Cannes Film Review: The Mission (dir by Roland Joffe)


(With this year’s Cannes Film Festival coming to a close, I figured that I would start of today by looking at some previous winners of the Palme d’Or.  We start things off with 1986’s The Mission.)

The Mission opens with a man stoically plunging over a waterfall.  That man is a priest who, in the 1740s, has been sent to convert the natives of the Paraguayan jungle to Christianity.  The natives’ reaction to the priest’s arrival was to tie him to a wooden cross and send him over the falls.  It’s an opening that perfectly captures one of the main themes of The Mission: the contrast between the beauty of nature and the savagery of man.

The majority of the film deals with two men.  Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Spanish Jesuit who replaces the martyred priest.  Father Gabriel is a pacifist who manages to win the trust of the natives through a shared love of music.  Gabriel plays the oboe and, when it is snatched away from him, reacts not with anger but with acceptance.  With the help of Father John Fielding (Liam Neeson), Father Gabriel builds a mission and works to educate the natives.  This brings him into conflict with the local plantation owners, the majority of whom just see the natives as being potential slaves.

That’s where Mendoza (Robert De Niro) comes in.  A brutish and violent man, Mendoza makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them into slavery.  When Mendoza discovers that his fiancée, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi), has fallen in love with his younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), Mendoza snaps and, in a moment of anger, kills his brother.  Seeking forgiveness for his violent past, Mendoza travels to Father Gabriel’s mission, dragging all of his armor and weaponry in a bundle behind him.  When Mendoza finally reaches the mission, he is not only forgiven by the natives but he also eventually ends up becoming a Jesuit himself.

And, for a while, everything is perfect.  That is until the Spanish turn over their land in South America to the Portuguese and the new colonials decide that having a mission around will make it a little bit too difficult to enslave the natives.  When Father Gabriel is ordered to close the mission, he refuses to do so.  He says that he will stay and that he is willing to be martyred if the Portuguese forces attack.  Gabriel believes that violence is a sin against God.  Mendoza, on the other hand, announces that he will stay and he is prepared to once again pick up weapons to defend the mission…

Dramatically, The Mission is uneven.  While Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson are both believable and sympathetic as Father Gabriel and Father Fielding and fit right in with the film’s period setting, Robert De Niro seems miscast and out-of-place.  As good an actor as De Niro is, he just doesn’t belong in the jungles of South America.  Whenever he shows up or speaks, your mind immediately goes to New York City.  The film tries to juggle so many theological and political issues that it can get a bit exhausting trying to keep up with it all.  Watching the film, it was hard not to wish for a chance to see what a director like Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick would have done with the same material.

That said, The Mission is a visually impressive film, one that captures the beauty, the innocence, and the danger of the jungle.  The scenes of both Gabriel and Mendoza climbing the waterfall are stunning to watch and, in the end, the film does have a sincere message about the ongoing fight for the rights of indigenous people.  That counts for something.

The Mission received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, though it lost to Platoon.  It also won the Palme d’Or, beating out such films as After Hours, Down by Law, Mona Lisa, Runaway Train, and The Sacrifice.

Film Review: The Lovers (dir by Roland Joffe)


The_Lovers_(2013_film)

The Lovers played in theaters earlier this year but don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.  I hadn’t heard of it until I came across it on Showtime.  The Lovers — much like Veronika Decides To Die — is one of those films that spent a while sitting on the shelf until it was almost grudgingly granted an extremely limited theatrical run.  With little publicity and no critical support, The Lovers came and went and now it’s been relegated to cable and Netflix.

And watching The Lovers last night, I could see why some studios might be hesitant about it.  The Lovers is an amazingly messy film, one that seems to randomly careen from tone to tone.  Sometimes, it’s a romance.  Sometimes, it’s an adventure film.  Sometimes, it’s an attack on colonialism disguised as a history lesson.  And then, occasionally, it’s even a science fiction film.  It’s perhaps the messiest mishmash of themes since Cloud Atlas and that’s saying something!

And yet, despite all that, I still liked The Lovers.  In many ways, I enjoyed the film despite some of my better instincts.  I’m still not sure what the Hell’s going on in 50% of the film and don’t even get me started on trying to explain how the film’s multiple story lines are supposed to be connected.  There’s so much that I could criticize about this film and yet, when it was over, I was not at all unhappy about having taken the time to watch it.

The story … well, it’s a little bit hard to explain.  The film begins with a God-like being forging twin rings.  We then jump forward a few centuries, to the year 2020.  Two marine archeologists, Jay (Josh Hartnett) and his wife, Laura (Tasmin Egerton), are exploring the sunken wreck of a colonial British ship.  In the wreckage, they comes across the two rings.  They mention that someone named “D.E.” drowned while clutching onto the rings.  When Laura gets trapped under some debris, Jay rescues her but ends up brain dead as a result.  In a generically futuristic hospital, Laura has to decide whether to use machines to keep Jay alive or to let him go.

However, we don’t see much of Laura and Jay in that hospital.  This is because, after Jay goes into his coma, the film’s other storyline starts up.  Suddenly, we’re in India.  The year is 1778 and Josh Hartnett is playing a Scottish captain in the British East India Company.  When we first see Hartnett, we naturally assume that he’s playing the mysterious “D.E.” but instead, we learn that this character is named James Stewart.

(It’s not much of a spoiler to let you know right now that we never learn exactly who D.E. was or why he or she drowned with the rings.)

At first, I assumed that Jay was dreaming about being James and that the India storyline was meant to run parallel to the 2020 storyline.  That, however, quickly turned out to not be the case.  My next guess was that James was meant to be Jay in a past life and I still think that’s a possibility.  But the fact of the matter is that the film itself never makes clear how James and Jay are related or even why we’re seeing both of their stories.  In general, I like films that are willing to be ambiguous but The Lovers took it a bit too far.

James is assigned to escort an Indian princess to the capital city.  Along the way, James has to protect her from both rebels and assassins.  He also falls in love with one of the queen’s warriors, the beautiful Tulaja Naik (Bipasha Basu).

It’s the scenes set in India that make The Lovers worth watching.  Full of opulent palaces, gorgeous costumes, fierce battles, and sexy chemistry between Josh Hartnett and Bipasha Basu, these scenes are a visual feast.  Even if they don’t always make much sense, they’re fun to watch.  When The Lovers concentrates on India, it’s the epitome of an enjoyably over-the-top romantic melodrama.  It’s only when the film leaves India for the near future or those Godly ring forgers that its inherent messiness becomes a problem.

In the end, The Lovers is not as bad as you might think.  Just enjoy it as a visual treat and don’t worry about making sense of it all.

 

8 Quickies With Lisa Marie: 13 Assassins, Bunraku, The Double Hour, Jig, Meek’s Cutoff, Of Gods and Men, One Day, and There Be Dragons


As part of my continuing effort to offer up a review of every 2011 release that I’ve seen so far this year, here’s 8 more quickie reviews of some of the films that I’ve seen over the past year.

1) 13 Assassins (dir. by Takashi Miike)

The 13 Assassins are a group of samurai who are gathered together to assassinate a sociopathic nobleman in 19th Century Japan.  As directed by Takashi Miike, this is a visually stunning film full of nonstop, brutal action and Miike powerfully contrasts the old school honor of the 13 Assassins with the soulless evil of their target. 

2) Bunraku (dir. by Guy Moshe)

There are some films that simply have to be seen to believed and Bunraku is one of those films.  In the aftermath of a global war, guns have been outlawed but this attempt at social engineering has just resulted in greater societal collapse.  Nicola (Ron Perlman) is the most powerful man on the East Coast but he lives life in paranoid seclusion and instead sends out nine assassins to enforce his will (his main assassin being Killer No. 2, played by a super stylish Kevin McKidd).  Two strangers ( a drifter played by Josh Hartnett and a samurai played by Gackt) arrive in town and, with the help of a bartender played by Woody Harrelson, they team up to destroy the nine assassins and ultimately Nicola himself.  Bunraku, which comes complete with an ominous narrator and sets that look like they belong in a Lars Von Trier film, is a glorious and fast-paced triumph of style over substance, an exciting and fun celebration of the grindhouse films of the past.  With the exception of a miscast Demi Moore (playing Perlman’s mistress), the film is very well-acted but it’s completely stolen and dominated by Kevin McKidd, who can poke me with his sword any time he wants.

3) The Double Hour (dir. by Giuseppe Capotondi)

It took The Double Hour about two years to make it over here from Italy and when it did finally play in American arthouse theaters, it really didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.  That’s a shame because the Double Hour is a pretty entertaining mystery-thriller that’s full of twists and turns and which features an excellent performance by Kseniya Rappoport as an enigmatic hotel maid.  It hasn’t been released on region 1 DVD or blu-ray yet but apparently, there’s some interest in doing an American remake which will probably suck.

4) Jig (dir. by Sue Bourne)

Jig is a documentary that follows several competitors at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships held in Glasgow in 2010.  I always try to be honest about my personal biases and I have to admit that one reason why I absolutely loved this film is because I not only love to dance but I love Irish stepdancing in specific and, as much as I love ballet, stepdance will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’m not quite sure how to put it into words other then to say that it just makes me incredibly happy as both a participant and a  watcher.  For me, Jig captured that joy as well as showing just how much dedication and sacrifice it takes to truly become proficient at it.  This film — much like Black Swan — made me dance.

5) Meek’s Cutoff (dir. by Kelly Reichardt)

I’ll never forget going to the Cinemark West Plano and seeing Meek’s Cutoff last May.  The theater was nearly deserted except for me, Jeff, an elderly couple, and two women who were, in their appearance and manner, almost stereotypically upper middle class suburban.  As the film’s frustratingly ambiguous conclusion played out on-screen and the end credits started to roll, one of the women angrily exclaimed, “WHAT!?  Well, that won’t win any Academy Awards!”  In many ways, Meek’s Cutoff is a frustrating film.  Based on a true story, it follows a group of 19th century settlers as they try to cross the Oregon Trail while following a guide (Bruce Greenwood) who might be totally incompetent.  Plotwise, not much happens: the settlers kidnap an Indian and demand that he lead them to water, Michelle Williams plays a settler who doubts that any of the men in the party know what they’re doing, and everyone continues to keep moving in search of … something.  The film is, at times, really frustrating and I think it’s been overrated by most critics but, at the same time, it remains an oddly fascinating meditation on life and fate.  Add to that, both Greenwood and Williams give good performances and the film’s cinematography is hauntingly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

6) Of Gods and Men(dir. by Xavier Beauvois)

Of Gods and Men is a quietly powerful and visually stunning French film that’s based on the true story of 7 Trappist monks who were kidnapped from their monastery and murdered by muslim rebels during the Algerian Civil War.  The film imagines the final days of the monks and attempts to answer the question of why they didn’t flee their monastery when they had the opportunity to do so, but instead remained and chose to accept their fate as martyrs.  This meditative film also features excellent performances from Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale and avoids the trap of both easy idealization and easy villainy. 

7) One Day (dir. by Lone Scherfig)

This is another one of those films that was dismissed by almost every critic except for Roger Ebert and you know what?  For once, I’m going to agree with Roger.  I absolutely loved One Day and I think that all the haters out there need to take a chance on romance and stop coasting on the easy cynicism.  One Day follows the love affair of a writer (Anne Hathaway) and a TV personality (Jim Sturgess), visiting them repeatedly on the same day over the course of 20 years.  The film starts with them as college students having a wonderfully awkward one night stand and it ends with Sturgess and their son walking up a beautiful green hill and it made me cry and cry.  Hathaway and Sturgess have a wonderful chemistry together and the film also features some good supporting performances from Patricia Clarkson (as Sturgess’ dying mother) and Rafe Spall (bringing humanity to the thankless role of being the “other guy.”) This is one of the most deliriously romantic films that I’ve ever seen and I loved it.  So there.

8 ) There Be Dragons (dir. by Roland Joffe)

There Be Dragons came out in May and it didn’t get much respect from the critics.  I’ve also read that it was considered to be a box office failure, which is odd because I seem to remember that it was actually in theaters for quite some time.  Anyway, There Be Dragons is an oddly old-fashioned war epic that attempts to mix the fictional story of a Spanish revolutionary (played by Wes Bentley) with an admiring biopic of the founder of Orpus Dei, St. Josemarie Escriva (played by Charlie Cox).  The two stories never really seem mix and instead, they just coexist uncomfortably beside each other.  It doesn’t help that Wes Bentley gives one of the worst performance of 2011.  On the plus side, Charlie Cox gives a good and believable performance as Escriva and the film looks great.  The film is so sincere in its desire to make the world a better place that its hard not to regret that it doesn’t succeed.