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TIFF 2017: ‘The Journey’ Is A Creative Exploration Of Post-War Iraq And Its People

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2017 is quite the poignant moment to make and release a film surrounding a suicide bomber. Irrespective of the fact that The Journey is set in Iraq in 2006, the truth of the matter is that over the past couple of years the West has been rocked on a number of occasions by terrorist attacks in extremely public spaces. If a film of this nature had been released a decade ago, the reaction of Western audiences would arguably have benefited from the comfort of geographical and cultural distance. Not so today. Welcome to a world where now almost everyone can relate in small or significant ways to what life was like in the immediate aftermath of the infamous 2003 Iraqi invasion.

Sara (Zahraa Ghandour) starts the day by walking a solitarily path amongst the parked trains as she heads towards the station in Bagdhad. There is purpose to her stride, conviction. Upon arriving, she takes notice of the various people that temporarily populate it: children selling flowers and cigarettes, a mother scolding her soon-to-be-wed daughter, a band of musicians, a mother soothing her baby, and a salesman of sorts, Salam (Ameer Ali Jabarah), speaking especially loud on his cell phone. Sara would much rather be left on her own, but when accosted by Salam, who wants to woo her, she finally reveals her full purpose for being there: her thumb rests just inches above the ignition button for her suicide vest. Thus begins a roller coaster day during which Salam will try to talk her out of her kamikaze mission.

The Journey is a very particular film, the sort of movie that dares to take new turns rather than settle into a predictable pattern, thus keeping the audience on its guard. That said, the bold storytelling choices opted for by director Mohamed Jabarah Al-daradji are not exactly the sort where plot twists change everything the viewer thought they knew about the characters or story. Rather, Al-daradji whimsically has the film’s tone, style, and visual pallet morph as Sara’s titular journey encourages her to rethink her ways via the many people she encounters, from American soldiers to the children salesmen, and even Salam. Cinematographer Duraid Munakim deserves plaudits for helping create a variety of worlds for the viewer to discover, from the dusty, gritty reality seen in the early stages, to the dreamlike version of Baghdad Sara strolls through.

What makes The Journey‘s fluidity so engaging and grounded in emotional and intellectual realism is that Sara’s episodes are not perfect Kodak moments. Rather, they are rooted in the reality of the Baghdad’s denizens: strenuous relations with the U.S. soldiers patrolling the grounds, mourning for family members dead through various tragedies, romantic struggles steeped in local cultural and religious realities, etc. Sara slowly begins to see the light, so to speak, but the movie is smart enough to not make the moments of personal redemption saccharine. Their individual beauty lies in the fact that real people lived through such chapters in 2006, and probably still are today to varying degrees, more than a decade removed. Despite that obvious tragedies and struggles have befallen many of the characters Sara meets, there is an undying ray of hope that keeps shining throughout the film. Iraq is a difficult place to live by all accounts in 2006, yet here are people nevertheless living their lives, trying to appreciate what they have, always pushing forward.

It goes without saying that The Journey‘s heart rests with the dynamic between Sara and Salam. Here as well the director proves his intelligence as a great storyteller. Sara is remarkably stoic, in stark contrast to Salam, who rarely shuts his mouth. While their tit-for-tat repartee is primarily inspired by how their respective personalities are so different, which itself produces a few brief moments of levity, the film never loses sight of the fact that Sara is there to kill a bunch of innocents. The tense interplay is juggled brilliantly, aided in no small part by non-professional actors Zahraa Ghandour (who has a face one could just as easily fall in love with as be terrified of) and Ameer Ali Jabarah. On the topic of the cast, just as remarkable if not more so is that every member a non-professional. Al-daradji revealed in the post screening Q&A that they are all performing for the very first time. This should come as little surprise given that Iraq lacks a robust film industry, so for the director to get such good performances out of his cast is nothing short of remarkable.

The Journey is an adventurous endeavour. The significance of such a statement reaches beyond the mere fact that the protagonist herself goes on a personal journey through a series of poignant encounters. The film as a whole is a unique concoction of cinema vérité coupled with audacious directorial flourishes. It successfully avoids falling into the trappings of artificiality, using its occasionally ostentatious touches to delve deeper into the emotional heartbeat that keeps the people of Baghdad going. Smart, well acted, and touching in surprising ways despite its subject matter, The Journey is well worth taking.

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie

The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.

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The Gentlemen

Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.

Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.

The Gentlemen

Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.

There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.

The Gentlemen

Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.

Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces

Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.

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Vitalina Varela

I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.

The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.

Vitalina Varela

Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.

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Shirley

Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.

Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Shirley

Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.

Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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