06 July 2011

Eleanor's Secret

Eleanor's Secret (2009, Kérity, la maison des contes) is a rather charmingly-animated French film about books and the stories they contain.

The story begins with the young boy Natanaël (Nathaniel), his sister Angelica, and their parents driving to the town Kérity, where the home of their recently deceased grandmother, Éléonore (voiced by Jeanne Moreau), is located. As they approach the road sign for Kérity, Nat asks how much further, and Angélica mocks him that, if he could read, he would know that they're almost there.

At the house, Nat and Angélica's parents read them a letter from Éléonore in which she leaves Angelica a doll and Nat the key to her secret room. When Nat opens it, he is dismayed to find that it a simple study with a library attached containing all the books she used to read to him.

That night, a storm damages the roof of the home, and the family decides that, since they don't have the money to fix it, they'll have to sell. Feeling more attachment to the house than the library of books, Nat offers to let the family sell the books to a local pawn shop dealer so that they can raise the money for repairs. His father tells him to at least go and pick out one book to remember Éléonore by, and Nat again enters the library. This time, small people begin to peer out of the books from various books and fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and even Alice and the White Rabbit from Nat's favourite story, Through the Looking Glass. It is revealed that Nat is the new keeper of their stories, and must read a magic phrase in order to keep them alive for future generations. However, when it comes to light that Nat cannot read, the Wicked Fairy calls him an imposter and, using her magic, shrinks Nat down to their size.

The antiques dealer arrives and scams the family, claiming that the collection of first editions are "too old to be worth anything" but that he'll let them know if he manages to sell any of them. Nat is too small to stop it, and ends up riding with the other characters and their books to the dealer's shop. There, Nat decides that Éléonore must have entrusted the books to him for a reason, and sets out on a journey to return home and read the magic spell to save the day. He is joined by Alice, the White Rabbit, and the man-eating Ogre.

Animation and Characters
This film was directed by veteran Disney animator Dominique Monfery, and I'm not surprised. The animation is good, but nothing revolutionary. There is an interesting use of text to shows Nat's anxiety of not being able to read, but it was already done (and perhaps even more inventively) five years earlier in an episode of Paranoia Agent. So it you're really big on cutting edge animation, this isn't going to wow you, but everything is done skillfully and I applaud it for that.

Perhaps more interesting are the character designs, as they showcase an interesting illustration style. Perhaps the best character design is the weasel of an antiques dealer, whose moustache is wonderfully expressive. In some ways, the art style reminded me a little bit of The Secret of Kells, but both certainly have their own divergent feels.

Still, The Secret of Kells seems like an interesting film to pair with this one. Both are children's movies with strong literary references. However, I feel like Kells was a bit more subtle and nuanced, while Eleanor's Secret was a bit more heavy-handed in its pro-literacy message.

Could have gone deeper
All-in-all, I liked the film, but I felt like it stopped a little short and didn't fully take advantage of what it had going on plot-wise. In the beginning, Eleanor's Secret seemed to be exploring ideas of grief through the death of Éléonore and Nat's subsequent shame at still being unable to read. Some of those early, more interestingly animated scenes definitely captured the stress and emotional turmoil Nat was feeling by using his fear of his own illiteracy as the jumping point.

However, once the tiny fairytale figures appeared, his grief seemed to all but disappear, and the adventure story took over too much. The end felt too neat and convenient. By saving the stories, everything else magically fell in to place. They even find money elsewhere to fix the house. I guess I just wanted it to keep a bit more of the darker tinge that the film started with. It could've been a great film about dealing with death and grief, but it seemed to take the easier path.

At any rate, it was still a fun movie, and I think an excellent choice for anyone looking for a film to show their kinds that will help instill in them a love of books.

09 June 2011

Chonmage purin

I recently had the opportunity to watch a charming Japanese film called Chonmage purin (2010). The film does not seem to have an actual film distribution agreement with any English-speaking companies, so there is no official translation of the name yet. The subtitles that my wife and I saw gave the title A Boy and his Samurai, but the original Japanese title actually just means "Chonmage pudding." Chonmage is a hairstyle commonly worn by samurai during the Edo period and worn today (though without the top of the head shaved) only by sumo wrestlers.

The film is a romantic comedy with the emphasis on comedy. The crux of the plot is this: Yasube, a samurai from the Edo period, is "spirited away" to the present, where he ends up finding shelter with a divorced mother Hiroko and her 5 year old son Tomoya. The film is pretty light and humorous, focusing a lot on the classic premise the immense culture shock experienced by a time traveller from the past.

However, the film does have it's share of dramatic moments as well. Afterall, what romantic comedy would be complete without it? This largely revolves around Hiroko's desire to be working woman. In fact, her previous marriage ended upon her request when her ex-husband continually expected her to take on all the household duties. Of course, the old-fashioned Yasube should be most misogynistic of all, and indeed is incredulous that she wants to work, wanted the divorce, and so forth. However, Hiroko explains that this is Tokyo now, not Edo, and that things work differently here. As such, Yasube decides to repay her for her hospitality by tending to the household duties so that she can devote herself entirely to her job. It's through this that Yasube discovers his passion and skill in making desserts such as puddings and cakes.

Eventually, Yasube enters a Father-Son Cake Baking Contest with the under-prepared Tomoya, which they win through determination and ingenuity. In fact, Yasube performs so well that he receives a job offer from a famous baker to come work in his kitchen. Yasube is, at first, hesitant, as he feels bound by his duties to the household, but Hiroko and Tomoya tell him to go for it. However, they are unprepared for how much he devotes himself to his new career and, ultimately, reverts back to his old patriarchal mindset. Although Hiroko had begun to fall for Yasube, she now feels like she's back with her old husband and asks Yasube to leave and find his own apartment now that he is able. The two proceed to avoid each other until Tomoya goes missing while they are both at work. They take off and join forces to try to find him again.

A brief history of the samurai
It should be obvious from the above synopsis that this film seems to be concerned with the idea of gender roles in modern Japan. The time-travelling samurai from Edo period (1603-1868) obviously has symbolic references to the patriarchal traditions that Japan was built upon for many, many centuries.

At this time, I will point out that the Edo period was sort of the last stand of the samurai, during which they experienced a great amount of power, freedom, and status. Towards the end of the Edo period,  In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open itself to Western trade, which quickly led to the modernization of the samurai and Japan as a whole. The last major conflict that prominently featured samurai was in 1877. The following year was the Meiji Restoration and the beginning of the Meiji era. Under the new government, the samurai class was dissolved. As such, Yasube's historical origins not only suggest an older, patriarchal way of thinking, but also one that is nearing its decline. There is a certain fatality to Yasube in that we know the fate of the samurai. Likewise, his decision to take on the duties of the household suggest the dissolution of the samurai class.

Gender issues
All in all, there are a lot of subtleties in the historical references that, at the very least, were not lost on me. Of course, this all looks like this film must, therefore, be a very rousing, intellectual, and insightful exploration of gender issues in Japan. Let me therefore assure you that it is, still, a comedy first-and-foremost. So while I think this film could find a welcome home in a class on, say, feminism in cinema, I think someone looking for a truly great commentary on these issues will be sorely disappointed. It deals with these issues in the same way that Juno deals with teenage pregnancy. That is, it's used more for the plot's conflict than for in depth analysis and discussion. And maybe that's for the best. After all, it's a romantic comedy. It's main function is to entertain, and it does that quite well.

Still, the film does still have something interesting to say when all is said and done. The message was not one that I would call particularly feminist or anti-feminist in the strongest sense of those words. Rather, the point seems to be that we need to find a balance in our lives between work and family. The film fully acknowledges that work can be a great creative outlet and that everyone should be able to experience of doing something with their time and energy that they can be proud of. However, it also addresses both the joys and responsibilities of family, and that we need to decide what is really most precious and important to us. The film seems to say that we (both men and women) should put family over career, and I think this is a fine message, especially for a country as notoriously workaholic as Japan.

I laughed
But enough with all the analytical stuff. Really, that's not what this film is about. It's supposed to entertain, and that it most certainly did. And honestly, I think it was an excellent film for my wife and me to watch together. There was all the pastry chef stuff for her, and the samurai stuff for me.

And trust me, if you are interested in samurai and chanbara, you will find plenty to enjoy in Chonmage purin. Just seeing the proper mannerisms so characteristic of chanbara completely displaced in the modern setting was already quite amusing to see.

At any rate, I would certainly recommend this to anyone should they ever get a chance to actually see it. Who knows, maybe it will get a distribution agreement here, although I certainly wouldn't hold my breath.

05 May 2011

Njom Njom Kitchen: Stove-top popcorn

All you movie-lovers might want to check out my post on how to make popcorn on the stove over at Njom Njom Kitchen, the foodie blog I share with my wife.

If you're still throwing a bag in the microwave before you sit down to watch your DVDs, you may want to consider changing your snacking habits, because that microwave stuff just doesn't hold a candle to stove-top popcorn.

15 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Sunday

My last day of the film festival featured quite a diverse selection, and in that way it may be the best single day to show what kind of things the Wisconsin Film Festival has to offer. Of course, one of things I totally missed was some of the locally-produced films shown at the festival, despite the fact that the organizers strongly encouraged people to go. I certainly would be interested in seeing some Wisconsin-made films, but I guess I got caught up in the excitement of seeing a lot of new foreign films on a big screen. I also made a concerted effort to see as many Nordic films as possible, as that is my primary topic of study. Still, I missed out of Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006) as well as a Finnish short at the very least. But alas, I guess you can't see them all, right?

At any rate, the three films I saw on Sunday were Le quattro volte, The Light Thief, and Everything Will Be Fine. As before, there may be some spoilers ahead, although I do keep the ultimately twist of Everything Will Be Fine a secret.
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Country: Italy
Languages: Italian

This film is probably best classified as "experimental," or at the very least, "non-conventional." I put up there that the language was Italian, which is true to a point, but at its core, Le quattro volte was primarily a quiet, wordless film. All speech was incidental and was left untranslated—the film had no subtitles. Even the title seems to have avoided the touch of a translator, though for those curious, it means "The four stages" or "The four times."

The film begins with an elderly goat farmer who appears to be ailing from some kind of respiratory illness. That night, he mixes a strange black powder into a glass of water and drinks it. The next day, he awakes and milks the goats, then takes the milk around for delivery. When he delivers to the cathedral in his village, the woman there gives him a packet of holy dust, freshly swept from the floor. It is this dust that he drinks at night as medicine.

However, that day, while he is in the field tending his goats, the packet slips from his pocket, unbeknownst to him. That night, he searches frantically for the packet of dust, until he finally goes out into the rainy night and begins banging on the doors to the church. However, it is to know avail, as we cut away to his funeral. Just as they close up the catacomb in which his body rests, the film cuts again suddenly to the birth of a baby goat. The cut seems to imply a connection, as if his death and the goat's birth are directly related. Perhaps it is reincarnation?

We now see the goat begin his new life. Soon, he is old enough to go out with the rest of the herd to graze in the pastures. However, he becomes separated from the rest and wanders, lost and aimless, until finally he gives up in the shade of a large tree, presumably to die. The body must decompose and feed the tree, though. Later, the tree is cut down by the villagers for a festival, and then it is sent to be turned in to charcoal. The charcoal is taken and eventually delivered to the cathedral, when it is burned and turns into dust and ashes.

An experience
I'm very glad I went to see this movie, but it was probably my least favourite at the festival. I think that's how experimental films will often go. They push the boundries of what a normal film is and can be, and while the outcomes are often very surprising and interesting, they are often a little awkward too. Thankfully, Le quattro volte was still quite watchable despite its length, most likely because it played with narrative structure rather than pushing the visuals or audio into unusual territory.

The story was certainly unique, and I think its presentation of the cycle of life was pretty interesting. However, some of the links were stronger than others. In particular, the link between the man's death and the goat's birth is rather forced. I think I would've found it a bit more compelling if all the connections were more obvious in the scene of life. I mean, I think the overriding theme and message of the film is the interconnectedness of all life on earth, but that message is weakened when the connections themselves are weak. However, I guess they do help this a little bit by having the old man be a goat farmer, and thus he at least helps to raise and foster the lives of goats, much like the young goat that is the focal point of the film's second "stage."

Director: Aktan Abdykalykov
Country: Kyrgyzstan
Languages: Kyrgyz

Mr. Light ("Svet-Ake" in Kyrgiz) is an electrical engineer in a rural Kyrgyz village. He is building his own windmill to try to generate some electricity. He also has a habit of setting the electrical meters to run backwards for villagers who can no longer afford to pay for electricity. The authorities discover what he is doing and originally prohibit him from working, but he eventually gets his job back when it comes to light that one of Mr. Light's good friends is connected to a rich entrepreneur who wants to buy the village.

While drunk with his friend, Mr. Light bemoans his inability to have a son, as all four of his children so far are girls. His friend tells him that he must get a shock to expel all the feminine energy from his body, and so Mr. Light immediately scales a light pole and electrocutes himself. His friend and some of the villagers quickly bury him up to his neck to ground him and he comes to again, and notices an attractive young girl with whom he becomes infatuated.

Soon, the rich entrepreneur hears of Mr. Light's skills and tries to befriend him. Mr. Light tells the entrepreneur his dream of filling a nearby valley with windmills to generate electricity for the entire village, and the entrepreneur says that if Mr. Light can aid him in buying the town, he will help Mr. Light achieve his goal. The entrepreneur brings in Chinese investors and has Mr. Light set up the lighting in a yurt and sit in on their meeting. The entrepreneur lavishes the investors in good food and drink, and then announces he will put on an erotic show for their pleasure. When the entertainment in question happens to be Mr. Light's new infatuation, he snaps and attacks the investors and entrepreneur before fleeing. He short-circuits the entire village's electricity, plunging the village into darkness, and then continues to flee. They catch up to him and (presumably) kill him (the scene is a bit ambiguous). At that moment, a strong gust blows through the village, causing the windmill to break loose. As it spins, the solitary lightbulb connected to it begins to shine weakly.

Culturally dense
I liked the feel of this film, and I thought the characters where beautiful and very human. Mr. Light felt very genuine and although a little odd and misguided, felt like he had a good heart. However, I feel like I only really got part of the story. There were numerous moments where I felt culturally unable to completely understand what was going on. In particular, there were two scenes in the film where the electricity in the town goes out and everything is plunged into darkness. Both times, it was accompanied by slow-motion shots of donkeys going crazy. I feel like there had to be some cultural significance to this. It felt too out of place otherwise.

Cultural differences aside, I thought it was a very beautiful film, and I think it had a lot to say about life in Kyrgyzstan. I just wish I had a better idea of how to contextualize it. I want to understand it better. Perhaps with a bit of time, I'll be able to find some reviews where people can do so far me, as I hope I am able to do with those films where I am able to help explain context for my readers.

Director: Christoffer Boe
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Languages: Danish

Everything Will Be Fine focuses on a scriptwriter named Jacob Falk who is working on a script for a new film about war. However, he is stuck in writer's block, and decides to go for a late night drive to clear his head, but ends up accidentally running over a young man. The man was a soldier in the war who pleads with Jacob to take his bag and hide it. Jacob drives off and calls in the accident from a pay phone, without identifying himself. Later, as he looks through the bag, he finds photos of gruesome acts of torture committed by Danish soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

What follows from here is a thriller about Jacob's attempts to get information about the photographs and find a way to make them public. While he is worried about the photos, his wife continually nags him to get their adoption request forms and check over them, but he continues to promise that he'll do it the next day.

Unfortunately, the photos are stolen from his car, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and violent as the authorities continue to deny everything and seem to be arranging things against him.

Everything Will Be Fine was definitely the most exciting of the films I saw. It was fast-paced and left you on the edge of your seat. The film also had some very impressive cinematography with a strong feeling for lighting effects, and the film frequently features lens flare as a defining element of its style. There are also some clever compositions. For example, when Jacob calls in about the accident, he notices a security camera at the gas station. Back at his hotel, the mural painted on the wall above the bed is of a security camera that happens to point directly at his head. This is just one instance where the film creates a mise-en-scène that reinforces Jacob's paranoid mindset.

The film also uses tilt-shift photography extensively, especially for establishing shots. For those unfamiliar with tilt-shift, it's a photography technique in which the focus area can be squashed in wide angle shots (shots from very far away). That kind of focus area is usually only possible with very close-up images, like if you take a close-up photograph of a small toy soldier or a fly on the wall. When you take tilt-shift shots of cities, you often get the illusion that it is a model town. You can check out some examples of it here.

In films, an establishing shot is a shot of the setting that places the following scene within some context. Think of an American TV show where they show the building where the action is going to take place for a split second before cutting to the actual action. It's a fairly common technique that helps us place scenes into some sort of geographical scene of space. If you're not completely aware of these shots, that's okay; they are such a common part of the filmic language that we tend to automatically read right through them the same way most people don't really pay attention to every time there is a cut in a film.

Anyway, by filming the establishing shots with tilt-shift, Eveything Will Be Fine begins to create an uneasy feeling. For one, these shots become more visible to the viewer and disrupt the ease with which we can "read" the film. Also, the film draws a connection between the real spaces in which the drama occurs and the model diaramas that Jacob uses while writing his scripts to help plot out action. The feeling is unsettling, as if the characters in the film are pieces in someone's chess game, being controlled from afar by some omniscient power. Again, the touches of paranoia and conspiracy are obvious. This was, perhaps, the film's strongest point, as it was able to gently play with all the elements to fully develop and materialize the mental landscape of Jacob's mind into the visual space of the film itself.

The film also features some major twists, as any good thriller should, with the biggest one coming, of course, at the end. The ending is satisfyingly mind-bending. Think something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where everything finally clicks and you want to go back and rewatch it to find all the clues you missed along the way. Everything Will Be Fine would be my second favourite film at the festival, I think, after Medal of Honor. I would certainly recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a good thriller.

13 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Saturday

While I really enjoyed Thursday and Friday and thought the movies were great, it wasn't an experience that immediately cried out, "This is a film festival!" Yes, it's true that I saw two very interesting and unique films that you would rarely get a chance to see in the theatre, but to an extent, it just felt like attending UW's weekly Cinematheque showings or the screenings by Gonzo Media at NMU. But then, I imagine this is how a lot of people experience the festival. Not everyone has the time to go out and see multiple films in one day, and instead it's just like your usual night out at the local cinema, only with a decidedly more "arthouse" slant than you'd normally get.

Saturday was different, though. I saw three films starting at 11:30 in the morning and continuing until about 8:00 at night. Of course, I had some down time in there, but in essence, my entire day was primarily concerned with watching films. This had a newer feel to it—a feel that I think is undeniably different from seeing just one film. No longer is it a piece of entertainment at the end of your day, but an integral part of the day itself. I have to say, as a film buff, that it felt good.

At any rate, I attended three films that Saturday: The Piano in a Factory, Medal of Honor, and A Somewhat Gentle Man. Interestingly, despite being from completely different countries and all having very different styles, all three shared a common interest in fathers and their attempts to connect with their children. Weird how it worked out that way, I suppose.

As a note, all of the following sections contain some spoilers about the films.

Director:Zhang Meng
Country: China
Languages: Mandarin

After years apart, accordion-player Chen Guilin's wife returns to request a divorce, as she wants to marry her new boyfriend, a man who became rich selling phony medicine as a homoeopathic cure. All she asks for in the divorce is custody of their daughter, Yuan, who is currently living with Guilin. Soon after, Guilin is caught sneaking his daughter into the local school at night so she can practice the piano and they are kicked out. Guilin paints piano keys on a piece of wood so that Yuan can still practice, but she complains that it doesn't make any sound. Guilin explains to her that if she is very quiet and listens very closely, she can hear the notes in her heart. He demonstrates by playing a melody on the fake keyboard, with the film's soundtrack gradually filling in the silence with a song played beautiful on a grand piano.

However, this gesture ultimately fails when Yuan decides that she will go with whichever parent can buy her a piano, a task far harder to accomplish for Guilin than his now wealthy wife. Still, he persists, trying first to borrow money from everyone he knows. However, when they fail to raise enough money, they decide in a night of drunkenness to steal the school's piano. The caper is likewise a failure, and Guilin seems to be all out of options. Unwilling to give up, he finally arrives at one finally possibility: to use the town's recently abandoned factory to build the piano from scratch. Though reluctant at first, all of Guilin's friends sign on board to the hair-brained idea which becomes the focal point of the rest of the film.

Hearing with your heart
Although The Piano in a Factory is invariably described as a drama, I have at times seen people also describe it as a comedy. The film is certainly a bit absurdist at times and certainly keeps a more light-hearted tone for the most part, but I'm not sure how much I would really call it a comedy. I guess I am not terribly familiar with Chinese comedies, so I could be wrong. However, I felt the dramatic elements had, at the very least, a stronger presence.

Ultimately, I think The Piano in a Factory is a very genuine and touching story about a poor father's desire to be able to provide for his child. In the end, his attempts are futile, as the piano is not completed before the divorce is finalized, and he loses custody of his daughter. Still, the attempt seems to have helped him come to terms with his lose, just as the town comes to terms with the loss of the factory and its prominent smoke stacks, considered by many to be a beloved landmark. Although there is no point in completing the piano, the friends do so anyway, and Guilin requests that his ex-wife bring Yuan to the factory so she can play it once. The piano, made almost entirely of recycled steel, is a clumsy thing with terribly crude sound quality. And yet, as she plays it, the soundtrack supplants its clumsiness with another beautifully performed piece on an expertly-crafted grand piano. It is impossible not to recall Guilin's previous words about hearing the music in your heart. The implication seems to be that, while on the surface the piano purchased by Yuan's mother may seem better, Guilin's piano has something more important—something that you can only hear with the heart.

Director: Călin Peter Netzer
Country: Germany, Romania
Languages: Romanian

The film begins with examples of the mundane existence of the elderly Ion I. Ion and his emotionally distant wife. They get their social security checks in the mail, complain about their apartment's heating, and try to avoid their landlord who is pestering them to pay their maintenance bill. And every time their son in Canada calls, his wife talks to him but never lets Ion listen in or talk to their son himself. However, their monotonous routine is suddenly broken when Ion receives a letter from the Romanian government stating that he is receiving a medal of honor for his heroic actions during WWII. Unable to recall any such actions, Ion originally raises objects with the government office and, upon receiving the medal, tries to sell it to a pawn shop, though the shop owner refuses to buy it.

Ion's own curiosity about the medal grows, and he begins pouring over all the old letters he sent to his wife during the course of the war. The only instance of any possible interest is one rather unassuming story: His troop came across a group of retreating Germans. One of the abandoned canons was still loaded, and Ion fired it at them, but didn't see what he hit, if anything. This must be it, he decides, but why? Did he hit something important? He begins to tell the story to everyone he encounters, and every time it grows larger and larger, until finally, he is linking his deed to the fall of Nazism itself.

As his story continues to grow, his problems seem to vanish. The landlord tries to get on Ion's good side by erasing his debt, hoping to take advantage of Ion's "prestige" for his own political reasons. Likewise, Ion's honor gives his family a reason to look up to him again. In fact, their son plans on returning to Romanian with his wife and child to see them again for the first time since he left many, many years ago. However, it comes to light that he received the medal due to a clerical error, and when he goes to protest, they forcefully grapples him and rip the medal from his chest. Distraught, he goes to find a similar medal at a pawn shop instead of going to the airport with his wife to pick up their son. When he finally gets back that night with the medal, everyone congratulates him on it at first, but then quickly forget all about it.

The final scene
This was my favourite film at the festival. It was a bit slowly paced, but I think the characters and emotions were very real and powerful. The pace gives you time to really get to know Ion as a person, and the entirety of the movie culminates in that final shot of Ion and his family. The camera is static, focusing on Ion and a bit of the family around him. They all compliment his medal at first and have the grandson look at it. The kid steals it from Ion and runs off with it, and although he does so as a playful act, it closely resembles the way that the government officials forcefully ripped his original medal from his shirt. You can see the moment of fear and panic in Ion's face, but then it softens. When his grandson gives it back, Ion tries to get the kid to hold on to it longer, but he's already distracted with something else. In fact, no one is paying attention to the medal any more. It's this moment when, wordlessly, Ion's face tells the full story. On his face I saw a final moment of realization. The medal is meaningless, and it always was. It doesn't matter. It wasn't the medal that he really wanted.

Director: Hans Petter Moland
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

Ulric is fresh out of jail after a 12 year sentence for murder, and although his warden warns him to constantly look forward once he's out and not back to his time in jail, Ulric ends up right back where he left off. His old boss meets up with him and gets him a place to stay and a job as a mechanic, but also begins to pressure him into "closing his account" with the man who testified against him in court.

However, it becomes clear that Ulric is, actually, more interested in redemption. He does his best at his job and begins to win the trust of the body shop's owner. Likewise, instead of tailing the man who betrayed him, he goes to try to reconnect with his son, who is currently living with his girlfriend. They are expecting a child, and Ulric's son does his best to distance himself from his father. He reveals that he told his girlfriend that his father died, but when he finally tells her the truth, she refuses to allow Ulric to visit them ever again.

Despite finally rejecting his old mob boss's attempts to get him to murder again, Ulric's life begins to crumble. His new landlady has a habit of cooking him free meals, a benefit Ulric greatly appreciates. However, she misinterprets his table manners for flirtation, and begins to push herself on him. Now, every time she brings him dinner, she expects sex, which is begin to strain his newly blossoming relationship with the secretary at the body shop, who he seems to genuinely like.

As pressures mount, more and more of those around him give up on giving him another chance to prove himself. Feeling abandoned by everyone in his life, Ulric finally agrees to his old boss's demand that he must kill the man who testified against him. However, when he goes to commit the dreadful deed, he finds himself still unable to kill again. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Ulric's old boss has been lying to him and taking advantage of him.

Without any options left, Ulric goes to tell his son that his father is dead, most likely contemplating suicide, but only the wife is at home, as the son is off on a fishing trip. As she is angrily turning Ulric away, her water breaks. Ulric offers to drive her to the hospital in the car he borrowed from his boss. She gives birth in the back of the car, with Ulric helping her through the pain, and she ultimately comes around. "Daddy was gone, but your grandpa was here," she tells her newborn, and then thanks Ulric for helping her when she needed it most. Ulric's only response is, "No, thank you."

Ulric goes back to his boss to tell him that he failed to kill the snitch. His boss notices the stain on the backseat and goes off on Ulric from ruining his car. Finally fed up with all his shit, Ulric shoots his boss in the head, stuffs him in the trunk, and has the car crushed as a garbage dump.

Nordic humour
If you read that and though that this story seems rather dark, you might be right, but you also have to realize that this movie was a comedy. I've spoken of this before, but the Nordic sense of humour is particularly dark and cynical. Of course, you also have to understand that in Nordic countries, comedy is a fairly regular part of most films, as comedy tends to sell well there.

Anyway, the characters here all had very distinct personalities with their own quirks. For example, the owner of the body shop has a tendency to suddenly go off on long, rambling tirades about things he strongly believes in but which are, of course, fairly basic, normal things not requiring nearly as in depth of a monologue. And of course, the landlady's advances are anything but coy. Quite bluntly, she drops trough and ironically states something along the lines of, "If you're want it so badly, fine, but just get it over with, okay?"

Overall, I liked it, though I felt like it could've been done a little better. The more dramatic moments felt genuine within the context of the movie, but could've been handled with a little more finesse. I guess when it comes down to it, the film was a lot like Ulric himself: a bit crude with a slightly skewed sense of justice, but deep down, it's heart is in the right place.

11 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Thursday and Friday

Unfortunately, my ability to attend the first three days of the festival was severely hampered by the fact that I work evenings. As such, I was completely unable to see any of the films screened on Wednesday, including Takashi Miike's chanbara 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku, Japan 2010), much to my dismay. Thankfully, the events stretched out a bit more on Thursday and Friday, affording me the time to see a film after work. In fact, I also had the time to see Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006), a documentary about a Danish comedy troupe touring, of all places, North Korea. However, when I went to purchase tickets, it was already sold out.

At any rate, the two films I did manage to get in on Thursday and Friday were Sasha and Troll Hunter respectively.

SASHA (SAŠA, 2010)
Director: Dennis Todorović
Country: Germany
Languages: German, Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian

At its core, Sasha is a comedy about conflicting cultures, with the main conflict occurring between the "machoistic" Yugoslavian family in which Sasha is raised and the gay community to which Sasha longs to be a part. This film would be hard to completely localize in America due to the focus on cultures, but I suppose a way to help people understand the basic conflict would be to compare the basic tension to the kind of tension you'd expect in a film about a family moving from Kentucky to San Francisco, and the youngest son is a closet homosexual.

The first scene of the film sets up the basic tension excellently. During a rest stop on the family's trip back to Germany from Montenegro, Sasha enters a convenience store that sells porno mags. The film opens at this moment, as Sasha glances over the "normal," hetero porn, then looks out the window at his family, then slowly wanders over to the gay porn. As he tries to surreptitiously pull one out to look at it, the door opens and he panics, causing the entire rack of magazines to fall onto the floor. He hurried tries to collect them, but thankfully the person who just entered is a worker, who tells Sasha not to worry about cleaning it up. "Do you want to buy this one?" she asks. Sasha blurts out, "No!" then, after a pause, gives a far more timid, "Yes."

Overall, the plot largely concerns Sasha's crush on his piano teacher Mr. Weber. When Weber tells Sasha that he has finally gotten a job as a professor in Austria, Sasha becomes incredibly distraught. He finally confesses his sexuality to his best friend, a Chinese girl named Jiao who (unbeknownst to him) has a crush on Sasha. However, after her initial disappointment and anger, Jiao proves to be a true friend and tells Sasha that he needs to tell Weber how he really feels. What follows is, largely, Sasha's quest to accept himself and find acceptance from those he loves and cares about.

Of course, this all sounds like quick the drama, and that's very much what I expected to get when I attended. Sure, there might be some humour here and there, but I imagined a lot of melodramatic scenes revolving around the relationships between the characters. What I got was far, far more comedic. In fact, even in the film's absolute darkest and bleakest moment, the film is still throwing out jokes. To put it bluntly, one of the characters could have just died, but the film is still cracking jokes. A lot of the humour is directly referencing Sasha's homosexuality, and the more subtle jokes involve a lot of irony. For example, while at a gay bar, Sasha gets punched in the face, splitting his lip. When he returns home, his father assumes Sasha got hurt while fighting to defend Jiao's honour (who the family believes is Sasha's girlfriend).

Some of the other jokes involve cultural differences. For example, their Bosnian uncle who is visiting to make repairs to their bathroom repeatedly mishears Jiao's name as the Serbo-Croatian word for "devil." This joke is further carried to Sasha's brother Boki, who gets a tattoo of a devil on his right shoulder and who just so happens to have a crush on Jiao. (Wow, there sure are a lot of crushes in this movie, huh?) There was also a bit of toilet humour, which could be the most universal humour as it got the biggest laughs at the festival.

Still, the humour does not get in the way of character development and interrelationships. In fact, the humour is the main way that the film explores these ideas, using it to create a more light-hearted atmosphere in which to explore the interaction between gay cultural and society as a whole. Overall, the film was very well done and seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and it's comedic take on the growing importance of gay culture in the world as a whole was well-executed.

Director: André Øvredal
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

As with Sasha, I was once again surprised by just how comedic this movie was. The film is described as a horror film in the mode of a mockumentary, but I'd say it's the other way around. The film seems far more interested in creating a humorous "documentary" about a man who hunts trolls then in actually scaring the audience, but obviously some tenser moments arise, considering how dangerous a job troll hunting must be.

The film begins with a college-based news crew filming a story about a rogue bear poacher who has been killing bears without the official license or sanction of the government. (Norway is a very nature-loving country, so only specialists are allowed to hunt bears, and only when the bear has been deemed a threat to humans.) The crew finds the suspected poacher and follows him across Norway, periodically trying to confront him. However, the man is very reserved and refuses to discuss anything. Finally, they follow him out one night as he leaves camp in his Jeep. When they finally catch up to him, he is running the opposite way. He screams, "TROLL! RUN!" What follows is one of the film's more frightening scenes, due in large part to the increased sense of confusion from the film crew, including the camera man (who is eternally our POV for the film). This scene in particular is the most evocative of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Having been found out, and feeling partly responsible for the fact that one member of the crew was bitten, the troll hunter Hans decides to allow them to continue filming what he does, if they still want to tag along, on the condition that they do everything he says. The crew agrees and the rest of the film focuses on Hans as he hunts trolls and tells the crew more about exactly what his job is.

As I said before, this film was much more comedic than I was expecting. Fans of horror cinema will likely not be particularly frightened or scared by the film, though I'm sure some people who are a bit jumpier may disagree with this comment. Still, it's far more of a parody of the "documentary" horror films than anything, so I would place it squarely in the genre of mockumentary. I'm not entirely sure how much of it was improvised, though certainly there would be a lot of room for ad libbing. You frequently feel like some of the conversations are done completely improv, with the actor playing Hans generating the "facts" about trolls as they go.

The audience seemed to appreciate a lot of the humour, though I sometimes wondered just how much and to what extent. For example, they make a rather obscure reference (for the United States, anyway) about a fairytale involving an eating contest with a troll, and the joke got its share of laughs. Did they catch the reference, or did they just catch the sense of timing that cues you in, "This is a joke"? Likewise, people seemed to enjoy Hans' stipulation that nobody Christian could come along because trolls can smell the blood of Christians. Culturally, Christianity (and religion in general) is on the decline in the Nordic countries, to the point where jokes about being ashamed of being a Christian are more socially relevant there than they would be in the States.

Interestingly, one joke flew in Madison far better than I'm sure it was intended to. At one point, the film crew asks Hans why he is letting them film. After all, it is a government job and he is committing treason by divulging these closely-guarded government secrets. He replies how the government job has shitty hours, shitty pay, and shitty benefits. Not surprising, given the current political climate in Wisconsin and in Madison in particular, this joke got huge roars of laughter from the audience.

Overall, Troll Hunter was probably the most outright entertaining film I saw at the festival and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a film with a bit more of an offbeat sense of humour.

07 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Overview

Last weekend I attended the Wisconsin Film Festival here in Madison and saw eight films: Sasha (Saša, Germany 2010), Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren, Norway 2010), The Piano in a Factory (Gang de qin, China 2010), Medal of Honor (Medalia de onoare, Germany 2009), A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann, Norway 2010), Le quattro volte (Italy 2010), The Light Thief (Svet-Ake, Kyrgyzstan 2010), and Everything Will Be Fine (Alting bliver godt igen, Denmark 2010).

The festival ran from Wednesday, March 30th to Sunday, April 3rd and showcased 211 different films from all over the world. The films were spread pretty evenly between the 9 participating theaters, which can be seen on this map. The longest walk would probably be from Monona Terrace to either of the two Memorial Union theaters, which would take less than half an hour and be just over a mile. Surprisingly, all but one of the films I attended were shown at the Orpheum theaters. The one odd film was the first film at the festival, Sasha, which was at the Play Circle Theater in the Memorial Union. I also had a ticket to see Cluny Brown (1946) at the UW Cinematheque as my ninth and final film, but decided to forgo it as I wasn't sure if I'd make it in time and my parents were coming in to visit that evening.

More or less on time
At any rate, the festival seemed to run pretty smoothly and it seemed like all the films being shown were high-quality, with the exception of a few "so bad it's good" style cult films generally appreciated for their unintentional humour and unusual styles. The volunteer staff all seemed rather friendly, at least at the theaters I visited, and the shows ran more or less on time. I say "more or less" because every show seemed to have a habit of starting about 5 minutes after the printed show time, at which point someone (usually festival director Meg Hamel) would introduce the film and run the short intro reel listing the sponsors and so forth. So, in general, the film itself would often begin a bit after the printed show time. Still, it was nothing major, and certainly a sign that things were well-run. There were no horror stories of the theater that got way off schedule, messing up everyone's plans.

Personally, I had built in at least a half hour between showings to allow myself to get to the next theater. And since most of the time, getting to the next theater meant walking out and immediately getting in line for the next show, I had plenty of time and usually managed to nab some prime seats. However, as I said before, the delay did contribute a little to my skipping Cluny Brown, though the largest deciding factor was that it allowed me to eat dinner with my parents.

Excellent staff and volunteers
Meg Hamel was the director of the festival, and I think she did an excellent job. She was always busy overseeing everything, and tried to introduce as many films as she could. And every time she did make an introduction, it seemed like she had personally watched the film. I don't know many many of the 211 films she had watched herself beforehand, but I'd wager it was a vast majority of them. She also helped create a nice, inviting atmosphere by chatting up the audience.

I will also say that I was impressed with the manager of the Stage Door Theater, who I initially met when I tried to go to my first film at that theater by entering through the Orpheum Main Theater doors. I was at first turned away and told I had to walk around to the other side of the building, but the Stage Door manager chased after me and said he could led me through the backstage areas so I wouldn't have to walk around the block. I saw him frequently when I went to showing at the Stage Door, and while seating people for the sold-out screening of Le quattro volte, he went around to all the seats known to be somewhat defective to make sure that the people were comfortable enough in them and tried to direct them to better seats if possible.

Really, the festival was an excellently run affair, and with a very wide and interesting range of films. It has a lot of potential, especially under the helm of Meg Hamel, to grow into a major film festival in the United States. However, it might need more and larger theaters to be able to attract and accommodate larger crowds. Likewise, a bigger push towards granting awards could help it become more relevant in the film community as a whole and attract more submissions.

At any rate, expect my reviews of the eight films I saw next week.

13 March 2011

Senses of Cinema: Devil's Island

My essay "Understanding the Socio-Political Background Behind Devil's Island" has been published by the online film quarterly Senses of Cinema. You can read it here.

09 March 2011

The Secret in Their Eyes

While waiting for In a Better World (2010, Hævnen) to become available, I finally got around to watching last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, El secreto de sus ojos). The film was Argentina's submission and beat out Germany's The White Ribbon (2009, Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte), France's A Prophet (2009, Un prophète), Israel's Ajami (2009), and Peru's The Milk of Sorrow (2009, La Teta Asustada).

Plot synopsis
The film, though not explicitly a mystery, certainly does borrow a lot from the mystery genre. The story follows a retired detective as he sets about writing a novel about an unresolved case involving the rape and murder of a young woman. The film oscillates between the present and his attempts to better understand the case as he writes and the past events of the case. Things unfold slowly, and there are certainly some twists, so I'll try to avoid spoiling too much.

The film begins with three stylistically shot scenes. First, we see a man leaving in a train, with a woman running after it. She catches up long enough to put her hand against the glass, with him doing the same. Then we see a new scene, accompanied by a voice over: "On June 21st, 1974, Ricardo Morales had breakfast with Liliana Coloto for the last time. For the rest of his life he'd remember every single detail of that morning: planning their first vacation; drinking tea with lemon for his nagging cough, with his usual lump and a half of sugar; the fresh berry jam he'd never taste again; the flowers printed on her nightgown; and especially, her smile. That smile like the sunrise, blending in with the sunlight on her left cheek."

Finally, there is a very brief, abrupt, and startling scene. It is composed of broken up shots with dutch angles and frantic camera movements. It shows the beginning of the rape.

Although unclear at first, we find out that all three of these scenes are pieces of the story that the detective, Benjamin Espósito, is trying to write. Currently, he has writer's block as he tries to figure out how to begin his novel. He seeks help from one of his old co-workers and unrequited love interest Irene Menéndez-Hastings, who tells him to just start at the beginning and go from there. And so, Espósito starts his story at the point where he first became involved in the case. The film follows from there in a logical fashion, unfolding the events as they happened, although it will occasionally jump back to the present, where Espósito does additional work and research and begins to understand the truth of the case better.

A life full of nothing
The film is thematically dense, addressing numerous intertwining concepts throughout the narrative. There are two quotes in particular that give a good sense of the kind of issues with which The Secret in Their Eyes is grappling.

The first is espoused by Espósito's partner and good friend, Pablo Sandoval. He says, "A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion." The other quote is repeated by numerous characters, and comes as a somewhat rhetorical question, "How does one live a life full of nothing?"

To be honest, the film never fully resolves these issues and ideas. It is more an exploration into the human condition. It seems to state that, as much as people might change, their "true character" never will. The question of "How does one live a life full of nothing?" is an existential one, and we see different characters trying to answer it for themselves.

On a side note, the film also seems to suggest that the judicial system in Argentina is highly flawed. Numerous times in The Secret in Their Eyes, justice is served not through the proper legal system, but by people disregarding the law to take matters in to their own hands. Likewise, the system itself is repeatedly shown to be corrupt and self-serving. I don't know if there is cultural significance to this or not.

Final thoughts
Overall, my favourite part of this movie were the characters. They were quite colourful. In particular, Sandoval was great. He is the prefect blend of scummy drunken low-life and wise and genuinely good underneath all the filth.

The film is, honestly, quite excellent, and I think it deserved to beat The White Ribbon for Best Foreign Language Picture. I would certainly recommend it to any fan of foreign cinema.

07 March 2011

The King's Speech

A few nights ago, I watched this year's winner for Best Picture, The King's Speech (2010), and I'm here now to let you know what I thought of it. It was good. It wasn't great. But it was good, and it's definitely an "Oscars" kind of film. By that, I mean that it may not really be remembered much in the future for any reason other than winning an Oscar.

For example, you may remember The English Patient (1996), but you're probably more familiar with a film that lost to it: Fargo (1996). Of course, this becomes more pronounced the further back in film history you go. I think we've all heard of Citizen Kane (1941), but did you know it lost the award for Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley (1941), which also beat out the proto-film noir The Maltese Falcon (1941)? I could list numerous other examples, but I don't want to bore you. I think you got the point. You just have to take the Academy Awards with a grain of salt.

Superbly acted
That said, I did enjoy The King's Speech. It was well-done. Not surprising (as actors make up the largest voting percentage), the acting in particular was superb. It's thus not surprising that Colin Firth won Best Actor, as he did very well, especially considering the fact that he also had to create a convincing stutter. The film did exceptionally well at other award ceremonies as well, especially in the area of acting. It also seemed to be quite popular at British award shows, which shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Afterall, the film is about one of their beloved monarchs, King George VI.

Human beings
However, that may be part of what I personally didn't like as much about this film. I tend to like movies about common, everyday people. Just look at some of my favourite films. Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) is about a middle-aged bureaucrat who finds out he has stomach cancer. Dagur Kári's Nói Albinói (2003) and Dark Horse (2005, Voksne mennesker) are both about aimless slackers. Bille August's Twist and Shout (1984, Tro, håb og kærlighed) is about regular teenagers learning about love, sex, and friendship in 1960s Denmark. Closely Watched Trains (1966, Ostře sledované vlaky) could be about a great soldier, giving that it's set during the end of WWII in Czechoslovakian and features resistance attempts against the German occupiers, but it largely focuses on a boy who just wants to get laid.

But The King's Speech? It's about a king, obviously. And for whatever reason, that made me not connect with him as much. I will admit that the plot, centering on his struggle with a speech impediment, does serve to humanize him a great deal. Still, it's a different feel. This isn't a movie saying, "Look at this fragile human being. They have a story to tell too," but rather, "Look at this great political figure. They are a human being too." It's still a nice story, but it just doesn't appeal to me as much. And really, at the end, I feel like that was the only real point behind this film: to humanize a king.

Final thoughts
All in all, I think I would've preferred that Black Swan (2010) win. I think it had a more compelling story and message. It challenged people to think about the concept of "perfection" and the lengths that artists will go to attain it. It was uneasy at times for a reason. Not just because of the more grotesque, surreal scenes, but because of what those scenes represented. The King's Speech was always so clean and safe. Even the long burst of swear words in one of the scenes is pretty tame, all things considered.

And, of course, I was secretly hoping for Toy Story 3 (2010) to win. I think it's a film that will stick with people of all ages. And those who are seeing it for the first time will find it continuing to have new things to say as they watch it again and again throughout the years. Plus, after Arcade Fire won Album of the Year, it would be nice to see something else win an award outside of the subcategory it would normally be confined to (Best Alternative Music Album for Arcade Fire, Best Animated Feature for Toy Story 3).

28 February 2011

83rd Academy Awards

Just a short blurb here about last night's Academy Awards. I didn't watch it as I don't have television, but I did familiarize myself with the results.

The King's Speech seems to be the biggest winner, with four awards including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director awards, as well as Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. I must admit that I have not seen this film yet. Personally, I was actually kind of hoping that Toy Story 3 would win Best Picture, if for the very fact that I don't recall an animated feature ever winning that category, and that it's honestly the one movie that was in the running that I would honestly consider owning one day.

At any rate, Inception tied with The King's Speech in the number of awards, but not in the level of "prestige." All four of its awards fall in the technical categories with Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. I have seen Inception, and while it was certainly entertaining, it was a far more technically impressive film than anything else, so none of this is too surprising. That said, I think Black Swan had better cinematography, personally.

However, there was one place where I was really, really hoping for "my" film to win, and it did. Yes, the only category at the Academy Awards that I really care about is Best Foreign Language Film. Not because I am so snooty as to think that foreign films are the only things worth watching and that American films are all garbage. No, it's because the rest of the categories won't really change what kind of movies we see. Not in any major capacity, anyway. However, countries that win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film often gain a larger American audience in the years following their win.

So what am I getting at? Well, in case you missed it, In a Better World (Hævnen) won the award for Denmark, but I wouldn't be surprised to see all Nordic nations getting a bit of a boost from this. After all, Nordic films are often international productions between numerous countries, and then attributed to the nation that, essentially, originated the idea. In a Better World was financed by both Denmark and Sweden, as well as the Nordisk Film-Fond, an international company that funds films from all of the Nordic countries. As such, the film features both Danish and Swedish actors who speak their native language to each other (the Nordic languages are similar enough that they could almost be considered very distinct dialects).

At any rate, I'll be watching In a Better World as soon as it becomes available on Netflix and letting you know what I think. I'll also be excited to see the influx of Nordic films to the States that this award will likely bring.

Oh, and I figure I might as well mention it here: My essay "Understanding the Politics of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Devil's Island" is going to be published in the new issue of Senses of Cinema, and online film quarterly. I'll be sure to let you guys know when it goes up.

25 February 2011

A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism

Recently, I sat down and watched Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's documentary A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism (Sólskinsdregurinn, a.k.a. The Sunshine Boy, 2009). Although Friðriksson began his filmmaking career in the '80s with a series of documentaries, A Mother's Courage makes his first return to the format in almost 25 years. Of his early documentaries, the best-known (and the only one I have actually seen) is Rokk í Reykjavík (Rock in Reykjavik, 1982).

However, A Mother's Courage also places itself among some of Friðriksson's more recent feature films in its focus on mental illness. In 2000, he made Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), a film adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by the author Einar Guðmundsson (who also wrote the film's script). The novel and book are both based on the life of Einar's schizophrenic brother Pálmi (renamed Páll in the book and film). Also, following on the heels of A Mother's Courage is Friðriksson's 2010 film Mamma Gógó (2010), another semi-autobiographical work in which his mother struggles with Alzheimer's disease.

A more realistic touch
I had seen both Angels of the Universe and Mamma Gógó before watching A Mother's Courage, so I was curious about how he would handle the subject of autism in this film. The two feature films were rife with Friðriksson's style of surrealism that delicately challenges our notion of reality. For example, there is a scene in Angels of the Universe where Páll appears to be hovering above his bed. Then, the camera rotates and we realize that the bed is propped against the wall and Páll is standing next to it. Likewise, in Mamma Gógó, we are present for various delusional scenes in with Gógó, in her confusion, believes that she sees her dead husband. In one scene, we hear running water. The dead husband wakes her up. And she steps out of bed into a large puddle of rising water that is slowly flooding the room. We wonder, at first, "Is this part of the delusion as well? Or is this real and she has accidentally left the water running?"

However, given that A Mother's Courage is a documentary and not a feature, he never played with our sense of reality like that. I can understand why. Documentaries are, by definition, more "real" than features. Still, part of me hopes that he would've found a way to sneak a few scenes in here and there that began to bend our understanding of just what is "real." In his two features, these scenes give us a glimpse into the reality of its subjects. It gives us a clearer understanding of what life must be like to them. I felt like he never fully attained this in A Mother's Courage. Perhaps the closest is a scene where we watch Keli (the "Sunshine Boy" and son of the "Mother") struggle to walk down a flight of stairs. The narrator explains to us that Keli's visual senses becoming easily overloaded, and as such he largely uses hearing and touch to navigate his world. However, when he is in a new environment and needs the visual cues to help him navigate, he becomes easily lost and confused. The stairs in question look oddly isolated in this shot, and his facial expressions help to give us a small window into his mind.

Overall, the cinematography is as starkly real as in Rokk í Reykjavík.

I think I found the use of music the most interesting in this film. Much of the soundtrack is composed of songs by Sigur Rós, though Björk provides the track "Human behavior" as well. Although the music primarily serves to add to the overseas market (Björk and Sigur Rós are the most well-known Icelandic musicians internationally), I found the choice of music also had some interesting cultural significance as well.

If I remember correctly, the film begins with the Sigur Rós song "Svefn-g-englar," the music video for which featured autistic theatre performers. Overall, Sigur Rós is perhaps one of Iceland's most introverted band. They are notorious for their awkward interviews, in which they squirrel around and dodge questions. I suppose this may have changed a bit lately, but they can still be a bit eccentric in their interactions with the media.

At any rate, their cultural presence and musical style often evokes a certain introverted, almost "autistic" feeling that blends well with the subject of the film. Björk, who is certainly eccentric but hardly introverted, fits in well due to the lyrics of the song. "Human behavior" begins with these words:
If you ever get close to a human
And human behavior
Be ready to get confused
There's definitely no logic
To human behavior
It also describes the illogical nature of human emotions, saying, "They get terribly moody / Then all of a sudden turn happy."

At any rate, all the music ends up coming full circle during the film's final scene, in which Keli is finally able to communicate through the help of his teacher in order to tell his mother that he wants to learn to play the piano, as he has songs inside his head that he wants to let out.

Final conclusion
The film is certainly interesting and worth watching, though it also falls a bit into a niche market of those specifically interested in mental disorders and autism. The American release's change in title definitely gears itself more towards to this niche market. I find The Sunshine Boy a much more intriguing title, though I suppose it's less specifically descriptive for a market that is far less familiar with Friðriksson's name. However I think it shifts attention from Keli himself and his attempts to express himself and onto the mother's attempts to understand him.

Of course, they may have also renamed it to avoid any possible conflict with the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys.