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The Other Half is an impressionistic piece of debut filmmaking, a practice in turning the unconventional dramatic methods of great directors into a doctrine for newer ones. Despite Justin Klein showcasing a deft, confident hand behind the camera and Tatiana Maslany, staunch as always, showing complete devotion to the material, I find myself in a deadlock between respecting what the film tries to accomplish, tonally and aesthetically, and mourning what it lacks in genuine feeling. In a post-screening interview, Justin Klein (with Tatiana Maslany) states that The Other Half is partly autobiographical, a fact alone that puts an intriguingly intimate perspective behind what choices were made in the filming process. Unfortunately Klein feels too overtly precise his approach and too self-conscious in his design for the complex and vivid emotions he captures on the screen to really manifest outside of it.
The story is about a romance between a bipolar woman (Tatiana Maslany) and a traumatized man (Tom Cullen) unable to recover after the recent disappearance of his younger brother. The pairing feels like a total mismatch, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. But Klein gives the romance such a tepid safeness and dignified restraint it almost becomes a non-factor that the two simply aren’t good for each other. The best moments in the movie are isolated incidents, the best probably is when we see Maslany plunge totally into a different state of mind. Her parents’ “not this again” reaction is equally unsettling. Klein seems to have total control of The Other Half, for better or worse. It’s pure sensory overload, we get a real feel for how overwhelming and closed-in his characters feel. Unfortunately, Klein never actually translates the emotion of his characters into legible dramatic storytelling. His adherence to the specificities of mental illness is impressive, but his inability to mine it for compelling drama makes The Other Half a formalistic experiment.
The Winner of the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is the best film to win it in the last three years (which isn’t saying much). This black-and-white boxing (non-boxing) feature may look and mimic the visual qualities of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) but at heart it’s Rocky (1976). Olli Mäki is a through-and-through underdog film about life’s small victories. For Olli Mäki, romances, friendships and good times trump championships and fame. His trainer and personal manager believes otherwise, pushing him to attend press events and expensive dinners. When the time comes he even forces Olli to cut dangerously below his weight range to qualify for their upcoming world title fight with legendary American boxer, Davey Moore.
Without knowing this film was based on a true story I don’t think its ultimate message would have hit as hard. Olli Mäki was a real fighter, and he actually boxed Davey Moore for the featherweight world champion (although I won’t reveal the outcome of the bout). Before the title match he had an impressive record boxing in the amateur division (A.K.A. he beat bums willing to take a beating for a meal). Olli’s time in the big league was short-lived and underwhelming, but the movie is anything but. Delicately produced and softly melancholy, Olli Mäki is a moving and funny takedown of the examined life and pictorial eulogy of the unexamined one. It’s sweet and unassuming message may be something boxing films have explored in the past, but The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki reminds us why it’s so crucial we revisit them.
There’s something very naturally cinematic about the films of Zacharias Kunuk which take place in the pearly heavenscapes of the Canadian tundra. He brings to Canadian cinema the closest thing we have to a western, so it comes as no surprise that he chose to make a loose adaptation of John Ford. Although Kunuk has a better understanding of the culture he’s filming than Ford, he certainly doesn’t have Ford’s conviction. Searchers is a real take-it-or-leave-it type of film. It’s filmed with a dry realism that’s almost documentary-like, every action and task is filmed with a patience that may lull you into a trance or put you to sleep. Still, these moments permeate a sense of history, a manner of living that hasn’t changed for thousands of years. Zacharias shows them to us in painstaking and mesmerizing detail.
The dreamlike, almost unreal landscapes in Searchers look and feel more mythic and terrifying than any Midwestern frontier. The Inuit in his film feel connected to the Earth, as if striking a cosmic balance between man and nature. Humans weren’t built to last a day in the Arctic and yet the Inuit have survived using their primitive ways for centuries. Kunuk dares not tamper with moments and their specificity lest he renders them meaningless to his characters. Natural lighting proves wholly potent not just as a technical convenience but as a dramatic tool. The snow looks almost ethereal reflecting off the sun’s light giving the tundra an impersonal complexion, showing so much to its characters and giving so little, while the warm, orange hues inside the igloo homes illuminate a familial closeness and warmth. Searchers lacks the dramatic clarity and the formalist flair to be a great movie, but there’s a humbleness to even its most histrionic moments that make every moment in the film feel eerily real.