists partying it up with the rest of the audience. At the Sunday screening, they were intelligent and articulate, fielding questions about the current government’s attitude toward photojournalism (they don’t like it much), the progress of women’s rights, and how drugs actually infiltrate and destroy the culture. Farkana was a firebrand, fiercely advocating for the voice of women and how that relates to both the past and present. If you weren’t here, you missed something truly special.
My final screening of the night was Kim Farrant’s Strangerland, which I still don’t know what I think after mulling over it for 2 days. Catherine and Matthew Parker (Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes) have moved 300 miles away to a small town because of a scandal involving their 15-year-old daughter Lily. Their younger son, Tommy, has insomnia and is prone to taking walks at night. Lily is a rebellious hellion with an active libido who sleeps with older boys in a skanky shipping container at a skate park. Catherine and Matthew sleep in different rooms. It’s family dysfunction at its finest. One night, Tommy and Lily go out on their own, not to return. As the town looks for the kids, secrets pour out of every corner.
What follows starts off sensibly enough – understandably angry fathers, teenage diaries, naked Hugo Weaving (did you know he’s 55?) – but soon delves into insanity and even inanity. Farrant is attempting to make a statement about the demonization of female sexuality – Lily is called a slut and a whore, but the boys are targeted solely because of Lily’s young(?) age, Matthew denies Catherine’s sexuality until she has to outright attack him in the dining room – but it almost gets lost among bad melodrama and even worse teenage poetry. Repeated at least three times in the movie, Lily’s poem is so inane it defies teenage angst. “Touch Me/In The Dark/Nobody Can See/Touch Me/In The Dark/You Touch Me”
The cinematography is gorgeous, but the huge mess that writer-director Farrant created left me confused. Do I love it for being brave and beautiful? Do I hate it because there is a whole hell of a lot of bad dialogue, terrible motivations, and underdeveloped characters? Do I love hating it because it is such an ambitious failure, and it borders camp? Or, do I hate loving it, knowing that it could be all bullshit on repeat viewings? I think the correct response might be all four.
Elsewhere, the Georgian (Republic of) film Corn Island is a gorgeous piece of 10th grade English lit. Remember those extremely well-written allegorical stories you were assigned where the surface story was just a piece of underdeveloped nothing in order to deliver political points? Corn Island is the cinematic equivalent of that. In the mountains of Georgia, after the winter snow pack’s melting slows, the river lowers to create islands of fertile soil between two banks. An old man goes to a fairly large island, where he finds the pipe of the last farmer. With the help of his granddaughter, the old man builds a hut and grows a bunch of corn. Meanwhile, rivaling armies putter around in the river.
With virtually no dialogue, Corn Island relies on its gorgeous imagery to tell this allegorically political tale about the constant state of war, and the farmer’s indifference to it. There is much to chew on in, but ultimately Corn Island‘s surface story lacks a fictional sensibility that sustains it on its own. A good allegory stands up with both surface and deeper meaning. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not gorgeous.
A similar problem plagues Snow on the Blades, a Japanese update to the samurai that fetishizes tradition while discussing the inevitability of change. Shimura Kingo is the personal samurai bodyguard of Master Ii at the end of the Shogun era. Master Ii is attempting to westernize Japan, an unpopular idea among the other lord of the era. On the way to a ceremony, Master Ii’s procession is attacked by a group of assassins, killing him and all of the bodyguards except Kingo. As a result, Kingo is shamed and has to kill at least one assassin to avenge his Master’s death and restore his name and sense of honor. For the next 15 years, Kingo clings to his vengeance story as society westernizes around him, leaving him to be the last samurai.
At 115 minutes, director Wakamatsu takes his sweet time getting to the point of the story. The pacing of Snow on the Blades is about as fast as molasses in winter. His point is complex and conflicting. Change is inevitable, but do we have to lose ourselves in the process? And, women should totally suffer in silence, but we should have pity for them. Much like Corn Island, the subtext is more developed than the surface, but unlike Corn Island, there isn’t much of a consistency to Snow on the Blades‘ subtext either. In the end, it’s a problematic movie about change that’s trying to appeal to both adults and youth on the proper way to advance society as Japan has been doing its own cultural shift over the past 20 years.
Next Entry: A Modern Update, a Revival Classic, and a Repeat Offender