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Day 2

BORDER (Gräns)

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), the new film by Ali Abbassi centers on the coming of realization story of Tina (Eva Melander), an unusual-looking female border guard (with a Snow White’s affinity for forest animals) with a strange talent for smelling out criminal behavior . . . literally. When she encounters another strange “bedfellow,” she comes to realize her own DNA is not so human after all and that her life has been anything but normal (unbeknownst to her, the DNA she possesses draws her to the woods she frequents). Soon she finds out that her own upbringing has helped her bridge the divide between her true identity and the human world; and, those creatures who truly embody her alien genes are anything but the model of ethics she has embraced (tepidly, at least) for herself. The story ends with a cliffhanger and opens the door to a continued second part where her new-found identity will change her capacity to parent.

The inspiration for the film comes from a novella by Let The Right One In creator John Ajvide Lindqvist. It is a “blend of social realism and Scandi fantasy,” finding “Abbasi luxuriates in gritty, seedy texture, luscious woodland settings and impressive prosthetics.” Absurd in its grotesque eccentricities, some things were left desired — not least, a deeper dive into the underlying fantasy fiction and a further disconnect from the crime realities that Tina embodies as a Jessica Jones-type hero conveniently uncovering the culprit in her own backyard. Where del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth blended fantasy and reality with utmost precision, Border felt like a disconnected uncertainty stuck between the borders of two running narratives without the creative spin to organically entangle the two.

Finally, it managed to connect well with a theme prominent in today’s films, as noted by Jordan Ruimy (The Playlist), who describes its bearing “social and political subtexts [that] . . . parallels to the world’s growing antipathy and intolerance for immigrants and refugees.” The single profound lesson (as explained by Abbasi when I asked during the Q&A) that audiences can readily draw is the importance of context on the softening of heart.

Word to the wise: if you see the film, do it on an empty stomach and leave the kids at home.

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RATING: C+

DOVLATOV

A snap-shot into 6-days  of the life of famed Soviet dissident writer, Sergei Dovlatov, and his struggles to overcome the bleakness of his circumstantial placement and the ideological conformity demanded of him from the gatekeepers of literary success. We see his friendship with the outcast writers, poets, and painters of the Soviet underground who seek to “corrupt” their minds with the literary and artistic greats, while joining in being made the suppression of their art-form until its musings conform to the tune found palatable by the “ministry of culture.”

The film is technically sound, although perhaps too safe in its minimalist use of music. The screenplay is brilliant, although largely lost on the lay-audience that won’t understand the many references being made “to 20th-century literary giants from Yevtushenko and Mandelstam to Steinbeck and Nabokov.” Personal to me, it has a powerful underlying message that reverberates throughout academia today (most recently in Brown University) concerning the power of the will to remain faithful to one’s vision when the gatekeepers are content to waste the talents of the youth on propaganda (same with Cold War).

Because I speak the language, I find myself more fully able to enjoy Russian films because the subtitles do little justice to the actual language.

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RATING: B-

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The new film from Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) takes the story of Lee Israel, whose failure to keep a job and create novel content to restore her former glory days “forces” her to engage in criminal behavior to pay the bills by forging personal letters from literary icons like, e.g., Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward or Edna Ferber. While mildly amusing, this act becomes repeative and the story’s hopelessly predictable narrative makes the experience unbreable once the flat comedy of Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty takes an aging tumble into redundancy. The boredom in the theatre was palpable and the humor relied almost exclusively on the deliver of Melissa McCarthy and co-star Richard E. Grant, who play the same-ol tropes seen time and time again.

McCarthy = the troubled foul-mouthed drunk writer that harbors a proclivity towards animals over people. We’ve already seen this done much better in As Good As It Gets and Heller brings nothing new to the table.

Grant = the eccentric outgoing homosexual who faces the consequences of his sexual indiscriminancy, which is basically most depictions of gay men today and Heller brings nothing new to the table.

Since both of its main characters are gay, the film will enjoy its usual inflated reviews. Already beginning with Stephen Farber (The Hollywood Reporter) who found the film to be a “surprisingly rewarding dramedy,” which I could only agree with to the extent of the film rewarding the audience by finally ending. It would have done the movie wonders if the writers simply took the J. Peterman approach, left the story of Lee Israel alone, and bought a bundle of forged stories from more interesting personalities.

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RATING: D+

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