Grace is gone
I saw this movie only because it had one of my favourite actors in it. Imo, John Cusack is always worth seeing and his performance in Grace is gone is good, but not his best. He plays a character that I would probably have found infuriating in the hands of a lesser actor. Stanley Philips met his wife Grace in the army, but his bad eyesight meant that he couldn't serve his country as she did--by going to Iraq. Instead he stays at home and looks after their two girls. When Stanley learns that Grace has been killed, he goes into shock, unsure how to break the news to his daughters, and he takes them on a strange roadtrip instead.
It's a relatively simple movie, made stronger for me by the performance of the actor playing eldest daughter, Heidi. At twelve-and-a-half, Heidi's emerging out of childhood, whereas younger daughter Dawn retains a childlike enthusiasm for life. Heidi is self-conscious, introspective, suspicious. She suffers from insomnia and she clues on that there's something her father isn't telling her. Her relationship with her father is awkward at the beginning of the movie. In the course of the journey she gets to see a slightly different side to her stern, controlling father. This could have been the subject matter of a painfully melodramatic telemovie, but Grace is gone is actually a very quiet, restrained movie, with it's strength lying in the intimacy of the performances.
Despite the subject matter, it's not heavily political. Stanley's student brother doesn't share his patriotism and he provides a voice of contention, but for the most part this is a story about a family dynamic, rather than a political statement. I don't imagine it being immensely popular, but it's a decent, well-made movie and I rather enjoyed it.
Azur et Asmar
The program this year included some childrens' movies for the first time, and I picked out this one from the program. I like well made childrens movies, but we so rarely get to see any from anywhere but the US. The animation in Azur and Asmar highly stylised--if you're used to Pixar, it's pretty clunky--and the movie took a little while to get going, but I ended up greatly enjoying this fable.
Blond, fair, blue-eyed Azur and dark, brown-eyed Asmar grow up together in Azur's country. Azur is nursed by Asmar's mother, and the two play and compete with one another, considering each other both equals and rivals, until the day when Azur's father decides to send Azur off to school. As adults they reunite in Asmar's country, where they both seek out the fabled Djinn Fairy and hope to win her hand in marriage.
The aesthetic in Asmar's land is gorgeous--ornate, tiled palaces, spice markets and brightly coloured dresses brighten the screen. My favourite character was the Princess of Asmar's land, a highly educated and confident child, eager to see beyond her palace walls. She was an absolute delight. The movie is pitched at young kids so the symbolism is all pretty overt, but its message of racial and religious tolerance is one that should be welcomed. The final scene was both funny and heart-warming, even for adults.
I don't know what possessed me to see this movie. OK, it was recommended to me, but I still should have known better. But every year I always manage to find at least one excruciatingly boring movie, as well as the unexpected gems. This was the year's borefest. The plot, for what it was worth, goes something like this: old man decides to die and writes a letter to his various family members telling them of this. They're all caught up in their own traumas (infidelity, depression, alcoholism, general ennui) and react with ... lethargy. It's one of those arthouse-style movies where no-one is clearly introduced (I spent most of the movie trying to work out how everyone was related), where there isn't a lot of dialogue (lots of shots of people staring into space blankly) and where 'realism' is conjured via scenes shot in pokey, dark apartment buildings. There was an emphasis on domesticity and intimacy in this movie, which I think was meant to show the way the characters were interdependent at various stages in life, but which just felt icky rather than interesting or deep. For example, one recurring motif was the sponge-bath-in-bed: mother sponges down child, changes sheets for lover; later in movie child and lover tend for mother as she has a breakdown; and finally mother, grandfather and child tend to dead body of great-grandfather. You see what I mean about ick?
The only moment I enjoyed to any degree in this movie was one scene where the younger (adult) daughter who suffers from depression talks to camera about being afraid to go anywhere for fear that she'll cry and people will stare at her pityingly. I've never seen that form of depression (excessive, uncontrollable crying) portrayed so clearly on film before, and since it's something I used to live with constantly, I naturally appreciated it. That was 30 seconds. The rest was rubbish.
Two minutes before the end of the movie, the film gave out. The audience groaned collectively and we got to bitch about the movie for ten minutes or so while we were left (literally) in the dark as to whether it was really the end of the movie or not. Arthouse movie: You can never be too sure. ;-) Verdict: it wasn't, but it may as well have been. Yawn.