A considerable improvement on its original iteration from the better part of two decades prior, The Barbarian Invasion feels more weighty and sincere than The Death of the American Empire as it contemplates death and life together, dealing in tragedy, love, friendship, and dismay in equal measure. There is a genuine sense of unpredictability in the story, with Rousseau's Sébastien unexpectedly hatching a scheme to source heroin by asking police officers, and then an unusual detour into the commercial value of art salvaged from churches as a discussion on the collapse of Catholicism in Quebec. There is a clear utility of the unique aspects of the film's setting, as well, with pointed criticisms of domestic healthcare featuring prominently alongside the views deep in a lakefront paradise.
While the film does a good job building up a barbed but sincere sense of love among friends and family, there is still a weight pulling it down - the presentation of our returning cast of characters as the enlightened literati, lamenting the downfall of intelligence in society with their chummy, synchronized quotes and self-reflection. Seeing the full experience come to a conclusion is actually made all the better by the prior film's sense of superficiality, but it's still hard to relate to this group of highly promiscuous, wine-swirling former radicals. Perhaps it's simply a generation gap, and I'll appreciate the subtleties more with age. (3.5/5)
The Decline of the American Empire feels very much like a Quebec adaptation of The Big Chill - a group of close friends candidly discussing their personal lives, trading drama, quips, and clever remarks in an attempt to make the audience feel as if they are in on it all. But much like the Kasdan film, Decline simply seems to use its subject matter alone to appear novel; "here are a bunch of middle-aged well-to-do everymen/women laughing while speaking openly about sex, affairs, homosexuality, swinging, etc. How liberated and sincere!" It feels like cheap indulgence in the way that high school dramas with commentaries on sex do for teens, just for the bourgeoisie academic/film crowd instead. While there is actually something of a reckoning in Decline compared to The Big Chill, with consequences for actions taken (which is a step in the right direction), it also has this stuffy atmosphere to it that can make the film feel off-putting, ripe with pseudointellectualism and a very 'French' identity.
The kind of film where you can see why it is to some people's tastes, and not others. Where some may see an insightful take on gender conflicts and sexuality in the modern day, others may see actors just gleefully talking about banging, and a director patting himself on the back for being "so authentic". (2.5/5)
"The women are having a demonstration! Run away!"
- Current frontrunner for this year's most unintentionally funny line in a drama, without context.
What Wadjda would later be to an emerging Saudi film industry, Osama was to shifts in the culture of Afghanistan - the first film to be shot entirely in-country in years. However, where Saudi Arabia was seeking to establish itself in international cinema, Siddiq Barmak was trying to reclaim a tradition that had been suppressed under the Taliban, and it shows in his filmmaking here: Osama is a harsh criticism of the authoritarian practices of militant Islam, treating its hardline doctrine as inhumane and cruel. As a film itself, Osama is capable if a bit simple, but that can be forgiven when the themes explored are relevant and include valid criticism. The most compelling aspect of the film is not so much culture shock as it is 'era shock'; it's easy to mentally file away the fact that even today governments exist that vehemently defend practices that many would consider extremely antiquated at best, but Osama forces you to confront the reality that many of the rights and morals that we might consider innate are not necessarily shared by others.
Props for ending on such a solemn note, instead of opting for some sort of 'hopeful inner rebellion' to highlight the strength of Golbahari's Osama; the point is that the Taliban enforces backwards religious tenants at the expense of basic human rights, and that can't be whitewashed. (3.5/5)
While the body horror elements that are most closely associated with Cronenberg are not really on display here, Dead Ringers demonstrates the writer-director's understanding of the unsettling in a way that doesn't resort to gross-out extremes.
In his dual performance, Irons stars as both Elliot and Beverly Mantle, identical twin gynecologists who have met with success as a result of their comprehensive technical understanding of the profession, but also remain morbidly aloof rather than caring. Their ability to see others as objects of curiosity is what differentiates and distinguishes them, while also robbing them of the warmth that the audience would certainly expect in a medical professional; Cronenberg takes advantage of the trust people are forced to give physicians, and makes them wonder what they could be capable of when the sedative kicks in. Adding to this premise is the twins' strange co-dependency, each forming distinct personalities but largely incapable of functioning without the other thanks to years of shared development. When this bond is subject to external forces by their relationships with Bujold's Claire, their once-stable chemistry becomes increasingly volatile and disturbed.
Appropriately chilling, Dead Ringers benefits from two major features - Irons' performance(s) and Cronenberg's design. Irons masterfully differentiates the twins (otherwise identical) with these careful physical mannerisms and line delivery; the plot is entirely reliant on how the pair are distinct yet complementary, so this relationship ends up being vital to the film's execution, and it feels totally genuine. Supporting Irons' well-received performance is the set design and costuming, which carry significance and power without the director's better-known shock value. The cold and unfeeling modern aesthetics of the Mantles' office and apartment is a reflection of their analytical and innovative, yet also unfeeling personalities, while the scrubs in blood red bring to mind some sort of medieval religious rite.
Cronenburg hits all the right notes with this one; perhaps it's a bit dragged-out for my own tastes and Bujold's character feels somewhat left behind, but otherwise a strong psychological thriller. (3.5/5)
A well-designed depiction of the changes in midcentury China told through the experiences of a single family, Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite is not particularly inventive, despondent, or overpowering, but it was (and remains) plenty subversive in the director's native country. Depicting the personal struggles of a family suffering as a result of the poorly conceived initiatives of the Chairman Mao era, the government even in the '90s saw this retrospective as a threat to the national consciousness; recognizing poor leadership and the negative effects of a cult of personality was still not an accepted practice, and today you would still be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker that would make a bleak nonfiction account of China's turbulent history without a government representative making sure that the themes weren't too threatening. Instead, it's been easier to market Jet Li (et al.) beating up a revolving door of foreign invaders during the 'Century of Humiliation' than to accept that domestic shortcomings existed.
Good set design, great costuming, and solid performances bring The Blue Kite up from just a geopolitically relevant drama. While most of the characters are what you might expect from protagonists - unassuming and well-intentioned, and thus easy to root for - the film does a good job making them seem empathetic and appropriately tragic. The scenes of childhood in the region and era would get a much more subtle treatment among some of Tian's Taiwanese contemporaries, but The Blue Kite largely accomplishes what it sets out to do. More revealing than the film itself, is how strong the domestic backlash to it has been. (3.5/5)