Norway, 2015. AKA De nærmeste. Directed by Anne Sewitsky. Starring Ine Wilmann, Simon J. Berger, Anneke von der Lippe, Silje Storstein. 106 minutes.

Charlotte (Ine Marie Wilmann) teaches dance to young children in Oslo. One day, a man (Simon J. Berger) visits her at her studio. “I just wanted to have a look at where you work,” he tells her, but he soon turns hostile: “I don’t quite understand what you’re up to. You were sneaking around my house, looking in…both you and your self-possessed mother should stay away, get it? Go to hell!”

“Who was he?” asks Marte, her best friend. Charlotte’s response: “My brother.”

This revelation comes as a bit of a shock: this is the first time we see Charlotte’s brother (actually half-brother), whose name is Henrik, and the first time we hear of her or her mother visiting his house. This is representative of Homesick’s biggest flaw: its director and co-writer, Anne Sewitsky, provides some backstory but little context for the characters’ behavior. Charlotte certainly seems troubled: she rants to her therapist about how she hates her mother; at Marte’s wedding, she filches a family heirloom. But how her past experiences resulted in her present state of mind remains vague, like an equation you can’t quite resolve.

Charlotte and Henrik soon overcome their awkwardness and become closer. Despite Henrik being married with a child and Charlotte being in a relationship–with Marte’s husband’s brother, a musician away on tour–the two become lovers. Henrik leaves his wife, never to appear or be mentioned in the film again, the screenplay having no further use for her. Sewitsky keeps all the characters at an emotional distance from the audience. We never see deep enough into their psyches to understand why they do the things they do.

Sewitsky offers up enough positives to keep the audience engaged: enchanting location work that reflects the characters’ inner coldness, a moody score provided by Ginge Anvik. Willmann, Berger, Anneke von der Lippe (Charlotte’s mother Anna), and Silje Storstein (Marte) all turn in fine performances; pity they weren’t given more to work with.

As a film, Homesick is as cold as a Scandinavian winter; pretty to look at, but something I could never really warm up to.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

The Waiting Room

The Waiting Room

Canada, 2015. Directed by Igor Drljača. Starring Jasmin Geljo, Filip Geljo, Maša Lizdek, Ma-Anne Dionisio. 92 minutes.

Once there was a country in southeastern Europe named Yugoslavia. It was part of the communist eastern bloc, and when that bloc fell, Yugoslavia fell with it. Armed conflicts raged across those lands for the decade following. At least six states now exist where once was only one, and their history has not been quiet.

The Waiting Room doesn’t need to show us footage of the civil war waged in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 to make us understand the shadow it casts over its protagonist. Jasmin (Jasmin Geljo) was a successful actor in Sarajevo when the war broke out, and he and his first wife fled to Toronto. He makes plain his dissatisfaction with his life in Canada. He appears on stage in a Bosnian comedy revue, but his career as a mainstream actor, relegated largely to bit parts as criminals, has stalled, and he works construction to pick up the slack. His first wife lies dying; he he keeps an emotional distance from his second wife; he’s not entirely sure how to relate to his young son and teenage daughter.

With The Waiting Room, director Igor Drljača paints a distinctly ambiguous portrait of the immigrant experience. Jasmin’s latest role–in an art installation set during the Bosnian War, as the patriarch of a vacationing family–causes him to consider his place in both his native and adopted cultures. Jasmin has no love for the West, seeing it as weak and lacking in discipline. He expresses no interest in communism, but admires the iconic Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito for his leadership qualities. He sees his life in Sarajevo before the war as something of a golden age, and longs to return; he has no capacity to comprehend why his children have no wish to visit Bosnia.

While the film often meanders–it certainly doesn’t seem to have much of a plot—it allows Drljača to paint a distinct, detailed portrait of its subject, a story told in long takes with starkly beautiful cinematography and set to a hypnotic, ambient score. Jasmin is the proverbial “man out of time,” unable to fully settle in his current surroundings, but equally unable to return to an idealized past. His past successes and present regrets often seem more real than his actual life. Actor Jasmin Geljo, who also co-wrote, brings a frank realism and pathos to the lead role that brings the character to life in the viewer’s mind.

With The Waiting Room, Igor Drljača provides a window into the upheaval of the early ’90s and its ongoing cultural hangover. Part of the purpose of art is to allow us to make better sense of our world by allowing us into the worlds of others, and on that count, The Waiting Room is a success.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars

United States/Canada, 2014. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon. 115 minutes.

Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.

The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.

It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.

Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.

While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.