Saturday, February 11, 2012


Patagonia does something that's become quite common in contemporary cinema; it attempts to tell parallel stories based around a single theme.  Like with Robert Altman's Nashville, pretty much the model for how this structure works, director Marc Evans (Snow Cake) chooses to make the setting of his film the lead character; in this case, the South American region referenced in the title.

As an audience, we're allowed to watch as two separate couples travel the land; one a romantic pairing (Nia Roberts and Matthew Gravelle) that drifts apart as the story develops, another a young man, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) tricked into voyaging to Patagonia with his elderly neighbor, Cerys (Marta Lubos).  

The latter tale is the more interesting of the two and I couldn't help wishing that Evans had chosen to focus only on Alejandro and Cerys' journey.  The other story arc comes off as overly soapy in a film where the tone doesn't justify the dramatic excesses of the material, resulting in a film that feels more than a little schizophrenic at times.  Even though you can easily guess how Alejandro and Cerys' story will end, it's lovely to watch as the two meander through Patagonia, searching for the farm where Cerys' mother used to live.

Patagonia will screen for the public at the Lake Twin Cinema today (Feb. 11th) at 8:30pm and at Pioneer Place 5 on Feb. 14th at 8:45pm  A final screening will occur on Feb. 16th at Cinemagic at 6pm.

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Philippe Faladeau's Monsieur Lazhar travels well-trodden cinematic ground; it's easily filed into the inspirational teacher genre, of which there are already some fairly successful models out there (To Sir, with Love and Stand and Deliver come to mind).  So it's nice to see that what could have been yet another by-the-numbers entry is, in fact, an intelligent and humanistic look at a group of students and the adults mentoring them through the healing process in the wake of a tragic event.

Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) is a man who has recently immigrated to Quebec from his Algerian homeland.  He shows up at the elementary school where most of the action of the film takes place, seeking to replace a teacher who has recently died.  While the circumstances behind Bachir's move are complicated, they make him the ideal candidate for dealing with a classroom packed full of children who have recently experienced their own loss.

While Fellag is wonderful in the film, exuding both deep sorrow and empathy, often in the same moment, the children's performances are amazingly nuanced as well.  This is especially true of the work of Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron, both of whom fearlessly project a complexity beyond their years.

Monsiuer Lazhar is an excellent film with an emotional core that has the potential to resonate for all ages (however, younger children might have difficulty with the themes or the fact that the film is subtitled).  In many ways, it reminded me of Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor, another film that tackles difficult subject matter in an optimistic fashion without attempting to declaw the more troubling emotional aspects at play.

Monsiuer Lazhar will screen for the public at the Lake Twin Cinema today (Feb. 11th) at 3pm and at the Lloyd Mall 6 on Feb. 13th at 6:15pm  A final screening will occur on Feb. 15th at Pioneer Place 5 at 8:45pm.

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When writing during PIFF 34 about Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times), I noted that every year there's at least one film at the festival that seems to come out of nowhere, surprising me to no end and causing me to wonder how it escaped being caught up in the festival-circuit hype machine.  This year, Café de Flore is that film.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria), this French-Canadian import had me aware that I was watching a truly great film in the first fifteen minutes, something that always makes me nervous, worrying about the path that the rest of film will take, hoping that the delicate balance struck by the filmmakers doesn't dissipate before the end credits crawl across the screen.

Café de Flore did not disappoint.  Vallée is unapologetic in his attempts to wow the audience with the sheer audacity of how he intends to tell the story.  His technique is an invigorating mixture that pulls from familiar scenarios; a man who regrets where his choices have led him, while pushing the tale with a structure that offers unique thrills throughout.

At the beginning of the film, we're introduced to three characters: Antoine (Kevin Parent), Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) and Carole (Hélène Florent).  Thanks to the fact that dreams are heavily involved in the story; one of the three characters is a somnambulist, it's initially unclear if all of the characters are real, due to the disruptive nature of the quick shifts between sleeping and waking states and Vallée's clever use of differing color palettes.  This ambiguity, coursing through the whole of the picture, heightens the storytelling beyond the base realities of the lives portrayed.  The result is a film that dares the audience to care; a drama with all the dressings of a tense thriller.

I'll be very surprised if I am still not raving about Café de Flore at the end of the year.  So far, I've seen twenty-four of the features programmed for this year's festival.  Of that number, Café de Flore easily rests in the top three overall.

Café de Flore will screen for the public at the Lake Twin Cinema on Feb. 11th at 5:30pm and at the Lloyd Mall 5 on Feb. 13th at 6pm  A final screening will occur on Feb. 20th at the Cinema 21 at 7:30pm.

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